by Tim Atkin

Judging books by their covers

In case you missed the hoopla, Dan Brown’s new novel, The Lost Symbol, was published on September 15th. In the space of a few weeks, Mr Brown has sold more than half a million copies in the UK alone, at a cover price of £18.99. Even if you accept that a lot of them were discounted, it’s an unbelievable statistic. To put it in context, the second book on the hardback bestsellers list, The Complaints by Ian Rankin, has sold 6569 copies.

The remarkable thing about Dan Brown’s success is that it has been achieved in the face — actually, make that the snarling teeth – of critical disdain. To take only one of The Lost Symbol’s many negative reviews, The Financial Times described it as “a novel that asks nothing of the reader, and gives the reader nothing back”. This isn’t just jealousy on the part of journalists. Dan Brown is a terrible writer.

He’s not alone, of course. Katie Price (aka Jordan) is not exactly Margaret Atwood and her novel is at number four in the same list. In fact, discount Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Faulks and (arguably) Ian Rankin among top ten authors and the conclusion is inescapable: bad books sell more copies than good ones. I know it depends on your definition of good and bad, but most people in the book trade will admit that it’s true.

It’s easy to be sniffy about the likes of Dan Brown, Jordan and James Patterson, but the wine world’s very own bestseller list isn’t a whole lot better. Blossom Hill, Gallo, Echo Falls, Stowells, Hardys and Lindemans are pretty dull brands: the equivalent, if you like, of poorly written popular fiction. Of the vinous top ten, only Jacob’s Creek and Wolf Blass are worth recommending, and then only just.

Why do people drink these wines in such vast numbers? It’s an uncomfortable question for wine critics, not to mention retailers. Part of the answer, of course, is that they are widely available, sometimes advertised and often promoted, frequently on very competitive, cut-price deals. But that alone doesn’t explain their success. The uncomfortable truth is that hundreds of thousands of consumers like the taste of such wines, just as readers enjoy the kind of stuff peddled by Dan Brown.

It’s hard to criticise them (and Dan Brown for that matter) without coming across as a snob, or as someone who is out of touch with his readers or customers. It may well be true, as Henry Louis Mencken once wrote, that “no one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”, but it’s hard to say so in the modern world.

Do wine critics have a responsibility to guide people towards more interesting wines? (Interesting to us, that is.) I believe we do. The majority of drinkers probably couldn’t care less what we think — hence that vinous top ten and the growing popularity of things like Pinot Grigio and White Zinfandel — but we should still try. Wine is all about diversity at its best and popular brands are the antithesis of this, promoting sameness, predictability and what marketing honchos call “reassurance”.

“Easy for you to say that,” the major retailers would probably respond. “You don’t have to live with the reality of people’s tastes, shopping habits and spending power like we do.” There is some truth in this. I wouldn’t care to swap jobs with someone running a supermarket wine department at the moment.

What price innovation and a balanced list when the majority of your customers want to buy cheap plonk and brands on promotional deals? That’s why Tesco has done such a huge volte-face over the last 18 months, retreating from its attempt to move the category up market and into new regions. Sainsbury’s and Oddbins are making noises about listing exciting new wines, but only Waitrose, Majestic and Marks & Spencer are taking risks at the moment. Elsewhere, there has been a collective loss of bottle.

In my view, they are missing an opportunity. Even if the top ten are “must stock” wines — or as close as the wine trade ever comes to such a thing — that still leaves 70% of the market. To be fair to the major retailers, they do stock more interesting brands, too, such as Errazuriz, La Grille, Villa Maria, Ken Forrester and Yalumba, but I’d like to see them dedicate 10% of their shelf space to quirkier styles and grape varieties, encouraging their punters to try new things. The main reason Portugal, Greece and Argentina haven’t done better in the UK is because of poor distribution.

You could argue that it’s the job of independent wine merchants to list off-beat wines — just as independent book shops are more likely to venture beyond the tried and tested than WH Smith — but I’d disagree. Surely there is a place for such things in the mainstream, catering to a small but passionate audience who choose to shop in supermarkets and major off-licences. In wine, as in fiction, we cannot live by bestsellers alone.

Originally published in Off Licence News


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