Is Richard Wiseman the bete-noire of the UKs wine industry?

Is Richard Wiseman the bete-noire of the UK's wine industry?

Although we're a little late in covering this, the London International Wine Fair this week gives us the ideal hook to let Chris Losh loose on a survey, announced last month, that saw the wine industry here in the UK queue up to shoot the messenger.

As trade rag after trade rag reveals ever gloomier retail figures for wine in the UK (volumes down 2%, economy turgid, consumer confidence shot) the wine world has been getting worked up not about exactly which handcart the industry is going to hell in, but about Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, who has had the temerity to claim that punters can’t tell the difference between a GBP5 and a GBP15 bottle of wine.

Professor Wiseman’s observations, revealed earlier this month, are based on a blind taste-test of almost 600 visitors to a science fair, who tasted everything from a GBP3.50 bottle of Claret to a GBP30 bottle of Champagne and were asked to guess whether a wine was cheap (under GBP5) or expensive (over GBP10).

The fact that people chose correctly around 50% of the time (ie the same as if they’d guessed at random) has provoked two utterly predictable reactions: “All expensive wine is a con,” from the cut-price fundamentalists, and fury from the wine trade that feels that its very raison d’etre has been threatened and has angrily questioned the validity of the survey.

There are, to be sure, merited reservations over the way in which the tasting was actually carried out, with question marks over everything from the glasses used to the wines chosen.

And, of course, it’s easy to skew tasting results by hand-selecting cheap wines from good years and expensive wines from poor years, or pitting GBP5 ‘ready-to-drink’ fruit bombs against restrained ‘cellar-for-ten-years’ bottles of tough Claret. It’s like asking a selection of harassed mothers whether they’d rather use a Nissan Micra or a vintage Morris Minor for the school run.

Having said that, I can’t help but feel that much of the wine trade’s objection to the survey’s methodology is based mostly on the fact that it simply doesn’t like the conclusion. It is, after all, easy to silence an unpalatable message by shooting the messenger.

But, while I wasn't totally convinced by the rigour of the tasting either, the results are sufficient to suggest that, whether the wine trade likes it or not, the majority of the public really do find it tough to distinguish cheap and expensive wine.

The question is, is this really all that shocking a revelation?

Down the years, I’ve carried out several tastings for magazines of both wines and spirits where I’ve asked top tasters to guess the price of the various bottles on display, and their hit rate is probably not much better than 60%. Without visual cues, translating taste into value is an incredibly inexact science.

Of course, at the fine wine level, wine has nothing to fear. Simple supply and demand (and perceived status) dictate the price of Lafite, Le Pin et al just as they do for haute couture. And, while I’d no more spend GBP10,000 on a case of Chateau Latour than I would buy an GBP800 pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps for my wife, there are plenty of people for whom the kudos is more important than the number of zeros.

The problem comes at the ultra-premium level – around GBP15/US$25; the kind of price where the public expect a GBP15 wine to taste three times better than one at GBP5. But, wine isn’t alone in this. I’m not sure that if we sat Joe and Joanna Public down with eight types of salami or olive oil they’d be able to spot the more expensive one either.

For me, the story here is not so much the decidedly non-shocking revelation that people want more expensive wines to taste better but actually can’t tell the difference. It’s been the wine trade’s reaction to the whole shebang; firstly trying to discredit the research, then wringing its hands and saying that what is needed is “more education” to prevent this kind of embarrassing revelation from happening again.

The ‘e’ word is wheeled out every time there is a negative story involving consumers. Education, we are told, will stop people buying cheap wine; it will stop them buying wine on promotion; it will turn supermarkets into tumbleweed-filled wastelands and see independent merchants conducting sell-out vertical tastings of Bandol on every street corner.

The only problem with this utopian vision is that the wine trade a) doesn’t really know how to deliver ‘education’ and b) (perhaps more to the point) the majority of the public don’t really want it in any case. Sure, there’s a low-level curiosity about wine, but that’s not the same as a wider yearning for in-depth knowledge.

This is one of the more fundamental flaws in the thinking of the wine world; an assumption that because it finds wine fascinating, everyone else should too.

There’s something Victorian about the proselytising way in which the trade feels it is its duty to illuminate the dark ignorance of the general population. The natives may not know they want to be educated in the ways of terroir, but rest assured: the Merlot missionaries know what’s best for them.

I can absolutely guarantee you that 90% of the wine-drinking public do not give a damn about what soil a vine was grown in, which way a vineyard faced, or how long a wine spent in barrel. The wine believers who post on websites might, but they’re a tiny minority.

Most people buy wine because they like how it tastes and they like what it says about them. The wine industry obsesses about the former, and, to its detriment, largely ignores the latter.

I probably couldn’t pick out the most expensive stereo system in a ‘blind’ sound-off, but I know, if I could afford it, I’d like to buy a Bang & Olufsen because of what it stands for.

That’s why wealthy Chinese buy first-growth Claret and tip Coke in it. And you know what? I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong to do so. It makes them feel good, which is what wine is all about.

People don’t always like what we think they should, and the sooner the wine industry realises that it doesn’t have a monopoly on taste (both literal and metaphorical) the better.