(This article first appeared in Spectator Scoff, April 2011)
I have several items to declare: bags of prejudice, a heap of self-interest, a smidgen of latent snobbery and chips on both shoulders. But even accounting for all of the above it can’t just be me who finds buying wine in a supermarket a joyless, soulless and utterly dispiriting experience. Wine is one of nature’s most precious gifts, and its acquisition should be a joy, not an ordeal.
Most of the major multiples employ a smattering of Masters of Wine (of whom there are only 288 in existence), so there is no shortage of in-house product knowledge, but sadly this is seldom evident at the point of sale. I think the principal problem here is the buying remit — ‘squeezing suppliers by the knackers until their eyes water’ is the principal thrust, whatever anyone else may tell you — which begins to take the fun out of the equation.
A further issue is that of the colossal volumes required to supply hundreds of outlets, which means that, with the exception of some token window-dressing, everything sold has to be made in industrial volumes to appeal to the lowest common denominator. A good friend of mine has just celebrated selling his 10,000,000th bottle of Pinot Grigio to one of our more rampant retailers — every little helps! Obviously it is popular, but only because it is liquid, contains alcohol and is, just about, potable.
The sad reality is that most of the wines on offer in supermarkets are bland and boring and made for lack of faults rather than optimum quality or, heaven forfend, interest. This is the world of arch-mediocrity, the vinous equivalent of airline food or a soap opera. There is no edge and no passion, and no one cares about you or your taste or opinion: you are just a statistic. What matters is how many centimetres of shelf space have been rented by Leviathan corporations to shift billions of bottles of booze.
Don’t even get me started on supermarket ‘discounting’: ‘Usually £12.99, down to £6.50 while stocks last’ is just cobblers. The most hardened barrow boy or fairground huckster would be embarrassed by the extent of this duplicity. What it actually means is that having secured a tanker-load of surplus plonk, the vendor in question (take your pick — they all do it) has, in order to jump through legal loopholes, put said wine on sale at a ludicrously inflated price at one of its furthest-flung outlets in the boondocks. After approximately 48 hours they then have carte blanche to invoke the ‘discount’ and roll out the deception throughout the land. They say we’re all suckers for a bargain. We’re certainly suckers if we fall for this ruse.
The ambience of the in-store ‘store’ is another bugbear of mine — the vile strip lighting, the cynically brand-dominated galley aisle-ends, and the total absence of anybody who actually gives a toss what your guests are going to be drinking with their ‘taste the difference’ snail porridge on Saturday night.
Of course, there are exceptions that prove the rule (Waitrose on Marylebone High Street is actually pretty decent, but it’s hardly representative) and there are some perfectly palatable wines that are available in Les Grandes Surfaces, but it’s the blinking, arms-length, BOGOF, ‘great with a potato’, ‘Good, Ordinary Chassange-Montrachet’, never-knowingly-undersold-but-you-can’t-commune-with-a-human-being hubris of the great majority of supermarket wine departments that I find galling. They’re Great With Nothing.
Jason is the embittered co-proprietor of ailing independent wine merchant Yapp Brothers: www.yapp.co.uk