Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sex and wine

Original image to be found here

As I write this, somewhere in the world, millions of people are having sex. Making love. Shagging. Fucking. Having intercourse. Enjoying conjugal rights. (Interesting how many different terms we have for the same activity). Some are enjoying it a lot more than others - including the people with whom they're actually doing it. There are those for whom it's a routine activity and those for whom it's really, really special. Some have been persuaded into doing it against their will. 
Some are doing it out of boredom. Some are paying for it. Possibly with money; possibly in other ways. A proportion are exploring new partners, and techniques. This may prove to have been a good idea. Or a very bad one. Some wish they were doing it differently or with someone different. Some are enjoying it so much that they don't want to stop.

As I write this, somewhere in the world, millions of people are drinking wine. Uncorking a last bottle of a case of their father's favourite claret. Opening the tap of a new bag in box. Polishing off the plonk. Relishing Rioja. Adding a splash of Sprite into the St Emilion. Some are enjoying it a lot more than others  - including the people with whom they're actually doing it. There are those for whom it's a routine activity and those for whom it's really, really special. Some have been persuaded into doing it against their will. Some are doing it out of boredom. Some are paying for it. Possibly with money; possibly in other ways. A proportion are exploring new styles. This may prove to have been a good idea. Or a very bad one.  Some wish they were drinking something different or with a different person. Some are enjoying it so much that they don't want to stop.

I'm not offering any of the above as deep insight into the human condition. Merely as a corrective to far too many of the comments I read and hear about the way people drink wine, and about the essential importance of food-and-wine-matching or education or whatever. Drinking - wine or any other beverage - is a human activity. People do it in different ways and at different times and for different reasons. Simple as that. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Crimea and Punishment

Ok, first things first. Crimea is legally part of Ukraine and Ukraine is not part of Russia. And, speaking as someone who has both just read Sebastian Haffner's Defying Hitler, a brilliant, blood-chilling contemporary account of the apparently inexorable rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, and had a number of very worrying illiberal conversations with Russians today, I think we really do live in frightening times. 

Vladimir Putin (a popularly elected leader, one should remember, just as Adolf Hitler was a member of a democratically elected government) is a truly dangerous character, especially when confronted by a fast reducing asset in the shape of his oil reserves and - for the moment at least - potentially highly damaging sanctions. The general economic and civil rights appeal for Russia's neighbours of leaning towards Europe rather than Moscow is convincingly described in this Forbes post by Vasil Jaiani.

But... as I discovered after talking to a fair few of them, there are plenty of Crimean winemakers who can see a lot of advantages to being part of Russia today rather than a European-focused Ukraine. 

Before waxing too lyrical about the prospects being part of the EU have to offer to producers in Eastern Europe, just look at the flood of premium Bulgarian, Hungarian and Romanian imports that have (not) made their way onto UK shelves for example. Conversely read this considered Academy of Wine Business report on Romania, a 2007 EU entrant, by Cheryl Nakata and Erin Antalis of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Membership of the EU has, the authors say, "provided funds for promoting Romanian wines abroad, and introduced regulations so more of the wines are safe to consume and exportable... and [ferreted out] questionable producers or practices". But they also talk of the remaining "negative image" of Romanian wine in Western Europe, this country’s chief export market. They quote a producer saying “…Romania is selling, like I said, a bad image... We are in the bottom of the list, we are from the edge—we and Bulgaria". For Nakata and Antalis, Romania's wine industry needs to "Enter into export markets where [it] has a positive to neutral country image, and move away from countries where it has a country of origin liability, notably Western Europe".

Most wine writers happily overlook the 'bad image' described by that producer. They fly into countries like Moldova, Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine, accept some lavish hospitality, meet some charming producers and snap a few shots of the lovely landscape, taste a range of samples, say and write a few nice things, and move on, like movie critics heading off to the next screening. A week or two after their visit and the appearance of their words, the dust settles, much of it on stacks of unsold bottles. What few of the writers trouble their little heads over is the difficulties that the producers in these places have in finding consumers outside their own markets (and often even there) who are actually going to buy their bottles and pay their bills. (Just think of all the thousands of words that were devoted to Turkey's wines a few years ago - and their relatively rare appearances on the international shelves today.)

So, whatever your feelings about the politics of the Russia/Ukraine situation (and I've laid mine out above), maybe you should try wearing the shoes of a winemaker in Crimea. The mood of the producers I met at a tasting in Abrau Durso in Anapa, Russia this weekend was very similar to the one Andrew Jefford described in his March 2014 Decanter piece after his visit to the region.

