In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the middle of National Wine Month, an initiative launched by the admirable Wine & Spirit Education Trust. I may have missed the road shows, the street parties, the pop up tastings and the impromptu bring a bottle supper clubs, but I don’t think so. So far, NWM has failed to engage the general public in any meaningful way.
There’s nothing wrong with the idea of celebrating what has become our favourite alcoholic beverage, even if a month sounds like a marathon. Surely anyone who loves wine must be in favour of “engaging different groups of consumers”, giving people “reasons to experiment and try different wine” and “increase awareness of the wide variety of wines available on the UK market”, as NWM’s website, www.nationalwinemonth.org, puts it.
And yet I’ve never felt less like raising a glass to the UK wine scene. To put it bluntly: I don’t see how we can continue as we are, for the simple reason that the sums don’t add up. Net profit margins are laughable for most importers (make 1% and you’re doing well) as well as for most producers. Even the supermarkets admit that they make less money out of wine than most other sectors.
I was asked to do a presentation to a group of exporters in Rioja recently and what I had to say shocked most people in the room. Our currency is weak, we have a stubbornly low average price point of £4.55, our duty rates are some of the highest in Europe at £1.84, our high street has all but collapsed, the supermarkets keep the price of wine artificially low to drive footfall, 75% of wines in the off-trade are sold on promotion (Nielsen estimate), the Top 50 brands are all powerful (those promotions again), Pinot Grigio, California Blush and cheap Aussie plonk are the dominant wine styles, and buying power is concentrated in fewer and more powerful hands. See what I mean?
Summing up the UK market, I quoted the words of a Chilean producer: “Es un mercado que exige mucho, pero paga poco.” In short, we demand a great deal, but are not prepared to pay for it. “Why should I sell my wine in the UK?” one Riojan bodega owner asked me. It was a question I struggled to answer. If you were looking for somewhere to build your brand, would you come here rather the United States or the Far East, where most consumers are prepared to pay for quality rather than focusing on cut-price deals?
The obsession with unsustainable low prices is so deeply ingrained in the buying habits of the British wine consumer that it will be very difficult to shift. We can all take some of the blame for this: the government, importers, retailers, journalists, wholesalers and producers. Together, we have allowed the UK to become a clearing house for the world’s (mostly) unwanted plonk, giving punters a false sense of what it costs to produce drinkable wine.
The highly questionable Wiseman “study”, conducted by a psychologist from Hertfordshire University during last month’s the Edinburgh Science Festival, merely confirmed what most people already believe: that it’s not worth paying for good wine because it’s no worse than (and sometimes just as good as) the more expensive stuff.
In case you missed the breathless media coverage, Wiseman asked 578 members of the public to taste a bunch of wines with different price points and pronounce on each one. Was it cheap (below £5) or “expensive” (above £10)? They weren’t asked to compare and contrast pairs of wines, merely to give their views on individual wines. Wiseman concluded that “in these times of financial hardship, the message is clear — the inexpensive wines we tested tasted the same as their expensive counterparts”.
I’m not alone in questioning Wiseman’s findings. My colleague Jamie Goode rightly pointed out that “the relationship between price and quality in supermarkets is so tenuous that, in this sort of study, you could get pretty much whatever result you wanted if you were canny about which wines you chose”.
Needless to say, the papers didn’t see it that way. “Expensive wine and cheap plonk taste the same to most people,” was The Guardian’s misleading headline. The comments from readers on its website were more measured, however. Several pointed out that the tasters weren’t experienced and a couple questioned the tag “expensive” for a wine at £10. “Let’s do this with £2.99 against £299,” wrote one. “I think you might find the results aren’t quite the same.” “What a rubbish experiment,” commented another.
Most of us would agree. There are some good wines out there at £5 (but not many) and some over-priced ones at £10, £20 and £30, but most of the time you get what you pay for, especially with cheap wine, where duty accounts for a disproportionate amount of the selling price. If National Wine Month could get that simple fact across to the public, disproving the findings of the Wiseman “study”, I would regard it as a success. Two weeks to go, guys….
Originally published in OLN