The wine model doesn’t work

I think everyone in coffee knows deep down this is true. The wine model only works for wine, we can’t transplant it to coffee and expect some immediate understanding and increased sales of quality coffees.

First and foremost – we don’t drink coffee like we drink wine. Broadly speaking we buy wine in two different circumstances: to enjoy ourselves and to enjoy with others. Generally we spend more, buy better, buy more interesting when we are enjoying it with others. We want to know more, want a little story, want something worth discussing. Wine’s great success was making it culturally acceptable/desirable to discuss what you drank at some length. Coffee isn’t quite there yet. We drink coffee in different circumstances – mostly it is a solitary affair, though sometimes shared but rarely the focal point the way a stellar bottle of wine can be. We experience it in different environments, with different goals and different focus on the sensory experience.

I also want to look at the route to wine’s success. In the UK certainly a higher spend may have been achieved but the real successes of the wine boom were producers like E&J Gallo. The £5 bottle of acceptable, non-descript, reliable wine. Compared to what had been easily available at that price range in the decades previous these wines were really pretty good. More than that – they made wine extremely accessible.

I recently attended a chocolate and tea pairing, at Tea Smith, with the chocolates by William Curley. There were some toe-curlingly, giggle inducingly wonderful moments and flavours. Talking to both John from Tea Smith and William it is clear that these two commodities could fall into the wine model the way that coffee could. However do push them into that model wouldn’t bring to the fore the most interesting things about them. Microlots of astounding tea don’t fit into the wine model, despite coming from one estate and being one particular type of tea and having an interesting processing method, and listening to William talk about chocolate you felt you could swap chocolate for coffee and it would work as well – from sourcing to vintage machinery!  Yet high-end chocolate has adopted a different approach when it comes to marketing and consumer understanding.

We, as an industry, have yet to find the hook that will encourage the broader public to delve deeper into coffee – to discover the captivating and broad range of sensory experiences available in what is considered a humdrum, everyday drink. It is clear, however, that we can’t settle on trying to piggyback wine because it just won’t work. We must keep looking but I have no doubt that accessibility will be the key.

UPDATE:  Steve Leighton posts on Coffee and Wine.

32 Comments The wine model doesn’t work

  1. Nick

    If we want to make it accessible, we might have to bite our tongues and just call it “coffee”. Pursue the perfect cup just as fanatically as before, but don’t let the fanaticism show quite as much. Wait until the presentation, service, and sensory experience is good enough to prompt the customer to ask why the coffee is so good before starting the education process.

    Sometimes I worry that we’re trying to shoehorn what is still (by some measures) a high-end product into the mass market.

    Going in the complete opposite direction, sometimes I worry that we worry too much about public perception, and that we should just let the enthusiasm bleed through. It seems to work for Mr. Caragay.

  2. Tim Varney

    I kinda didn’t want to hear this from you James, but deep down i also know it to be true.

    Anette might back me up on this one, but it seems over here in Norway and likewise with other Scando countries, is that coffee means a little more than just a “solitary affair” and that many of the Norwegians I know will go out of their way to purchase a nice coffee to enjoy with friends. It seems that the mental shopping checklist for Joe Norway whenever inviting friends over for dinner is – Nice food. Check. Nice wine. Check. Nice coffee. Check.

    One of the first things i noticed about Norway was the cultural difference in the way coffee was appreciated and drunk. It seems to be more deeply ingrained into Norwegians than that of Australians and from my experience the Brits.

    So maybe over here we have a bit of a head start, culturally, in the quest for high-end coffee appreciation.

  3. James Hoffmann

    With places like Norway I can’t help but wonder if it was a chicken or egg thing: did they start by buying good coffee, and brewing it well and therefore consumption rose – or did they drink a lot of coffee and the percentage of great coffee stayed pretty small but the overall quantities rose?

    I have no idea who could answer that – perhaps the nice people at the Norwegian Coffee Board?

    The constant consumption of coffee in Scandinavia is interesting, as it seeps into more social interactions and more varied ones – opposed to the “third place” etc.

