Over the last few months, there has been a lot of angry chatter among wine professionals about the term ‘clean’ wine. Stated simply, many of us don’t like the marketing behind it, especially when it involves specious claims and celebrities. Alongside this discussion has been a calmer one about ‘fine’ wine which has also been criticized for the way it has been abused by marketers.
Clean wine may be a relatively new concept, but ‘fine’ has been used and abused for a very long time. Take a look at the signs on old British pubs and you’ll find some, dating back to the days of Queen Victoria, promising ‘fine ales’ and ‘fine wine’. These establishments were not claiming to sell cru classé claret; they wanted potential customers to know they served beverages that were better than basic. A little like their modern counterparts advertising that they serve ‘meals’, rather than bar snacks and sandwiches.
At least the pubs’ ‘fine’-ness was relative. Until the 1990s, the distinguished gentlemen of the British port trade were less punctilious in the way they called one of their products ‘Fine Old Tawny Port’. Looked at dispassionately, its colour was derived from blending red and white rather than ageing in barrel, so they really shouldn’t have been calling it ‘Tawny’; it wasn’t old; and it certainly wasn’t fine. But it was legally ‘Port’, so I guess the name was 25% accurate. And the people who bought and drank it were probably happy with their purchase. When I raised the subject in Oporto and questioned the logic of using the same term, ‘tawny’, as the one used for ‘real’ 10 and 20 year old cask-aged port, the late, great Bruce Guimaraens disarmingly said, “We’ve made a lot of money by confusing the public, over the years.”
As someone who has railed against the term ‘natural’ wine, I’ve always fought against any marketing that seeks to confuse, or which does so accidentally. But I’ve also missed the point. Wine drinkers find these terms useful.
What have we offered them as easy pathways into wine? Our labels display thousands of unfamiliar and often unpronounceable appellations and grape varieties, along with incomprehensible bits of legal, semi-legal and frankly bullshit terminology. Grand Cru or Grand Cru Classé? Riserva, Reserva or Personal Reserve? DO or DOC or DOCG or DOG. (I made that last one up, but it may well indicate quality in some European wine-producing nation).
For the casual drinker who’s concerned about their health and hates the array of additives listed on the packaging of much of what we eat and drink, ‘clean’ is nice and simple. For a busy lawyer who wants to spend as short a time as possible buying a case of wine to be opened in 15 years’ time by a godchild he rarely sees, stuff described as ‘fine’ by a man in a well-cut suit hits the bullseye.
As professionals, we use all sorts of terms that make sense to us, like ‘premium’, and super premium’. Companies like Gallo and Constellation now have job titles that include the words ‘Luxury Wine’ and strategies that revolve around ‘affordable luxury’, ‘high-volume’ and ‘masstige’ wines. But those are our words. Like ‘closures’, ‘malolactic’, ‘SKU’s’ and ‘Dry Goods’, they have no more place in a casual wine drinker’s vocabulary than most medical terms have for the average patient.
How many people walked into a shop anywhere on earth yesterday and asked for a ‘super-premium’ wine or a ‘luxury wine’? But, by the same token, how many requested a ’super premium’ watch? Or a ‘luxury’ car.
Language is like everything else. Some elements and conjunctions become more popular than others with some people, and as times change, so does our vocabulary. People have influenced each other for centuries, but until recently, there was no such thing as a professional ’influencer’. A year ago, the word ‘zoom’ lived with ‘lens’. Now it has entered into what seems to be an almost exclusive relationship with ‘meeting’. Before 2016, ‘fake’ and ‘news’ almost never sat together in a sentence; now they sometimes seem to be inseparable.
Presidents, YouTubers and deep-pocketed advertisers can sometimes change the language, but it’s not easy. ‘Clean wine’ owes its existence to the terms ‘clean living’ and ‘clean food’ which, in turn, were coined by influencers and media with huge audiences. ‘Fine wine’ sits alongside old expressions like ‘fine arts’ – which can be studied in academies – and ‘fine dining’, the restaurant category that has replaced ‘gourmet’ and ‘white tablecloth’, and which is now used by TripAdvisor. None of these terms is going to disappear simply because we don’t like them. The challenge lies in creating new ones we all do like, which is tricky. Making them attractive to consumers: trickier. And preventing their abuse by people with whom we disagree: impossible.