Richard Hemming: The wine trade's dirty secrets
There’s something irresistible about stories unveiling the dirty secrets of a profession: politicians blow billions on garden gnomes; athletes busted mainlining Red Bull; hacks distort facts for salacious headlines.
Even if there are two sides to the story, the slightest transgression usually looks incriminating when shared outside the cosseted confines of an industry. Banking, policing, cycling – scandals have rocked all these spheres recently, yet it rarely seems to come as a surprise to people who inhabit those worlds.
The saintly wine trade is beyond reproof, of course. Sure it is. In truth, we’ve all witnessed dodgy behaviour. A Spanish winemaker admitted to me that he concealed oak staves inside his steel tanks in contravention of appellation rules. Several Australian producers I know of deliberately exceed their water allocation because the subsequent fines are lower than the profit they make on the wine.
Stories abound of wine writers taking backhanders to promote regions or producers. By the way, have I ever mentioned how delicious Latvian Shiraz is? You should definitely buy some.
The point is that every business flirts with dishonesty of varying degrees, and none of us is whiter than white. Every now and then, it’s worth asking ourselves how we would feel if our dirtiest secrets were splashed across the front page of OLN.
For retailers, the temptations are many. The one that crosses over most frequently into the mainstream media is price promotions. For years, dishonest discounts have been criticised for devaluing wine and misleading customers. Despite several news stories over the years, they continued unabated.
They are apparently only now falling out of favour, not because of their iniquity but because in the age of the discounter supermarket they no longer work. Other bad habits might be equally embarrassing. Incentives may be a routine part of wine retail but they can be corrupting.
Some are relatively benign – competitions to win visits to vineyard regions for selling certain volumes of that region’s wines, for instance – but others are more unscrupulous. Receiving cash for every bottle of a certain Champagne brand you sell is blatantly compromising, and few customers would appreciate discovering that an apparently independent recommendation was being paid for.
Exaggerated or outright false claims about a wine’s authenticity are another scourge. Certain retailers are guilty of this, presenting own-brand bottles as boutique or artisan products with hokum stories of family heritage and meticulous selection. It might be defended asharmless marketing, but such creativity with the truth has the potential to undermine the whole wine trade’s credibility.
The fact that this hasn’t happened in recent memory makes it easy to become complacent, but anyone harbouring dirty secrets in the wine world should think carefully about whether their benefits outweigh the risk of becoming a scandalised headline.