Not a drop worth drinking part II: The customer is always right

ID-1009400Harry Gordon Selfridge was famous for his eponymous department store, which transformed the humble act of shopping from an undesirable but necessary evil, to the unnecessary act of frivolity that is the engine of Oxford Street today. Perhaps.

Mr Selfridge has also been credited, along with Marshall Field, for coining — or perhaps just popularising — the phrase ‘the customer is always right.’ In the quest to secure as many sales, and therefore as much profit, as possible, the belief was that no matter what the customer said or did (perhaps short of theft), they were always right. Or for those who go to Burger King, they can always have it their way.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this mantra would be the undoing of retail. And perhaps, in a way, it has. Retailers these days give people what they want, not simply what they need. Why else do we have Primark selling cut-price clothing and household goods? Never mind where or how their products are made, and what it does to the environment.

As axioms go, this is as true for clothing as it is for wine. In their quest to satisfy their customers whims, supermarkets are stocking their shelves with whatever is cheap and sells well. Is it what the customer needs? No. Is it what the customer wants? Yes, but only insofar as they want something that is a) cheap, b) familiar and c) uncomplicated. The everyday person wants an everyday wine, so why make it challenging by stocking the shelves with Georgian saperavi or Greek assyrtiko? Only the nerdiest of the nerds will buy that.

If avoiding confusion were the objective, our supermarkets wouldn’t provide excessive choice at all. And yet, this isn’t the case at all. During a recent shopping trip as part of my quest to find a cheap and drinkable muscadet, it was in a tiny Sainsbury’s outlet in the London’s financial district where I was presented with a confusing site. While its small wine fridge at first seemed to contain one of all the usual suspects (one Chablis, one Sancerre, one Soave and so on), this was not the case for our old friend pinot grigio.

For there was not just one, but seven of the devils lined up all in a row, each one as uninspiring and insipid as the next. Logic would dictate that if Sainsbury’s sees fit to sell just one Chablis, one Sancerre and one Soave, then one pinot grigio ought to do as well. But it seems that, in an effort to pile it high and sell it cheap the customer who is always right, loading the shelves with pinot grigio is giving them what they want.

As Lettie Teague wrote in the Wall Street Journal, pinot grigio seems to defy logic:

Watery. Insipid. Neutral. Boring. Few wines underwhelm as thoroughly as pinot grigio. Yet it’s a consistent best seller—retailers tell me that they can’t keep the stuff in stock.

This is not simply a problem at Sainsbury’s, to be fair. And it’s not simply a problem in the UK either. At a vast supermarket of a wine store in western Canada, there stood an entire shelving unit loaded with pinot grigio, each bottle no more compelling than the others. When I asked why they needed to sell some 40 different variations of pino grigio, the shop assistant slumped her shoulders and gave a quiet, frank response: people buy a lot of it, so they stock a lot of it.

Not that pinot grigio is all bad. In the right hands, made with good grapes and with care and attention, it can become a wine of character. As Peter Grogan once wrote in the Telegraph,

Bad winemakers will make bad wine regardless of the grape varieties they’re growing. Poor old pinot grigio, being an obliging and productive old fruit, has fallen in with some rather undesirable types.

Undesirable indeed. Sainsbury’s take note.

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Georgian wine – For those who love the Caucasus

Western Europe is widely regarded as the centre of the wine universe but none of the nations there are actually its spiritual home. (Much as the French would love to labour the point.)

For that, you’d have to travel east to the other side of the Mediterranean, an area few people are likely to associate with wine these days, perhaps because the Soviet era all but wiped out commerce with these countries during the Cold War. Or maybe because too many people had bad experiences with dodgy Bulgarian wine in university.

But Georgia is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world; viticulture in the South Caucasus dates to between 9,000 and 7,000 years BC.

Despite this, not much has made it to the UK’s shores over the years. But this is changing. In fact, there is an entire wine society dedicated to Georgian wine, if you’ll believe it.

While the options aren’t quite as wide-ranging as those from the big wine markets, there are enough bottles available in the UK to satisfy anyone’s curiosity.

For a true experience of what Georgia has to offer – one that doesn’t cause you to black out and wake up in a bath tub full of ice the next morning with a suspicious scar where you kidney ought to be – opting for a wine made from the saperavi grape is a good start.

Indigenous to Georgia, this grape’s name translates to “paint dye” in English – which is to say if you spill any of it on your crisp, white jeans, count on never wearing them in public again (but you wouldn’t wear crisp, white jeans anyway, unless you think you belong on Made in Chelsea).

Saperavi produces full-bodied, dark wines with lots of fruit and acidity. Often having plummy flavours, this is a grape that can be made into wines that have a lot of longevity in the cellar.

Examples of these wines are limited on the high street but available. Then there is the Georgian Wine Society. Based in Oxford, the website lists 13 reds, nine whites and one rosé for those people out there who aren’t afraid to admit they love the pale pink stuff (ahem, guest blogger Sara Benwell). Wines are sold either by the half or full case.

Wines to try:

Tbilvino Saperavi 2010 (£9.99, Laithwaites or £11.49 at the Georgian Wine Society)
This is a wine I recently bought to share with a friend during a time when I wanted to try something completely different and was pleasantly surprised. Showing a deep purple colour, the wine is loaded with dark fruits, blackberries, cherries and plums and, while having medium acidity and tannins on the palate, is not short of fruit either. There is also a spicy edge to the wine in the way a Rhone syrah might.

I wasn’t sure what my friend would make of it, but after one sip he turned to me and said, “Wow, that’s actually very nice.” That’s about the extent of his tasting notes, unfortunately.

Orovela Saperavi 2004, (£15.19, Waitrose Wine Direct)
Another full-bodied wine with blackberries, cherries, tobacco and chocolate aromas, there is some vanilla in here from oak treatment and rounded tannins.

This is an edited version of a blog that also appeared in Ella Mag as part of my wine of the week series.