US wine market: American Influencer

Jeff Siegel sets out to discover who really influences what consumers buy in the massive US wine market. Here are his findings.

Joe Roberts, Eric Asimov, Dave McIntyre, Madeline Puckett, Doug Frost
Joe Roberts, Eric Asimov, Dave McIntyre, Madeline Puckett, Doug Frost

The US wine marketplace is so large and so fragmented, in both geography and demographics, that a writer, magazine or website who may be influential in one region or one segment of the market can be practically unknown in another. Determining the most influential is like trying to thread a needle with a garden hose; it’s not an exercise for the faint-hearted.

Complicating matters even further is that almost a half to three-quarters of the wine sold in the US —costing $15.00 or less, sold in grocery stores and from big box retailers — is bought with little help from critics. A Sonoma public relations and marketing consultant who has worked with big and small producers for two decades says what matters there is “price, promotions and cross-promotion — all the stuff like coupons, floor decals, displays and end caps”.

Also, the traditional wine magazines like the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate may have more clout with wholesalers than with consumers. In the US’s three-tier system, where every wine is legally required to have a distributor and where each distributor represents hundreds of wines, “a key role for the magazines is rarely talked about, and that’s to encourage a sales team to believe that the wines they’re selling are solid and well worth the effort,” says the Sonoma consultant. “The selling team is eager to find reasons to believe in their product, and that’s what they get from scores and reviews.”

Finally, the local newspaper’s wine columnist — where one still exists after more than a decade of financial turmoil in the US newspaper business — may wield the most influence with consumers. The most powerful is almost certainly Eric Asimov of the New York Times. “I’ve found newspapers, and even smaller, really local ones, to be very helpful to move cases, especially for smaller brands,” says a long-time wine marketer who has worked with US and foreign producers. “The local distributor gets really happy and can use the placement to push cases quickly.” 

And none of this takes into account Generation X and Millennial wine drinkers, who came to wine without relying on the critics who influenced the Baby Boomers. “You know who has influence? Peers,” says Dave Falchek, a former newspaper wine columnist and the executive director of the American Wine Society. “The friend on Facebook who posts a picture of a wine they enjoy; a knowledgeable acquaintance who pops up on Vivino gushing about what he or she drank in a restaurant; the cheerful lifestyle blogger with a YouTube channel who mentions wine along with makeup tips and celebrity news.”

The following list was compiled after talking to 48 people across the country — writers, marketers, public relations professionals, winemakers, beverage managers, distributors and retailers. Most asked not to be named, given the nature of the article. I collated their suggestions and ran that list past a half-dozen people who were familiar with wine media and how it worked. I refined the list again using their suggestions — but the final list is mine. Also, I know many of the people who made the list either professionally or personally. 

Finally, given the size and fragmentation of the US wine business, it shouldn’t be surprising that most of the names on this list only have influence with certain audiences. Or that some well-known names, such as James Suckling and Jeb Dunnock, may still be highly regarded as critics, but not as writers who sell lots of wine. The most important influencers may sometimes overlap with other audiences — or not. As one Washington, DC area distributor says: “The iconic outlets can still sell wine but when they cover something unusual, like what I have in my portfolio, I don’t see a bump at all. It falls on deaf ears because their readership doesn’t care.”

The wine magazines

The most influential wine criticism in the US from the early 1990s through the recession came from the wine magazines. That was the heyday of Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate, Marvin Shanken’s Wine Spectator, and, to a lesser extent, the Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits. The magazines did not necessarily sell the most wine, but set the agenda for what was important and much of the industry followed their lead. Witness the brief, volatile history of Australian Shiraz in the US.

Today, those magazines still matter, but in an entirely different way. Their scores, says California winemaker Randall Grahm, are an asset. The ratings are valued by retailers and distributors to move product and may be more important to those who sell the wine than to those who buy it. Says syndicated wine critic Robert Whitley: “I honestly don’t know one person, outside of winery PR folks, who subscribes to the Wine Spectator.”

Witness Vinous, Antonio Galloni’s self-described “vision of a modern-day wine publication”. The online magazine, which to many people mattered for its ability to reach high-end consumers, has four subscription tiers; the fourth is a “required subscription plan for members of the wine trade”.

Hence, ratings are a product and not just criticism. “Points are still incredibly useful if one is wanting to sell wine to chains like supermarkets, Costco and Total Wine,” says Grahm. “And many wine clubs are quite insistent that a wine have point scores.”

The newspaper columnists

Alfredo Bartholomaus, whose Billington Imports pioneered South American wine in the US, had one rule to sell lots of wine: “The local newspaper has the most power to move the market.”