Despite the quality of many of its wines, Ukraine has actually been a very difficult place to produce and sell wine economically. One major reason for this is the requirement to pay an annual €50,000 for a wholesale licence. Another is the lack of readiness of Ukrainians (unlike Russians) to pay premium prices. Add to these, the survival of a cumbersome state-owned sector and high levels of bureaucracy and corruption and it is not hard to see why Russian-speaking Crimean winemakers might see some appeal in being part of what was already their biggest export market. 

The dice have already been further loaded by the promise of substantial investment into the industry from Russia. Roughly half of Crimean wineries are probably already owned by Russians and both that country's wine producers' association and government have now declared an ambition to move towards 80% self-sufficiency in wine production. 

Ironically this keenness to welcome Crimea (and possibly other Ukrainian vineyards) into a greater Russian industry is not entirely welcome in Russia itself. At Grand Vostock, a good French-Russian joint venture started in 2003, director Elena Denisova openly questioned why the adopted children (the Crimean winemakers) would be getting better treatment than longer-established producers in undeniably Russian regions like Krasnodar. Ms Denisova also raised the question of how much 'Ukranian' wine is actually produced from grapes grown elsewhere (an interesting subject to raise in Russia which has its own traditions of this kind).

And then there are Russia's other neighbours, some of which currently rely on Russia for their sales. Georgia, while selling more bottles to Russia than ever since the reopening by Putin of the market to their wines, is sensibly making efforts to build other export markets (efforts with which - to declare an interest, I am beginning to help). But there is no denying the challenge this represents. Georgia's task, however, looks positively tiny when compared to Moldova's. This ancient wine region has great winemaking potential but today it's impoverished and struggling. Like Georgia, it has lived through a boycott of its wines and knows that if Vlad the Imposer gets out of bed on the wrong side, that door could slam closed again. 

As Jaiani says in his Forbes piece, it may well be preferable in many ways for Moldova to achieve its aim of becoming part of Europe, but I'll bet that there are a few winemakers in that country who might well be looking at the short term prospects enjoyed by their Crimean neighbours with at least a note of envy.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The shrinking shelf, and what Dr Who has to teach the wine world

The famous Dr Who Tardis.

Most wine producers seem to imagine that retailers' shelves and store-rooms are miraculous places that resemble the Tardis in Dr Who. For those unfamiliar with this UK cult BBC TV series, the Tardis resembles an old British police box used by the eponymous hero to travel in time and space. Seen from the outside, it scarcely takes up a square metre of space. Once inside, there is room for the doctor and his companions not only to control the sophisticated craft, but also to host a fair-sized drinks party.

As Wikipedia helpfully explains "the term "TARDIS-like" has been used to describe anything that seems to be bigger on the inside than on the outside".

Unfortunately, the Tardis remains the creation of an imaginative TV scriptwriter and designer. Space, when it comes to police boxes or book or wine shelves is strictly finite. For a retailer to add an Albanian Aligoté or Zimbabwean Zibibbo - or simply a good French or Australian red - to their range, however delicious, some other well chosen wine will usually have to go. 

To be crude about it, anyone trying to sell a wine to a customer who's already in the business of selling the stuff, is a little like a man proposing marriage to a woman wearing a wedding ring. If she's not dissatisfied with what she's already got, you'd better have something pretty impressive to offer her.

But, in the UK at least, that picture is just getting even trickier. The object of your attention may be going off men altogether... Tesco is currently reportedly delisting 150 wines from its range - and continuing to look at ways of reducing the number of suppliers with whom it deals. Morrisons, its competitor is also, equally reportedly, experimenting with a range reduction from 550 to 350 lines in some of its stores. Even these levels of shrinkage would still leave an offering that's 10 or 20 times bigger than the range at Aldi and Lidl, neither of which seem to be doing badly with their 'small but perfectly formed' selections.

Obviously, the bigger UK retailers are not the only market in the world - far from it - and thankfully new wines and producers do make their way onto shelves, across the globe all the time. (We're happily finding new niches for le Grand Noir in all sorts of unexpected places). All I'm saying is that unless you really do have something that's genuinely different and/or appreciably better and/or more attractively-priced it's getting harder to squeeze into that Tardis with every year.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The way I think...

