by Tim Atkin

What price wine elitism?

Maybe no one should be surprised that when looters took to the streets in Clapham Junction last week, one of the few shops they left untouched was Waterstone’s. They were evidently more interested in trainers, cigarettes and sunglasses than books.

Less well publicised was the fact that Philglas & Swiggot, an independent wine merchant on the nearby Northcote Road, escaped their attentions too. You’d expect a place stocked with alcohol to be a target, but evidently not. Why? Booze is heavy, to be sure, especially when it’s stolen by the case load, but maybe there’s another reason. Perhaps wine isn’t regarded as particularly desirable by many young people. To them, it’s something that’s old fashioned and can be bought cheaply.

Coincidentally, the riots took place the week after a much smaller, but still significant contretemps in the wine business. If you missed the news, the editor of Decanter, Guy Woodward, was accused of being a “snob” after he appeared on Radio 5 Live urging listeners to trade up to £6.99 to drink better wine. Woodward may have overstated his case slightly – he said that it was “pretty impossible to get a decent wine at £4.99” – but I suspect that many of us would agree with him.

Who accused him of elitism? Step forward Asda, one of our biggest supermarkets and a long-term supporter of category-damaging three for £10 deals. “Our team is constantly on the look-out to source world class wines at fantastic prices,” said a spokesman, “and our shoppers, as well as a host of wine competition judges, know that world-beating wines can give you plenty of spare change from a fiver.”

Up to a point, Lord Copper, as a character in Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel, Scoop, once put it. No one is denying that sub-£5 wines occasionally do well in wine competitions, but they are the rule-proving exceptions. When you consider duty at £1.81, VAT at 20%, the weakness of the pound against most currencies, even the euro, and escalating shipping, packaging and production costs, there isn’t much left for the liquid in the bottle at £4.99.

And yet that Asda spokesman knows his company’s target market. It’s worth remembering that the average price of a bottle of wine in the UK is still only £4.55 and probably less at Asda. The supermarket didn’t get where it is today, as CJ used to say in Reggie Perrin, without offering its customers what they want: cheap wine, among other things. Some of these deals are possibly loss leaders, but Asda reaps the benefit in terms of footfall and customer loyalty.

Anyone who doubts the reality of our nation’s addiction to cheap wine should read some of the comments that greeted a follow up piece Woodward wrote for The Guardian’s website. To cite only six excerpts: “most people just want a cheap wine to drink with their Sunday lunch or get tipsy on”; “you can change every week to the offers that are on in a variety of stores”; “Asda is quite an expensive place to buy wine”; “a cheap whine about cheap wine”; “the primary factor for all consumers when buying stuff is price, and in difficult economic times, no one apart from middle class Guardian readers and Wayne Rooney can afford to spend over £5 on wine”; “it’s just a bloody drink, for Christ’s sake”.

Shocked? Even if you believe that people who write comments on websites are one baguette short of a full picnic hamper, and that some Guardian readers are notoriously stingy, these words should give those of us who work in wine pause for thought. There were some supportive posts, too, but the ones I’ve quoted are typical. To put in bluntly: most people are happy to drink wine that costs less than a fiver and see no reason to change.

Is there a difference between a wine at £4.99 and one at £6.99? The honest answer is not always. As one, more thoughtful Guardian reader put it: “Until quality correlates closely enough with price to make spending more on wine a more reliable path to a better wine, most people won’t bother”. Lots of things can affect price: image, abundance (or shortage) of supply, labour costs, domestic demand and currency fluctuations. That’s why a £6.99 wine from Australia or California is generally less reliable than one from, say, Chile or Sicily. Not all £6.99 wines are alike.

For all that, getting consumers to trade up is essential. I’d go so far as to say that it’s the most important challenge facing the UK wine business. With an average price point of £4.55, there is no meaningful future. Some producers have already turned their back on these islands, concluding that there are much better margins to be made elsewhere. Their number will only grow if we fail to persuade wine drinkers that what Woodward calls “decent” wine starts rather than ends at £4.99.

Originally published in OLN

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