Whether you’re a kid heading to school, a hapless journalist off to cover political conferences or a wine merchant attempting to juggle three tastings a day with the actual job of buying and selling wine, there’s an inevitable mania about the month of September that never goes away.
In 2007, the most expensive bottle at Majestic Wine in Notting Hill Gate was a back vintage of Château Haut-Brion. It cost around £400 and, as manager of the store, it was a source of prestige to have such a costly wine on the shelf.
The RTD category has long been associated with sugary, candy-flavoured, neon-coloured alcoholic drinks, but today this couldn’t be further from the case.
In the digital era, it’s perhaps fitting that our opinions have become binary. Online, we tend to only see viewpoints we already agree with, and this feedback loop of positive reinforcement makes us increasingly polarised. Consequently, the middle ground has been abandoned and accommodating your opponent’s view has become something for only the very brave or the very stupid. I’ll let you decide which is the case as I consider the case against cutting tax on wine.
Imagine drinking La Tâche every night. That’s what I was doing as a colleague scrolled through someone’s gratuitous Instagram feed which was pornographically insistent on showing bottle after bottle of DRC, Le Pin, Gaja, Vega Sicilia, Opus One, Ornellaia and their astronomically priced peers.
You can’t go down the alcohol aisle in a supermarket without noticing the influx of new no and low-alcohol alternatives. I’ve even picked one up thinking it was the alcoholic version and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Most bars and restaurants have pages in their drinks menus dedicated to alcohol-free alternatives. With restaurants and bars popping up where the drinks offering is strictly alcohol-free, it seems there’s no slowing the no/low movement.
Last year, Heathrow airport handled 220,000 passengers every day. With that kind of footfall, it’s little wonder Terminal Five is reputedly the most expensive retail space in the world. Flying has become increasingly routine, and with it comes the airport experience: cities in miniature, hosting a daily population larger than Portsmouth, all of whom are killing time before boarding their plane. These microcosms of society provide a valuable insight into how we interact with wine.
I am old enough now to remember the great, yawning emptiness of the early internet – what we then called the World Wide Web. I remember excitedly first connecting to it and then wondering what it did.
Master of Wine students sometimes question why the examination is held under such strict time pressure. Some even ask why an exam is held at all. They might sound like silly questions, but the answer is far from silly. In fact, it reveals one of the most fundamental elements of the qualification, and by extension of the wine industry as a whole.
One of the words that is most overused in the wine trade’s lexicon is “elegant”. In the wine industry, elegance is considered a virtue, along with balance and harmony.
Google can be a fickle beast to tame and the latest algorithm updates has caused some major ups and downs in the online drinks industry in regards to visibility.
There’s a case for saying that pink was the catalyst for the flavour revival in alcohol. Over the past couple of years, the market has been flooded by dozens of pink spirit offers and we have seen the pink effect coming through in other categories, such as cider. The boundaries are increasingly blurring and new and unusual flavours are appearing across most sectors of the off-trade.
There is a delicious moment in The Devil Wears Prada when Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly dresses down frumpy Andrea for sniggering about the difficulty of choosing between two belts that look similar.
In my household, it is a story of two halves. I, like many others, have enjoyed the variety the gin boom has offered lately, while my partner is a rum enthusiast, collecting, displaying and consuming different offerings from around the world.
J K Rowling was rejected 12 times before her debut novel was published. Today, the Harry Potter franchise has grossed more than $25 billion, and 12 people have presumably never stopped kicking themselves.
Life’s only certainties are supposed to be death and taxes – but maybe not for much longer. These days, tax evasion has become increasingly normalised, while “amortality” is apparently coming within our lifetime. So to speak.
Wine makes up just over a third of all off-trade alcohol sales, contributing more value than any other sector. In a fragmented category, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc have stood out in recent years and remain the fastest growing varieties in a declining category overall.
In any list of the challenges facing the wine world today – once you get past Brexit – you will find mention of millennials.
We recently received a lovely drop of Jameson 18 Year Old Bow Street. It came in a huge box, accompanied with hefty rocks glasses and the added fanfare of a massive bag of cheese. The dairy delights inspired a cheese joke session, which ended with an explosion at a French cheese factory – and all that was left was de brie. Even our dignity had evaporated.
This coming Saturday is annual Record Store Day. It’s an event when independent record shops get access to (almost exclusively vinyl) special editions of classic and not-so-classic albums that are, initially at least, sold only over the counter. The whole thing is pepped up by in-store performances and signings.
My first day as a trainee manager in Majestic Wine was in June 2001. I had applied for the job because it offered a graduate training scheme that promised quick promotion through the ranks, although the 25% staff discount was a factor too.
Recently, we were in our local Majestic. It was just a few days after the news that the historic wine hawker was winding up its warehouses and focusing its efforts online. Morale among staff was, unsurprisingly, very low. Their usual upbeat, friendly and welcoming demeanour had been replaced by anger, frustration and bewilderment at the decision to rebrand as Naked Wines, the company bought by Majestic for £70 million in 2015.
Online wine sales are reportedly growing steadily across Europe, and the UK is leading the way with eCommerce currently accounting for 10% of total off-trade wine sales. This growing interest from consumers in purchasing alcohol online reflects the wider retail climate, which has seen internet sales increase from 5.8% to 20% of total retail sales in the UK in the last 10 years.
Among my most sentimentally valued possessions are a couple of old Denoyer-Geppert maps given to me by a history teacher making way for the technology of the overhead projector.
A few years ago, while living in the US, I was introduced to rosé wine in a can at a summer picnic. Being British, I set aside my preconceived notions, politely accepted the drink and sipped away. I had always believed that a great wine could only ever come in a bottle, but I was pleasantly surprised by the canned offering – it had a great taste and stayed cooler for longer, particularly during a hot summer.
As sequels are to Hollywood, so vintages are to wine. The same franchises get churned out every year, and every year people faithfully buy into them. The only difference is, with the possible exception of heavily oaked Chardonnay, wine doesn’t go with popcorn.
Even as the ice caps melt, the world is becoming an increasingly polarised place. Nuance and rationale get bested by bombast and dogma; every disagreement seems irreconcilable. The middle ground has become No Man’s Land. Such polarisation was all too evident in recent discussions about Oddbins going into administration. While the response was almost universally sympathetic within the wine trade, the debate on social media became rapidly antithetical when Brexit was mooted as a determining factor.
January proved another success for committed abstainers. Granted, it’s the grimmest month to endure without the occasional glass of whisky, but the brave few suffered for our sins, seeing it tee-totally through to February while simultaneously inflicting a short, sharp kidney punch to the industry. Well done them.
All of us who engage with the wine tasting circuit will be familiar with its general format – comfortable, predictable and generally pretty successful. Whether it’s held in a private members’ club on Pall Mall, a basement in Shoreditch or a private room in a restaurant, the basic form of the trade tasting is timeless: wines normally ordered by producer, a spacious room, good light, tasting booklets (with free pencils), spittoons and endless plates of Carr’s Table Water Biscuits.
When the notion of MUP was first introduced in Scotland, I remember thinking “this is big” and I wondered how the industry would react. I also wondered how I would react if the same were to be implemented in England. Would it make a difference to how or what alcohol I buy? Would I even notice the price rises?
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