The defenders of austerity wine

Thursday, 8. March 2018 - 15:45

Peter Paul Rubens painting from Museo del Prado, Madrid

Why do we all drink wine?

A couple of centuries ago, some might reasonably have replied that it offered a safer form of hydration than much of the water that was available. Today, there are those - students economising by ‘pre-loading’ with cheap shop-bought white Zinfandel on their way to a night of dancing and drinking at club-prices, for example - who might admit that at least part of the motivation lies in its alcoholic content.

But I’m going to guess that neither of these explanations applies to the people reading these words. All of us, I’m sure, occasionally find ourselves raising glasses of wine to our lips in order to be polite, or to wash down some particularly unappetising food. But unless one is particularly prone to uncomfortable social or dietary experiences, this should be the rare exception to the rule.

Ultimately, surely the only basic reason for drinking wine, as opposed to any other liquid, is the same as for watching a football match or an opera: pleasure. The obvious corollary is that the greater the hedonistic impact of a wine, the more bottles a producer will sell – and at higher prices.

This is such an obvious statement that it shouldn’t need repetition, but a surprising number of members of the wine industry – those people I term as hedonism-deniers – seem to be bent on ignoring its truth.

First there’s the ‘Everyone is an Impressionable Idiot - Except Me’ argument. This proposes that big-budget marketing is solely responsible for the success of products ranging from Coca Cola and Big Macs to bottles of Yellow Tail and Apothic. According to this theory, if human beings were left to their own devices, they’d apparently opt for wines such as Muscadet and 12% traditional southern French red. None of these condescenders (a useful word I’ve never used before) would, of course, admit to having been influenced by anyone on their path to relishing organic Aligoté. They just have innately more refined palates than the buyers of the wines they disdain.

The individuals voicing this view all share two characteristics: they hate red wine with residual sugar, sweet fizzy drinks and mass-produced burgers, and they’ve never tried very hard to sell anything in large volumes. The history of commerce is littered with the corpses of expensively marketed failures, ranging from Hollywood movies to cars and chocolate bars.

Plenty of wine producers, with deep pockets, and skilled winemakers and marketers have stumbled in their efforts to compete with brands like Yellow Tail, Barefoot and Casillero del Diablo. And as Stephanie Gallo, in her recent Meininger’s Wine Business International interview acknowledged, however carefully a brand is prepared and launched, there is absolutely no guarantee that its target consumers will react in the way you hope. Marketing and familiarity didn’t save Classic Coke from having a chapter to itself in many a book on business disasters.

Persuading consumers to buy something they don’t really enjoy, is like trying to get someone to fancy you. Cologne, clothes and costly hairdressing simply aren’t enough.

Next, there’s the ‘Keep-It-Real’ brigade, personified by the Bordeaux executive who – with a straight face – tried to persuade me that buyers of Mouton Cadet who’d enjoyed the ripe 2014 vintage were just as interested in experiencing the green weedy flavour of the 2013 Bordeaux harvest. My suggestion that consumers of this kind of branded wine might, like most Champagne drinkers, prefer a more consistent non-vintage wine was dismissed out of hand.

Then come the History-Above-Everything pedants who refuse to countenance innovations such as Pinot Noir from anywhere outside Burgundy or Nebbiolo from anywhere but Piedmont. Do not waste your time reminding these people that Pomerol used to be white and that the vines that now make Pouilly Fumé were once full of Chasselas. And don’t bother pointing out that Italy’s tomato-based sauces and Swiss and Belgium chocolate would not exist if the raw materials hadn’t been imported from the Americas. All they care about is their view of historical purity.

And finally, there are the Holier-Than-the-Pope winemakers who proudly present their first and evidently not entirely successful attempt at a ‘100%” Barossa Barbera or Mendocino Mazuelo. I’m all for this kind of experimentation, and quite possibly its consumer-testing among visitors to the winery. But why offer it commercially if you could legally make it taste better by adding a few drops of another grape?

I struggle to imagine a self-respecting chef who, for any of these kinds of reasons, would present a less than enjoyable dish. But most chefs understand that they are not cooking for themselves.

Ethical hedonism, as defined by Socrates’s pupil Aristippus of Cyrene, is the notion that every individual’s pleasure should exceed their experience of pain. For some people, as a friend who once worked as a dominatrix confirms, pain and pleasure can enjoy a very close relationship, and I have absolutely nothing against that. If their version of hedonism is to be whipped or scour their palates with 2013 Bordeaux, that’s their prerogative. But not one they should impose on anybody else.
Robert Joseph