"They're only in it for the money."
Of all the accusations I’ve heard aimed at wine producers and distributors, this has been one that has often been uttered through tightly gritted teeth. All sorts of inefficiencies are tolerated, provided the perpetrator is imbued with a passionate love of wine. Far better the stumbling amateur with a warehouse of frankly faulty wine that most ‘normal’ consumers would struggle to swallow than a conglomerate that treats its market-driven fare like cans of beans.
And to hell with the Chinese carpetbaggers who switched overnight from importing sardines to distributing containers of claret when Bordeaux became the toast of Beijing.
I’m no different. I’d much rather be listening to a winemaker enthuse about his exciting new vineyard than a corporate suit reciting their marketing plans for a new “wine for women”. But life is not nearly as clear-cut as that. Sadly, earning one’s money by doing something one loves is not a human right. Offices, factories, shops and restaurants are all full of employees who’d rather be somewhere else.
How many workers in the Ford factory leap out of bed on Monday in anticipation of another week overseeing robots as they assemble a stream of white vans? How many middle-aged lawyers would far rather be making wine than serving as mercenaries in conflicts between bitterly warring couples?
On the other side of the coin, how many references to XXX & Fils at the foot of a wine label actually conceal a grumpy 50-year-old who, but for a bossy father and a sense of duty, would have left the family domaine decades ago.
All these people in their different ways are at least partly in it for the money.
It is easy for Westerners to mock Chinese traders and to rejoice that some 2,000 smaller importers and distributors in that giant country have apparently given up on wine completely. But how different really is the Shenzhen sardine-turned-wine seller from the supermarkets where most Europeans and Americans buy their bottles? Of course Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco employ buyers who are knowledgeable and passionate about the wine they select, but retail chains and their shareholders are unashamedly in it for the money.
And this matters to wine producers, because until we as an industry improve the margins those retailers can make on the wine we sell them – by improving their customers’ readiness to pay higher prices – they are going to continue to treat wine as a footfall builder rather than a focus of their activity. Perfumes, spirits and Champagne brands do this in duty free precincts far more effectively than their still-wine counterparts.
In China, where a whole new wine industry is being created from scratch, at least one big producer is now creating entirely new brands and styles specifically for JD.com, the Chinese equivalent to Amazon, in which higher profit and marketing margins are included from the outset.
The better we get at satisfying others’ need to make money, the greater freedom we’ll have to do at least part of what we do for love.
This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available online or in print by subscription.