Friday, May 18, 2012

The irrelevance of the country and region of origin of a wine (to most people)

The following post is a slightly amended version of one I posted yesterday headed "The irrelevance of terroir (to most people)."  Many of the nearly 1000 readers took the reference to "terroir" very literally, so I'm reposting it here, replacing that term with "origin" or similar and put all of these in italics. I think and hope the meaning will be unchanged.

How much do you care about the origin of what you eat and drink? How much does anyone really care about it? I know for a fact that Heston Blumenthal has a patchy interest in it, as do some highly distinguished members of the wine industry in places like Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne as well as the heads of several award winning wine companies.. Whatever they might say to the contrary. As for normal consumers, even the ones who take a keen interest in what they eat and drink, pay it very little attention.

Now, I know that even by my standards this is a contentious statement, but I have tangible evidence to support my case.

So, here goes. The country and region where it comes from is undeniably crucially - influential in the way a wine tastes. 

But this factor is also not limited to wine. Malt whiskies are influenced by the water from the local spring; coffee and tea to the humidity and altitude of the places where the beans and leaves are grown. Chocolate, cheese, honey and perhaps most clearly of all, olive oil, all bear the imprint of the place they come from. Olive oil comes top of this list because, as Chiara Planeta who is passionately involved with the award-winning oils produced by her family company in Sicily, points out, if you make it honestly, there's almost no human intervention. You simply harvest the olives - earlier rather than later, ideally - and extract the oil as quickly as possible after they leave the tree.

Fine olive oil is, in its way, as fine and noble a product as any wine, and just as ancient. And most people take zero interest in where it comes from. When I say "most people", I'm not talking about ignorant British or American consumers for whom olive oil is a foreign ingredient; I'm talking about the Sicilians who do their shopping down the road from the olive groves and use huge amounts of olive oil every day. Not only do they not take any interest in which part of Sicily their oil comes from, most don't even really care whether the stuff on their salad is actually Italian. Most of the oils on sale in the two supermarkets I visited have brand names like Bertolli and are bottled in Italy but generally hail from groves in Spain or Greece or Portugal. In each of the shops, Sicilian oil represented a tiny minority of what was on offer. Sicilian housewives evidently choose their oil on the basis of its house style and price. In one little shop in a small village, there were two oils on the shelf: a Bertolli at five euros and a Sicilian for four euros fifty. The shopkeeper approved of my choice of the local oil, but evidently still needs to stock the global brand.

This focus on style is even more evident elsewhere in Italian food shops. Italians care about coffee. And I'd say they probably care more about it than people in many other countries. But, here again, they show no interest in where it comes from. What they buy is the brand - Illy, Lavazza, Hag etc - and the level of strength which is helpfully indicated in at least one set of shops, by a set of colour codes. A British shopper used to the Costa Rican, Colombian and Brazilian coffees on offer in their local store would be staggered at the absence of any reference to provenance. What Sicilian shoppers buy is various versions of what Anglo-Saxons know as "Italian-blend".

The wall of coffee - and the Lavazza reference to its multi-country sourcing
I did see one reference to country: almost every Italian store has Lipton's English Breakfast Tea. Sadly, I was unable to discover precisely where in these lovely islands, the tea plantations might have been situated.

Now, at this point, I can hear a number of people angrily pointing out that their Italian friends DO care about tea and coffee and olive oil, and that the people who shop in supermarkets are just the ignorant masses. To which I would counter that these are precisely the same masses we expect to pay attention to wine terroir.

But here I return to my original contentious contention that a great many people whose livelihoods depend on a belief in where a wine comes from have absolutely zero interest in the way regionality applies to coffee. I know this because they have demonstrated it by their actions: they have spent their money - a lot of money in some cases - on a Nespresso machine - or one of its competitors.

Now, for anyone who has led a sheltered life, I'll briefly explain that these are devices that were developed at huge expense by Nestle to enable ordinary mortals to produce espresso coffee of a guaranteed style, quality and consistency. The system is highly ingenious: the coffee comes in little metal pods (“capsules”) whose colours and shape show the same kind of design flair as anything to come out of Apple or Bang & Olufssen. All you have to do to be sure of getting your desired cup of caffeine (or decaffeinated, naturally) is to choose the colour that relates to the style you want, pop it into the machine and press the button. Buying a Nespresso machine is a little like getting married: the expression “forsaking all others” springs to mind as one realizes that, until the patents run out, the only place one can buy pods that fit in it is directly from Nespresso shops or online.

The range is not huge. Just three of the pods are described as “Pure Origin” – Dulsão do Brasil, Indriya from India and Rosabaya de Colombia. The others - Ristretto, Arpeggio, Roma, Decaffeinato Intenso, Livanto, Capriccio, Volluto, Cosi, Fortissio Lungo, Vivalto Lungo, Finezzo Lungo and Decaffeinato Lungo – could come from anywhere coffee is grown. They conform to the explanation on an Italian Lavazza packet that the origin may vary in order to maintain the consistency of the product.

For a while, I tried to keep a rough tally of the number of Nespresso machines I encountered and the places where I found them. But after I hit my fourth Bordeaux chateau, third Champagne house and fifth head of a UK wine company, I gave up. They are becoming ubiquitous, with sales rising by 20% per year over the last decade. According to Nestle, over 21% of all espresso machines are now Nespressos, while a number of alternatives such as Sara Lee’s Senseo and Kraft’s Tassimo all make their own inroads into the tradition of selecting one’s own coffee from a range on a retailer’s shelf.

