Slow death by boring wine

Responses from wine-pages visitors at bottom of page.

My own career as a wine-drinker almost exactly coincides with the consumer wine boom in the UK. Twenty years ago, Britain and I hardly touched the stuff. Today, we are drinking ten times the amount we drank in 1981, and latest figures show that, despite fears of a coming recession, wine consumption is still rising at an annual rate of between 5 and 10%.

That may sound like cause for celebration, at least among those whose vocation it is to sell it to us, but the truth, alas, is far uglier. The high-water mark of excitement in wine was passed in the late 1980s, when the world was young and there were undiscovered appellations all over the high-street shelves. What’s on offer today is a pale imitation of those glory days – a pale yellow, lightly oaked, 13% alcohol imitation, in fact.

xLike those BBC commissioning editors who suddenly discover that the shrieking, camp buffoon they’ve hired to present the latest can-do cookery series has become something of a minor cult, and then go on to pay him to front an avalanche of gardening/interiors/ makeover programmes until you begin to feel that you’re living with the said buffoon and all his horrible habits, so our supermarket wine-buyers discovered about ten years ago that everybody liked sweet, oaky Chardonnay and that we might be grateful for lots, lots more of the same. And since then, they have put us on an increasingly unrelieved diet of the world’s most boring wine.The prototype wines from Australia were soon imitated in regions of southern Europe – most notably the Languedoc – where winemakers who had begun to despair of ever turning the world on to the thin, flavour-free whites suddenly found that Chardonnay with a bit of oak on it would have the world beating a path to their bottling-lines.

It was a dream come true for them, and was a sight cheaper for the British buyers than jetting off to Australia every spring.

Plagues of flying winemakers, like proliferating summer pests, then followed, big-heartedly spreading their know-how into those corners of fusty old Europe that obviously needed teaching a thing or two. Once their work of homogenisation was well advanced, and Chardonnays were being produced in Europe that had had all sense of character, noticeable acid edge or any dimension greater than just the one airbrushed out of them, the scene was set for a return to the worst nightmare of the pre-1980 era – branded wines.

xWe now have not just the biliously sweet Turning Leaf efforts of E&J Gallo, Orlando’s monotonous Jacob’s Creek, Blossom Hill, Garnet Point, but an all-singing, all-dancing chorus line of copycat whites without a soupçon of personality to show for themselves.Alongside are wines from countries where they speak funny languages, but that have helpfully been given twee little names like Orchid Vale and Riverview, so that they’ll sound as if they come from somewhere hot that speaks English.One can’t just blame the Australians any longer. This style of Chardonnay is now being made in South America, South Africa, New Zealand and California too, and our buyers can’t wait to get their mitts on it.

Not only that, but they come over all hurt when one points out just what a brain-dead swamp of uniformity they have succeeded in making of wine. ‘The choice of flavours has never been wider,’ insists one supermarket wine principal in shameless defiance of the evidence on her shelves.

And to complete the unholy trinity of influences that has stifled diversity and limited choice, is that breed of wine commentator who insists on trying to convince you that you ought to be grateful for what you’ve got, because the alternative is the badly made, oxidised old garbage of southern Europe. These are the scrubbed and wholesome Ovalteenies of the wine press, people who wouldn’t know an interesting wine if it were served up to them by naked slaves at a Michelin-starred restaurant in heaven.

When I wrote in 1993 that Australian Chardonnay was the new Liebfraumilch, even I couldn’t have known how distressingly close the analogy would turn out to be, in terms of the wines’ quality, complexity and market hegemony. But that is what has happened. And no supermarket buyer worth their paycheck is about to kill the goose that goes on laying this pale golden, lightly oaked egg.

Responses to the essay

Lyrac de Witte
So what would you do if you were (say) a small family producer of hand-harvested, oak fermented Chardonnay – made with all the TLC possible – in a place like (say) Limoux, Languedoc, trying to produce something that has originality and integrity, when all around you, taste is being driven by the big boys and the consumer meekly follows on ? I agree with much of what you say, in fact probably with all of it, but what’s the solution for a vineyard like that – of which there must be many – and how can it ever convert the average consumer to quality and originality? Wouldn’t it be better off preferring to make what it can sell, instead of selling what it prefers to make? I’d be interested to hear the solution!


