This weekend’s New York Times Magazine featured an article that sort of did a reverse take on the ever-popular wine analogy for coffee: Vintage Trend – Retail Wines Chains – Wines – Alcoholic Beverages – Alcohol – Consumed – Rob Walker – New York Times. Except this time, the Times writer, Rob Walker, got it backwards: he attempted to make a coffee analogy for wine.
In the article, Mr. Walker discusses a possible new trend in wine retailers: 100-store chain franchises that attempt to simplify the wine-choosing maze and yet appeal to a consumer’s desire for sophistication and choice, without being overloaded with choice. These chains apparently organize their inventory in more shopper-friendly terms for different wine characteristics, and they emphasize the concept of a retail environment as a gathering space — for events and socializing (think SF’s Vino Venue).
Which came first, the wine snob or the coffee snob?
But then Mr. Walker goes on to write, “It’s safe to say that these chains aim to be something like the Starbucks of wine.” And that’s where it’s safe to say that he completely loses me. If these wine retailers were truly modeled after coffee shops, why does my local Starbucks only offer me one kind of coffee to make my double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato? Why don’t they offer a dazzling array of 40 different roasts from all over the world that we could sample at a tasting room — all organized by characteristics of body, acidity, and aroma?
And as far as a gathering space for socializing, Starbucks’ attempt at a third place allows customers to converse, slowly sip their morning coffee or tea, and type on their laptops. But it is something else entirely to set up a space for customers to down alcohol at 9am, to try not to spill on their $2,000 laptops while experiencing impaired muscular control, and to be legally prevented from operating motor vehicles after their second order. And if we truly need a third place where customers can hold events and casually socialize with an alcoholic beverage after work, there’s this thing called a bar.
The fact that the author got the direction of influence for this supposed analogy completely backwards makes me wonder… Are consumers so confused by the specialization of products formerly known as commodities that they’ve completely lost track of which came first in mainstream America: the latte or the cabernet sauvignon?
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