Should wine writers put a well-aimed boot in when necessary?
Back in 2006 I wrote a piece in Off Licence News following the publication of The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, a book by Nick Hornby on books and reading. In it he expressed his concern that too many people are put off reading because it is promoted as something you should do to improve yourself rather than as something to enjoy.
He criticised promoters of books for perpetuating the perceived divide in many people’s minds between “trashy” and “worthwhile”, which simply discourages the readers of so-called trash from broadening their choice. The task within the book industry he saw as making “worthwhile” books more accessible by promoting the pleasure they can bring.
There are clear parallels with wine in the above, but I focused on what was possibly Hornby’s most controversial suggestion. This was that book critics should not criticise books: they should either say something positive or say nothing at all.
This came to mind as I read Tim Atkin’s recent column in OLN (April 5th), “We must not pull our punches”, in which he reviews the role of the wine journalist in the UK market. He concludes that “most wine journalism is uncontroversial stuff” and that “the relationship between wine writers on the one hand and producers, importers and retailers on the other is too cosy”. He goes on to argue that “real wine writing should do more than simply review bottles. To put it bluntly, it should inform, engage, enthuse and, on occasion, upset.”
My view back in 2006 was in line with Tim’s, and the opposite therefore of Hornby’s. Wine writers, I argued, play a key gatekeeper role which implies putting pressure on producers and retailers to give the consumer value for money and an interesting choice. And this role occasionally implies putting the boot in.
And this view I still hold. We have for many years, I believe, been very fortunate in the passion, intelligence, integrity and communication skills of our wine communicators, but, as Tim notes, it all does appear a bit cosy. The reasons are understandable, but the result is that we have the equivalent of a sports car that never gets into top gear or takes the roof down.
I’m uncomfortable with communicators who seem to revel in being critical, but there is a middle ground. We work in a category where there are not only plenty of emperors running around at best scantily clad, but assuredly a plethora of interesting stories involving producers and retailers , which should be highlighted to keep us all on our toes. And this must be to the benefit of the category.
Writers will never love big brands
In another respect, however, my view has changed. My main gripe in 2006 was not so much with the absence of criticism but with the fact that when criticism was made it tended to be focused on the big brands or producers of mainstream wines. The producers of premium wines (with the possible exception of Bordeaux), and small producers in general, appeared to be given far more leeway as wine journalists were so keen to see the artisanal sector flourish.
I was concerned that the press were failing to understand the importance and role of the big brands and with their tendency to believe that good marketing and quality products were somehow mutually exclusive. As this represented a clear disconnect with the way consumers see things, it implied they were out of touch with their audience.
I now feel rather differently. I don’t consider the consumer facing journalist should take into account how a wine is marketed: their role is to judge the liquid. In an ideal world they would do so without prejudice, without being prisoners of their history (or indeed of clever marketing), but none of us are automatons. I would rather live in a market in which the print and blogosphere were inhabited by intelligent communicators with passion and personality, even if that meant that they occasionally selected what I might consider the wrong targets.
As part of our crusade to trade the consumer up we need communicators who can evangelise. And great wine evangelists, by their very nature, tend to have little interest in overtly marketed wines. So, being pragmatic, let’s just accept that is the case and move on. If we want communicators who compromise their feelings then it probably follows that they are likely to have less effect on the consumer.
And let’s face it; at the risk of making too sweeping a generalisation, it is unlikely that many purchasers of so called “trashy” wines are listening to wine communicators anyway, so if they do have a go the only people listening will be the trade. And the trade should be savvy enough to take it in their stride.
Worthwhile vs Trashy
Having said that, I’m also somewhat uncomfortable with Nick Hornby’s division between worthwhile and trashy. Back in 2006 I empathised with his plea when he wrote: “Please stop patronising those who are reading a book … The Da Vinci Code maybe … because they are enjoying it. It could be his or her first full length novel, the book that finally reveals the purpose and joy of reading to someone who has previously been mystified by the attraction books exert over others.”
Wonderfully put, and I agree with the sentiments. However, I now feel it’s a lot more complicated than that. Recently The Folio Society launched the Folio Prize, which “will not apologise for being excited by books that may at first appear daunting but go on to reward their readers”. Fair enough. However, the implication to some was that it was launched in part because the Booker Prize was seen to be “putting readability above artistic achievement”.
Well, I’m an avid reader but “readability” is not exactly the word I’d use to sum up the Booker short list. The problem is, surely, that one person’s Dan Brown is another person’s Hilary Mantel. Just as someone who is into Verdi might deride Rossini, or someone into Wagner might feel Mozart a little lightweight, while at the same time there are millions of people who never listen to classical music at all.
And it’s the same with wine if one was to substitute the word “drinkability” for readability; it all depends on where one stands in terms of knowledge and interest. And that is even before we get into a discussion about how one’s enjoyment of the same wine (or music or book) can vary by occasion or mood. In other words, while we all may think we know what Hornby means when he talks about “worthwhile” and “trashy”, each of our definitions, judged in terms of the wines we might place in each category, would be different. Mariella Frostrup said on Radio 4 that “a good book, by definition, must entertain” – but what is entertaining is surely highly subjective.
Navigating the maze
However, to return to my main point. We need to encourage those journalists communicating with consumers to realise their full potential, and to do that we must accept that the reason they are writing about wine in the first place has little to do with the major brands and even less to do with concepts of brand marketing. And such concepts, in any case, are likely to be the last thing their target consumers want to hear about.
We need communicators with the skills to not just help people navigate through the maze but to encourage them to enter the maze in the first place: not easy when today’s consumers have 101 other items on their “things to do” list.
And we also need them to help ensure that when the consumer does take the plunge and trade up that their chances of finding the experience worthwhile are pretty high, otherwise they will simply retreat to what they know. This surely must entail making consumers aware of wines of poor quality or value, as well as recommending wines they should buy.