Peter on Radio 4: no slur

(by peter)

As a general rule, a marathon wine tasting (featuring 292 wines, beers and spirits) and speaking fluently on national radio don’t go hand in hand.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached a full morning’s swilling and spitting (naturally) at Waitrose’s spring press tasting followed by a trip to Broadcasting House to record The Food Programme for BBC Radio 4.

We were to discuss the state of British wine retailing and whether, following the demise of First Quench (Thresher, Wine Rack et al), the UK consumer has been getting an increasingly raw deal on the wine front.

So in a way it was particularly apposite that I was at a supermarket tasting in the morning.

I asked Waitrose wine buyer Nick Room what he thought of this. His answer boiled down do: depends where you shop.

This chimed with my view exactly, and to which I’d also add: it depends what you’re buying.

To my mind, it’s those wine drinkers buying into the deep discounts and multibuy offers who often come off worst.

Tasting these wines (and they often are the big brands), it’s abundantly clear they are made to be sold at the discounted price.

So it’s a double rip off: if you buy them at full price, off discount, you’re being overcharged. And when you buy them on discount, you think you’re getting a bargain, when in fact you’re being duped.

In my book, that’s cynical practise.

What compounds the issue is that many of these discounts are run at a loss, purely to entice customers into a particular shop, to then buy other goods.

It’s like a particularly toxic carrot dangled in front of beer and wine drinkers.

I remember an instance when I was sent a bottle of Champagne by the Daily Mail to review. It was from Woolworths – bless’em – who were selling this fizz at £5. Was it any good, the Daily Mail wanted to know?

As it happened, it was decent enough. I wrote the piece for the Mail, but they edited out what I wrote about the reasons why the discount might have been taking place.

It was back-to-school time, you see. So Woolworths made a splash in the media about dirt-cheap champagne, got lots of parents into their stores, only to find there was no more champagne in stock (in fact they probably never had it, as it was only stocked in very few stores nationally). But, while they were there, they may as well pick up some back-to-school items for the kids…

This kind of sharp practice is very damaging.

It damages the image and long-term prospects of wine in the UK market, because it perpetuates the now ingrained attitude among consumers that discounts are an intrinsic part of the wine buying process.

It damages the confidence of the consumer: if someone buys a bottle and they’re disappointed, are they really going to feel confident about coming back and then trading up? Hardly.

And it’s really damaging to all those decent wine producers out there trying to make an honest buck (and some good wine), who find themselves bullied out of the market by those suppliers who are big enough to swallow all the hidden costs, “robust” business practises and wheeler-dealing of the big retailers.

But, ultimately, it’s important to recognise that we consumers are not blameless in all this.

Consumers have the power.

If we stopped buying into these cynical offers, by seeing through them for what they actually are and voting with our wallets, the supermarkets wouldn’t run them.

This was more or less what I said on the programme, which is broadcast this Sunday (9th May) and then a longer version on Monday (10th May). It is subsequently available on iplayer, which you can find by clicking here. (The kind team at The Food Programme have also put a link to this blog on the page, together with a mention of Susie and my photo – great exposure!)

As far as I can remember, I didn’t slur once, even if I may have got slightly heated.

I was appearing alongside the lovely Matthew Dickinson of importers Thierry’s, which is based just down the road from us, in Romsey.

As ever, the presenter was the inimitable Sheila Dillon, who is frighteningly knowledgeable about all things food and drink, as well as thoroughly good company. For this item, she had been dispatched to Bargain Booze in Crewe and independent wine merchant Green & Blue in East Dulwich, the intriguing results of which (including a brush with a vociferous northern cider drinker) make for compelling listening.

In general, the topic at hand made for a lively discussion.

We dwelt on the gloom (increasing consolidation meaning less diversity, the tax burden, the contentious discounting issue) but also discussed the brighter side of things, touching on innovative internet merchants (such as Naked Wine) and the independents.

I’ll leave you with some interesting stats I compiled as preparation for the discussion:

  • In 1998, Threshers had the same market share as Tesco. The latter is now the retailing leviathan of the UK, selling everything from houses to haloumi, while the former is in administration as part of the First Quench empire which went bust in October 2009, with the loss of thousands of jobs.
  • Tesco cut around 150 wine lines from its portfolio recently (it now has around 860 wines, excluding the 400-odd online bins). A few years ago it reached a high-water mark of 1,000 wines. It is now focusing on promoting its Finest range.
  • Waitrose has around 900 bins and its average selling price is some £6.40.
  • The average selling price for a bottle of wine in the UK market is £4.32.
  • The average selling price for a bottle of wine in independent UK merchants is estimated at £8.96.
  • At The Sampler in Islington, you can try around 80 wines via a sampling machine. The 1989 Château Haut-Brion was on recently for £46 a sample. Now you can find some samples of Bordeaux 2009 en primeurs.
  • Naked Wines has over 20,000 “angels”. (Check out the website if you need an explanation).
  • Oddins head honcho Simon Baile is “massively optimistic” about the future of UK wine retailing, describing the demise of First Quench as “the single most important event in wine retailing in a generation”. In his view, it cleared the decks for the independents to thrive.
  • Tesco’s “Great with” wine-and-food matching initiative led to significant sales upswings – as much as 200% in some cases – often without the wines being on offer. Susie and I keep banging on about it: putting food and wine together is a brilliant way to bring both to life and get people enthusiastic.
  • In real terms, there has been a 25% tax rise on wine over the last 2 years.
  • In the run up to the World Cup, some big supermarkets are running offers on beer packs that equate to a £6 loss on a £9 case.
  • Regarding the increasingly consolidated supply base in the UK market, I did a quick amateur survey while filming in a major supermarket for Saturday Kitchen yesterday. The Chile section had 26 wines in all. Mostly different brands. And the total number of suppliers? Just five. Yet you might not know it without reading the small print.
  • Naked Wines owner Rowan Gormley defines his customers (or angels) as “give-a-shits”. Ie they care about what they’re drinking. (The implication for the rest being clear…)