Fast Company

Wine Critic Matt Kramer on "Authentic" Champagne

In the article Who Do You Love?, I argued that in a world stuffed with hoaxy messages and fabricated experiences, the quest for the authentic—"making it real"—is a new business imperative. What does it take for a brand to be authentic? I put that question to many people, including the wine reviewer Matt Kramer, who pens pithy, prescient columns for The Wine Spectator magazine and The Oregonian newspaper. Wine speaks to so many of authenticity's attributes: heritage, integrity, craftsmanship, a sense of place, a point of view. I wanted to get a wine guy's take on authenticity, so I tracked Kramer down in Australia, where he and his wife are living for a year.

In a phone interview, Kramer reminded me that when it comes to authenticity, companies must first understand the nature of the consumer's demand, which constantly requires proof. A brand's promise—the truth that consumers have chosen to believe or are prepared to accept—must stand up to scrutiny, again and again and again. "Cynics are always dismissive of authenticity," he says. "Fools are always accepting of it. The rest of us are both desirous of authenticity and skeptical about whether we're really getting it. We continually require confirmation that the thing we have deemed to be authentic is, in fact, still real."

Of course, what's "really real" is a completely subjective notion. We might proceed on the same impulses—we want, say, an "authentic" wine—but when it comes to defining a real wine, as Kramer puts it, "we all get off at different exits of the highway." I might consider Champagne to be authentic; if the bottle comes from France's Champagne region, it's real. A professional wine geek like Kramer, however, believes the vast majority of Champagne is junk, because it's blended from several different grape varieties from all over the region and it's "sold on the marketer's sizzle rather than on the wine's substance."

Kramer's point is that a consumer constantly makes a subconscious evaluation: how far am I willing to go to find the thing that's "really real?" Most of us would agree that Moet & Chandon's prestige cuvee, Dom Perignon, is the real deal, and even Kramer concedes that Dom is "quite good." But authenticity depends as much on the consumer's psychological need as it does on the brand's quality. "To someone who is searching deeply for authenticity," says Kramer, "a wine such as Dom Perignon is never going to be emotionally satisfying because it's everywhere—you can buy the stuff in the Congo." By Kramer's calculus, if your demand for authenticity is extreme, the odds are you won't find Dom Perignon to be "real enough."

It's very hard (though not at all impossible) for a brand to be authentic when it's ubiquitous. Recognizing that fact, Moet created a sub-category of Dom. Dubbed "Dom Perignon Oenotheque," it consists of a portion of each vintage, which has been set aside and aged longer than run-of-the-mill Dom. It's released in small batches and comparatively few people have heard of it. Hence, for the hardcore oenophile, Oenotehque has a better shot at being "more real." Says Kramer: "The need for greater authenticity is salved by greater exclusivity." Or to put it less kindly, "greater snobbery." As is often the case with authenticity, much depends on your point-of-view.

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