Are people interested in wine?

Carrying on from last week’s blog post on whether or not terroir is relevant, I want to address another question that has been the focus of some twitter debate: are people actually interested in wine at all?

One forcefully put viewpoint is that people aren’t, and that this is particularly the case in the UK. The evidence cited? The fact that wine columns have been cut from national newspapers, and that the only remaining consumer wine magazine in the UK doesn’t have many subscribers.

I disagree. Many people out there find wine really interesting. Of course, they are not the majority by any means. Isn’t it daft to expect any subject to be a majority interest? [With perhaps just a few exceptions - Premiership football? The X-factor? Hollywood blockbusters?]

It may just be a minority with an interest in wine, but is still a significant number of people. There are many who like to drink wine, and who are interested in learning and experimentation. Some of them even like to read about wine, but this tends to be just the keenest of the category experts. Though it is a small slice of the population, it’s a big enough group to keep me in work.

What about the evidence of the disappearing columns?

First, this doesn’t reflect the fact a lack of interest about wine as much as it reflects the fact that newspapers get very little advertising revenue from wine companies. Newspapers assign space in their lifestyle sections in rough proportion to who is advertising. The editorial copy in these sections is advertiser bait. Adverts bring in the bulk of newspaper revenue. Wine is a low margin business and its production and sale is highly distributed, with a bewildering number of companies involved. This means there isn’t a lot of wine-related advertising spend.

Second, the sorts of people who like to read about wine are the category experts. Many wine columns are (admirably) aimed quite broadly at non-involved wine consumers. But these people simply don’t like reading about wine. At this level, there’s relatively little you can say about wine, and it’s incredibly difficult to capture the taste of wine in words that mean anything to anyone other than serious wine geeks.

Category experts therefore tend to find wine columns deeply unsatisfying; the same can be said for most consumer wine magazines, whose attempts to appeal to a broad church mean that they often lack the depth and interest to hold the attention of the very people who would bother reading them in the first place.

I should also add that it’s a mistake to confuse lack of interest in reading about wine with lack of interest in wine. Lots of people love to experience wine when they are given the opportunity to taste the stuff, and discuss it in a fun setting. There are probably lots of people who, given the chance, would become category experts/involved consumers if they were able to experience wine. But until you have been given the chance to experience wine, words about wine won’t have much meaning, will they?

15 comments to Are people interested in wine? The debate continues

  • Ben

    And the chance to experience such wine is a largely economic one. I am all for wine enthusiasm and wine geeks, but we have to accept it is a niche market only for the very wealthy. Your majority of people simply cannot afford more than £5 for a bottle of wine, or £10 for a special occasion. And there is an inherent suspician of hobbies that only appeal to the rich. If the wine world could reach out to everybody, then we would be having a different argument.

  • Tim Carlisle

    We find that all sorts of people have some interest in wine. They’d never read about it, but they do know that they like wine, want to know a bit more about but want to find out by trying and being told the stories about it.

    Think of other ‘hobby’ magazines – take Empire – film mag but I bet the readership is quite small. Does that mean that people aren’t interested in films – of course not. They work by going to the cinema, watching DVD’s and most importantly by listening to their friends. (oh and advertising is really important too). Films are an ‘experience’ as wine is and you can read all you like about a wine – but unless you’re tasting or drinking it as you read it’s a bit dull (unless you’re an anorak!). It’s also true that the vast majority of wine writing isn’t targeted at those people who might read it.

    Not only the newspaper columns who I agree, they’re writing columns that nobody wants to read but also look at Decanter. 12 issues a year, 1 issue is the awards issue – no content except the awards – not even I want to read that. A second issue is the ‘Wines of the Year’ issue – bascially just long lists of wines tasted during the year plus a couple of features on port and Madeira – but basically dull and rehashed.

    Then there is the features – lots of Bordeaux, lots of Burg, some Italy, a bit of Australia and California here and there – and how many wines can I afford – or even find? The problem with reviewing Chablis Grand Cru every year, or having one issue on the latest Bordeaux en primeur campaign is that I can’t afford these kinds of wine (ok so I’m a pauper but there are lots of people like me). Lots aren’t widely available, and I can’t afford to order a whole case of the same wine from somewhere. ‘Good Value’ usually means less than £30 now (!!) where are the good value wines that come in at £8-15? After all that is what our customers want to buy and spend.

    The reason for the decline in traditional wine journalism is that the printed writing that there is hasn’t met the needs of their potential readership. Wine Magazine failed not because you can’t sell a wine magazine, not because people don’t want to read but because what they were writing was a) not written in a way that people wanted and b) not covering the things that people can relate to. I’ll buy one or two magazines featuring Lafite out of interest, but I’ll subscribe to a magazine that keeps things fresh and helps me drink better, enjoy drinking better and so on.

