As wine has evolved over the past couple of decades from upper class indulgence to beverage of the masses, its presentation to the consumer has changed dramatically. Back in the day, producers clung to stoicism, banking on the old guard's reliance on heritage and respectability. Enter the 1990's; thanks to globalized markets, the efforts of critics, and a growing domestic interest in new foods, quality wine ceased to be the realm of the aristocrat and trickled down to the world of the common mob.
With rampant proliferation of competition — to the extent that there are now some 75,000 labels on the world market — how does one set itself apart from the herd? Recognizing that more and more drinkers of a younger and more consumerism savvy persuasion are joining the ranks of the eonophile, wineries have taken some interesting steps in gauging the dominant milieu. Where have we been, and what might the future hold?
Yesterday: Cute and Fuzzy
At the dawn of the 21st Century, fresh off of the prosperity of the Clinton years, America was feeling all warm and fuzzy. Sensing the coming of their moment, and on the tail of some twenty years of modernization, the Aussies attacked with their most efficient native armaments: Cute and cuddly creatures! Koalas and Roos and Penguins, oh my! Australian wine thoroughly filled the burgeoning cuteness dearth, such that one couldn't glance at a wine shelf but for the onslaught of vibrant colors and stylized marsupials. The quintessential example of this invasion is Casella Wines' [yellow tail], which within a few years of its 2000 release became the best selling export in the United States, and has spawned hundreds of imitators.
Today: Dark and Twisty
While [yellow tail] and its contemporaries still hold a large share of the market, the winds of change are blowing. In a world of economic turmoil and terror, with people's psyches feeling less than huggably soft, labels are starting to shift towards the more dark and twisted. Back in 2004, amidst the Michael Jackson trials, one winery attempted to release Jesus Juice, a sardonic reference to the term used by Mr. Jackson while he was allegedly serving wine to children. Sporting a Jackson like figure in cruciform, the label proved just a bit TOO dark, and is now currently caught up in the courts.
Perhaps the greatest example/success story of the dark and twisty school of labeling is R Winery's Bitch Grenache. Made by another Aussie producer (seems they are always ahead of the curve), the Bitch is decked out in a black on soft pink motif of hearts and knives. On the back, in lieu of the usual description, the label flippantly says "Bitch, bitch bitch bitch [repeat some fifty times] and bitch some more." Though Bitch has been critically acclaimed since its release two years ago (it actually is a pretty good), empirical evidence shows me that this wine is an impulse buy of the highest caliber. With its combination of sardonic humor (the wine's tag line is "Life's a BITCH and then we drink"), squeaky clean design, and ostentation, this wine is perfectly marketed for our darker times, and is just begging to be copied.
Tomorrow: Jay Z and Diddy?
What will the next wave of wine marketing bring? Call it speculation, but I've got two words for you: Hip-Hop (or is that one word?). We've actually seen the influence of the rap community on wine in the case of Louis Roederer Cristal. Though always regarded as one of France's finest Champagnes, it wasn't until the likes of Jay Z and other rappers began featuring it in their videos that Cristal really blew up. Fast forward to 2006, when Frederic Rouzaud, then managing director of Louis Roederer, made some less than flattering remarks regarding Cristal's place in bling culture. The resulting boycott led by Jay Z has caused a drastic drop in Cristal's sales (You can get more details on the story here).
Rapper Lil Jon has done his contemporaries one better; not content to simply influence the world of wine, Mr. Jon has gotten in on the production end with the launch of Little Jonathan Winery. Though celebrity owned wineries are by no means a new development (see Fess Parker and Greg Norman), they almost invariably are owned by older white men, and lack a certain, how do you say, crunk. With a focus on marketing towards the urban demographic, Lil Jon's endeavor is likely to bring a whole new group into the wine drinking fold. If Little Jonathan proves successful, I can see a day when other hip-hop stars jump on the bandwagon, and am only too keen to sample "Domaine Def Jam" or "Chateau Snoop Cabernizzle Sauvignizzle." For now, Little Jonathan is only available in California and Colorado, but I for one cannot WAIT for it to hit the DC market; already got my jewel encrusted goblet polished and ready!
Little Jonathan Wine picture courtesy of www.littlejonathanwinery.com