The socialist republic of wine

A hundred years ago – well maybe 20 – when I was still co-chair of the International Wine Challenge (IWC) the then buyer of the UK retail chain Thresher rounded on me, saying that the problem with the IWC was that it only existed as a means for the company organising it to make money. For a brief moment, I was taken aback because of course he was quite right. None of the people involved in that competition was offering their services on a pro bono basis. But nor was he. And nor was Thresher. The only difference between the wine stores he worked for and my wine competition was that his lot went bust and mine is still going. Stated simply, we – which includes my successors obviously – were better at running a wine competition profitably than his lot were at retailing wine.

I was reminded of this exchange today when the South African wine writer Tim James responded to the tweeted question ‘what’s the point of wine competitions?’  with ‘to make money for the organisers’.  In a capitalist world, James is at least partly right. If they did not at least break even, none of the existing competitions would exist. But the same is true of surgeons, restaurateurs and publishers. And wineries. 
The problem with the wine world is that it’s hard to make a living producing, and still less, writing about it. So there seems to be a quasi socialist notion that everything to do with wine should be done for nothing. It’s an appealing idea – to an idealist adolescent – but totally unrealistic. I suggest that Mr James asks the plumber who comes out to fix his boiler why he gets up every day. Or the vet who treats his cat. Yes they hopefully enjoy repairing leaks and making tabbies feel better, but I’d be surprised if paying the bills was entirely absent from their thoughts.

Making wine isn’t easy. And nor is running wine competitions. I’d be very happy to see a winemaker or a wine competition organiser who can afford to eat great food, drink great wine and maybe even drive great cars – or give large amounts to charity. And the same applies to wine writers, unlikely as that may seem.

6 comments

  1. Tim James · ·

    [My second attempt to post a comment – the first seemed to fail somehow:]
    Your response is rather disingenuous, Mr Joseph, and extrapolating wildly. Nowhere (in my 144 characters!) did I come remotely near making the extraordinary suggestion “that everything to do with wine should be done for nothing”. I am a socialist (not even a “quasi-socialist”), in fact, though not an idealist adolescent, but happily accept payment for at least some of my work related to wine.
    Or perhaps you’re not disingenuous, but genuinely unable or unwilling to theoretically distinguish between the reason for something being there in the first place and the means by which it is continued. The purpose of plumbing is not to provide an income for plumbers; vets are there because my dog and your cat need them occasionally. Veterinary science and plumbing are unquestioned social goods and I’m delighted to agree that those who pursue these callings should get rewarded.
    My contention was that the main purpose of wine competitions is to make money for the organisers, and I stand by that. I fully recognise that others might suggest that their main purpose is to give consumers invaluable advice, or even to help raise quality levels, and that their profitability is incidental and consequent, and that their functionaries and organisers deserve to be rewarded too. I disagree, and think that wine competitions probably do more harm than good, and certainly don’t reliably distinguish between good and bad wines. Undoubtedly many of them make a great deal of money for their organisers – and employ some very nice and highly respectworthy wine professionals in so doing, by far the most useful thing they do.

  2. It all depends, I guess, on the depth of your socialist beliefs. In a capitalist world it is very hard to untie the motives behind any business. Why do private hospitals or schools or newspapers or restaurants exist?

  3. Why do people start wineries? Some do it as a hobby. Others do it as a means to make money – while doing something they enjoy. When Charles Metcalfe and I started both Wine Magazine and the IWC we did so as employees of a privately owned commercial company. Our motives may not have been the same as those of our employers. Does that matter?
    What matters to me is whether the business – any business – sufficiently supplies a need for it to survive. Neither the S African nor the UK iterations of Wine Magazine did that. Which is why they are no longer around. The IWC has attracted entries for over 30 years. That would suggest that it must be doing something right.
    You disagree and think that wine competitions “do more harm than good”. Fair enough. I'm interested to know what you prefer. Your own palate, I presume.
    Well, if you can convince enough people that yours are the taste buds that count, good luck. The only problem is that the last guy who managed to do that – an American called Parker – didn't seem to gain much popularity from people like you…

    On another note. I'm old enough to have visited Eastern Europe in the days when the profit motive was removed from the equation completely there. I can't say that the result was a total success.

