Why public broadcasters shouldn’t recommend only supermarket wine

ID-100133089It was a recommendation that was universally panned by a panel of chefs and celebrities, but was made with the best of intentions. When faced with the challenge of matching a red wine with a venison dish on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen back in November, Tim Atkin MW, the wine expert for the episode, decided on a bottle of Cotes du Rhone.

Good choice. I like Cotes du Rhone and, I suspect, a lot of other people who watch James Martin’s programme like it as well. But there was a catch. This bottle of Cotes du Rhone must be chosen within the confines of a series of counter-intuitive and restrictive BBC rules. Ah yes.

Now, I lack the specific wording of these rules (in other words, I haven’t seen them), but in all the years I have watched Saturday Kitchen, I have a pretty good idea of what they might be. It seems that the wine recommended must cost less than £10 (perhaps even less than this?) and be widely available in the UK supermarkets that have large wine selections (ASDA, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose).

If you’re hoping to see a wine from an independent merchant appear on the show, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

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On this particular episode, Mr Atkin’s wine, Les Dauphins Cotes du Rhone Villages from Waitrose, sank like a lead weight. The panel, which consisted of James Martin, Jun Tanaka, Bill Bailey and, er, somebody else, showed less excitement for it than a teenager would give to a beige minivan.

Having spent £6.49 on this wine that same evening, my opinion of it was no different from James, Jun, Bill and company. After opening the bottle, the reaction was more of an ‘oh’ rather than an ‘ah!’

Sure, it tasted of wine and fruit, and it even had a very small, subtle hint of those spicy, peppery flavours you’d expect from a Cotes due Rhone. But it had a rough and unpleasant side to it as well, like that cheap jug wine you buy at the side of the road in the Languedoc for 10 euros per demijohn.

There wasn’t anything necessarily wrong with it for a cheap Cotes du Rhone. Nothing wrong with it, that is, if you don’t mind red wine that is watery, lacking in any real flavour and encourages you to rinse out your mouth with drain cleaner.

What did we expect when a watery Cotes du Rhone that has all the complexity of distilled water was paired with a rich plate of venison? Words like ‘profound’ and ‘captivating’ were never going to be uttered.

If this wine seems familiar to you, perhaps you have read about it over on the Sediment Blog, where it was described as thus:

It has a blast like a bath cleaning product. That departs to leave a rather acrid yet strangely shallow drink, entirely absent of such declared constituents as fruits,spices or indeed flavours.

This was never Tim Atkin’s fault. He usually recommends good wines and never anything he wouldn’t drink himself. However, given the choice, I don’t doubt he would have selected something a little finer from the Waitrose selection. Or he might have avoided the supermarket altogether and opted for something from an independent merchant.

This final point was brought to the front of my mind this week when I stumbled across two articles on wine selection. First is a piece by Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine critic, who explored the reasons why his readers struggle to find the wines he recommends in his column.

At the same time, I found a piece in Harper’s Wine and Spirits by Joelle Nebbe-Mornod of Aline Wines, who challenged the producers of Saturday Kitchen to recommend wine from independent retailers rather than rely upon supermarkets for all of their recommendations.

Both of these articles outline a major problem – as well as a solution. The problem with wine recommendations on TV or in national newspapers, and Saturday Kitchen in particular, is that they often seem to abide by a BBC rule that demands they choose wine from mass-market retailers, most often the largest supermarkets in the land.

Presumably, this rule exists to ensure the wine recommendations are affordable and easy for any viewer or reader to find. But often this means that the wines selected are underwhelming and boring. And in the case of the BBC’s cookery programme, it seems to break the network’s fundamental opposition to product promotion.

By only recommending wines sold in large supermarkets, it promotes brands and corporations in two ways: the supermarkets that sell the wine and the wines themselves, which are often from large producers.

It seems the BBC believes that, if unique and interesting wines from independent retailers were recommended, the majority of viewers would not be able to buy them. But, as discussed by Asimov and Nebbe-Mornod, the rise of online retailing is increasingly making this less of a problem.

In the UK, online sales made up 12.7% of all retail sales in 2012, statistics from the Centre for Retail Research show. This is not only a larger market share than the rest of Europe and the US, but it is also rising. More people are buying goods online – including wine – and this is only going to accelerate.

We can’t ignore that supermarkets still have the lion’s share of wine sales in the UK and are likely to continue to do so as they drive their sales online, but there is a vibrant and healthy independent sector as well. And this independent sector is selling its wine online as well.

I’m sure if Mr Atkin had been given the chance to recommend a Cotes du Rhone from an independent retailer, his chances of finding a winner would have been a lot better.

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