inspiration v aspiration; thoughts on the yawning gap between the US and UK wine markets



“Part of [the] job of [the] critic [is] to inspire people”. Tim Atkin’s tweeted comment is not one with which most people would disagree.


But the comment begs a little analysis. Does it matter how many or how few people one inspires? Is it enough for a critic to say that he or she has truly inspired a few hundred or even a few thousand people? And what is the quality of the inspiration?

As a former UK wine critic who was most active – in the Sunday Telegraph, through the Good Wine Guide and Wine International magazine between 1985-2005, I think I can fairly claim to have been one of a group who helped to inspire rather a large number of people to experiment with then-unfamiliar wines ranging from South West French whites and Eastern European reds, to Australian Shiraz, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Chilean Cabernet and Argentine Malbec. Collectively, we probably helped to turn millions of British people into wine drinkers.

We encouraged them to find wines that were good enough – and affordable enough to keep them happy. And in this effort, we were aided and abetted by Britain’s importers and supermarkets who eventually introduced a discount-driven pricing regime focused on ensuring that there were always bottles on offer that were attractively affordable.

The result of our efforts in 2013, is that, despite Britain’s famously high duty rates, fewer than five out of every hundred bottles drunk at home now sells at over £8. This could be compared to 22% in Australia selling at over AU$15 (£8.80). Looked at another way, 95% of the wine sold by UK retailers leaves European cellars at well under €3.50. There’s plenty of delicious wine on offer at this price; my own le Grand Noir wines are a pretty good buy at under €2.50 ex-cellars, and they’re very attractively labelled, but I’d still hope to be served something a little better at a dinner party. But at the most recent dinner I attended, at which no-one around the table earned less than £100,000, we drank Villa Maria Pinot Grigio (£9.99 down to £7.49 at Ocado); McGuigan Bin 528 Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre (£7.99 down to £4.50 at Sainsbury) and Kumala Zenith Merlot Cabernet Shiraz (£9.99 at Morrisons; £3.99 on promotion at Ocado). When the former BBC economics editor Evan Davis (another person with an income of over £100,000 I’d bet) talked to Tesco wine supremo Dan Jago on the Radio 4 In Business programme, he freely stated that the price he was prepared to pay for a wine on a special occasion, was around £12.

Stated simply, we failed to inspire British consumers to aspire to buy more than fairly basic wine: to taste and drink – and serve their friends – something a little bit better. So why was this? Were we simply not inspirational enough – despite all those prizes we got for the quality of our writing? Were we just too weak to match the strength of the supermarkets that were ranged against us: Davids whose catapulted stones bounced off Goliath’s brow? Were we insufficiently ambitious in our aims: happy to bask in the attention of the small coterie of readers of a couple of specialist magazines and a few unloved newspaper columns? Or was it that what we offered was in itself, simply not very inspiring?

I suspect it was the latter. If you want to spark a novice’s imagination into tennis, football – or jazz, you’re better doing it with Nadal, Man U and Miles Davis than with mid-range performers. In the US, writers and critics have always talked about the best, the greatest, the champions: the 100-pointers. In the UK we talk about great value at under £15. What’s inspiring about that?

It’s far, far too easy to blame the supermarkets for everything we’ve failed to achieve. Other countries have supermarkets too – with similar power to ours. Supermarkets with pricy bottles on their shelves that are there to be picked up by customers who’ve been “inspired” to buy them. UK supermarkets are no different. They quietly offer some very smart bottles in branches where they know they’ll sell.

Few UK critics ever acknowledge the way we’re losing a war, contenting ourselves in pointing at battles we win in the shape of the few tens of thousands of well-heeled enthusiasts who attend the Burgundy en-primeur tastings or show up to Three Wine Men or Wine Gang events. For my part, I’d like to man up and ruefully admit to my share of the responsibility, and for walking away from the fight when I effectively stopped being a wine critic in 2006. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, there was another kind of inspirational programme on offer during the period when I was scribbling away here. With the 100-point system, Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator, in particular, inspired millions of Americans to dig deep into their wallets in the expectation of getting something really special. Typical of the US approach is this comment by 
Stephen Eliot of Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine

