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Giving people what they want…or what’s best for them?

One of the tensions at the heart of modern society is the choice by those who provide a service (and we’re talking in the broadest terms here) between giving people what they want versus giving them what they need, or what is best for them. The latter position sounds horribly outmoded and patrician, but before we dismiss it altogether, let’s look at some examples, and then apply this thinking to wine.

First of all, education. Here’s a clear example where things have got a bit screwy because the desires of the ‘consumer’ have been placed first. You end up with a system that strives to entertain rather than inform, and loads of graduates in Media Studies and few in the difficult but useful subjects that aren’t so glamorous.

Then there’s the curse of news as entertainment. Give the people the stories they want to read. Keep them entertained. The idea that stories should be ranked by importance—‘newsworthiness’—seems outmoded: in the age of internet-based news sites it’s relatively easy to see what people are clicking on and the sorts of themes likely to appeal. We get fed a diet of celebrities and titillation. It’s what we want. But is it best for us? We get fed on a diet of fast food information; it’s no wonder our brains, and judgement, are out of shape.

What about politics? A trend in recent years has been policy by opinion poll. Test two or three ideas on a representative population sample and then opt for the most popular. You’re giving the people the policies they want – a sure fire way of staying in office. But it’s a bit disturbing to see governments behave in such a rudderless and cynical manner: the idea behind a parliamentary democracy is that we elect MPs who then set about the serious business of running the country. Giving us what opinion polls say we want isn’t the best way of doing this.

So we turn to wine. One of the successes of the new world wine countries is that they have offered us wines we like to drink. This is to be welcomed. Certainly, I remember the general standard of supermarket wine in the early 1990s without a great deal of fondness. Fifteen years later prices haven’t risen much (which means a reduction in real terms) and the wines are much more consistent. 

But the danger lurking round the corner is that if people are given what they want to drink all the time, and what they want is slightly sweet, smooth, overtly fruity wine without any edges, they’ll never learn to appreciate more complex and intellectually engaging bottles. Is that such a bad thing? It is if it leads to the extinction of more complex, individual and (dare I say it) more natural wine styles, or a loss of wine diversity. 

The truth is, you need to learn how to appreciate fine wine; this necessitates serving people more challenging wines that they don’t immediately like. It means giving them something that’s best for them rather than something that they want. It’s like encouraging your kids to try some proper French food rather than sticking with a hamburger and fries. Patrician and old fashioned? Perhaps. But that doesn’t automatically make it wrong.

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