    That is why sites like yours work, I can read about wines beyond the traditional at prices that seem fair and reasonable.

    A quick scan shows that your recent wine reviews are for wines costing

    £11.50
    34.99
    14.99
    25.40
    11.99
    16.99
    29.99
    6.48
    10.99
    12.99

    That seems about right – lots in the ‘sweet spot’ a few (mainly fizz) that are more expensive and a cheaper wine. Can’t remember seeing a sub £7 being featured in a specialist magazine.

  • People LOVE wine! Not everyone, obviously, but lots do. Issue is, we (that’s the royal we, obv) don’t speak to the majority in a language they understand. It is not about dumbing it down, it is about speaking the language of the listener. She says, glass in hand ;)

  • bob parsons alberta

    One thing I have always noted in newspaper food/restaurant reviews is how little is written about wines the writer consummed whilst eating all the delicacies.

  • Richard

    Bob, restaurant reviews in newspapers are about selling papers not promoting restaurants. Thus the wine list, offering less scope for ‘amusing’ remarks gets less attention.

  • Isobel

    Whenever I read about wine (generally in a highly circulated, online, middle class leftie paper), it is almost always inaccurate information.
    I’m referring to exposure to people who don’t go out of their way to read about wine in wine magazines, but will have an interest when it is covered in their regular read. These poorly written, poorly researched articles aren’t helping anybody. And they get on my nerves.
    I am a student of wine, working in the wine industry, and it really annoys me that simple, easily attainable information is misrepresented in national papers, generally written by non-experts, who most of the time write articles about the conflict in the middle east, or are experts in ornithology?? It baffles me that expert wine columnists are not asked to write such articles, instead only to recommend three wines once a week, that might appeal to readers, while promoting a business at the same time.
    I know these people write extensive reviews and articles in other places, but if the aim is to get people more interested in reading and learning, and ultimately more interested in the wine they are drinking, surely it makes sense to have better written, accurate articles in these sort of publications.
    With the English wine industry growing, I think it’s important that for further growth, people should be encouraged and informed about the industry and it’s makings.
    I understand that this is partly down to government funding/recognition/bad attitudes…probably.

    I agree about restaurant reviews and the lack of focus on the wine. Considering it will be over a third of your bill (at times), it’s good to hear that a restaurant has put some thought into what they are serving, or the wine list is fitting with the restaurant, or that it’s too expensive or badly considered…it provides a much better view of the restaurant.

  • Obviously a lot of people love wine! It would really help starting enthusiast if reviews we’re more detailed and easy to understand! Cheers to good wine everyone!

  • Giles

    I’d have thought that a decline in interest in written wine journalism reflects a general decline in hobby journalism, as the internet is now taking over from the printed word. As Tim points out, the trouble with a magazine is that the page count limits the content, and with so many wine regions and vintages to write about each issue is likely to be a curate’s egg for many readers. I happen to be a subscriber to “Decanter” and I enjoy reading it, but when I want to read about a wine before I buy it I will expect to find what I’m looking for online and not in my back-issue library (which would take me ages to search anyway). And yes, a feature on Californian cabernet is unlikely to be of any interest to me if all the recommended wines are in excess of £60 a bottle and mostly unavaiable in the UK anyway.

    There is some good wine-writing still around in the newspapers. Victoria Moore at “The Telegraph” always writes informative, witty pieces; but then she has the space to do so – the “Sunday Times” has been a disaster even since Joanna Simon’s column was cut to a third of its length several years ago. Another problem is an increasing “AA Gill-ism” of wine writing, in which the writer seems to think that his or her life and experiences are of more interest than the wine – there are too many rambling columns that end with a “oh yes, the wine – well here’s what I drank last week”.

    But then look at the attendance levels at any London wine-tasting and it’s clear that there is a huge constituency of interest in learning about wine. And the regularity with which books appear presumably means that there is a market for them. So it’s reading short, boring columns in newspapers that people aren’t interested in, not wine itself.

  • Nik

    Many writers get slammed by wine enthusiasts for suggesting supermarket wines, but I think it’s a vital part of the industry. You need to have a selection of supermarkets and independents – it’s silly to suggest that everyone who drinks wine will go to an independent merchant.

    Majority of my own reviews on http://www.winefromatumbler.com/ are under £10 per bottle – the most popular reviews are often supermarket wines that are in the £4-7 range.

    A huge amount of people love drinking wine, but I would think most would never dream of spending over £10… unless it’s a special occasion – which is why I list more expensive wines when I do Christmas or Valentine’s Day wines.

  • As someone who both writes about wine and reviews restaurants in newspapers (current gig the IRL edition of ‘The Sunday Times’) I’d like to comment.

