Harpers, the wine industry publication, has recently launched a campaign to get the wine trade to engage more with their consumers. The trade has undergone criticism for using complicated language that consumers would not necessarily understand. Harpers reports that wine aisles are largely thought to be difficult to navigate and there is often too much choice.
I suppose this is mainly an issue for the supermarkets – my local independent wine merchant has gone to a great deal of effort to not only provide a concise tasting note for every wine in the shop, but also to lay the bottles out not by country but according to style. So if you are seeking a ‘light, aromatic’ white, or a ‘full-bodied, spicy’ red, you can go straight to that section, where the wines are laid out in order of price. Now, while not everyone will like this layout, it is not difficult for the most terrified wine buyer to find something to suit them, and if they can’t then there is friendly assistance on offer.
It’s not that I don’t support the campaign, I think anything that improves the profile of the wine industry with the buying public is a good thing. And buying wine is undoubtedly a complex ordeal for the novice – there might be 800 wines in the supermarket aisles compared to 20-30 brands of washing powder to choose from. And I don’t expect people to know a great deal about wine – the enjoyment of wine should not be reserved for those who read about it. But maybe we ought to be looking at ways in which consumers can help themselves as well. Large supermarkets are pretty baffling anyway, I won’t tell you where my local Tesco is but I have yet to locate the herbs and spices in it; either for some reason Tesco does not sell herbs and spices, or they are located on some secret aisle that only genuine Tesco enthusiasts know about. Either way it sends me screaming towards the safety of the Co-op. I do usually pick up a bottle of wine when I do my weekly shop, normally my criteria is to find the bottle that looks like it least belongs in the supermarket.
Maybe what consumers can do to help themselves harps back to the ongoing debate about supermarket domination – there was a time when we bought our meat from the butchers and our fruit and veg from the greengrocers – and in the interest of supporting local produce, this is another campaign that has really come to the forefront in the last few years. Shouldn’t we also support our local wine merchant?
Supermarkets are known to put pressure on producers to negotiate the best deal possible, tying them into selling their wines at reduced rates with the promise of getting their product on the shelves of all of their high-profile stores. Does this really promote good winemaking? I don’t think so. Whereas independent wine merchants will work with niche wine importers, whose role it is to seek out boutique wineries whose wines are well-made, quirky and interesting. The people who are selling the wine to you will probably have tasted it several times, so they will be able to give you an honest opinion on what it is like.
The wine trade is not blameless though – French and Italian wines stand out as traditionally having the most un-friendly wine labels, often without any information on them. But there are signs that this is changing – a lot of modern Vin De Pays wines have a helpful tasting note on the back of the bottle, and their increasingly appealing presentation helps to draw the supermarket customer’s eye away from the Blossom Hill.
My advice to the consumer is as follows – if the supermarket wine aisle is something you hate, don’t go there. Find a local wine merchant and give them a try. Far from being snobbish and unapproachable, I will be very surprised if you don’t find them friendly, animated and just dying to talk to you about wine in a way that you can understand. They might even give you a taste while you are browsing. They will have wines within your price range that have been carefully sourced, and sold to you at an honest price rather than claiming to be half-price like the old supermarket trick. There is nearly always a case discount and they will probably offer to carry the case out to your car for you. Give them a try, I promise you won’t be disappointed.