Educating the masses

Who knows what a gooseberry tastes like, asks John Downes MW. The wine trade and writers need to wise up to what consumers need to know
27 August, 2008
Page 53 
We've come a long way since the days when a few bow-tied anoraks prattled on about the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Germany, and the new recruits to the elitist world of wine cut their teeth on Hirondelle and Liebfraumilch.

Our shelves are now groaning with wines from around the world as their tags improve our geography no end, by listing vineyards from New Zealand to California, as well as bringing Europe into sharp focus. The trade's done a great job and wine is now a part of everyday life, with choice an exciting part of the wine experience.

The consumer wine media has played its part, but has it kept up with the revolution? I don't think so. Just ask Joe Public and his wife as they face the wall of wine in their local supermarket. Nearly 20 million people drink wine in the UK and around 19 .75 million haven't a clue what they're drinking. They go for price or an attractive label. I can handle trade mags "talking trade " and specialist wine mags dealing the "vit-vin-vintage" card to their wine-hooked readers, but it's about time we gave the ordinary consumer more straight talk and less mystery . " Be it in a newspaper or magazine, on television or radio, everybody tells you what to buy - which is fine as far as it goes - but you never get to learn anything about wine that way," notes beginner but enthusiast Adrian Chiles, presenter of BBC's One Show in the UK.

It may come as a surprise, but Joe doesn't know how Champagne is made, or what acidity, tannin and balance are, and he starts considering suicide when we talk about terroir. But, I believe he is intrigued. He may not want to become an expert, but he does want to know just a little more. Talking straight and kicking "wine speak " into touch is the key - it may also help achieve the trade's Holy Grail of getting Joe to trade up to better quality. I think most main stream brands are boring, but it's no coincidence that they rule our shelves big time - their in-built security fills the consumer's knowledge gap.

After dinner, speaking to lawyers, bankers and accountants, I'm amazed how these so-called stuffy, establishment professions have moved with the times. In-house media, PR and marketing departments keep their corporate image crisp, job books fruity and fees sparkling. The fashion media, with a heady mix of entertainment and razz ma tazz, has been changing our opinions every season for decades. By comparison, the wine media is stuck in a time warp.

Newspapers and magazines print articles that haven't changed much in 20 years , radio programmes are as stilted as ever, and wine and TV continue their on /off relationship. It's not surprising that Joe still sees wine as for the elit e. The consumer wine media needs a trip down the cat walk.

I don't wholly blame wine writers and journalists. They have to ply their wares to newspaper, magazine, television and radio editors who, thankfully with a few exceptions, are also caught in the headlights of the traditional world of wine. Sensitive to the risk of change, they unwittingly ensure that the cycle is self propagating.

On the speaking circuit, in the television studio, or with my mates in the pub, Jilly Goolden is the only wine person people ever mention to me. She's been wine's best ever ambassador, but the BBC's Food & Drink programme was on our screens in the 80 s. It's a sad but telling reflection that nobody's taken up her mantle since.

Unlike with food , most wine books don't get the slightest "ching" from the busiest till and it's reported that some publishers are losing interest. That the average price of a bottle of wine in the U K still hovers around a meagre  £3.99 is also testament to the fact that we writers, journalists and editors need to wise up to our potential readership.

We simply need new ideas to help Joe onboard . " Gooseberry is the classic, but to my mind, entirely useless, reference point for Sauvignon Blanc," notes Chiles. "Of all the tosh talked by wine writers, it's this gooseberry business that gets on my wick the most. Who knows exactly what a gooseberry tastes like ? I haven't had one in my mouth for years and I don't know anyone who has."

We need to stop writing for a moment and listen up.

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