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Wine: a discombobulating ride?

Published:  04 March, 2021

Will we ever understand wine drinkers?

Has wine snobbery finally died?

Has the democracy of choice triumphed over the aristocracy of high-brow opinion?

Do people buy a particular wine because of what they think of it, or because of what they think other people think about them for buying it?

Do drinkers care enough about how, where, or by who a wine is made to determine what they will and won’t buy?

Does anything matter apart from taste and price?

Before I launch into discussing issues like these, and the baggage that surrounds them, I would like to bow down. I have no desire to be run over at high speed by Wine Intelligence, or others in their field, who have far greater empirical knowledge of consumer behaviour than I do. They are data and analytics experts. I am not.

I claim only experience of the battlefield dating back to the mid 1980’s. Importing, branding, and selling wine from around the globe direct to consumers, and through the gamut of retailers from the local corner store, arts theatre, and restaurants, to the might of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, and the rest of the multiple sector. Like everyone interested in selling their wines, I was fascinated – and to a large extent perplexed – by what makes a person buy a particular wine at a particular time. I still am. As a business owner wanting to increase the appeal and sales of my products, the holy grail has always been an ability to aggregate a huge number of individuals into an identifiable group, then to target them en masse.

Along the decades wine commentators have contributed related points to this issue. Is there any definitive way of saying that some wines are better than others? If so, what are the criteria for better? Who makes the rules, and who is qualified to judge their application? How does ‘better’ respond to the large volume of statistical data showing the failure of drinkers to identify wines by type, price, or individuality in blind tastings?

Some of our best UK based wine commentators have joined the fray in recent years with thoughtful and sensible contributions – Tim Atkin, Jamie Goode, and Robert Joseph amongst their number. One such is Jamie’s analysis of people enjoying wine in two quite different ways, an analysis which feels right to me, and which could usefully guide sales thinking for many different types of wines (brands or producers).

The first he calls hedonic – you find a wine you like the taste of and hey presto, job done. Apart from remembering what it looks like so you can buy it again, nothing else is involved. In my view, this is what most of the UK’s 30 million wine drinking population experience and are happy with. It is wine as alcoholic beverage, wine as a drink to sooth or celebrate, a glass of wine rather than gin or beer or cocktails. Lest there be any doubt of dog whistle snobbery from me here, I regard this as fundamentally good and as it should be. I for one did very nicely out of this part of the market over many years, thank you very much.

The second involves ‘learning and experience’ and a ‘spirit of enquiry’, such that in this mindset ‘whether or not something tastes good isn’t the central issue’ and ‘whether or not something is authentic is more important than how it tastes’. Jamie goes on to suggest that by diving into a product, its history and tradition, and focusing on its flavours, we can come to like tastes that we may not have done before.

I don’t think I agree that initially not liking something is of secondary importance because many people, myself included, may not go any further as a result. Nonetheless, dividing the way people appreciate wine between simple, immediate satisfaction and diving down to learn more through enquiry feels a good way to cut it – all the while recognising that there are many side roads. Many of us know the guy who always buys Barolo because he thinks it shows his friends he ‘knows’ about wine. I guess people are predominantly either hedonists or deep divers, but deep divers (like me) also frequently enjoy hedonistic ‘anything cold and crisp please’ experiences, while some hedonists may duck below the surface from time to time. We can wear different identities on different occasions.

Wrapped up in the authenticity of a wine being of central importance to deep divers is another commonly cited good – that of place. Coming from somewhere identifiable and expressing everything about it – from the soil to the history to the culture of the people – is for them the essence of real, interesting wine (and for that matter cheese, coffee and much else). It is, by this definition, better. In juxtaposition are the big corporations with their mass produced, uniform, bland crowd pleasers, striding across the world stage brandishing their distribution and economic power.

Which leads to a key point I faced in late 1980’s and which seems to be back with some impetus today: is the key factor why someone buys a wine because of what it is, or what it tastes like? And how should an understanding of this determine sales and communication strategies for brand owners and retailers alike?

Back in the day I only sold organic wines, eventually securing good listings with just about every major retailer. Some ranged our wines in the generic country and regional sections; our organic Cotes du Rhone or Rioja sat shoulder to shoulder with their non-organic counterparts. Others created special organic sections within the wine aisles where all the organic wines were stocked.

Which form of display gave us the greatest sales? The first, the main wine section, not the organic ghetto. By some way. And why? Because many shoppers missed out the organic section altogether, perhaps through lack of awareness that it was there, or suspicions about the quality of the wines, or expectation of higher prices. When our organic wines were ranged by generic type with all the others, I suspect many people bought them without realising they were organic – at least at first – and on liking the taste (and perhaps the organic production methods) went back for more.

Put simply, the number of people interested in buying a nice tasting Cotes du Rhone, organic or not, is a lot bigger than the number who specifically want to buy an organic one.

Organic wine sales are again in significant growth. Natural wine, a more recent arrival, appears to resonate with a section of drinkers. I have no empirical evidence – help please Wine Intelligence – but I strongly suspect that many of those who actively choose to seek out these categories are not doing so because they think the taste is better, but because they identify with their values, perceived or real. It is a wine counterculture that is an anti-corporate, and pro small company, real people, environment, health, and yes, authenticity.

These two attitudes to wine – what it tastes like and what it is – can create a discombobulated feeling when they meet. What happens when the pro-place, anti-corporate drinker discovers that the wine they liked most in the blind tasting comes from a big corporate? We don’t want to like the wines made by the enemy; we want to like the wines made by ‘our’ guys. Which is perhaps why blind tastings can ruin enjoyment. If we have dived deep and learnt about a wine, and we like what we see, read, and hear, it will taste better because we know all this stuff. Just as everyone’s favourite wine is the one they were drinking when they proposed to their partner, or their football team won the championship.

It is often said that the more you know about wine the less you understand. The same might be said of wine drinkers. Whenever I think about these issues the memory of a restaurant dinner with friends pops up. The restaurant has a great wine list including diverse, innovative, small producers. We were brought a glass of something to try. One of my friends asked me what I thought of it. It wasn’t to my taste, but I was in deep diving mode and said I thought it was ‘interesting’. He promptly replied, “Well I would rather drink something delicious than interesting if you don’t mind’. So, we did.

Jerry Lockspeiser donates his fee for this column to The Running Charity who work with homeless young people in the UK.