Why wine shouldn't be simplified

One of the wine industry’s self-imposed missions is to simplify a highly complicated product. The reasoning seems straightforward enough – by making wine more easily comprehensible it becomes less threatening, thereby increasing consumer engagement and boosting sales.

Over the years, many schemes have purported to facilitate the simplification of wine. Merchandising bottles by style rather than region was something of a breakthrough, giving browsers more intuitive categorisation. Another was premixed cases, which remove the burden of choice altogether.

To the uninformed consumer, such schemes certainly offer an easy buying cue – but that doesn’t mean they are making wine itself any simpler.

Take wine books for instance, which perpetually promise to de-complicate wine - the most notable recent example being Wine Folly. It is an excellent and beautiful publication, giving effective visual guides to the basics of wine – but it also includes hundreds of pages featuring detailed descriptions of dozens of different grape varieties and regions.

These are hardly simple matters, regardless of how prettily they are presented.

Wine is, by necessity, a complicated thing, for the reasons we all know full well. That doesn’t mean attempts shouldn’t be made to simplify it – rather that there should be a more honest appraisal of the most appropriate way of presenting wine to different segments of the market.

Broadly speaking, you can divide wine drinkers into three types: those who don’t want to engage with it, those who say they want to engage with it, and those who actually do engage with it.

Those with no interest almost certainly buy their wine from multiple grocers. Their choices are based on a limited number of criteria: first and foremost price, then perhaps some preference for one or two grape varieties, brands or countries. This segment is amply catered for, and there is no need to educate such drinkers through a simplified approach – because they just don’t want to know.

Besides, it can be argued that wine’s mysterious complexity is an innate part of its appeal, even when you don’t understand it.

Others claim they want to know more about wine – but in reality, this is a transitory category. Anyone with genuine thirst for knowledge soon becomes fully engaged. Those who only claim to have an interest probably behave much more like the first category of drinkers, basing their purchases on a small number of preferences in which price is very important.

For this consumer subset it may be true that simplifying wine could trigger something that fuels greater engagement. Yet this would only be a stepping stone towards becoming a fully engaged consumer – and once that happens, simplifying wine is the opposite of what is required.

My point is that we needn’t be embarrassed of wine’s mystery and complexity. It should be something to celebrate rather than deny. Instead of obsessing about simplification, let’s focus on giving the right customer the right message. 

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