Stuart’s response to Lyrac:
The only solution really is to do both, and let the lowest-common-denominator wine pay for the quality and originality of the other. Someone like Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, California, shows that this policy can succeed admirably. He did make straightforward boring Chardonnay at first alongside his more recherche offerings, and managed to do so (this is the crucial point) without becoming principally known for boring Chardonnay. Adroit marketing is what it’s all about. And I’m not convinced that the choice is always between making quality wine and making money. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Melvyn Crann, UK
Although I, too, have been into Tesco’s to take advantage of discounts and come out without wanting to buy anything, I feel rather more cheerful about the situation. Many (most?) wines produced in conformity with local traditional practices are indifferent, and if they have a personality it belongs to someone you’d rather not speak to (buying Burgundy seems to be rather like doing the lottery: you’re probably throwing your money away but there’s a remote chance that you will hit the jackpot), whilst the application of New World approaches can produce very enjoyable wines which bring out distinctiveness in the grapes used.
Last night I organised a tasting of wines from Sicily and Puglia. They were all supermarket wines revolving somewhere around a £5 price point. The reds were tasted blind and everyone involved enjoyed the evening – and were delighted when I revealed the prices – they’d assumed that the best would cost several pounds more. There was a heavy involvement of New World in the best ones(Promessa Rosso Salento, Terre di Ginestra Nero d’Avola and Inycon Syrah) but they were very different from each other in character, whether or not they utilised local grape varieties. I say “Thanks” to the wine makers and to the buyers who chose the wine for providing some affordable treats.


Stuart’s response to Melvyn:
I agree that this is a sight more encouraging than the dull uniformity I’ve been castigating. The Inycon Syrah and Merlot in particular are delightful wines at the price. I just wish that, where the non-Europeans had set the ball rolling, they would then go away and leave the natives to get on with it. As to New World wines expressing their varieties more intensely, I think after a while that is just what one complains of. Another plummy Shiraz, another cassis-like Cabernet. There’s a savoury edge missing somehow, the lack of a final dimension of complexity.

J. F. Wannell, UK
I agree with much of what Stuart Walton writes, although I think his piece would have made more of an impact 8 to 10 years ago. It is almost passé to protest now and in any case, the market will change eventually of its own accord, as markets always do. The great consuming masses for whom industrial-grade winemakers endlessly churn out sickly chardonnays do not read Wine Pages. Moreover, they want something identifiable and consistent when they go to the supermarket, which is why other sickly drinks like Fanta and Coca-Cola are so successful. The homogeneity of the majority of produce available in supermarkets is all designed around this principle and I’m sure it wont be too long before Stuart’s equivalent in, say, the world of coffee writes in protest at the all-engulfing onward march of Starbucks.
However, there is one aspect of Stuart’s piece, in the tradition of too many British columnists, to which I would like to make my own protest: it is depressingly negative in tone. Forgive me, but instead of being so critical of a phenomenal success story in wine, why not look at positive aspects? Indeed, why not suggest some solutions to the problem of ubiquitous, bland wine?
Write us another piece Stuart, using constructive, positive language and explaining how the average supermarket customer in Doncaster or Milton Keynes is going to become a convert to small-producer Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. While you’re at it, have a think about how s/he is going to understand and pronounce what’s on the label.


Tom’s response to J.F:
You’ve missed my pieces on the appaling bilge sold as expensive “real” coffee in most high street coffee shops then? In my humble opinion as a self-confessed coffee snob, Starbucks, Costa, et al are a disgrace and the public really is being conned by this stuff at £1.50 a cup!
Stuart’s response to J.F:
If my tone seems negative, JF, it’s because there are so many other wine gurus pretending everything in the garden is ginger- peachy. To some extent, they are powerless. The newspapers and magazines in which their columns appear don’t want negative copy so the poor lambs have to keep grinning and bearing it. But negative is what I do. I find it keeps the brain (and palate) alive. I wish I could share your vision of outbreaks of happy consumers coming back with tears of gratitude to the likes of Mosel Riesling. I’ll have a go anyway.

