23 May 2011

Supermarkets: bringers of affordable food & drink to the masses, or unethical corporate giants?

I chipped in to an interesting mini-debate on twitter yesterday about supermarkets.

Daniel Primack of Around Wine said: "I've never underst'd why wine writers cover s'mkt wine. Worst case ppl stop buying in s'market and buy from Indy."

A very valid point. Wine writer and Saturday Kitchen presenter Tim Atkin replied: "Partly because very hard to buy from the bottle by indies unless you live nearby. And 80% of wine sold there."

I chipped in: "Tricky one, but plus-point of s'mkt recs is steering casual buyers to more interesting buys & without patronising them."

I also made the comparison of millionaire celebrity chefs preaching to the public to buy organic chicken. Yes, in an ideal world battery chickens would simply not exist and everyone in the country who eats meat would buy free-range, organic, or at least local. But the principle of someone who is very wealthy and privileged advising those who are neither, about their moral judgments, is on shaky ground. After all it's much easier to take 'ethical' purchasing decisions when you're rich enough to do so. When every penny counts, your child's nutrition will probably come above the welfare of the chicken. And poor people who can't afford one car, never mind two, or one foreign holiday in their whole lifetime, never mind two every year, aren't preaching to celeb chefs about how they could look to reduce their carbon footprints.

Us wine lovers also need to face up to another troublesome issue: just how sustainable is wine full-stop, whichever retailer you buy it from? Just 750ml of liquid (which might have been produced mainly by low-paid workers) in individual bottles that have been shipped across the world must have a sizeable carbon footprint. But that's another issue.

I totally agree with Daniel Primack's fundamental point that no-one has to buy any wine (or meat) in the supermarket – as he says, there are plenty of decent £7 wines in the independents and, actually, you might probably get more for your money that way. I believe in supporting local, independent businesses where you can. The local businessperson has a passion for what they're selling, they live where they do business, and as a result they care about quality rather than just making money. The independents will also pay their fair share of business taxes, unlike the corporations, and will be focal points of local communities. What we do when those same independents become successful multinationals because we've all supported them, again, is another interesting issue…

But going back to supermarkets, the two top concerns for most people are price and convenience when they buy food and drink. Not everyone treats wine any differently from all the other brands available in the supermarket – it's only the wine buffs who spend many of their waking moments thinking about the stuff, who would enjoy browsing online or in a local independent (if they're lucky enough to have one) to get the more interesting and unusual bottles. For everyone else, if they can lob a couple of recognisable and consistent £5 bottles into their trolleys during their weekly shop, why would they go to the extra cost and inconvenience to shop at an independent? Because if they did, it would mean either a) going several miles out of their way just to get their couple of bottles of wine for the week, or b) spending extra time online to buy their wine (with the two bottles costing say £7 each at the independent, so £14, plus a say £7 delivery charge, so £21 for two decent bottles).

I'm playing devil's advocate. I don't earn much money, yet I'm still able to take the extra effort to buy ethical meat and more interesting wines where I can (but by no means every time, admittedly), from independent retailers. But that doesn't mean I think everyone else could do. In an ideal world, yes, and I agree with the basic point that the wine trade should do what it can to encourage independents over supermarkets. And not just the wine trade.

But in the current climate more than ever, us wine geeks need to remember that although it's just simple alcoholic grape juice inside the bottle, we all look at the stuff very differently.

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