Sunday, April 01, 2012

Why the Australians and Swedes are cleverer than us

Charles Haughey, the disgraced former Irish Taoiseach – prime minister – and good friend of ‪Muammar Gaddafi, had quite expensive tastes. These included ownership of a holiday home on his own private island and a passion for good food and wine. At some point, his island getaway needed a little renovation and a team of builders was sent there by boat. After a few days, the hard-working contractors ran out of the beer they had brought with them and – the nearest shop being on the mainland – they began to look for some in the house. Their search was in vain, but they did find a cellar that was well stocked with Haughey’s favourite claret. The men, who would far rather have been drinking Guinness, apparently made do with a dozen or so bottles of Lafite-Rothschild 1953 and Margaux 1957 which they knocked back over a few games of cards.

The next day, one of the builders took the boat to the mainland to buy some food, beer and, being an honest man, replacements for the bottles he and his friends had drunk. The shopkeeper had a limited range and the builder little idea of what he was looking for but, after turning down a few bottles that were the wrong shape, he opted for the ones that looked most like those he’d found in the cellar.

The next month, the Taoiseach who had some guests he wanted to impress, invited them to help him choose the wine they’d like to have with dinner. Instead of his beloved Lafite and Margaux, however, in the rack facing the cellar door the first thing he saw was a dozen high shouldered bottles… of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon.

When I have told this story to friends in the wine business, they have usually had a good laugh at the expense of the dodgy Irish politician and the unsophisticated workmen. That’s the way I initially reacted to it too. But we were all wrong. The laugh in fact is on us.

Let’s remove our wine goggles and put ourselves in the shoes of that unfortunate builder; how was he to know that he was replacing some of the priciest wine in the world with some of the cheapest? All that separated them after all was a few square centimetres of paper in the form of a possibly indecipherable label,

Just imagine if we treated food in the way we treat wine. There would be no more sandwiches, hot-dogs or burgers, sushis or beautifully presented Michelin-starred soufflés. Almost everything we eat would come in one of three or four shapes of box. If our dress code followed the wine rule, men would all wear the same suits all day, every day, while doing the gardening, clubbing or going to the office. All that would change would be the pattern and colour of their ties

Sweden, Australia and Norway are all much cleverer than mainland Europeans and North Americans. Between a third to half of all wine in those countries is sold in bag-in-box. In other words, for most people there, a Wednesday wine to be drunk with a pizza in front of the television comes out of a tap, while a Saturday dinner party wine is poured from a bottle.

Setting aside the environmental impact of taking all that wine out of glass and putting it into recyclable boxes (or Tetrapaks), there is the obvious advantage of giving consumers a visual indication of how the stuff might fit into their lives and giving them a literally tangible reason to trade up. There are few cheap bottles in an average Australian bottle shop – but plenty of cheap bags in box (or casks as they are more sensibly known there).

Of course a minority of premium wine producers have acknowledged the problem of the wall of near-identically-packaged wines by resorting to recognizably bigger, heavier bottles. The reaction by some very illustrious critics has been to pillory these producers for their environmental irresponsibility and, in at least one case, even to threaten to refuse to review any of the heavily-packaged wines. I’d be readier to applaud those critics’ greenness if they took a more holistic view. Heavy bottles represent such a tiny proportion of the wine currently on offer that repackaging every single one of would have a negligeable effect on carbon emissions. Repackaging hundreds of millions of glass bottles of the cheapest wine into Tetrapak or bag in box would, on the other hand, have a truly dramatic impact. Seven one-litre recyclable Tetrapaks have the same lifespan carbon footprint as one recyclable glass bottle.

I fear that I’m whistling in the wind with this argument. Instead of embracing truly low-impact packaging for the vast majority of wine, the current call seems to be for putting all wine in the same light glass bottles – effectively making pricier wines look cheaper. Maybe, like politicians, we simply enjoy confusing and playing with the brains of our fellow human beings; maybe being straightforward with them is simply not our way.

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  1. From Richard Gawel (@oliveoilguy) via twitter
    @robertjoseph Deep punt, thick walled bottles r an environmental anachronism. Time to skew quality perception in a different way?

  2. Richard, Almost ALL packaging is environmentally anachronistic. And that's as true of olive oil as wine.

  3. Hi Robert

    I share your sentiments and would add the LCBO in Ontario as an example of another part of the world that encourages and embraces lighter weight packaging. But like Sweden and Norway, it is their position as a government monopoly that allows them the ability to over-ride the sensibilities of producers by demanding that wines are packaged with the environment in mind rather than the commercial pressure of the producers/retailer to simply shift units. As a producer, I can say that my commercial agenda will reamin a priority until such time that either my 'brand' is strong enough to bring consumers along with a switch of packaging, but more likely I will only switch once the consumers' knowledge and confidence of alternative packaging is sufficiently robust. I fear we are many years away form that in the UK.

    Do you know the figures on BIB growth in the UK? I'm wondering (and hoping) that we may be seeing some resurgence in popularity...?

    Cheers, Stephen

  4. Thanks Stephen for your thoughtful response. We may not have a monopoly in the UK, but we do have a quintopoly of big retailers who have enormous influence over the way we drink. Just tink about the way they have nudged and driven us towards acceptinf screwcaps - and to positioning wine as a discounted product.
    My suggestion would be to their and to producers' advantage, in improving the profitability/sustainability of basic wine and to encouraging sales of more premium wines.
    BIBs represent around 10% of the UK market - as they did 25 years ago. There is some hope that a shift to 2.25l boxes may help to improve this.