What constitutes progress in our industry? The illustrations in the 1986 edition of Hugh Johnson’s Wine Atlas impressed me with their authority and detail, but the maps and plates proved shorter-lived than some of the wines they drew attention towards. To date, Hugh Johnson has updated his Atlas seven times. Like an animal that can only grow by shedding its skin, the world’s vineyards pushed against the boundaries of text and chapters: each new edition expanded on its predecessor, but the new territories it captured were largely copies, cut out against a French template of grape varieties, blends and barriques.
In the years that separated the publication of the 1st from the 7th edition of the Atlas we learnt that progress and expansion aren’t always the same thing, and that profit doesn’t necessarily follow on from investment. Through the 90s, New World vineyards boomed, though few achieved the kind of returns that incentivised their planting in the first place. In a similarly downbeat vein, oenological upgrades in Old World vineyards that benefited bulk regions disproportionately largely left their economic woes intact. Viewed impassively, the wine world appears resilient, steadfast, and stable. It is hard to imagine a future where the invention of Sherry, Madeira and Champagne will be creatively equalled. What we have today is largely a culture of imitation and steady improvement. Australia, New Zealand and California found success when they followed in the footsteps of esteemed French wine regions. If you’re looking for evidence that our particular world of expertise, learning and creativity has plateaued just look at the proliferation in competitive encounters between France and the New World. Impersonation has become a virtue. Borrowing from athletics, wine increasingly resembles track and field: competition is channelled into a fixed number of events which we take to be an absolute measure of ability.
Some implacable marketers insist that wine is held in an ideological bind. They believe that there’s no real necessity for this intransigence, and are affronted by the sector’s inertia. Sense of place, underwritten by law, has parked-up production on its own stacks of conceptual bricks. By pursuing discrete themes of difference and division regions have complicated themselves whilst standing still. A vernacular of place names coupled to an overweening desire to articulate the details of winemaking has effectively alienated wine from the dynamism of the 21stCentury economy. Money brings equivalence to goods and services, forcing them to face the tribunal of the market together. We pick between categories before we select within them. If cars and fashion are compelled to find, distribute and communicate new experiences to shoppers then so, by extension, is wine. Contemporary brands, we are warned, either dance with the consumer or face elimination.
Consumerism took-off in 50s America. Economies are founded on people buying the goods and services that they make, but the cycle of production-consumption can be accelerated. Diverting resources judiciously into demand creation improved the overall return on investment. If the industrial revolution increased the productivity of labour, then recognising those same labourers as consumers became the stimulus for even greater economic growth and prosperity. Marketing revealed a virtuous circle that could be turned faster and faster. This paradigmatic shift in business practice was reinforced and underwritten by auspicious changes in consumer behaviour. The old virtue of replacing things as they wore out was superseded. It was desire rather than dilapidation that drove and coerced the new tribes of consumer.
The sectors that have benefited most from marketing are those where brands and consumers have come together in associations of enrichment and choice. We struggle to think of bottled water, phones, cars and fashion outside the purview of brands. Henry Ford gave buyers only one option, ‘black’, but car colour is now a sign of affluence and an expression of personality. Cars, unlike clothes, aren’t made on looms, and changing automobile design isn’t as straightforward as re-threading yarn or realigning beams, yet the industry has incorporated the dynamic and transgressive impulses of fashion into its design and development. As Roland Barthes pointed out, fashion negates its past; what was until recently admired and adored is summarily rejected. For checks to come ‘in’, stripes need to be pushed ‘out’. Signification denotes a change in use. Clothes are no longer replaced as they wear out, and cars are rendered obsolete by minor innovations and design tweaks rather than rust.
One of Marx’s less contentious insights was recognising that capitalism perpetuated a state of high anxiety among its dependents. Workers were worried about holding onto their jobs, and factory owners were compelled to reinvest profits through fear of competitive annihilation. Marketing burns luminously above Marx’s grim industrial landscape, its perspective and power drawing upon the utopian notion that growth in modern market economies is best achieved by giving people what they want, even if the choices seem a bit contrived.
In advanced economies anxiety is no longer played out at the level of subsistence, instead it’s felt at the level of our yearning for particular goods, services and brands. If we’re all so broke it’s largely because we have so much. Being hard up is no longer associated with having nothing. Marketers have done their job for the economy and demand if we’re all spent out at the end of each month yet stoked for next month’s lifestyle upgrades.
