Tim Harrigan, Massachusetts USA
|A lot of interesting responses to this essay from wine lovers around the world. A broad selection of these
are printed below. Where I had something to add to the debate I have also included my reply.
Thanks to everyone who took the trouble to respond.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of Supermarkets. It was the new age of
craftsmanship. For all the truth in your essay, more people know more about wine than ever before in the
history of man. Never before has great craftsmanship in winemaking been so rewarded AND appreciated. So
too, in cooking, woodworking, glassmaking, potting etc. A hundred years hence, this moment in time, IMHO,
will be looked upon as one of the most important crafts movements in history. So I don't see it as all bad.
John Lahart, USA
I generally agree with what was presented however, I disagree that a) the drive to please consumers is leading to a dearth of shelf
space for exciting wines. This is simply not true. There are more truely interesting wines out there today.
If not for the "dumbing down" it is questionable whether or not the rapid rise of new world wines would have
taken place. b) most of us (wine lovers) fail to see one huge fact of life: most people do not want or have the inclination to
become wine lovers. They simply want a "pleasant" beverage to enjoy with their food or on the terrace at dusk.
A perfect analogy is in the automotive world: Most folks just want basic reliable transportation hence the proliferation
of Toyota Camry's and the scarcity of Porsche 911's.
Nigel Bruce, Hong Kong
I don’t think you take issue with the principle that the wine economy in general can but thrive by extending its
base of consumption. But market share is not only extended by more people being drawn to these attractive,
fruity quaffing wines, but also by fewer possible converts being lost due to poor, sour and inconsistent wines
(the good old 1970s).
Re. the impact on quality and choice, the consistent, attractive, anything but "dumb" wines that fight for the
consumer’s eye and
palate can only mean better wine all the way up the quality hierarchy. Looking at wine, in Burgundy there has always been a
hierarchy among a grower’s production, from village to (perhaps) grand cru - some have said that this works to
mystify the consumer, but I wonder if that isn’t more an effect of economic selection - the best stuff is beyond
our reach, and not always likely to figure on the same (e.g. supermarket) shelves for just that reason. But if
Burgundy reflects a traditional spread of quality, there are increasing examples of how this phenomenon is
spreading, and in wine I see evidence of this working from both directions - top-down and bottom-up.
Bordeaux is the classic example of a top-down expansion. In Bordeaux, we have seen the luxury product - the
cru classe - become bolstered by the 2nd wine, and more recently still, by the 3rd wine. The more popular a product
becomes, the more it needs to extend its range of affordability downwards.
The bottom-up phenomenon has always been there, wine makers wanting to produce better and better wine,
but also wanting to be rewarded for their efforts. This still happens in Burgundy,
too. Coates tells of Pierre Ramonet, in 1972, finally achieving his dream of buying (in cash!) a parcel of the best
white burgundy terrain -Le Montrachet. Quite apart from relying on his reputation, he knows that this parcel
will command a certain price that will
reward extreme selectivity in the vineyard - and the maximum expression of his art. But I think the best
contemporary example comes from Chile. In the past two years, top-end red wines are starting to reach our
shores, the result of the growers in Chile having both the means and the market profile which can support the
commercial production of luxury cuvees.Surely these examples of the best expression of these
producers’ terroirs have only reached our shores because of the initial impact made by affordable, consistently
fruity wines, gaining a foothold in our consciousness via the new market of supermarket consumers?
I also wonder if we should not be happy that there are many different discourses of wine, and different
discourse communities. When you "read" a supermarket shelf, you read it differently to less experienced
consumers. I think there is a good chance, as with any hobby, that a growing number will want to
deepen their interest and enthusiasm to know and experience more.
Tom Troiano, Massachusetts USA
|My response to Nigel:|
First of all, I totally agree that the general standard of "table wine" has improved immeasurably in the past 15 years or so.
There are very, very few bad wines on the shelves and the standard at the lower end is now very high across the board - as I
say in my piece, "sanitary, consistent, pleasant, with no obvious faults". I further concede that there are of course exceptions
to this generalisation - see my "cheap and cheerful" wine selction for evidence that I am as open to the charms of exceptional
cheap wines as the next person.