I'm often struck by other people's - especially wine people's - difficulty in coming to terms with the way I think. Why, they wonder, do I always have to bang on about all the things I think are wrong with the status quo?

Leafing through this week's Financial Times, I was surprised and delighted to come across an answer to that question - in an interview with one of my literary heroes: the writer, philosopher and playwright Michael Frayn. 

"The very fact that we can say, 'If I were you' is significant... You can't really understand how things are unless you can think and express that they could be otherwise"

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Time, Money and Wine. A personal theory of relativity

Time and money are both rather peculiar. They each share the odd quality of being simultaneously absolute and relative. Anyone who has ever lacked the means to pay a bill, or the time to complete a task, knows all about the implacability of an empty wallet or vacant top half of an hourglass. But... then there's the relativity. The way that five minutes can feel like an hour when you are waiting for something to happen, and how, in other circumstances, 60 minutes can somehow seem to flash past in an instant. A tiny amount of money that means nothing to you or me might offer the difference between life and death for someone in the Third World in need of food, water or medicine.

Relatively speaking, a hectare of Margaux vineyard costs a huge amount more than a hectare of Médoc and even the humblest bottle of AOC Margaux can command a hugely higher price than a more lovingly- and better-made wine with the other 'M' word on its label. But the absolute cost of producing and packaging the two liquids can be startlingly similar.

When I was a consumer wine writer, one of my main tasks on behalf of my readers was to find and recommend bottles of wine that represented especially good value for money. Bargain Bulgarians; cut-price Corbières; Penedes for pennies... Those were the meat and drink of my columns. Naturally, I tried to intersperse them with in-depth introductions to unfamiliar wine regions and penetrating producer profiles, but neither my editors nor my readers really appreciated these nearly as much as lists of how to save a few pounds when filling that week's shopping basket.

What I was rarely bothered about in those days was how and why those recommended bottles got to be as cheap as they were - provided they tasted good. To be blunt, I paid little more heed to their background than a fashion journalist singing the praises of clothes manufactured in Asian sweatshops. Now, with the exception of some non Fair Trade wines from South America and South Africa, wine isn't usually produced by people on slave wages, but everything comes at a cost, and some businesses are a lot less sustainable than others. Bulgaria - and Eastern Europe in general - offers a good example of the potential unsustainability of cheapness. Consumers and critics in the UK and elsewhere were delighted to buy ludicrously inexpensive Soviet era reds made with the help of Californian expertise that was, in turn, facilitated by the eagerness of US Cola giants to barter their product on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

When that barrier was removed, the collectivist agricultural system dismantled and land redistributed, interest in the entire region evaporated at a speed that will be familiar to many pop groups after the release of their unsuccessful second album. Besides, there were bargains to be found elsewhere.

Cheapness is a dangerous long-term strategy in a capitalist world. Make and sell a product with a paper-thin profit margin and no spare cash to spend on brand-building and there's always the looming risk that somebody, somewhere will be even more desperate to make a sale than you are. When Chinese wages rise too far for Western t-shirt and toy manufacturers, well, there's always a factory in Bangladesh eager for the business. 

But agriculture, especially wine, is less flexible. Those better paid Chinese workers may now be - probably are - making higher value solar panels rather than cheap plastic flipflops. Vineyards and winemakers, especially in the old world, find it rather less easy to adopt new skills. The Bulgarian vines are mostly still turning out an annual crop of grapes that nobody wants to buy at any kind of premium price.

The taint of cheapness is not only a concern in Eastern Europe, however. Despite China's flurry of interest in the wines of France's most famous red wine region, the bulk price for Bordeaux Rouge has stubbornly stuck at under 1.20 euros per litre, surprisingly close to what you might pay for bulk Minervois these days and less than the real price 20 years ago - but still roughly twice what you'd spend on some perfectly drinkable wine on the other side of the Spanish frontier.

When I consider the effort required to tend vines, grow grapes and make wine, and compare these ex-cellars prices to the ones charged for a rather easer-to-produce beverage such as say, tonic water, they seem to be simply too low. 

Cheap regionally designated wine, like the €1.89 AOC Bordeaux I snapped in a French Aldi is - for whatever reason - unsustainably underpriced. Just like the burgers that cost-cutting manufacturers produced from horse instead of beef, and the Big Macs that McDonalds made using fat and trimmings 'washed with' ammonium hydroxide.

