The upsell: education versus marketing
One way or another, everyone in the wine trade has the same basic objective: to sell more wine. Better still would be to sell more wine at higher prices. Achieving that is the foundation of economic sustainability for the industry.
Persuading people to spend more on wine is not easy. The average UK bottle price still lurks around £6, and most consumers seem entirely happy with what they get for this price - wines which tend to be fruity, easy-drinking, smartly branded and which offer a choice of varieties and styles. Their motivation to spend more is effectively non-existent.
The problem is that high taxation and increasingly unfavourable exchange rates means there is precious little profit at this price. That means consolidation (reduced variety), cost-cutting (fewer jobs) and reduced investment in production quality. Hence the industry's incentive to persuade people to upgrade.
There are two ways to do this. Wine education can give consumers an understanding of why some wines are better than others - and, crucially, why it is worth spending extra money for the improvement. Many people who get into wine will recall their epiphany; the moment they discovered the exciting potential of wine and became willing to spend more. The other method is marketing - generating desirability for wine via advertising, sponsorship and branding, and persuading consumers that it is worth a premium.
One of the industry's biggest problems is the belief that education is more worthy than marketing. Educating consumers about wine can certainly be beneficial, but the main drawback is that the number of people who are prepared to pay to learn about wine is minuscule.
Yes, more and more people are taking WSET courses and yes, there are more wine education companies popping up around the country - but this alone is not enough. That doesn't mean we should give it up - but it does mean we should be more realistic.
Looking at examples of successful wine marketing should encourage us. Champagne is an obvious one: the whole category commands a premium image and price, even though there are plenty of cheaper sparkling wines that can be just as good. Prestige cuvées such as Dom Pérignon have global recognition and sell millions of bottles at a very high price. They sell primarily because of luxury brand power - not because of the intrinsic quality of the drink.
Hardys are working hard to build brand value by sponsoring the England cricket team. This isn't a luxury goods campaign, but it is humourous and likeable and if it persuades people to spend a little more on their wine then it is a step in the right direction.
Casillero del Diablo's partnership with Manchester United is rather less modest - but it has clearly been devised to appeal to a specific audience, encouraging them not only to buy wine (instead of beer) but to buy a brand that retails at above the average UK bottle price (most of the time).
Whereas for retailers, Naked Wines are masters at marketing, persuading thousands of their customers to spend more on wine by engaging them with the stories behind their producers and involving them at every stage - from winemaking decisions to feedback on the finished bottle.
My point is that the wine trade should celebrate anyone that can persuade huge numbers of consumers to spend more on wine via marketing. The tendency to focus on education as the only route towards growth is not only misplaced, it is arrogant.