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Guy Woodward lambasts old school wine world for being stuck in its ivory tower

Published:  04 July, 2014

Former Decanter editor, Guy Woodward, uses his first regular Harpers column today to lambast the old school wine world for being out of touch with how consumers now want to talk about wine.

Woodward, who will be writing a regular monthly column as well as features and other articles for Harpers, admits that he too had been partly guilty of sitting in some sort of ivory tower during his time editing Decanter magazine.

It has only been since he left the title over a year ago and started re-buying wine on a regular basis and thinking more as a wine consumer rather than a wine editor that he appreciated how far the retail landscape has changed.

Woodward explained: "Perhaps the most galling aspect of relinquishing my role as editor of Decanter was having to start buying my own wine. All of a sudden I was paying more attention to those merchant newsletters I'd registered for years ago when I'd been trying to align myself with the consumer. Now I was that consumer - and those newsletters and offers had a far more direct impact on my drinking habits."

He admitted his perception of Naked Wines, for example, has been turned on its head. Initially, after taking up an offer to buy a case of wine, he had been completely turned off by the level of follow up communication he then received to find out what he thought of the wine. Or as he put it: "It was nauseating. I'd wanted a case of wine, not new friends."

But as soon as he went "online, and saw the level of engagement Naked had with its customers" he admitted he was "was astonished by their fervour".

"I realised that my disparagement was borne of a snobbism towards such chummy democracy," he added. "Maybe I'd spent too much time around the upper echelons of the wine trade, which harbours a degree of animosity towards Naked's bold, invasive approach. Why? It's just not the way things are done, old boy. Valuing the opinions of consumers? Giving them some sort of say in buying decisions? Dear oh dear, no - leave it to the experts..."

Woodward argues too many of our high-end merchants work in the complete opposite, telling consumers what to think rather asking him.

The key, he said, to effective consumer communication is how personal you can make it. "I remember at Decanter the value that readers placed on personal contact with the editor - coming down from that tower to engage one on one," he explained.

Woodward cited the recent Bordeaux en primeur debate at the London Wine Fair as a classic example of how far the old school is from modern wine communications. Or as he puts it "the blindness of the Bordelais, who prefer to keep customers at arm's length, breathtaking in its arrogance".

The consumer, he continued, was a long way from the thoughts of Olivier Bernard, president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, who spoke on the LWF panel. Here, in Woodward's view, he "trotted out the blinkered platitudes that wines en primeur 'have to be tasted by professionals' and that can only happen in April 'because that's how the market works' - selling them before the châteaux owners go off on holiday, in other words."

The en primeur system, continued Woodward, meant "consumers will have to rely on third-party verdicts on incomplete wines tasted in their infancy" and that real consumers never get the chance to get anywhere near the actual wines themselves.

He added: "It's an attitude summed up in the pitiful refrain of Bernard: 'Nobody makes consumers buy the wines.' Is that really the best argument for the status quo? If so, it's typical of the laziness that remains far too evident in the upper reaches of the wine trade, which lacks the imagination or the will to risk upsetting the applecart by engaging with consumers and asking them what they want."

* Subscribers can read the full column in our Opinion section here.