But 'underpriced' was not a term I often used as a wine critic. Unlike 'overpriced' which I (along with almost all of my UK colleagues) regularly dragged out to describe almost anything from the Napa Valley (or the rest of the US) or Priorat, or any wine that had caught the eye of a top US opinion-former. Time has, of course, proved us all wrong, just as it has given a huge slap around the face to everyone who suggested that Starbucks et al would never get away with charging $4 - the global average - for a cup of undistinguished coffee whose raw ingredients probably struggle to add up to 20c.

While writing this, I'm thinking of two estates in the southern half of France, growing very similar grapes on very similar land. One - whom we'll call Dom. Trop-Cher (DTC, for short) consistently sells its wine for a much higher price than the other: Dom. Trop-Bon-Marché (DTB). Part of that difference can be attributed to slightly lower yields and the use of more new oak, but by my estimation, that might, at most, explain 15% of the extra cost. The rest is down to the philosophy of the owners. I happen to prefer the style of the DTB wines; Robert Parker, predictably favours DTC, but it's a matter of taste. Both are similarly good. In my previous life as a critic, I praised the family behind DTB for what I saw as their lack of greed. I took too little notice of the worried look on their faces when a pneumatic press unexpectedly needed to be replaced and I positively overlooked the fact that a necessary part of their income seemed to come from renting out rooms in a gite next to their house.

Today, and particularly after reading a recent Decanter interview with Anthony Barton in which he ruefully commented on the lack of real appreciation he got for his policy of moderate pricing at Leoville and Langoa Barton, I feel rather differently.

Excuse my pedantry, if you would, but surely the term 'overpriced' should only be used when it is established that sufficient consumers have been exclusively deterred from making a purchase by what they perceive to be too high a cost. In other words, whatever any critic may personally think of its quality, style or packaging, a $100 Argentine Malbec, $250 Napa Cab or $1000 Bordeaux are technically 'worth' every penny of those prices to their buyers until those buyers stop being prepared to pay them. Like the £250,000 that 700 people have said they'll each pay for a short flight on a Virgin spaceship.

But the thing I failed to understand, as a bargain-chasing hack, was just how close to financial failure some of the wineries I was recommending often came. I recall an Australian flying winemaker disdainfully telling me about how a well-respected Chilean had - unbelievable though it seemed - sold several tons of his best grapes to a competitor during the harvest. The way the story was recounted, it sounded precisely as though the winery owner had pimped his daughter to the local brothel. 

It was a decade later that I learned the background to the deal: the neighbour had actually done the winemaker a favour by buying the fruit for a bundle of cash that enabled him to pay his vintage workers. The bank had offered no support and, without that money, the business would have gone under. Other family-owned wineries I've seen have been forced to sell out completely because of situations such as a UK supermarket reneging on a deal. And then, of course, there are the countless small producers who simply can't afford to make their wine as well as they'd like, for want of the money that would pay for a little more work in the vineyard and slightly stricter selection in the cellars. As they point out, at €1.20/litre there's not a lot of spare change in the till. Stated bluntly, far too many producers of attractively-priced wine are just one lost-customer or bad harvest away from financial disaster. 

(One reason most observers fail to notice this in Europe is the proportion - over half - the wine that is actually produced by cooperatives which are still feather-bedded when compared to individual estates working in the same regions).

When you get behind the scenes you quickly realise how the producers asking the laughably high prices have not only managed to survive the recession but maintain their quality and invest in some marketing, while the fair-price brigade have struggled - and are now often in an even worse financial state than they were before the axe fell.

All of which helps to explain why, based on current evidence, if I had to invest some absolute money or time, I reckon I'd be both relatively and absolutely wiser to do so in a Starbucks franchise than a few hectares of basic Bordeaux.

Sex, Shopping, Wine... and Aldi

Like 99.9999% of the rest of my fellow human beings, I have no idea how Google gets the numbers it does on its 'results', but I have to say that the idea of three hundred million sites sharing "sex and shopping" does strike me as a little strange. How and why did a pairing of these - to my mind at least - rather different activities come to be of even passing interest to so many people?

Okay, I know that "Sex & Shopping" was the title of a British TV documentary series about porn, and that anything that includes the 'S' word sells, but even when you substitute the word 'pleasure', it still looks as though a surprisingly large mass of people associate the process of going out to buy stuff with, well, feeling good...

