by Tim Atkin

Never mind the quality…

What’s in a name? If you think that monikers are irrelevant to the choices we make ask yourself if you’d buy something called Brad’s Drink, surf the net using BackRub, write emails on a Bicycle, listen to music by Reg Dwight or read a book by David Cornwell? These well-known brands changed their original names to Pepsi Cola, Google, Apple Mac, Elton John and John Le Carré, respectively. They might have been just as successful anyway, but I think it’s unlikely.

The most famous example of a name that nearly wasn’t in the wine business is Cloudy Bay, which was almost called Farewell Spit after the owners started to worry about the possible connection with cloudy wines and skies. More recently, Australian Tokay has changed its name to Topaque to fall into line with the Australia-European Community Agreement on Trade in Wine, effecting what we might call a reverse BackRub.

The difference between perception and reality is an important one. Only last week, there was an article in The Daily Telegraph citing the findings of a report on heavy bottles, originally published in the Food Quality and Preference Journal (a magazine that could do with a name change of its own).

As human beings, we naturally associate weight with quality, according to the Oxford University experimental psychologist, Professor Charles Spence, who co-authored the report. “The weight/quality correlation is a general response we have in many different product categories, from heavier car keys to remote controls.” Never mind the quality, feel the weight, in other words.

There’s nothing new about this. In the days when most people worked outdoors doing manual labour, surviving on little food, being fat and pale, as opposed to thin and sunburnt, was considered a status symbol. It’s only in the second half of the 20th century that skinniness has been touted as a virtue. Compare a Rubens’ painting with a photograph of Kate Moss.

So what did the research uncover? Well, two things. First, it discovered that of the 275 bottles sampled in an Oxford wine shop, the ones in heavier bottles tended to be red, older and more expensive. Secondly, “average consumers” are more likely to be influenced by weight than “collectors” and “professional wine experts”. On a scale of one to nine, ordinary punters voted 7.1 and 6.6 when asked to agree or disagree with the statement that heavier bottles are used for wines that are a) more expensive and b) of higher quality.

Actually, I’m not sure the bit about professionals is true. I’ve railed against wrist-spraining heavy bottles on more than one occasion, but I have to fight a subconscious tendency to be influenced by weight in blind tastings. Heavy bottles don’t score many points for dainty carbon footprints, but they somehow feel more substantial, however much I dislike them.

You could drive a critical HGV through the Food Quality and Preference Journal’s findings. What were the five countries concerned? Was 275 wines a large enough sample? Who were the average consumers, amateur collectors and professional wine experts it interviewed? But they still ring true to me.

Heavy bottles have copped a lot of flack from wine writers, but it doesn’t stop producers using them. The tendency is most marked in Latin countries (first into the stocks go Argentina, Chile, Italy and Spain), but you can see it just about everywhere these days, even in Burgundy.

If anything, chunky bottles are becoming more, not less, popular. The reason? They work. As Professor Spence told The Daily Telegraph: “In wine it may have been (historically) that the more expensive wines were in heavier bottles to prevent breakage. Today I think it is definitely done more with marketing in mind than preservation of the contents.”

You don’t have to be an advocate of bottles made from lightweight plastic or papier-mâché to acknowledge that heavier ones are bad for the long-term image of wine as a greener, more environmentally friendly liquid. It’s already a bulky product that is expensive to ship and deliver, one of the reasons that it’s so hard to make money out of mail order. So why make it even more so?

Average consumers may be disproportionately impressed by weight, but there are ways to change their minds. The difference between a 400g bottle (the norm) and a 1kg one (the upper end of the Charles Atlas tendency) is enormous in terms of carbon footprint. Punters need to be made aware of this.

A more effective route might be taxation. If the government clobbered heavy bottles (excluding sparkling wine, where breakable glass and pressure are an issue), that would help to focus people’s attention. Or maybe it would just reinforce the link between heavy bottles and higher prices. In wine, as in other fields, the gap between perception and reality – between Farewell Spit and Cloudy Bay, if you like – can take a long time to close.

Originally published in Off Licence News