Penetrating the impenetrable – the wine trade versus the consumer.

Posted on: November 21st, 2013 by Andrew No Comments

Reading an article in the trade Bible Harpers today about the introspection of the wine trade and its inability to talk to modern consumers in a language they understand got me thinking.

The article, by editor Richard Siddle, was a good summary of the problem it seemed to me and unconsciously echoed the muddled thinking at the heart of this debate. The trade likes to think of itself as a whole and is often referred to as The Wine Trade when in reality what there is, is producers, wholesalers, supermarkets and independent merchants all doing very different things. In the article various people berate the trade for being stuck in the past or using quaintly structured language or failing to appreciate how the consumer tastes wine and thus failing to offer what they want.

I don’t see it this way. Consumers on the whole know nothing and care nothing about “wine “ To them it’s a drink, one amongst many, that they have come to prefer over another drink. They don’t care about varieties except as a label. They don’t really care about where the wine comes from and have never heard of Terroir. They like what they like. This is borne out by the fact that the stellar rise in Rose sales has been halted by consumers switching to fruit ciders, a ghastly abomination cooked up in a laboratory. And what were they fleeing? Presumably similarly tasting but more expensive Zinfandel Blush wines, another Lab-created wonder. Then there is a small proportion of consumers who make wine their hobby. They learn lots about lots of aspects about their wine likes and will search out new and interesting things. Finally there is an even more miniscule group, the wealthy who buy expensive wine like expensive cars, because they can afford to.

The Trade likes to deal with the second two groups but needs the first to make any money, especially the producers. However, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can in any way educate the vast bulk of Alcohol Buying Consumers into switching to wine through Social Media or better marketing. It wont happen. The only way to achieve much further market penetration in this sector is to produce much more generic bulk wine in a style that people find palatable. The wine has to be standardised, so no vintage variation, cheap and probably off-dry. Enter Blossom Hill. As usual the Americans got there first. If more bulk wine was produced and marketed like Blossom Hill, I don’t doubt more people would buy it. It could come from France – or China! But it would have to be consistent, drinkable and well priced. The Trade would hate it and the vast majority of smaller producers would be no better off.

Why does the trade think that consumers need advice to help them buy their wine.? They are just not interested enough. They don’t need advice to buy a can of baked beans so why should they need it for wine? It has taken me the best part of 30 years in the trade to come to the realisation that we are a niche business selling a niche product surrounded by millions buying the same simplified product that might as well be on a different planet. Our small coterie of consumers in the Independent Trade probably like the fact that it is a bit quaint, obscurantist and hard to understand, whilst the swirling millions out there don’t give a stuff either way.

Wine is a quirky, complex product that is just not suited to the mass market. When we all understand that we can stop navel gazing and go back to doing what we do best, producing and sourcing one of the world’s more interesting agricultural products for those that want to buy it. Everyone else can drink Jaeger Bombs and Carling for all I care.

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