We recently did a K&L staff Champagne dinner with the one of the bigger (yet not one of the biggest) Champagne houses in the industry. For those of you who don't drink Champagne, this would be the equivalent of doing a dinner with Johnnie Walker or Chivas. Big Champagne houses, like big Cognac houses, take wines from other small growers and marry them together to create their own brands. However, much like the single malt industry, customers are becoming more educated and are learning more about grower-producer Champagne: the guys who actually make the wine and are now selling it directly. It's very much like a single malt distillery selling directly under their name, rather than selling the whisky off to a blender. Customers are now showing a desire to taste these wines before they are blended into something massive and rather diluted. They're learning about wines like Franck Bonville, Ariston Aspasie, and Bruno Michel, rather than the ubiquitous Dom Perignon, Billecart-Salmon, and Roederer. For a single malt drinker, it's the same as switching from Walker Black to Kilchoman. One of them tells you exactly how they make it and what goes into it, while the other speaks in vagaries.
Going back to the dinner, we were very impressed with the effort this larger producer had taken to increase the quality of their wine and were excited to taste the improved quality. Rather than buy from over one hundred different farmers in Champagne, they began focusing on a smaller number of quality growers, making sure their grapes were of the highest quality. They had also increased the percentage of reserve wine in their standard cuvee, using older stocks to add extra richness. This was obviously a reaction to the grower-producer revolution that guys like K&L buyer Gary Westby have helped to bring about. They wanted to attract this new consumer base that was learning more about where their Champagne came from, right down to the family that harvested the actual grapes. They knew they couldn't continue to survive in a world where enthusiasts are posting Facebook pictures with growers in the Cote des Blanc. They surely said to themselves, "The public is getting educated about wine. They want more specifics. We need to make sure we're a part of this new movement." In the end, this producer took the necessary measures and made a better wine by using the same standards that a smaller producer would. They were so excited about their revamped version of the wine that they wanted to throw us a big dinner to unveil it. We were all very impressed with this new dedication to quality and an openness about the production, until one of our staff members asked, "So where are the actual vineyards? Which farmers are you buying from now?"
"We can't actually reveal that information, but the fruit is from serious growers only."
Really? After all that you're going to hold back now?
Coincidentally enough, I happened to have lunch that very same day with another one of the bigger (yet not one of the biggest) single malt whisky producers in Scotland. This was merely a friendly meeting with no real business goal or agenda, but I did glean some very interesting information from our time together. It was clear that this whisky producer was interested in this new, educated consumer as well. They were excited to tell me about their stills, their methods of production, and about their long-standing history as an industry innovator and quality producer. We had discussed doing an interview for the blog where I could ask questions about specifics and use the encounter as a way to provide my customers with more information about the brand. However, the questions that I wanted answers to were not really open for discussion, it soon appeared. What's going on with supply? When are prices going to stabilize? What justifies the price tag for these new, "higher-end" expressions we're beginning to see?
"We can't talk about those things, unfortunately."
Really? I've talked with plenty of other distilleries about those subjects and they were happy to comply.
That's when I had to get something off my chest. "You can't talk about educating the consumer, paint yourself as a producer committed to educating the consumer, but then dictate the level of education you want the consumer to have. That's like living on Animal Farm," I told the gentlemen. You don't get to say, "we want you to have all the information to make an informed decision when purchasing our product," but then hold back when you feel like it. Transparency doesn't work that way. These weren't ridiculous questions from some whisky fringe lunatic. These were legitimate concerns. Consumers want to have more information because it helps them to justify their purchase. We're not looking to steal your secrets. We're looking to enhance our drinking experience! If a company wants to cater to the new, educated enthusiast, then they're going to have to level with them – completely – otherwise just keep on doing what you're doing and stop with the pandering. There is a new breed of whisky/wine drinker out there who is just as much excited by information as they are by the product itself. They want specs. They want data. They want answers! You either say, "We're not going to give away our secrets," and move on, or you tell them what they want to know. It's as easy as that. I'm fine with it either way!
"What do you mean by referencing Animal Farm, David?" The men were genuinely concerned and interested.
In George Orwell's classic allegory, the pigs talk the other farm animals into revolting against the farmers who exploit their labor, but then end up as evil and manipulative as the farmers themselves – a scathing criticism of fascist dictatorship and propaganda-driven government. If you're going to tell whisky consumers that, unlike other companies, we're willing to provide you with the information that other companies won't, but then hold back on the most crucial questions, then we're really not getting anything different than before. While it may sound friendlier and more sympathetic, it's really the same old thing.
To be fair, I'm not criticizing either company for their policies about disclosure. I completely understand why businesses choose to keep certain information to themselves. I honestly love both of these brands because they make outstanding products at fair prices that, in my opinion, offer both value and quality. What I do have a problem with is when a company attempts to capitalize on a growing industry trend without fully committing to the movement. It doesn't work. We can sniff you out immediately. Johnnie Walker doesn't tell anyone the cepage of its blended whiskies. They reveal a few of the distilleries, but they never tell you exactly what's in their bottles. At the same time, they're fine with the consumer base they command. There's no marketing attempt catering to guys like myself who want more details.