It may be a bit unseasonal, but I recently found myself reminded of the words uttered at the end of that classic Jimmy Stewart movie we watch every Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life. Tiny Zuzu is nestled snugly in her father’s arms as the cast of characters surrounds them, joyful and satisfied as she chirps, “Daddy, teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings!” It is the culmination of everything that George Bailey has been working so hard to achieve. His understanding of his own life is elevated (as his angel buddy literally ascends) to a higher level. There is a similar transcendent sentiment we try to use to describe coffee.
“Oh, so coffee is JUST like wine!”
These words are generally attached to some form of delightful discovery. And just like in the movie, there are two perceived winners when coffee gets compared to wine. Certainly the speaker has won a small victory in his own mind. He has successfully classified specialty and can now proceed, secure in the knowledge that he understands coffee. The other winner is the coffee person who is trying to make her point about quality, or quality assessment, or price points, or some other lofty specialty goal. Her plight is instantly elevated to the culinary relevance of wine, the undisputed king of all beverages. I recently heard this said at least three times—by separate people—over the course of a fairly short meeting. As the coffee person, I was slightly relieved each time I heard it. My relief was short-lived, however, because I knew that their understanding had settled on a comparison that is superficial at best. Coffee, as we know and love it, is far more dissimilar, than it is similar, to wine.
Oliver Strand, a food writer for The New York Times, GQ, and Bon Appétit, among others, dropped a conceptual bomb on the audience at SCAA Symposium 2012 as he participated on a panel discussion about the media’s perception of coffee. When asked if we could reasonably compare coffee and wine, he said no, “The best wines run circles around the best coffee.” This comes from someone who is not only a wine enthusiast and a coffee lover, but also one who has been relentlessly researching and writing about specialty coffees for years. When he said that, the sound we heard was more like a dull thud than a clear ringing bell. We want to be just like wine, right? We need to be understood and beloved like wine! But perhaps hearing that hard truth was enough to break the spell and set us on the road to our own unique story.
Wine and coffee is not a completely erroneous comparison, of course. Coffee and wine are from agricultural products—fruits, which are comparably small, sweet, and round—and that are best harvested ripe. There’s a season for harvest and processing for both. Both can also be identified by variety and origin, and both use many of the same terms to describe sensory perception of these beverages. Oh, and they’re both beverages. Beyond that, the analogy quickly starts to fall apart. It’s not only imperative that we understand and learn from what we perceive as wine’s success story, we also have to make clear distinctions to coffee. Eventually, the specialty coffee business will need to develop our own narrative and stop borrowing from wine in order to achieve our goals.
At least one part of the dilemma this analogy presents is that wine and coffee operate along two very different supply chain structures. For wine, growers of the fruit (vineyards), and producers of the beverage (wineries), traditionally supply their own region of consumers. The supply chain is immediate and fairly tight. As George Ray McEachern, professor and extension horticulturist at Texas A&M University said in his keynote speech to members at SCAA’s Expo Houston 2011: technical advances in wine are at least 30 years ahead of coffee. We can safely say that the relatively short supply chain had everything to do with these advancements. Some may argue that production and its supply chain have little impact on the story surrounding quality, but this is precisely where the differences trump all the perceived similarities. The tight value chain that wine enjoys allows for a type of vertical integration, otherwise known as the consolidation of all major functions under one owner. If a winery does not literally own its own vineyard, for example, it is often within arm’s reach of one as well as the other links in the value chain. This structure has saved costs and maximized profits in a way that coffee can’t possibly begin to emulate. Wine’s supply chain has, over the course of at least three decades, delivered hefty profits for all players as well as defect-free wine, or what McEachern calls “perfect”. If you want to begin a discussion about the value of wine, we must start there. A wealthy industry will invest and progress with product development, and in doing so, can be completely confident in their claims of quality. The finest of the prized wines in existence, Oliver Strand reminds me, has been cultivated and crafted for more than 800 years, it has been evaluated for quality for just as long, and goes for no less than $8,000 per bottle. It’s time to get honest and realize that, on this point alone, we have an extremely weak case for comparing coffee to wine.
But how damaging is it to continue to compare coffee to wine, really? What harm does it do to at least begin a conversation this way? Those of us in the industry who enjoy this analogy are very aware that we have to stop at some point and begin the discussion of real value. How many of you have, after that analogy is offered up, continued with, “…but actually coffee is FAR more complicated than wine!” And if we didn’t hear it before, that cute bell becomes a loud penalty buzzer. You have just killed the delightful discovery that person felt by telling them that they have it all wrong—compounded with the notion that coffee is super complicated.
Food writers, journalists, and editors of major mainstream publications caution us to steer clear of the wine analogy for this reason. The public doesn’t want complicated. In the short video that introduced Strand’s panel discussion at Symposium, Hugo Lundgren, editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine, explains, “If you pour a bad glass of wine and a good one next to it, people will work out quality for themselves.” Bon Appetit magazine’s editor-in-chief Adam Rapaport warns us that wine experts are insufferable, “…nothing is more boring than listening to a wine snob.” Interestingly, they tell us that the consumer is not uninterested in what we hope to tell them about coffee, it’s just that our delivery is unpalatable. We should not make the mistake of thinking that the success of wine is owing to their messaging. It seems wine has been successful in spite of it, if we’re to listen to these sources.
Now consider the sommelier and the barista. (You might also substitute the green buyer/roastmaster for the barista in some instances.) We have in both cases as standard-bearer, a communicator, and the last hand in the chain that links the product to the public. The wine sommelier is charged with opening and serving the bottle effectively, while the barista needs to produce a finished cup. In the coffee world, the barista carries the heavy mantle of the entire chain. If he screws it up, we have potentially lost the customer. The sommelier must, however, know everything there is to know about the wine at hand. Consider the enormity of those differences. A barista is most likely to sell a customer on the basis of his skill to produce a cup, and a sommelier is actually selling the wine. Here again, Strand urges us to get comfortable with ourselves. “Coffee needs its own terms and references,” he says, “ Why do things taste the way they do? This is a story that is unique to coffee!”
Strand suggests that coffee is most closely related to the popular trends in fine meats and charcuterie than it is to wine. He says the trajectory of the public interest in meats resembles any coffee trend graphs you might come across. “Take pork belly. We now can refer to the origins, variety, processing of pork belly…or at least those of us who are truly interested can. Meat has developed these references and glossary of terms over the course of five or six years, and I never once heard it compared to wine.”
I’d like for the coffee industry to tell a better story; one that isn’t weighed down by the heavy burden of wine’s legacy. The comparison of coffee to wine is unnecessary and only remotely enlightening. If anything, let’s make our case on the merits of coffee, with our own narrative and vocabulary, just like wine did.
Trish Rothgeb is the owner and roastmaster of Wrecking Ball Coffee in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her experience in the industry spans more than 20 years as a coffee roaster, green coffee buyer, and teacher of all things coffee.