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Transports of Delight

Published:  23 July, 2008

There are so many ways to answer this question that it is a struggle to know where to begin. But let's start with the most animal instinct of all: self-preservation. And let's start not with consumers, but with retailers.

A little earlier this year, the cut-price furniture store MFI announced that it was cutting not prices but 1,500 jobs. The rump of the company, in order to avoid a fate worse than that of Ratners, was heading rapidly upmarket in pursuit of posh bedrooms. MFI's neglect of quality was killing it. The cheapest MFI kitchen used to cost 99. From now on, it will cost 500.

Any company that does not base its offer on quality is doomed. Naturally, there are different sorts of quality, and it is important to match the right sort with the right market. When the former Safeway store in Biggin Hill turned from a Morrisons into a Waitrose, the customers complained in the local paper that they couldn't afford to shop there any more. They were getting more quality than they wanted.

Meanwhile, customers in Tunbridge Wells are clamouring for their ex-Safeway Morrisons to be turned into a Waitrose, thereby saving everyone the fag of having to drive down to Tonbridge to get their tapenade and jars of goose fat. But I'm almost digressing. The lesson of MFI is that the moment a certain perception of quality is gone, the market goes with it. Unless, of course, your reputation is based on that most dismal one of all: raw cheapness alone. Visiting East Enders in Calais, I find, is always a salutary, if depressing experience: it's where the worst wines in the world go to die. One day it will die, too.

At a production level, quality - and the perception of quality - is everything. The destruction of the market for quality German wine by Liebfraumilch should be a cautionary tale for every other wine-producing nation, although oddly enough the Germans themselves have taken a very long time to digest it. Austria's famous anti-freeze scandal was, with hindsight, probably the best thing that ever happened to its wine industry, since the scandal forced its wine-growers into a route-march up the quality ladder which is paying rich dividends today.

The biting irony of Bordeaux in 2005 is that its top-quality wines are being squabbled over by zillionaires around the world while they are still lying like babies in their barrels. Meanwhile, a few kilometres away in Entre-Deux-Mers and plain old AOC Bordeaux, producers are consigning tankfuls of ageing wine for distillation and wondering how they can stave off bankruptcy for another year. If you've ever fancied owning a spot of vineyard in Aquitaine, now is the time to go shopping. What's the difference between Chteau Lafite and the hundreds of others in Bordeaux which are for sale for a song? Quality, in a word.

The wine world grows more ferociously competitive by the year, and in the ensuing evolutionary struggle, quality is the only survival strategy. Nothing else matters. What about British consumers, though? This should be the very best of times to purchase wine, since the international offer is so competitive. For the small minority of active and informed consumers, it is indeed a golden age. Inexpensive wines have never been so consistently well made as they are today, and there has never been such a wide pool of good and fine wine to enjoy.

As I've already suggested, though, most of Britain's ever-growing army of wine-drinkers are not active and informed, but passive and overawed. The supermarkets' share of the off-trade is around 70% and rising, and two-thirds of the wines sold in some supermarkets are brands. Big brands, I repeat, offer a number of good things, such as simplicity, familiarity and reassurance, but they don't offer the highest levels of quality.

Britain was once the glorious crossroads of the wine world, the place where anything and everything was available. Now, though, many smaller quality producers, from Australia and California as much as from Italy and Portugal, are complaining that the British market, and particularly supermarkets and high-street chains, are no longer open to them. Smaller producers cannot afford to invest in - let's put this politely - the marketing assistance which is often required by large retailers. The playing field is beginning to look rumpled. And big producers queer that pitch further by manipulative strategems such as 7.99 brands that are permanently discounted to 3.99, mendacious advertising and an unending supply of apparently 'free' bottles on multi-buy deals.

This is the great sadness of Britain's democratic wine revolution. At a time when more new drinkers than ever before are being won for wine, the quality possibilities for most are being shut off by the cosy and self-interested relationship between large producers and large retailers. Wine should be providing a sensual awakening for new drinkers. High-quality wine, even if it is inexpensive, can open up new possibilities, create a sense of excitement, and set drinkers off on self-educational journeys of both discovery and joy. It can add colour, beauty and intensity to life, and help refine the neglected senses of smell and taste. It can paint a sensual picture of distant lands, and help us to taste a little of the culture of other societies. Even those who may not have the leisure or means to travel can smell and taste new places on earth - in their own kitchens, on a dull and rainy Thursday evening, after another boring day in the office. Quality wine provides, quite literally, transports of delight.

I know all of this because I remember wine doing these things for me in the late 1970s. I remember discovering, one by one, the limpid thrill of Anjou, the haughty enigma of Bordeaux, the refined woodland strangeness of Tuscany, the pale sweet tang of the Spanish plains, the baked, salty, iron-rich exoticism of Australia. I would love others to have those experiences of discovery in diversity, and to be as inspired and changed by them as I was.

Instead, the homogenising quality of big brands has given us wine as a commodity, a kind of alcoholic Weetabix or Alpen, the same day after day after day, 'good enough' to inebriate but not to inspire, and sometimes not greatly different even from one continent to another.

It's not too late to change things, and that rich world of quality wine awaits. But we'll have to act soon, and it's Britain's remaining large retailers who must lead the way. There is no shortage of quality wine in the world. The large retailers are the gatekeepers. Too little, at present, is getting through.

The large retailers should cut back on the shelf space they allow big brands. They should rediscover the joys of buying wine rather than cutting deals. They should champion the authentic, high-quality wines of smaller producers, and sometimes of the smaller brands of large producers, no matter how great the logistical difficulties; and they should assume an educational role, too, helping open their customers' eyes to the unique and challenging diversity that only these shelves in the shop can offer. Wine needs to become a 'hero category' once again, and not the cash cow it has degenerated into over the past decade.

As consumers, we have given these retailers immense power, profit and influence. It is now time for them repay us with the great wine shopkeeping with which they were once synonymous. Only then can quality wine bring Britain's drinkers the sensual and spiritual nourishment they deserve.