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Bordeaux Knocks…Who Answers?
By Jim Clarke
May 12, 2015
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The Bordelais want New Yorkers to drink Bordeaux.  I have evidence, at least anecdotally:  Last autumn many subway cars and stations were festooned with ads to that effect, and since then there has been a steady increase in the number of invitations to Bordeaux tastings of one stripe or another in my inbox:  The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, Côtes de Bordeaux, Le Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux, Crus Bourgeois de Médoc….  And then, just this week, Teuwen Communications announced the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB) as a new client.

In theory this is a dog-bites-man story:  Of course the Bordelais want to sell their wines to New Yorkers (and the rest of America).  But marketing efforts of this intensity on their behalf have not been the norm; Bordeaux-related trade events in the past have generally been rather pro-forma, seemingly designed to acknowledge the U.S.  market rather than court it.  At some point America must have become an “established” or “mature” market for Bordeaux, and they moved on to other conquests.

For many wine-drinking Americans, even many in the trade, Bordeaux is now something more read about than actually consumed.  We read about amazing prices, about the Chinese thirst for these wines, about how that drove up prices, about the fickle Chinese consumer turning elsewhere, but prices not going down.  I know there’s a certain prestige in being the most expensive product in a category, but it’s not really an effective springboard for marketing efforts.  Bordeaux = high prices is the main message that gets out, and it seems to hurt as least as much as it helps.

The wines, by and large, are good, certainly, and many are great.  I do know people who drink Bordeaux, of course, and do so myself on occasion -- but preferably on someone else’s dime.  Typically that “someone else” is my parents’ age or older, and ideally, has reached the point where they realize there’s no way they can consume all the Classified Growths in their cellars so they’re eager to share.  (This is most explicitly not my parents themselves, who generally prefer $15 Pinots, or vodka on the rocks.)  There are exceptions, but not many, and they tend to be in the trade.  I did sell Bordeaux when I was a sommelier; it really helped open the wallets of Russian, Brazilian, and yes, Chinese tourists.

Was I, as a sommelier, then doing an injustice to my American guests, by not pushing more Bordeaux on them?  Perhaps.  If I can shed the “service and education” persona that sommeliers embrace and talk about the “sales” side of their role, Bordeaux is rarely the way to an American guest’s wallet these days.  There’s still a side of the American wine drinker that wants to know it’s getting the best:  The best for their dollar, the best from a given region or category, the best with their dish, and so forth.  It’s hard to check-off many of those boxes with Bordeaux.  Few Bordeaux are values in a quality-to-price ratio sense, and most people can’t afford the hundred or even thousand dollar price tag on a bottle of Bordeaux’s best, but they can afford the best from Washington, Argentina, South Africa, or any number of other places.  And any number of those and other places can produce more affordable wines that will pair with the same range of foods.

Sommeliers, of course, study Bordeaux a-plenty, but despite the quality and pedigree of the wines, for many I don’t think it lies as close to their heart as Burgundy these days.  Humble medieval monks scratching at the soil carries more romance than industrious nineteenth century gentleman merchants (although the history for both regions is much more complex than those clichés suggest), and the Burgundian model of Domaine X winemaker is the working model for understanding wine and terroir more generally for most sommeliers.  The Château model of Bordeaux, on the other hand, with its emphasis on the Château “brand” and classifications, strikes many as something one memorizes, but not something that becomes part of how one sees the world of wine, which you can then apply to many other regions in a useful way.

So, while it’s a core part of sommelier education, I don’t think Bordeaux is on sommeliers’ minds much of the time.  And because it’s among the first thing they learn, it gets buried among all the new and more novel things coming their way.  A sommelier who starts throwing down about the subtleties of Côtes de Bourg as opposed to Fronsac, or even Paulliac vs.  St. Julien, elicits yawns or bemusement, and his or her peers quickly return to name-dropping Corsican grape varieties, collapsing in Homeric mirth when one of their number makes the fatal error of pronouncing the final “u” in “Vermentinu.”  One could argue that they’re jaded, but I think it’s more accurate to say that Bordeaux is just another wine region among many to them, no more, no less. 

Something must be done!  That is, if one cares about France’s largest winegrowing region, its legacy here, and its presence in America’s cellars and shops.  The deluge of recent tastings is definitely welcome, but there’s precious little in the way of story coming with it.  To drop into marketing jargon -- since I’m discussing marketing efforts -- what’s Bordeaux USP?  (Unique Selling Proposition, for those who are acronym adverse).  A long history and a reputation for high prices don’t cut it.  A reputation for wines that require extensive aging doesn’t help, either.  For wine fans and for much of the trade, Bordeaux is no longer a given, so it needs to show sommeliers and wine drinkers what it has to give.