Just as money becomes a universal measure of value, so marketing addresses (pace the incessant use of analogy) often assume a high level of comparability across categories, consumer choice being the catalyst for this presumed equivalence. Brand stories turn into parables of best practice. Woolworths demise is first problematized and then solved by the different thinking of Apple or Amazon.
It is easy to become paranoid amidst all the spiralling aspiration, but some more familiar truths emerge where the downdraft bottoms out. Take the example of the retail analyst who calls out M&S’s loss of market share to Primark as an instance of not listening to customers. Our initial reaction to the report maybe to fret over our own trading relationships, but dig a little deeper and you discover that what M&S customers really want is Primark’s pricing and range rotation. M&S have long-promoted their clothes as being made-to-last, but this attribute wanes in significance once fashion’s cycles have accelerated passed the threshold where a garment’s durability is still relevant to shoppers. Fast fashion trumps utility, but it does have an underbelly. Beneath all the coded words about listening to consumers is another all too familiar world of outsourcing, efficiency savings, low wages and waste. Marketing has become very adept at the double movement of dressing up products for the consumer whilst simultaneously distancing them from the inconvenient realities of their production. Like the butcher’s repressed connection to the abattoir, one version of the Yellow Tail story is about consumers and another is about the ruthless pursuit of monopoly.
Much of the recent twitter exchange focussed on the effectiveness of wine communication. Experts, as Peter Sloterdijk noted, are required to immunise themselves against outside worlds of distraction. Marketers, mathematicians and oenologues develop very specific ways of talking to one another that are essential to disciplinary advancement, yet remain largely incoherent to anyone outside their circle. It may well be that physicists don’t need to be understood by anyone beyond their peer group for progress to take place, but the same isn’t true for wine professionals whose livelihoods depend upon consumption rather than research grants. At some point we need to break out of our inward looking cell.
I think it’s difficult to dismiss this suggestion. Talking to consumers in ways different to the way we talk to one another professionally makes sense; though quite what we say and how we say it doesn’t always come easily. One could delegate this responsibility to marketers, and many do, but it’s often just a case of winemakers wearing different hats and editing-out the language of production at the cellar door.
Despite the reasonableness of this suggestion, the suspicion remained that the consumer – and we must include ourselves under this banner - isn’t necessarily a benign force; or that marketing mobilises the consumer as a victim or a beneficiary so that it can dress up self-serving commercial activity with selfless words and altruism. The two-facedness of marketing means that it has different conversations and communications inside and outside the boardroom, yet both are themed around giving people what they want: the investor is promised a return, and shoppers get to choose between new and familiar experiences. The incompatibility of these two objectives only becomes apparent when we belatedly lament the plight of the High Street or the loss of independent booksellers. At some point marketing runs into contradictions of its own making. Words and reality collide. You can’t keep all the people happy all of the time.
Happiness was in short supply on twitter. Marketers stuck with the argument that the language used by wine people erects barriers to consumer engagement and retention; while the enthusiasts were loath to give ground to soft marketing because they suspected that lurking beneath the velvet glove of consumer-friendly words is the iron fist of hardball marketing. Both sets of protagonists recognise there’s a problem with recruitment and profitability, but they can’t agree on how to fix it.
Marketers are right to point out that enthusiasts are being nimbyist when they make special pleading for wine. We are, after all, consumers of brands in other categories. The relationship between marketing and capitalism is intimate and, given our lifestyles, more or less foundational. Everyone has been on brand journeys – for me, Fiat Panda to Audi - and benefited from the proliferation in mobile phone choice since the appearance of the first brick, but both these examples suggest there’s something timely about the appearance of cars and phones that enabled consumers and brands to enrich and populate categories together. If wine shows a degree of resilience to marketing it may not just be a matter of language, or be as simple as replacing the word ‘mineral’ with ‘fun’ every time we come across it in a tasting note.
