Lost in translation: wine speak, white noise and self-flagellation

The need for evolution, not revolution

In one of his novels, Robert Graves relates the moment the French first landed in what we now know as Canada. They came across a native who was fishing and asked him, in French of course, what the land was called. The response was “Canada”. It was only much later that they found out that “Canada”, in the local dialect, could be loosely translated as  “bugger off, I’m fishing”.

This no doubt apocryphal tale came to mind as I caught up with the discussions around the recent article in The Observer entitled “Wine tasting: it’s junk science” and the research conducted by Laithwaites into the flowery language favoured by many wine writers.

There is no doubt that too many people in our business expect consumers to understand the “language of wine”. All too often we resemble the clichéd Englishman who, when he is not getting his message across to Johnny Foreigner, simply turns up the volume. The impression we can give is that the only consumers out there are those that are fascinated by wine speak. But to many consumers, the way we communicate about wine comes across as white noise – and, more importantly, as pretty dull.

The fact that we are out of touch with a majority of consumers is a familiar refrain, of course. Not only do we fail to understand how people make their choices (it is far from being all about the wine itself). We also deter too many of them from embracing wine, and therefore from becoming more profitable customers, through ill-considered communication.

Health warnings on wine awards?

So what do critics of the status quo think should be done? Let’s take the debate about wine competitions. The conclusion seems to be that such competitions cannot be scientific, yet the results are too often communicated as if they are more definitive than is actually possible (either by the organisers or by medal winners). How do we remedy this? I can’t believe there are too many supporters of regulation out there, of perhaps placing the equivalent of health warnings on labels when producers refer to the awards they’ve won. Yet if we are misleading consumers, shouldn’t something be done? Or is that not the real point of the discussion?

The same applies to the discussion on over-flowery language. As Graham Holter asked recently in The Wine Merchant, have any of the opponents of such phraseology “ever come up with a more useful or comprehensible lexicon?”.

Is this discussion more about self-flagellation, perhaps? Many of us love having a go, formally or informally, at the traditional and more arcane elements of our business. I would argue that this is a very necessary part of attempting to change our culture to one that really resonates with more than a minority of consumers. But such criticism should be constructive, and we ought to have alternatives to offer. What, for example, are the lessons from other categories? To me, this is where the discussion gets interesting.

The first Master of Orange Juice

Let’s take competitions. Such events,based on product performance (as opposed to brand performance), are hardly restricted to wine. One doesn’t need to trawl far on the internet to find that a whole raft of food and drink sectors are at it: blind tastings, medals … they all seem very much part of the marketing mix these days, notably in the many categories which are trying (in some cases fairly desperately) to show they have real provenance and that there is substance behind the style. At this rate it would not be that surprising to read about the appointment of the first Master of Orange Juice.

And as for flowery language, just look at menus. Every time I see the word “jus” I’m tempted to scream. Do I really believe my chips have been hand-cut and thrice cooked? Yet there is no doubt in my mind that the restaurant sector in this country is more vibrant and has more individual personality than ever before, and flowery language is often part of the proposition.

So unless we somehow believe these categories, and these marketers (because this trend is clearly marketing-led), are all misguided maybe we should be a little cautious. Who knows: maybe they see wine, at least subconsciously, as a role model.

Surely not, you say. How can our generally trade-facing, brand-ignorant, production-led industry possibly represent something for other sectors to emulate? Well perhaps because the wine category  somehow gives the appearance of having reached its current position without having being subject to the consumer trends or marketing maxims of the last 50 years, and now finds itself, almost by coincidence or sheer good fortune, brimming with the elements which marketers in many other categories are trying to create from scratch: provenance, a perception of naturalness, artisanal values and diversity.

Now I quite accept that no one in their right mind would wish our level of complexity, or many of our attitudes, on any category. Nor am I defending those who do imply wine medals or scores can be more than a guide, or excusing the worst excesses of flowery language. But just because many of us (including myself) are often profoundly irritated by some of the more unprofessional elements of our culture, it doesn’t follow that we need a revolution.

Simplification, not dumbing down

Let’s think carefully before we look to cut down the wine industry equivalent of the jungle and replace it with neat rectangular landscapes, criss-crossed with motorways and public footpaths with very clear signposts, to ensure that smiling consumers have easy access. Let’s perhaps consider that the right approach is to make the jungle less impenetrable, ensuring we preserve enough of its unique character and personality so that, whilst it remains a challenge, the consumers’ smile is likely to be longer lasting.

Consider how the UK’s beer industry has transformed itself, in a relatively short space of time. The analogy is hardly perfect, but it would be hugely ironic if we simplified things so much that a Campaign for Real Wine was necessary as a catalyst to add back some personality and added value to the sector.