Now, it would be interesting to know how many of those 129m people were men and how many were women. After all, the accepted wisdom is that the two sexes view the process of shopping very differently. The following cartoon which I came across here 

illustrates a theory that psychologist Steve Taylor explains rather convincingly in a recent Psychology Today article

10,000 or so years ago, Taylor points out, men hunted and women gathered. The first of these activities only took two or three hours per day and involved the alpha males finding and killing a beast and dragging it back to the cave as rapidly as possible, before other hunters or beasts stole it from you, or before it went bad. Meanwhile, their female mates were patiently going from bush to bush in the quest for the fruit, nuts and berries that would make up 80-90% of everybody's diet. Obviously, some of the brightly coloured stuff waiting to be picked turned out to be poisonous and some of the apples had worms wriggling around inside them, so the women had to become skilful at taking the time and trouble to sort the good stuff from the dross.

However offensive it might be to feminists, the notion of women being hard-wired to enjoy browsing is certainly supported by the circumstantial evidence to be witnessed in the clothes and homeware sections of any mall, but... and here I'm moving to the nub of the matter, it seems fair to question how much pleasure humans of either sex get from the 'shopping experience' on offer at the average supermarket grocery store.

To be frank, I don't care how many cafes Waitrose introduce into their shops or how many freshly-cooked bread smells or bunches of flowers are deployed to draw me into some of their competitors' stores, to me - and I suspect to a great many other people - supermarkets are all about breakfast cereal, detergent, bottled water... heavy, bulky stuff I'm going to have to lug home.Yes, I love food, so I do actually sometimes enjoy the part of the shopping experience that involves exercising my finely honed powers of selection over the prawns or plums that are going to go into my basket, but to be frank, that only seems to involve a small part of the time I spend in Waitcos or Asburies. And on the occasions - the majority - when I'm in a hurry (especially when accompanied by my kids) I actually balk at the choice. If the first apples I see look sufficiently appealing and fairly priced, I may unashamedly pick up the kilo or two that I need and happily tick off an item on my list.

Belying her feminine stereotype, my partner is no fan of any kind of shopping (I actually dislike the process less than she does) and we've handled the fruit-and-veg-selection issue, for the moment at least, by doing the middle class thing of getting a weekly box from a nice company called Abel & Cole who even provide recipes to go with the ingredients. The loo roll, soap powder and cereals also usually arrive at our door from a supermarket van.

And then of course, we use independent butchers and fishmongers and I make forays to shop at various supermarkets and to see what's on their shelves and in their shoppers' baskets. Which brings me naturally to Aldi and Lidl. Probably inevitably, the Germans have already created a word for 'shopping experience': Einkaufserlebnis. For all I know, they may even have one that precisely describes how it feels to push a trolley around one of the German discounters' stores. The term would have absolutely nothing to do with pleasure, other than the satisfaction of handing over less cash after your long wait at the checkout than you might elsewhere. These are utilitarian places with little to distract you from the business of hunting and gathering - even if that involves picking up unexpected items such as the frozen lobsters I saw at €5 in a French branch of Aldi last week.

For a male or female wine lover - someone who loves to cast their eyes slowly and thoughtfully over shelves packed with wine - the discounters are about as close to a pleasure dome as a railway station bookshop would be to an aficionado of great literature. But, of course most normal people are neither bookworms nor wine buffs, which is why there are now so many fewer book and wine shops on high streets across the globe - and so much online buying from the likes of Amazon. A small range of perfectly good, nicely packaged bottles, may actually suit a lot of people a lot better than the scary 'wall of wine' favoured by the traditional larger stores. Especially when they are really attractively priced. The extraordinary growth of the discounters - and the number of people who shop at them as well as at more premium stores - certainly suggests that the old-fashioned hypermarket is rapidly becoming the dinosaur of the retail world.

The clumsiness with which the lumbering T-Rex's of the UK market are trying to defend themselves against the threat from the discounters is brilliantly lampooned by a Lidl advertisement noted here by blogger Dan Southern, who is also responsible for the discovery of the glorious image below from the Simpsons.

