Can brands be good?
So are there circumstances where branded wines are a good
thing? To answer this question we need to return to one of the points
made in the opening article of this series regarding genres of wine.
It’s not useful here to consider wine as a unified whole:
instead, we must split it into two genres, which we can label as
‘commodity’ wines and ‘terroir’ wines. Where branded wines can
be a good thing is in this first category: arguably, the rise of the
brands has improved the quality of inexpensive every day wines
dramatically over the last two decades.
Two decades ago, buying cheap wine was a hugely hit or miss
process. A random selection of a dozen inexpensive everyday wines from
the supermarket shelves would likely yield several bottles that were
genuinely unpalatable. This has changed, and the Australians can take
much of the credit for this: branded wines from the likes of Lindemans,
Penfolds, Rosemount, Orlando (Jacobs Creek) and Hardys were cheap,
tasty and reliable. Chile, Argentina and California joined the fray,
and South Africa began to compete along with a spattering of brands
from traditional European countries. Now it’s difficult to find
badly made or unpalatable wines on the supermarket shelves, so in this
sense the consumer has genuinely benefited from the rise of the
brands, albeit at the cost of diversity. This is where good brand
work: they offer the consumer a familiar name that acts as a guarantee
of consistency and quality. People know what they are getting; they
have confidence in the brand name.
But the brands
have set their sights higher than the £3-5 price band where they have
enjoyed such success. While most people rarely venture out of this
price bracket in their wine purchasing, the branders are determined
that if they should choose to splash out – spending, say, £7-15 –
then their purchase should be one of the upwardly mobile higher-priced
brands. I am less at ease with branded wines in this category than I
am with the commodity brands. Each sale of a heavily marketed branded
wine at £10 from a supermarket is one less sale of a genuine terroir
wine from an independent wine merchant. In many cases, the more
interesting, more authentic wine is losing out in this sort of
scenario to a product of far less merit, which is a shame.
Of course, it has
to be said here that some brilliant high-priced brands exist, just as
there are some horrible estate wines. One such super-brand wine is
Penfolds Grange, the flagship wine of the entire Australian wine
industry. Grange is a true icon, and fully deserves its place among
the wine world’s elite. But it is still a branded wine, not tied
down to a geographic locale and made to some sort of consistent style
and quality each year. Another example: Champagne is a region where
branding is paramount: most of the famous wines in Champagne are
brands by the definition that I am using here, and not terroir wines.
A third example of upmarket brands concerns the rise of ‘label
only’ premium wineries, such as Sean Thackrey with his Orion in
California. Over recent years Orion has been sourced from several
different high quality vineyards, and there are many other such wines
like this, selling for high prices but relying on contract fruit,
whose source may change. There is certainly room in the market for
these sorts of wines. In a sense, this is branding at its most benign:
the name of the producer is the ‘brand’ that signals something to
the consumer about the quality of the product.
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