by Tim Atkin

Wine, toilet paper and Costco

Like many of you, I suspect, I’d never heard of Annette Alvarez-Peters until she appeared on American television recently, chatting about wine, toilet paper and televisions. But suddenly, she’s all over the Internet, a figure of opprobrium for wine bloggers who think she’s cheapening the object of their affections.

Ms Alvarez-Peters has featured in the odd wine trade power list, but that has more to do with her job (director of wine buying for the powerful, US-based warehouse chain, Costco) than her stature within the business. I’ve never seen her at a tasting or heard her speak at a conference.

This isn’t really surprising. She bought auto-parts and electronic goods for the company before she took on her current brief, apparently. As she admits herself: “I’m an employee who happens to oversee the wine category.” In other words, blush wines today, DVD players tomorrow.

“Is wine more special than clothing?” Alvarez-Peters asked, rhetorically, at one point in the programme. “Is it more special than televisions?” Given that she works for a general retailer, for whom wine is only part of a bigger business, it would be a lot more newsworthy if she thought otherwise. I could imagine Dan Jago of Tesco or Philippa Carr of Asda saying much the same thing.

So what’s all the fuss about? Reading a transcript of the interview with CNBC reporter Carla Quintanilla for a programme called “The Costco Craze: Inside the Warehouse Giant” it’s hard to see why people are so upset. The quote (about loo roll) that has garnered the excitable headlines wasn’t really a quote at all. At one point, Ms Quintanilla asks her if wine is “different than toilet paper” or “tin foil”. To which her response was “Why?” “Because it’s personal,” countered the interviewer in her best Torquemada style. “People can look at it that way,” said Alvarez-Peters. “But at the end of the day, it’s a beverage.”

Alvarez-Peters is a powerful retailer. She oversees sales of US$1bn a year, according to The Drinks Business, and heads up a team of 17 buyers, who purchase wines for 335 stores in 34 states. But her selection (no more than 200 SKUs at any one time) isn’t wildly exciting. Yes, she shifts a lot of booze, including some fine wines, but so what? Size isn’t everything.

It’s understandable that those of us who truly love wine and all its complexities should be irked by her comments. But from time to time it doesn’t hurt to see our favourite drink as most consumers do: as something, preferably on promotion, to stick in a trolley and drink within 24 hours. To them, wine is fermented grape juice, or rather a fruity alcoholic beverage.

I don’t personally have a problem with that. Those consumers have as little interest in the minutiae of wine – of the differences, say, between a Pommard and a Beaune Premier Cru – as I do in haute couture or what happens under the bonnet of my car. Just because we are fascinated by wine, it doesn’t mean everyone else has to share that fascination.

It may seem as if I am arguing myself out of a job here, but that isn’t the case. The mass market, targeted by big brands and half price promotions, isn’t interested in what wine writers or the wine trade have to say. As long as a wine is (more or less) palatable, reasonably priced and has a decent label, that’s probably enough. Our influence is slight or non-existent here.

But the mass market isn’t the only wine market, however important it may be in terms of sales. There is a substantial minority of consumers who are interested in something more complex than three-for-£10 deals and flavourless Pinot Grigio. Nor is there necessarily a yawning gulf between them and the mass market. Today’s Blossom Hill drinker might trade up, given the right circumstances and some encouragement, to more interesting wines.

What do I mean by more interesting? The American winemaker, Randall Grahm, sometimes talks about the difference between “vins d’effort” and “vins de terroir”. He doesn’t mean that wines with a sense of place don’t require effort, too, both from the people who make them and those of us who drink them, but it’s a different type of effort. The first category are essentially manufactured wines, made to a recipe by forcing grapes into a mould; the second are wines that speak to us in a more profound way, that are marked by their origin.

If that sounds like a hard sell to consumers who regard wine as vinous toilet paper, it shouldn’t do. Sales of organic and Fairtrade food and drink, not to mention the fact that London can sustain two natural wine fairs over the same weekend, show that many punters think about what they chew, taste and swallow. Yes, wine is only a beverage, or what the Aussie wine marketer, Bob McLean, calls “75cl of fun”, but it can be more than that, too. Our job, difficult but not impossible, is to persuade mass-market consumers that this is so, with or without the help of Annette Alvarez-Peters.

Originally published in Off Licence News

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