...your next stop: who the heck knows 'cause the print is so tiny and it doesn't tell you where you're headed anyway.

Going down?

Going down?

I (more than) touched on all of this earlier on drinktution.com here and here, but this brilliant paper provides some wonderful visuals of the Twilight Zone of wine in which we currently find ourselves. The pin-points of the pretty little radial clover flowers of industry consolidation on the map are becoming fewer every day. As a result, the percentage shares of the major players are growing exponentially (particularly after 2011-12’s dramatic M & A trend). At this rate, that grey block (“Other Firms”) that currently comprises around 18% at the bottom of the share infographic will be relegated to the right-side by the end of 2013.

This trend is alarming in its scope. The major wine/beverage conglomerates are acquiring not only large growth brands, but small labels, independent wineries, and vast acreages of vineyard land all over the globe. This is in response to the growth of wine consumption in the US, but also as a hedge against poor bulk production rates in off vintages. Scores of family wineries and diligently managed vineyards are being lost to support all the new marketing driven brands that the last several years of bumper production created.

Example—MegaWineCo (MWC) created their new California super-premium lifestyle brand, ‘Sweet Release’ (“it’s rim-lickin’ good”—a sweet Syrah/Zin blend and a Moscato/Riesling blend) four years ago. The ad campaigns on WEtv and hellogiggles.com (it exists, look it up ’cause I ain’t linking it) are paid through 2013 and are in full-swing. The weak 2010 and 2011 growing seasons threatened to limit production on this massive growth brand so MWC is forced to buy up juice from every bulk grower they can (regardless of region/country of origin) to make up the difference. In order to avoid this in 2012 and going forward, MWC makes, um…”offers that can’t be refused” to acquire 200+ acres of Central Coast and North Coast vineyards (as well as some in Chile and the Languedoc, just in case). Whew! Crisis averted…for now. And then the next brand is unveiled. Ad infinitum.

Caveat emptor. It has now become more incumbent on the consumer to determine what they are buying while the marketing department of MWC stays one-step ahead in making it harder to distinguish. Seem disingenuous (at the least)? It is. The wines may taste just fine for the money, but what is the real cost? Well, real choice is severely limited, but most importantly, less diversity is the sacrifice. Have you noticed that a lot of wines are virtually indistinguishable from one-another lately? That’s because they really are identical (or damned near it) with different labels. Brand A with the classic eggshell label and serifed font in red and black sells to men over 35, so create Brand B by simply slapping a label with lightning bugs and a quarter moon in pastels on the same product and you got yourself a brand that sells to women 25 and over. How does a lack of transparency in these instances help you in any way?

If this irks you or matters to you even a little, start by looking for “produced and bottled by” or “estate grown and bottled by” (along with “family owned” or “independently owned”)—not “vinted and bottled by” or “made and bottled by”—on domestic wine labels. It’s no guarantee of quality or that such wine will be a better value than the mass-produced stuff, but at least you’ll have a starting point of provenance—some tangible entity to specifically hold accountable for your drinking experience. From there it’s all a matter of personal preference.

Good luck!