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The "dumbing down" of wine

by Tom Cannavan, 1999

Wine is more than a simple, easy to digest, "pop culture" subject. Part one of my wine course explains how the naming of wines after the grape from which they are made (so called "varietal labelling") has opened the eyes of consumers to a clearer understanding of what they are drinking. People are now quite confident to pick up a bottle of chardonnay from France, Italy, California, Australia, or wherever, because they have learned that they like chardonnay. Previously they might have drunk a Chablis, or a Meursault, or a Bourgogne Blanc, never once realising the common thread amongst these wines (all, in fact, pure chardonnay).

Similarly, the great push by the supermarkets to corner the market in wine retailing has led to all those easy to understand category labels on the shelves - ranged by sweetness from 1 to 6, or by quality from bronze, to silver, to gold. Wine has been successfully repackaged for the mass consumer age.

On some levels then, the last 15 or 20 years has seen a transformation of the "average" consumers' understanding of wine. But has this really been a beneficial process of education, or has it simply reflected an age of instant gratification? We seem to be unwilling to invest time and energy in understanding complex subjects, or anything that can't be achieved at the touch of a button. So what's wrong with wine being easier to understand, easier to buy, and cheaper in real terms than it has ever been before? Well, on the face of it, nothing, but look a little deeper and there are genuine worries for the true wine lover that can be summed up in three words: quality, choice and individualism.

Quality, Choice and Individualism

Supermarkets, at least in the UK, are both the greatest blessing and the biggest curse for true food lovers. They offer a reliable, well priced, convenient (as long as you have a car), easy and one-stop facility. However, the fierce competition and relentless pursuit of market share by the big 4 supermarket chains also imposes impossible conditions on their suppliers, whose profit margins are pared down to the bone. It seems that the only goal for the supermarket is uniform, safe, middle-of-the-road produce made as cheaply as possible. Think about the apples, tomatoes, potatoes, cheese, cooked meats and bread from the average supermarket. I am constantly dismayed by these foods which look healthy and appealing, but taste of practically nothing. Grown under industrial conditions, against nature's seasons and with the emphasis on quantity rather than taste quality, these foodstuffs are a million miles removed from the produce of small, individualist, artisan producers - real fruit growers, cheese mongers, bakers and butchers.

Well I'm afraid that with wine it's exactly the same thing. Those formulaic £3 and £4 bottles lining the shelves are mass-manufactured down to the same restricted price/quality ratio as all other supermarket lines. I know there are exceptions - and one of the great joys is finding something on a supermarket shelf for 3 or 4 pounds that really stirs the blood - but these wines are departures from the rule of sanitary, consistent, pleasant wines with no obvious faults, that are also utterly boring by-and-large. There is simply no room in this system for the passionate, adventurous, exciting winemaker to operate. No leeway granted by the big paymasters, and no chance of producing something that - heaven forbid - might not please the great majority. What we have is an industry manufacturing a consumer product that has been designed to be average.

High on the supermarket shelves lurk those more expensive, more exciting bottles of wine. But just what percentage of all bottles sold come from this category I wonder? I don't think it is being snobbish to say that the basic "pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap" philosophy of the supermarket is the one that draws the crowds. With basic commodities like milk, beans and potatoes, this gives us a limited choice, with just a few pence difference between the "worst" and "best". But with wine, there is such a spread of price and quality that the clamour by the supermarkets to make this art-form into just another piece of merchandise, results in a swamping of the shelves with low end, look-alike wines, to the exclusion of the many fine wines that can be found just a price point or two higher. Far from widening the choice for the consumer, and far from really educating them, the supermarket approach has flattened our expectations and made wine just another homogeneous commodity, made down to a price. This glorious, unique, wonder of nature - capable of an astonishing diversity and profundity - has been reduced in the eyes of the average consumer to an off-dry, simple, inoffensive, crowd pleaser. Surely we want more than that?

The media

Like all those other "lifestyle" subjects - sport, cars, fashion, home decorating, cookery - wine is increasingly getting the superficial and often patronising treatment that helps in this process of dumbing down. Tabloid newspapers, magazines and television programmes full of "crafty cookery" and "six easy steps to...." do not enrich our lives or lead to a deeper appreciation of the subject matter. Let me take two specific examples of wine on television from the past year or two:

Jancis Robinson's Wine Course, shown on BBC television in 1996 was an excellent example of how a gifted educator can make the most complex subject understandable and entertaining. Wine is certainly a complex business and this series managed to convey a love of the subject and deal with some fairly big issues through beautiful images, interesting interviews and an intelligent script. Meanwhile, Malcom Gluck (a UK journalist) rolled out his prime-time "Gluck, Gluck, Gluck". To Gluck, everything over a fiver was over-priced, hyped and only for the stupidly wealthy. He pooh-poohed the "stuffed shirts" of the wine world, with their fondness for claret and burgundy. All this is errant nonsense of course (which I'm sure Gluck knows full well), but is the sort of message that the tabloid media seems to think appeals to the-man-in-the-street. I would contend that, apart from extremely unusual exceptions, it is only at price points of £5 and above that real excitement begins. Here, the winemaker has leeway to create something more than alcoholic soda-pop. I know not every wine over a fiver is great and yes, many wines are overpriced, but that doesn't negate my argument.

Where will it all end?

The problem with all of this is twofold: on one hand, the consumer really isn't being given a great deal. Aimlessly selecting a bottle of chardonnay based on price and a simplified shelf label will not lead us on a voyage of discovery. There will be no chance and little incentive to accumulate the experience and knowledge necessary to take that next step. On the other hand, what is to happen to the chain of small-scale winemakers, importers and specialist shops? These places are often our only source of truly unique wines, but, unable to compete on price, and perhaps unwilling to compromise on what they sell, will they go the way of our high street butchers, bakers, florists and fishmongers?