Thursday 21 May 2020

The great wine gambles

I am not a gambling man. Or rather, I didn’t think that I was.

I spotted this extraordinary wine ad just the other day. The gist of it is that you can buy a case of wine which has come from one of eight named wineries, whose wines sell for up to £300 a bottle – but they won’t tell you which one.

It’s as if someone was selling a leather bag, and said that it’s made by either Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble… or Gucci.

What kind of purchasing roulette is this meant to be? At what point did guesswork enter the already challenging business of buying wine? And what other £89 purchase would you make on this sort of basis?

At least they’ve got the decency to admit in the caption that the wine is not from the £300-a-bottle winery. Because the wine-drinking gamblers out there might just have thought that their luck was in. And there are a lot of them, because as we know, one is born every minute.

Before now I always thought the most absurd gambles in wine buying were those ‘mystery cases’. The ones where you don’t know what you’re going to get, but it’ll be a bargain, honestly. The word “probably” is often judiciously applied, as in “They will all be quality wines and there will probably be some proper gems in there…” They won’t tell you what’s in the case – it's an "adventure" – but you’ll save money on what they would have charged if they could have sold them by name. Which presumably they couldn’t.

There’s a reason why merchants have to get rid of unwanted wine – nobody wants it. Call me cynical, but the only ‘mystery’ likely to be resolved by one of these cases is how to fob off unwanted wine.

(At least two retailers recently came up with a different story; they said that they had assembled their mystery cases because of “damaged labels”, which meant they couldn’t sell the bottles in store. “Do hurry,” one of them encouraged customers, “only 400 mystery cases are available.” That’s 4,800 bottles which accidentally had their labels damaged. Clumsy or what?)

Perhaps the wine merchants have got it right, and other retailers should learn from them. The next time I enter a bookshop, perhaps I will see a table of wrapped books. “They’re by one of eight authors,” the shopkeeper will say. “We can’t tell you which one. Alright, not Hilary Mantel. But their books normally sell for at least £19.99. Yours for a tenner.”

And then I started thinking about the other gambles we take as wine drinkers. The age of a wine, for instance, which could indicate that it’s ready for drinking, somewhere near its best, past its prime, or bloody hell that’s awful.

You take that chance, don’t you, when you open the bottle you stuck away to “mature”. You gamble on the prospect of the upside. So it’s not like those sausages you discover in a corner of the freezer, because you know with frozen sausages that you can no longer trust their date; they’re never going to taste better than the day they went in; and if you’ve left them too long to, er, mature, they might actually poison you.

No, you believe with wine that it might actually have got better. And some of it will. Perhaps. To improve your chances you’ve scoured the vintage charts like someone studying form in the Racing Post. With a similar ambition of improving your odds.

Then there’s the whole matter of price. I often end up waiting for a supermarket to offer 25% off six or more bottles, only to find that the wine I want has disappeared from the shelves (in another of those retailing “mysteries”). Frankly I’d rather have had a couple of bottles at full price than no bottles at all. My fault for gambling.

And the issue of health and wine seems to be a constant gamble. Is it going to benefit my heart, or damage my liver? Help me lose weight, or put it on? If I ignore the government’s alcohol guidelines, will my body explode, or will I just have a much more enjoyable evening?

Finally of course, the ultimate wine gamble – will it be corked? Read all you like, take all the advice you want, but you won’t know until you open the bottle. Roll me and call me the tumblin' dice.

So the whole wine thing is one enormous gamble. And with higher stakes than I would ever consider wagering in any other way.

Is there anything to be said in favour of all of this? Perhaps just one. That feeling of pleasure you get on first sipping a wine which tastes great. Is it partly the feeling of satisfaction at beating the odds?



  1. I have to admit I once bought a "Northern Stars" mixed case from the Wine Society when they reorganised their cellars on building a new facility. They were all aged fantastic Cornas, Cote Rotie and Crozes Hermitage and led me on a wonderful ongoing voyage of discovery. I have never looked back.

    1. I never think of The Wine Society as a "retailer" as such – I trust them in a way I trust few other wine "providers". PK


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