In the specialty coffee industry, we hear about the similarities between wine and coffee all the time: both drinks are sniffed and sipped for pleasure, both offer a complex variety of palates and aromas, and both enhance meals and occasions.
But beyond the common aesthetics and culture of these two drinks, wine and coffee share another trait: their industries. Both are agricultural products from specific regions that are grown as well as they can be, and then prepared and sold to the consumer as a drinkable commodity.
Why then, does wine sell for five to $15 a glass, when coffee can only command one or two dollars a cup at the most? Is coffee somehow worth less than wine?
More likely, the wine industry has a better system in place - not only for growing grapes, but for marketing their product to consumers.
Ask most wine drinkers about their favorite wines and at the very least, they'll probably be able to tell you why they like it, what kind of grapes it is made from, where those grapes were grown and in what year.
If they're true enthusiasts, they'll probably also be able to tell you whether this year's version is better than last year's, whether it's a wine for drinking now or cellaring and, if it's a blend, the percentage of each varietal. They may even be able to tell you what score the wine received in the latest issue of Wine Spectator.
Ask many coffee drinkers about their favorite coffee, and they're more likely to answer with a brand name, a level of roast or, heaven forbid, with "a mocha." While some may know that they prefer one country's coffee over another, they're not likely to be able to specify why, or to tell you what region it comes from or whether it's a single-origin coffee or a blend.
This probably isn't because consumers don't care about the coffee they're drinking. More likely, it is because they don't yet have the knowledge, understanding or vocabulary to explore and appreciate, much less want to pay for, quality coffee.
With the industries so similar, yet not identical, there is much that coffee can learn from its older sibling, both in the way wine is grown and the way it is marketed.
One of the first places to look when it comes to emulating the wine industry is in origin countries. Most coffee and wine is grown outside the U.S., on small or large farms, and in specific latitudes and regions. These similarities make it easy to see the systems that are in place for wine that might benefit coffee.
Most wine grapes are grown in appellation systems - designated geographical and environmental regions that produce fruit with specific flavors, textures and aromas. This collection of characteristics is commonly referred to as terroir.
A good example is the Burgundy region of France. Within that region, there is a multitude of designated appellations, including Chablis and Beaujolais. In order for a wine to be labeled and sold as a Chablis, for example, it must be made with fruit from that particular appellation. These growing regions are typically regulated by a government agency. The overall goal is to protect the quality and marketing integrity of the wine.
Of course, the wine industry has a huge advantage over the coffee industry right now, as wine growers have spent hundreds and even thousands of years implementing these systems.
"Clearly wine is far ahead of coffee in terms of identifying existing zones, regions and districts," says Ronn Wiegand, wine taster and owner of Restaurant Wine. "The wine industry has dealt with the concept of regions of origin and authenticity for hundreds of years."
Coffee, of course, has no such history. Even the oldest regions, such as Jamaican Blue Mountain, were not registered as a certification mark in the U.S. until 1986.
Creating coffee regions or designations from scratch is no easy task, as there are a number of guidelines to be set, including zone delineation, coffee quality, plant varietals and processing methods. And then there is perhaps the biggest hurdle - enforcement. A perfect example of the enforcement difficulties was the 1996 Kona Coffee scandal, in which a company was labeling bags as "Pure Kona" when the majority of the contents were actually beans from Central America.
"In order for (the coffee appellation system) to work, laws must be passed in the region of origin that have teeth," says Wiegand. "And then it would be very helpful if the countries themselves, possibly in association with an international coffee association, began to develop and police those laws."
Many coffee-producing countries, such as Guatemala and Nicaragua, already have informal growing regions and are working to formalize those areas through laws. Columbia recently defined 86 distinct "designated micro-climates" throughout the country. Each region, such as Ecotopo 402, is defined by a variety of variables, including location, rainfall, altitude and processing conditions.
"They're not traditional appellation designations according to the definition of the wine industry," says Mary Petitt of the Colombian Coffee Federation. "But they are micro-climate definitions to help us better investigate and understand the relationship of taste to place."
On a smaller scale, individual coffee farms are taking matters into their own hands, creating miniature versions of appellation-type systems through rigorous standards and hard work. In this case, the controls are coming from the farms themselves.
Mesa de los Santos in Colombia is one of the farms that is practicing the vineyard system almost to a tee. "We try to follow the wine model," says Mesa de los Santos owner Oswaldo Acevedo. "We treat coffee as an enologist would treat wine."