    I hope I don’t seem negative – I just think we are barking up the wrong tree right now and looking for an easy solution to our problem.

  4. Tim Varney

    Didn’t some scientists come up with an answer to the chicken and egg thing?

    As far as the Norwegian coffee analogy goes, i’ll pass that one over to the real Norwegians.

    If not the wine model, which other model would you choose to help with the success of high quality coffee?

    Tea? Beer?

  5. James Hoffmann

    I think we have to create a coffee model – nothing will fit better. We can look to other models to see how they found success, what created a tipping point in consumer opinion and look to build a model around those ideas/ideals rather than just borrow them/mimic them.

  6. Poul Mark

    This is an interesting thread James. And is one that is pretty close to my own heart, as someone who is passionately involved in the coffee biz and is working towards my WSET Level 3 certification, with the hopes to open a wine bar in the future. Transcend was going to combine wine and coffee at our next location (still to be found), but recently I gave up that notion, with the mindset of keeping the identity of Transcend simple and clear. Having said all of that, I think there is a lot of crossover between how we evaluate wine and coffee. I will agree with you up to a point that we don’t drink coffee like we do wine, but even there, I think that is an oversimplification. You and I drink both coffee and wine differently than 99% of the population (OK maybe 98%). We are constantly evaluating, sensing, paying attention to the body, aromas, nuances. The average wine drinker does not drink this way, and frankly, I sometimes like to drink it that way too. So I think that more people drink wine like they do coffee than you think. This is not to say that we can simply adopt the success journey of wine, and expect similar results.

    There is much to talk about here, but in North America, wine was a snobbish drink until the advent of Yellow Tail. Wine was not a common beverage in the US or Canada, and was perceived by the general public as something inaccessible. For the most part, Americans and Canadians drank beer (bad beer too for the most part). Then along comes Yellow Tail, who looked at how they could tap into the beer market, and they did it with monumental success. They created a low price point wine, with simple packaging, and most importantly, they de-snobbified it, and made it accessible to the average consumer. The rest is history. Couple this to the Robert Parker and Wine Spectator 100 point scale and the wine industry in North America has never been the same.

    So from all of this, what can we learn. Well the most important thing is that we need to constantly remind ourselves that our customers do not approach our product with the same passion or intensity that we do. While we continually focus on increased quality, we also need to work hard at keeping our product accessible. We hold a coffee tasting at Transcend once a month and we take people on a three hour journey into the world of coffee. We talk about flavours in ways that are similar to wine, and yet all the time, we are trying to instill a sense of enthusiasm in our customers when it comes to coffee. And the constant comparison by our customers is that they think we treat coffee like most people think about wine. So their is an access point there with people, and while it might not be the same road that we ultimately end up traveling down, it is certainly one which will have familiar landmarks. OK, this comment is too long now. But I would love to chat more about this, maybe over a glass of wine and coffee.

  7. The Onocoffee

    I think the wine analogy is an interesting one, not necessarily to model but rather to understand so that we can “create” a “system” of our own (which is quite contrived in and of itself).

    I think many of the points you raise in your second paragraph James have much to do with our own shortcomings (failings?). Do we not take our beverage seriously enough? Or as Mark Poulsen points out with Yellow Tail, are we not making quality coffee accessible enough?

    If we look merely at price point then “accessible” coffee is out there and within reach of just about everyone. Most cities have at least one place they can journey to and enjoy a nice cup of coffee. Even more so for lesser coffees.

    What seems to be missing in coffee is the high-end. Yes, many of us want to believe we’re offering the “high end” but are we really? Most shops I know (even “the best” ones) are still following a mass consumer model (regardless if they don’t have 16z cups). We may be making wonderful quality drinks but we’re also pumping them out as fast as possible. When do we respect the product we actually serve?

    I have no doubt that we can source and deliver truly exceptional and exciting coffees, but it doesn’t seem like we’re that excited about it and really ready to share it with others.

    Recently, I’ve been revisiting wine and learning more about them. Some of my friends are pretty hardcore about their wines and I’ve tasted some truly incredible wines. We need to have this level of focus. That desire to drink great coffees and drink them with friends and others. While the wine industry offers mass wines like Franzia (boxed), you can also have some truly stellar wines like Comte LaFon and Chateau de Beaucastel.

