On Saturday my sleepy rural village was perked up a bit by my brother and a group of friends visiting from London for a trip to York races. Everyone arrived on Saturday morning, and an eclectic team we were too. A wine merchant (me) two ship brokers (my brother Richard and his friend Tom), an architect (only known as Pinup), a physiotherapist (Rachel, my brothers girlfriend) and an SAS officer (who I can’t name, but let’s call him Nick Vickers).
The day started with a large brunch and plenty of fantastic Alma 4 sparkling wine (for sale from www.findwine.co.uk). And then we were off, out of the gates briskly and heading for the first bend..aka the car journey into York.
After a long and joyful queue into the city we arrived in glorious sunshine with throngs of questionably supported, faked tanned northern beauties ready to spend their winnings on weak Pimms and warm champagne and have a bloody good time doing it.
Now, I could write a lengthy and detailed account of the horses, the racegoers and the series of events that led to Cliff wearing lipstick however I want to raise a bigger question. And that is the question of champagne!
Why is it that as soon as we won a whack of cash we went straight to the bar and bought a drink that cost 10 times that of anything else, why is it that the ill supported, faked tanned lovelies make a beeline for the bright orange umbrellas of Vevue Cliquot and how is it that the majority of them could barely name a handful of wine producers, has probably never spent more than £8 for a bottle but every single one knows exactly what that orange livery means and is happy to part with more than £40 to be seen drinking a bottle. And that is an important difference; are they drinking it because they like it or because they want to be seen with it?
I am as guilty as the next person, I know I don’t love Vevue that much, yet with a pocket full of winnings, I am still drawn in by an orange umbrella and the next thing I know I have a bottle in my hand.
The power of champagne brands intrigue me because in a region where there are still many many producers, in fact in a world where there are thousands of people making wine with bubbles in why can a handful of firms have such power over people. These handful have a special power however even the word champagne can evoke irrational spending. You may never have heard of it, you will never have tasted it but if it says Champagne on the label you are willing to pay more than you would ever dream of spending on 750ml of liquid. In many respects it is the ultimate in making someone feel special and this is a reputation that has developed over many years and with countless amounts of money spent by Champagne houses on associations with the right events.
But why can’t other regional specific wines with bubbles create the same effect. Sure, currently Prosseco has a certain amount of sway. Bizarrely, I still hear people recommend Prossceo to friends as if they have made the discovery of the century, telling all their mates that they much prefer it to Champagne and it is SUCH good value!
What fascinates me is that there are many, many Prosseco producers out there but for the purposes of most recommendations the drink is clubbed together as being one thing. The Brand Prosecco completely outweighs that of any of the producers.
This is the same case with grapes like Sauvignon, Shiraz, the ultimate grape brand, Pinot Grigio! And at long last this is my point! Why can so few people identify only a handful of wine producers when they spend a great deal of their disposable income on drinking the stuff.
This may come across as suggesting that I think the majority of the British public should be more educated about wine and more involved in their choice. However, I actually believe the complete opposite. What could be more confusing than realising that you really like Shiraz from Australia only to pick one up from New Zealand and find it tastes completely different. Or even to pick a Prosecco because you have once had a good one only to find this one is completely different and actually pretty disgusting. Due to the nature of wine making it is impossible to settle on a grape as if it is a brand name.
With Champagne however you might pick up one you have never tried, it might taste worse than what you have had before, it might taste far better. But despite either of those things you will feel bloody great drinking it because it makes you feel special, exclusive, rich for a moment, sophisticated. And that is what a brand should do, it has to make you think that by being associated with it you are saying something about yourself. Then Champagne goes one step further by having a handful of producers so powerful they make you think you are the badgers nadgers by even mentioning the names. Moet, Vevue, Pol, Bollinger. Not only names most people identify with but colours, events, sports.
Champagne does for you the same as owning an Rolex, driving a Range Rover or wearing a Savile Row suit and from that point of view Champagne is actually very good value. You can show the world just how great you are and get a kick out of it for around £30 and that is a very special product.
The big question is, why can’t the rest of the wine world do something similar but for a lower price. Champagne proves wine has the ingredients create this. Of course there are some strong brands out there, Jacobs Creek, Rosemount, Casillero Del Diablo. These products sell in vast quantities because they are a safe bet and serve a purpose but I wander how often someone brings a bottle to a dinner party or recommends one to a friend as something they love drinking. Surely very few aspire to be drinking Jacobs Creek.
My view is that the majority of consumers associate even the slightest knowledge of wine as being sophisticated and therefore when someone really wants to impress they try their hardest to seek out an unknown gem, to find something that will make their friends sit up and think “Wow, Geoff must be great in bed because he has bought something called a Spatlese to dinner and I have never heard of that!”
At the end of the day Champagne is a very attainable aspiration in that you don’t actually have to be wealthy to enjoy a bottle in front of 40,000 racegoers every now and then, especially if you back the 8:1 winner in the 3.05.
But this argument is not just about aspiration in the traditional sense. Not all branding is about making you look wealthy but it has to identify something with a product, whether that is quirkiness, intelligence or being a Goth you are aspiring to something by making that association with yourself.
As far as I can think I can’t come up with a wine brand outside of Champagne that has achieved this, maybe something like Faustino Rioja, although it is definitely dated now, maybe D’arenberg but it is still quite specialist, possibly Cloudy Bay but it is more money than most would spent.
Is it even possible to create that special feeling when you are only spending a fiver? I think it is if you can make someone enjoy spending that fiver. And so instead of trying to create a wine brand perhaps the secret is to create a magic in the buying process so however much they spend or whatever they buy they feel great because they have bought it from a shot/website that impresses, intrigues or informs their peers.
Clearly if I can tap into that magic then I am onto a winner!
I am quite sure that many will completely disagree with some of this post, I would love to hear your comments. I have no particularly strong feelings but more of an intrigue about how people think.
Please do let me know beneath.