Pleasure is, by definition, an essentially personal emotion. Some people get some of their kicks out of writing blog posts like this; some, hopefully get at least a little pleasure out of reading them. Maybe desperate housewives really did often enjoy their outings to the local supermarket; maybe the colours of all those boxes and tins added something positive to their lives that they weren't getting from daytime television or their nuclear families. But that was then and this is now. Today, for every hunter-male or gatherer-female who really wants to spend a few minutes thoughtfully selecting between a Gigondas and a Vacqueyras or a Rioja and a Navarra, I'll bet that there are probably 20 who'll be far happier to grab the inexpensive, award-winning Rhone or Spanish red from the tiny range at Aldidl, or simply to receive a delivery of the stuff they bought last time*. And the sooner the wine industry understands this the healthier it will be.
Nicely packaged bargain Bordeaux on sale
in Aldi, France last week

* Support for the picture I'm painting of the average wine 'shopping experience' comes from University of Adelaide-based academic Larry Lockshin as described in this piece by Australian writer Tony Love. According to Lockshin's research, buyers spend 40 seconds selecting a bottle. Over 80% of purchases are based on recognition of a wine the consumer has previously bought; only half of the buyers pay attention to grape variety, region, brand and vintage. A third focus exclusively on price (though not necessarily on cheapness). And all of this came out of post-purchase research in Australia, arguably one of the most wine-sophisticated in the world. Don't kid yourself by imagining very different results in any other country...

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why Tesco's woes are raising a cheer in Germany

A small - or possibly fairly sizeable - bomb may be about to explode in the heart of UK retailing. In the wake of the revelation that Tesco, the country's biggest grocer, had overstated its latest profit warning by a cool £250m and the reported suspension of several of its top executives, there is a strong likelihood that the company may have to face some very tough questioning. And so may some of its competitors.

Adrian Bailey, Chair of the UK parliamentary Business Committee has been quoted - in International Business Timesas saying that "We may well as a committee want to look at this. Not just at Tesco but at what is going on in the retail industry and in the relationship with the suppliers to see if the issues we came across two years ago are still there."

According to 2012 House of Commons documents "In April 2008 the Competition Commission completed an enquiry of the UK grocery market, following long-running concerns that the four major chains exploited their market power to put undue pressure on suppliers and to compete unfairly with smaller retailers. Although, in the Commission’s view, the country’s supermarkets were delivering a ‘good deal for consumers’, it concluded “the transfer of excessive risk and unexpected costs by grocery retailers to their suppliers through various supply chain practices if unchecked will have an adverse effect on investment and innovation in the supply chain, and ultimately on consumers. 

There are very few wine suppliers who would say that Britain's supermarkets no longer apply 'undue pressure' on the companies with whom they deal. Indeed most freely admit that they would greatly prefer to sell to the German discounters 
Aldi and Lidl, than their UK counterparts. As one said to me recently "The discounters drive a hard bargain but you know precisely where you are with them. They buy what they say they are going to buy, for the price they agree to pay".

Consumers also increasingly appreciate the way the discounters do business. Lidl is seeing annual growth of 18% in the UK, while at Aldi, the figure is 30%. Tesco, by contrast, is slipping backwards at a rate of 4.5%

Most analysis of the differences between the discounters and the established UK retailers have reasonably focused on the former chains' smaller outlets, more limited ranges and service levels - and lower margins. What few have mentioned is the fundamental philosophical gap between working practices of the two groups. The discounters, despite their size, are little different from any corner shop or market trader: they buy stuff and then sell what they have bought. Compare this with the model now applied by Britain's biggest supermarket chains - including the middle class darling Waitrose, and you might be looking at two sets of political parties, so wide is the difference between them. Coopbury, Asdrose and Morisco et al rely for part - often a big part - of their income on a wide range of payments that have little or nothing to do with the simple business of buying and selling. Some of these payments are more voluntary than others.

It was to handle the involuntary ones that a Grocery Code was established last year, along with a Grocery Code Adjudicator (CCA) in order, in the words of Farmer's Weekly magazine, 'to tackle unfair supermarket buying practices'. According to a July 2014 report in that same publication, last June's  GCA annual conference revealed that "80% of suppliers had experienced an issue with a retailer, but only 23% would consider giving evidence. Fear of retailer retribution prevented 58% of respondents from raising issues, while 40% worried the GCA would be unable to do anything."

Where the GCA has been involved, it has actually proved to be effective. Tesco apparently 'retracted requests for shelf-positioning payments' after evidence was brought to the GCA, while 'The Co-operative stopped asking suppliers to “compensate” it under joint business agreements' after the adjudicator was informed. Uncovering these practices was not easy, however. It apparently involved 'forensic auditing (retailers trawling communications to find ways to claim money from suppliers)'. Following the recent revelations, it seems fair to imagine that Tesco is about to be the target of rather a lot more forensic auditing.

