Thursday 29 March 2018

Another Fine Mess…

My local Sainsbury seems to have abandoned its “Fine Wine” cabinet. They previously used this wood-effect shelving unit, which fooled no-one, to segregate their supposedly “Fine Wine” (ie anything costing above about thirteen quid) from whatever you call the other wine.

There are, however, no special cabinets for fine beans or superior sausages; and tubs of posh organic ice-cream sit contentedly in one freezer cabinet alongside extruded vanilla-flavoured gloop. Now it looks as if the “Fine Wine” has lost its First Class compartment, and will have to jostle for unreserved accommodation with the Off Peak night-in riff-raff.

But was the presence of “Fine Wine” in a supermarket ever really credible? Was it akin to finding a cabinet in Poundland labelled “Precious Stones”?

“Fine Wine” was once something to which I aspired. The finer things in life – what are they, I pondered? Well, here was one thing which was bold enough to actually declare its superiority, like fine china. Surely it would be a mark of achievement when I could eventually understand, appreciate and indeed afford “Fine Wine”?

And one day, I might join the gilded society of those who can stand with their trolley before the “Fine Wine” shelving, flaunting their wealth and refinement, and eschewing those like CJ who stare in bafflement and penury at the “other” wines.

But now, the phrase has a tawdry feel to it. “Fine Wine” is something which appears in news reports about fraudsters and expense account fiddlers. The nouveau riche lifestyle of crooks and ne’er-do-wells always seems to involve spending on exotic holidays, fast cars and “fine wines”.

And that’s not because those crooks’ palates have suddenly developed, or that they’ve now grasped the basics of the 1855 Bordeaux classification – it’s because “fine wine” has simply become promotional shorthand for “expensive wine”.

No wonder shops have been so keen to tempt us with it. Retailers like Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Majestic have seen that the way to make more expensive wine appealing is to call it “fine” – and to present it, not on their regular, white, metal-supported, wipe-clean shelving, but in a special wooden (or wooden-effect) section.

Because everyone knows that “fine wine” comes in wooden cases and not cardboard boxes, and is sold in dusty old, pre-industrial wine merchants, not efficient modern stores. So surround your wine with wood, whether it’s shelving, cases, worn floorboards or wood panelling, and it magically becomes “fine”.

“Majestic are the specialists when it comes to fine wine,” I read, a claim which might carry more weight had it not been made by Majestic. “Most of our stores have dedicated fine wine shelving…” It’s as if the shelves themselves confer status.

Of course, “fine wine” has no precise definition. You can stick the adjective “fine” in front of any wine, just as you can append credibility (and a higher price tag) by waving the word “vintage” in front of an unpleasant old tie.

I once thought “fine wine” was about issues like complexity, or balance, or ability to age. Or heritage, behind a label which had earnt its stripes over centuries of excellence. But then along comes some jumped-up New World product, with its perfect varietal simplicity, tiny output, long waiting list and huge price tag, and bingo, that’s “fine” too.

Then there is the abuse of the term “fine” itself, as in “fine dining”. This has now become the Masterchef criterion, to meet which food is sculpted, tweezered and coiffed into absurdity, the basis for judgments such as “I’m afraid in fine dining, those peas would be peeled…”.

On the Mr Porter designer menswear site, you can’t buy watches – only Fine Watches.  And people like the “fine wine and spirits boutique” Hedonism don’t have a Fine Wine list at all; they presumably wish us to believe that all of their wine is fine.

So wine joins a world of marketing in which certain adjectives become permanently, pointlessly attached; where all wines are “fine”, all apartments are “luxury”, and all labels “designer”, even when contradicted by common sense. (A fine wine for £10? A luxury apartment in Peckham?)

We’re back in the land of the nouveau riche, where merit is purely a function of price. Except that with “fine wine”, that also seems completely arbitrary. At Majestic, the “fine wine” selection begins at £17.99; but at Waitrose Cellar it’s £11.99, and at the Wine Society it’s just £10.50.

Wine is a field in which many descriptions – geographic, varietal, etc – are regulated and precise. Yet the only commonly recognised description of quality has been abused to the point of worthlessness. Perhaps more retailers should simply abandon it, and let expensive wines compete on their merit alongside the cheaper ones?

Which would be just fine.


1 comment:

  1. All very wise. In my lexicon, the finest wine is the best bargain I can find.


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