Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Wine International is Dead

The following article appeared in Update, the newsletter of the UK Circle of Wine Writers, in early 2006

Wine International breathed its last on December 10th with the publication of the magazine’s 262nd monthly issue, though Buddhists – no pun intended – may take some comfort from its semi-reincarnation as Wine & Spirit. As one of the magazine’s progenitors and sometime guardian, I’m not going to offer a belated eulogy over the corpse, but I thought a discursive obituary might be in order – if only to enlighten a wider audience about how wine magazine publishing actually works.

First things first. To set the record straight, the only crime William Reed, the new owners of Wine Intl could fairly be accused of with regard to Wine Intl is euthanasia. The magazine was losing money and had been doing so for much of its existence. Without the rather considerable amounts of cash that its child, the International Wine Challenge, brought home every year, the end would have come long ago. Perhaps if the ailing publication had changed its lifestyle or moved home at some earlier stage, it might have survived and even thrived, but that kind of conjecture is hardly fruitful at this stage. (And it is perhaps relevant that no major consumer publisher has ever attempted to buy the magazine or launch a rival).

I’m not ideally suited to judge whether Wine Intl was, or was not, a very good publication. I would claim, however, that it broke new ground when it first appeared and, over the two decades of its existence played a significant part in the consumer wine revolution we are still living through. It seems strange to think that when Charles Metcalfe and I produced the earliest issues, Australia was still exotic, and supermarkets were still struggling to convince people that they genuinely competed with “specialists” like Peter Dominic and Augustus Barnett. Under a series of editors – myself, Joanna Simon, Margaret Rand, Ruth Cobb, Susan Lowe, Chris Orr, Chris Losh and Catharine Lowe – it tried on a number of different sets of clothes. Every now and then, it flirted with becoming more populist (aka dumbing down) in the hopes of selling more copies in supermarkets. At other times – particularly more recently - it ascended to the higher ground of en primeur and tastings of Champagnes from different villages.
However, while it was clear that populism reduced popularity, when we counted the number of copies we sold every month, there was depressingly little correlation between what we thought of as good and less good issues. Imagine a Bordeaux chateau that sells roughly the same number of bottles of its 1997 and 2002 as of its 2000 and 2003, and at a similar speed and price, and you will get the picture. Covers influenced circulation somewhat, but since a substantial proportion of the readers were subscribers (as is the case for Decanter), and the total number of copies on news stands was relatively small, (as is the case for Decanter), the overall impact was far less significant than one might suppose. In branches of Oddbins and Majestic, the pattern was clear: five or six magazines would be bought every month by the same five or six people. All of which, of course, begs the question of how many copies we actually sold.

If you had asked the publishers of Wine Intl for this information, the official answer was that we printed 30-35,000 copies. Which is rather like the producer of a play telling you how many seats there are in the theatre, rather than the number of tickets that have been purchased at the box office. The magazine publishing world offers a perfectly good means of avoiding this kind of fudge. Any publisher who wants to can jump through a few hoops to get an ABC – neatly named after the Audited Bureau of Circulation – figure for the number of copies sold, or distributed in other ways. Country Walking, for example, supports its claim to be “Britain’s best-selling walking magazine” by proclaiming an audited average monthly sale in 2004 of 47,274 copies. Well over twice or possibly thrice as one might reasonably believe Wine Intl or Decanter genuinely to have sold in the UK.

Wine International never had an ABC, though surprisingly few of the advertisers, for whom such details ought to matter, ever requested one. But then, presumably the same could be said for the people who placed ads in Decanter which does not choose to offer an audited circulation figure either.

What Decanter can convincingly say is that it has a significant – over 40% - readership outside the UK, and this is crucial, because getting people occasionally to buy, let alone subscribe to, a wine magazine in this country is far, far tougher than most wine writers might imagine. (When Wine Magazine became Wine International, sadly the addition of the adjective represented the major part of the effort to expand its number of overseas readers). In Britain, over the years, a succession of circulation managers tried all kinds of wheezes. We piled up copies in WH Smiths, in Waitrose and in Oddbins, and we offered subscriptions at knock-down rates to Barclaycard customers, to doctors and lawyers and to members of the Sunday Times Wine Club. Copies were distributed on Eurostar trains and generous discounts were offered to wine clubs. None of this was easy or very fruitful. The WH Smiths of this world see special-interest magazines like Wine Intl and Decanter in much the same way that Tesco view an £8 Pecharmant. Wine Intl took up the same amount of shelf space as Penthouse or Country Living, but sold infinitely more slowly. So, the chances are that a wine magazine will either be tucked away behind faster-moving fare – or that it won’t be stocked at all. And of course, the less visible you are, the lower the sales, and the greater the reason for refusing to give you space in the first place. The only hope of breaking this pattern is to secure a slot next to the till – the news trade’s answer to the gondola end in a supermarket wine department. And here too, the same retail rules apply. Simply getting onto the shelves of a big newsagent chain costs money nowadays and premium positions like these come at a painfully high price. A single month of this kind of prime exposure in a specific set of WH Smiths stores could easily set you back £20-30,000 – hardly the kind of money you’d rush to spend without feeling pretty confident of a big uptake in sales. We took this route sometimes for our most boring issues of the year – the ones packed with IWC winners – and did indeed sell more copies, but never saw the increase carry over to the following months’ issues that were full of beautifully written articles.