    I know I’ve mentioned this previously but during my visit to Salt Lake City last week, I hung out with John Piquet and let me tell you, there’s something very seriously wrong with that guy. He’s crazy. He’s got great coffees and a siphon bar. You want to try them? Cool. Come in, sit down and he’ll brew it for you. In precious bone china cups. Want sugar? Absolutely not. How about cream? Get the hell out. What about flavored syrup? He might punch you in the face.

    No, he wants you to taste the coffee and only the coffee. Yes, there’s sugar, cream and syrup in the house. Hell, the sugar and cream is three feet to your left on the condiment station but it ain’t going in your siphon coffee. The approach is focused, concentrated and all about the quality of the cup. It’s amazing.

    Maybe our path lies somewhere in Piquet’s example.

  8. John Piquet


    thanks for the comments.
    I wish I took the time to make our own vanilla and chocolate for our lattes as you do.

    I think as far as the wine model goes it works to describe the complexity of the coffee we use… more complex flavor nuances than wine. And just as you would not ever have the slightest inkling to add sugar or cream to your wine, the same should be said for high caliber coffee. I think much is to be overcome in that what “we”, as a collective, do is vastly different from the majority of the industry, and it probably will be for the next decade. I’ve seen mention that coffee is closer to the high-end beer model than it is to wine, but my knowledge is limited in that area so maybe someone else can chime in on that.

    I really don’t see any vast difference between Nick’s famous $5 hot chocolate and what we do with our coffee. It is as it is. If WE don’t start treating our coffee as something special, why should we expect anyone else to?

  9. John Piquet

    As an addendum for understanding:

    We make every drink by the cup. Whether it’s coffee, or full leaf tea, or chai, or (can you believe it) espresso, it’s by the cup. We did Press by the cup for about a year and a half before we started doing siphon coffee, and our standard was still the same… no cream, no sugar. And honestly, in a good three years we’ve had less than ten people ever ask and only one be really testy about it. With the presentation and the “I’m making THIS cup just for YOU, most people will “get” it. To me, an “everything by the cup” approach is something that is commonplace in most other countries, and this includes coffee that is just average to good.

    “We” spend countless hours honing our espresso technique, but coffee is as difficult to understand in its own right. If everyone made a point to really educate by the cup, rather than by the cistern or by the air pot, I think it would be a good start. Hand drip. Siphon. Press. Chemex. Eva Solo… Pick one you love and master the hell out of it.

  10. rob berghmans

    What I want to start in Belgium is selling coffee’s online this way :

    We go for very fresh.
    We go for premium coffee’s, but 9 out of 10 will stay in between the 15 and 20 euro a kilo range, so very accessible.
    We sell it with extra brewing advise (something you do very good and we learn from it, thank you).
    We demand the client to grind it theirselves – if not, why should we do all the efforts and asking these kinds of prices? A 5 day old grind tastes mostly as a 5 day old grind, even if you have a top class single estate.
    We explain the tastes but in a comprehensive way.
    And we offer the possibility to drink these coffee’s at specialised bars we deliver to.
    Besides of the pricing policy you do the same, but wouldn’t it be interesting for square mile to offer people a less expensive blend of origin, as a step in?

    If, on top of this, we can find a coffee model, I think we can have a break trough.

    Keep up blogging, you seems to be on the roll! nice.

  11. Matts johansson

    This is interesting, beeing in the coffee shopbuisness for 15 ears and consulting in the coffeeindustry is this what we asking for, “the coffee model”. Just creating this words James you are setting a direction, it´s a urgent matter.
    I think that many of us are confused, thinking, talking and acting in many ways. And we have the term Speciality coffee, but we have no model. That why we are talking about wine, choclate and so on.

    We have to create this model, no one will do it for us.

