To start off the New Year, Jay McInerney presented his wine resolutions for 2012 in the Wall Street Journal. Among them was resolution number three:
Don’t drink the wine at charity benefits. I happen to attend quite a few of these events over the course of the year. The speeches can really drag on and it often seems the only recourse—short of heckling the speakers or hurling the centerpiece at the podium—is to drink copiously. Unfortunately the wine at these affairs is inevitably inexpensive—in the interest of keeping costs down and delivering more of the ticket price to the worthy cause in question—and almost inevitably lousy. Veterans of the benefit circuit are familiar with the particularly pernicious hangover that can result from swilling plonk for three and a half hours. For some reason the liquor is usually of a much higher caliber than the wine, so my new intention is to nurse a couple of vodka-and-sodas through the course of these evenings. Maybe three if the speeches are really long.
I’m not sure what kind of charity events Mr. McInerney attends, but I personally have never once donated nor served a lousy wine in over 15 years of working at and/or providing product to charitable events. Maybe that’s because I never worked for a company that marketed lousy wine; though, thinking about it, I don’t recall tasting too many lousy wines supplied by others at these events. So maybe my definition of what is “good” vs. “lousy” is much more forgiving than Mr. McInerney’s.
That’s the only way I can make this work in my head, because it makes little sense to donate lousy wine to a charity event. Think about it: who attends charity events? Who pays three- or four-figure prices for tickets to black tie events supporting one cause or another? Very generally speaking, it is people who have wealth — or at the very least, have a decent amount of disposable income. This exactly the target audience for fine wine companies — people who can afford to buy their wines, and particularly, their more expensive wines. So it behooves the company to donate a wine of at least decent, if not excellent, quality to a charitable event; the theory being that if any of these well-to-do folks like the wine, they may go out and buy it after the event.
Though, there’s another element at stake here, and that is the size of the audience. If a charity event is expected to attract, say, 150 attendees, a decent-sized wine company can probably financially justify giving away five cases of $15 wine to a worthy cause. (Please note I’m being very general here with the math, figuring on 2 glasses of wine per person and around $500 in wholesale cost of goods to the supplier.) And I think that $15 for a bottle of wine is fair insurance against it being “lousy”. Though, of course, it’s still subjective; one person’s “lousy” is another’s delightful. But my point is that most people — even the snobbiest of snobs — would likely agree that most wines costing at least fifteen bucks are expected to be of decent quality, regardless of how it tastes (does that make any sense?).
Now, again, that’s for a 150-person event. When the crowd gets larger, the donation of product needs to increase as well. McInerney opines “For some reason the liquor is usually of a much higher caliber than the wine…”. The answer is quite simple: even high-caliber booze is much less expensive to provide than medium-quality wine. First of all, liquor by volume is dirt cheap compared to wine — the profit that suppliers make from booze is astronomically higher than wine. Second, because of this profit, liquor companies usually have a much higher budget for things like marketing, PR, and donations. Third, much less liquor is needed per person than wine for an event. Do the math: one 750 ml bottle of wine contains about five glasses. In contrast, one 750 ml bottle of booze provides anywhere from 12 to 20 pours, depending on the strength of the drink. Not to mention, most drinks are mixed, so the bartender can go a little lighter on the pours and stretch the bottle out without most people noticing. Do you know how many people have said “fill it up” to me when I poured their wine glass only half-full? Can’t get away with light pours as easily with the wine. But I digress … the bottom line is that it’s more economically feasible for a company to donate spirits than wine.
Finally, there is the issue of brand exposure. We would like to believe that alcohol beverage companies donate their product for the sole purpose of helping humanity. In reality, most do it first for humanity, but for the secondary purpose of building brand identity — and establishing identity is much easier for a spirit than it is for a wine, for the simple fact that there are many more thousands of wine labels than there are spirits brands. And this is why and where the “lousy” wine may rear its ugly head. It goes like this: wine company is approached about making a donation, but doesn’t really have room in the budget. Still, they feel it’s a good cause and want to see what they can do. They look through inventory and there are 30 cases left of last year’s vintage of Merlot. Rather than let it rot away in the warehouse or destroy it, they donate it to the big event. They’re not worried about the wine making a bad impression because they’re fairly certain that the people there aren’t terribly concerned about the wine they’re drinking — they’re there for the cause and to get a buzz on. Chances are, if a handful of people liked the wine, they’d never remember the name nor the label after the event.
Personally, I only donate wines that I believe are good (i.e., “not lousy”), and I prefer that the event provides opportunities for brand exposure where possible. I don’t necessarily need to have an obnoxiously large banner hanging from the rafters but at the very least I want the opportunity to provide a little takeaway card depicting the wine’s label and name so that people can find it again if they enjoy it.
So maybe that’s the litmus test for wine drinking at a charity — if there’s a sign, and/or a takeaway card, chances are it’s going to be decent. On the other hand, if the wine’s identity is a mystery, maybe there’s a good reason.
What’s your experience? Have you had lousy wines at charities? Good wines? Wines you wanted to buy again?