A column that appears in the December 2011 edition of Meininger's Wine Business International
“Hello, my name’s George. I’d like to tell you all about my parents, the place where I grew up and the school I went to and the exams I passed. When I’ve done all that, I’m sure you’ll want me to be your friend”.
If George, or anyone like him introduced himself in those terms at a party, even the most polite among us would be desperately looking over his shoulder for someone else to talk to; the rest of us would already have made our excuses and be heading straight for the door.
But George seems to be a very attractive role model for the wine industry. Give many producers the opportunity to express themselves and the first thing they will do is launch into all manner of technical details about the way the stuff in their bottle has been produced. Take this little offering about its Pinot Noir from the website of a large New World winery.
“Harvest commenced 6th April. The grapes were gently destemmed, allowing whole berries to remain intact. After a cold soak, each parcel was fermented separately, with a combination of wild and cultured yeast. Each batch was hand plunged to extract the vibrant colour, flavour and delicate tannin structure. Each parcel was then pressed separately to a mix of new and used French oak barrels or remained in tank. In the spring after completing malolactic fermentation, each parcel and tank was tasted and blended.”
Once the reader has made their way through the jungle of jargon – “destemmed”; “cold soak”; “parcel”, “cultured yeast”, “hand plunged”, “tannin structure”; “malolactic fermentation” – they are belatedly treated to a brief description of the way the wine looks and tastes. “Garnet red. Deep red fruit notes with a hint of spice. Generous flavours of cherry and currant combine with subtle oak. The silky dry tannins lead to a generous fruitful finish.”
The sense of priorities is all too clear. Just 31 relatively opaque words (what are "silky dry tannins"? one might reasonably ask) about the stuff a consumer might pay for and get to drink, against 82 on the process used to make it. I haven’t named the winery, because to single it out would be unfair: it is far too typical of the way so much of the wine industry thinks. Of course we are not always so fixated on the technicalities of winemaking. Elsewhere, in the Old World, the focus might be on the age of the chateau or the number of generations of the family that have been involved in winemaking, or even the peculiarities of the soil in which the vines are grown. In other words, we’ll talk about almost anything on earth – apart from the flavour of the wine and the way it might best be served.
Most recently, the arrival on the scene of Youtube and of QR codes that can be scanned by anyone with smartphones such as Blackberries and iPhones, have jointly offered wine producers with an exciting new opportunity to behave like George. Scan the code on some bottles and you will be whisked directly to a video in which the winemaker provides a brief presentation while standing among his vines or barrels. In the best of these, he or she will taste their wine and describe the way it tastes, but in others the focus will be on allowing viewers to admire the incline of the vineyards or the pattern formed by the lines of casks in the cellars.
For anyone involved in the business of selling cars, cosmetics or almost anything else, this way of thinking would seem to be bizarre. Canon and Nikon don’t waste their time informing us who designed their cameras or where they were manufactured; they tell us how they will allow us to take better pictures. Jaguar and Toyota want us to know how fast, economical, safe and sexy their latest models are, not how cleverly their engines were constructed.
What these companies understand is that the only time we – and by that I mean a small minority of us - are likely to be interested in the background to a product is once we have already developed an emotional and intellectual attachment to it. Some of the people who have bought Apple’s iPods, iMacs and iPads might, conceivably, be curious about Sir Jonathan Ive, the firm’s brilliant head of design. Women who daily spray themselves with Guerlain perfumes can delve into perfumer’s website to read about Jean Paul Guerlain and Thierry Wasser the firm’s recently-arrived chief perfumer. But the information about both men comes after a brilliant section called “My fragrance consultation” that invites visitors to discover precisely the kind of Guerlain perfume that is most likely to suit them.
Just reread that last sentence. Yes, Guerlain cleverly puts itself into the shoes of the person reading their website. It’s “My” consultation, not “Your” consultation. Unlike George – and too much of the wine world – they know that what interests most of us, is us. And the reason we buy wine has nothing to do with the people who produced it, and everything to do with the way that it might just improve our lives.