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Published:  23 July, 2008

Harpers' letters bag has been bulging with responses to Andrew Jefford's recent survey on Britain's wine PR and press. Key signals from his initial findings and the backlash make scary reading for British wine writers, but there's more good news for brands. Here, Andrew presents an update

Four weeks ago, Harpers took the pulse of British wine journalism via e-mail surveys returned by over 40 members of the wine trade and by wine journalists themselves. There were exceptions, but most wine traders seemed unenthusiastic about or even dismissive of present-day wine writing, though many also understood the difficulties faced by journalists and felt that the editors were as blameworthy for disappointing work as the journalists themselves. Reaction from the journalists varied from weary resignation at the struggle to place articles or cajole editors into interesting commissions, to both wry self-mockery and fierce self-justification. The purpose of this article is to digest these responses, provide some context and scrutinize the future for wine writing in Britain. The most striking point to emerge in sorting through the questionnaires was that there are now two wine trades in Britain, each of which has entirely different expectations of the wine press. The press, therefore, cannot fully satisfy both. On one side are the shelf-stacking, deal-striking, brand-friendly supermarkets; on the other side are the independents working with small-grower wines in limited supply, who feel themselves - rightly or wrongly - to be neglected or even betrayed by the press. (In between, of course, are the high-street chains, but no one at First Quench, Oddbins or Majestic managed to respond to the survey, despite two requests for help.) Supermarket buyers, unsurprisingly, do not complain about the rise of the shopping-list article; instead, they may complain, as Gareth Roberts at Asda did, that many wine columns do not reflect the true values of the everyday wine consumer'; or, as Allan Cheesman at Sainsbury's did, that wine writers have no commercial experience and that their role should not involve knocking' and negativity', but should be to promote the sales of wine'. (Dee Blackstock MW from Waitrose and Angela Mount from Somerfield took a slightly broader view of the interaction, and there was no reply from either Tesco or Marks & Spencer.) All four responding supermarket buyers were, though, broadly happy with newspaper coverage: They do a good job from our perspective,' said Mount. They bring new shoppers into our stores.' It would, in fact, be startling if those on the supermarket side of the wine trade did have anything much to complain about, since in the battle for newspaper column inches and television coverage alike, they have won over the last ten years, and won handsomely. Gareth Roberts' criticism is misconceived: the everyday wine consumer', in truth, has absolutely no interest in reading a wine column, since for such consumers, all wine knowledge beyond a brand name or two will be over-complex and abstruse, as recent surveys prove. Other than the sheer silliness of most wine descriptions, which is always good for a laugh, the detail of the subject is regarded as about as interesting for ordinary Britons as particle physics and the quest for the Higgs boson. Most everyday wine consumers' - now that wine drinking has happily shed its class connotations in Britain - don't read newspapers, or confine their reading to the sports and celebrity pages of The Sun, The Star and The Mirror. Allan Cheesman's vision of wine journalists as promiscuous salesmen and saleswomen for supermarkets and wine retailers, by contrast, is in fact exactly what many journalists have become over the last decade. No wine-writing task is easier than reviewing home-delivered samples. Researching an original story or travelling to taste those wines which no one will ever supply as free samples is much harder and more time consuming. If the editors, readers and sample suppliers are happy with a diet of supermarket bottle reviews, who's complaining? The independent wine trade (like Alun Griffiths MW, Roy Richards, Jasper Morris MW and Simon Loftus) is certainly complaining; the more thoughtful agents (like Mike Paul and Michael Cox) are beginning to complain; and it may, too, have something to do with the fact that wine journalism is no longer perceived as intrinsically interesting, space-worthy or even (broadsheets aside) necessary. If wine journalism' simply means what Hugh Johnson calls the imitative drivel' of most shopping-list tasting notes, then there is no reason to let it out of its little box and give it more space. In this sense, it is the supermarkets themselves and the failure by most journalists and editors to find anything else to write about which (as Simon Loftus suggested) has led to the present-day decline of interest in wine writing and the space devoted to wine writing.

All power to the brands Paradoxically, the rise of wine brands may conceivably help bring about a renaissance in good wine writing. For financial reasons, supermarkets will be under more and more pressure to cede space to the brands. Barring the eruption of a contamination scandal, there is actually almost nothing newsworthy or interesting for a journalist to write about brands, other than that the container schedules are going well this year, or advertising spends look like rising. If brands are the future of wine, in other words, then trade writing is the future of wine journalism. Those journalists whose mainstay is supermarket reviewing will, eventually, be forced to look further afield for their raw material. Many independent traders and agents pointed out, in perplexity, the huge contrast between the wild exoticism of much other features writing (treks to Machu Picchu, road-testing the latest Ferrari, dining at Gordon Ramsay) and the unambitious, repetitive and penny-pinching nature of much wine writing. It is, of course, always possible to find a superficial public-interest justification in helping people save money', but mostly this is simply attributable to journalistic laziness and supermarket manipulation. The cases of free samples contain preponderantly cheap wines, which will sell in vast numbers in any case, and the fact that a journalist's name will be appended to his or her fatuous remarks about the wine on a shelf-barker massages his or her vanity and increases the likelihood of the same thing happening next week. In connection with this, we might note (as Angela Mount and Allan Cheesman both pointed out, in different ways) that the actual recommendations themselves don't matter much, nor do they make any long-term difference to the sales of a wine; what customers like is the act of having a wine recommended and the confidence this brings them in buying a wine. To most wine purchasers, most wines taste great. Rather like those investment tipsters whose results turn out to have been bettered, come the end of the year, by the editor's three-year-old daughter equipped with a pin, most wine journalists could pick their recommendations more or less at random from the sample boxes which arrive and no one would complain.