Successful GCA-mediated cases are rare because, as Graham Ruddick wrote in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, "Many suppliers are too scared to speak out against a larger retailer for fear of being delisted or replaced by a rival, so they suffer in silence and agree to the unreasonable demands being placed on them."

Ruddick lists a set of recent instances that serve as an indictment of the way retailing in general is conducted in the UK, and the regularity with which retailers renegociate deals they have already agreed. In 2013, "Debenhams demanded a one-off fee - a rebate - from suppliers worth 2.5pc of its outstanding payments and said it would apply a 2.5pc discount to orders it had already agreed with suppliers" while, general retailers Argos and houseware specialists Homebase "applied a 2pc rebate to future orders". John Lewis, parent to Waitrose and every Briton's model retailer, "told suppliers last year they would be subject to a rebate of up to 5.25pc on annual sales". In May, motoring accessory retailer Halfords sought to fund a £100m turnaround plan with help from one-off payments by its suppliers amounting to up to 10% of the cost of their annual sales to the retailer. In another Farmers Weekly article, readers are warned against retailers tracking their - the farmers' - profits and using them as a basis for rebate demands they want to levy. In another context, this would sound very like the kind of protection racket operated by the Mafia.

The law has a way of dealing with gangs who threaten businesses with violence as a means of exacting cash, but it also sanctions businesses who abuse their employees. A boss can't simply demand that his workers hand over a percentage of their agreed wage in return for a - still uncertain - measure of job security.

Whether or not the world's wine suppliers will ultimately benefit from the fallout from the Great Tesco Profit Warning Scandal of 2014 remains to be seen, but I'll bet that a couple of German retailers are already raising a glass or two of celebratory good-but-very-inexpensive Sekt.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Drinking the Kool Aid

Every so often, somebody gives me a phrase I really can't let go of. UK-born PR person, Louise Hurren, who earns most of her living by helping small Languedoc producers gain some kind of visibility outside their region, did precisely that when she used the expression "I guess I must have drunk the Kool Aid, because I felt utterly enthused about – well, everything" in a nice recent blog post. She was writing about the seventh annual wine bloggers conference in California, and it was the combination of wine bloggers and Kool Aid that really worked for me. For those who have forgotten, or who are too young to recall, Wikipedia helpfully offers this reminder that: 

"Drinking the Kool-Aid" is a figure of speech commonly used in the United States that refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination... The phrase derives from the November 1978 Jonestown deaths, where members of the Peoples Temple, who were followers of the Reverend Jim Jones committed suicide by drinking a mixture of a powdered soft drink flavoring agent laced with cyanide.

What a perfect description, I thought, of so many wine bloggers and, indeed, other wine writers and enthusiasts: people who have become so enthused about wine in general, or a particular region or style - and quite especially 'natural' wine - that any critical faculties they may ever have possessed, seem to have been totally nullified. 

Almost every wine region covered in Decanter magazine (and most other similar publications) is described in such glowing, uncritical terms that I regularly have to check that I'm not reading a piece of advertorial, paid for by the area concerned.  'Natural' winemakers like Frank Cornlissen, self-taught producer of some pricy but ludicrously faulty wines, are written about indulgently by bloggers who would struggle to find a single positive word to say about a popular commercial brand. 

On one side of the fence, the cork-supporting Kool Aid drinkers applaud the improvement in the quality of natural closures and see no real cause for concern that at least one bottle in every eight or nine cases of £40-per-bottle Burgundy is still spoiled by TCA (and a lot more are randomly oxidised). And on the other, the screwcap gang refuse to understand why the world hasn't seen the logic of their argument and rushed to seal Chateau Margaux with the same closure as San Pelegrino.

Among some of other most obvious cases of Kool Aid consumption are the authors of articles and books about wine and health with titles like "Why Wine is Good For Your Heart" that present a laughably one-sided and fundamentally misleading argument. (For anyone who's interested, wine really is good for us - but only in annoyingly meagre doses of less than a glass per day).

Of course, the Kool Aid drinkers - and some more balanced wine lovers - regularly accuse me of being a one man ice bucket challenge, a glass-half-empty type who's always more than ready to find fault. And I plead guilty as charged: the more fawning the courtiers the greater the need for the monarch to have his jester.

