What ever happened to… Wine Controversies?

Once upon a time I only had to open my mouth or take to my keyboard to ruffle feathers– I had Larry David’s effortless knack for causing offence.

Asked to write the occasional article for trade magazines, my moment of glory eventually arrived when I was given a brief to investigate and comment upon wine mark-ups in restaurants. I spent a week or two comparing prices on dozens of wine lists, tabulated my findings, e-mailed the article to the magazine… and thought no more about it.

Cue hysterica passio. When the piece was eventually published, the reaction was extraordinary. The story was taken up by The Times (front page and third editorial), The Daily Mail, local and national radio stations and even press organisations in other countries. That the very same wine, purchased for the same cost price, might be sold for £20 in one restaurant and £80 in another, (as was the case with certain brands), was a wine trade gotcha. Consumers were the victims and the examples of rank malpractice cited justified a degree of outrage. And this article was no mere opinion piece (the odd pithy aside about rip-off wine culture in the article apart) but bald facts backed by specific evidence.

I wasn’t so much blaming the restaurants as the bean-counter mentality and the short-term fixation with gross profit margin at the expense of value. It seems ridiculous that sommeliers and wine buyers are pressed to focus more on their margins than the quality and provenance of what is in the bottle. When it comes to expensive/luxury wines and the application of the same rigorous mark-up policies the profit margin becomes even more inflated. And unfair. Wine is treated as a cross between a commodity and a means of making customers part with more of their money.

This was the chestnut that kept on giving, as it were.

Some of the wine buyers in the restaurants cited in the article were embarrassed at the revelations. Others were defensive, blustering about the special wine service or unique glassware that surely justified their swingeing mark-ups.

Like the novelist who writes her masterpiece on the first attempt, I had scooped my most resonant controversy on my “journalistic debut.”

I began writing newsletters about fifteen years ago, taking pointy editorial positions on – and occasionally inveighing against – homogeneity, boring wine lists, wine consultants (a.k.a. the somnolent gatekeepers). Every so often, I reheated the gross profit margin chestnut for good measure. I wasn’t just being ornery for the sake of it; quizzical and sceptical, perhaps.

There was plenty to critique in the wine trade. When I started, I met some pretty snobbish people who seemed to believe that there were eternal verities and the wine world revolved around what they determined was good, better, best. After that came reverse snobbery, the idea that cheap wine was good because it was simply cheap and not that bad, which led to ever dumbing down to meet the lowest common denominator of taste (Remember Superplonk?). Even the wines suffered from pretentiousness. Wineries wanted medals, awards, points – oenologists were entreated to make powerful, unctuous, buttery or extracted wines to flatter the palates of opinion-formers and judges.

More recently, I have had a pop at the whole redundant idea of appellation. Whilst appellation may have been set up with the best of intentions, it became – in certain places – bureaucratic, and at times arrogantly inflexible. Various of our growers have fallen foul of a system that claims to uphold standards and defend wine heritage yet turns out to be the standard bearer for vested interests and the driver of conformity. Appellation, if it is to have any value, must change and change inevitably puts noses out of joint.

Natural Wine Controversies

In 2008 we opened Terroirs and natural wine began to be a thing. Terroirs was really just a wine bar with a relaxed atmosphere where you could go and drink the artisan wines that you wouldn’t find elsewhere. It wasn’t marketed at the time as a natural wine bar, but because of the nature of the wines on the list, that’s what it was.

The rest, as they say, is history. After a bonny start where the wine trade en masse looked favourably on Terroirs and our endeavours, natural wine became a divisive issue associated with manifestos and political posturing. The two words “natural” and “wine”, when juxtaposed, became freighted with meaning and intent, and like a line from one of the testaments, could be (and were) interpreted in so many different ways by different people with different agendas. Various wine journalists and commentators assumed a nakedly hostile stance, presenting our company (and us as individuals) as no-sulphur evangelists wanting to flood the country with our nasty zero-additive natural wines, as if we were entirely careless about quality, and valued pure style over substance. Others viewed the word “natural” as a semantic threat in itself, stating that wine could never be a natural product (precisely because it was a manmade product) and, in any case, such wines were faulty and rubbish. Which is having your semantic cake and eating it.

For several years, the wine trade scene roiled with grandstanding contrariness – straw man fallacies, false dichotomies and more than a fair few ad hominem attacks. Ayatollah, fundamentalist, extremist and Cathar Prefect were some of the terms used to describe me back in the day. The Old Testament day, I guess. I used to joke that certain sensitive souls had google alerts set to respond to the juxtaposition of the words natural and wine. Mighty carillons chimed. Thus, did natural wine cause uncontrolled “wild fermentation” ‘mongst certain overly sensitive-souled bloggers. Meanwhile, a notable wine merchant most notably wrote an introduction to their wine catalogue excoriating natural wines and the natural wine phenomenon, whereas another, a director of one of the largest wine companies, and a guest speaker at the first Real Wine Fair, commented that he felt like Daniel in the lion’s den. Yes, natural wine had created a Manichean universe!

