By David White
Americans enjoy wine. Last year, we surpassed France as the world’s largest wine-consuming nation. But too often, we’re intimated by it.
Wine Enthusiast’s Steve Heimoff recently wrote about the “poison” of wine snobbery “that continues to make so many Americans wary of wine.” As he explained, “[Consumers] can sense it, like a ‘Don’t come in here, you don’t belong’ exclusionary velvet rope.”
Fortunately, this is changing — fast. Across the country, Americans are embracing wine. For evidence, look no further than your closest Olive Garden.
With 721 locations nationwide, it’s no surprise that the restaurant chain serves more than 600 million breadsticks and 165 million bowls of salad each year. But the restaurant also serves more wine than any other chain in the United States. In 2006, Olive Garden sold more than 500,000 cases of wine.
In part, Olive Garden sells so much wine because it takes education seriously. As wine economist Mike Veseth has written, “many restaurants expect that their wait staff will pick up wine knowledge — Olive Garden really works at it, by providing literally hundreds of thousands of hours of training.” The restaurant also gives away free samples, where legal. In 2006, it gave away 30,000 cases of wine, which equates to 4.5 million pours.
These efforts demystify wine. It’s no wonder why Veseth has described Olive Garden as “the optimistic future of American restaurant wine.”
Another company – CellarTracker! – is also combatting the poison of wine snobbery.
In 2003, Eric LeVine, a Microsoft executive, built a data-management program for his wine cellar. When he showed the program to some friends, they begged him to share it. So he put the program online, where friends could track their personal inventories and share tasting notes. LeVine then decided to make his program available to everyone, for free.
Today, about 500,000 people visit CellarTracker each month, and nearly 2,000 wines are reviewed on the site each day. This means CellarTracker users review more wines in just six days than Robert Parker, the world’s most well known wine critic, reviews in an entire year.
The site isn’t just used by wine junkies — about 90 percent of its visitors aren’t registered. As wine writer Jeff Siegel once wrote, “this means people aren’t going to CellarTracker to mark off a wine after they drink it; they’re going to CellarTracker to read wine reviews written by amateurs.”
This runs counter to so much of what’s sacred in the wine world. We’re supposed to decide what to drink based on the advice of prominent wine critics – not mere amateurs.
It’s about time. Last time you visited a new restaurant, you probably logged onto Yelp before leaving. Before your last vacation, you probably spent some time perusing TripAdvisor. Book purchasers are more likely read the reviews of amateurs on Amazon than seek the advice of New Yorker’s literary critic.
Wine consumers are no different. We still need advice, of course, and professionals are still important. But today’s consumers are also comfortable turning to local specialists, like the staff at Olive Garden, and knowledgeable amateurs, like CellarTracker users, for advice.
This also helps explain why neighborhood wine shops are more important than ever before. Across the country, specialty wine shops are taking off. Many don’t post reviews from wine magazines, as they see scores as an impediment to interacting with consumers. So instead, they pay attention to consumer preferences, offer food-and-wine pairing advice, and steer customers toward interesting wines.
The list goes on. Hip sommeliers are also combating wine snobbery, as are enthusiasts of local wine, from the farmers who grow the grapes to the bloggers who cover the movement.
The impending death of wine snobbery is welcome. Wine has been with us for millennia, so wine appreciation shouldn’t be reserved exclusively for the connoisseurs.
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