From my perspective, the difference between experts and their detractors won’t dissolve away even if they did manage to agree on a lexicon of consumer friendly terms. The stretched timelines of production, the slow depreciation of capital, and the prolonged separation of cause from effect in both enology and viticulture defines the category. Our forebears, we can deduce, got so good at fermentation, stabilisation and preservation that comparison across and within regions became inevitable. Vineyards, appellations and lieux dits, both formally and informally, were sifted by inquisitive generations and graded for quality. The resilience marketers, journalists and buyers come across when they attempt to hasten change isn’t linguistic but structural. When the Guinaudeaus decided to extend their interests into Fronsac they were lengthening a timeline that reaches back to massale selection and the accumulation of winemaking savoir faire at Lafleur. The expansion and segmentation that marketing craves is achieved in wine by other means - structural, aesthetic, historic, commercial - and its dynamic is antithetical to the impulsive and transgressive movements of fashion. Inertia is functional.
I began this article by claiming the wine world was more or less complete, and that we are unlikely to see changes of the magnitude of champagnisation anytime soon. The notion that something is largely finished doesn’t mitigate against improvement, but it does close-off the possibility of major revision. We can argue the toss about whether this or that château should have been upgraded in St Emilion’s latest reclassification, or whether Australian Shiraz producers should revert back to using hogsheads, but nothing, neither baselining SO2 levels nor reviving white grape maceration, strikes me as being as radical and different as a process that combines flor protection, fortification and fractional blending. The stylistic enrichment of our category that bequeathed us Jerez, Madeira, Hermitage and Tokaji is a job done principally by past generations. Nowadays we’re just getting on with the job of dispersal and micro-improvements. Some of the territories may be new, but the thinking is conventional and staid.
Marketers sometimes talk as if the decision to divide wine territorially is arbitrary, and therefore capable of reversal. Penfold’s interregional blends are often rolled-out as evidence that things could be otherwise, but the trend at the premium end of New World production has veered towards typicity and deep-seated ways of viewing the creative bond between site and vine. One can detect a meeting of the ways between Old and New World production: in the former quality is now attributed to site and the people who make it – Barthod ‘Les Cras’ - and in the latter producers now want to talk about how the uniqueness of their working environment is immanent to their wine. I find this a welcome trend, as it moves us away from an overly romantic view of terroir as some kind of exhumed imperative that demands obedience. Moreover, this argument should resonate with marketers, as place and people evolve together in ways that parallel the mutually enriching experience of consumers and brands in other categories.
Evidence of inertia isn’t always edifying: minor innovations get overhyped, Bordeaux dominates press coverage, and wine has become a winner-take-all-market. Change is possible, but the rate of progress is measured over decades and generations. La Tâche and Le Pin supplied the low hanging fruit for a newly made up tribe of billionaires, but Curly Flat, Montlandrie, and Seyssuel are playing a slow game of catch-up for those who can’t afford Richebourg, l’Eglise Clinet and La Belle Hélène.
Growers on the d’Oc plains may never rid us of all our bulk prejudices, but that’s arguably because what they produced was never good anyway. There isn’t a glorious past that can be revived, just a history of making cheap alcohol for blending into water.
Maybe it’s precisely because the Midi is so amorphous that it has attracted the attentions of marketing. The vertical stratification of the market left a largely undifferentiated pool of wine that could be war gamed into future brands, except the wine market has largely identified its best bits already, and the new bits are subjected to rigorous scrutiny as they come on. Marketers can only dream of turning wine into bottled water because the directions for segmentation are already in place.
It is at this bulk end of the market – Midi, Central Valley, South Eastern Australia - that the velvet glove is wont to fall off marketing’s iron fist. The frustration of marketers is palpable, lashing out at education and deploying the hapless economic situation of growers as an altruistic shield for more covert plans. Every new pillar of sand – bourbonification, synthetic wine - is hurriedly celebrated, as though deep down they all know what fate has in store for their Frankenstein creations. One senses that Yellow Tail have acknowledged the aspirational game is up, and their patented technique for extracting wine from dry skins seems squarely directed at entry point competitors rather than improving quality. We used to kid ourselves that consumers climbed ladders, now they’re stuck with a greasy pole.
This outbreak of frenetic capitalism is ugly. Californian Merlot growers and Midi cooperative partners who pulled up Aramon for Carignan know where some of the bodies from previous marketing campaigns are buried. I don’t have an answer to their predicament, mainly because I see a difference between overproduction and under-shopped. Marketers' tendency to frame the problem of resilience within education and communication misses the more general point about inertia within production, and as a consequence they end up kicking the messenger instead of trying to understand the mechanism by which wine has catalogued and reproduced its own realm of experiences without their assistance.