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Wine's image makeover  
How it went from an elitist tipple to the drink of the masses

Over recent decades wine in the UK has largely shed its elitist image and has been transformed into the alcoholic beverage of choice for a large proportion of the population. While there is still some mystery and snobbishness attached to the subject of wine, most consumers are no longer quite so fearful about choosing the wrong wine, and are confident in purchasing not only brands or styles that they are familiar with, but are also prepared to experiment with something new. Wine as a category is vibrant, and is currently expanding in the UK. In contrast, in traditional wine producing countries where a similar image revolution hasn’t taken place, per capita consumption is falling (from initially high levels). The USA is a more complicated market for several reasons, but wine consumption there seems to be following a similar pattern to the UK, albeit with a slight lag.

This short review looks at some of the factors that have influenced the changing image and appeal of wine over this time. It is likely that the lessons learned from wine could also apply to other alcoholic beverage types, such as beer and whisky.

1. The new world wine invasion
Perhaps the chief factor in broadening the appeal of wine has been the success of new world wines. 25 years ago the supermarket shelves would have been filled almost exclusively with bottles from traditional European wine-producing countries, principally France, Italy, Spain and Germany. These wines were not user-friendly, and varied widely in quality. Then came the Australians, followed by the Chileans, Argentineans, Californians and South Africans: wines from these ‘new world’ regions quickly became immensely popular. These were affordable wines, labelled by the grape variety, that offered fruit-dominated flavours that were accessible and which people liked. They also offered consistency of quality, so there was less chance of getting a bad bottle. Since then, new world wines have continued to gain market share while helping to grow the whole category of wine by winning new drinkers and retaining them. [It could be argued that the traditional wine countries have also benefited: the bar has been raised, and they’ve raised their quality with it; they have adopted new world winemaking techniques to good effect to help make their wines more accessible; and it is likely that many wine drinkers have begun with the simpler new world flavours and then have used this as a launchpad to explore old world wines.]

2. The emergence of strong brands
Since the 1950s and 1960s, wine has had several strong brands: Mateus Rosé and Lancers from Portugal; Black Tower and Blue Nun from Germany; Piat d’Or from France. But the last couple of decades have seen the profusion of branded wines, such as Jacob’s Creek, Hardys, Rosemount, Wolff Blass, Kumala, Blossom Hill and Gallo. These have had high public visibility and a big marketing spend behind them. They’ve worked, because they have offered the consumer consistency, attractive and accessible fruity flavours and value for money. They’ve made buying wine a less risky activity. The marketing spend has been in two directions: one has been TV and print advertising; the second has been promotional support through the supermarkets (such as gondola-end discounting – consumers in the UK love to feel they are getting a bargain). Both approaches have been complementary.

3. Affordability
Wine is cheaper than it has ever been, in relative terms. In part, this has been because of the strong £4 and £5 price points. Producers have been forced to keep their costs down to meet these inviolable price levels. Many brands are selling for the same price now as they were a decade ago. Most wine producers indulge in price promotions to shift serious volume through the supermarkets.

3. The retailer push
A contributing factor to the rise in wine popularity has been the work of supermarkets and high street retailers. For those for whom wine is merely a commodity, the supermarket discounting and price competition has made wine affordable. The quality of wine buying is high in most of the major supermarkets; this has taken some of the risk out of buying wine. For those wanting to explore a bit further, the rise in accessible and knowledgeable wine retailers such as Majestic and Oddbins has helped demystify the world of wine for high street shopper, and has acted as a gateway into the world of the wine enthusiast.

4. Foreign travel: buying into the lifestyle
Over recent decades people have become much better travelled. And holidays abroad often involve trips to countries where wine is an integral part of the culture. The romanticism associated with these cultures benefits wine, which is seen as desirable and exotic. There is a sense in which choosing to drink wine is buying into a more attractive semi-rural European lifestyle.

5. Foodies drink wine
The rise of the celebrity chef, and with it a greater appreciation of food generally, has helped the growth of wine. Wine is seen as the natural accompaniment to food, and benefits from this association.

6. Reflected glory: aspirational marketing
Inexpensive wine benefits greatly from its association with fine wine. While commodity or branded wine is made quite industrially (it verges on becoming a manufactured beverage in many cases), fine wine is intimately connected with the vineyard it comes from, is made on a small scale, and carries a hefty price tag. Yet consumers see all wine as a homogeneous entity, ranging from cheap and cheerful to the expensive trophy wines that are conspicuously consumed by the super-wealthy. The glory of the great wines rubs off on commodity wines. This is something marketers cultivate, and they are continually using the images of artisanal wine production in their promotion of branded wines.

7. The press push
Wine has benefited from increased coverage in the media. Most national papers have wine columns in both their Saturday and Sunday editions. Wine has also been featured on television. Almost unbelievably, the Circle of Wine Writers currently has in excess of 250 members, all of whom are engaged in the professional communication of wine (some are more influential than others…).

8. Social changes
There has been a flattening of society, with an expansion of the middle classes. Many non-drinking or beer-drinking families have switched to drinking wine, at least at home. The old social model of the man going down the pub leaving the wife at home has morphed into one where both host dinner parties, where wine is served. There’s a sense in which personal expectations have changed; many people aren’t prepared to settle for their lot, but are increasingly aspirational, a trait which extends to their wine buying.

9. Positive health messages
While few people drink wine for health reasons, the consistent stream of medical reports suggesting a link between wine drinking and reduced incidence of heart disease can’t have hurt its image. Wine is also rarely associated with the social ill of the moment, binge drinking, which tends to be associated with beer and spirits.

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