writers: lying to your readers
slightly provocative title of this piece. What’s it all about? I
want to discuss a story that weaves together two themes. The first is
the concentration by some of the many popular newspaper wine
columnists on wines available from supermarkets and multiple
specialist retailers. The second is the growing consolidation of the
UK wine market.
Put the two together and you have created a situation where
the public is effectively being lied to about which are the best wines
to buy. I’m not suggesting that there is willful deception taking
place here, more a collusion of convenience. Nor am I pointing fingers
at some of my colleagues, most of whom are doing a very good job in
rather trying circumstances. Let me try to explain.
Newspaper columnists are required to recommend widely
available wines. This is because their readership largely buy wine as
a convenience product, popping a few bottle in with their weekly shop
or nipping in to get a bottle from the offie on the way to dinner.
Ten years ago, the supermarkets and high street merchants
used to stock some interesting stuff, and there’d have been plenty
of worthy stuff to recommend from these outlets. But wine retailing
has changed quite a bit since then, and the market is consolidating
into two models.
First we have commercial, branded wines – wines as fast
moving consumer goods, to use the jargon – of the sort that now form
the bulk of supermarket ranges. The key here is large volumes,
continuity of supply, low capital overheads (you don’t own vineyards
but instead buy-in grapes) and scaleability. Then we have fine wines,
often made from single estates and in small volumes. The first
category comprises the sorts of wines stocked by supermarkets, which
are rapidly gaining a stranglehold of the UK off-trade. The latter
category is the preserve of the independent specialists, which are
also doing quite well, and stealing market share from the high street
chains. It’s important to point out that this isn’t a division
based on price alone: in the supermarkets there is now branded wine at
every price point, squeezing the often more interesting estate wines
off the shelves.
This retail consolidation has meant that the middle ground
– wines from smaller producers at reasonable prices – are having
real problems accessing the UK marketplace. As supermarkets look to
consolidate their supplier base, dealing with fewer companies, the
situation is likely to get worse. As well as creating large brands at
the key £3.99, £4.99 and £5.99 price points, the big drinks
companies have been buying up smaller, quality producers with an
established reputation (Petaluma, Ravenswood, St Hallett etc.), and
converting their business models from estate wines to scaleable
brands, ramping up production in the process. Their goal is to offer
one-stop drinks solutions, with a brand at every price point. No one
is deliberately trying to fob consumers off with less interesting
wine. They are just responding to the needs of modern retailing.
With these changes afoot, the future for wine lovers looks
a cloudy one. Unless, that is, consumers can be persuaded to change
their buying habits, and wine writers can be persuaded to be more
honest in their recommendations. Expect the supermarket ranges to
become more standardized, safer, smaller and – most significantly
– duller places to shop for anyone with a real interest in wine.
This has already happened, to a large degree. The likes of Thresher
and Oddbins have also recently become less interesting places to shop
for wine over the last few years.
What of the popular wine columnists? They’re caught
between a rock and a hard place. They’ve continued to focus on
recommending wines from major outlets, even though there are almost
always more interesting – and not necessarily more expensive –
alternatives elsewhere. The situation for them is only going to get
worse. Either they upset their readers and editors by recommending
wines that are harder to get, or they end up having to push commercial
rubbish week by week, thus damaging their own reputations and leaving
themselves with little professional pride. Denial that this is the
case may be the only coping mechanism: they and their readers can
pretend that supermarket wine ranges are actually quite good.
Supermarket wines are certainly much more consistent than they used to
be, but ‘consistent’ isn’t the same as ‘good’ and this
reliability seems to have come at the price of mind-numbing dullness
and uniformity. Who needs a wine columnist to give recommendations if
all you are looking for is wine as a commodity – something to drink
that is either red or white, is quite fruity, and doesn’t have any
major flaws? You may as well buy what’s on promotion on the gondola
ends – after all, this seems to be what most people do anyway.
I’m fortunate that in my rather small and insignificant
column for the Western Mail, I’m given complete freedom to
pick whatever wines I want. My experience has been that it’s not
impossible to find interesting wines at almost all price brackets, but
the job is so much easier when you are free to pick from the ranges
offered by the independent merchants. I don’t get any editorial
space, as I’m restricted to picking just three wines with a couple
of sentences on each. If I did have the space, though, I’d try to
encourage readers to change their buying habits. They deserve honest
advice and most of them believe that when they see recommendations
from a critic, these represent the most worthwhile wines available.
They need to be told the truth: in most cases this isn’t the case.
The wines recommended in most newspapers are the best of but a largely
indifferent bunch, that bunch being those wines which are commercially
widely available. In a sense, and usually not deliberately, they are
The conclusions? The UK retail market has changed, and will
continue to change. The situation is that consumers who want
interesting wines won’t find them in the major retail outlets.
Buying interesting wine doesn’t necessarily mean spending more. Wine
critics largely restrict their recommendations to the supermarkets and
high street wine merchants, and as such, are selling their readers
short. This situation is only going to get worse as the UK retail
market continues to consolidate, but at what point are the leading
wine writers going to turn round and tell their readers that they’ve
been leading them down a dead end?
also: The two cultures: how the rise of the
brands is changing the face of wine
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