Fake news and wine seem unlikely partners, but fabricated stories, unsubstantiated claims and fiction have increasingly become an acceptable part of wine marketing these days. Visual lies, sophisticated packaging and celebrity brands further differentiate products yet ultimately create a fantasy world of unrealistic expectations and aspirations.
Of course, wine brands are borrowing ideas from other luxury goods, including watches, jewellery, art and fashion. Whisky, gin, coffee and other drinks now borrow from the language of wine and the exquisite narrative of terroir. Some call this innovation, but I think it’s a con. Greatness can only be built up with care, quality craftsmanship, a genuine history of performance and a consistent ambition to create a meaningful and authentic experience. Sometimes this means less is more.
For instance, Bordeaux’s Château Palmer (Margaux) and Château Climens (Sauternes-Barsac) made beautiful wines from the difficult mildew and frost-ravaged 2018 vintage, but had to make do with a reduction in volume. In other cases wine might not be made at all. These estates exemplify integrity, honesty and purpose behind their premium wine production.
While there are plenty of over-priced mundane quality wines in the ultra-fine wine category, the commercial market (under A$25 per bottle) has become a major battleground for volume brands, entry level and ‘premium-but-attainable’ masstige wines. Almost every short cut of the supply chain has been exploited to bring costs down and to maintain a decent yet acceptably bland level of quality for the price-conscious consumer. Operating margins have been squeezed to the point of oblivion.
The problem seems to stem from a narrowing of distribution, the dominance of multiples, the increasing power of restaurant groups, and a need to develop wines that fit into the immovable entry level categories. The combination of cost saving and profit squeeze at the volume end of the wine business has understandably created enormous challenges for everyone.
Costs of wine production have increased as a consequence of poor vintage volumes, increasing disease pressure, climate change, water shortages, wage growth, operating expenses, exchange rates and legal compliance for example.
While investment in good vineyard management and winemaking practices continues, it must be very difficult for wine producers to build a sustainable commercial wine business when consumers will not swim outside the price category flags. This is creating pressure in Australia with often better wine quality coming from Portugal, Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe at entry level prices. Discomfort and lack of confidence in foreign names countervails, to some extent, this competition.
Of course, the consumer has been advantaged by competitor rivalry, technology and the “improvement of the breed” through Australia’s wine show tradition. But over the last five years or so, our wine industry seems to have inverted its gaze from the consumer to its own survival and expectations of profitability. The proliferation of wine shows throughout the world, the explosion of social media and the overly generous standard of wine scores, especially in Australia, conveniently compensate for the stagnation in mass-produced wine quality.
Nonetheless, the Australian general media loves the story of the battler enjoying great wine at low cost and the reflected narrative that fine wine lovers are fools. Aldi has been particularly nimble at taking advantage of this juxtaposition.
Yet this schadenfreude and ill-informed journalism is rubbish. While there is nothing wrong with commercial wine, rarely is it ever great, and most of it is manipulated to suit that market anyway. The best are fresh, supple and generous in flavour, while many are dilute or just overly compensated with residual sugar.
While most stories behind the label are harmless, I am less inclined to excuse poor product development when our national heritage and identity is undermined. The UK’s Marks and Spencer’s 2018 Coonawarra Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which depicts a rolling Italianesque landscape with fattoria, valleys and hills, in my opinion fails the integrity test because it is misleading the consumer. When I last visited Coonawarra it was as flat as a billiard table. But I suppose an uninterested consumer will never visit this isolated region anyway.
So what’s the harm in marketing a warm-hearted wine with a visual fantasy to someone hemmed in by leaden skies and Brexit woes?