Devil's Advocate - Need to Know

For many members of the industry, future success depends on ‘educating the public about wine’. But is that broad ambition really the answer? Robert Joseph wonders if, instead of focusing on what we want, we should be thinking more about giving consumers information they might actually find helpful.

Reading time: 3m 40s

Robert Joseph - with horns - (and a cactus by Alex Furgiuele on Unsplash)
Robert Joseph - with horns - (and a cactus by Alex Furgiuele on Unsplash)

Could you tell which was which, between an Acer Palmatum Garnet and an Acer Palmatum Shaina? If so, according to a man I was talking to last weekend, you are a very, very unusual human being. And I guess he should know, because he’s in the business of selling significant numbers of both of these plants, one of which costs roughly four times as much as the other.

After working in several sectors, including wine retailing, he had invested in a chain of garden centres that do remarkably well supplying everything anybody might ever imagine they might need for that patch of land behind their home, or the straggly plants they’re trying to keep alive on the window ledges of their apartment kitchens.

“Our customers” he explained, “know very little about plants, and much of what they think they know is wrong.” Every spring, he continued, they fill his stores looking for stuff to plant. “Almost none of them realises that autumn is a far better time to do it.” His stores sell books and magazines that would reduce his customers’ ignorance – as would tuning into one of the many radio and television programmes or YouTube clips that focus on gardening. And I’m sure that plenty do, but they still end up knowing a fraction of what there is to know about the flora on offer in their local emporium.

Next year, my acquaintance’s business is aiming to remedy this situation – at least in part. A new individualised app will allow customers to keep track of their garden, advising them when to prune and replant, the composts to use and the handiest tools.

Tailored Teaching

At first sight, by creating this concept, the garden centres are apparently following the same mantra as their vinous counterparts: we need to ‘educate the public’. But it’s not that simple. What struck me was the personal tailoring. People with no interest in roses or rhododendrons, for example, won’t be told what to do with either of those plants, while cactus fans will be provided with access to encyclopaedic levels of knowledge about everything succulent.

Compare this to the wine education model that traditionally expects students – including members of the public who haven’t voluntarily enrolled in any kind of course – to learn at least a little about every kind of wine. They are supposed to know how Champagne and port are made and the grapes used for Chablis and Chianti. It’s as though the music industry were intent on ensuring that the average Chinese or American is as familiar with Delius and Duke Ellington as they are with the Grateful Dead and Dave.

But that’s not how it works, at least for most of us. We find something we enjoy – in art, music, food or drink – and then, though far from inevitably, grow curious about it and open to knowing more. Look at most bookshelves or, for those old enough to remember such things, the collections of CDs and vinyl records in other people’s homes. How many had a broad range of styles of literature or music? And how many had a predominance of thrillers or biographies, rock, opera or jazz?

Educating consumers may make a lot of commercial sense if it leads to them buying more and trading up, but I’d argue that for anyone outside the tiny minority that’s sufficiently committed to want to buy a book or join a class – it makes sense to focus on what they already know and like. Retailers who know that customer A has bought Rioja on more than one occasion may, for example, be doing her – and themselves – a favour by providing a brief guide to Spanish wine.

Don't Want to Know

When I say that most people don’t want to learn about wine in general, I’m speaking from experience. In the 1990s, when UK supermarkets took wine a lot more seriously than they do today, I published a 256-page, full-colour hardback introduction to wine for Tesco, one of the biggest chains. Oz Clarke, who then appeared on television talking about wine on a popular food programme, had produced a similar work for another huge retailer, Sainsbury. Both books were very well received by critics, and mine actually won me an award. They were well designed and incredibly attractively priced. And neither proved to be enough of a best seller to retain its place for very long on the supermarket shelf.

Despite the quality of the three seasons of Wine Show I do believe that TV effort gives away the game – and the reason for its less-than-mainstream audience – with its own slogan: ‘By wine lovers, for wine lovers’.

To imagine that anyone who regularly drinks Côtes du Rhône and Chablis, or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel is a ‘wine lover’ makes no more sense than to suggest that someone else who enjoys malt whisky and craft ales is a ‘drink lover’. In all these cases, they’ve simply found something they enjoy – just like the people lining up to buy themselves an Acer Palmatum Garnet  or, next year, maybe something very like it, but a bit pricier.

The key lies in helping to offer a ladder upwards from that first rung, taking people from Prosecco DOC to DOCG, or from a Rioja Crianza to a Reserva or a Vino de Pago, which is why, next year, you’ll find me at my local garden centre taking notes and downloading their new app.




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