Purpose, Prestige, Profit... What Lies behind a Wine? And Does it Matter?

In wine, as in art, there is a growing movement to take into account the motivation of the people who produced it. Robert Joseph grapples with the question of how much it matters?

Reading time: 4m 20s

Image logos: Good Ware, FreePik, Quda Design
Image logos: Good Ware, FreePik, Quda Design

Good, Quick, Cheap… Choose any two.

I’ve always loved this tongue-in-cheek concept, attributed to the late 19th century British philosopher John Ruskin, and popularised 100 years later by software engineers and project managers.

I’ve been on both sides of that line. Editors have asked me to write a properly researched and carefully thought-out article overnight – for which they’ve wanted to pay peanuts. And, as a customer, I’ve had to resist complaining at the quality of something I’d needed in a hurry.

Another set of terms that some believe to be similarly resistant to playing as a harmonious trio came up in an Italian Wine Podcast conversation with my friend and colleague, digital marketer, Polly Hammond.

Using marketing terms, she voiced the suggestion that wine producers may be primarily driven by a desire for profit or prestige or by a sense of purpose. The first of these, she suggested, embraces most of the high-volume products to be found on supermarket shelves and, consequently, in most wine drinkers’ glasses. Prestige, self-evidently refers to the pricier fare that few of us get to experience very often, while purpose covers the stuff wine critics and enthusiasts love to focus on: wines whose role is to reflect the soil, climate and culture of the place where they are produced, or the winemaker’s personality, or their detestation of sulphor dioxide.

Other Reasons

More confusingly, though, purpose could equally refer to something with no direct connection to wine, such as a charity or – like Josh Cellars - a desire to honour the winemaker’s parent. How possible is it, Hammond wondered, for a wine brand to fit into all three groups?

In considering the question, I had to delve a little deeper into the terms she had chosen. Getting a listing in a supermarket, and keeping it, certainly involves understanding the way those retailers operate, and their likely need to promote sales with discounts and other marketing tools. But does being sold by a big chain necessarily say that your motive is primarily driven by profit? I don’t think so, and nor would many relatively small businesses across a broad range of sectors that have been lucky enough to catch a supermarket buyer’s eye. Without that kind of broad retailing, many might not have survived; it isn’t always easy to find enough customers among large numbers of smaller outlets.

In any case, a substantial proportion of the bottles on the shelves of any large European retail store will have been produced by cooperatives, for the simple reason that these collective enterprises produce a similarly large proportion of Europe’s wine. Is their main motive profit, or sustainable income for the tens of thousands of their members who entrust them with their grapes? Bowie, Dylan and Prince are all associated with a keen appreciation of the financial value of their work. But was that really what drove them?

Besides, surely wanting to make a profit isn’t unlike a desire to remain alive; it’s just better than the alternative.

Of course, there are plenty of apparently cynically-created products and brands whose only role is seemingly to make money for their owners’ shareholders, but I suspect that identifying them might involve as much prejudice as genuine analysis. McDonalds,  Coca Cola and Barefoot would, I’m sure, all be seen as primarily driven by profit – by people who might feel very differently about a brand of sausages made from free-range, rare-breed pigs or an environmentally-friendly detergent.

Who's the Owner?

But, a little casual googling might change some of those views. Ecover, many people’s favourite nature-driven washing up liquid is under a boycott call from the animal welfare group Naturewatch because of its owners, SC Johnson's links to animal testing.

Linda McCartney’s respected vegetarian food brand may now belong to the ‘organic and natural’-committed Hain Celestial Group, but how many of its customers knew or cared that it was previously a subsidiary of Heinz, makers of cans of beans and sausages?

Barefoot, the biggest wine brand in the US, and the target of most wine purists’ disdain, on the other hand, appears to have convinced at least one group of its community-focused purposefulness. Turn to Gay Times, and you’ll find – sponsored – coverage of the way the brand has “been a committed supporter of the LGBTQ+ community and LGBTQ+ causes since 1988”. The brand has also advocated same-sex marriage, partnered with OutServe, a charity working for LGBTQ+ members of the military, and with Free Mom Hugs, which helps “families, communities and civic leaders on the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ people”.

Barefoot devotes a lot of attention to charity, and its efforts to clean up beaches have won widespread respect. I doubt that even Gallo would claim that doing good is Barefoot’s raison d’etre, but I’d bet that it has as positive an effect on the brand’s fans as anything a Burgundy vigneron might have to say to his customers about the variations between the soil in his vineyards.

In any case, the more I read about purpose - which seems to have replaced ‘story’ as the must-have element in any marketing effort - the less comfortable I feel. Especially when I recall a winemaker I met who was heroically, nay, magnificently, committed to everything about his vines and wines. Unfortunately, he also had a range of near-fascist views that made my time as his dinner guest distinctly uncomfortable. Frankly, I’d much rather have spent the evening with an engaging billionaire who’d given a few million dollars to a great team of experts and allowed them to get on with setting up a vineyard in which he had little interest.

And, finally, what about prestige? Again, here, most thoughts probably turn to obviously ‘prestigious’ wines like Krug, Petrus and Harlan Estate. But is that really it? Do these really trump Ridge or Coche-Dury or, to those who love them, all sorts of less famous names? I guess that Sacha Lichine was looking for prestige when he launched Garrus as the world’s priciest rose, and Marcel Guigal must have had the thought in mind when he introduced the world to his Côte Rôtie superstars. But was that the only thing they wanted?

One thing I do know is that profit and prestige don’t always come together. Charles Heidsieck earned huge respect for its Champagnes, but never made money for Rémy Cointreau – as Felicity Carter discovered when she interviewed its new owners in 2016. Ganevat is unarguably prestigious and its wines certainly aren’t cheap, but, again as we reported, Jean-François Ganevat still felt the need to finance the refurbishment of the winery and “the improvement of our vinification methods through the pursuit of long aging periods and the integration of a supplementary patina” by selling his estate to a Russian billionaire.

Polly Hammond and I never nailed the compatibility between profit, prestige and purpose, and I’m glad, because I think the three terms are too hard to define. Far harder, certainly, than cheap, quick and good. Maybe Ruskin could have helped.

Robert Joseph

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