An edited version of this article was originally published on jancisrobinson.com on 18th May, 2016.
I like to think I am not a wine snob. However, I have to confess that I noticed a bit of wine snobbery rising to the surface a couple of times over the Easter break. The first came when we had some friends over for Sunday lunch.
My mate brought me a bottle of wine as a gift, Majestic’s new(ish) “Definition Range” Pouilly Fume. I smiled, thanked him, told him he shouldn’t have bothered and chucked it in the wine rack. I immediately started to think how I could offload it without actually drinking it myself. Whoops, a bit snobby that…
In my defence, I love wine. I love reading about wine. I love researching wine. It is my hobby. This generally means that every time I open a bottle I am excited to try it. As I open the bottle I think about the back story that I have discovered about the wine, the reason I bought it, the reason I am opening it now, why it goes with this meal or occasion.
That is why I don’t buy own brands. It takes all the fun out of the experience. The thrill of the chase isn’t there.
But that is me. Apart from the friends I have made through wine, none of my “normal” friends do this. Just like my Pouilly Fume pal. Although he enjoys drinking wine, he is not obsessed by it. He doesn’t read any wine magazines or websites. He is in the majority, not me. Most people, like him, know a few wines they like and buy them from the supermarket.
This was emphasised again when we visited my sister over Easter and I had a nosey through her wine rack. Every bottle in there was from Sainsbury’s “Taste the Difference” range.
That night she served slow cooked lamb and we drank one of her “Taste the Difference” Argentinian Malbecs. It was perfectly drinkable. I don’t remember much about it, but that’s because we were catching up and chatting about other things. Once more, I realised that it is just me who obsesses about wine and wants to talk about every glass I taste. Nobody else at the table cared what it was, as long as it was red, because that’s what you drink with lamb.
When I got back from the Easter break, a box of samples had arrived from Aldi. The latest four releases of their recently launched “Lot” series, another own brand. Both Aldi and Majestic have launched new, higher end own brand labels in the last year. To me that represents a trend, so what is driving it?
When I posed this question to Aldi, they told me; “the range was designed to tap into a growing trend for super premium and exclusive wines at great value and to cater for Aldi’s growing number of ‘upmarket’ shoppers”.
It seems to have been a success, so far anyway. All three of the initial wines, launched in March 2015 (a Pézenas made with Jean-Claude Mas, a Tasmanian Chardonnay created with Adam Eggins, and a Valle de Leyda Sauvignon made in collaboration with Nicolas Bizzarri) sold out within a few months. Each release, priced at £9.99 a bottle, was a run of 25,000 – 30,000 bottles. They have released a further two tranches of different “lots” since then with similar results.
This appears to be the supermarkets trying to offer their customers what the good independent merchants have always done; interesting, value for money wines that they have put effort into sourcing themselves. By producing limited runs of 25,000-30,000 bottles they seem to be trying to create the impression that these are exclusive, small batch productions. The impressive packaging of Aldi’s Lot Series, with individually numbered bottles supports this view.
However, rather than actually using small producers they appear to be using large-scale producers such as Jean-Clade Mas of Domain Paul Mas, who have over 600 hectares of vines in the Languedoc. Not exactly a small-scale, garage wine producer.
It feels to me a bit like the wine equivalent of the “artisan” food fad which has led to many supermarket food ranges being labelled artisan, to make them appear part of a small scale, cottage industry, even when production was in industrial quantities.
So what do the independent merchants think of this? Edward Hayward-Broomfield of Lea & Sandeman told me “Large scale production and artificial discounting will never allow small independents to win on price, but we nearly always win on quality; small boutique production and fair pricing has always been part of our formula”. A not unexpected response.
Majestic is a bit in the middle of the two, not quite at supermarket scale, but not an independent merchant either. They say their first own brand range “is intended to be both approachable to seasoned wine drinkers and appealing to new wine lovers who can interact with Definition and develop their understanding and confidence”. They appear to be focusing more on the well-known, established wine regions rather than the less well-known, potentially better value areas in the Aldi Lot Series.