Brian Fletcher, Italy
Where’s the story? It’s a market like any other. Winemakers make wine to sell last time I heard, at whatever level of price/quality. Probably Europe needs a bit more teaching from so called flying winemakers if the level of proposed distillation subsidies are to continue at their present levels. That is if we’re talking about “cynical mass produced swill”. Check out the Financial Times report on the Spaniards who want to, get this, distil 780 million litres of wine: about 20% of last years total make. I suppose there must be an awful lot of dull and cynical Spaniards around with their prices the lowest in ten years.


Stuart’s response to Brian:
Couldn’t agree more. It’s just that this Spanish distillate, if approved, won’t be getting star billing as a quality product on the retailers’ shelves. The story, for those who keep missing it, is that boring Chardonnay does get star billing. What a shame that, to you at least Brian, quality has just become a mere matter of ‘whatever’.

Peter May, UK
The article admits that wine drinking continues to grow in the UK. Stuart says he didn’t drink wine 20 years ago. Now we as a nation are drinking 10 times as much. I wonder what wine Stuart started drinking? What attracted him to become a regular wine drinker. Did he dive straight into artisan wines, or….
I started with Mateus Rose and Blue Nun. When they ceased to satisfy, as my tastes developed, so did my purchases. So there’s a lot of wine made to a formula. So what? There’s a lot of new wine drinkers that want to buy it. In twenty years time they too will be able to look down from a lofty height and decry the popular wines of the time.


Stuart’s response to Peter:
I still think we’re missing the point Peter. The wine I’m talking about isn’t being sold as formula plonk, it’s being sold as quality modern winemaking of impeccable pedigree. The retailers are still selling low-alcohol Lambrusco and own-brand hock of course, although they never show it at their press tastings. But they do show these £4.99 lightly oaked Chardonnays because they think these are in a different class. All I am trying to do is point out to consumers, with the help now of our correspondent from Australia below, that these wines are just as much mass-produced tat as the hock and the fizzy pink Lambrusco. We are being conned on a gigantic scale.

Russ Sainty, UK
Very good essay and a timely topic. For those on the UK Wine Forum, there was a recent discussion about a 20% discount at Tesco’s on Australian wine and the fact that none of us could think of anything worth buying. Why? are they bad wines? No, they’re just the same. Same grapes, same winemakers, same tastes. The strange thing is that the number of bottles has probably gone up, but the choice hasn’t. Personally, such an offer would once have been greeted with a full trolley, now even some of the good buys have lost their appeal. Bill Nanson’s comments below on perspective ring true. Many people want a reliable wine that they buy week in, week out. We don’t expect our cornflakes to change taste and often the blander the taste the better, witness the “brewed under licence” lager on offer. Wine at a certain level is no different, it is traded by the tanker load and is fodder for the masses. But there is more and more good wine out there, less faults and more consistant vintages, which is due to the increased winemaking knowledge which is also responsible for the flying winemakers effects. In conclusion, I think we are living in better times than Stuart believes. There is good wine to be had at reasonable cost, sometimes finding it is the problem. I don’t think it’s sitting on a supermarket shelf nor do I think it’s a throphy wine rated 90+ by Uncle Bob. Isn’t that the fun? Open another bottle Stuart it might just be a gem.


Stuart’s response to Russ: Hear hear.

Greg Stevens, Australia
Thank goodness we send the “boring” (read – prodigious cash flow) wines overseas. It allows us to inject the cash back into high quality wines for domestic use. The Europeans have had hundreds of years (and some weird rites) to find terroir and grape variety matches, the right oak, and rigid rules to perfect their art. They then get paid somewhat handsomely in both a monetary sense and in idolisation. A small producer in the New World must build a reputation and to do this they often have to produce wines for the masses too. Witness Len Evans in the Hunter going down the gurgler because he wanted (I would have liked to do it this way too) to produce single vineyard, premium wines immediately. He admitted later it was financial suicide. When Rothbury resurfaced, glugable wines such as Cowra Chardonnay began to appear. These would then be able to finance the premium wines made with premium oak etc., etc. Owning vineyards can be a culmination of a dream but without financial intelligence, it could be a nightmare.
As a mirror to his article, how about Stuart investigates the successes (quality not financial) of the New World (I dearly hope he can find some – It seems to me Mr Broadbent finds it difficult to try anything non-New World without the blinkers). While they are not necessarily another Bordeaux or Rhone, they can and ultimately should have their own character. A start could be 10+ year old Hunter Semillon (Tyrrells, Brokenwood, McWilliams, Lindemans) and Rutherglen Muscats and Tokays. What do you reckon?


