18 Aug 2012

Gallo Barefoot Shiraz in the Guardian… should wine critics recommend big-brand wines?

Wine critic Fiona Beckett mentioned a big-brand wine, Gallo Barefoot Shiraz, in her Guardian column today. For some people in the wine trade she might as well have suggested we all try mixing our Grand Cru burgundy with a splash of Fanta. To put it mildly, some people weren't impressed.

Why do people feel so strongly about wine writers recommending big-brand wines? I noticed two main reasons – distinct but linked – being raised and mixed together on Twitter.

Firstly, people said there are lots of smaller, worthy winemakers who care about their land and product and who are loads more in need of a mention in a national paper than a multimillion-dollar brand. Fair point.

Secondly, people said the same kind of thing but about independent wine shops – in other words they said a national newspaper wine critic should be focusing on indie retailers who care about wine, rather than faceless multinationals. Why does this factor come into it, you might think – we're just talking about an individual wine here aren't we, not where to buy the stuff? Well, because as a general rule specialist wine shops prefer to stock interesting wines from the smaller producers who care about where they grow the grapes, rather than huge mass-produced ones. Again fair point.

But my instinct is Fiona Beckett and others are right to recommend wines from all kinds of shops, from all types of producers, big and small – as long as they are good enough.

I've noticed this kind of thing causes people to heat up in the wine world much more than in any other industry I can think of. When someone like Jay Rayner reviews a well-known chain restaurant, which he does occasionally, you do get some comments from Observer readers saying why couldn't he find somewhere more independent/interesting to review that needs the help, but I don't think there's quite the same strength of feeling. I suspect most readers are interested to hear whether or not whatever ubiquitous chain he's reviewing is actually any good or not. And that's with food, where provenance is just as important as in wine.

Film critics review Hollywood blockbuster films all the time, films that are often fairly unoriginal and formulaic. They sometimes give them four or five stars. Does Hollywood need the help of critics? Or should critics only be reviewing small-budget films, or films from indie producers? How do we decide which ones are allowed in?

Music writers review loads of albums that, irrespective of their review, sell in their millions in supermarkets (as well as independent record stores), with huge marketing budgets behind them. Should music writers be handing out four and five-star reviews to Kylie's or Cheryl Cole's or Elbow's new record? Or should it be their job to solely spend their weeks trailing around small but authentic music venues – the natural vineyards of the music world – promoting the as-yet unheard talents that no doubt toil on without public acclaim? Clearly that should be part of their job, but should it be only that? Similarly, should independent record shops be selling mass-produced pop that has no soul, no sense of place? Or, frankly, is there nothing wrong with liking a bit of Kylie when you're in one mood and liking a bit of Bach when you're in another?

Independent wine shops, places I love to spend my (limited) money. They sometimes stock expensive wines made by super-wealthy producers in Bordeaux, Tuscany, California. A lot of people who end up drinking them won't really appreciate the nuances of the wine: they're buying it as a status thing. What are the mark-ups on those wines? Are all of those wines great? No, I'm sure they're not – some of them will be more about marketing than quality or authenticity – but that doesn't mean the whole category should be out of bounds.

My inkling is that most of the people criticising the column are people who work within the wine industry, rather than general consumers. And obviously we should listen to them as they have incisive things to say – people who work in the industry know what they're talking about. And they care.

But inevitably they also see things from the perspective of selling wine as well as buying it. Which changes their slant on things quite a bit (as an aside this is also a big danger for wine critics, I think – becoming part of the industry rather than sitting alongside it – as I notice some writers seem to come as much from an industry as from a consumer perspective at times, but it's a tricky balancing act).

Understandably, if you work in the trade it's painful to see people thoughtlessly chucking homogenous big-brand wines into their trolleys when you're spending your days passionately preaching about real wine, because you absolutely love the stuff and care about it. But for the general reader of the newspaper column – the kind of person for whom wine is a small, passing, enjoyable part of their lives (and a good escape from the recession) but nowhere near an obsession – perhaps they can be drawn in by mentions of the familiar brand and, if they find they enjoy the recommendation, they might just try one of the more interesting recommendations from the column next time round. I think the most successful wine critics of all, people like Oz Clarke and Robert Parker, have done so well partly because they've connected with general consumers rather than just wine geeks.

One other quick thought about how being passionate about wine changes your perspective so much. You might hate the idea of buying a cheap big-brand wine, or buying any wine from a supermarket. But do you live by that philosophy in every other part of your life? Do you only wear 100% ethically sourced, independent, artisan-produced clothes? Are they Fairtrade or made by a local tailor with non-sweatshop fabric? Was your kitchen put in by a local joiner using responsibly sourced wood? Do you have solar panels? Do you own an Apple product? Is your milk and butter organic and sourced from farmers who got paid properly for it? Is your fruit and veg all local? If so, shouldn't you be helping farmers in the developing world? What's the carbon footprint on our wine habits as individuals? Those questions are a bit facetious, but my point is I suspect most people try to do their best with most things but it's impossible to always support the ethical or worthy option in everything you do.

Apologies for the lengthy post – these thoughts have just come to me as I've been writing, as you can probably tell. Which I've done while drinking a glass of Ribera del Duero – which I impulse-bought a bottle of for £5.50 today just after I'd called into a national DIY chain, B&Q.

I bought the wine in a shop packed full of oddities. Aldi. That's pretty much an independent isn't it? Either way, it's not too bad for a fiver.


  1. Hi Simon,

    I agree with your points here.

    Ultimately, I think it's important to have this debate and start thinking more about what we consume. At least, think and try to do your best. And ask our media what their position is as the people who are recommending it. I don't think it is too much to ask of our media.

    Also, thanks for your post, there are some great points in here which I have taken on board and will think about further.

    Best wishes, Jm

  2. HI
    Another good analysis, but it costs generally the same to see Batman as it does My Little Arthouse and in general, the knocking of featuring big brands is less to do with saving the planet as it is to do with saving small business. I rarely buy meat in the supermarket(local butcher instead), I buy British beer and would happily pay a bit more for a pint of milk to help the farmers. If my favourite cheeses were all British (which they are not) I'd probably stick to the UK for that too.
    The point is to encourage someone prepared to spend their 7.19 on wine to spend it on a small producer in a small shop, because the big boys can take care of themselves.

  3. Thanks both for your comments.

    Anyone who's read this post and would like to read more about the subject should head over to Wine Woman Song, here: http://www.winewomansong.co.uk/index.php/2012/08/wine-riot/