The dumbing down of wine

Wine is more than a simple, easy to digest, “pop culture” subject. Part one of my wine course explains how the naming of wines after the grape from which they are made (so called “varietal labelling”) has opened the eyes of consumersto a clearer understanding of what they are drinking. People are now quite confident topick up a bottle of chardonnay from France, Italy, California, Australia, or wherever, because they havelearned that they like chardonnay. Previously they might have drunk a Chablis, or a Meursault, or a BourgogneBlanc, never once realising the common thread amongst these wines (all, in fact, pure chardonnay).

Similarly, the great push by the supermarkets to corner the market in wine retailing has led to all those easy to understandcategory labels on the shelves – ranged by sweetness from 1 to 6, or by quality from bronze, to silver, to gold. Winehas been successfully repackaged for the mass consumer age.

On some levels then, the last 15 or 20 years has seen a transformation of the “average” consumers’ understanding of wine.But has this really been a beneficial process of education, or has it simply reflected an age of instant gratification? We seem to be unwilling to invest time and energy in understanding complex subjects, or anything that can’t beachieved at the touch of a button. So what’s wrong with wine being easier to understand, easier to buy, and cheaper in real terms than it has ever been before? Well, on the face of it, nothing, but look a little deeper and there are genuine worriesfor the true wine lover that can be summed up in three words: quality, choice and individualism.

Quality, Choice and Individualism

Supermarkets, at least in the UK, are both the greatest blessing and the biggest curse for true food lovers. They offer areliable, well priced, convenient (as long as you have a car), easy and one-stop facility. However, the fiercecompetition and relentless pursuit of market share by the big 4 supermarket chains also imposes impossible conditions ontheir suppliers, whose profit margins are pared down to the bone. It seems that the only goal for the supermarket is uniform, safe,middle-of-the-road produce made as cheaply as possible. Think about the apples, tomatoes, potatoes, cheese, cookedmeats and bread from the average supermarket. I am constantly dismayed by these foods which look healthy and appealing, but taste of practically nothing. Grown under industrial conditions, against nature’s seasons and with the emphasis onquantity rather than taste quality, these foodstuffs are a million miles removed from the produce of small, individualist, artisan producers – real fruit growers, cheese mongers, bakers and butchers.

Well I’m afraid that with wine it’s exactly the same thing. Those formulaic £3 and £4 bottles lining the shelves are mass-manufactured down to the same restricted price/quality ratio as all other supermarket lines. I know there are exceptions – and one of the great joys is finding something on a supermarket shelf for 3 or 4 pounds that really stirs the blood – but these wines are departures from the rule of sanitary, consistent, pleasant wines with no obvious faults, that are also utterly boring by-and-large.There is simply no room in this system for the passionate, adventurous, exciting winemaker to operate. No leeway grantedby the big paymasters, and no chance of producing something that – heaven forbid – might not please the great majority. What we have is an industry manufacturing a consumer product that has been designed to be average.

High on the supermarket shelves lurk those more expensive, more exciting bottles of wine. But just what percentageof all bottles sold come from this category I wonder? I don’t think it is being snobbish to say that the basic “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap” philosophy of the supermarket is the one that draws the crowds. With basic commodities like milk, beans and potatoes, this gives us a limited choice, with just a few pence difference between the “worst” and “best”. But with wine, there is such a spread of price and quality that theclamour by the supermarkets to make this art-form into just another piece of merchandise, results in a swamping of the shelves with low end, look-alike wines, to the exclusion of the many fine wines that can be found just a price point or two higher.Far from widening the choice for the consumer, and far from really educating them, the supermarket approachhas flattened our expectations and made wine just another homogeneous commodity, made down to a price. This glorious, unique, wonder of nature – capable of an astonishing diversity and profundity – has been reduced in the eyes of the average consumer to an off-dry, simple, inoffensive, crowd pleaser. Surely we want more than that?

The media

Like all those other “lifestyle” subjects – sport, cars, fashion, home decorating, cookery – wine is increasingly getting the superficial and often patronising treatment that helps in this process of dumbing down. Tabloid newspapers, magazines and television programmes full of “crafty cookery” and “six easy steps to….” do not enrich our lives or lead to a deeper appreciation of the subject matter. Let me take two specific examples of wine on television from the past year or two:

Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, shown on BBC television in 1996 was an excellent example of how a gifted educator can make the most complex subject understandable and entertaining. Wine is certainly a complex business and this series managed to convey a love of the subject and deal with some fairly big issues through beautiful images,interesting interviews and an intelligent script. Meanwhile, Malcom Gluck (a UK journalist) rolled out his prime-time “Gluck, Gluck, Gluck”. To Gluck, everything over a fiver was over-priced, hyped andonly for the stupidly wealthy. He pooh-poohed the “stuffed shirts” of the wine world, with their fondness for claret and burgundy. All this is errant nonsense of course (which I’m sure Gluck knows full well), but is the sort of message thatthe tabloid media seems to think appeals to the-man-in-the-street. I would contend that, apart from extremely unusual exceptions, it isonly at price points of £5 and above that real excitement begins. Here, the winemaker has leeway to create something more than alcoholic soda-pop. I know not every wine over a fiver is great and yes, many wines are overpriced, but that doesn’tnegate my argument.

Where will it all end?

The problem with all of this is twofold: on one hand, the consumer really isn’t being given a great deal. Aimlessly selecting abottle of chardonnay based on price and a simplified shelf label will not lead us on a voyage of discovery. There willbe no chance and little incentive to accumulate the experience and knowledge necessary to take that next step. On the otherhand, what is to happen to the chain of small-scale winemakers, importers and specialist shops? These places are often our onlysource of truly unique wines, but, unable to compete on price, and perhaps unwilling to compromise on what they sell, will they go the way of our high street butchers, bakers, florists and fishmongers?

Responses to this essay

Tim Harrigan, Massachusetts USA
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. Cheers. Tim

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.

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 Troiano, Massachusetts USA
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”.

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.

Robert Callahan, USA
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 wine.
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 them.

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 market.