Stuart’s response to Greg:
I think Greg is right in suggesting that cynical, mass-produced swill helps the Australian wine industry to make better wines for domestic use. The cat is out of the bag. Other countries have done this in the past of course, but then look how hard it has been for them to struggle back to any sense of credibility. Of course there are beautiful wines being made in Australia, as anywhere else, but to look at the high-street retailers’ selections now, one could be forgiven for forgetting the fact.

Jamie Goode, UK
I was looking forward to reading self-styled iconoclast Stuart Walton’s first column on wine pages, but I came away disappointed. It’s a non-article. What’s Stuart actually saying? That most people are drinking boring wines? I don’t see why this should upset him so much. Plonk has never been interesting. The source has just changed. And from the geeks perspective, there’s never been so much interesting wine out there, even though it isn’t to be found lining the shelves of Asda and Tesco, and it will set you back more than £4.99. The fact that cheap wine is dull and industrial is hardly surprising – nor is it terribly controversial.


Stuart’s response to Jamie:
Au contraire, mon brave. It is a standing rebuke to the industry. The fact is that the retailers and the more dim-witted of the wine writers don’t accept that this wine is dull and industrial. They think it’s the cat’s pyjamas, and we all ought to be damn glad of it. And again, there HAS been a time when there was more interesting wine at ASDA and Tesco. It was about 10-12 years ago before they all got stuck in the Australian rut.

Nick Alabaster, UK
While I find it difficult to contradict anything in Stuart’s piece, I still find it a narrow (‘high street’ if you like) view of wine. Do wine drinkers really care if supermarket wines are cruddy? If they do then they go elsewhere. The selection of wine from around the world has never been as diverse and interesting as it is today, and, when you care to look, offers better value for money. My parting question though is:- Who’s to blame for oceans of innocuous wines, the producers or the people buying it?


Stuart’s response to Nick:
This sounds like the most terrible commercial apartheid. ‘Who cares what the supermarket-shopping rabble drink? Give them a pigfoot and a bottle of beer and they’ll be happy while we swan off to Haynes, Hanson and Clark’. Yeurrgh. And again, wine HAS been more diverse and interesting. You’ve just forgotten it. Who’s to blame for identikit wine? The high-street buyers first and foremost, followed by the producers who give them what they want, and then start moaning that their precious appellations are going to hell in a handbasket. Remember when Marks & Spencer persuaded one French grower to make them a semi-sweet, blush-pink wine from Chardonnay – although how such an abortion could be called a wine somewhat escaped me. That people didn’t buy it in sufficient quantities for it to become a permanent fixture does rather suggest that the poor, benighted consumer doesn’t after all deserve the blame.

Bill Nanson, Switzerland (ex UK)
It all depends on your perspective:
Wine Buying Principal’s view: “I have established a consistent ‘brand’ like Coca-Cola, Fanta or Robinson’s Barley water. People know what Jacob’s Creek taste like and have no concept of why the 1998 version (shudder the thought) might taste different to 1999. I have been the main driver for wine growth in this country, principally due to this ‘consistency’ of product – people get what they expect/like.”
Wine Geek’s view: The excellent “slow death by boring wine” – verbatim!
Who is right? In terms of volume, undoubtedly the Wine Buying Principal. But then we (the geeks) don’t buy brands do we? We by Grange (oops a brand – forget that), terroir, hype and just occasionally, a wine that takes you to a different level (no – I didn’t mean blasted) and makes it easy to forgive ‘the brands’


Stuart’s response to Bill:
You penetrate the mind of the wine-buyer with unsettling accuracy Bill. I just wish we didn’t have to spend a king’s ransom on the likes of Grange in order to find relief from the high-street monotony. They once had interesting wines at all price points, before they decided that ditchwater-dull Australian Chardonnay would do for the huddled masses.