  12. Grendel

    I think the ‘wine thing’ has been useful as an analogy to explain the differences to some people, but for most there is sill an inability to describe these differences in the same way that we do for wines – again as has been suggested it is a learning thing. Greater familairity with good coffee will encourage curiousity about origins and variety, and yes, good coffee needs to be more accessible. Unfortunately, unlike the wine scenario there is a lot of bad coffee that has to be dispaced for this to occur.

  13. John Piquet

    What is “wine” flavor?

    What is “coffee” flavor?

    For wine, even the layman may get Red and White, or sweet and bitter, or something like dry or dessert-y.

    But for coffee, many think of the Sanka/Folgers/Mountain Grown generic “coffee” flavor. It’s in coffee candy, coffee ice cream, etc. It’s a simple one tone flavor, and THAT is one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome. Creating an understanding of complexity when a singular flavor is the accepted, and expected, norm.

  14. Lance

    The wine vs coffee thing is an interesting debate. As a basic rule I would suggest that people who enjoy quality coffee would surely understand the finer details of quality wine.
    Wine is now sold in a paint by numbers or dot to dot format. Consumers like the label or know the name of the grape so they buy it. The supermarkets offer wines that are mass produced and generally made for quaffing without food. Coffee is sold in the supermarkets with pretty packets, 100% arabica claims and ethical stories which divert us from what is actually in the packet.

    It will be a long time before we will see coffee of a cup of excellence standard available in specialist shops let alone supermarkets.

    Wine has a long history of classification. Bordeaux was given its growth classification in 1851 and this classification stands up very well today with a few exceptions.
    Maybe someone will have an idea to introduce a classifictaion in coffee to the consumer? The problem with this is that it will will probably get bastardized by the supermarkets like wine has.
    With wine the new world has copied the French with their wine making and badly may I say. If consumers tried the originals of the new world copies they may learn about the finer points of wine. Sancerre has been copied with Sauvignon Blanc in Chile and New Zealand, Chablis (chardonnay) has been clumisily copied in Australia. Syrah which is a key wine variety for Chateauneaf du Pape and most Rhone wines has not only been badly made in Austrailia they changed the name to Shiraz (how dare they)

    Most consumers dont want the hassle of trying to understand French wine so trying to create coffee understanding is a very tall order.

    People who seek out the finest espresso are the same people who love going to farmers markets, growing their own veg, wondering why a wine costs £20 with an urge to undertand it and try it and an overall passion for the sensory pleasure for great food and wine.

    Happy New Year

  15. Katiekoo

    There are many reasons why in today’s society coffee can not and will not be regarded in the same way that wine appreciation has grown within the general public.

    You can walk down any major shopping street and see most of the main high street brands of coffee chains, but very few independent coffee bars, the choice that is available to the general member of the public is still very limited.

    The wine industry and general knowledge of wine increases with access to wider choice at reasonable prices, and being able to purchase a wide range of grape varieties through the local supermarket, and even corner shop. Giving access to try, and learn more about styles, flavours and quality of wine with no large expense. Even learning through trying different wines, not consciously purchasing a specific grape, but just by what brand was on offer. Many people learn by accident they like something, rather than seeking the knowledge.

    The coffee industry is still very limited with the choice and quality available to the general public both within the coffee chains and within retail sales. Supermarkets may have wider ranges of coffee blends available, but many people are still intimidated by the skill needed to make a coffee with the home, the need for special equipment etc. Unlike a wine which just needs a bottle opener, and opt for the ease of an instant coffee instead.

    The coffee industry is moving forward, the general public do recognise which high street brand they prefer. Many will know which flavour profiles they enjoy, but as yet have not had the chance to gain the experience they need to really appreciate the range of coffees and quality that is available.

    There is such a grate range of quality coffees to try out there, but as yet unless you actively seek to try great coffees, single origins etc, they are not easily accessible to most consumers.

  16. The Onocoffee

    I think Lance and Katiekoo’s comments are quite telling about our business. Great coffees are not easily accessible to most consumers. Have we asked ourselves why?

    Have we asked how would it be possible for consumers to have access to great coffees when no one is providing that access? Is it not our responsibility to provide that access to the consumer?

  17. Tristan

    I guess i’d better comment, since I did post a month or so ago on my blog highlighting the comparisons between wine and coffee!