Sackbuts and Sauvignons - why ancient isn't enough

What kind of music do you most enjoy listening to? Do bagpipes, sackbuts and recorders feature heavily? Do you drink much mead? Do you wear wooden clogs? A few of my multitude of readers across the globe may have a positive answer to at least one of these questions, but only a few. A somewhat larger number - including the keenest classical music enthusiasts - may, like me, have recordings of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven by musicians playing 'original' instruments, but I'll bet that most are, again like me, quite happy to hear the Goldberg Variations sound the way it does when performed on a piano rather than a harpsichord.

And how about grapes and wine styles? Do you drink a lot of Uva di Troia, Lemnió or Rkatsateli? These are all interesting ancient grape varieties that can and do produce attractive wines. Whether any of them has the crowd-pleasing appeal of Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio, is another matter. 

So what? You may cry. It doesn't have to be every grape's or wine's vocation to please crowds. Indeed a failure to do so can be very appealing: how many of us have a favourite coffee bar around the corner from the far busier Starbucks? But these are personal opinions, and we should pause before expecting others to share them - especially when their livelihood is at stake.

Every year, hordes of wine 'experts' - aka journalists and bloggers - fly into old wine regions such as Turkey and Georgia and gush over almost everything they see. "Thank God", they cry, "that your vineyards have been unsullied by internationally popular varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon... We just love the fact that we can't even pronounce the names of the grapes you use, let alone spell them... As for your amphora... Well you should make all of your wine in them; it's your point of difference after all... And under nocircumstances plant any of those pesky international grapes!"

And then they fly home. Some, I'm sure, settle down to a daily glass or two of ÖküzgözüBoğazkere or Rkatsateli, but most will have moved on - and back - to the Rhônes, Burgundies, Bordeaux and Spanish and Italian reds and whites they were drinking before their flight to Ankara or Tbilisi. It was my Meininger's Wine Business International colleague, Felicity Carter, who first drew my attention to this kind of condescending inverted-colonialism, after finding herself among just such a group of visitors to Georgia. 

As she said, hearing some of her fellow travellers' comments, was rather like listening to visitors to primitive parts of Africa enthusing over the cleverness of the primitive people's sanitary arrangements and the absence of mobile phones. Yes, there is something interesting about anything that has survived over the centuries, from a type of pie to the language historically spoken by the inhabitants of a particular region. And, yes, it would be a pity to see the pie or language disappear completely. But do most of us actually regularly want to eat that particular culinary delicacy or learn to converse in Welsh? I doubt it. And how well could the Welsh survive if none of them spoke any other languages?

Telling a Turkish wine producer that he shouldn't use internationally popular grape varieties is rather like telling the owner of an Ankara gelateria that she shouldn't serve vanilla or chocolate ice cream. When I last flew through Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, roughly half of the Turkish wines on sale in the Duty Free shop were produced exclusively, or partly from non-indigenous grapes. People with time to spend before or between flights, similarly had the choice between a traditional Turkishtantuni,or a chicken or meat döner, or a Burger King Whopper or a Basilico pizza. I don't believe that the people who run that airport are part of an international conspiracy to promote globalisation; they're giving their customers - Turkish or foreign - what they like. Just as Turkish Airlines is doing when it offers its passengers a glass of Turkish Syrah.

The nice people responsible for promoting the wines of Turkey, Georgia or wherever did not, by the same token, spend large sums of money flying in all those experts simply in order to hear them saying complimentary things about the way their winemakers go about producing their wines. They want to sell those wines overseas. No, I'd correct that. They need to sell those wines overseas, and in some quantities. And anyone who suggests that there are lots of consumers in London or Lower Manhattan who are just itching to lay their hands on some Rkatsateli or Öküzgözü is lying - if only to themselves.

Most humans, like most other animals, are creatures of habit. We return to the same places on holiday and the same favourite restaurants, and we buy the same foods and wines: the ones we like, and find easy to buy. It's no accident that vanilla and chocolate ice cream are so popular across the globe, nor that consumers from Manchester to Moscow happily queue to buy Big Macs and drink Starbucks coffee. This is not to say that Rkatsateli or Öküzgözü - under more pronouncable names, most probably - won't ever find a substantial following outside their own markets. But it won't happen by itself, or because a few bloggers and wine writers think it ought to, simply on account of their ancient heritage and 'different-ness'. Or not until most of us somehow discover the delight of wearing clogs and listening to sackbuts.