The wine category needs to work to keep consumers on-side, argues Chris Losh

The wine category needs to work to keep consumers on-side, argues Chris Losh

This month, Chris Losh considers trends in the wine industry that risk at best confusing consumers or, at worst, alienating them altogether.

I was at a wine workshop last month that reminded me of buying a fridge. The workshop began by asking attendees for occasions when they were disappointed by a brand or organisation – cue, a rollcall of infamy that included expensive shoes that turned out to be unwearably uncomfortable, 24-hour-helplines that were neither round-the-clock nor helpful, and a retailer who took eight months to get a credit note to a dissatisfied customer. My fridge story fitted right in, featuring, as it did, a retailer who promised to customise a unit in order to secure a sale, failed to do so and blanked me when I complained.

I have never used them since.

This, in fact, was a common theme: Once slighted, customers tend to blacklist the guilty party for ever more.

There were two unifying factors in all the tales of woe: firstly, over-promising and under-delivering; and secondly a failure to address a problem once it comes to light. Consumers, it seems, can accept that things go wrong and mistakes happen, but you'd better get there fast with a broom to sweep up when they do. Dealing with dissatisfaction, it soon became clear, is not about justifying one's position to the plaintiff; it's about soothing the ruffled feathers of the angry, the confused and the indignant.

And, it's a skill that the wine trade might need to brush up on if it's going to keep its customers on-side.

At the moment, I'd say there are two big stylistic trends that are driving the wine world. The first is what I would call intentional grubbiness. If you visited a winery ten years ago, it was all about gleaming stainless steel and a hygiene regime that would put a pharma lab to shame. Tim Mondavi told me in about 2001 that things had moved on from his time at Davis when winemakers were, essentially, encouraged to zap anything that moved. "Now," he said, "we know that there are good bugs and bad bugs."

Tim was way ahead of the curve on this one, but I'd imagine even he has been surprised by the love of all things microbial that has (possibly literally) infected the wine trade over the last decade. Where a Spanish winemaker once told me that the secret to good winemaking was "limpieza, limpieza y limpieza" (cleanliness, cleanliness and cleanliness), now it's all hands-off and Hug-a-Bug.

If the latter is a worldwide fashion, it's fair to say that the second trend – the search for restraint – is pretty much exclusively New World in its orbit.

Wine trends, of course, tend to work on a pendulum basis. Fifteen to 20 years ago, we were more or less at 'Peak Fruit' and 'Peak Oak'. Since then, the pendulum has swung back past what many would consider 'neutral' and is heading at a rate of knots towards 'Peak Austerity'.

Let me quickly go on record here and point out that I don't think the 'Flight from Fruit' is a bad thing. I've had more really good Aussie Chardonnay, for instance, in the last three years than in the previous ten. But, it's a complex issue.

Part of the joy of places like the Barossa or Coonawarra, for instance, is that their wines are unashamedly voluptuous. They sway and swagger and jiggle when they walk. Yet I've tried a growing number that appear to be trying to drop two or three dress sizes – and in doing so they lose what made them special in the first place.

Equally, I am intrigued (and generally heartened) by a lot of work that the Kiwis are doing with Sauvignon Blanc around the US$20-per-bottle mark. And, for sure, if you want to trade people up from a bottle of Savvy glug, it makes sense to have something more obviously premium to offer them. But, while all the oak- and lees-related work - the efforts to prioritise texture and length over sheer size - might give ostensibly better (and certainly more food-friendly) wine, they are going to confuse people who are expecting that their trade-up dollars are simply going to get them more of what they understand by Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in the first place. These ultra-premium Sauvignons are not just trading people up, they're relocating them sideways as well.

But, at least these wines are good – albeit different. There are winemakers in California, meanwhile, who wear their low brix and pH numbers like a badge of honour; their quest apparently being to create the world's most expensive bottle of battery acid. 

Most of the wine world would agree that a bit more elegance wouldn't go amiss in many of the Golden State's wines, but there's a difference between restraint and full-on self-flagellation. Some of the wines coming out of the New World now have all the smug pleasure-denying piety of a 16th Century puritan; you get the impression they're being created to make a point rather than actually to be drunk. 

What's definitely true is that the 'Hug-a-Bug' and 'Flight from Fruit' trends are combining to make the wine universe an even more confusing place for consumers than usual.

We can expect a growing number of wine drinkers wondering why what they've got in their glass doesn't correspond with what they were expecting from the label: People, if you like, who feel they were promised one thing and got something else. And, this feeling of being let down is – as I mentioned at the start – what causes people to abandon brands, styles, maybe even categories.

So, no matter how much better the wine industry might think some of these new Fruit-Lite/Bug wines might be, it must accept that some punters will feel disappointed.

And, it had better deal with these disappointments carefully, decisively and sympathetically if it's to avoid going the way of the unwearable shoes, the unhelpful helpline and, of course, my fridge.