Yesterday’s Kayra tasting raised an interesting question.
In 2006, winemaker Daniel O’Donnell finds himself in charge of one of Turkey’s most popular wine brands, Buzbag. As a winemaker, surely it’s his job to make this wine ‘better’. He says that hygiene standards weren’t the highest, and the wine comes from Eastern Turkey, where for religious reasons, pretty much all the people working in the winery don’t drink wine. The grapes come in, and there is no selection for quality. They are made into wine. Then the wine is bottled, with the oldest wine in tanks bottled first.
And people buy and love this wine. I never tried the old Buzbag (I’ve not tried the new either, just the Reserve version), but I imagine that it wasn’t great. But people who buy this wine, and hold the brand dear, have learned to like a pretty old school, probably faulty wine. As a new winemaker, put in charge of production, what do you do?
O’Donnell used the ‘macaroni cheese’ metaphor. It’s a little lost on me because we never had macaroni cheese at home, but I can see what he’s getting at. You love your mother’s macaroni cheese. For you, this becomes the benchmark. If others try it, they might not like it so much: it might not be the best, but it is the one you grew up with, and you love it.
So, with wine, is there a similar liking of familiar tastes? Do we grow to love flavours that are familiar when it comes to wine brands, just as we do with other foods?
Wisely, O’Donnell realised he couldn’t change Buzbag beyond all recognition. Yet he couldn’t leave it how it was. So he had to work to improve hygiene and clean it up. But to clean it up too much, and produce a fruity commercial wine, would lose the essence of the brand that people are familiar with.
Let’s take another example: Musar. It is a wine I love, but if you were to strip it of its brettanomyces and volatile acidity (I’ve seen lab analyses on this wine), you’d probably have a boring, sweet, ripe warm-climate wine. It would take great skill to produce something that’s still recognizably Musar and interesting, while cleaning the wine of its brett and oxidative character. Indeed, don’t know whether this is actually achievable or not.
If wine is an acquired taste, then it’s possible to acquire a taste for wine that, by conventional standards, isn’t very good. This doesn’t mean that anything goes when it comes to wine quality, just that wine isn’t simple, and we need to be humble in the face of wine.
There’s a whole group of consumers out there who aren’t looking for novelty. They are looking for a familiar flavour in their favourite brand of wine or beer or soft drink. Change the recipe, and this group of consumers will notice. It’s another reminder that in discussions about wine, we really need to segment consumers. There’s no such person as ‘the consumer’.