There is a new breed of consumer champion loose in the world of wine.
They are a band of vocal marketers, commentators and ‘thought leaders’ who are upset and outraged by the way that the wine industry is expressing loathing, hatred and disregard for ‘the consumer’, leaving large swathes of the drinking population feeling criticised, belittled and vilified.
They are angry with the wine trade. They are aligning themselves with ‘the consumer’, a largely undefined population of hurting, neglected folk who represent everyone who drinks wine apart from the wine trade.
So in this new narrative of wine the cast and plot are simple.
On the one side we have the baddies. This shady crowd consists of the wine trade at large, and anyone who has wine expertise, or who finds wine interesting, and enjoys the culture of wine, fine wine, natural wine, sharing interesting bottles with geeky friends, small production wines, wine books and wine education.
On the other side we have goodies: the consumers. These are people who don’t know much about wine, don’t want to spend much on it, but really enjoy their wines and get a lot of pleasure out of them, who drink with friends, who are happy most of the time. They are simple, joyful folk.
It’s clear which side any right thinking person would be on, right?
The plot? It goes something like this.
The wine trade hates consumers. It tries to make wine complicated and difficult out of sheer spite, to keep consumers away. And when these baddies see consumers having fun, they try to ruin their pleasure by criticising their choices. The great tragedy is that instead of telling consumers to like what they like, and endorsing their choices, the wine trade often suggests that the wines the consumers are drinking are of poor quality, and that by spending a bit more, and learning a little about wine, consumers could be having a better experience. This is shocking, and quite sickening, say the consumer champions. It leaves the consumers feeling demeaned, belittled, and, of course, vilified. Always vilified.
But it’s OK. Into town ride the heroes of the hour. Just in the nick of time, the consumer champions arrive in a frenzy of faux outrage. They are here to help. Thank goodness. Their rescue mission is two pronged in strategy. The first is to reach out to the consumer: they place an arm around their collective shoulder and speak soothingly. ‘We’re not like the rest of the wine trade,’ they say. ‘We get you. We are on your side. All this wine complexity? It’s nonsense. There’s nothing to see. Just enjoy the wines you are already drinking. They are great!’
The second stage is to berate the wine trade, and to target anyone possessing expertise. Fight back! Their special talent: exposing structural problems in the wine industry. Production is too distributed. There’s a mismatch between the scale of production and modern retail, which means that the route to market is tough for many producers. Many small family businesses struggle to make money. It’s expensive to make really interesting wine, and this puts it out of the reach of many peoples’ budgets. And wine is unbelievably complex, and many producers make little effort to help reduce this complexity. And, of course, most people just want a glass of wine to drink that doesn’t taste bad and which isn’t too expensive. These are all true. But after pointing all these out, the consumer champions don’t offer solutions. They just beat the wine trade up about it.
Consumer champions love innovation. The wine trade, they say, resists innovation, and this is one of the reasons it is in trouble. Why does it resist? Because the wine trade hates consumers, and consumers want innovation, so the wine trade stubbornly resists just to spite them, and this is shameful and saddening, and brings us close to tears. So the consumer champions celebrate any innovation, however crazy, inappropriate, or laughable it is.
Remember: the consumer champions are all futurists, too. They anticipate a future where you can have a device on your phone that reads your DNA, reads your emotional state, chooses a wine that matches your biology and state of mind, creates it in three minutes by chemical synthesis, and then delivers this personalized wine by drone in a further two minutes in novel recyclable packaging that sequesters carbon dioxide from the environment as it self destructs after you’ve finished. Don’t criticize this idea: remember, when you were given your first digital watch in 1979, you’d have found the idea of an iPhone ludicrous at the time. This is progress, and all progress is good, and to be welcomed, and to be claimed as our own because we saw it coming.
But it’s when it comes to attracting new customers that the consumer champions get most fired up. They want to help the wine industry grow, sell more wine, and above all recruit new customers. They will come and speak at your conference for a modest fee, tell you off, and then tell you how to win new customers.