The net effect of all this disingenuous huffing and puffing was to make natural wine an issue that everyone in the trade and beyond had to have an opinion on, thereby kindling the embers that were warming this particular hot potato. If I wished to provoke further controversy, then I simply countered illogical statements. Opinions derived from generalisations rather than a deeper knowledge of the subject would, by definition, never be changed. A little learning closes all portals to open minds.

Not that any of this mattered. Farmers and vignerons continued to do their own thing, merchants imported the wines, wine bars, restaurants and retailers sold them, and hundreds of thousands of people drank and enjoyed them. And social media made a gradual irrelevance of the views of the commentariat. The part of the wine world that espouses hierarchical systems of quality, that judges this wine to be better or worthy to be more expensive than that wine, that embraces market forces, is not the wine world that we inhabit.

Artisan wine fairs helped to solidify the position of the wines. Bringing the growers and the wines to the people. Seeing hundreds of growers in one venue, making interesting, exciting and original wines, in a friendly democratic (trade and consumers) environment, had the effect of making the wines more real.

Controversy inevitably arises, admittedly, when you attempt to proselytise or browbeat, rather than allow individuals to make up their minds. That is why we always venerate drinkability and say that the best bottle on the table is the empty bottle (as long as that bottle wasn’t emptied down the sink!). We are always drinking a glass of wine rather than an idea, but the wines we find most delicious and nourishing are those that have been touched least and taste most natural. I don’t think we have ever said that this wine is better than that one. It would be a meaningless assertion, and comparing chalk with cheese.

As the first merchant to import natural wines and to make a gentle virtue of it, we were bound to cop some criticism. If natural wines had been horrible or even just reviled by sommeliers and wine buyers, there wouldn’t have been an issue, but the wines were real, the enthusiasm was genuine and attitudes were definitely being changed. Those who resisted most were the trade folk who felt left behind, and believed that the wines they espoused were being painted as conventional and conservative. The criticism derived from a sense of insecurity, the fear of not being part of a bandwagon, in some cases a raging against a perceived dying of the light.

The wine trade is more diverse than it has ever been and the gulf has widened between the small specialist companies and the huge brand-driven, turnover-driven corporate entities. Naturally, there is room for both, although as recent restaurant closures have shown, bigger is definitely not better. With this division and the fact that there are different wine worlds (so to speak), it is very difficult now to write about bad practice and to provoke controversies. Natural wine is well-established, the battle is over – if it ever was a battle. Mark-ups on wines may continue to be scandalous, of course, but then the rents and rates that restaurants have to pay are scandalous too, and so we are not surprised when we see a 2-euro wine for £25 + on a restaurant list. The UK duty system is institutionally regressive and punitive, but then we all think that. On the plus side, a new generation of (open-minded) wine buyers are putting together more interesting lists (in terms of content) and wine service is definitely more communicative and informed. And with social media the customers have also become the opinion-formers.

Most wine magazines and the nationals steer well clear of anything controversial. The advertisers (big brands or associations) are paying their wages, so they are highly unlikely to rock the boat. These magazines are not the forums to challenge the status quo or even challenge wine consumers to think. That has to be the prerogative of the independent blogger.

Many controversies are disagreements about approaches to farming and winemaking. There are a thousand decisions to make when you are a farmer or winemaker, qualitative and quantitative, whether you follow a strict recipe or work more intuitively.  If winemakers feel comfortable inoculating ferments or adding substances to stabilise their product, we are not bound to confront them. We do challenge people on their practices and ask them why they adopt the approaches that they do.

So, what will get the wine chattering classes chattering again? Climate crisis is making people reflect more deeply on their food and wine choices and their lifestyles in general. What can the wine world do to help?

A Modest Proposal

Perhaps, we should stop insisting that wine should be a cheap product. It does not have to be a luxury commodity, but it should be sustainably produced and that will necessarily add to the cost. Proper organic practices should be mandatory, so that we are always putting back into the earth everything that we take out (by tree-planting, encouraging plant life and biodiversity, by recycling, going green in the winery…) and farming for the environment and for future generations.

We can also start conducting our business in an ethical way and observing the golden rule. This involves adhering to the principles of fair trade and ensuring that everyone in the supply chain is properly rewarded for their efforts.

Finally, we should stop trying to perpetuate the idea of wine as an industry. There are hundreds of big expos, tastings and conferences around the world. We can’t stop people from travelling, but we need to rein back the tens and thousands of unnecessary airplane journeys (for example). The wine world has become a thoroughly bloated multi-billion-dollar monster, far removed from its simple origins of farmers growing grapes and making delicious wine for the table. Perhaps, this final “unspoken” controversy, that of the ridiculous amounts of money washing around the wine industry, is the greatest, in that it is not rooted in the wine industry per se, but is a symptom of capitalism in general, and of businesses modelled on aggressive growth.

Growth at all cost – at any cost – is no longer sustainable. And although it seems a far cry from whether restaurants mark up their wines by three, four or five times, it really stems from the same narrow commercial view of the world – that profit is the sole driver of success. That needs to change.

Growth at all cost – at any cost – is no longer sustainable. And although it seems a far cry from whether restaurants mark up their wines by three, four or five times, it really stems from the same narrow commercial view of the world – that profit is the sole driver of success. That needs to change.