Paul Armstrong, UK
Thought provoking piece, lots of truisms, but I don’t think cause and effect are correctly linked together.
I’ll get to that, but first, a little reminiscence and an admission. I remember the first bottle of Jacob’s Creek “Orlando” Chardonnay I had in the mid 80s with great fondness. (There, I said it – any credibility shattered!) At the time, having recently finished three years at University drinking cheap beer and party plonk, it seemed like the height of sophistication and elegance. Today, my perspective and experience is a little (OK, a lot!) different, but I’m still grateful to Jacob’s Creek for the part it played in helping develop my interest in wine. And I’m a little worried that it’s all too easy, as we develop our vinous experience and educate our palates, to fall into the trap of wine snobbery – blanking out our own earlier experiences…
But turning to your thesis. Paraphrasing (but I hope not distorting too much), I see two main parts to it: (1) the inexorable advance of homogenised wine branding is a bad thing (2) wine diversity and choice are being stifled by this. Totally agree with the first point. I agree with the second point, insofar as it applies to people who only buy wine at a supermarket or major high street off-licence chain. But I think we need to be careful about suggesting a causal link between the two. Let’s look at this first from the perspective of the individual consumer, and then the entire UK consumer market:
As an individual developing my interest in wine, I’m certainly free to take my custom away from the ‘majors’ and start exploring the huge ranks of smaller more individual merchants round the UK and indeed further afield (and I do, frequently!). It’s getting easier and easier to do this with the rise of internet e-commerce which is well suited to a product like wine. In the last year or so I’ve bought from several traditional UK merchants via their websites, plus one French merchant, and two auction houses, all without leaving the comfort of home. So as an individual, I’m not suffering at all from a dearth of diversity and choice – far from it, my problems are of an opposite polarity! If I wasn’t e-enabled, I accept things wouldn’t be quite so rosy, but the healthy growth of turnover and geographic coverage of Majestic and Oddbins over the last few years, and the gradually rising average bottle price they’re achieving, is surely a sign that the dark forces of commoditisation won’t have it all their own way?
Moving away from the perspective of the individual to look at the shape of the market overall, I’m not quite so sure of my ground. Some numbers might help elucidate the debate as follows: If a higher proportion of total UK spending on wine is being spent on big name wine brands, that would be a bad sign that tended to support your thesis. But, in opposition to this, if the total value of the UK wine market is growing strongly, which it is, then it’s entirely possible that sales of individual, non-branded wines are also growing well within the overall market envelope. I suspect this is in fact the case ( but I don’t have figures – perhaps someone ITB can help out with these statistics).
So, summarising, I guess my position is this: commoditisation of wine isn’t, of itself, something I personally welcome. Simple reason: as an enthusiast, wine is much more than a commodity to me. Do I worry that commoditisation is going to spoil my hobby? Absolutely not, things have never been better for the enthusiast (provided you’re not wedded to the “tradition” of a few grand wine names that are no longer affordable. As an advocate for diversity, that to me seems almost as sad as being trapped with a few homogenised brand-name wines in SupermarketX). Do I worry that commoditisation is going to spoil the path of discovery and enlightenment for new starters on the wine trail? Maybe just a little, but with rising UK wine sales, and an increasingly information-rich world, I don’t think the risks are that great. The only likely losers will be the supermarkets, if they lose the plot on Britain’s evolving interest in good quality wine and, as a result, cede the market share they have gained over the last few years back to the independents. Right, time to go and open an interesting bottle for dinner…


Stuart’s response to Paul:
Thanks for that thoughtful and measured response Paul. I too remember what an extraordinary discovery the first Australian whites were in the 1980s. (I think in my case it was Berri-Renmano Chardonnay from Sainsbury’s, which had so much thick, sweet oak on it, it was like eating half-melted white chocolate Easter egg.) But it was also easy to see that this was a taste that would quickly pall, and so it has. I wish I could be as optimistic as you about the possible proportionate growth of the quality wine sector, but I have grave doubts. The bulk of the growth is in precisely the wines that the supermarket buyers in their blinkers are chasing. And not just them. Look at the amount of shelf-space given over to Australian wine in Oddbins, and the layers of identikit Chardonnays and Shirazes they find shelf-space for. And then look at their Alsace offerings. Or Portugal. Or Germany…