I must confess to having rather mixed feelings about these machines. I don't like the idea of having to buy all my coffee from one producer; I don't like being restricted to a limited range; I don’t like the fact that they cost up to thrice what one might pay for good coffee purchased by the bag; and I don’t like the fact that all those pods have to be recycled - or sent to landfill.

On the other hand I am really rather grateful for the fact that almost everywhere I go, people offer me pretty good coffee, and don't have to go to any great trouble to prepare it.

Now I know that Nespresso machines are, in the words of one coffee lover, treated as the devil's work by his fellow enthusiasts. And I know that there is a keen band of people out there who care passsionately about the coffee they drink, choosing their beans with care and possibly even doing the roasting themselves. But these are an infinitely tiny minority of coffee drinkers.

Most people appreciate the simplicity of buying by style and colour. So how does this apply to wine? Well, people are increasingly purchasing their wines by brand rather than country (think of Lindemans, Blossom Hill and Ogio in the UK and think of all those bottles of“Californian” branded wines whose contents are sourced from Chile or France.

So far, they haven’t often been offered the chance to use a colour code when choosing their wine, but I can see this option developing too. I have recently done some interesting consultancy work with the Australian brand McGuigan on a range of colour-coded “Classic” wines that applies Nespresso thinking and the line "What's your style?". Some 9,000 people scanned a QR Code in a magazine - and just under 3,000 very happily shared their tastes for “fresh”, "spicy", "intense" etc. The McGuigan wines are from Australia, but I'd be surprised if a similar concept could not be successfully applied by a multi-national brand such as Ogio.
The place something comes from is either important - commercially speaking - or it's not. And, judging by the way people, ranging from Sicilian housewives to Bordeaux chateau owners vote with their wallets, there are plenty of instances in which it really does not matter at all. And least anybody suggest the contrary, the argument that origin matters more to wine than to, say, coffee is intellectually indefensible. It's like saying that one can be prejudiced against a person's religion but not her skin colour. 

Traditionalist wine folk will hate this theme and say that people really should care about where a wine comes from, but I’d recommend that they wake up and smell the (origin-irrelevant) coffee.

In response to comments that this post lacks a conclusion, I've decided to add one here:

People like me have historically applauded retailers for the diversity of their ranges - and lamented when they, and producers, have moved towards simplification. We have wilfully overlooked the fear that the "Wall of Wine" engenders in a huge number of consumers. I now believe that we have been talking to ourselves (an endemic problem in our industry). Perhaps it is time - at the more basic, daily-drinking end of the market - for producers and retailers to embrace options such as doing away with vintage variation and introducing colour/style coding as a means of making daily drinking wine as easy to buy as coffee,


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  2. We in the wine business exist and interact mostly within a rarified universe of fellow 'aficianados', for lack of better term. As a member of this universe, and as one with high-end restaurant, wine wholesale, wine import and retail wine experience, I agree with the gist of this article wholeheartedly and somewhat sadly.
    The average Mary and Joe do not care - do not for a moment even consider if their coffee is vacuum-packed for freshness as opposed to actually being fresh, let alone identifiable in terms of origin; do not care if their wine is from a small farmer in Basque northern Spain, or from a multi-million case factory outside LA. Jello Biafa said it 30 years ago: "Give me convenience or give me death"
    I was appalled, and ultimately resigned to run with it for lack of genuine opportunity to the contrary, when, as wine retailer (I owned a small, lifestyle-driven urban wine shop for a bit) more than nine out of ten shoppers simply wanted to spend a given amount ($10.00 during crash of late '08) and be assured the wine was "good". Well, since, objectively speaking, the reality is the wines produced by Gallo, Constellation and Diageo are "quality" wines in the scheme of things, how does one find the words in eight seconds (shelf pull duration for consumer decision) to convince a hurried retail customer the many reasons the "handmade" selection, boasting something less than 15 degrees alcohol, is a better wine to enjoy with dinner? Distinct? Whatever. Has real typicity? Couldn't care less. I am in a hurry! If you say this Malbec is good with sushi I will take it!

  3. Oh, and PS, see the last line of the posting a few lines beneath on WBO
    "Evaluating the taste and cost of "Two-Buck Chuck"

  4. Thank you tbeaune. We agree, it seems. As someone said today at a conference I was chairing, most manufacturers and retailers are far more interested in their products than their customers are.

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  6. I understand this is in general the case. But as a wine educator for both professionals and novices and as a former Sommelier, I have noted that when you give the common wine consumer a bit of information about how things are different depending on their 'upbringing' and place they want more information.

    The wine business needs to tap into peoples innate interest in traveling to different places. We are curious people and if we embrace that, people will explore with their palates rather than just grabbing the lowest common denominator or branded commodity. I'm not too concerned what brand of heating oil I use but...

    I am also a proponent of a wine worth spending a bit of money on and taking the time to actually taste, it should come from somewhere I can actually and would like to visit. Yellowtail, Barefoot, Cupcake, Two Buck Chuck or Charles Shaw Winery - none of these are either places I can visit as a everyday consumer...perhaps as a professional but then only to admire the amazement of big production.

  7. Great essay.....

    and yes it's true that the supermarket shelf will likely be dominated by colour coded wines. Afterall, it's easy to remember the colour purple rather than the grapes that go into a syrah blend.

    May be I am a romantic travel fan, but I really enjoy products where you feel a sense of escapism from the humdrum. Drinking a malbec from Argentina should conjure up images and cuisine of the Andes and the same for Barossa and Bordeaux etc. I sincerely hope the wine industry keep this element of aspiration rather than follow the soft drink industry.

    ..... but I suppose I would say that as I source my coffee beans (for a good old espresso machine) based on taste, provenance and price in equal measures.