The main evidence for my assertion that, far from being liberated, consumers are being restricted by simplistic supermarket
shelf labelling, formulaic chardonnays and a burgeoning tabloid mentality towards wine in the media, is from the "beginners"
Wine Appreciation Course I run at the University. I'm half way through the current course with students from quite diverse
backgrounds and an age spread probably between around 25 and 60. These people are regular, keen supermarket wine
drinkers, and have been for many years.
I am constantly amazed and delighted at the revealation our tasting sessions are to them: last week an excellent viognier
vin de pays d'Oc from Lurton had them dumbstruck by its sheer "difference" from what they had experienced before. Last
night's Notarpanaro similarly had them regarding me as some sort of magician, able to conjure these potions out of nowhere -
at least nowhere they knew how to get to!
Every time I run this course the reaction is the same - people are discriminating, are keen to
discover new wine experiences,
but I still believe there is very little in populist culture - tabloids, TV, supermarkets - to encourage them on their way.
Tom, nice piece. I REALLY agree with the supermarket produce example. In Massachusetts the produce in
the Big Supermarkets is absolutely horrible!!!! It used to be that tomatoes were horrible but everything else
was reasonable. Now, everything is horrible! Fortunately, we now have gourmet or "natural" grocey stores
which have nice produce and we have lots of farm stands.
As to the wine issue, I really think you are only talking about a certain segment of the wine market here. Maybe
its the "fighting varietal segment". I don't think
your analysis applies, for example, to vintage port, classed growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy, Ridge
wines, Chateau Montelena, etc. etc.
So, IMHO I THINK you MAY want to be more clear that there is a HUGE segment of the wine industry for
which what you wrote about (dumbing down) does NOT apply. But, clearly there is this "supermarket wine"
category which is by and large as you described it.
James Biancamano, New Jersey USA
I have read your article and respectfully disagree.
Wine is not being "dumbed down" IMHO. In effect the rise of wine aisles in supermarkets as well as the influx
of wine super stores in the states only reflects what is in my opinion a "Wine Renaissance". The increase in
purchases of "lower end" wines has dramatically helped increase the ability of wineries to offer a
broader range of quality products than ever before. Lets use "White Zinfandel" as an example, Many wineries
make this cheap spritzy wine in order to provide cash flow to finance some of their better varietals. Look at
some of the names producing it Mondavi, Beringer, Dry Creek, all reputable names.
You state that the serious wine lover should be worried, worried about what? A drop in quality? A drop in the
number of quality wines available? Where is that happening, certainly not in any of the places I purchase wine
from. I see no proof of "dumbing down". Quite the reverse, no wineries are going out business, land in
Bordeaux and California is at an all time high,
prices are at all time high, the number of wineries at all time high. Demand is most definitely at an all time high.
Should you choose only to buy wine from a small merchant over by Hyde Park, thats fine, but to demean the
wide spread availabilty of wine to "the common folk", is in a word "snobbery".
Robert Callahan, USA
|My response to James:|
...On the accusation of snobbery, well I'll have to defend myself. I was not
taking issue with "common folk" because they somehow cannot appreciate
the finer points of wine - not at all. My concern is that the manipulation of
the mass market for wine by a handful of mega buyers/distributors might
lead ultimately to restricted choice for consumers, a bland "averaging out"
of wines and small producers either going to the wall or having to
compromise what they do - just like so many quality small producers have
in other food sectors in the UK. Of course I agree with you that there is
still a great deal of fine wine to get excited about out there.
I don't think the piece decries cheap wine at all, nor does it imply that wineries are
dying on account of "dumbing down". What is clearly the case is that the supermarket approach to wine - big
producers with big-production, lookalike products pulled in at the absolute minimum price - isn't an entirely
beneficial thing. It goes hand-in-hand with a bottom-line mentality that in moderation is necessary but that
taken to excess is certainly pernicious. This mentality finds expression in the sale, marketing, criticism, and
consumption of wine.