    I still believe that there are some serious similarities in that (as Lance says), you can bet that the couple who come in and appreciate your perfect espresso, also appreciate a good glass of vino, splash of olive oil, bar of chocolate and organic fruit.

    In fact i’d wager there is an olive oil blog or forum somewhere on the net asking when the day will come that everyone consumes fresh oil and appreciates it. They too will probably compare the market to wine and then discuss the differences, but when all is said and done the key similarity is appreciation, which follows on from accessibility.

    And again, this goes back to the general quality of the offering available. Like you say James, the customer needs to demand more (quality) and the cafe needs to offer more, which comes first? It organically evolves that way IMO and you can see it with the growing number of coffee shops opening with a quality product and more people turning to them for their drinks.

    Just as great coffee will become accessible that way, good (or better) wine appeared on our shelves in a similar fashion, people became wise to better quality and in turn asked for more.

    The model is not exact, all products are different and yes, consumed in different situations or at different times. Coffee just needs to make a bigger impact on the discerning crowd and the rest will fall in to place in time. Patience I reckon!

  18. James Hoffmann

    I had your post in mind when I wrote – more in such a way that I thought about mailing you to say I wasn’t picking on you specifically. I had planned to post this a week or two ago but left it a little longer for that very reason.

    I have to say I don’t think patience is the way to go. The speciality industry has been frustrated as long as it has existed so I think we need to get a bit more pro-active about what we are doing and saying. As Matts says above:

    We have to create this model, no one will do it for us.

    I am really enjoying the discussion in this thread!

  19. James Hoffmann

    I think people are providing access, but the numbers are extremely limited. I’ve gone to places and had some of the best cups of coffee of my life for a meagre fee.

    Accessibility is about many factors – from scarcity, to price, to cultural acceptance of quality. (Back to the whole anti-snob thing I am tired of writing about…)

  20. barber furniture

    @James Hofmann, I agree with you about coffee model. There should bee some tip of measures and standards that coffee should have. It will not maybe be like wine but something similar.

  21. btvcafe

    Re: Poul Mark’s comment, it’s interesting to think about the success of the wine industry and if this is indeed how the industry would have envisioned it 30 or 40 years ago. Is “success” the proliferation of upfront fruity wines that are easily accessible? The development of a quick-glance 100 point scale to evaluate what many would consider an objective and esoteric experience? We should ask ourselves if we are willing to pay a similar price for the “success” of specialty coffee. And if so, then it seems specialty/third wave coffee may have to change in ways we don’t like in order to suit a mass audience as opposed to the current fashion of trying to bend the customer to our will.

    James, you seem to associate the growth of the wine industry to the production of the “£5 bottle of acceptable, non-descript, reliable wine.” To many customers, the analogous product in the coffee world has already been developed – it’s the Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, or McDonald’s cup of coffee – reliable and decent. Customers by and large don’t feel befuddled by coffee and therefore aren’t looking to us to demystify it for them. In contrast, the one thing I have seen impress customers consitently is the presentation of milk based espresso drinks. So perhaps continuing to develop this aspect of the retail business, which is still in it’s infancy at least here in the U.S., would be a more efficient place to concentrate our energy if our goal is to bring specialty coffee to a greater audience. And furthermore, perhaps placing the sensory experience of single origin coffee in the background would be better for the integrity of the third wave in the long run, if the alternative is a watered down standard easily appreciated by a mass audience.

  22. rob berghmans

    let’s start working.
    what do we need to create a model?
    lot’s of information about the bean? This won’t be easy if you see where most the beans come from.
    what? year/crop.
    roasting angle and date.
    …. and so, so much more to know.

    but indeed, as Tristan said, how do you consume this? you need surely more than only espresso.
    hm, let us call this a new prediction for 09 : the search for a model. Step by step we’ll get there.