  4. Tim James · ·

    I'd suggest that what the IWC is doing “right” is providing gold stickers for enough wineries on a regular enough basis that they can forget about the years that they don't get any medal at all. It has gained prestige for various reasons – mostly size, its own success in fact. And like all competitions it doesn't irritate producers by announcing their failures – only their successes. Most commercial competitions are really oriented towards producers (who must be persuaded to keep coming back with their fees and their orders for stickers) rather than consumers. Medals and stickers do help to sell wines, I have no doubt.

    What do I prefer to competitions? Not necessarily my own tastebuds, except when I'm choosing wines for myself to drink. Generally, I prefer when a reputable person offers considered appraisals of wines (as most of them do from time to time when they're not parts of panels doing impossibly enormous tastings). Preferably when the appraisal comes from more than a sniff, swirl and spit.

    An interested consumer will grow to understand whether they will, eg, take Robert Parker's advice, or Tim Atkin's, etc, etc. If RP and TA were part of a panel giving a wine a rating, what does the average tell anyone? (Even if they weren't suffering tannin fatigue or whatever by the time they get to a particular wine.)

    I have no doubt that the need to make a living (the profit motive, perhaps) produces marvellous stuff – as well as a lot of very mediocre stuff. I just don't think that wine competitions are marvellous stuff.

  5. Your response is actually rather facile. No the IWC doesn't list failures, but nor do the Oscars or any book prizes I can think of.
    Wine producers like getting Gold medals but these form less than 5% of the entries, so the odds of getting one every year aren't high – unless your wine regularly and reliably satisfies the judges.
    And there are plenty of producers – like me – as it happens – who are pleased to get bronze medals for their moderately priced wines. There are also producers like me who – you may find this hard to believe – like to see how well their wines do when benchmarked against others.
    Your view of the world seems similar to the one I've encountered among Frenchmen seeking to explain away the fact that their country is the second biggest market for McDonalds. The only explanation they refuse to countenance is that French consumers actually enjoy eating Big Macs.
    I spend time listening to the kind of consumers who rarely if ever read wine magazines. And I learn a lot from them. In the US and Asia in particular they trust Parker and Wine Spectator ratings because they've proved reliable. (as you say) To them. In other words, they like what they get when they stump up for a 90 point wine. You or I may or may not share their tastes, but we are irrelevant to this picture.
    The same applies to medals (and in S Africa, Platter). Confronted with the proverbial “wall of wine” they opt for safety – just as millions of people have done over the years when choosing restaurants out of the Michelin Guide.
    Yes, by following the competition, Guide or critic, you may be missing out on something, but most of us know that we do that every day of our lives with the roads we haven't taken.
    Like most wine writers with whom I clash, you resort to talking about the “interested consumer”, and I'll concede anything you want to say about him or her. By my – and many others' – reckoning, they represent 10-15% of the market. A valuable, opinion-forming minority, certainly, but a niche all the same.

  6. Tim James · ·

    On the contrary, Robert (let's be on first name terms, please – I do admire many of your skills and learn from your insights). Unlike your strangely myopic Frenchmen, I'm serenely happy to admit that people enjoy wines that I don't think proper, and that mine are minority tastes. May those people drink happily! Just as I easily admit (it's hardly difficult!) that more people enjoy Hollywood crap and Dan Brown novels more than Jane Austen and WG Sebald. (And am happy to admit that I am perfectly content to drive a despicable car and am shockingly unfussy about the quality of chocolate I enjoy!)

    You go ahead, you're certainly making a great deal more money out of the wine business than I do, and have more admirers. I'll stay with my niche.

    I'm one of those socialists (I suppose Theodore Adorno is the most notorious example) who accepts that mass culture is largely the depressing creation of the manipulative mass market. (The point of the revolution is to liberate people from capitalism, after all, not to celebrate or perpetuate the tastes and habits they've perforce developed under its regime!)

    Frankly, admittedly, I'm only really interested in good wines – presumably like at least some of the other wine writers with whom you say you clash. If you are saying that wine competitions are only a mechanism in the market of people not actually interested in wine, I'm happy to agree. Pity that some people I admire play along.

    If you'd started off by saying that wine competitions are not about the genuine appreciation of what is seriously good about wine, we could have reached agreement much earlier!

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