    Most newspaper wine columns have a specified word count of 750 or less, which includes wine recommendations (normally insisted upon). This is clearly not enough to get across a complex message. The appeal of the column has to satisfy a wide bandspread of readers, from serious students of wine, to investors and what you might call ‘lay drinkers'; else it has to be aimed at the LCD, the people whose interest in wine is peripheral and largely confined to answering the question “What can I buy that’s cheerful/gluggable/a bargain, for my allotted spend of under €10 (or the UK equivalent)?”. Many a wine writer I know has been rapped on the knuckles by his/her editor for getting too geeky.
    Within these constraints I am happy if I can invest the reader with one tiny bit of inside track, provocative comment or ‘thinking outside the box’ rather than just spouting the conventional shibboleths or indulging in the “this wine is great with white and red meats, fish, cheese and all manner of vegetables..” nonsense or going down the route of “aromas of paw paw, Parma violets, bananas, cherries and 3 year old Nike trainers”.

    I’m afraid we are deluding ourselves if we think a significant number of people are interested in wine as a semi-academic subject. In Ireland there was a massive boom in wine education in the early 2000s – at one point more people were attending wine courses than in the UK – but this has largely dissipated and course organisers are now finding it hard to put bums on seats.

    Constraints on editorial budgets are real and severe. A number of publications here have dispensed with good and knowledgeable wine writers and are now using in-house subs for the purpose, many of whom know little about wine or else getting bloggers who are willing to write merely for the exposure.

    The poor coverage of wine in restaurant reviews is largely down to the fact that many reviewers know slightly less than the cube root of sod all about wine. A surprising number have little or no interest or have not drink widely enough to be able confidently to select a interesting wine from the carte. This partly reflects an editorial lack of interest in the critic’s expertise. Many editors consider restaurant reviewing to be merely another facet of the entertainment business.

    For my own part, I always look at a list to ascertain if it holds any interest and if the pricing is fair. Also to judge if there is a good span of wines pricewise and the house wine is ‘of merchantable quality’. In many cases the restaurant simply calls in a rep from one of the bigger suppliers and asks “What sells?”

    As others may have pointed out, the decline in newspaper readership, coupled with competition for column inches of editorial space have also contributed to the decline in (hopefully not ‘demise of’) serious wine writing.

    Sorry to paint such a bleak picture.

  • Joachim Niclasen

    I think Giles is absolutely right about the lack of interest in printed articles. People have very different degrees of knowledge when it comes to wine and the time that consumers feel the biggest need for information is while they are buying or tasting the wine.

    I think journalists, bloggers, shops, consumers and even the producers of wine would benefit from a deeper integration between wine sales and wine communication. Especially regarding sales and communication on the web.

    With future semantic technologies on the web I think this integration will be easier to implement and we will see that a lot of people ARE actually interested in wine. People want to read about wine but they want to read it at the right time from the right communicators.

  • @Giles: Well, if the column is boring, I suppose we can be grateful that it’s also short.

  • Emma B

    The trouble with Decanter is that its focus is Bordeaux, Bordeaux, Cab Sauv, Italy, Bordeaux, California, Cab Sauv, Bordeaux, Burgundy / Pinot Noir, Bordeaux, Burgundy, California, Bordeaux, Cab Sauv, Cab Sauv, Italy, Bordeaux, Pinot Noir, Cab Sauv, rest of the wine world.

    Or something like that.

    I still subscribe purely because a) I’m getting towards the end of my WSET Diploma & it’s useful revision tool, and b) I’m one of those funny people who still likes the idea of “paper” & often would rather focus on a magazine than a screen if I want to browse current material about wine whilst winding down. But if I could cancel Decanter in favour of an equally volume (not content) restricted printed version of Wine Anorak / Wine Pages / Jancis & others, I would.

    I think Decanter might improve if they ever asked their subscribers what they want. In about 7 years of buying it, in my recollection that’s never happened.

    As it is, the magazine comes through the door, gets opened, stuck on the stack, & referred to when I have the time or the need.

    On a less ranty note, many people ARE interested in wine, in theory. But a good subset of those are embarrassed / intimidated by the amount of knowledge they perceive themselves to be lacking. Which is where the talented wine communicator can make a difference.

  • There is some consensus that the issue is not a lack of interest, but the lack of a good/talented communicator delivering the information at the right time?

    As with all media, a distinction has to be made between raw information (just say what to buy), education (I want to know more) and entertainment (humour, insightful thinking) ? It seems various publications, websites and newspaper columns all try a combination of the three, but never quite get it right. There is a well defined market for each component, and critically required at different times, so getting the blend and delivery platform right, or even just focussing on one direction is probably important?

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