In praise of the blockbuster wine

The blockbuster wines that line supermarket aisles have an important role to play in the wine industry, says Robert Joseph.

Photo by Madai on Unsplash
Photo by Madai on Unsplash

I haven’t seen Tenet, and any opinions I may have of Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster movie are based on reviews I have read. It may be a work of cinematic genius from a brilliantly inventive director, or, as the New Scientist suggests, a piece of nonsense that keeps its audience entertained with chases, thrills and spills while making no sense.

The only thing everyone in the movie business agrees is that, whatever its qualities and failings, Tenet has been crucial to cinemas across the globe whose seats have remained empty after the relaxation of the lockdown. Before the pandemic, UK cinemas collectively recorded weekly revenues of around £23m ($29.5m). In August, when people were once again free to watch movies in a large dark theatre rather than in their own homes, the entire sector registered less than £900,000 ($1.16m).

Over the seven days after its release, Tenet single-handedly brought in £5.5m ($7.1m) in the UK and Ireland. Stated simply, people wanted to see it more than they had wanted to see the movies that were on offer the previous week.

What has this to do with wine?

One of the repeated complaints I hear in the wine industry run along the lines of “Why doesn’t my local supermarket stock a wider range of lighter bodied/less alcoholic /natural/unusual varieties?”. As someone who often takes a professional look at the shelves of various retailers, I sympathise with the frustration behind those questions. There are plenty of British supermarkets in which I’d now struggle to spend much money on wine.

But those stores aren’t like bookshops that can fill their shelves with esoteric fare, knowing that every unsold volume can be returned to the publisher. They’re like cinemas that need every seat to make its contribution to their bottom line.

When Mondovino arrived – the documentary attacking many of the pillars of the industry – it got a lot of attention in the wine world. At a time when cinemas screened fewer documentaries than today, and ones focused on wine were almost unknown, Jonathan Nossiter’s film benefitted from a surprisingly energetic promotional campaign. In London and New York, it was hard to ignore eye catching posters adorned with the bald head of Hubert de Montille, a top Burgundy producer and one of the movie’s heroes. Newspapers with little interest in wine featured enthusiastic reviews from film critics who relished a backstage pass to a mysterious industry, and I remember a Bordeaux negociant calling me to say that he thought the movie would “change everything”.

Unlike Tenet, however, Mondovino wasn’t shown in many cinemas, and it did not do much for the profitability of the ones in which it was screened. As I was told when I enquired, it attracted similar audiences to a subtitled Japanese movie released at around the same time. And, as my Bordelais friend discovered, it didn’t change very much at all.

For a cinema manager in times like these, screening the modern equivalent of a movie like Mondovino rather than Tenet might be the difference between permanent closure and financial survival. For a supermarket, replacing the crowd-pleasing 15%, slightly off-dry red blend with a small producer’s fascinating orange wine may not have quite such a dramatic effect, but it will still have an impact on the weekend sales report the wine department has to submit every Monday morning. The bean counters at Head Office don’t care what customers are buying; their job is to ensure that enough profitable products are passing through the checkout.

Crucially, the shoppers often have little relationship with many of the contents of their trolleys. They’re simply “consumers”. My household “consumes” toilet paper, detergent and milk, and no one gives a thought to any of these until stocks run low. When I set out to remedy this situation, I’m no more aware of the brands on their labels than most of the people buying Prosecco or Merlot in the wine aisles. I go for the one that we usually have, or that’s on offer.

In an ideal world, your local multiplex would have enough screens to be able to offer esoteric fare as well as Tenet, just as a supermarket would have space on its shelves for natural wine and 19 Crimes. And some cinemas and retailers do indeed manage to do this. So, ASDA, Walmart’s UK subsidiary now lists an own-label orange wine from Romania, for example. But like every other product in the shop that wine has to pay its way.

Without cinemas we would have no film industry, and although the advent of television means that we no longer need to leave our homes to watch a movie, the world would be a far worse place if that’s the direction in which Netflix and Amazon Prime continued to drive us.

The wine industry’s debt to supermarkets is far smaller, but we forget at our peril the role the wine aisles of these stores have had in introducing, and continuing to sell wine, to countless millions who might never set foot in a specialist wine merchant.

Wine producers across the globe now rely on supermarkets for distribution, and just as the cinemas need Christopher Nolan and James Bond, those supermarkets need Gallo’s and Treasury’s crowdpleasers.

Robert Joseph

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