Is wine more like spinach or ice cream?

Sunday, 29. July 2018 - 15:45


For those of us who dislike Donald Trump and Brexit and over-alcoholic, overoaked wines, one thing is certain. Everyone who disagrees with us is wrong. Obviously, the people who fit into the first two groups were tricked by Russian social media manipulation, while those in the third were somehow bullied or bamboozled by Robert Parker. Left to their own devices, the wine drinkers would have naturally gravitated towards classic 12%, unwooded, traditional European wines that fit our criteria of what is ‘good’. 

Alberto Antonini, the superstar Italian wine consultant, and a fierce opponent of big, rich red wines is one of my favourite people in the wine world, but he exemplified this way of thinking perfectly at the recent MUST Fermenting Ideas conference when he made the heartfelt plea that consumers be given the confidence to choose the kinds of wine they like.

The thought that this might be precisely what is already happening - that they might actually prefer sweet, oaky wine, in much the way that they might choose to listen to Beyonce or Adele rather than Bach or Albinoni, or to lunch on a burger and a Coke rather than a quinoa salad and a glass of Picpoul de Pinet, didn’t seem to have occurred to him.

Speaking at the same event, France’s top wine critic, Michel Bettane, expressed a characteristically Gallic view, which is a lot more logical. Human beings, he said, need to learn what they should and shouldn’t like. Just as children have to be taught to appreciate spinach and broccoli.

The trouble with the modern world, Bettane believes, is that wine writers no longer have the knowledge or inclination to learn the basics themselves, or – even if they have done so –to offer this kind of teaching. Instead, they simply express what they themselves like, in the hope that their, and their audience’s tastes coincide.

The French distrust of consumer democracy was beautifully illustrated by the ambitious, but doomed-from-the-outset, 2005 plan to set up a Franco-German response to Google. Championed by the then French president Jacques Chirac, Quaero (‘I search’ in Latin, in case you were wondering) would “staunchly defend the world's diversity of cultures against the looming threat of uniformity”.

M. Chirac’s Minister of Culture, the grandly named Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, declared that he did not believe “that the only key to access our culture should be the automatic ranking by popularity, which has been behind Google's success”. He proposed that the results of the European search engine - ‘moteur de recherche’ - would be selected by a “committee of experts” who it was easy to imagine, would direct users to Ravel rather than rap or the Rolling Stones.

I don’t know how much money was wasted on this project, and I doubt many other people have access to that information, but I do know that it failed. Just as, in the age of Spotify, government limits on the amount of non-Gallic music that can be played on French radio are increasingly ineffective in stemming the intrusive flow of Anglo Saxon pop.

Adult consumers, like small children, are very good at expressing what they do and don’t like. Getting them to eat their vegetables or listen to classical music voluntarily is far from easy – which helps to explain the existence of so many elaborate sauces that camouflage the flavour of spinach and chicory, and the ‘Pop Classics’ that dominate the radio airwaves.

The only difference between a parent trying to spoon spinach into a toddler’s mouth and a wine producer trying to market a bone dry, unoaked, low-alcohol wine is that the mum or dad knows they are fighting a battle while the winemaker all too often fools themself that the odds are in their favour.
Robert Joseph