Wine choices: Are they an illusion?

Do you feel overwhelmed when shopping for wine? The sheer magnitude of choices is daunting. There are wallabies and penguins and rabbits, oh my! Do you prefer to go Barefoot or wear Flip Flops, nosh on Layer Cakes or Cupcakes, ride Red Bicyclettes or Red Trucks? The wine shelf is a cornucopia of variety.

And it’s a lie. Sort of.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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A recent study out of Michigan State University found that more than 50 percent of the wine sold in the United States is produced, licensed or exclusively imported by three companies: E. & J. Gallo, the Wine Group and Constellation Brands. The top five firms — add Treasury Wine Estates and Trinchero Family Estates to the list — account for more than 200 distinct brands. Many are inexpensive wines with cute names, such as Cupcake and Pinot Evil (the Wine Group), or Barefoot (Gallo). The brand names sometimes suggest a desire to confuse consumers rather than stake a market claim: Now & Zen is a Wine Group brand, but Zen of Zin is Constellation.

All of that inspires a question: So what? Do we care who makes the wine, as long as it’s good, drinkable juice?

“People should care that so many wines are made by so few companies,” says Phil Howard, the MSU sociologist who wrote the study with several of his graduate students. The brand concentration fits the classic definition of an oligopoly — a market dominated by a handful of large suppliers — and that concentration isn’t apparent on labels, Howard explained in a recent e-mail interview. “Consumers who want to support a competitive market and maintain diverse choices don’t want to unwittingly contribute to dominance by a few firms,” he wrote.

But do consumers want a competitive market, or do they just want cheap wine? Marketing studies have consistently shown that the average price paid in this country for 750 milliliters of wine (the standard bottle size) is $6 to $7. Modern technology and viticulture have improved quality so much that wines in that price range are reliably drinkable and technically sound. Cute names and labels help them win the fight for shelf space, and industry consolidation makes production and distribution more economical and efficient.

That industrial reality contrasts sharply with the idealized vision of the family vigneron toiling in the vineyard, his young children riding on the back of the dilapidated family tractor until they are old enough to carry on the family tradition. Or the luxury wine estate with its cult cabernet available to only the most fortunate. Both of those stereotypes have been promoted so strongly by the wine industry and wine magazines that they are ingrained in our minds.

And they aren’t myths. The number of wineries in this country — that’s wineries, not brands — has quadrupled, from about 2,000 at the turn of the millennium to nearly 8,000 today, according to Wine America, an industry trade group. They are not behemoths, but mostly small family operations spread among all 50 states. And they are slowly revolutionizing the wine market.

They have trouble getting their wines to us, however. “Smaller producers can’t perform marketing sleights of hand; because they can’t, they don’t have the clout to warrant the supermarket shelf space the multinationals get,” writes Jeff Siegel, a Dallas-based writer who blogs as the Wine Curmudgeon. (Siegel is a friend of mine and co-creator of DrinkLocalWine.
com.) “Smaller wineries have to focus on what’s in the bottle. Their success depends on whether they produce a quality — and not a clever — product.”

So where are the wines? Howard and his students found brand concentration most pronounced at chain stores, such as supermarkets and drugstores. CVS and Rite Aid, chains allowed to sell wine in Michigan, “each offered more than 100 unique varieties, but the majority were supplied by E. & J. Gallo or Constellation Brands, and fewer than 20 firms were represented on the shelves,” they wrote. They found variety at local independent wine retailers. “One shop we visited offered products from 446 different firms, and no firm represented more than 2.6 percent of the varieties.”

So if you’re at the supermarket and you need a bottle of wine for dinner, go for whatever label catches your eye. But if you want to fight the oligopoly and explore wine’s variety, get thee to a wine shop.

NEXT WEEK: Is big necessarily bad?

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.

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