Craft Beer vs. Wine: Innovation vs. Stagnation

July 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

While wine lists across the board are decreasing in size and variety, beer list trajectories are  in the opposite direction, expanding in both size and diversity in even the most casual chain restaurants. Moreover, there has been a quantum leap in beer-oriented chains at all levels of the chain spectrum from national chains such as Yard House and World of Beers, now 70+ units strong, to regional chains such as Eureka  and Plan B.  These chains have certainly been helped by the explosive interest in craft beer,  which has seen growth in both the mundane e.g. Pumpkin Ale, to the esoteric e.g  Gose and Brett-fermented ales.  So why hasn’t the wine industry begun introducing exciting and buzz-worthy products to keep pace with their beer brethren?

The answer lies largely in the attitudes prevailing among the thought leaders in each industry. With few exceptions, the wine industry has doggedly remained loyal to the European concept of wine, that wine is a product of terroir and tradition, e.g. the fixation that the best wines are representative of a specific variety and place. Estate-grown wines of approved varieties or blends that follow traditional production methods are held in the highest esteem by an increasingly narrow group of gatekeepers in both wine production and wine media circles.  Had the beer industry followed the same path, the majority of producers would still be following the Rheinheitsgebot, which dictates that beer consist only of malted barley, yeast, water and hops. And we would never have had the vast array of products that has vaulted the American beer industry from mediocrity to its current apex of innovation and growth.  Fortunately, American beer producers rightly found this European model too constraining and began experimenting with untraditional flavors, fermentation techniques and aging methods.  In a few short decades, American craft beers have become the global standard of beverage innovation. If you had suggested 30 years ago that American brewers would be opening facilities in Germany, the birthplace of modern brewing, you would have been laughed out of the bierstube. In the 1990s, hypothesizing that someday small American brewers might have a market value of over $1 billion (Lagunitas, Ballast Point) would have earned one a trip to a local asylum.  Yet it has come to pass.

What remains puzzling is that, despite craft beer’s incredibly successful example, which has been eating the wine industry’s lunch for the past decade, few wine producers have dared to defy the ossified old guard who continue to enforce the standard of European wine production.  Is it arrogance or merely ignorance that prompted the wine industry to relinquish an entire segment that it should rightfully own –  cider ( a low alcohol fruit wine), to the American beer producers?

Having been in the alcoholic beverage industry for over 3 decades I have a fairly good ideaof  how this saga will play out, unless drastic measures are implemented very soon.

The wine industry today is much like the U.S. auto industry of the 1970’s, which took the attitude that the public will buy what it tells them to purchase. We have all seen how successful that approach has been. Now Toyota is the world’s largest car company. Hopefully, the wine industry will come to its senses before it is too late.

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