That remains true, despite the dwindling number of newspapers that still run wine reviews. The New York Times’ Asimov, says Jane Kettlewell of Manhattan’s Creative Palate marketing firm, is in a league of his own. When he recommends a wine, his readers buy it.

But he isn’t he only one who sends consumers to the shops. They include Dave McIntyre of the Washington Post, who combines a fine-tuned palate with sensible criticism, and Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle, who covers wine for the industry’s newspaper of record. Also important: Kansas City’s Doug Frost, perhaps the only newspaper reviewer who is an MS and MW; Michael Austin, a freelancer who writes the Pour Man column for the Chicago Tribune; Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle, a sports writer who doubles as wine columnist and offers monthly recommendations; Patrick Comiskey, senior correspondent for Wines & Spirits who writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times; freelancer Bill Ward, who writes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune; and Andy Perdue of Great Northwest Wines, who writes the Grapevine column for the Seattle Times.

The internet

The internet was supposed to change wine criticism forever; perhaps it has. If so, sites like Wine Folly, Grape Collective and VinePair have played important roles. Their content is aimed less at the Baby Boomers who read the traditional wine magazines and more at the generations who came of age with the internet. Their writers are younger and not overwhelmingly white men and they say their mission is to make wine more accessible and easier to understand than traditional criticism. The content, not surprisingly, emphasises the visual — infographics (wine regions, grape varietals), best of lists and so on. Each also has an e-commerce component, befitting its role as a 21st century wine site.

Crowdsourcing was supposed to be the internet’s other important contribution, eliminating the critic altogether. This remains a divisive issue and many who offered suggestions for this article were adamant that sites like Cellar Tracker and Vivino didn’t matter. But they do matter, though not in any sort of traditional way. Cellar Tracker started as a wine inventory system and remains that, but the listings from its 300,000 users, with their 7.5m tasting notes and scores, often show up on the first page of Google searches. That kind of publicity is priceless. Vivino, ostensibly a wine retailer, provides crowdsourced star ratings from its 29m users.

The internet also features traditional critics, most notably Joe Roberts’s 1Wine Dude and Alder Yarrow’s Vinography. Roberts, who came to wine from the business world, understands two things most others don’t. His goal is to run a profitable business, not wax poetic, and his social media skills are masterful in a world where too many wine writers see social media as the enemy. Yarrow, who started on the internet in 2004, has often been called the first wine blogger, “an alternative to the traditional sources and styles of wine journalism… told from a decidedly down-to-earth perspective”.

The national critics

The Wall Street Journal is a business newspaper. But its critic, Lettie Teague, may be more influential than anyone at the wine magazines. And why not? The Journal’s demographics are slobber-worthy — a typical reader has a $1.6m net worth, while 45 percent are millionaires and 29 percent are in top management. When Teague recommends wine, her readers can afford to buy it — and not just one bottle at the grocery store.

TV appearances set apart Ray Isle, the executive wine editor for Food & Wine magazine, and west coast wine writer and consultant Leslie Sbrocco. Each contributes to the NBC network’s over the air and cable programmes, and especially its flagship Today morning show. Each appearance is seen by about 4m people, more than one-third of whom are in the 25 to 54 age group — a sweet spot for wine consumers. Says one wine media consultant: “Leslie and Ray are the two most influential people, without a doubt, thanks to their audience size.”

Reaching non-wine drinkers

The wine media, for the most part, write for wine drinkers. Who influences people who want to buy wine, but aren’t necessarily wine drinkers? This market matters in the US, since only about one in eight consumers drink wine frequently — defined as at least several times per week, according to the Wine Market Council. That’s where general interest and food publications, and especially the local, online food sites such as Eater, play a role. Most in the wine business don’t think about them, but the sites offer recommendations and advice to consumers who want to buy wine but aren’t obsessive about it. So it shouldn’t be surprising that there is a video advert for Constellation Brands’ Meiomi Pinot Noir on the national Eater front page or that the Daily Meal not only has a wine section, but also runs articles about budget-friendly Bordeaux and white wine styles for spring.

The biggest influencer

One of the most surprising things about this list is the number of people who named Costco wine buyer Annette Alvarez-Peters, even though she isn’t part of the media but people who are suggested her. This suggests two things. First, that the wine media may not be as important as the largest wine retailer in the US. “I know she isn’t in the media, but she moves a lot of product,” says one west coast PR professional. If Alvarez-Peters puts a wine in Costco, other retailers want it too and distributors use the Costco placement as leverage to place the wine elsewhere. Second, it points to the fact that the wine media is not seen as independent in the way film and food critics are, but is seen as just another part of the marketing process.

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