In simple terms, there is no current evidence that the UK can single-handedly sustain a consumer wine magazine. With the demise of Wine Intl, we are left with Decanter (heavily sold overseas), World of Fine Wine (tiny and even more reliant on sales to other countries) and Fine Expressions (new and far too focused on whisky to qualify as a wine magazine). This is really quite curious, when you consider that countries like Latvia, Eire, Korea, Georgia, India and Thailand all have glossy wine magazines and that Russia and Japan can each field several. So why not Britain? The answer that used to be given was that consumers got as much wine writing as they needed from newspapers, but with the shrinkage of coverage in papers like the Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times and Evening Standard, that’s highly debatable.
My own view, for what it’s worth is that the explanation is glaringly simple. Why would a country, most of whose wine drinkers resent paying more than a fiver for a bottle of wine (only 12% of wine is sold at above this figure) want to splash out £4 on a magazine. Of course there is a fine wine market – all those people who flock to taste Burgundy en primeur every January for example - but I suspect that a large proportion of them either rely on the advice of their merchants or place their trust in industry-standard ratings from Parker and the Wine Spectator. Or both (as in the Farr Vintners Bordeaux en primeur listings).

It is revealing that our inability to sustain consumer wine magazines is echoed in the field of food publishing. BBC Good Food may still flourish – thanks largely to the presence of tele-chefs, but more up-market offerings like BBC Gourmet Good Food, Taste and A la Carte have all foundered and the word on the street is that neither Delicious nor Olive are, as it were, bringing home as much bacon as their publishers might have hoped.

It is instructive to compare the UK and US wine markets. On the other side of the water the greatest growth is at the higher end of the price scale. (In Britain we talk up the rise in sales of over-£5 wine, but an average retail price per bottle that remains pegged at £3.84 reveals some pretty vigorous activity in the bargain basement.) Of course we sophisticated Brits mock the credulous Yanks who splash out what we think of as silly money on wines with Parker or Spectator points. But our right to a superior stance is undermined by the fact that few of us have ever tasted many of those wines – for the simple reason that they don’t hit these shores. Or do so in such tiny quantities that they by-pass the press completely. London does not have a dedicated wine shop that is as good as several in New York, and the owner of the brilliant Lavinia stores in Paris, Barcelona and Madrid is planning to move into Moscow and Shanghai but sees no appeal in trying to retail wine in the British capital.

The usual target of blame for the state of the UK wine trade is the supermarkets who are pictured as being somehow morally deficient in the way they handle wine. Wine writers and merchants are as free with their opinions of what the supermarkets ought to do about wine as London cabbies are with their views about Ken Livingstone and immigrants. Unfortunately all these criticisms miss the point. Supermarkets are no more “in the wine business” than they are seriously in the business of selling DVDs or petrol. The generic name by which they are known speaks volumes: they are indeed “super” “markets”: big places where goods of various kinds are traded. I don’t recall seeing many wine merchants rising in solidarity with Levis when Tesco and Asda started to sell jeans at rock bottom prices, and I’m sure that there are a few members of the trade who succumbed to the temptation to buy a discounted copy of the latest Harry Potter in Tesco rather than support their local Ottakers. Ah, the wine experts say, the supermarkets are stupid. All they need to do is get their customers to trade up and we’ll all make more money. Given its evident inability to generate profits from its stores, Tesco clearly needs this kind of advice. Especially from traditional wine merchants, producers and writers whose ability to accumulate wealth is famous across the planet.

