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Jerry Lockspeiser: Why words matter in business

Published:  26 April, 2022

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii. 

Hamlet suggests it is easy for words to lose their meaning; the ‘matter’ can be obscured. Words play a key role in business. Lack of clarity or precision can hide true meaning. Important differences may be missed, affecting subsequent decisions and actions. These three examples from our trade highlight their importance.

Style or quality?

Ever since I entered the fray in 1985, the UK wine trade has persisted in talking about quality rather than style. We all know what quality is, don’t we? It is what the trade and the critics consider to be ‘better’ wines. These usually cost more, and those at the highest prices come from places or people with an established reputation that helps to support their price.

Within the mass market the idea of a tiered approach to quality has been around for a while. The supermarkets private label wines sporting ‘special,’ ‘selection’ or similar distinguish them from the standard range, while their own label ranges are organised in tiers of good, better, and best. Rioja Joven, Crianza and Reserva do the same as they move up through the price points.

The thing is, none of these tell you the wine is ‘better’. They just tell you it costs more. They will (usually) taste different, but whether that taste is better or not is down to each drinker to decide. It all depends on what you like. In my November 2021 Harper’s piece, I referred to research carried out by Professor Charles Spence of Oxford University and commissioned by Aldi which showed that in a blind tasting most drinkers prefer cheaper to more expensive wines. This confirmed the findings of many previous studies. Higher price does not mean the average drinker is more likely to prefer the wine, so for them it is not ‘better’.

Before the keepers of the wine faith descend on me with pitchforks, I should make a qualifying point. It is of course true that if a wine style with specific characteristics is defined as the reference of what is excellent, then other wines can be measured against this defined reference in a taste test. Notwithstanding the fact that everyone tastes differently, this can give a codified view of something being ‘better’ according to these criteria. The key is that the specific criteria function as the benchmark to measure against. Not everyone will agree with the definition or the criteria – look at the styles of wine thrown up by the natural wine movement – but it least it sets a stake in the ground.

The issue, however, is that out in the real world this is not how most wine drinkers behave. They are just looking to buy something they like. What matters to them is the style of the wine, described in a language they use and understand.

Surely the trade would do better to understand that style is the key concept to help customers choose, rather than a criteria-based definition of quality? Surely this would win customer loyalty more easily and for longer? Surely this would then lead to increased sales over time?

I hear the howls from across the aisle already – what about getting customers to trade up they cry? What these objectors really mean by ‘trade up’ is ‘pay more.’ Why do we want them to pay more? Because we make more money. Then we should do so honestly, by informing the drinker of wines that meet their style preference within different price brackets and encourage them to experiment.

A restaurant owner or a restaurateur?

The difference in meaning is subtle but fundamental. Thai hotel and restaurant group Minor International recently took control of the parent company of some of London’s iconic restaurants including The Wolseley next to the Ritz on Piccadilly, the Delaunay on the Strand, and Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly. The restaurant group was started by Jeremy King and Chris Corbin decades ago. Having gone into administration, Minor outbid King ‘s attempt to buy it back.

Writing in the Guardian, Jay Rayner saw this as corporate interests taking the soul out of a founder managed business, one with a track record of treating staff and customers well. According to Rayner, Jeremy King had stayed close to the detail of his restaurants, making daily tours of the dining rooms, and once said:

“The difference between a restaurant owner and a restaurateur is that one runs it from the boardroom and one runs it from the floor.”

Having started, run and sold both a small and a medium sized wine business, then worked at senior management level for two others, also independently owned, my experience is the wine equivalent of the restaurateur. Keeping the soul of an independently owned business intact while growing in scale is not always simple, but it can be done. Keeping that soul when the ownership passes to people with a completely different agenda and priorities is another matter altogether – especially when they must ultimately answer to the invisible hand of the stock market.

Being in the wine business or the business of wine?

The clue to the difference lies in the order of the words. Which comes first in the founder’s thinking, wine or business?

Years back, when I started out, the wine landscape was full of people who had started a small wine retailing or wholesale business because they loved the product and wanted to spend their lives surrounded by it. The mystery, romance, bonhomie, travel to vineyards, and general good feeling about a life in wine were a great allure; too great at times to spend enough time with the spreadsheets, stock control, margins and P&L forecasts that are the lifeblood of every business. Never mind the holy grail, the cash flow. Some fell by the wayside, others became a true labour of love, the owner working incredibly long hours over many days for little pay. These were wine businesses, but they were not the business of wine.

I was in the business of wine from day one. I was not passionate about wine, nor a geek. Please don’t misunderstand; I liked wine and all about it; it’s a great world to inhabit. I was interested to learn and absorb. But what I was passionate about was having a creative business idea and seeing it to fruition – in my case importing organic wine in the late 1980’s and establishing the UK’s number one organic wine distributor, then in the 1990’s employing young Australian winemakers to make modern style wines in Europe and South America for the UK multiple market. The mission was in both what we did and how we did it – treating everyone as we wanted to be treated, and building a motivated, valued, and happy team to travel the journey together. The wine mattered, but we could have applied the same approach to something else with just as much enthusiasm. This was the business of wine.

Perhaps today the realities of a harsh economic environment have left fewer in the wine business and more in the business of wine. Ultimately this is a good thing, for a business dream cannot become a reality if the business ceases to exist. To do more than exist, to thrive, we need lots of happy drinkers buying our wines. For that, we need to engage with them in a way that inspires and interests. We come back to words.

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