Ugly Wine Words: Part One

Reposted from July 2014


We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.  –William Zinsser

Ours is the age of substitutes: instead of language, we have jargon: instead of principles, slogans: and, instead of genuine ideas, bright ideas.  –Eric Bentley

You’d need an industry primer (which doesn’t exist) to decipher the technobabblegab that is constantly disgorged in drinks trade magazines or uttered in the peculiar freemasonry of wine conferences, seminars and masterclasses, a language that is comically implausible, absurdly unnecessary and exists to vocalise faux-expertise not to articulate thought.

Much of this slanguage stems from the necessity to obfuscate by means of the pseudo-conceptualisation of the bleedin’ obvious. As a result we’ve been forced to swallow a dictionary of circumlocutions and pretend that we know what we are talking about. If language shapes discourse then such obscurity serves only to mystify and disconnect us from the product.

It sometimes seems that the UK assimilates wine but not its culture. Wine is treated as a product, created solely for a commercial purpose with the consumer audience always in mind. Bewildering business jargon dilutes and ultimately dumbs down discourse and fosters a wine vernacular that revolves around such uplifting terms as “unit sales”, “gross profit margins”, “retro discounts”, “price points”, “gatekeepers” and “food & beverage managers”. We are a million miles away from the vineyard and the growers, a disconnect that occurs most likely because England has been, and still is, a wine-selling rather than a winemaking country. Many in the trade feel responsible to the hypothetical end-product-user and thus cater to the lowest common denominator of taste, preferring to operate exclusively in safe commercial havens. It’s all about the business end of the market and product profiling – a spade must needs be a spade, a Sauvignon a Sauvignon – there should be square wines for square times. But, as we know, not all customers are square.

There are certain serial offenders; these words or expressions are used willy-nilly and thus have become a seamless part of the language of the world of drink. Merely uttering them ad nauseam leads to a sense of befuddlement more profound than the deepest draught of alcohol may induce.

In no particular order here are some “premium” bugbears:

Premiumisation is an example of the exponential growth of tautology in the drinks business and the fact that this “techno-bling” word can exist without inverted commas, should cause reason to despair. It conjures a closed universe where wine brands ascend to premium and thence to super-premium levels, usually by dint of shameless repackaging and the heavy investment in smoke and mirrors– here a change of name, there a golly-gosh press release, and seasoned liberally with the odd, occasionally very odd, celebrity endorsements. Premiumisation is the obsessive need to stratify, reinvent and market in order to optimise the brand, to use the jargon (and it’s catching). It’s not only hype; it’s positively tripe. The word is aesthetically clunky as well, proof that the more syllables you lard onto one, the less it actually means.

Influencers are otherwise known as opinion-formers. One may claim to influence others yet also to be influenced by the perception of what others may think. Some sommeliers, for example, second-guess the commercial taste of their customers and this in turn determines the tenor of their wine lists. How often have we heard the plaintive comment: “My customers wouldn’t like this?” In this sense the influencers are the customers (or the buyer’s fear of the customers’ opinions). When opinion is completely paralysed by worrying what others may think, it mutates into influenza.

Hallowed be thy trend…

Which brings us with a hip-skip to trends. There is a saying that even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.  Trends, by definition, are rootless and transient, yet wine commentators are often falling over themselves to identify the latest one. Hence Riesling may be the new Viognier which was the new Sauvignon which was the new Chardonnay. And so the cycle will repeat. Putting on my pointy star-spangled hat as the prognosticator of all prognosticators, the nostril-damus (sic) of wine magii, the oenomancer extraordinaire reading the future of the wine trade in the coiled sediment of an unfiltered natural wine, I will make the following predictions with absolute confidence…  plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Wine trends are 99% PRspiration and 1% winemaking inspiration. It is seemingly more important sometimes that a project succeeds because of blanket social media coverage than because it is inherently interesting. Which posits a Pirandello-esque world of many magazine editors in search of a headline rather than a story. What is more interesting in the real wine world is the interrelatedness of things such as the rhythms of the vineyard, the artisans themselves and the processes of winemaking, rather than this perennial second-guessing about what’s popular (out there), based on a couple of vox pops and some spurious surveys. The medium, however, has definitely become the message. One may even create trends by hijacking social media and effectively networking one’s opinions in such a way that they seem to be freshly-minted truths already acknowledged universally.

Swimming the channels….

I was introduced to the expression channel management in a debate involving wine merchants, retailers and suppliers. It means ensuring you don’t sell the same wines in different outlets, otherwise you get crossed channels and crosser merchants. This channel management can also be done with a remote control although channel managers have to ensure that the left hand is aware what the right hand is doing. One knock-on effect is the need to create different labels of the same wine for different outlets, for what the eye doesn’t see… the palate doesn’t taste! It’s a forgivable deception especially with volume wine, because the label is the thing and more time and more creative effort is spent on the marketing than in ensuring the quality of the product itself. C.M has become a sine qua non since Wine Searcher, which has induced an understandable paranoia amongst retailers who don’t want to be seen to be more expensive than their rivals.

