Wine’s image problem is about far more than supermarket pricing

In which Old Parn outlines his own opinion as to why a love of wine is so often associated with snobbery

The question that’s flapping around the wine world like a startled goose is, ‘Why won’t the British treat wine seriously?’ — and, in parallel to that, why does wine have such a problem with allegations of snobbery?

Well, that flapping goose has woken me up, too. So here are my thoughts.

First up, I think it’s a little too easy to blame supermarkets for the situation in which wine-lovers are stereotyped as snobs.

Guy Woodward (in the Guardian piece I linked to, above) writes:

‘It’s a situation that several supermarkets have helped to create. By directing consumers to the “3 for £10” promotions, stores are hardly encouraging us to discover new wines. The wine industry’s own trade body, the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, has even criticised such “deals”, arguing that they stymie consumer education.’

But I’m not sure that supermarkets’ pressure to hit the lowest price points is really responsible in a fundamental way for perceptions of wine snobbery. After all, supermarkets have surely also remorselessly driven down the price of meat and beer (Guy’s two examples of segments not afflicted by perceptions of snobbery).

So why is wine a target, while meat and beer are not (or are much less so)? It can’t be as simple as supermarket pricing, the issue on which Guy’s article focuses pretty much exclusively.

Incidentally, I absolutely agree with everything Guy says about wine pricing in supermarkets. I just don’t think this is the root of wine’s problems with snobbery.

To which I think there are at least three major contributing factors he doesn’t mention.

Wine’s history

Historically, wine has been associated with privilege in a way that beer and decent meat have not (to anything like the same degree). I’m not saying this association is fair. I’m saying it exists. Powerfully. Not especially because wine was historically expensive, but more because it is associated with Oxbridge cellars, arcane drinking societies, aristocratic dinner parties — in a way that beer and decent meat are not.

That gives wine a hill to climb that others don’t have to contend with.

The lack of a ‘story’ for wine

People have been told a story that allows them to understand and relate to the benefits of spending more on better meat (and allows them unequivocally to feel good about doing so).

The story is that animals get to lead a better life. The customer is supporting a small farmer, not a big corporation. There’s a human touch. Local meat feels more connected to the customer. And so on.

Yeah, sure, the more expensive meat also tastes better. But that’s not actually the main thrust of the story. The emotional story of animal welfare, conservation and support of farmers is the more emotionally compelling factor. Even if it’s not always true or accurate.

Wine is not yet successfully and consistently broadcasting an emotional story that’s as good as this. It could. But it’s not. Notice that Naked Wines is making progress on this — getting customers to relate to wine stories, to see what being a small wine producer (and supporting those producers) actually means.

The relative weakness of wine advocacy

This links with the story argument, above — but goes further.

Neither the decent-meat lobby nor the beer industry persistently shoot themselves in the foot in the way that the wine industry does. I’ve written before about my belief that wine writing is too often insular and exclusive. If wine wants to shake off its snobbish stereotype, the industry needs to make a concerted effort to stop blathering on with terminology nobody understands and implying that there is a hierarchy of enjoyment of wine, the upper echelons of which are reserved for the cognoscenti.

I’m not saying there’s not a hierarchy of enjoyment of wine, incidentally. You may think there is. But implying this is powerfully alienating to people who feel like they’re far from cognoscenti.

Anyhow. Lots of the success of the decent-meat lobby is down to its use of charismatic, passionate advocates to put across its story in an immediate and accessible way: Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and all. People who are selling the lifestyle and the benefits, not just the product; who talk to their audience in language that is free of jargon, who seem like ‘one of us’. And, yes, people who have a very high profile.

Now, I realise it’s all very well for me to say ‘the wine world needs advocates like Jamie Oliver’ — when it’s not exactly easy to propel oneself into a position of that kind of influence. I’m not pretending the wine world can just create charismatic, popular advocates — like that. Nor am I saying, incidentally, that every single advocate that currently exists for wine is rubbish. Obviously that’s not the case.

Not one of the above three factors has a quick’n’easy solution.

What I am saying is that, combined, they are (in my view) hugely implicated in the allegations of snobbery with which wine is beset. And that whilst supermarket pricing may play its part, I’d say that the wine industry deludes itself enormously if it lets itself believe that this is the only — or even the principle — cause of its snobbery woes.

12 thoughts on “Wine’s image problem is about far more than supermarket pricing”

  1. Hope I’m not posting this twice… seemed to be a problem earlier.

    Short, sharp, to the point and valid. Nice. Much better than the acres of navel-gazing drivel which emanate from some wine blogs. Esp ones which object to (even judicious) use of the F word…

  2. So wine “is associated with Oxbridge cellars, arcane drinking societies, aristocratic dinner parties — in a way that beer and decent meat are not.
    That gives wine a hill to climb that others don’t have to contend with.”

    Well, on the meat side of the argument, what about game? Venison, grouse, partridge etc are all associated with privilege – and as a consequence they are all extremely desirable. Surely something of the same applies to wine? Is an association with privilege necessarily a bad thing?

    (Beer has its own hills to climb, from the bearded folkie associations of real ale to the wife-beating vest-wearing associations of Stella…)

    1. Thanks for the comment, sir(s)…

      Agreed: game is associated with privilege. And it’s desirable, sure. I’m not saying fine wine isn’t *desirable*, I’m saying that people who spend a lot on it are prone to being seen as snobs. I’d’ve thought big-spending game-lovers would also potentially be seen as snobs.

      Nor am I saying an association with privilege is necessarily or wholly a bad thing. I’m saying it contributes to the ‘snobbish’ perception.

      As for beer, yes, it does have its own image problems. But the question was why wine is besieged by allegations of snobbery. My point: beer doesn’t have a history that makes it look ‘elitist’; wine does.

    2. Even the meat and two veg end of the wine spectrum is considered snobbish. Wine in general has this problem, beer in general does not and the Real Ale and Special Brew hills are pretty small ones. More like hillocks. I manage to climb the Real Ale one on a regular basis and I don’t have a beard and wear sandals with socks…

  3. One might also point out that as editor of Decanter, running interminable issues, sometimes double issues, on classed growth Bordeaux isn’t really helping matters. And punctuating coverage of Bordeaux with issues on Supertuscans is beyond parody.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *