Saturday, October 20, 2007

Marketing Gone Awry, or Wine as Crass Commodity

Vrac [vrak] nm en – in bulk, loose, wholesale, pell-mell.
– from Putnam’s Contemporary French Dictionary
Image at right courtesy of Bertrand Celce.

Travel through any corner of French wine country and you’re sure to see signs along the byways hawking wine en vrac – literally, “in bulk.” Locals drive up to the local cave cooperative or to their favorite private Domaine, haul their five liter plastic jugs out of the trunk and fill them up from a gas station style pump which taps directly into a concrete tank, steel cuve or old wooden cask. For a Euro or two per liter, sometimes less, they’re set for the week with a cistern full of their tipple of choice.

There’s a clear distinction at these wineries, regardless of size and intrinsic merit, between wine en vrac and wine in bottle. Bottled wines, even at the lowest levels, are representative of a producer’s “fine wine.” Wine en vrac, on the other hand, is bulk wine made up of leftovers, afterthoughts, the lowest quality fruit from the youngest, highest yielding vines, the poorest fringes of the property or the least ambitious members of the co-op. It is wine to be consumed without thought and without much if any expectation of quality beyond, hopefully, rudimentary drinkability.

So I responded with disbelief, which quickly transitioned into a wickedly satirical sense of glee, when an e-mail hawking a Côtes du Rhône and a Mâcon-Villages from a “winery” called VRAC landed in my in-box a few days ago. The wines have apparently been on the market for a couple of years but this was the first I’d heard of them. The message was from Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, a North Jersey shop which, following in the footsteps of neighborhood rival Wine Library, has become more and more aggressive in their Internet marketing efforts over the last couple of years.

I’m not sure what the marketing executives at the French company that manufactures these wines were thinking when they decided to call their wares “VRAC.” It seems the French equivalent of the self-righteously stupid American wine product called “Cheap Red Wine.” Did they think no one would get it? Or were they just hoping that people would line up to buy the wines to congratulate them for their brutal honesty? In either case, at $10-12 per bottle, they’re certainly not being sold at en vrac price levels.

What I really don’t get is why a “fine wine” merchant that wants to be taken seriously would carry these wines, much less trumpet their availability to thousands of e-mail subscribers, complete with ratings assigned by a shop employee. Just because someone out there will buy just about anything doesn’t mean you should sell it. Does it?


Wine Scamp said...

Hrm. Well, as to whether one should stock one's store with unrespectable wines that Just Might Sell, I guess that depends on one's clientele and one's need to make a sale.

But as to the relative good or bad taste involved with calling your wine "Drinkable Plonk," well, there's something appealing about the frankness there, don't you think? Pepperwood Grove sells itself as a respectable wine, and we both know that's a damn lie.

I kind of like it when a label comes clean, saying "Nothing special in here, just quaffable and cheap." That's not what winemakers ASPIRE to, certainly, but if you've got a vat of juice that you're not going to bottle as Chateau Nos Meilleur Vin... well, why not bottle it as VRAC? Does a bottle of Bulk Red sound less appealing than a bottle of Drinkable But Not Quite Au Bon Climat?

All in all, if a wine is drinkable I don't think there's anything wrong with selling it; I just think it should be marketed honestly!

Little_Jewford said...

you really wouldn't expect me to comment on wine but I'm wondering if the marketing of something like VRAC is in response to market pressures from merchants like Trader Joes.

Perhaps they are trying to have a "unique" brand that competes with the likes of (no longer Bonnie Doone) Big House Red, or at least gives their "casual" customers a lower priced day-to-day option. Though at over $10 I guess its not quite that traders joesesque bargain.

David McDuff said...

Well responded, Wine Scamp. I too don't think there's anything wrong with selling wine that's simply drinkable. I just feel that it shouldn't be sold by a wine shop that presents itself as being a "fine wine" or specialty shop as I think it muddies down their product line as well as their credibility. I really don't think it's possible for a wine shop to be all things to all people and to do it all well. Leave VRAC, Pepperwood Grove and all of the other innumerable, generic, mass market wines to the grocery store and to the unaspiring corner liquor store.

Aside from the humor which I perceive in the name VRAC -- I can't help but wonder if the majority of shops selling and customers buying the wine have a sense of its meaning -- I do appreciate the possibility that it may be intended as a straight talking marketing effort. I'd have less conceptual problem with the wine if it sold at en VRAC prices ($6 or under per bottle).

LJF -- Ten to twelve buck chuck indeed! I don't know if the French are likely to be responding directly to Trader Joe's at this point. I also doubt that this wine appears on the French market, at least not with the same name. So you may actually be on to something after all.

RougeAndBlanc said...

Marketing deploys reverse psychology all the times to acheive its goal. I suspect VRAC is using this exact tactic.
BTW: What is your opinion on the VRAC. It sells for around $10 at TraderJoe and I am tempted to try it.

David McDuff said...

While I understand the concept of reverse marketing you've suggested, RandB, I'm unconvinced that it was intended, or at least thought through to any great extent, with the branding of VRAC. I suppose we may never know unless we hear from the label's brand manager....

As for the wine, I readily admit to not having tried it. At $10-12 per bottle, I'd be much more inclined to pick up one of the many (if dwindling) examples of small estate Cotes-du-Rhone in the same price range. $10 White Burgs are a tougher nut to crack but I don't really expect to have a chance at quality in Burgundy until things creep up to the $15+ level.

Anonymous said...

well here I am the person that developed the VRAC product...I think you have really missed the point here. Yes, you can look at the literal translation of VRAC, but you also need to consider the way people purchase VRAC wine in France (which I think you described well). In essence, VRAC simply means bulk...when a negotiant buy wine from a producer, they buy en Vrac...when a consumer (as you descibed) is cycling though the Rhone Valley they can bring an empty bottle to their favorite domainne and have it filled for a euro or 2 (for simple VDP). What we tried to do with this product is come as close as possible to supplying that "simple", everyday wine for one's table. We chose not to focus non designated wines, but instead on serious appellations, so therefore not just trying to sell a wine for 5, 6 or 7 dollars, but providing a very good (and drinkable example)of a Cotes du Rhone or Macon Villages. These wines come from a variety of sources, all of which are small. We barrel select and blend each year to offer (I think) one of the best examples of these 2 wines for the money....I am interested in why you did not write what you though of the wine...did you taste it?

As for pricing, you work on the retail side of the wine trade so I am sure you understand the way pricing works....even at 2 to 3 euros, that would equate to a $5.50 cost (once you include the cost to import the wine)....this does not include any profit for the importer, distributor, and merchant...I would say $10 is a reasonable price for this wine....try it and let me know.

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