2011 may have eased stiff-limbed out of the starting blocks, but it’s stumbled such a short way down the track that I hope you won’t mind me making a wine trade wish list for the next 12 months. These are the things that I’d like to come to pass – some of them possible, others rather less so — but I think they’re all important for the long-term survival of our industry.
• A duty freeze in the next budget. For a business that has just taken a blow to the nether regions from this week’s VAT hike, another tax increase later in the year could be terminal for some businesses, both here and overseas. The fact that UK duty is seldom passed on to the end consumer (the supermarkets are the main, but not only culprits here) makes matters worse, not better. The price of wine stays the same, but quality is being eroded like a coastal shelf.
• A fitter, stronger Australia. Irrespective of what has just happened in the Ashes and our desire to get one over on the men in floppy green caps, the wine business needs a strong Australian wine industry. The atypical infighting about the future direction of Brand Australia, covered in some depth in these pages, has done real damage to a once impregnable image. I hope that Yvonne May, newly installed at the helm of Wine Australia UK, will be allowed to pursue the emphasis on more expensive and interesting wines that was pioneered by Paul Henry.
• That Oddbins will flourish once more in the high street, despite mutterings in the trade about its possible demise amid retention of title issues. The departure of two good buyers in recent months doesn’t look good and there are rumours that the interest on the money it allegedly owes to Castel is making matters even dicier, but I still think we need Oddbins. Wine Rack is making a promising fist of things in the south, but a national retail chain is something else altogether. Oddbins has better wines now than it has had for a decade. It just needs more customers.
• Is it too much to hope that the supermarkets will finally start to sell wine in a responsible way in 2011? No more three for £10, no more cruddy, shipped-in-bulk own-labels, no more illusory half-price deals on wines that weren’t worth the full price in the first place. Sanity at last?
• If it’s true that more and more people are drinking better wine at home, how about offering them something interesting to drink in the supermarket aisles? Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and to a lesser extent Sainsbury’s stock a few unusual wines, but not enough of them. I know that bottom lines are important to shareholders, but the UK is a far less interesting place to buy wine than it was a decade ago.
• I’d like to see some of the smaller wine-producing countries making their mark in 2011, with some prominent listings. Turkey is the most exciting, largely because of its indigenous (if tricky to pronounce) local grapes, but there are some exciting things happening in the Lebanon, Israel, Brazil, Japan and China. Please could we see more of them?
• Obviously I have a vested interest here, but I’d like to see more informed wine writing in national newspapers, rather than an (almost) exclusive focus on recommendations and scaled down columns that require little or no real research. Only The Telegraph and the Financial Times give proper space to wine nowadays.
• At the same time, I’d like to see an end to the creeping commercialisation of wine writing, where journalists are seconded to supermarkets as in-house experts. Poachers don’t make good gamekeepers, and never will do.
• The return of the wine bar. The success of places like Vinoteca, the Kensington (and now Fulham) Wine Rooms, Artisan and Vine, 28-50 and Terroirs suggests that, in London at least, people want to drink great wine by the glass. I’d like to think that this is the start of a greater trend. As Balls Brothers disappears, let’s hope something more modern replaces it.
• More off beat wines, made using “natural”, organic and biodynamic methods. The age of the technically perfect but utterly boring wine has had its day. By all means, make clean wines, but give us some flavour.
• The growth of the Fairtrade movement. Half a percent of the UK wine market is way too small. There are rumours that wineries in Tunisia, Lebanon and Brazil may soon gain accreditation, while the quality of the wines from existing Fairtrade wine-producing countries (Chile, Argentina and South Africa) is getting better with every vintage. The wines need more pro-active, evangelising stockists like The Co-operative.
• Before we move on to 2011 and whatever it may bring, I’d like to raise a glass to the memory of Julian Brind MW of Waitrose, who died unexpectedly before Christmas. The man was a true gent, as well as a talented, committed member of the wine trade. We need more like him.
First published in Off Licence News