Comment - Wine - Wine Trade Pressure Group Misses Some Targets
The arrival of March sees Chris Losh, as ever, in a contrary state. This month, he casts his embittered eye over a recently-created pressure group in the UK, which is looking to shake things up in the country's wine arena.
Last month, I recieved a press release from a new campaigning group here in the UK, aimed at generating change within the wine trade. Wineoption.org takes a well-worn anti-establishment line. It is, as you would expect, "fed up with the elitist nature of the wine trade" and wants to make wine “simpler and more enjoyable” for the public. It is, in its own words, “campaigning for real change in the wine trade”.
My initial reaction was “good luck with that one, guys”. Retailers and producers claim to have spent most of the last 20 years trying to “make wine accessible” without any visible signs of success.
Most of my wine-drinking friends still couldn’t - in Basil Fawlty’s immortal phrase - "tell a Bordeaux from a claret", while at the upper levels the calendar still seems to be stuck around 1950. Visiting most of the various merchant tastings in London throughout January and February was profoundly depressing; like wrapping yourself in a roll of tweed and being showered with dust.
Wineoption’s beef comes, essentially, down to two main points: That people (still) don’t understand how wine is classified or written about, and that the trade isn’t doing enough to educate on the dangers of alcohol.
Let’s take the ‘consumer understanding’ point first. The group is absolutely right to flag this up. The way in which wine is communicated is a disgrace. Most back labels are appalling, clearly written by winemakers who would rather be doing something else. Does anyone really give a damn that the liquid was grown on schistous slopes, then spent two months on the lees before being racked into new oak barrels? Unless they’re another winemaker, it’s unlikely.
Consumers do, as Wineoption claims, want simple information. No argument there.
The difficulty, though, arises in defining ‘simple’ – and in its willingness to take a pop at ‘pretentious’ tasting notes, the group is simply taking aim at an easy target, without coming up with any coherent replacement solution.
Sure, tasting notes can be a bit esoteric, but if we stripped them of all descriptive powers then there would be nothing to differentiate one wine from another. Every single bottle would be full of consumer-friendly words like ‘soft, round, smooth and fruity’. Which, in its own way is just as meaningless as talking about cigar boxes and chocolate; a bit like every CD review saying "well, this sounds nice".
There isn’t, in my opinion, anything wrong with using the word ‘gooseberries’ if a wine tastes of, well, gooseberries. Not everyone will get it, but to suggest that the wine trade is, in some way, deliberately trying to ‘confuse’ or ‘deceive’ people is, frankly, nonsense. The wine trade can stand squarely accused of being not sufficiently helpful, but it has nothing to gain by being intentionally obfuscatory.
Where Wineoption is on surer ground is in its suggestion that wines in the supermarket be categorised by broad style. So, light and fresh, rich and oaky etc. I’ve read a few market research papers on this and they all reach the same conclusion: that this (coupled with food) is how people are happiest choosing wine.
Why don’t restaurant wine lists or supermarkets display their wares this way? You tell me. Should something be done about it? Abso-bloody-lutely. But, that’s not a wine industry issue – it’s a retail/hospitality issue.
The second issue – alcohol levels and the danger to public health – is an interesting one, not least because, for the pressure group, it’s such a big part of their campaign. Abv levels, they claim, have got higher (true – though the words ‘relentlessly increasing’ are unnecessarily emotive), and the industry isn’t doing enough to inform the public.
My first reaction to this was that alcohol levels are clearly displayed on the back label for anyone who wants to know, and that they are not, as Wineoption claims, "hidden away".
But, having said that, it wouldn’t do the industry any harm to take the lead on this one: to push the Government to make the abv both larger and more visible on the front label.
The wine trade (and the drinks industry in general) has a poor record on facing up to social issues like this, which usually results in legislation being imposed on them by a leadership irritated at their inaction.
Making the right noises on abv labelling could really help. And, given how potentially dangerous alcohol is, it’s hard to see how further clarity for the people who buy your product could be a bad thing.
Where I think Wineoption has missed a trick, however, is applying its obsession with abv levels to taxation. It gets very exercised about the fact that wine is taxed at the same level below 15% abv, whatever its strength, fulminating that ‘wine at 14% pays half as much tax per unit as wine at 7%’. But since a tiny proportion of wines are sold below 11% alcohol, this is not a compelling argument.
If it wants to concentrate on social harm, the group should be looking at the way in which wine is sold rather than made or taxed. Allowing producers and supermarkets to create dubious (usually awful) wines for GBP9.99 (US$16,25) then sell them on BOGOF is a dreadful practice, encouraging over-consumption and uncritical purchasing – often based, ironically enough, on alcoholic strength.
Banging on about the need for lower alcohol wines isn’t, I don’t think, going to be taken seriously by anybody. Not least because I don’t see any groundswell of opinion in favour of it at consumer level, let alone from within the trade.
If Wineoption really wants to address the issue of public health, it should be pressuring the Government and the retailers to look at the mechanics of promotions – perhaps limiting the amount of time that a wine can be sold at a cut price, and the size of the permitted discount. That, coupled with more obvious labelling on abv, would get some transparency and responsibility into the retail sector.
But although the Wineoption campaign sometimes misses its targets – which makes it tempting to dismiss what it says – its very existence should be of concern to an industry that is frequently far too complacent about assuming that it is "doing all it can".
This is a cry of frustration, and the wine trade ignores it at its peril.
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