The rise and rise of the large supermarkets has given consumers more choice, including when it comes to choosing the right wine. Or has it? Central Twickenham has its Waitrose, M&S and Iceland and of course there’s the huge Tesco by the rugby stadium and an almost as huge Sainsburys just a short drive away. So, is this apparently massive choice all good news? And what does it mean for the wine producers, retailers and consumers who want something a little bit different? Bagrat Shahbazian from Last Try Wines, the independent wine merchant on Whitton Road, gives his opinion…
Twickenham has a new Tesco. Is this a good thing?
As early as January 2005 Jancis Robinson, the highly-respected wine critic had written on her blog of the ‘return of the independent wine merchant’, arguing that “in British wine retailing at least, I would argue that there is at least one beneficial side-effect of the fact that so much wine, probably more than 70 per cent of all wine retailed in this country, is bought by the buying departments of just four supermarket groups”. Wow! That’s a big statement. Lets read on…
“While the range of wine on offer in many of the supermarkets, and such high street chains as remain, is largely limited to heavily branded varietals at carefully managed price points with an obviously stage-managed rotation of ‘special’ promotions, the average British wine drinker has become much more sophisticated and discerning. This has left the field clear for what seems to me a veritable flowering of small, independent wine merchants all over Britain”.
Jancis Robinson’s view is as dangerous now as it was then, not least because it is coming from one of UK’s leading wine bloggers. Trading conditions for independent retailers were tough then and are especially tough now. Independent wine merchants come and go. The ‘Tescopoly’ of UK’s high street goes from strength to strength.
I made sure to go to the recent opening of the new Tesco in Twickenham, at the site of what was The Red Lion pub (later re-named Filthy McNasty’s). The first set of displays in the immediate front were dedicated to wine. Wall to wall wine with wholesale reductions on the likes of Hardy’s. Nothing wrong with that of course and its all very impressive stuff. I would have bought some myself if I liked Hardy’s. But I don’t and let me tell you why. I like to drink wine from independent wine makers. Not necessarily independent wine retailers but independent wine makers. I have always been prepared to give any bottle of wine a go, including from the big brands stocked by the supermarkets, but have more often than not been disappointed in this arena. I have even tried the £3.39 1ltr tetrapak Tesco Value Chilean Red (non-vintage) for the sake of satisfying my curiosity. It later was used to help unblock my sink.
Diversity under threat
However, the independent winemakers regularly accomplish the seemingly impossible. From competing with the international drinks companies making bland wines to sell at supermarkets at ridiculous price points, to travelling the world to meet the public, sharing their passion grape to glass, little is beyond them. In the last few years, globalisation and consolidation of producers have had the detrimental effect of producing technically good wines whose styles have become standardised. In other words, the wonderful diversity in style and quality within the wine world is under threat of being homogenised. It is regrettable that many supermarkets and off-licence vendors focus on these kinds of standardised ‘techno wines’.
Is it possible to make an independent considered choice at a supermarket, faced with all that variety? It’s not often easy. You may get as far as figuring out the ‘sections’ to use that horrible supermarket jargon e.g. red/white, new/old world, special offers, fine wine etc. It is then that marketeers take over. Brand familiarity, price and label appeal are usually the key decisions. Faced with seemingly endless rows of wine, making the right decision on which bottle to get almost becomes hard work. It’s no surprise, given that the staff are more dedicated to filling shelves and merchandising and not helping to choose the right wine for YOU.
Balancing passion and planning
While an independent store will never be the wine equivalent of an Aladdin’s cave with countless gems of liquid indulgence for everyone, the service is more personable and the staff (in most cases) actually know what they are talking about. The wine merchant I work for, Last Try Wines, is dedicated almost exclusively to sourcing wine from family farms and independent producers. Unusually, we have a large chunk of our time dedicated to account sales i.e. pubs, hotels and restaurants. As a matter of course, in order to introduce our customers to these small independent producers and to enrich our their wine experience we offer a more personal service, detailed tasting notes, regular wine tastings. The idea is to provide our customers access to beautiful drinking wines that have been meticulously produced by dedicated growers who have been involved in every aspect of its development. I’m sorry to admit that often the passion comes first, and the business plan second.
The cold mechanics of making wine for the masses almost seems ‘factory farmed’ and clinical, soulless. I like to think of wine being made and bottled at the vineyard and then shipped in cases to its final destination, but this is not how the big boys do it at all. The reality of ‘big wine’ is often as bland as the end product produced. I remember being absolutely stunned by 2 wines from South Africa and asking the winemaker why he doesn’t make more. It was absolute liquid gold! The answer from the rather stern Afrikaans wine maker was as follows: he only makes 2 wines (named after his 2 daughters) and he blends them in such a way as to reflect the personality and individuality of his daughters. If he is not entirely happy with the vintage then the wines don’t get released but sold on to a commercial winery to be used in their blends.
To me this is music.