Thursday, January 15, 2009

Foster's, Australian for Wine

When you walk into a grocery store with an aisle of wines, picking one bottle out from the dozens of similarly priced brands appears to be a daunting task. But unless your local grocery store consciously stocks wine from smaller or local producers, this seeming preponderance of variety is largely an illusion. Foster's, for example, markets its beer as THE beer that Australians drink to give it a unique niche in the US market. But in reality it's less popular in Australia than Milwaukee's Best is in the US. Foster's is just cheap beer in a different colored can.

The same can likely be said for many of Foster's wines. Among the brands that Fosters lists in its portfolio are premium brands of outstanding heritage such as Penfolds, Stags' Leap and Beringer. For these wineries, that likely means wider distribution for their top-end wines while making a few cheaper options in large quantities taking advantage of their well-known name. Also under the Foster's umbrella are more pedestrian but widely available labels like Meridian, the Little Penguin, and Cellar No. 8. Rosemount, which is known as much for its square-based bottle as its wine, also belongs to Foster's.

I don't intend to imply these wines are swill like Foster's beer. Quite to the contrary, many of these brands put good stuff in the bottle. But because they are ultimately looking to maximize profit, a lot of these wines are products manufactured to suit the prevailing tastes of the market. Uniformity and consistency become more important than individuality. The upside is that you know what to expect. There won't be spoiled bottles with weird aromas or unpleasant microbes. But the downside is a lack of differentiation across different labels and varietals.

Foster's is not the only large beverage corporation in the wine business. E&J Gallo owns, among others, Australian labels Black Swan, McWilliams and Mattie's Perch (the one with a koala), American labels Dancing Bull, Turning Leaf and Barefoot, French label Red Bicyclette, Italian label Ecco Domani, and South African label Sebeka (the one with a cheetah). Big boys Constellation Brands includes several lines of Mondavi wines, Rex Goliath (the one with the giant fighting chicken), Ravenswood (as expected, there's a raven on the label), Blackstone, Wild Horse and Arbor Mist under its umbrella. Meanwhile, beverage giant Diageo owns not only Smirnoff, Baileys, Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal and Captain Morgan, but also Beaulieu Vineyards (or BV for short) and Sterling Vineyards. Pernod Ricard has Campo Viejo, Mumm Napa and Jacob's Creek nestled among its collection of hard liquor like Wild Turkey and Absolut.

In another category all to itself is LVMH. They've managed to consolidate luxury (i.e. outrageously expensive) labels such as Chateau d'Yquem, Dom Perignon and Veuve Cliquot. You won't have to worry about homogeneity here, but it is nonetheless symptomatic that one entity owns so much different stuff that ultra-wealthy people love to buy to show how different they are from other ultra-wealthy people. It turns out if you've brought a $200 half-bottle d'Yquem as the desert wine in an attempt to out-do your Dom Perignon Champagne drinking hosts, your money is all going to the same monolith.

Next time you walk into your grocery store, do not fret over the infinite choices presented to you. First, you'll only find about 5 or 6 different varietals. Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay are about the only choices you'll have. But most of the red wines will taste like generic red wine because they've been manufactured to suppress their individuality in the interest of suiting the tastes of the broadest base of consumers possible. Next, remember that all the labels you see are just marketing angles from a handful of corporations. Animal labels on "critter wines" are sure giveaways that you've found something from a big conglomerate. Kangaroos (YellowTail) are just a way to grab your attention. A corollary is that the consumer ends up paying more for the wine despite its low price because a large chunk of the price goes to marketing and other overhead. You can be pretty sure that whatever you pick out in a grocery store will be similar to 90% of the stuff you didn't pick out and that the critter on the label is not going to make much of a difference on what's inside the bottle.

I'm not arguing against cheap wine, though in many cases you'll get much better value from a small brewer than from a large wine producer for the same price (a bottle of wine gets about the same mileage as a 6 pack of beer). I am suggesting, however, that consumers can make informed choices. There are hundreds if not thousands of cheap wines imported into the US by knowledgeable importers. You won't find these at a grocery store, but often a wine shop will have a selection of these less expensive wines for the everyday shopper. Cheap, interesting wine requires a little research and effort on the consumer's part. After all, you wouldn't go to a grocery store to find a wide selection of micro-brewed ales.

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