I have to say as a “seasoned wine drinker”, using Majestic’s terminology, an own brand range of the world’s most famous wine regions doesn’t spark much interest. I think I’d be much more inclined to try the more interesting Aldi range. However, I can imagine for someone taking their first steps into wine, they may prefer to buy names they have heard of. So perhaps, despite the implied intent, the Majestic range is more targeted at beginners.
So having listened to the rhetoric from both camps, there was only one thing left to do. I would carry out an own brand challenge to find out if I was wasting my time with all this research.
Was I better off buying own brands like many of my friends do, or do the independents, where I tend to buy most of my wines, offer a better product?
I quickly cobbled together the rules of engagement. I would use the gifted bottle of Majestic’s Pouilly Fume, the samples of Aldi’s Lot Series and I’d pick up that Sainsbury’s “Taste the Difference” Malbec I tried at my sister’s from my local supermarket. I’d then approach a couple of independent wine merchants and ask/beg them to give me a similar bottle from their range so I could do a taste off.
The concept being, if someone came into their shop and said they liked Pouilly Fume and had £15 to spend, what would they offer them? I’d then taste them blind, compare the relevant wines to each other and pick out the winner from each round.
Here are the wines I used for the taste off, along with the results of the blind tasting;
So the independent wines performed better that the own brands, pretty much across the board.
My taste off has not convinced me to give up on my hobby and start buying own brands.
But the numbers don’t lie.
Majestic sold £3 million bottles of the Definition Series in the first 6 months.
Each of Aldi’s Lot series wines has sold out within a few months of release.
Yet, we regularly hear reports of independent merchants struggling to compete and going out of business. Why is this so, if pound for pound they provide a better product?
The common complaint is that they can’t compete with the buying power of the large supermarkets, but this test suggests that they can buy better wine at the same price, so this may not be the whole story.
I used some of my non-wine obsessed friends to test this theory.
Some of those I asked said that they felt uncomfortable going into wine merchants. Some felt they seemed old fashioned and stuffy, compared to the likes of Majestic.
Someone also said they “didn’t know where to start” as the range of wines was often so great. Based on this, it seems that the independents to have some work to do to win the custom of my non-wine obsessed friends.
Now, I am no expert in wine retail, but as a supportive customer of independent merchants, I would offer the following 5 suggestions which might help independent merchants attract more new customers, and retain the old ones:
1. Make things easy – life is difficult enough. Buying wine should be easy. Make it easy for people to buy wine. Package the wine in a way that is easy for people to buy into. A good example of this is Stone Vine & Sun’s “Doorstep Dozen”, a hand selected case you can subscribe to at whatever frequency you like.
2. Utilise the wine press – especially newspapers, so that non-wine obsessed people might recognise the critic. If someone says something good about wine you are selling, use it in your marketing. There is nothing like an independent thumbs up to close out a sale.
3. Differentiate – it’s a competitive market, why should customers go to you rather than your competitor? You need a USP. Howard Ripley is a good example, they specialise, almost exclusively, in wines from Burgundy and Germany. When I need to stock up on Sahr Riesling (which is often) or red Burgundy, I automatically revert to them.
4. Stay current – like any other business, innovation is key to success. Keep pushing the boundaries and changing your offering. Cave de Pyrenees have used trendy natural wine bars (like ToastED in East Dulwich and Terroirs in Charing Cross) and the Real Wine Fair to expand their business and encourage new wine fans into their wine portfolio. Oh, and sort out your website, I don’t want to have to phone someone to buy wine.
5. Communicate – I may just be a wine merchant’s wet dream, but I would say that more than 50% of the wine I buy is stimulated by an email from a wine merchant, highlighting the wine. Some merchants send me regular emails, others don’t. I buy most wine from those who do.
Here are the independent wine merchants I use most regularly, who generally tick most, if not all, of the 5 boxes above;
Stone, Vine & Sun, Winchester (www.stonevine.co.uk)
Uncorked, London (www.uncorked.co.uk)
Lea & Sandeman, London (www.leaandsandeman.co.uk)
Howard Ripley, London (www.howardripley.com)
Noel Young, Cambridge (nywines.co.uk)
Exel Wines, Perth (www.exelwines.co.uk)