Just on the subject of cheap supermarket wine, let's keep in mind that we're not simply talking about big
wineries that also make expensive wines. We're also talking about co-ops and regional negociants who are
under tremendous pressure to turn out ever-increasing quantities of cheap, drinkable stuff with familiar
names. Beating down co-ops on pricing may be good short-term business, but in the long term these people
DO start to go out of business, to get consolidated, and, worse, to let their vineyards go to other crops.
With regard to the Beringers of the world, certainly there is a place for standardized wash of the sort they
turn out at all levels. What's disheartening is when Beringer becomes a model for other business and when
Beringer-like products dominate the shelves of all your local retailers. When you walk into a store and the
shelves are lined with KJ and its subsidiaries, Gallo and its offspring, and Beringer and its brethren, you have
to wonder whether having 90% of your selection coming from three sources is a good thing.
The question at hand, note, is not where everyone "starts", but where the industry (and at the level we're
discussing it, wine IS an industry and that's part of the issue) at times seems to be going. If the stuff churned out
by the various industrial producers and others is sometimes cheerful and sometimes
cheap, that's fine. If the stuff is all shaping up to be variations on the same few themes, that rips the soul from
It's good that people can walk into a store and grab a cheap bottle and not find it undrinkable. At the same
time, if the juice they drink has little character and it all seems the same, why go back for more? Why not
find other products to consume? If wine is reduced to a series of varieties and standard types, all rated by
cloned critics paying the same minimal attention, is it a good thing if the consumer GETS this, if the consumer
grasps THIS: "yes, it really isn't so complicated, but it's all a deadly bore"? We all want good cheap wine for
buying and drinking without much reflection. That's not what's at issue, I think.
Bernard Leak, High Wycombe, England
I think you are right to denounce supermarket food, but wine is not so
obviously a good target to pick. People who want to buy better wine, even
at a higher price, can find it in supermarkets too.
The charge against media misrepresentation is more plausible and more
serious, but I think the bad money can be driven out by good money. I
could be proved wrong if (e.g.) broadcasting as a whole collapses in this
country, which it may do, but right now I think the advantages over the
medium term are with the people in the white hats. My limited contact with
Gluck confirms everything you say: he has been manufactured into a
television tame expert. The medium used to keep the audience from feeling
intimidated by making the tame experts vaguely ridiculous (Magnus Pyke,
Patrick Moore, even (more subtly) Steven Hawking). Gluck achieves the same
end by being as little expert as he can get away with.
Once, people drank wine because their families did, or through contact
with close friends, or by becoming part of institutions which consciously
transmitted wine as part of their own tradition to new members, like the
universities, the learned professions, the officers' messes of the armed
forces. The old élite mechanisms of recruiting new wine-drinkers have
been by-passed, and with them the old mechanisms of inducting them. The
vast company of "new" wine-drinkers is hungry for help and good advice.
They will take bad advice as well as good, because they know nothing, but
they desperately want to be taught, and will accept what they can get.
The supermarkets have responded to the new world by selling to it,
predictably enough. They are unwilling to engage in the funhouse economics
of the regular wine trade, but commodity wine has been a big money-spinner
for them. Vintners have found their cash cow stolen by the wild borderers,
and have been forced to change. Their torpid period has come to an abrupt
end. When Avery's descended into the swelling ocean, hands fluttering
limply above the waves, the company did not know its own stock. The rising
interest in fine wine across the world is ours as much as America's, though
it feels less "new" here. The international hub for fine wine trading is
still London. This wave of interest has been ridden successfully by many
traders, old and new. Their chance rests with the continuing education of
the market, and the willingness of people to go into a business with a
small return on capital. Any general spread of wine appreciation will inevitably benefit
Eric Ifune, Kanto, Japan
I think there are two approaches to wine, and the supermarket selling of wine involves one. Is wine merely a
beverage or is it something more? In many cultures, wine is just a beverage. Something to drink with meals.
In this approach, cheap but well made and drinkable wines are exactly what the market wants. If, however,
you feel you want something more from wine, and I believe individuals at this site are overwhelming of this
opinion, then the supermarket approach is the antithesis of your interests. Both approaches are valid but in
conflict. Can they exist side by side? That is the real question. So far, as I see it, they seem to be. As long as
there is a large enough population interested in wine, the supermarket approach will not overwhelm the