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Wine writers: lying to your readers

Forgive the slightly provocative title of this piece. What’s it all about? I want to discuss a story that weaves together two themes. The first is the concentration by some of the many popular newspaper wine columnists on wines available from supermarkets and multiple specialist retailers. The second is the growing consolidation of the UK wine market.

Put the two together and you have created a situation where the public is effectively being lied to about which are the best wines to buy. I’m not suggesting that there is willful deception taking place here, more a collusion of convenience. Nor am I pointing fingers at some of my colleagues, most of whom are doing a very good job in rather trying circumstances. Let me try to explain.

Newspaper columnists are required to recommend widely available wines. This is because their readership largely buy wine as a convenience product, popping a few bottle in with their weekly shop or nipping in to get a bottle from the offie on the way to dinner.

Ten years ago, the supermarkets and high street merchants used to stock some interesting stuff, and there’d have been plenty of worthy stuff to recommend from these outlets. But wine retailing has changed quite a bit since then, and the market is consolidating into two models.

First we have commercial, branded wines – wines as fast moving consumer goods, to use the jargon – of the sort that now form the bulk of supermarket ranges. The key here is large volumes, continuity of supply, low capital overheads (you don’t own vineyards but instead buy-in grapes) and scaleability. Then we have fine wines, often made from single estates and in small volumes. The first category comprises the sorts of wines stocked by supermarkets, which are rapidly gaining a stranglehold of the UK off-trade. The latter category is the preserve of the independent specialists, which are also doing quite well, and stealing market share from the high street chains. It’s important to point out that this isn’t a division based on price alone: in the supermarkets there is now branded wine at every price point, squeezing the often more interesting estate wines off the shelves.

This retail consolidation has meant that the middle ground – wines from smaller producers at reasonable prices – are having real problems accessing the UK marketplace. As supermarkets look to consolidate their supplier base, dealing with fewer companies, the situation is likely to get worse. As well as creating large brands at the key £3.99, £4.99 and £5.99 price points, the big drinks companies have been buying up smaller, quality producers with an established reputation (Petaluma, Ravenswood, St Hallett etc.), and converting their business models from estate wines to scaleable brands, ramping up production in the process. Their goal is to offer one-stop drinks solutions, with a brand at every price point. No one is deliberately trying to fob consumers off with less interesting wine. They are just responding to the needs of modern retailing.

With these changes afoot, the future for wine lovers looks a cloudy one. Unless, that is, consumers can be persuaded to change their buying habits, and wine writers can be persuaded to be more honest in their recommendations. Expect the supermarket ranges to become more standardized, safer, smaller and – most significantly – duller places to shop for anyone with a real interest in wine. This has already happened, to a large degree. The likes of Thresher and Oddbins have also recently become less interesting places to shop for wine over the last few years.

What of the popular wine columnists? They’re caught between a rock and a hard place. They’ve continued to focus on recommending wines from major outlets, even though there are almost always more interesting – and not necessarily more expensive – alternatives elsewhere. The situation for them is only going to get worse. Either they upset their readers and editors by recommending wines that are harder to get, or they end up having to push commercial rubbish week by week, thus damaging their own reputations and leaving themselves with little professional pride. Denial that this is the case may be the only coping mechanism: they and their readers can pretend that supermarket wine ranges are actually quite good. Supermarket wines are certainly much more consistent than they used to be, but ‘consistent’ isn’t the same as ‘good’ and this reliability seems to have come at the price of mind-numbing dullness and uniformity. Who needs a wine columnist to give recommendations if all you are looking for is wine as a commodity – something to drink that is either red or white, is quite fruity, and doesn’t have any major flaws? You may as well buy what’s on promotion on the gondola ends – after all, this seems to be what most people do anyway.

I’m fortunate that in my rather small and insignificant column for the Western Mail, I’m given complete freedom to pick whatever wines I want. My experience has been that it’s not impossible to find interesting wines at almost all price brackets, but the job is so much easier when you are free to pick from the ranges offered by the independent merchants. I don’t get any editorial space, as I’m restricted to picking just three wines with a couple of sentences on each. If I did have the space, though, I’d try to encourage readers to change their buying habits. They deserve honest advice and most of them believe that when they see recommendations from a critic, these represent the most worthwhile wines available. They need to be told the truth: in most cases this isn’t the case. The wines recommended in most newspapers are the best of but a largely indifferent bunch, that bunch being those wines which are commercially widely available. In a sense, and usually not deliberately, they are being conned.

The conclusions? The UK retail market has changed, and will continue to change. The situation is that consumers who want interesting wines won’t find them in the major retail outlets. Buying interesting wine doesn’t necessarily mean spending more. Wine critics largely restrict their recommendations to the supermarkets and high street wine merchants, and as such, are selling their readers short. This situation is only going to get worse as the UK retail market continues to consolidate, but at what point are the leading wine writers going to turn round and tell their readers that they’ve been leading them down a dead end? 

see also: The two cultures: how the rise of the brands is changing the face of wine

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