Rekindling the excitement

17 September, 2010

One of my favourite Yobs cartoons from Private Eye shows a couple of thugs sitting at a restaurant table. “Great,” says the male skinhead to the sommelier awaiting his verdict on a bottle of wine, “we’ll have one each.” The gag isn’t as far-fetched as you might imagine. “Don’t mess about, son, fill it up,” I overheard someone tell a waiter in a tapas bar recently.

People who work in the wine trade might sneer at such behaviour, but it’s extremely common. A survey published by pub chain Chef & Brewer to coincide with its wine festival last week highlighted a number of popular gaffes. Many punters, it transpires, can’t pronounce the names of grape varieties – Pinot and Semillon are regularly mangled – ask for a slice of lemon in their wine and send bottles back as “corked” when they’re sealed with a screwcap.

Chef & Brewer undermined its own findings to a degree by citing as a “basic mistake” the fact that one in 10 punters complain that red wine is served too warm. Yet in my experience, those punters are spot on.

Most pub reds are poured at the wrong temperature, having spent far too long sitting behind the bar rather than in a proper wine cabinet. Rather than dismissing those customers as fools, pubs should be chilling most reds as a matter of course.

That one slip doesn’t invalidate the whole survey, however. What the research shows is many people are uneasy around wine, and not just in pubs and restaurants. They want to look as if they know what they are doing, but are frightened of appearing foolish. One in eight of the 3,000 adults Chef & Brewer interviewed admitted they regularly order a more expensive bottle to make an impression, but haven’t a clue what’s in their glass.

More tellingly for our business, 86% of the respondents said the subject of wine is still “fraught with snobbery”. Do they mean us? Indeed they do. Ordinary consumers (by which I mean people who have no special interest in wine) find much of the jargon used by professionals off-putting and sometimes incomprehensible. Terms like “minerality”, “terroir”, “brettanomyces” and “malolactic fermentation” are effectively a foreign language.

For all that, things are a lot better than they used to be. Even 30 years ago, wine was regarded as the tipple of the middle and upper classes, or “something for the ladies” as Pub Landlord stand-up Al Murray puts it. Now wine is something that everyone drinks and is (almost) as much a part of daily life as it is in France, Spain or Italy. There is far, far less snobbery associated with wine now.

It’s important to remember where we have come from and what we have achieved. The New World has been the driving force in the democratisation of wine, with its focus on varietal labelling and jargon-free marketing, but the UK trade deserves a mention, too. They may not know how to pronounce Pinot Noir or Syrah, but plenty of consumers know what they taste like.

The question now is where next? How do we make wine even more approachable to a large audience, overcoming their insecurities and lack of knowledge, but without sacrificing too much in the way of diversity and complexity? A world in which everyone drinks Pinot Grigio and a handful of branded wines is not a world that I want to write about.

Maybe it’s the viewpoint of a middle-aged man who’s been scribbling about booze for a quarter of a century, but I think the UK wine market was more exciting 10 years ago than it is now. We must all take some of the blame for this: importers, agents, PRs, journalists, generic bodies, wineries and retailers. Somehow we need to rekindle the excitement that wine generated in the 1990s.

The biggest problem is the excessive focus on cut-price deals. There’s nothing wrong with giving consumers a bargain, but we are surely too reliant on special offers as a way of shifting significant volumes of wine. It’s not snobbish to suggest that two-for-one and three-for-£10 promotions are a cul-de-sac.

With VAT set to rise to 20% on January 4 and the prospect of another duty hike in the 2011 budget, the average UK bottle price of £4.40 is too low to make economic sense, even if it’s increased by 3% over the past year, keeping pace with inflation. We have to persuade punters to trade up.

To do so we have to inspire them: tell them stories, ignite their imagination, introduce them to new regions, aromas and flavours. We must never lose sight of the fact that wine can be an intimidating subject, but adhering to the status quo for fear of alienating punters is not an option. Like a shark, the wine business needs to move forward to survive.

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