‘You’re a wine merchant who writes about wine merchants.’ A friend recently said. ‘Isn’t that a Cretan paradox.’ I wasn’t thinking of Epimenides, when in ‘A Cautionary Tale’, I urged you to think carefully before buying from an independent. But how you buy your wine, and who you buy it from, is quite an important decision.
Once upon a time things were easy. A kindly uncle or godfather introduced you to a be-pinstriped chap, with gobbets of food on his tie and wine stains over his corpulent shirt front, who laid you down some sherry, madeira, a pipe of port, some judiciously blended Algerian burgundy – with the reassuring smell of an old stable – and a few cases of reliable claret guaranteed to come to maturity before death or gout set in.
Supermarkets were a thing of the future. I vividly remember standing in my local ‘Fine Fare’ while my errant dog wandered in to urinate on the leg of a stranger transfixed by the bottles of Mouton Cadet, Hirondelle, Corrida, Mateus Rose, magnums of Lutomer Laski Riesling and screw top Bardolino, vying for shelf space with Camp Coffee, Heinz Salad Cream, Wagon Wheels, Cadbury’s Smash and Ye Olde Oak Ham.
The white heat of the retailing apocalypse was coming and only the arrogant and lazy didn’t go to the mountaintop to greet the new dawn. The be-pinstriped purveyors of ‘Hock’ and ‘Good Ordinary Claret’ stood firm. There was nothing to fear but fear itself. Things would go on as they had always done. All wrongs would be righted and the enemy cast down!
Some, alerted by a whippersnapper from marketing no doubt, dodged the approaching meteorite and, whilst not going as far as growing beards or donning tee shirts, escaped the iridium layer and diversified into responsibly sourced, excellent value, own label ranges that were region specific and producer friendly. Berry Bros, Tanners and The Wine Society led the renaissance, showing what you can do by applying sound buying principles and sticking to the maxim of value over price.
Others perished, and on the tombs of the fallen, new palaces were built. Today, eighty percent of the wine sold in the UK is controlled by the multiples. With brands like Blossom Hill’s White Zinfandel – a hideous confection of bubble gum and Calpol – replacing the once mighty Piat D’Or.
These ‘Stepford Wines’, as the big brands are sometimes called, are owned by industry giants Pernod Ricard, Accolade, Gallo, and Constellation and come freshly filled and bottled at a dockyard near you.
They are generally recognisable by names that have a geographical clue in the title such as: Bay, Cove, Hill, Home or Casa, Crest, Valley, Ridge, Peak, Grove, River and Creek. And although these may not be indicative of their real origin – most are cross, or inter-regional, blends made from the big five grape varieties – they do exactly what they say on the crowd pleasing tin.
Now, most folk – through a combination of idleness and complacency – don’t bother to compare or contrast these wines. So they sail on, through the seven seas of of mediocrity, piloted by the dead hand of globalism, as Flying Dutchwines.
Whoops no free tickets to major sporting events for me!
Needless to say, they all go with red meat, chicken or fish and are great as an aperitif. And just in case you think I’m not up to speed with my food and wine matching, I recommend lager with curry.
It’s hard to make any real money from a high margin, highly taxed, product like wine. But the best way, other than Papa Brand, is private or own label. Private label, own label, own brand or home brand, is a product owned by a retailer or distributor and sold exclusively in its own stores. They tend to replicate higher level design or branded products but at a lower cost.
Now before the VOR says ‘Don’t be so negative Jules.’ I am going to tell you why this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
If you are a wine producer it doesn’t give you brand equity. In today’s global marketplace the key challenge is access to market and those unable to sell through multiple channels end up in a very poor bargaining position and are often forced to sell without getting any equity at all. This places the relatively unknown producer at the bottom of the food chain. Thus forcing the small, financially weak, and often interesting, from the table to fight for scraps on the floor! Their only hope being the combined efforts of an independent merchant and an adventurous consumer.
This in turn is bad for you dear wine drinker, thats you folks. Not only do you end up paying too much for your prettily packaged plonk but you remain blissfully ignorant of ‘real wine’. This is fine if you just don’t care – but what if you do?
Can own label ever be any good? Yes, if it gives credit to the producer. Marks and Spencer do this extremely well (That should please my mother). Their well positioned, gourmet food is ably supported by an exciting and diverse wine range that puts the producer firmly on the label – and they do nice socks!
The VOR thinks the John Lewis Partnership should make it into the frame, as she believes they should be running the country, although she didn’t say whether that would be with, or without, the vinous expertise of Phillip Schofield.
So what about supermarket own label? The kind pioneered by Tesco Finest, Asda’s Extra Special or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference. If you ignore the tied in brand contracts and controversial was/now pricing these are, on the whole, very reliable wines – even if they don’t always taste of where they come from! The implication here is that the supermarket buyers have sourced the wines themselves, and have carved out margin by bottling it under own label to cut out the middleman thus saving you money as well as being more diverse than the big brands.
Thats the above deck stuff. But what goes on in the murkier depths of the rather inappropriately named ‘soft’ brand?
The lower decks are the domain of king margin and some powerful promotional tools. ‘From the vineyard to your front door’ says the tagline. Damn I wish I’d thought of that! If mail order is your preferred route you may already be wearing a promotional apron and opening one of your ‘Twelve Stunning Sauvignons’ with a giant corkscrew.
There are two main models here. The first is the Laithwaite’s method – and it works like this. First you dress a wine in some emperor’s new clothes, preferably something akin to the livery of an existing producer. Then a name is invented and hey presto, you are left with a wine that looks like a producers own brand but is in fact an exclusive retail private label which artfully obscures high margin. How else do you think you got those free crystal glasses and a gazillion pounds off your first order. And should you neglect to reorder through sheer laziness, theres a whole telesales department just waiting with a new offer tailored just for you.
Don’t drop that Sauvignon before we move on to the second method. employed by those angelically crowdfunded philanthropists at Naked Wines. This is where you use an existing wine maker to source and buy the wine for you. Then you label it, making sure you put the winemakers name prominently on that label, to make it look like the winemakers own wine. If you think those wings fit, Clarence, you’re peeing up the wrong tree.
Back to the Cretan paradox. Am I, as a wine merchant, saying that all wine merchants are liars? Or, out of slavish self interest, am I attempting to force you into the ever weakening embrace of your nearest independent merchant? Before you push those bottles of Chateau du Manderlay to the back of the cupboard and set of in search of some real wine, just remember that there’s still hope. If its Foine Woine you’re after, then Costco are the largest retailers in the world. For everything else there’s Amazon.