Interested in finding more about the wines mentioned? Contact us directly:

shop@lescaves.co.uk |  sales@lescaves.co.uk | 01483 538820

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Andrea

    I wasn’t sure whether to comment on your post or not, but then, I decided to add my opinion. I agree with most of the things you say and if you check my blog I have been writing about them for the last 20 years, from cheap wine suddenly becoming good, from duty to environment and wine, wine writers, the uselessness of creating new appellations, but I disagree with a few of the points you raised.

    Restaurant prices. It is very easy to generalise, running costs of restaurants are very different, not only rent and rates, but there are plenty of costs that are not immediately visible and just saying “multiply by 5” wont help and just create panic and the impression that restaurants are ripping off customers; if this was the case there would not be so many closing down. I also disagree with your proposal of making all wines “organic”, any good winemaker always uses the least possible chemical treatments possible because they look after their grapes, they dont exploit the grape, they are aware of climate change, the try to protect not only the vineyards but their income, small producers live thanks to their vineyards, the organic certification is very often just an extra cost and unfortunately it does not guarantee the quality of the wine exactly like the appellation.

    Lastly, natural wines. Very hot subject. I have been tasting natural wines since I was a child, it was actually the first wine I ever tasted, my grandfather was making them, one red and one white, great wines for the first couple of months and then, oxidated, undrinkable. The problem with natural wine is just that and only in the last few years, with wineries becoming like operating theaters, good natural wines have started to appear. Natural wines not only require perfect grapes but also spotless wineries and whilst natural wines has become trendy, and I believe that the trend will eventually fade off, the ratio of good natural wines still remains very low compared to “non normal” wine. There are still plenty of undrinkable natural wines selling for crazy prices only because they are natural, while better and cheaper wine from conscientious winemakers represent a better alternative . Wine and wine making processes are constantly evolving thanks to the technology, however, great wine are still made in the vineyards, no great wine can be made without perfect grapes and with the climate change and everything that comes with it, it is becoming more and more difficult.

    1. Doug Wregg

      Hi Andrea,
      Thanks so much for your comments. And I will try to answer each comment.
      1. Restaurant pricing. Gross profit margins are a blind mark-up. I accept that there has been an increase in rents, rates and running costs (which I mention in the above article), but the mark up controversy dates back over a decade when certain places exponentially increased their prices. In the article, I cite the fact that in the same piece of real estate in the West End, one restaurant will charge £25 for a bottle of wine, another £70. The more I investigated, the more such anomalies I found. And not only this, these were prices which didn’t include 15% service charge levied on top of the bill. Wine has always been an easy target to hit, and mark-ups are often regardless of quality, hence we have a commoditisation of wine in many establishments. This lack of value for money deters people from drinking up the list, which in turn means that establishments are looking for cheaper and cheaper wines. GP should also used more imaginatively, kicking into cash margins at a certain price. Accountants don’t like cash margins, but it doesn’t fit the spreadsheet model of how restaurants are run – they see everything in terms of pure gross profit. The other thing about GP is the different between 3, 4 and 5 times mark up is one of exponential increase. There is absolutely no logic to it.
      2. Organic. It’s not the certification that matters but the practice. I entirely agree with you that small growers tend to look after their vineyards, because they understand that quality is paramount. They tend to see themselves as stewards of the land, putting back what they take out. Which is great. I am talking about the industrial farming that goes on all over the world, creating barren monocultures, where vines need to be regularly irrigated (thereby exploiting up a precious resource) and the soil and environment is effectively bombarded with chemicals (many of which include carcinogenic compounds). Do we so need cheap homogenous wine that we are prepared to accept the environmental consequences of “over-farming.” Most wine is still bulk wine – as one small grower in South Africa wryly observed to me when I mentioned how green some of the vineyards in the Swartland: “They are farming water.” Minimising chemical intervention, farming better, encouraging biodiversity, leaving a natural legacy, that is surely the key to making better wines as well as being the right thing to do.
      3. Natural wines. A hot topic, but not as hot as 5-10 years ago, perhaps. Too long and complex (and nuanced) a subject to cover in one blog. Yes, there are bad examples of natural wines, but a lot rarer than people think. There are just many bad and faulty examples of conventionally made wine. Stuff happens. The chances are that if you are in the vineyard looking after the vines, harvest selectively and sort rigorously, you are three quarters the way towards making a good natural wine, just because you have the right material to work with. Just like our small farmers care about their vines, these vignerons care about their wines and want to make the best/the truest they can. There is a massive misapprehension promulgated by certain sceptics that many vignerons are making wine according to a fixed ideology. No, not at all. They are trying to do the best by doing the least. All the vignerons that we know and buy from, are perfectionists. Their wines reflect that uncompromising attitude. And thousands (millions) of people drink the wines not because it is a trendy to do so, but because they like the flavours, the purity, the edginess occasionally and something that tastes real, and dare one say, handcrafted. For every natural vigneron, I could tell you a different story; and this is the ultimate truth behind wine – it is the vagaries of nature and the thousand human decisions in the vineyard and winery that bring a wine to birth and make it more than any old product.

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