Monday, 22 February 2010

Reclaiming wine's middle ground

I have a friend whose uncle is a pig-farmer in Normandy. The animals live in a big warehouse, where they are penned-in; they walk on grills so the excrement falls through and is easier to clean; and they never see the daylight, or a field.

Most people who visit ask him why he raises the pigs in such a way - does he not feel sad, as a farmer, to see animals like that?

His response: 'Of course I feel bad. I would love my pigs to be able to go out in the open and have a better life. But as long as you insist on paying €2 for your bacon, I have no choice.'

But of course we have a choice, don't we? We don't have to insist on buying supermarket own-brand streaky bacon, we could get a few slices of certified Danish bacon if we felt a little guilty, or take it up to an organic bacon produced by the Prince of Wales if, maybe, friends were coming over for breakfast. We have a choice, don't we?

Or do we? If, on the back of the Red Bicyclette scandal, where 18 million bottles of Syrah and Merlot were labelled as Pinot Noir and nobody noticed the difference, we can extrapolate that the majority of consumers don't care what their wine is as long is it tastes good, then the only choices they are going to make will be to chose the cheapest wine on offer*.

And the only people that can provide large volumes at low prices are very very big companies via supermarkets - it's economies of scale (and will lead to much bigger wine corporations - in itself reducing your choice). Not only will this put the screw on small producers, it will likely cause a drop in prices in the mid-range wines because there will be too much of a price gap between the supermarket wine and the €10+ bottle of wine. Either that or they'll be swallowed by the giants, or fall through the grill in the floor.

Let's also look at the trend at the other end: top wines are becoming a luxury market, out of the reach of most consumers and more readily associated with celebrities (Champagne) and investors (Bordeaux) - more so than in the past. I've written enough about this in previous articles so I won't force the point.

So what of the middle ground? With French vineyards told to embrace the Jacob's Creek model, while Australia tries to tackle 'oversupply and low commodity prices', and we all go looking for the 'broad appeal' of wine - all while European MPs guzzle endless Champagne on expenses, perhaps we should wonder if the pull at both ends of the wine world will be enough for the bottom to drop out of our beloved middle ground.

Sometimes, the massive choice of wines, all at different prices, isn't all it's cracked up to be.

* Incidentally, it's interesting to understand how supermarkets view the concept of choice. I once (a long time ago) complained to a Waitrose manager that the supermarket was selling green beans from Zimbabwe. 'But the consumer can still chose, can't they?' he said. 'What choice do they have?' I replied. 'They don't have to buy it.'

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