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Part 7
The move from local to global

One of the underlying trends spurring on the growth of brands is a societal change of scale, with a move from the local to the national, and ultimately to the global. This trend has been a gradual one, gathering pace over the last 50 years or so. The driving factor has been the expansion and increasing sophistication of the media, and in particular television.

Over the course of a couple of generations, our perception of the world around us has changed dramatically. In western nations, as recently as 50 years ago people had a primarily local focus. With the increasing prevalence of television, suddenly people’s perception of the outside world became more immediate and vivid. This was aided by factors such as the increasing popularity and accessibility of foreign travel, the establishment of the motorway network, and the changing cultural mix of the population: distance was no longer such an obstacle; foreign was no longer quite so foreign. The advent of colour television, and the introduction of commercial TV were also important steps in shifting the focus from the local to the national – and even further afield. The emergence of satellite/cable television, mobile communications and latterly the Internet have all aided the accessibility of the media, and we have now seen the emergence of truly global television programming. Thus the pace of change has intensified still further.

No more local heroes
Let’s use sport as an example illustrating the effects this shift has had (apologies to non-sporty readers). A generation back, most decent sized towns had their own football league club, and many larger cities had a couple or more. It was only under exceptional circumstances that you didn’t support one of your local sides. The football world was a more equal one back then. Yes, some clubs did consistently better than others – Liverpool started a long run of dominance of the English game in the late 1970s, for example – but things were much more equal. It was possible, for instance, for clubs like Nottingham Forest and Ipswich, to come from nowhere and enjoy a period of great success: the driving force behind these clubs was not a huge pot of cash, but instead exceptional management combined with a good crop of young players coming through. It was also possible for West Ham, a club then playing second-flight football, to win the FA cup. Today this would be hard to envisage.

Football is very different now. Because of the increased flow of money into the game, primarily from global television deals, a winner-takes-all scenario has developed. Youngsters who support their local club and have local heroes are rare. Distressingly (for a Man City fan, at least), across the country youngsters are seen wearing Manchester United football shirts, and most commonly with the name ‘Beckham’ on the back. No more local heroes, just global ones. A recent report suggested that just half of the UK’s professional football clubs are likely to survive over the next few years.

How does this relate to wine? Well, it is the historical local societal focus, aided by a degree of isolation, that enabled the emergence of ‘terroir’ wines. Look at the diversity of regional cuisines and wine styles that developed in the classical wine producing countries. Is this rich heritage merely a historical artefact? It seems at odds with modern living and tastes. Should these regional gastronomies be relegated to the role of entertaining ‘foodie’ tourists? That would be a tragic waste: surely it’s a noble goal to preserve an interesting and diverse cuisine as an integrated facet of daily life.

The societal shift from local to global has been the prime driving force behind the shift to brands. The advertising medium that consistently reaches the majority of the people is television, but TV advertising is expensive. Large scale is therefore and intrinsic property of successful brands: because brand building (and maintenance) is an expensive business, you need to sell a lot of product to cover these costs. What this local–global shift has done is to create a ‘winner takes all’ scenario. The biggest and most visible players in each market take an increasingly large slice of the cake, leaving just the crumbs for the minnows. This phenomenon was recently seen in action in the cinema world, where the impending release of just two blockbuster films, the second Harry Potter film and part 2 of Lord of the Rings, meant that there simply weren’t going to be any screens left for other films to be launched in the UK over this period. These may well be fine films, but this is terrible for diversity, and diversity is what is threatened by the winner-takes-all consequences of the local–global shift.

It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that the drinks business has participated in this societal change. Drinks companies are anxious to create bigger and better brands. It seems almost futile to resist this change, and it could be argued that for commodity wines, branding is no bad thing. But, as we have seen in an earlier section of this feature, the branders have set their sites on not only the cheap commodity end of the wine market, but also the premium end – currently the last refuge of true ‘terroir’ or estate wines. I think this is a move to be resisted. Wine is different to most other drinks in that it is primarily an agricultural – not a manufactured – product. It doesn’t suit brands. Force premium wines into the branded straitjacket and they will inevitably be compromised. 

This brings us back to the theme of this series: the emergence of the Two Cultures in wine. It no longer seems sensible to regard wine as a unified whole, considering terroir or estate wines in the same context as branded commodity wines. [As an aside, I suspect that wine writers and critics who ignore this dichotomy will increasingly find themselves in a bit of a muddle.]

On the one hand we have a move to manufactured, branded commodity wines: consistently made, with clean, fruity flavours and fashioned from a handful of international superstar grape varieties. The link with geography and vintage will grow weaker to the extent that the country of origin may even cease to be an important selling point. These wines will dominate the major retail outlets: supermarkets and high street wine shops. They will be heavily supported by advertising campaigns. Shopping-list-style wine columnists will have a tough job finding anything remotely interesting to say about these wines, but there will be such a commercial push behind them that the critics will manage to say something, I’m sure. 

On the other hand, terroir or estate wines will retreat into a niche. They’re already making a hasty exit from the major retail outlets; expect this exodus to continue. Fine wine will of course survive; the casualties will be many of the inexpensive and mid-priced estate wines from traditional wine producing countries. Whereas there is currently a market for wines from quality minded small family-owned estates, their problem will be that there is simply no retail channel left for them to access non-wine-geek consumers who form the bulk of their market. The UK’s independent wine merchants are mostly doing a good job, but they can only carry so many lines. And while the domestic markets in traditional markets are currently supporting producers of interesting wines, will this be true in five or ten years time? What if the brands take over there too? The two cultures isn't just a UK phenomenon. 

See also 

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December 2002