The solution? Strip wine of its complexity. Get rid of all the experts with their annoying expertise. Make wine taste nice again. Sweetness is helpful here, because young people have simple tastes and want things to be sweet and easy. Young people are scared away by wine, and would rather drink sodas, alcopops, mixed spirits, fruit ciders and beer.
So we need to encourage the wine industry to make simple, sweet wines that taste more like soft drinks or fruit coolers than wine. Add flavourings to wine? Why not? Anything that makes it simple and easy enough for young people, with all their limitations, to enjoy. And if the young enjoy these concoctions, don’t tell them they are wrong, because they like what they like and they are the ultimate arbiters of taste. Who gets to decide what is a good wine and a bad wine? It’s you, of course, the consumer. All we want is to help the wine industry sell more wine to more people.
My response? I think the consumer champions are well intentioned. But they are misguided. They identify many of the problems in the wine industry, but have no real solutions, and some of the solutions they proffer are actually dangerous.
There is a structural issue in the wine industry between the scale of production and the scale of modern retail. Wine is an incredibly distributed, fragmented business and few people make much money out of it. Consumption in traditional wine-producing countries is going down.
But wine is necessarily complex. It is different to other drinks. And if you segment the industry you see tremendous success stories alongside the tales of woe. There has never been such global interest in interesting wine, nor has there there ever been so much interesting wine being made. When I travel the wine world I see lots of engagement with younger drinkers. I see regions transformed with young vignerons taking over and making interesting wines from well farmed vineyards.
The consumer champions either don’t see this, or they choose to ignore it. They champion wines that have few of the qualities that make wine interesting and unique. They celebrate processed wine. They focus on people making poor wine and struggling to make a living, tell the wine industry how badly it is doing, and take an anti-expert stance.
Look at bread, or coffee, or chocolate. There’s instant coffee, there’s white sliced bread, there’s mass market milk chocolate. As a teenager and young adult I consumed all of these. Now, as an adult, I realise that none are good quality. They serve a purpose, and many people enjoy them. But it’s insane to expect commentators in these categories to extol their merits, or even write much about them. They are objectively crap, but there’s a place for them. You don’t expect restaurant critics to write about McDonalds or Pizza Hut, It’s that way with wine.
Many mass market, processed wines are consumed happily by millions of people, but they are objectively crap. As a wine journalist I find there is nothing to say about them. I taste them occasionally, and I keep my opinions to myself.
I actually taste a lot of commercial wine. More than most. It’s not just a diet of fancy wine for me. Most are crap. That’s just the way it is. If you ask me, I will tell you. There is a place for these wines, but some of them are evil and are more likely to put people off wine than recruit them to the category. They sell because they have distribution, not necessarily because people enjoy them. It’s all they have to drink within their price point and at the point of purchase.
This is not something we should celebrate. It’s perfectly appropriate to tell people that they can drink better wines that they may enjoy more, and which are culturally rich, and which are well made from vineyards that are sustainably farmed, and which could enhance their lives. I wouldn’t walk into their living room and tell them that, but they aren’t going to read what I write unless they are looking for it.
Because this whole consumer champion line of people feeling shamed or upset or put down – or, of course, vilified – by experts saying that they could be drinking better is just a silly myth. People drinking sweetened up reds and who enjoy them will keep on drinking them. They never read about wine – it’s far too abstract. There are precisely zero people out there who are feeling offended right now because of wine experts saying that the wines they drink aren’t very good.
There are, of course, some who are feeling insecure about their choice. They suspect they may be drinking crap wine, and this is because in truth better wines do exist, and they sort of know it. It’s like me meeting a coffee expert, while holding a Starbucks flat white in my hand, or sipping a Nespresso. I know there are better options out there, and so I feel a bit embarrassed, but often I’m perfectly happy with my lesser options. And these lesser options are better than the instant coffee I used to have as a student. There’s no need to blame the coffee industry for having quality tiers. And I don’t feel vilified.
The consumer champions mean well. They often sound plausible. And they will try to shut you down if you disagree with them. But don’t be taken in by their simple narrative and plot line. This ignores the complex reality, and it is in the details – and segmenting the market – that the truth is found. Wine is far too rich, complex and diverse to be understood through such a simple worldview, and to be rescued by the false salvation they offer.