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Why do consumers find wine so... boring? - Comment

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Our resident wine commentator, Chris Losh, has spent some time on 'the other side'. He's returned from his recent visit to the spirits world armed with some challenging advice for the wine trade.

Specific details of the production process may excite wine aficionados, but what about the average consumer?

Specific details of the production process may excite wine aficionados, but what about the average consumer?

There aren't many drinks events that kick off with half an hour of folk music. Yet, here I was, notebook in hand, listening to the filigree guitar-work of musician Alasdair Roberts as he sang tales of love, loss and redemption.

Granted, the pre-launch screening of 'The Amber Light' wasn't really a drinks event. Or, rather, it was and it wasn't - and that ambiguity was kind of the point.

The film, written and presented by spirits guru Dave Broom, is broadly speaking about whisky. That doesn't mean an educational treatise about how the stuff is made, of endless gloomy cellars and lustful shots of priapic stills. For, while Scotch whisky might be the hero of the piece, the narrative focus shifts, blurs and broadens. It is as much to do with the stage on which the events take place (ie Scotland) and the way the drink interacts with other 'actors' such as music, art and, well, humanity as the spirit itself.

As Broom put it: "It's about the culture and creativity surrounding the product; the environment in which it exists and, crucially, that gives birth to it. It's about places and people, poetry and song." In other words, it's a work of rare intelligence: a love letter to Scotland's people, culture and geography and how they are all captured in their national drink.

The whole experience made me want to go home, uncork a bottle and pour myself a big dram so that I could connect to the whole thing and be a part of it, even though I was hundreds of miles away. And later, as the Highland Park was just an aromatic film in the bottom of my glass, it got me thinking: Why is it so rare that anything in the wine world makes me feel like this?

Sure, there are wine events and tastings where I'm impressed by the quality of what's in the bottle. But, it's not often that I come away sold on the whole cultural package. Or, indeed, where the cultural context is even mentioned.

And that, I would suggest, is because drinks in general, but wine in particular, tend to focus mostly on how things are (or have been) made, rather than why or by whom. We are, if you like, big on the final destination, but not so much on the planning and adventures of the journey itself.

Ironically, for a product that is so much about a sense of place, much of wine's narrative seems to take place in a vacuum - or, at best, a cliché-ridden fog. Winemaker-led tastings tend to follow a well-trodden path: soil, aspect, varietal make-up, winemaking specifics, cellar time. It's a bit like going to the launch of a new BMW and having the engine, chassis and upholstery deconstructed for you. It's not inaccurate or necessarily unhelpful, but it kind of misses the point.

Of course, such nuts-and-bolts information can be technically useful for the trade, I guess. But, it's not exactly a great sell.

Yet, look on winery website after winery website, and under the 'Our Wines' tab, and you'll find a stream of tech sheets, often including sentences like: "Spring was cold with low rainfall and flowering was delayed" or "harvest took place on 10 April".

I honestly don't know what anyone is meant to do with information like this. It's of no practical use to 99% of the drinks trade, and - I would suggest - actively turns off the public. Yet there it is, filling up webpages and events all over the world. It's like somebody created a template X number of years ago, and 90% of the wine trade has been following it ever since. We are, as Paul Mabray pointed out at the MUST conference in Portugal earlier this summer, in the age of the empowered buyer - and those buyers want information.

The trouble is that most of the information we give them is garbage.

If the wine industry persists in clogging up webpages with verbiage that is boring and complicated, then that is what consumers are going to think wine is: boring and complicated. Not only that, it's more or less all the same. Every winery (if you look at their website) has "exceptional terroir" and is "passionate" about its products. Increasingly, they're all "sustainable/organic/low intervention", too. These fuzzy eco terms tend to be scattered around like foraged herbs in a hipster restaurant, despite the fact that half the trade can't agree on what they mean, let alone the consumer.

What's missing all too often is the human element: the personal stories that no competitors can replicate. Weirdly, for a profession that sees itself very much as a 'people industry', wine seems happier to prioritise grape and soil over flesh and blood.

Earlier this Summer, I was in Germany and for all the interesting viticultural and oenological information that came my way, my go-to memories of the trip were of Ernie Loosen's hilarious (and sometimes libellous) comments about German wine law and his ancestors. They were of Helmut Doennhoff reeling off the character of 40+ vintages one after the other, with the kind of misty-eyed affection a father might have for his children. And, they were of a melted glass bottle, retrieved from the ruins of Konstantin Guntrum's uncle's house after the Americans carpet-bombed the area to clear a path to Berlin for Allied ground forces 75 years ago.

Wine is full of stories like this. Funny, sad, tragic, uplifting, engaging stories. They're the kind of stories that journalists want to write about and - more significantly - consumers want to share on social media. In the pre-media era, people shared stories via folk songs. Myths were embellished, legends passed down, losses mourned and victories celebrated. But, they had one thing in common: These songs were always about people. 

As far as I know, no-one has ever written a song about limestone-rich soil.


Sectors: Wine

Expert Analysis

Wine Global Industry Almanac 2013-2022

Wine Global Industry Almanac 2013-2022

Global Wine industry profile provides top-line qualitative and quantitative summary information including: market share, market size (value and volume 2013-17, and forecast to 2022). The profile also ...

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