Segmentation. If ever a word deserved solitary confinement in the seventh circle of Hell for violence against the English language it would be this one with its whiffy social science premise of dividing consumers into behavioural subsets of grapefruit pieces.

A spokesperson for Global Brands Incorporated hailed the importance of the results: “If we didn’t find this information out, we’d surely have to invent it. Ultimately, we can envisage a situation wherein there will be as many demographic categories as there are drinkers which will enable us to continue with our “twin track upside down business to business ground control to Major Tom” approach:  demythologising wine whilst simultaneously proselytising the consumer to explore the wonderful wide world of our brands or, more simply, recalibrating the brands to fit the customers and recalibrating the customers to fit the brands. And the ultimate objective of all these endeavours? “Upsegmentation of all underindexed drinking categories”. And what is that in real English? “More less choice.” Pinot Grigio for all!   —The Alternative Wine Glossary

 Gobble this gook

Collaboration: The no. 1 strategy for reaching ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ customer segments in emerging global markets.

Not a definition the good Dr Johnson would recognise, I warrant.

Target audience…

Consumers, the consumer AKA The herd. We read about consumer choice and the need to appeal to consumers. What is this other than people being treated as statistical variables? The word smacks of crass societal models and operant conditioning.

Needless to say I do not subscribe to this overly simplistic, deterministic view of the world. Vive la difference in wine! Vive la difference in taste! Vive real wine intelligence – let’s go beyond the label, and beyond the brand, ignore those surveys that seek to place us in behavioural “segments” and encourage people to think of themselves as more than consumers, but as sentient individuals with valid opinions. An informed buyer is one who has the self-confidence to resist gaudy advertising and histrionic claims and deploys a mixture of curiosity, experience and instinctive judgement in their decision-making.

Female wine drinkers are a race apart as we well know, coming from Venus and partial to a noice glass of Pinot Grigio. This patronising approach is also applied to novice wine drinkers for whom no gimmick is considered too crass to entertain their limited interest. The gimmick often takes the form of gateway drinks which by their supremely denatured existence are the very antithesis of wine. To coin a neologism this is the pink moscatofication of wine.

Every so often a survey arrives with a self-important thunk detailing that the population of wine drinkers can be split into broad behavioural bands (segments, if you will). To wit:

“Meanwhile another definitive survey which proudly announced that consumers could be profiled into several fine discrete socio-economic segments (Calais hypermarket; £3.99ers, £4.99ers, £5.99ers and rich as Croesus) has been trumped by the new brilliant ground breaking and entirely inoffensive categorization by Wine Omniscience:*Old Fart always goes to the Mouldy Cheese Wine Bar in Fleet Street, orders a bottle of house label crusty claret with his well-done steak and a glass of Ten Year Manky (port) with the Stilton;*Red Bull Bint drinks a glass of Chardonnay, a Red Bull, a vodka, a Red Bull, a cocktail, a Red Bull, throws up in the men’s toilet and passes out. She comes from Essex, her name is Sharon Tracy, she’s a genuine bottle blonde and takes eight weeks hen night holiday in Ibiza every year.*Brandma is aged 70 and upwards and spends all her time comparative shopping in supermarkets. She has accumulated so many reward points that she could fly to the moon and half way back. She always drinks own label and the cheapest brands and, in her spare time, appears in Tesco adverts.*Wine Nerd has not only tasted the wine, but visited the vineyard and arranged for his ashes to be scattered there. He is a living compendium of Parker points and riveting trivia.*Ironist – buys Californian blush wines and bog standard labels because… like um… wine, is like… sort of pretentious (like) and it’s “cool not to be interested in anything interesting”; *Trend JunkieOne who rides the hobby horses of journalists off in all directions etc. etc”  –The Alternative Wine Glossary

Never judge a label by its wine…

And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow,
stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons.
It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.

And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.
What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.
What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. 

The eye may be drawn to a label, but when you order wine in a restaurant or a bar, you often don’t see the bottle – it is poured into a glass or a carafe. And then you drink it. The quality of packaging does not legitimise the wine in any way but if you spend £££ on developing labels you are honour-bound to believe that it has some impact on the decision of the person buying the wine. Retailers are overly exercised by the faux-aesthetics of packaging. They tend to believe that people drink with their eyes and will not commit to a wine where the label is either too gaudy or too unobtrusive. Which may be true, but it is a passive acceptance that packaging of the wine is more important than the quality of juice in the bottle.

To be continued…

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