Wine needs to be less like a kitchen ≠department and more like a Nigella

12 January, 2007

Preparing for the Christmas just gone was an enlightening experience for me. In common with a lot of people, I had a few "difficult" presents to buy and several family meals to prepare for. Both of these needs forced me to step outside my shopping comfort zone: no more routine, semi-conscious filling of a supermarket trolley or nipping into Gap or M&S for a few clothes for the children ≠- at least for a week or two.

Two things stood out

for me in particular during this period: knives and Nigella. Both made me think, as a wine professional, about some of the things we as an industry should be paying more attention to this coming year.

Let's do the knives first. I wanted to get my husband a new posh kitchen knife for Christmas. He enjoys cooking as much as I do - so long as we both know who's head chef and who's the kitchen porter at any given time.

Now, I don't know very much about the kitchen knife category, and it's not something I've bought in a long time. So I made a special journey to a big West End department store - the place you would expect to have a big range, and some good advice.

The wrong way

In the kitchen department, there were a lot of knives behind security glass: small, medium, large and scary psycho enormous.

The prices ranged from under a tenner to several hundred pounds. Most of the knives within a given size category looked exactly the same, despite vast price differences between them. This wasn't the only thing that bothered me.

There was also the fact that I couldn't touch or try out any of the products (no staff to be seen anywhere - I know it's Christmas, but surely this is the kitchen department's biggest sales opportunity of the year?).

And there was no understandable information as to why one product should cost five, 10 or 20 times the price of another, when they all pretty much looked the same.

But I suppose the biggest annoyance for me was my feeling, as I scuttled off without making a purchase, that my failure to find the right product was somehow my failure to understand this category, not the shop's fault for not providing me with the information I needed.

The same evening, I ended up half-watching one of the Nigella Lawson Christmas cooking programmes. I was struck immediately by how conscious Nigella was of her audience: every Christmas dinner recipe was trailed with some good background - where the dish had originated, why the ≠ingredients were used, where to find them.

The focus of the programme appeared to be primarily on how you could do a good job for the family Christmas dinner and

enjoy the cooking - without the hassle of actually having to measure the ingredients out with too much precision and therefore without having to worry about perfection. It immediately struck a chord.

The Nigella way

In the space of six hours, I had experienced some very contrasting approaches to the customer

- and they both had an impact. I never did buy my husband his knife (he might get it as a birthday present, but I will need to be coaxed back into a kitchen shop with promises of sympathetic advice); and my mother-in-law, who, for reasons best known to herself, has been a staunch opponent of Nigella and all she stands for, surprised us all on Christmas day by serving up Ms Lawson's brussels sprouts recipe - and admitted to using it. The required bottle of Marsala even stood proudly next to the cooker.

I've used this column before to encourage wine professionals to switch their "trade" brains off from time to time and try to see their products more from a consumer point of view. What I've realised over time is that this is quite hard to do.

However, you can replicate the ≠experience of an ordinary Joe in the wine aisle very easily by trying to buy something in a category that you know very little about.

My experience with knives is very similar to the way a lot of consumers felt when shopping for Christmas wine: a vast array of products, many of which look the same, none of which you can sample, at a perplexing range of prices.

And yet it could so easily have turned out differently for me: a bit of product ≠information; an opportunity to try some of the products out,

some friendly ≠advice, and I could happily have parted with money.

Of course, what makes wine different from knives is that most wine drinkers buy it every week - just like food. ≠Nigella's brilliance in walking us through her Christmas dinner preparations in a way that even a sceptical consumer could happily - and easily - replicate was quite a feat.

Where, I wondered that evening, was the celeb wine person helping us make sense of the wine aisle in the same way?

Wine was certainly talked about on TV and radio in the run-up to Christmas, but I never got the sense that it was being de mystified for me.

In fact, in one radio show I heard, the wines recommended for Christmas drinking were all priced between £15 and £30 and not available in the supermarkets or high-street stores - not very helpful or encouraging.

The early indicators from Christmas trading 2006 appear to suggest that consumers are - cautiously - becoming more willing to trade up to higher priced bottles of wine than in the past. This is good news for them (because it's undeniably a better consumer wine experience), and obviously good news for retailers and producers.

However, I get the nagging feeling that our drinks industry still presents itself

to ≠consumers far too much like my ≠experience in the knife department, when it really should be "doing a Nigella" instead.

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