Branded

There are few words in English with as interesting a history as brand. Originally, a brand was simply a burning thing, usually a stick.[1] Since people were in the habit of using burning sticks to mark their cattle for, like, most of human history, the burning stick grew a verb, as nouns are wont to do, and then the verb to brand sloshed back into a totally different noun brand, meaning the mark on the cow’s flank, and when in the eighteenth century mass market economies began to develop, there was this terribly useful word anyone could use to mark the difference between These Things Here and Those Things There. People like to know what they’re buying before they buy it. Establishing a big B Brand was a new and very efficient way to tell a little story about the tin of tea or bottle of brandy or whatever; and in the hurly burly of the rough and tumble age of empire, Brands could transmit that story all the way around the world.

After a couple hundred years of this, almost the whole world economy is dominated by Brand names. Every time a new thing is invented, a cloud of workshop tinkerers and garagistes is quickly blown away, leaving behind a few large Brands. The most iconic brands enter into popular culture and develop identities so complicated you could write a reasonably cogent gospel around them.[2] This is no less true for alcoholic beverages. Anyone who cares about Scotch knows that Johnny Walker is like a nice single malt with all the interesting bits distilled out of it, yet the world consumes more Johnny Walker Scotch than all the single malts put together about a dozen times over. Anyone who cares about beer knows that Miller Light and Coors made from fermented cat pee, watered down with cold Rocky Mountain water, yet the increasingly frisky craft brewing trade is still a bucket tossed into the mighty river of crap the world consumes, because that crap is wrapped in a keen and shiny package that still reminds me, decades later, of those hilarious frogs.[3]

And then there is wine. To be sure, the ten largest wine brands still account for 85% of wine sales because Brands pay the bills, but within that other 15% of the wine market, there is an obnoxiously diverse array of wine.[4] So much wine in so many variations made by so many people you and I will never hear of that it’s essentially impossible to know them all, and those who try end up living like monks in their wine cellars. The profusion of small producers is almost unique in any part of the consumer economy. It’s tempting to get lost in the forest of history and legal protectionism and tradition and other European stuff to explain why this galaxy of minnow wineries hold such market share, but I like to think it’s a more fundamental issue. Remember for a moment what Brands do for Things. Brands offer meaning to what is otherwise just a thing. There isn’t much you can honestly say about a shoe once it fits correctly and doesn’t fall apart in the store, but put a little triangle on it and a hilariously re-programable acronym, and all of a sudden in those shoes you’re on the pitch with Ronaldo. Water with cat pee in it is disgusting, but if it comes with bikini babes playing volleyball in the snow, shit I’d drink it. Wine, on the other hand, already has that little story written into its DNA and then summarized on the front label. You can get absurdly specific little stories on some bottles,[5] but even the basic terms like Merlot, Burgundy, and Chianti act as loose meta-brands, giving the briefest sketch of the wine inside. Distilled spirits can be distilled anywhere, aged anywhere, to embrace any style—once people figured this out the tenuous part terroir once played in the world of grain spirits evaporated.[6] Wines cannot be so easily separated from their vineyards[7] because it is those vineyards—not the winemakers—writing most of the story. Big Brand wines will always be with us,[8] because someone has to make money for all this to work, but wine’s instinct for individuality will always be with us too, because that’s what keeps us coming back.



[1] The residue of violence in the word has outlasted most literal uses in today’s speech. For example, would you rather someone wave a sword at you or brandish it.

[2] Book I, Verse I: In the Beginning, He Just Did It.

[3] For that matter, Branding has become so pervasive that just about everyone is trying to establish a personal Brand. Kind of the way I’m doing right now.

[4] If you’re wondering why this number is impressive, consider that all the craft beer in the world amounts to perhaps 3% of the world’s beer, while small distilleries account for a smaller share of the spirits market than Brazil’s third largest .

[5] This is why it takes me so long to get out of wine shops. Lots of reading material.

[6] Scotland, by tradition, maintains a loosely defined map separating highland from lowland, Islay from Speyside, but as distillers become more aware of how the local conditions interact with their whisky, it becomes less the actual terroir and more the weight of tradition that informs the style of whiskys from this island or that glen.

[7] It can be done, and indeed the 85% of wine that sells under Brand labels needs those labels precisely because the esotericism of any given vineyard’s grapes get blended into anonymity to create a wine that no one will hate.

[8] This was never clearer to me than just this afternoon, as I was writing this very piece. A woman asked me for a recommendation for wine to pair with spicy creole. Since I was in the mood for a challenge I recommended a very nice, medium sweet Riesling that would have paired wonderfully with spicy shrimp, rice and ribs. Because she was in no mood for any kind of challenge, she totally ignored me and bought a bottle of the largest brand wine in the safest, least interesting style she could possibly have chosen, and I had to work very hard to conceal my contempt as she paid more than she would have if she had listened to me for an inferior product. Because everything is terrible, and people, above all, suck.

 

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