There’s a reason why so many independent wine merchants seem to fill their shelves with good-looking bottles. David Williams learns some facts of retailing life in the company of some old hands
I am a firm believer in the value of blind tastings. In my view, tasting without knowing the producer (vintage and region are another matter) is the only way to really be sure that nothing extraneous gets in the way of judging a wine’s quality – the only way to keep out prejudice based on reputation, whether the sentiment you bring with you is negative or overly reverential.
A week spent tasting with a group of independent merchants on a Wine Merchant trip to the Loire at the end of last year, however, reminded me that there are limits to blind tasting, that there are other factors involved in testing a wine’s worth as a commercial entity, and that no successful wine survives on the quality of the liquid alone.
I have some sense of this already, of course. I’m not completely naive. All the same it was striking how much interest my companions in the Loire took in the way the wines looked – a quality and intensity of attention to labels and bottles that you just don’t find when you’re tasting, as I almost always tend to do, with producers, journalists, or even sommeliers.
Indeed, for many of my press colleagues, a fixation on labels is just not the done thing. Any discussion of packaging beyond a brief aside is liable to provoke under-the-breath muttering about books, covers and philistines: it’s the definition of superficial.
To which any merchant would be justified in responding with a roll of the eye and an invitation to spend a day in a shop where the realities of how wines make their way from shelf to purchase soon make themselves apparent.
Listening to the group of merchants in the Loire dissect – sometimes rather ruthlessly – the worth of each label as we tasted that week was all the more fascinating since I felt so under-qualified to join in.
Clearly there’s more to it than simply liking the picture, or the layout, the colour or the font. There are judgement calls to be made on what consumers want from a wine label at a given price, or style or region. Even I am able to sense that the funky illustration and loud colours that might work, craft-ale style, with a glou-glou pet nat are just not going to work on a Burgundy grand cru. But I’d be much less confident in asserting what would be effective for all the many gradations of style in between those two stylistic extremities.
In any wine merchant, wine bottles make up the majority of the wall space: they are, to all intents and purposes, the décor
My own instincts with packaging are almost entirely emotional, I’ve come to realise, based on a mix of nostalgia and years of conditioning about what makes a fine wine label and, therefore, not a little conservative. I like my fine wine labels as traditional as possible: the Germans should be fluted and filled with gothic script and elaborate fine-point illustrations in gold, black and green; I feel a little short-changed and suspicious if my Bordeaux doesn’t have a château depicted; I respond powerfully to anything that comes with a bold 1920s or 1930s-style font.
For those producers who don’t have that kind of length of service, but are charging more than £20, I don’t want faux-retro, I want something coolly, minimally modern. Under £20, it’s much more that anything goes, so long as I like it. I am, in other words, a fairly typical wine consumer.
The best merchants, however, are considerably more analytical about what works than me. Even when their judgements start to feel like instinct, it’s an instinct of experience and knowledge of their customers, what appeals to them, and what they are likely to pick up and buy.
But it’s also about wanting a shop to have an aesthetic. In any wine merchant wine bottles make up the majority of the wall space: they are, to all intents and purposes, the décor. A merchant can tolerate a few poorly designed aberrations if the wines are sufficiently good and/or well known.
But no matter how good the liquid inside may be, a new wine is never going to get a place on the shelves if it is dressed, as one of my companions in the Loire described one unfortunate bottle, “like a 1990s Powerpoint presentation” or a “Bulgarian wine from Tesco in 2007”. For one thing, it brings the overall look of the shop down. And if, by some miracle it gets chosen and taken out into the world, it’s also acting, indirectly, as an ambassador for your business, provoking awkward questions for your customers from their friends like “Where did that hideous bottle come from – Lidl?” Which, if nothing else, reminds us that there may still be value in blind tastings after all.