Jason Millar: Influencing future trends

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.

Referring to the “lumpy blue sweater” that Andrea is wearing, she declares: “That blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”

In the highly consolidated fashion industry of the film, influence is a straightforward, trickle-down effect. But in an industry that is much more dissonant, the recent publication of the 100 Most Influential People in Wine in this magazine attracted, as ever, a lot of comment.

Compiling an algorithm for influence in our fragmented industry is almost impossible, so any list will be open to challenges. Yet in the wine world, influence is as fragmented as the industry – less top-down and more trickle-up, reflecting the agricultural orientation of wine production.

Since wine is a commercial product, it is tempting to try to measure influence largely by sales and scale. But, while the supermarkets and multiples are the biggest commercially, they are the endpoint of influence. Once you’ve established a wine everywhere else, only then will they be interested. To make it worth mobilising the machinery of the buying team, customers must already have been influenced by others in favour of the product.

Although they expand sales, they are largely capitalising on the influence of those that have gone before rather than themselves directing the habits of the wine-drinking public. They are selling people what they already want rather than pushing boundaries.

Likewise, wine writers’ influence is often assumed to be as high as their visibility. But if wine writers were so influential, wouldn’t customers be drinking a lot more Riesling, following decades of consistently positive messaging around it? In my experience, customers rarely reference wine writers in their purchasing. Those who do are almost always in the industry. Almost all the noise about wine writing in the Twittersphere comes from within the trade.

A great deal of influence is exerted on the trade by the trade, but this is a bubble that has little bearing on what most people drink. It seems to me the origin of influence is sommeliers and independents, who have the access and enthusiasm of the best wine writers and the commercial access that farmers need to actually sell bottles. The majority of trends have started here, tested in the commercial reality of the market. Let’s face it, the independent merchants pioneering cru Beaujolais are exerting a much bigger influence over the future direction of that region than the supermarkets watching diminishing sales of Nouveau. It is only a matter of time before supermarkets start listing more cru Beaujolais.

Without major figureheads, this section of the trade won’t make it easily on to lists, but there is no sector of the industry that shapes the agenda of the engaged wine buyer like independent shops, bars and restaurants. If you want to know what the trends will be in the future, look there first.

Jason Millar is the retail director at independent wine merchant Theatre of Wine. He can be contacted at jason@theatreofwine.com and found on Twitter @jasondmillar

Related articles: