Richard Hemming MW: why wine is beyond compare

What’s the difference between an iPhone and a bottle of wine? The answer is absolutely everything. The two items have nothing in common. Yet for years people have described a quest for the “Apple store of wine”.

In 2012, New York’s Vintry Fine Wine was heralded as such. In June 2016, Aldi opened a pop-up “Apple store for wine” at Shoreditch Boxpark. Four months later, John Colley proclaimed: “I want Majestic to become the Apple store for wine.”

The objective might be admirable – to create a retail destination with a dedicated consumer base – but the comparison itself is as naive as it is flawed. 

Wine is a unique product, and that uniqueness  means that borrowing techniques from other sectors frequently fails.

For a start, Apple stores sell relatively few products at enviably high margins. Apple has multiple revenue streams, from subscription and financial services to hardware and software sales. It can create products at the best value rates using a reliable and replicable process anywhere in the world.

Wine is none of those things. It is made once a year from a single ingredient. Production is hugely fragmented, with no dominant producers: Gallo, the world’s largest, makes between 0.5% and 3% of global production each year, whereas Apple sells around 20% of the world’s smartphones – and it’s not even the biggest. 

Wine comes in a huge range of prices, from £3.65 for Tesco’s Fruity Red to £96,400 for Château d’Yquem 1847 at Hedonism. Two 75cl bottles of fermented grape juice, yet one is 26,411 times more expensive than the other. And incidentally, one of them might be corked. Try taking that one back for a refund.

On top of all that, wine has an enduring connection to terroir. No other product is defined so strongly by the place and time it was made. This is something which all wine has in common, providing the infinite variety that makes wine so fascinatingly and infuriatingly complicated.

Very often, it is this complexity that people want to simplify when they compare wine to other things. 

For example, a common fallacy is to compare wine to craft beer or spirits, which are perceived as being much more consumer-friendly, but the analogy is once again false. 

It should go without saying that the production methods are completely different: spirits and beer have vastly greater freedoms concerning origin and ingredients.

As for marketing, just because durians and tomatoes are both fruit, nobody is suggesting that one should be sold like the other. 

There’s simply no intrinsic reason that promoting wine using the techniques that work for other drinks should be successful. Exhibit A is the range of craft wine that Aldi launched in 2016, and which disappeared without trace soon afterwards.

There’s an understandable temptation to impose external business models on to wine, especially to those from outside the industry. But rather than copying incomparable alternatives, wine retailers should embrace everything that makes it different, and champion those unique qualities at every degree of difference – all 26,411 of them.

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