To do this, Mesa de los Santos has invested in an onsite cupping facility and enlists the aid of a full-time cupper, who assists in every stage of the process. The cupper evaluates each crop in advance of the harvest to create the proper balance between each varietal, crop, year and processing method.
The farm is also building a new beneficio (wet mill) that will allow the beans to be processed in a number of different ways. "Coffee is like wine," Acevedo says. "Every year it's different than last year. This beneficio allows us the flexibility to apply a different process each year."
Already, Acevedo says, he's seen an increase in interest from roasters in the kind of detailed records and coffee he can provide. "We will continue to do it and we think each year is going to be better," Acevedo says. Someday, he sees coffee being ordered not just by region, but by a variety of characteristics.
"There are some roasters who are already saying, 'I'd like coffee from one farm, where the beans are picked from one part of the farm and processed the same day in a certain way,'" Acevedo says.
Of course, creating wine-like growing regions is only one part of the coffee-wine equation. The other part is marketing. Having great coffees from specific, well-regulated growing regions isn't beneficial if the customer doesn't know about them and doesn't understand their importance.
One system that wine has in place that could be beneficial for the coffee industry is its rating system. Open any Wine Spectator and you're likely to see a collection of wines rated on a scale of 50–100. Ratings are based on taste, texture, aroma and balance - all those characteristics that coffee and wine share.
To take advantage of a system that many consumers are already familiar with made sense to the folks at Coffee People and Diedrich Coffee. They're marketing Fazenda Sao Paulo, a Brazilian Cup of Excellence winner, as a coffee that received a 90 out of 100 score from a panel of impartial international coffee judges.
"We wanted to use the analogy of great wine and use the strategy that great wines have used to get public attention and awareness," says Martin Diedrich, founder of Diedrich Coffee. "We used a non-partial jury that was very experienced and very capable of qualifying the coffee and scoring it."
"We did that because consumers can relate to that kind of rating because they've seen it in wine," adds Alexis Eldridge, senior director of marketing for Diedrich and Coffee People. "We wanted to let the consumers know more about this coffee in a way that made logical sense to them."
In addition to giving consumers a rating system they understand, Eldridge believes the unbiased judging system gives the coffee the credibility it deserves. "It resonates with consumers that it was rated by someone else," says Eldridge. "We're not telling the consumer that it's excellent coffee - someone else has done that."
So far, Eldridge says, consumers have reacted positively to the rating system.
"This coffee has done exceptionally well, and it's an excellent coffee," she says. "I think we would do this again, because it's important information and it did get their attention."
It's not enough just to have a great coffee with a wine-like rating, says Diedrich. Creating a "taste atmosphere" that's similar to that of a great wine shop is also important. One way to do this is the create "coffee stewards" - employees who have a broad base of coffee knowledge from all over the world.
"You really have to put a lot of emphasis on training your staff," Diedrich says. "You have to get them to the level where they can wax knowledgeably about their coffees, just as if you were to go to a fine wine store."
Not only do they have to understand the coffee they're selling, they have to understand the systems around it as well. For example, with the rating system, employees should understand what it means when a coffee is rated with 90 points. "They have to know the whole story," says Diedrich. "That there's hardly ever going to be a judge that scores a coffee above 95. So, a 93 or 94 is going to be a really high score."
The other important aspect of understanding coffee is being able to taste all its nuances and subtleties, and then communicate those tastes to others. And that's where wine and coffee cross over once again - by learning the proper way to taste wine, you develop not only your palate, but also your tasting vocabulary, both skills which come in handy around the cupping table.
"I think it's a great idea for people in the coffee trade to get into some wine tasting as well, and learn a little bit about how wines are tasted and evaluated because there is a fully developed culture in that," says Diedrich. "That is not to say all of those techniques and sensations are equivocal to coffee though."
Wine may have a head start on coffee when it comes to a lot of these techniques - from designating growing regions to marketing with scoring systems. But the wine industry's experience may be a benefit for the coffee industry. It's like having older siblings - you get to watch them and see what works and what doesn't, before you strike out on your own.
While coffee and wine may be siblings, they're not twins. And that's another important thing to remember when it comes time for coffee to learn from wine.
"I think we can look at the wine trade and see what they've done and learn from it, but I don't think we should mirror it," says Diedrich. "Because coffee is a different product, after all, and I think we should allow it to speak for itself."
This is a reprint from Roast Magazine, a specialty magazine for professional roasters and anyone with an interest the production of specialty coffee. Shanna Germain is the author of this article and editor at Roast Magazine, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscriptions to Roast Magazine cost $25 a year, or $45 for two years, and can be subscribed to here.