Wednesday, February 15, 2012

People are fascinated by potatoes

Whenever I tell people that I know a little about potatoes, there's a brief pause while - as I now appreciate - they privately relish the prospect of being able to broaden their knowledge of a subject in which so many of them are fascinated. I tell them about the 4,000 varieties of potato, all of which probably come from one place in Peru. I remind them that the roast potato on our plate is of the same family as the deadly nightshade, and that man domesticated potatoes 8,000 years ago and that they first arrived in Asia in around 1600, a few decades before they were introduced to Europe. Then I go on to list some of my favourite types of potato - Désirée, King Edward, Maris Piper and Highland Burgundy Red - and the best ways to cook them.

Of course there are some - you might be among them - who are surprised to learn about the depth of general interest in potatoes. But just think how many we all eat, and the range of potatoes that are now on offer in supermarkets. Just consider the evidence: the popularity of websites like lovepotatoes, and the number of online references to potatoes. Try googling "potatoes" and you'll find there are a staggering 377,000,000 results.

I'm joking of course (though not about that google statistic). I actually know very little about potatoes. Like most other humans, I enjoy eating them in a number of forms and could, if tortured, list a maximum of half a dozen varieties (a list that wouldn't include Highland Burgundy Red by the way). You may have read my first paragraph with a growing hunger for a lot more information - or you may have thought "that's enough for the moment thank you..." And you might actually have even questioned the title of this post. "No", you might have thought, "people may have a passing curiosity about potatoes, but they're not really that interested in them".

Which is precisely what I'd say about wine. At best, to judge by the number of sites on offer by Google (919,000,000), they are more than a third as interested in wine, with its myriad varieties and place in western culture as in the humble spud.

People who are interested in anything tend to imagine that large numbers of other people share their enthusiasm - or would if given the chance and the encouragement. In a few cases they can justify that belief. Tens of millions of viewers do tune into watch soccer matches. These sorts of numbers do not show any visible signs of a fascination with wine. They don't buy large numbers of books or magazines or read blogs. When newspapers drop their wine columns or columnists, the protests are audible but limited.

The he enthusiasts blame negative forces. We would, they claim, have lots more wine columns in newspapers and wine programmes on television if it weren't for narrow-minded publishers and tv companies who won't let people have them. It's only a lack of advertising, they say, that explains the lack of wine columns - while conveniently overlooking the absence of regular articles on watches in publications that are full of Rolex ads.

The point behind this post is that a misplaced belief in a widespread interest in wine handily removes the need for wine producers to make an effort to engage with potential buyers. When these enthusiasts say things like "surely there is a difficulty that's inherent in the complexity that we most like about wine?" and "I look for information on the internet first, then I buy" (both direct quotes), they reveal the gulf that lies between them and the vast majority of normal potato eaters and wine drinkers.


  1. Very interesting post!
    By the way, have you ever tried the Vitelotte, a purple potato, with a chesnut flavour... ;-)

    Laurent, Wine&Only

  2. Analogies are often the best way.
    Amazing how many wine people will confess to happily and only drinking Typhoo (or similar brand) tea, which surely must be the tea equivalent of Jacob's Creek / Harvey's Bristol Cream. They don't try any other teas, because they like that one and can't see the point of risking that, and besides a cup of tea is only a cup of tea, right?

    How patronising we (not you) must seem to wine drinkers for whom an endless sea of Yellowtail is perfectly delicious and all they're interested in, thank you very much.

    More people in the UK play the card game Bridge than go to watch football matches. Yet very little coverage of the 'sport' in the newspapers (although interestingly they do all maintain a Bridge column, and for this reason).

    Happy Birthday!

  3. As one of the converted, I simply wanted to add my support to the discussion.

    What interests me most about this page, Robert, is that your blog posts for the first two months of this year already equate to your previous two year's worth of such insight on the wine sector.

    Whatever has so encouraged you to put fingers to the keyboard needs to be continued. The wine sector can only benefit from such discussion!

    1. Thanks Damien... Your own responses on Twitter may have contributed...

  4. Nice post. I believe that the great majority of the population is not really that interested in wine. They just pick up a bottle at the supermarket along with the rest of their shopping, and they're more or less guaranteed of the wine tasting 'nice' no matter which brand they buy. As a small artisan producer, I spend a lot of time and energy in engaging (or attempting to engage) with my potential buyers, because I beleive that it's very important to do that.