Splitting the Shoal


I was talking the other evening with a good friend, James, who like me has worked in wine since about 1870!

We were discussing what it would take to get wine drinkers to return to that sense of adventure that seemed to prevail in the early to mid 1990’s.

For those who can remember, the Australians had really taken the UK by force and new and exciting wines were emerging from South America, South Africa, New Zealand and even areas of Eastern and Central Europe. It seemed that there was a real buzz for experimentation and all these new wines were capturing the hearts and minds of a generation brought up on Liebfraumilch and the odd bottle of French red.

I worked as wine buyer for ASDA at the time and we really had a “No Fear” attitude towards wine. Our reasoning was that “It was better to have tried something new than not” and you never got criticised for testing something that didn’t work only for not having given it a go in the first place. Radical stuff, especially by today’s standards.

The analogy James and I came up with was that the Australians having brought the market together evolved into a Great White Shark swimming, at lightning speed, into a huge shoal of fish. The shoal disperses and heads in different directions, some return to reform the group and some don’t, they actually form new, smaller shoals of their own. Short lived though.

As more predators join the feeding frenzy. The shoals reform as an even tighter, single group bound together by fear.

We reckon that’s what’s happening to wine. The huge brands are eating up the market and homogenising it. The consumer is bombarded every day by hundreds of pieces of information and doesn’t any longer have the time, patience or courage to make a personal choice. It’s easy just to buy what’s easy to buy without thinking. Be told what to do in other words.

As an industry, we seem to have done a great job of grabbing the attention of the consumer, getting them into a frenzy and then feeding off them like sharks and scaring them half to death.

It’s pretty depressing stuff, especially when you go to such lengths to do the very best you can and try to encourage your customers to aim a little higher and drink much better.

We talk about it a lot at the winery and never have I been more convinced that our success or failure is entirely about how we engage with the market. Encourage feedback, move the ownership to the customer and provide them with an environment that engenders a sense of adventure and enjoyment.

The big retailers have to provide the platform for this to happen. At the moment, I think their concerns are more one dimensional. It’s just about volume and profitability rather than the needs of the consumer.


Stormhoek Activity