There was hard-nosed Australian lady, a shiny-suited English bloke – senior manager or director I’d guess – and another woman of indeterminate rank who wore a business suit and smiled a lot. This is not the opening line of a joke (not entirely anyway), but the little crew who sat behind us at a break during a tasting. Williamson and I had repaired to the rest area with a modest pop-up café to revive ourselves with a face full of sandwiches while we mulled over the morning’s successes and mapped out the afternoon’s work.
Their conversational volume was indiscreet, especially the Aussie (yes, really) and it was much more interesting than ours so we tuned in. We identified them as a team from a vastly larger player than us, possibly a supermarket or maybe a national distributor, from the volumes they were discussing. They spoke in gobbldegook – corporate jargon, acronyms and technobabble – but what really struck a nerve was the dispassionate way that they viewed the subject of wine and how they planned to interfere in a, currently, independent producer’s business.
“I’m going to get the head maker to change his fining régime, make him use a vegan-friendly material,” said Aussie. “Why?” asked Smiler naively, “Is it any better?” “I doubt it, but it ticks another box; it makes it more attractive to the veggie market,” said Aussie. “Will it improve the finished liquid?” persisted Smiler. “Dunno, but as I said, it will help to grow the market. It’s that sort of detail that can pump up sales; we’ve gotta get the man to think outside the box and embrace our marketing ethos.”
Hang on a mo, we thought, this is somebody else’s business here; we should all welcome a little advice from time to time, but the wholesale imposition of different cellar management under the threat of withdrawing a huge chunk of business seemed rather unfriendly. “Well, he has to see it from our point of view and that’s that,” barked Bloke in a Suit, “Can he manage the volumes we’re gonna need?” Aussie jumped in, “Birmingham predicts over a quarter of a mil SKU’s in year two of the Charddie alone, factor in the other two varietals and we’re talking big biccies. I think he can manage, but I guess we’ll have to cuddle him a bit to bring him across our line.”
“Any other problems?” Bloke in a Suit ventured. “Well, the first sample of Merlot showed a little tannin; Joe Public can’t get on with that, but we can have that rounded out and then it’ll do. I’m experimenting with oak levels in the Charddie; we can have him knock out anything from no oak to loaded with the stuff so whatever we think will sell best – as long as the lab likes it – gets the gig. Once we establish the formula, consistency will follow,” Aussie assured him. I think we can take it that “the lab” is not the office dog.
This is just a snippet of a debate that continued for fully forty minutes in the same vein.
As a couple of suit-free geezers who fell into the wine trade at different times and bumbled into business together with our respective wives because of a passion for the stuff, we found this discussion at first laughable, then very quickly chilling. There was not one soul between the three of them. Nobody cared about the quality of the wine; nobody had any respect for the hard working guy who had, unwisely, hitched himself to this cold triumvirate and nobody cared about the paying consumer. Apart, of course, from the money, about which they were all very keen indeed.
These are the sort of people who invent spurious “half-price deals” and congratulate themselves on them because they fancy that they are so much cleverer than the rest of us. They are the sort of people who create meritless, anodyne styles of the lowest common denominator from the cheapest old wampo they can find. These are the sort of people who, in the face of a duty increase in the budget, turn to their suppliers and threaten to remove their business unless the supplier makes up the difference. Clearly they cannot afford to do either, but do these guys care?
So, while we started by tittering at the language and the evident moral-free nature of their approach, eventually their disrespect for pretty much everyone except themselves, their collective lack of product knowledge apart from what the technical printouts told them and their obvious disinterest in wine as a wonderful aesthetic experience, seriously began to worry us.
Smaller independent merchants like Wines of Interest are the engine room of the wine trade. What we all have in common, apart from our quirks and specialist enthusiasms, is that we care about you, our interested customers, and we care about the wonderful wines that we are lucky enough to work with. Those two factors alone make all of us infinitely more qualified in our field than any of the tossers who shared our lunch space.
When buyers don’t care about you or take a pride in their products you wind up with horsemeat. If you are happy with crap, buy crap with my blessing. If you want to avoid it, your local independent wine merchant offers you the best chance of cutting that risk to a minimum. And does it with heart.