First things first. Marie-Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake!”. If she actually made any recommendation for the diet of the poor, it was “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” - let them eat brioche - which was the quote attributed to ‘a great princess’ by the revolutionary Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1767. But since Marie-Antoinette would only have been aged 12 at the time, the chances are that he was referring to another, older, more illustrious royal.
Whatever the truth, however, the expression has survived as a useful way of describing a form of de haut en bas - condescension - by a member of a privileged class to those on lower rungs of the ladder.
And, as regular readers may not be surprised to learn, I think I’ve found a couple of modern counterparts to brioche in the wine world: the specialist wine shop, and the online wine retailer.
Whenever I point to the reduction in the range of wines in supermarkets - partly as a result of the shift from hypermarkets to small city-centre stores; partly in response to competition from discounters - someone almost always says “Ah but what about the specialist wine shop?” In France, these establishments are known as cavistes; the Dutch term is slijters, while the UK buzzword is ‘indies’ - as in ‘independents’. And, like butchers, fishmongers and bookshops, these are a lot less numerous than they were. In France, according to the FNCI (Fédération Nationale des Cavistes Indépendants), there are around 2,800, split between 1,700 independents and 1,100 franchisees, including many who run shops for brands like Nicolas.
In the 1980s, the Netherlands had around 4,000 slijters. Today, that figure has fallen by around 75%. Britain has similarly lost around 4,000 shops belonging to chains with names like Peter Dominic, Augustus Barnett, Victoria Wine, Unwins, Davisons, Fullers and Bottoms Up. Oddbins, the ground-breaking chain that once boasted 350 stores, now has fewer than 40. Today, there are fewer than 900 ‘indies’ spread across the UK.
According to the latest data compiled by The Wine Merchant, the average annual revenue of the indies is around £640,000 to $890,000. While some of these businesses also act as wholesalers and profitably turn over five million pounds or more per year, others are lucky to make £200,000 and are effectively hobby-operations for their owners.
In other words, despite the noise they generate as a group, many of these retailers sell a few hundred bottles per week and are of little daily relevance to most UK wine drinkers. The picture is quite similar in France, where the cavistes represent just six percent of the nation’s wine distribution.
Since wine made its way into supermarkets in the 1970s, wine-buying has been transformed from a complicated experience in which there were risks of appearing foolish to one of relative simplicity. Now, for at least 75 percent of shoppers in most countries, it’s a reflex-gesture, performed in seconds, and usually prompted by recognition of colour, brand, grape or region and, probably most importantly, price.
The customer taking the time to read the back labels before making their selection is the exception to the rule. Some are casual shoppers buying for a special occasion; some are vegans checking that no bull’s blood has actually gone into the Bull’s Blood; and some - the minority of the minority - actually enjoy browsing and might on another occasion be found in one of those surviving wine shops.
“But,” comes the response. “You’re forgetting online sales”. And of course it’s true that more and more wine is now bought online. But not necessarily by wine drinkers who like browsing among the bottles. Much of the digital buying is being done as part of the weekly household shop, added to the virtual basket with no more thought than it might have received in the bricks-and-mortar store. It is no accident that, in the UK, the major market with the largest proportion of internet sales, Tesco is by far the biggest online wine retailer.
I’m sure that online wine shopping, clicking one’s way through the various levels of a website, is an enjoyable occupation for some, especially when the retailer provides chunks of text to read about the region and the winemaker, and possibly even a video clip or two. But for most people, it’s irrelevant brioche, compared to the desirable simplicity of bread.
No, my guess is that in the future, instead of fruitlessly expecting non-engaged wine drinkers to alter their behaviour by starting to devote time and thought to the wine they buy and the way they buy it, clever producers and retailers will take a different approach.
I think they’ll start to focus more on some of the things in which their potential customers are interested, such as travel, music, culture, sport and food, and finding ways to ally themselves and their wines with those. Direct-sales businesses have already led the way with wine offers tailored for opera and football fans, for example, but with the targeting that is now possible thanks to social media, the possibilities are growing larger by the day.
Last year, Cosmopolitan magazine ran a feature on wines to enjoy with cupcakes. Curiously - to my taste - it partnered the “earthy aromas and berry flavors of Bordeaux” with the intensely chocolate frosting and crumbly yellow cake, but if it helps a few chateau owners to move a few bottles, maybe others will also find a way to capitalise on the current US passion for sweet baking. Some could certainly offer a tasty accompaniment for brioche.