Thursday 13 September 2018

The price of Penguin Sands

How low you were thinking of sinking?  On the basis of “how low can you go?”, I can report that this, an actual wine, containing actual alcohol, is being sold for under £4 a bottle, via the lowest shelf at Sainsbury’s.

I have no idea how the finances of this work out. CJ gave up even the £5 pricepoint a few years back. I am not employed by KPMG, PWC or any of those other financial acronyms; the only thing I sometimes have to account for is my whereabouts. But I see that £2.16 of a bottle’s price goes straight to the Chancellor in Excise Duty, along with some 80p in VAT, leaving only about a pound here to cover shipping, bottling, profit – and a few pence worth of wine. So let’s look at it that way. Here is South African wine probably costing less than 35p a bottle. 

Presumably to reassure us, the marketing department seem to be relying on the established tropes of New World wine. First, it’s named after an animal. People love animals and, for a wine brand, an animal need have no discernible connection to wine. Frog, dog, eagle, beagle, black cat, fat cat, moose, goose… penguin?

I believe that when a penguin is underwater, it is a smooth, sleek missile of an animal. It goes in for the krill. 

But that’s not the image in my mind. What's in my mind is a creature swaggering across the land, appendages hanging at its sides like a hooligan ready to fight. And fight they will.

Penguins look as if they’re carrying a bit too much timber around the old waistline, which let’s face it is a concern of many a wine-drinker. And hooligan. And they waddle from side to side, slipping occasionally on ice, and looking sort of…to be honest…drunk.

Is that image of unstable, fighting fatboys appropriate to marketing a wine? Well, at £3.95 a bottle…

Anyway, to develop its name further, they’ve gone for the cliché of an attractive location. Every place on a New World wine label is a bay or a cove, a creek or a river, a point or a leap. Rarely an estuary, basin or canal.

To create your appealing New World wine name, you take an animal from column one, and attach an attractive topographical location from column two. Frog Cove. Moose Creek. Dog Point. Goose Bay. (Spoiler: at least one of those wines actually exists.)

And yes, there is an attractive, sandy beach in South Africa with penguins. From a distance the penguins look just like people, swaggering across the sand, deciding which bit to occupy, and telling their offspring that it’s too soon for an ice cream. Lovely. This image distracts attention from the fact that Penguin Sands is actually bottled in the somewhat more prosaic and brownfield location of Elton, Cheshire.

What else do the marketeers put on their label? Well, something which hints at quality without any potentially disputable detail. Reserve. Premier. Classic. In this case they’ve plumped for Exclusive, for those who feel it’s a positive when something is sold only by Sainsbury’s.

And also the words BOLD AND ROBUST, which on a cheap Shiraz in block capitals reads somewhere between a challenge, a warning and a threat. Hang on to your hat, and buckle your seat belt. The tyres felt a little splashy on the way over here.

Like a cuckolded penguin, it comes out fighting. Behind the threatening colour of an old contusion lurks an aggressive, bitter, septic flavour, which pulls your palate tight and coagulates around your gums. It gets more palatable after half a glass as your mouth surrenders, but although it gets easier to swallow, it continues to kick up through your nose. Notes of Airwick and Copydex. It pulls a little to the right.

Barring abject penury, there is no reason to ever return to Penguin Sands, but it does prove that, even given our punitive Duty and Tax regime, it is still possible to produce a bottle of actual wine for £3.95. Like Dr Johnson’s dog walking on its hind legs, it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.


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