Wine Option: Too Much Choice, Not Enough Options

I was on the internet yesterday just having a look to see if there was a PDF there of an article I wrote for a magazine to e-mail my mother, in order to prove to her that I don’t write a blog just because no-one else will have me.

Anyway, it turned up in facsimile form on a website I have never come across before – www.wineoption.org. They had featured my piece, which dealt with the language gap between people who work in the wine industry and the public at large, as it related to some of the issues which the site concerns itself with. In their own words they are “dedicated to making the wine trade more responsive to the needs of the average consumer and seeks to make it easier for wine drinkers to enjoy a glass of wine with simple enjoyment and peace of mind. One of its first tasks is to remove the obstacles which make it so hard for consumers to find a choice of lighter, healthier products in the wine category similar to the choice found in the food category.” The existence of the website highlights the fact that a sizable proportion of the population are not having a particularly satisfying wine experience. That they are not given the opportunity to easily acquire quality wines and/or styles of wines which they really enjoy. And that many simply put up with bad wine or wines which don’t really suit them through force of habit tempered by low expectations. This website is a mouthpiece which represents those who have become weary of doing so. Their principle demands and reasons for concern are:

1. The wine trade has traditionally placed its focus on connoisseurs and wine snobs rather than the much greater number of ordinary unpretentious people who enjoy wine.

2. We feel the wine industry should take much more trouble over making wines which respond to today’s consumer concerns and issues.

3.We’re deeply concerned about the relentless increase in wine alcohol levels along with recent trade focus on cheapness and mediocrity.

With regards to the first point I think that only a very small proportion of the wine trade focuses its attention on connoisseurs and wine snobs. Here I take it upon myself to take the term “connoisseurs” to refer to hobbyists whose consumption patterns are primarily based upon leisurely amateur research into their chosen field of interest i.e. via the acquisition of extra information immediately available neither on the bottle nor in the place of purchase. As for wine snobs I take this to mean people whose consumption is based negatively upon the exclusion of certain categories of wines in favour of certain other categories. There is also the pejorative implication that this exclusion is not based upon balanced experience but prestige, price etc. Snob then is only a short vowel away from snub. Although not being at all experienced in the business side of things I would hazard to say that the wine trade, if it were to be considered as a single identifiable entity, is first and foremost dedicated to making profit. Pandering to the connoisseurs and the snobs is therefore not an end in itself but a means to that end. But I would also hazard to say that rather than being the principle groups via which profit is achieved they are secondary to the selling of large quantities of relatively cheap, low quality wine (as reason number 3 acknowledges). The very stuff ignored by the connoisseurs and shunned by the snobs.  

Instead, I suspect that the sentiment behind point number one is more symptomatic of a semi-fictional aura of exclusivity.

There is no prima facie evidence to suggest that wine ought to be any more exclusive than any other field of knowledge which requires conscious effort to negotiate. I think that wine enthusiasts are often seen as pretentious because they take an interest in something of the everyday world which all are involved in. They talk about drinking wine as if there is something incredibly complex or magical about it. People who talk about astrophysics are never accused of the same pretensions because the meaningless words and phrases they use are of another world and therefore do no alienate us from our own tables. I have quite a number of times been accused of being a music snob because of my love of classical music and despite the lack of any assault on my part of alternative forms of art. It is necessary to realize that the everyday is incredibly complex and magical and seeing it as such is not pretension but a very sincere form of love. Both fortunately and unfortunately while music and wine are democratic – solar winds are not. Myth and specialized language, while no doubt being somewhat off-putting to the uninitiated, allow enlightening associations and connections to be made which would otherwise remain obscure. The everyday world deserves as much colour as the fantasy one, especially as each bleeds into and informs the other.

 

There is of course also the association of wine with the exclusivity that monetary wealth engenders. This is amplified in countries which do not have a long history of wine production and/or local consumption. Wine in such places is defaulted as a luxury item and even when it becomes generally accessible the cultural residues exclusivity stubbornly persist.

However, regardless mystique perhaps the main reason why many of us find it difficult to make a sound and informed decision when buying a bottle of wine is down to the plethora of products available to us. Faced with a display of any product two 30 metre aisles long with prices ranging from the cost of a sandwich up to your monthly food allowance – just about anyone will be phased by the variety on offer. The tendency is therefore (for all – right up to the most expert) to pounce on any bottle which offers some kind of reassurance, be it by price, label design, familiar words or whatever. Choice for most then becomes constraint rather than opportunity. The exposure to overwhelming abundance breeds not only shallow familiarity but also simulated familiarity, for instance with wine bottles adopting the aesthetic trappings of more recognizable brands/appellations etc.

The paradox is that the very thing which make the purchasing decision most simple (attraction via label design) is also the most esoteric. I am not referring to the standardized technical data pertaining crus, grape varieties, production methods etc. but the saturation of branded non-information which serves to further bury and obscure anything of any real relevance. This is not to imply that the Burgundy vineyard classification system is particularly insightful to most, but simply that the few bits of decent information which are/could be on a bottle of wine are hijacked by the desire/necessity of the distributor to sell via an image. If all the extraneous detail were to be banished from wine labels clear intelligibility would not ensue, but at least we might know where to start.

I think it is certainly true that there is a lack of adequate communication between people in the wine industry and the public at large. Many in the wine industry spend most of their time talking to other people in the wine industry. Also within a company labour is divided in such a way that a person responsible for the production of a particular article has no contact with the people who consume it. Likewise the people who “brand” it and market it also often have little contact with either that producer or even the people to whom it is meant to appeal. Often in the wine shop (my place of work) we will receive new products or re-designs of old products which appeal neither to the contents of the bottle nor to the prospective drinkers of it. It is an awful generalization I know but I might be tempted to say that winemakers who care passionately about their wines usually show correspondingly callous indifference to the method and manner in which they are presented to the drinker.

As to the second point, that the wine industry should take much more trouble over making wines which respond to today’s consumer concerns and issues, it must be said that while this is a very valid point in terms of wine distribution it is only partially applicable to wine production. Due to the nature of winemaking producers cannot quickly respond to consumer’s stylistic demand (trends and fashion) what they can do, however, is respond to more long term concerns and issues via their winemaking. One such issue which the site pays particular attention to is summed up in the third point, namely the relentless increase in wine alcohol levels. This is a concern mirrored in many parts of the wine industry with many are genuinely tired with plenty of wines routinely surpassing the 15%abv mark. But perhaps in a few years we will see this trend to reverse, the reason why it hasn’t happened yet is that, as I said above, it generally takes winemakers a number of years to respond to the public’s stylistic demands. Personally I do not think high alcohol levels are a problem as alcohol is a structural component of a wine and so as long the wine in question has corresponding levels of depth which necessitate the existence of high actual alcohol levels then so much the better. High levels of alcohol are (or should be) symptomatic of a wider trend for fuller flavoured wines which may or not be a problem depending on your tastes. The only time high alcohol is a problem for a specific wine is when that high level is unjustified in terms of balance. The problem is really being able to locate a bottle which properly suits your criteria – how do you go actually about finding a low alcohol wine? Here massively extensive pseudochoice (rows and rows of virtually indistinguishable wines) is no match for what we might call genuine choice in which the drinker is presented with a smaller selection of easily identifiable and stylistically diverse wines.

Anyway, if what I have just written above seems somewhat defensive it is not intended to be. Instead I think that many of us in the wine industry would do well to take note of this website and take on board its legitimate concerns – concerns which are easily neglected particularly if we spend most of our time talking amongst ourselves rather than with people at large.

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