by Tim Atkin

What the general public drinks

If I had a tenner for every time a supermarket retailer has told me that “we’re giving our customers what they want”, I’d have retired to an offshore tax haven by now, periodically prising my body from a hammock to change the CD or pour myself another gin and tonic. I’ve heard the platitude twice in the last fortnight alone, at tastings given by Asda and Tesco, as a way of justifying safe, uninspiring ranges.

Meeting the punters’ wishes is often presented as a selfless thing, like washing their cars or bunging them a few quid, but I’m not so sure. When retailers say they are giving people what they want, what they really mean is that they are selling what suits their own purposes, or rather those of their shareholders. It was ever thus. In a recession, wine is seen as cheap bait to lure punters into stores to buy other things. I can’t see this changing until the government bans the use of alcohol as a loss leader.

Is cheap wine what consumers want? Yes and no. No one likes paying more than they have to for anything, especially at the moment, but when rock bottom prices start to undermine quality (as they do, more often than not) my hunch is that most people would rather trade up than drink something that tastes actively unpleasant.

Their ceiling might not be £8.99, but it’s a lot higher than £3.99, which is where the likes of Asda and Tesco seem to think it sits. Even Sainsbury’s, which is finally doing something to lift the quality of its wine range with some new discoveries between £7.99 and £11.99, is still flogging three bottles for £10 on television.

Asda and Tesco have tailored their ranges to reflect (and arguably exploit) the recession. The result is wine buying of stultifying blandness. Asda has binned its small fine wine selection to concentrate on a line-up of predictable, me-too names and flavours. Tesco’s range is slightly better, partly because of the parcels it sells through, but its recent tasting of 153 wines featured only a dozen new wines. When I tell you that one of those was Veuve Clicquot Rosé you can see what I mean about lack of innovation. If these two supermarkets are giving punters what they want, then heaven help us.

Tesco and Asda may be determined to occupy the bargain basement, but some of their competitors have raised their sights. Sainsbury’s tasting of 135 lines included 50 new products, including a Falanghina, a Grillo, a Nero d’Avola, a Petite Sirah and a Hawkes Bay Syrah. The evidence suggests that more people are eating at home these days and spending more on the occasional bottle of wine. If so, they are more likely to find something interesting at Sainsbury’s than at Tesco or Asda.

Sainsbury’s has a long way to go to catch up with Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, however. M&S’s tasting didn’t quite hit the highs of some previous events — largely because we expect so much from the supermarket these days — but nearly half of its 131 wines were new listings and included a German Pinot Noir, a Chilean Carignan, an Argentinean Tannat, a Portuguese Touriga Nacional and a £45 Barolo.

The Waitrose tasting was even better. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it was the most exciting tasting the supermarket has ever put on. After some disappointing performances over the last couple of years — its New World range, in particular, was too focused on brands — Waitrose showed more than 300 wines, beers and ciders. Gone were the less than a fiver neck tags that dominated its previous tastings, in favour of new discoveries, some great fine wines and a range of “feel good” offerings from Fairtrade and other ethically-minded sources.

Waitrose sells a range of great wines. And it sells them in depth. To take only one example, it showed six white wines from Austria, including a Pinot Blanc, two Rieslings and three Grüner Veltliners. Everywhere you looked, from Italy to Argentina, France to New Zealand, there were classy listings. Some of these are only available from Waitrose Wine Direct — even the supermarket’s famously well-heeled punters may baulk at buying a £50 Châteauneuf off the shelf — but that doesn’t take anything away from the statement that Waitrose has made: quality, quality, quality.

Which supermarket is listening to its consumers? You could argue that, in their own different ways, they all are. Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose cater for different punters, or rather sets of punters, although there is more cross over between them than some people imagine. But I still think that, where wine is concerned, the Waitrose and M&S approach will triumph in the end. Give your customers an interesting range, covering a variety of flavours and price points, and they will reward you. As Oscar Wilde one put it: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Originally published in Off Licence News

Leave a Reply