In the last two decades, wine has become less elite and more mainstream, which means that it has also become more profitable. This, in turn, means that wine is now subject to the kind of competitive marketing that used to be reserved for items like sneakers and luxury cars.
When you’re trying to sell to the masses, you have to make a quick and dramatic impact. It’s all about who turns your head and makes you pay attention. It’s all about celebrity. Even if it’s fake celebrity.
When I was managing a wine store on the Upper East Side several years ago, I was in charge of conducting public tastings during rush hour. I prided myself on knowing everything I could about what I was pouring. This kind of confidence made the customer feel like they knew more about the wine and translated into higher sales, ultimately.
The distributors I worked with would occasionally drop by to taste the wines themselves, but once they saw me in action, they usually cleared out and let me do my thing. I was able to move their wine better than they could. Until I met Maurice.
Maurice is not his real name. To be honest, I can’t remember his real name. All I do remember is a tall, lanky, tan young man sauntering in, wearing a Prada-like outfit and speaking with the thickest French accent I’d ever heard.
“’ello,” Maurice said, tearing off his wraparound sunglasses, “Are you Josh?”
“Yes. Can I help you?”
“I am zee man from Jaillance, come to do a tasting for you today!”
It turns out that the producer of one of our wines, Jaillance Clairette de Die (pronounced JEYE-ahns clare-ET de DEE), had sent over a rep from their PR company, unbeknownst to me. I had already set up the tasting table to sample another one of our sparkling wines, the Domaine Saint Pierre. This was a sparkling wine from New Mexico, but it was just as good as many Champagnes that sold for twice that amount. Once people had a chance to try it with an open mind, they loved it.
I figured Maurice could set up next to me and we would taste side by side. I estimated that he’d last probably an hour before he’d realize how difficult it was to keep up with me.
Five p.m. rolled around, and like clockwork the huddled masses arrived. I popped open my first bottle and started pouring and giving my usual spiel. Problem was, there were no customers to pour for. I looked over, and a thickening crowd surrounded Maurice. I tried to crane my neck to see what was going on. None of them were tasting his wine, but Maurice was doing something that kept them all entranced.
That’s when I saw the silver marker.
Maurice was signing the bottles of Jaillance with a silver marker he had brought with him. Signing his name. Signing “Best Wishes.” Personalizing autographs.
Let me make this very clear: Not only did Maurice have nothing to do with the actual making of the Jaillance Clairette de Die; he didn’t even work for that company! This was roughly the equivalent of Lizzie Grubman signing autographs for P. Diddy.
By the end of the day, Maurice had sold our Jaillance out completely, signing every bottle that left the store, in addition to a woman’s cleavage. I had moved a mere six bottles of my wine.
The fact is, I really like the Jaillance Clairette de Die. It is a sweet, bubbly aperitif that is great for brunches, with lots of fun, fruity notes. But I also think the Domaine Saint Pierre is just as good. I would recommend either wine, for different purposes. This isn’t about the wine, though.
Maurice never once told any of the customers that he didn’t have anything to do with the making of the Clairette de Die, or Jaillance. All he had to do to bait the hook was to autograph those bottles with the confidence of a master painter signing a finished canvas. The air of authenticity was authentic enough. The crowd needed no further convincing.
It’s the kind of mindless celebrity fetishizing that television channels like VH1 and E! are built upon. A half-hour of anything on either of these channels would leave the uninitiated thinking, “Why are these people famous?”
And it is just as often, after I have tasted an overpriced, overrated and over-promoted wine that I am left thinking, “Why are people drinking this?”