But that’s quite enough irony. If the supermarkets aren’t to blame, let’s throw the brickbats at the innately cheapskate British public who at least can’t answer us back. Sadly, this doesn’t quite wash either. There is plenty of evidence that the most tightly-wadded Brits can be persuaded to fork out more than is logical on a pair of Nike trainers or the latest iPod. And I’d argue that they do so for the same reason that the Americans and the Swiss and the Japanese all splash out on flash bottles: wine, and more specifically classy wine, is something to which a growing number of people in those countries aspire. Unlike Britain, the country where people earning two or three thousand pounds a week think a £6.99 bottle of wine appropriate to serve to their dinner guests on a Saturday night.

If you accept my premise that Britons aren’t generally excited by the idea of sampling finer – and pricier – wine, the blame surely has largely to be placed at the door of the people whose livelihood is derived from communicating with the public: the readers of this organ. While we hacks can share some of the credit for increasing UK wine consumption beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, we also have to take a corresponding amount of the responsibility for killing the aspirational quality that even Mateus Rose once enjoyed. We have helped to reduce wine to the level of beer or milk: a beverage most people neither have, nor wish, to think about very much. Value for money has become synonymous with cheapness. The very idea of a wine writer promoting a prestige cuvee Champagne as good value at £50 is almost unthinkable. But just switch on your television and watch half an hour of Top Gear. In one recent show Jeremy Clarkson and Steve Coogan were seriously debating the relative merits of the latest efforts from Aston Martin and Ferrari. Neither car would leave much change from £175,000, a figure both petrolheads freely acknowledged was a fairly considerable sum. But that acknowledgment didn’t reduce their evident passion for these gloriously impractical vehicles. Watching the two men throw the cars around the track should have moved any but the most pedestrian of souls – which helps to explain why Top Gear is such a popular programme. Of course Clarkson and the gang also have to cover more workaday vehicles; earlier in the same show, he explained that viewers had requested advice on which sub-£8,000 hatchback to buy. So, a pair of runabouts were duly and very, very rapidly recommended - in much the way one of us might name a drinkable £3.99 supermarket cava, or a cafĂ© that produces decent sandwiches.

I loved Clarkson’s admission that cheap, good-value-for-money Japanese hatchbacks don’t get his juices going. Maybe if more of us took the same approach to wine, and allowed our enthusiasm for the vinous counterparts of cars that cost as much as a two-bedroom-flat in Leeds, we might encourage a little bit more courageous exploration by Britain’s wine drinkers. I am writing this a few hours after hearing Andrew Jefford hosting a discussion of luxury foods and drinks on Radio 4’s Food Programme. Inevitably, perhaps, the caviar, foie gras and Dom Perignon were tasted alongside dyed fish eggs, duck pate and Tesco Champagne. In each case, the guests – Sean Hill and Michelle Roberts – unhesitatingly identified and preferred the genuinely luxury product but, compared with Clarkson and Coogan, the enthusiasm was distinctly muted. I can’t imagine that the programme will have sent many listeners rushing out to experience their first taste of DP

For those people reading this who mutter “so what!” or rub their hands in glee at the thought that the greedy Champenois won’t be banking any extra pounds, I’d simply offer a few statistics. According to AC Nielsen, the rise in UK wine consumption has slowed to 5 or possibly even 1.5%, depending on the figures you choose, with sales of the top four brands now rising by 48%. In other words, if you’re not a big New World brand, you’re lucky not to be sliding backwards. It is, of course, always dangerous to assume that trends will continue, but if this one does, who’s betting that Tesco et al will take the logical step of trimming their ranges even further than they did in 2005. And Terry Leahy will have every justification in doing so: after all, he’ll be obeying his mantra of listening to his customers and giving them what they want.

Of course, there will be a backlash by people who want something a little different or better – which will be good news for Philglas & Swiggott, Wimbledon Wine and co, but that won’t help the overall picture. The opening of another opera house doesn’t slow the decline in the sales of opera CDs.

So, this is a call to arms. If we as British wine writers really do love wine from the foot of the mountain to the summit it’s time for us to share that love, passion and excitement unashamedly with a wider audience – and to admit that while some of the best things in life are free, some of the others cost a lot of money. And are none the worse for that.

1 comment:

  1. Truth is, print publishing is migrating online apace. Hence the success of various resources -subscription and free - from Jancis R, Tanzer and Burghound, to Wine Journal, Wine Pages etc.

    Wine Pages is a great example of how an online resource can make money along the lines of the old controlled circulation model, from adverting revenues, where the metrics for success are much more measurable.

    Though Wine Intl. is dead, there are so many new excellent, in depth, well researched/written articles, tastings and information on online - some specialist and some general - that the enthusiast is better resourced than ever.

    And the cherry on the pie is that, evidenced by this email, resources are more interactive. Community and social networking around 'centres of passion' such as a wine hobby add substantial value.