Thursday 2 June 2011

Marks & Spencer House Red - and the London International Wine Fair

This is more like it. I'm at a petrol station in Sunbury-on-Thames and realise that I've forgotten to buy some wine for the evening. But this petrol station has, as part of its remit, an outlet of M & S Foods - i.e. a micromart with the usual grab'n'run longlife chocolate chip cookies, lonely man chicken casseroles, carrot sticks, yoghurts. And wine. Petrol and wine: the world in liquid form.

And some House Red for under £5 a bottle! It's all I can do not to cry out loud. I get two bottles, pay up, drive, chinking, back home, inspect my haul. And I've got a class product: sensible screw-top closure, quietly bon goût label (see the appropriately tiny image), M & S branding for quality reassurance. Yes, when I open it up it smells like a hardware store on a hot day and makes my eyes hurt, but no matter because I give it half an hour in a wide-to-the-air Duralex tumbler and then sip it cautiously, and it's fine, better than fine for £5, spicy, slightly nutty, as PK would put it, a lot less sandpapery than first impressions would have suggested, not exactly sagging under the weight of its own complexity, a bit short on narrative, but come on.

All, in other words, is well, but: try and find this stuff online and it is only grudgingly that M & S admit to its existence; and at the time of writing, claimed to be out of stock altogether. Have they really run out? Was the selection in the Sunbury petrol station so behind the times that it dated back to 2010? The thing is, it was so just about drinkable, so on the cusp of pleasantness, that I'd like to get some more. But I am, as it turns out, caught in a conceptual trap in which the supermarket (M & S) hooks me with its apparent superabundance and ubiquity, before witholding the prize and leaving me stranded.

Which ties in (really it does) with a trip I made to the London International Wine Fair a couple of weeks ago.

I learned almost nothing from this for several reasons. First, PK wasn't there with me to explain things (claimed to be too busy), and there was a lot that needed explaining, given the immensity of the show, mile after mile of superpotent trade stands, all the famous brand names, plus many that weren't (Wines of Oregon; the Romanian Wine Stand), plus so much tasting wine that my liver actually revolted slightly at the prospect.

Worse, without PK to provide cover, I was forced to talk, one-to-one, to the various wine-makers and retailers. This very quickly led me into realms of gibberish in which I expatiated about elasticity and profondeur and realised that I was going to have to stop drinking altogether before I blew my cover (notionally there as a consultant, according to the pass I wore proudly on my neck lanyard) and as a consequence only got through about two glasses' worth of wine, some of it from Romania, some of it from Oregon, some of it from neigbouring Washington State, all of it beyond my powers to critique sensibly.

So with a growing sense of loss and failure, I flopped into a seat at a wine professionals' seminar, in which a number of big shots were trying to answer the big question, Europe: Is it Doomed?

To which the answer broadly seemed to be yes, with certain nervous provisos. What innovations would the panel like to see? someone asked. A guru from the spirits industry vouchsafed the mildly insane proposition that square bottles would be the way to go; someone else said that thinner glass was where it was at. It was only when the man from Tesco leaned forward to make the point that everything, absolutely everything, now lay in the hands of the supermarket chains that I paid any attention.

Because he was right, of course. The average British wine punter has now advanced just far enough in his drinking career to know one end of a bottle from another (as I was going on about last time). But where does he go after that? Who educates him up to the next stage? Tesco is who - as well as Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Asda, Morrisons, M & S Food, and so on. And the man from Tesco knew that this was his sacred duty and that if there was to be any innovating, he was the one to do it.

But supermarkets build their reputations on consistency and predictability. Wine tends not to be these things, or at least not as often as one would like; if it is as dependable as a tin of beans or a bottle of shampoo, if it's one of those industrial branded drinks, then it may not be much fun to consume. How are the supermarkets going to square this circle - claiming to offer the same nice wine, week in, week out, in the knowledge that wine is a lot more freakish than the supermarket ethos allows for? Is the next phase in our education all about living with uncertainty, about having to react to constant change? Is that the one big innovation the Tesco guy had in mind? And is that what M & S are trying covertly to tell me, by leading me all the way up the garden path with their bearable, tasty, own-brand House Red, only to cut off the supply just when I've got a taste for it?



  1. The Tesco Soave I had on my recent holiday, home to England, was fab...go Tesco's!

  2. This is a great post. I think the highlight may have been the phrase 'on the cusp of pleasantness'.

  3. "... short on narrative ... " is good too.


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