Yesterday we came across a post where a Boston Globe writer implored winemakers to be more like their coffee counterparts: A lesson in winemaking – straight from the espresso bar . . . – By the glass – Wine News, Views & Reviews – Boston.com. It wouldn’t be the first time coffee’s wine analogy ran in reverse. We’ve also written how we wish coffee was more like wine. But a recent wine country experience in California’s Santa Ynez Valley highlighted how the coffee world could maybe learn a few lessons from the wine world.
The SYV, as some of the locals call it, gained a little notoriety a few years ago as the location of the popular indie wine flick Sideways. Like many popular wine-growing regions in California, local businesses lure the wine tourist through things like winery tours, barrel tastings, tastings rooms at wineries, independent tasting rooms for sampling wines from different area vintners, and even bars and restaurants that offer wine tasting flights of the local product.
Consumer behavior at these various SYV establishments mirrored what we observed at other wine growing regions throughout California. Tastings at the wineries themselves were tremendously popular. And yet neighboring independent tasting rooms — often additionally offering hard-to-get cult wines from boutique area growers with limited public hours or facilities — were largely neglected by the wine-drinking public. Meanwhile, famously wine-friendly cafés with their extensive wine bars and tasting flights — such as the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe (a Sideways star) — did a brisk business on food and dining but very little business in tastings or flights.
Drawing parallels, or leaping to conclusions?
It may be difficult to draw many accurate, let alone useful, conclusions from these consumer behaviors in the SYV and elsewhere. But what’s crystal clear is that wine tourists greatly prefer the experience of dealing directly with the winegrowers at their own tasting rooms. It’s quite likely that a more direct connection between a wine consumer and the wine grower, and the land they toil over, plays a major role in this consumer preference. What’s also quite clear is the serial act of sampling and comparing wines loses its appeal the further removed it becomes from its source of production.
Wine lovers and coffee lovers are hardly the same — let alone are the circumstances of their beloved product’s creation. But it was difficult not to draw parallels between wine consumers and their coffee counterparts. The affinity for winery tours and tastings reflected a consumer desire for a more personal connection to the roots of production. Wine lovers can ask direct questions of the staff, understand its specific terroir, and engage in discussions about their wine-making philosophy.
Coffee reflects this preference in coffee consumers’ interest in Direct Trade, buying microlot coffees from a single farm, and even a desire to go to origin. All forces of which seem to run counter to the nascent coffee middleman model adopted by the likes of Craft Coffee, GoCoffeeGo, ROASTe, and other retail intermediaries. Each of these actors serves more like the independent tasting rooms and bars that wine lovers largely ignored — taking coffee lovers one step further away from the product they love and where it comes from instead of one step closer.
When consumers experiment with their taste buds
Another parallel rises with the act of consumer sampling and comparing itself. Enjoying various tastings at a vineyard, wine consumers can directly connect the act of debating the merits of a specific vintage with a wine grower to also taking a bottle home for an equivalent tasting experience. With coffee, and particularly with the shoehorned concept of consumer coffee cupping rather than comparative tasting, that connection is completely severed.
When we encounter public cuppings at coffeeshops, it’s almost as if we have to ask, “Is this a bar or an educational center?” Am I here to relax and enjoy, or am I here because I am being tested? And tested for something I don’t reasonably experience at home. There’s an irony in that when Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) coined the term “Third Wave,” she described it as enjoying coffee for its own sake. This effectively eliminates cuppings from any “Third Wave” classification — because cuppers are experiencing their coffee, with its crust-breaking and spoon-slurping ceremony, for completely different purposes than pure enjoyment.
Sustainable business models, or Show Us The Money
The last parallel concerns where there’s money to be made. For wine, while tastings and winery visits add a dimension to consumer enjoyment, the money is in consumers finding what they like and shelling out for regular habits. Wine tastings are a money loser for vintners; hence why they’ve developed a habit of charging for them in recent decades. (See the 2008 movie Bottle Shock for how radical an idea this was for Napa Valley wineries back in the 1970s.)
Coffee cuppings largely fail to create new customer habits because the experience is so far removed from how they’d regularly consume coffee at home. If wineries merely offered visitors the opportunity to stick their nose and fingers into bowls of grape must, how many more bottles do you think they’d sell? Meanwhile retail coffee middlemen promote the ability for consumers to easily swap out roasters as part of their experimentation, but experimentation isn’t a constant consumer state. And it isn’t where you make your money.
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