Waking up to boring journos It would be wrong, however, to single out wine journalists as particularly reprehensible for poor-quality work. Charlatanism is now as common among the star' writers on broadsheet newspapers as it is in the art world or pop-music scene. The number of columns filled with tedious scenes from the personal life of the columnist, or facile and unstructured ramblings about trivia culled from other newspapers, is one of the reasons for declining newspaper sales. Readers are belatedly realising that they have something better to do with their precious leisure time than read tosh. Most features journalism only exists in order to stop advertisements from crashing into each other, much as writers may like to think otherwise, and features editors on kilo-heavy broadsheets are often overstretched and underscrupulous about the quality of what their regular contributors are supplying. How many weekly wine columns would, if the same text were submitted on spec by an unknown freelance, even merit the dignity of a rejection reply? It would appear to be the same failure of vision and ambition which is behind the general dissatisfaction with specialist wine magazines like Wine Magazine and Decanter. Many comments about these were off-the-record, presumably since most journalists write for one or the other and most retailers and agents want to maintain good relations with them, but the general verdict was that they were dull and unimaginative (the essential format of the press trip,' came a typical response, written up as "innovators in Mendoza", or whatever, could hardly be duller'). Their tastings, too, came in for heavy criticism, partly because of the flotsam and jetsam' quality of the tasters and partly because the best wines were often entirely missing. Columnists on these magazines (and I am one) were regarded by some as snobbish and condescending'; there was, too, a general perception that advertisers drove the editorial content, particularly in the case of Decanter. Resources seem to be at the root of the problem. Top tasters need paying; gathering great wines together for a serious tasting costs money; sending talented journalists abroad to investigate or uncover interesting stories, rather than relying on formulaic press trips written up by anyone who's got the time to join the junket, costs more money. In neither case does the owner seem ready to spend the money required to improve their magazines in these ways, and their restricted circulation means that advertising has to remain their key source of revenue. Nonetheless, there was a sense that both could be better by simply trying harder. Australian and American publications were felt to be more professional, and the American press, everyone agreed, was vastly more influential. In part, this is due to the nature of the retail scene in the United States and the desire of American consumers to be told what to buy: We have to remember,' as Stephen Brook put it, that many wine enthusiasts live in deepest Kansas or Arkansas, and can't just walk into their local Majestic and chat with the manager.' In part, though, this is also a consequence of resources. Neither The Wine Advocate nor Wine Spectator relies exclusively on industry largesse in covering stories or running tastings, and until British wine magazines free themselves from these ties, they will never begin to achieve the same influence or standing as their American counterparts.

Looking ahead What of the future? All the journalists were asked if they would still be doing the same thing in 15 years, and the sad news is that Max Allen and Malcolm Gluck were two who felt they would definitely have moved on. Max Allen said that there's more to life than wine alone', though he admitted he was planning the first stages of a small vineyard'. Malcolm Gluck means to retire and translate Plato, Hu Seng Ho and Herzen's memoirs'. Of the survivors, the Internet was seen as the great hope, even though (in Simon Woods' words) its new avenues' will not open up as quickly as some people would like to think', and Internet specialist Jamie Goode felt that there'll be fewer full-time wine writers' in 15 years. Jancis Robinson MW can't see wine back on mainstream TV for quite a time' (though Malcolm Gluck disagreed); while Robert Joseph said that the Net/TV [convergence] will undoubtedly offer opportunities to present wine more interestingly to more people', though perhaps only Joseph understands what that might mean. Hugh Johnson, meanwhile, quietly hoped to see the humane untechnical tradition endure'. And my view? I have managed to lose both a ten-year newspaper drink column and a three-year BBC radio drink series in the last year - in both cases, so far as I could make out, due to personal disinterest on behalf of the (newly arrived) sole decision-maker in each organisation. Why the boredom? Maybe it's chance; maybe it's stupidity; maybe my work was boring. But maybe it's the Zeitgeist. The fact that the British public has now fully accepted wine, and appears to enjoy the simplicity and marketing razzle of wine brands, means that wine writers are no longer as necessary as we were in the discovery' phase of the 1980s and 1990s. Wine writing has a future, but for most of us that probably means a more specialised and less generalised role than in the past.