Some consumers of course are not, and never will be, interested in venturing into any jungle, however appealing we make it. We are (as I’ve argued before) seeing an increasing polarisation between those who see wine as no more than an alcoholic beverage, and the rest. However for existing or potential explorers, the right approach is clearly not to abandon all wine speak in our marketing. It is surely to make these cues more engaging and, importantly, to balance them with other stories to broaden our proposition.

Celebrating the weird and wonderful

Either way it’s about becoming more entertaining. To these consumers wine is often a treat, a minor luxury. Let’s market it as such. As Graham Holter argues in the same piece (Wine’s weird: deal with it): “We know that wine is fun. Let’s prove it to the outsiders we are told are so intimidated.” Let’s celebrate the weird, the quirky. Let’s communicate our passion and harness the idiosyncrasies that abound in our category.

If I was a marketer somewhere else in the food and drink sector I would be so deeply envious of the number of buffs and enthusiasts in the wine category. It is actually an astonishing achievement. And while it is absolutely right for us to  beat ourselves up for exaggerating their importance, particularly when there is an urgent need to broaden the appeal of wine on which we can actually make an acceptable return, we need to be careful not to go too far in the other direction.

What we require, in my view, is a structured, market-based approach to optimise the potential of our artisanal values to relevant consumers. And within this we need to translate wine speak into something more appealing. We need to turn “white noise” into music that appeals to specific consumers. We need to understand whether they like classical, jazz, blues or rock (or, heaven forbid, country and western). What we should not do is move to the other extreme and assume that the right solution is to give them all the kind of music that one hears in elevators and shopping malls.

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5 thoughts on “Lost in translation: wine speak, white noise and self-flagellation

  1. Hi Mike – great post and good food for thought…I’m as big believer in simplifying wine language for the consumer, but I’m also watching as you say, the increase (and acceptance, in fact excitement) of “flowery”/”interesting” language on restaurant menus and also with craft beers…. Ironically, beer has always been beer, and well, there are the usual words to describe Stella et al, but Craft Beer with its unusual, innovative and quirky labels come with some really interesting definitions or so-called tasting notes and the consumer (globally) has embraced this. So, with wine, perhaps we should split wine into everyday drinking and premium (above 7 Pounds) wines. The masses drinking everday wines like Blossom Hill/entry level Exclusive labels, are not looking for gloriously worded descriptions or tasting notes – they just want something easy-drinking and fresh, bright, fruity, smooth etc. But with the more premium wines, some people really do embrace the descriptions and are interested in understanding the detail like they do with Craft Beer. Beer has never intimidated people… Wine has…. so, I don’t believe we should be getting rid of some of the wonderful (and accurate) means of describing wines, what we need to do is get rid of the snobbery and intimidation involved with wine, so that people learn to have fun with them as they do with reading the wonderful and delicious trendy food menus we have nowadays. Easier said than done, yes, but it is possible and we as an industry should be standing behind the wonderful wine world we are in, but we need to find a new way of making it non-intimidating and fun…And that could very well be via interactive experiences and events, rather than in-store tastings or education via POS etc. We need to make it REAL and fun….

    • I agree entirely Catherine…it is in part about making wine fun and ‘fun’ will mean different things to different people so it all comes back to understanding one’s target consumer better. Also, the way beer is marketed is a an interesting reference point. Some consumers want to know everyone about the beer they are drinking, many others don’t, but the way as a category beer is coming across these days is surely making it more aspirational or perhaps just more premium to the majority. Simply because of the greater range on offer, the many examples of quirky names and packaging, even if as a consumer you are not buying these particular brands they are I would suggest having a generally positive influence on your view of the category.

      • most categories have an agreed set of metrics which the consumer cann use as their initial filter. cars for instance are looked at in terms of engine size, mpg, purpose etc. this does not preclude huge diversity but it does provide enough data for the intial “am i interested?” assessment. wine needs its own set of metrics that could be common to all wines and which imply an agreeable experience (“petrol” or “minerality” anyone???). without that easy to understand filter for consumers how do they set about choosing? now, getting the wine trade to agree on a set of consumer metriics……….

      • That’s an interesting point. The problem with the diversity of the wine proposition is surely that it is not structured, it hasn’t developed as part of some rational plan. Therefore one ends up with a maze with many entrances and many of these are dead ends. It seems to be that almost at every level of knowledge or experience there are barriers to ascending to the next one which implies that we are discouraging all but those consumers who want the challenge to trade up.
        The lack of structure is also to a degree a plus, in terms of the overall image of the category, to many consumers, so its a question of balance which is really the point of my piece. How do we keep the artisanal flavour but make it more attractive to more consumers ( to improve financial return for a start ). You can hardly put signposts in a maze but we can make the maze a lot less impenetrable. The practical problem however, as you rightly point out, is that its unlikely we could all agree on the most appropriate solution.

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