So just how do I know that great Cabernet abounds? Because I actually taste them, and, going over the lengthy list of stellar efforts reviewed in CGCW over the past year as Charlie and I compile our annual lists of personal top ten favorites, I am struck by the number of extraordinary examples we have seen from 2009 and 2010. Suffice it to say that it has been a very, very good year.
I only wish that I could afford to drink them more often than I do, but then there are great restaurants I would frequent more regularly, and I would drive a fancier car than I do if I could. Top-shelf Cabernet may be an occasional indulgence, but it is one that I relish, and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon remains for me one of the world’s benchmark wines. (Stephen Eliot, Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine)
Eliot is not alone in his affection for Napa Cabernet. Last year, US consumers bought 568,000 cases of that variety – nearly 7m bottles – directly from the wineries. At an average price of $62.75 (£38.70). The Napa Cabs were only the priciest of the 38,400,000 bottles that were shipped from US wineries to US consumers in 2012 at an average of $38.42 (£23.70). These numbers only apply to the bottles that were bought directly from the producers; anyone who has browsed the shelves of US wine shops will have seen plenty of US and imported reds and whites on offer for $30-100. Bear that in mind when you hear UK importers complaining about how hard Britain’s much-vaunted “independents” find it to sell anything at over £20. As Simon McMurtrie of Direct Wines said at the Wine Vision conference last week, “we offer the same wines in the UK and US. We charge more for them in the US but our customers there say how cheap they are”. McMurtrie has said separately that his company turns over half as much on the western seaboard of the Atlantic – but generates nearly as much profit.
The US picture is not perfect, however. Where the critics there have failed to inspire large numbers of their compatriots to switch from grain to gape; 20% of Americans are still drinking 80% of the wine. But the US is a vibrant wine market whose younger drinkers – the millennials – are among the readiest to experiment and spend their money on premium wine – not something anyone has ever said of the same generation of Brits. Most observers expect that premium and super-premium wine drinking will become an increasingly popular – and, for producers and distributors, profitable – pursuit.

Meanwhile, as the average price of wine in Britain fails to keep up with rising duty rates and inflation, and as producers steadily walk away from this market, Britain’s wine critics seem increasingly like musicians in the Titanic ballroom enjoying the applause of their number of fans and congratulating each other on the skill of their playing.

8 comments

  1. Anne Jones · ·

    Anne Jones wrote on Facebook: The thing that worries me is that said 'inspiration' seems to only appear in the domaine of the general public as criticism of the things they currently like most. This can't help to start a meaningful engaged debate over why to pay more, and only fuels the divide between commodity and fine wines. Being an arbiter of taste is a dangerously isolationist thing to be – watch and car enthusiasts don't generally tell people they're a bit moronic for buying a Golf or a basic Casio instead of a Bentley or a Breitling…

    And I don't deny that critics do inspire, and are balanced, and are talented, and are indeed often right. It's as much about where and how we manage to get 'normal' consumers to hear the 'right' messages in a relevant way…

  2. Anne, as you know, we're on the same page regarding the danger of alienating consumers by criticising the stuff they enjoy. Especially given the fear with which they often approach wine in general and the people who know about it.

  3. Catherine Monahan via Facebook · ·

    Shouldn't a critic be providing a balanced review/opinion on a topic so that the consumer can make his own decision on that. Naturally the critic can write it in a way that steers a desired outcome but it should be up to the consumer to decide.

  4. Fair enough, but my piece was sparked by Tim saying that it was the critic's role to “inspire”

  5. Jamie Goode via Facebook · ·

    Hmm, a few problems with this piece – I am writing largely for involved consumers on my website, people who are interested enough in wine to read about it. There are quite a lot of them (my webstats show me this). I know that I'm not enjoying the applause of a small number of fans. I have no pretence that I am going to change the drinking habits of normal people, because normal people don't do anything as abstract as reading about wine. They like to drink it, though. And for them, there's no reason to spend more because they can access tasty wines that meet their needs for £5 a bottle still. I write about different wines for a different audience, and in my small way I have some impact. I can see this from the interaction I have with the people who read my stuff. And I'd add that because of the internet, I'm not just writing for UK consumers.

  6. I'm not trying to suggest what you, or Tim or anyone should or shouldn't be doing as wine writers. All I'm doing is looking at an outcome that I at least find dismaying: the gradual relative decline of the UK as a market for wine selling ex-cellars at over €4.

    Sometimes the debate feels a little like talking to teachers in a failing school. Exam results and university entrance figures are dropping, but some of the teachers are – justifiably – delighted with the response they get from their classes and the scholarships attained by some of their pupils. If the school as a whole is doing badly, it's the fault of the government for starving it of funds, or of competition from other schools, or whatever.

    But hey, let's not worry about the general level of literacy; let's focus on the kids with whom we've been successful.

    I live in the UK, shop for wine in its wine retailers – supermarkets and specialists and “indies” which often are incidentally a lot less impressive than their counterparts in other countries – and look back at the vibrancy the market had a decade or so ago and feel frustrated.

    Others may of course see things differently, and think that things have actually got better.That's their prerogative.

  7. Every word spot on Robert. But you already know that..

    Higher priced wine sales on the rise here in Japan and other parts of Asia. This is certainly partly due to the fact that Jamie, Tim et all have put them on the radar of local importers, sommeliers and then consumers. The art, as Jamie points out is still valued. The UK market as you have noted is broken.

  8. Thanks… You make an interesting point that may not be as widely appreciated as it should be. Many people fail to recognise that Jancis is not a UK wine writer these days (given the global reach of the FT and her online offerings), and I wonder if even Tim and Jamie appreciate the strength of their influence outside the UK.

    I am looking for sticking plaster for the UK, but no luck so far…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s