Monday, March 26, 2012

Is it just me?

I have a confession to make. I like to read car reviews. I am not a fast driver, I don't know the difference between a carburettor and a catalytic converter. I have only a vague idea what torque is. I will probably never be able to afford a Porsche or a Ferrari and even if I have the money, I would probably spend it on something else. And yet, I like reading about big cars, fast cars, unusual cars. However, I'm not a complete saddo - if the review is of a Ford Fiesta or a Skoda Fabia or a Nissan X-trail (the commercial version of which I drive myself), I probably won't bother reading it. Is there someone out there who can explain why I like reading about cars I will never drive and refuse to read about cars which are much more practical, affordable and within my scope of experience? Is it just me?

This occurred to me over the weekend as I read the review of the BMW640D (rsp€100k!) after reading a couple of wine columns in the national papers. One of the articles was about some slightly obscure and not cheap wines from Spain being made by a couple of young hippyish guys and brought in, I'm guessing, by Vinos Tito. I don't stock these wines, maybe I won't like them, but reading about them made me curious to try them. It was interesting to read about a couple of new kids on the block trying something different and quickly building a good reputation for themselves.

The other article I read was headlined - ignore the wine snobs, here are the bargains! I scanned over the introduction about the writer getting admonished by members of the wine trade for promoting "industrial swill" selling at cheap prices in the likes of Lidl and Aldi. Obviously, the wine trade is a very polite and gentle group of people and I can't imagine anyone coming out with such strong language. But apart from that, I was looking forward to hearing about the amazing wines about to be recommended.

Instead, we got a list of wines which were damned with faint praise. Wines were described as "worth drinking", "likeable" - some of them even "tasted as it should"....a lot of them not reviewed but are on sale are apparently "bland" and a "few downright horrible". From a wine consumer's point of view, I would rather hear about the really horrible wines to avoid rather than the ones that are only OK.

I know the story is that, despite what people like me might say, you can get drinkable wines at €4.99 (wine cost approx 0.50c) and €5.99 (wine cost approx €1). My answer to that is - So What?

Is it really amazing that Lidl and Aldi - two of Europe's retail giants - can find cheap wine that is "drinkable"? I think it is more amazing that, with all their buying expertise, they are still bringing in wines that are (according to the wine expert in question) bland or horrible.

There isn't a retailer in the country who wouldn't tell you that the most important issue for consumer's buying decision is value. However, price is only one aspect in trying to judge value. Quality is the other aspect and it is just as important. If we offer a wine that isn't good quality, our customers will let us know in no uncertain terms and it doesn't matter what the price is. When they come in to us, they would rather spend €10 on a wine they like than €6 on something they don't.

Of course, they are buying the €5/€6 wine in Lidl/Tesco/Dunnes or wherever and are adjusting their expectations accordingly, but when they make the effort come in to an independent wine shop, they want something different, something better. If we don't deliver that, we lose our raison d'etre, we lose our customers and we lose our business.

So, what do you want to read about? A Skoda Fabia, which will get you from A to B or the BMW 640D which also gets you from A to B, but will do so in considerably more style? I know which one you will buy, but what do you want to read about? Likewise, are we really resigned to the dumbing down of the wine trade, heading the same way as the UK market ,where wine sells primarily on price and primarily on promotion or should we in the trade and press not be praising the unusual, encouraging the quirky and promoting real wines made by real people?

The €4.99 Pinot Grigio in Aldi will probably sell anyway as it is cheap and has Pinot Grigio on the label. Promoting it is not really offering a service to consumers as everybody knows these functional wines are out there. They have their place in the market, sure, but does it make for interesting copy?

I prefer to read about a weird and wonderful, terroir-driven, elegant red from som wacky guy in the hills in Spain.

I may still buy the Pinot Grigio, but at least I know there is something more interesting out there somewhere.

Is it just me?


Robert McIntosh (@thirstforwine) said...

It isn't just you, you are absolutely right about it ... to a point. To bother spending time reading something it has to have value to us, but what it is still missing is that there are different ways it can have value.

In your model, the Ferrari is always aspirational, but you do still go out (at infrequent intervals) to buy a car. What you have read about Ferraris will not help you, so you will probably have to read other articles before deciding to buy, let's say, a Ford.

We read about a lot of things because we are EITHER looking for entertainment (Ferrari) or buying advice (Ford). The Lidl articles in your example are not about entertaining you, but to help you buy better Pinot Grigio, if you fancy that sort of stuff.

Our problem is that we have failed to market ourselves as wine content creators effectively as either one or the other. Do you agree?

Gabriel Cooney said...

Hi Robert, thanks I certainly agree about my own failings as a wine content creator (you seem to be doing a better job). My frustration is that the article was effectively promoting wines that the writer himself admits are pretty average. There are so many interesting wines at all price levels out there - surely these are the wines that deserve support...?

Robert McIntosh said...

they do, but there are some consumers looking for "best wines" and willing to shop around, then there are others who help you buy the best wines at the places you shop anyway. If you are shopping at Lidl, do you really need wine recommendations for "value (but more expensive in cash terms) wines in Independent Merchants or even other supermarkets?

There is still a need for those who can steer us gently within our existing shopping patterns, not try and change them completely.

In fact, I'd argue there aren't enough of them, and in fact this is where "local experts" could actually publish negative reviews as well to help consumers avoid the worst alternatives as well.

DermotMW said...

Hi Gabriel,

By and large, the issue is that newspaper editors refuse, more or less point blank, to allow anything other than a shopping list article with wines below a standard price, typically £5.99 or 9.95. Consequently, starving wine writers find that, in order to feed themselves, they have to write about wines which they might otherwise ignore.
JW is an exception as the IT looks to a more informed (or willing to be informed) readership.
Look at the rapid demise of wine columns in the mainstream UK press; the best option for critical writing is either in the provincial press or online.