  23. hugo

    Of course the wine model doesn’t work, but parts of it can, parts of it won’t, and if it does it’ll be called a coffee model….
    However, it can teach us useful stuff, as can every other ‘model’. The fundamental problem is, how can we sell higher quality coffee when we can’t produce it or more specifically, get it to the final consumer in it’s drinable state? Not a lot of point focusing on sales when the ‘quality’ product we’re so desperate to promote is only available in microscopic quantities to the consumer.
    My concern is already manifest in the sale of pretend high quality coffees in supermarkets & ‘speciality’ coffee shops which are very ordinary. By the cup it’s usually prepared poorly by the supposed professionals (us). For home consumption it’s usually already stale because it’s preground and worse still, it’s bought by people who have no idea how to store it or brew it. A bit like selling expensive grape juice to the public and expecting them to make their own wine…following instructions on the back of the tin.

    Can someone (James?) put forward a suggestion of what this model is going to try and allow coffee to achieve…

  24. James Hoffmann

    I think we need a strong, clear message and to get behind it and shout it loudly and consistently. (Like we think Starbucks do too…)

    Perhaps we should start where wine and coffee strongly deviate – influencing the quality home consumption. The benefits of getting people to brew better coffee at home are many – increased consumption being quite obvious but more than that I think it would change expectations about what a coffee brewed out of home should taste like and whether its price matches its value.

    I liked a bit of Ryan Wilbur’s recent post where he says,

    Coffee people like to talk up and down about how much coffee is like wine… The problem is you can’t run home and immediately rip open a bag of coffee and enjoy it. It must be brewed. I think 2009 needs to be a year of less throwing around our language (i.e. always talking varietals, processing, cupping, and all kinds of obnoxious descriptors that soar over peoples heads) and way more simply teaching people how to make coffee themselves.

    This was one of the many things that got me inspired to start teaching home brewing classes – having done two I feel much more comfortable with what is practical and useful in a class like this. I am still trying to find a better format, timing and price point but that is another story.

    I plan to keep contributing with home brewing videos, searching out ways to get more out of our kit and to make great coffee without having to spend a fortune in a way that is convenient, yet conistent.

    I think once people understand the range of flavours available in coffee our potential audience will show itself through inquisitiveness about the hows and whys of great coffee.

  25. hugo

    Umm…are you a speciality roaster who does mail order?

    Perhaps we should concentrate on where it’s most accessible, on the street in a few great cafes. Coffee, just like wine, is made best by professionals. Trying to get the public to brew excellent coffee will be about as effective as getting them to brew great wine.
    History will repeat itself and your market will consist of hippies, geeks and long haired loners, still drinking hogwash but proud of it and capable of talking about it to their brewing friends on forums and blogs for hours…

    Just kidding.

  26. James Hoffmann

    Just kidding

    Yeah, yeah – too late now.

    Yes I am a coffee roaster, and we do mail order, but that is a very, very small part of our business because we are focused on trying to lift the wholesale market. On that front I am convinced the current, typical wholesale model is all wrong – I just haven’t come up with a better idea yet.

    Anyway – Seth Godin would have us market directly to those ‘otaku’.

  27. Pingback: » Thank you by James Hoffmann

  28. Stephen Leighton

    Hi Jim

    I just wanted to say I’m not being contrived to your post, I haven’t seen this until I saw your ping back on my post (I am so far behind on my RSS). You make some really good points in here, as well as your readers, but I still believe we can take much of the work that’s been done to make coffee more accessible without introducing the negatives that it has for wine.

    I’m just off to feel foolish for a while that yet again you beat me to a post.

  29. James Hoffmann

    Hey Steve – I think we all think a lot of the same thoughts. I linked back to you because you wrote a really interesting post and anyone who is interested in the above discussion would enjoy reading it. I don’t really assume that everyone reads everything I post, and I am struggling to keep up with all the coffee (and other) feeds these days!

  30. Robert McIntosh (thirstforwine)

    Wow, your blog is a great discovery for me. I need to read his thread and all the great comments in a lot more detail, but I had just started exploring this from exactly the opposite direction to try and make sense of coffee with a wine background.

    I think I might disagree with your conclusions above, partly because they overstate the strength of customer recognition and appreciation for wine, but I look forward to thinking this through and sharing it with the coffee world too

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