The number of independent wine shops in London is growing, but can they compete against the big boys?
In 2004, two hugely important food books were published – ‘Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate’ by Felicity Lawrence, and ‘Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets’ by Joanna Blythman. They were well-researched broadsides against the homogenising, anti-competitive power of the supermarkets and the extent to which they influence what we buy and how we shop.These books revealed some telling statistics along the way. As Lawrence points out, the ‘Big Four’ supermarkets (Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons) account for a staggering 75 per cent of the food sold each year in the UK.
As with food, so with wine. About 70 per cent of the wine sold in the UK is sold through supermarkets. Supermarkets like selling wine; it increases ‘footfall’ for them. And they’re very good at convincing consumers to buy wine through ‘special offers’. Yet, despite the perceived price cuts, are supermarkets the best place to buy wine?
Not necessarily. By their very (non-specialist) nature, supermarkets tend to favour standardised wines, selected for sale at particular price-points. Although some shoppers may find the range on offer at supermarkets overwhelming, many would argue that supermarkets only give the illusion of choice.
Next time you’re in a supermarket, count the number of bottles that are labelled as chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot or sauvignon blanc. You’ll find that those four grape varieties account for the majority of the wines on offer, before you even allow for the fact that not all wines are labelled by their grape variety (eg Sancerre or Bordeaux). Considering that there are many hundreds of interesting grape varieties that make excellent wines in the world, this hardly seems like real choice. However, a spokeswoman from Tesco countered that ‘Diversity of our wine range is one of our biggest strengths,’ before adding that Tesco is looking to ‘strengthen the breadth of [its] range this summer.’
Supermarkets and the high street off-licence chains sush as Thresher, Victoria Wine et al also tend to favour the big wine ‘brands’ – wines like Blossom Hill, Arniston Bay, Kumala, Banrock Station, etc. Though some wines from big brands are, in fact, very good (Montana from New Zealand, for example), and branded wines can act as a comfort blanket to wine newbies, the top-selling 11 brands in the UK account for a staggering 26 per cent of the wine consumed here.
The quality of these big brand wines, concluded a panel of wine experts in the Consumers’ Association’s Which? Magazine in March 2005, is often disappointing – or, as the Which? press office put it, ‘a big, bland letdown’. Nor were the branded wines tested at the time deemed to be good value.
But while the supermarkets have been blanding and branding and putting the squeeze on even the big off-licence chains such as Majestic or Victoria Wine, they’ve left the field wide open to wine retailers whose choice of wine goes beyond the over-marketed, over-familiar bottles typically found in supermarket wine aisles.
In the past five or six years – helped along, no doubt, by the growth of the internet – there has been a resurgence of independently owned wine shops in the UK. In London, specialist wine shops such as Philglas & Swiggot (see Critics’ Choice p49), established in1991, have thrived, opening an additional two branches. Likewise Wimbledon Wine Cellars, established in 1986, opened another branch in 2000. Other companies, such as Wine of the Times in NW10 (020 8838 9432), launched in 2003, will deliver quality, hand-selected wines straight to your door. Internet-based retailer The Vineking (www.thevineking.com), based in SW18, was also established in 2003.
The very latest independent wine retailer is Green & Blue and owner Kate Thal’s plans are ambitious. She and business partner Paul Barker intend to open half a dozen more sites over the next five to seven years. Yet market research suggests that consumer preference for branded wine is growing much more rapidly than for non-branded wines. Given this trend, can David really compete against Goliath?
Thal seems undeterred by the task at hand. ‘Supermarkets give no information [about what’s in the bottle], so it’s hardly surprising that people buy a branded wine,’ she says. Information – and education, believes Thal – is the key to fighting the wine Goliaths. To this end she runs regular ‘how to taste’ courses for clients. And Thal says that, despite the familiarity of brands can give, ‘not one person has come in and said, “Oh, there’s nothing here I recognise”.’