Where's the Riesling?

Whose responsibility is it to get consumers to try things? Should supermarkets be trying to widen their customers' tastes? Robert Joseph weighs in.

Photo by Peter Bond on Unsplash
Photo by Peter Bond on Unsplash

It is an inconvenient truth, but before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the citizens who were trapped behind by that barrier, and the rest of the Iron Curtain, were more cultured than their sons and daughters are today.

The Soviet education system taught them about Tolstoy, Turgenev and Tchaikovsky and their peers, and the state-controlled media offered plenty of opportunity to appreciate the works of those locally-born giants. Very importantly, it gave little scope for what the west considered ‘popular entertainment’. Visitors to the Soviet bloc in the 1970s and 1980s carried music cassettes along with Levis and cigarettes to give to friends and acquaintances, or to use as barter.

One of the explanations for the eagerness of the East Germans, in particular, to tear down the wall, was the exposure many of them had to television images from the West. They wanted to enjoy the same stuff that people enjoyed in Mainz, Manchester and Madrid. And that included US TV series like Dallas and Dynasty and singers like Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt.

For many food and wine purists, there is a lot to be said for a benevolent version of the Soviet system: at a stroke, Coke, Burger King, [yellow tail] and bourbon barrel-aged red wine could all be eliminated from the market. Consumers would learn to appreciate salt-free snacks, zero-dosage Champagne and Riesling.

Wine professionals almost universally love Riesling, vastly preferring it to Sauvignon Blanc. Wine drinkers outside Germany and Austria, especially those in the UK, US and Australia take a different view. A recent scan of the websites of Britain’s leading supermarkets, for example, revealed no fewer than 201 examples of Sauvignon Blanc and just 29 of Riesling.

To be fair, Tesco, the largest of these retailers has taken the trouble to invest in a set of private label ‘Tesco Finest’ wines from Australia and the Mosel, alongside well-regarded efforts such as Tim Adams’ Riesling from the Clare Valley. However, these make up a total of just eight examples of the grape, compared to no fewer than 52 Sauvignon Blancs. Tesco’s customers, it seems, are simply not as persuaded by Riesling as the professionals

For the Rieslingophiles, this is an affront. It is a supermarket’s duty, they believe, to introduce consumers to better, more interesting wines. Some supermarkets certainly do attempt to do this, and employ MWs and other professionals to help in their selection process. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, no one should ever forget that grocery stores are not part of the wine industry any more than they are part of the cheese industry or the soap powder industry. Every bottle of wine in the shop has to earn its keep – either through a profit margin or as a ‘footfall builder’ that will attract customers who’ll buy other profitable items.

A supermarket’s responsibility is towards its customers, shareholders and employees. The only question is over which of these holds the greatest priority. A specialist wine shop, like a bookshop, can behave like the Kremlin, focusing on the kinds of bottles and novels of which the owner approves. A supermarket has to fill its shelves with the goods that appear on the lists their shoppers have written. If enough of those lists include ‘Peppermint-Flavoured Pink Pinot Grigio’, then the retailer will find a space on their shelf for that. And if that slot on the shelf was previously occupied by a slow-moving Riesling, so be it.

When wine moved into supermarkets, it signed a Faustian pact. It would have access to vast numbers of potential consumers, but at the price of being bought and sold like detergent and dog food.

But anyone lamenting the scarcity of Riesling in a supermarket today is going to be weeping a lot more tears in the future as sales move increasingly online and are even more directly driven by algorithms based on personal tastes.

Unless the Riesling producers can increase, or find a lot of marketing funds, their grape may find itself pushed even further to the back of the queue.

Fortunately, there are signs in the UK that campaigns like the 31 Days of German Riesling that used tastings to promote sales in the on-trade and through specialist merchants, may be beginning to pay off. Britain’s biggest premium chain of wine shops, Majestic Wine Warehouses, which has relied heavily on Sauvignon Blanc in recent years,  saw an 18% rise in Riesling sales in 2018. Berry Bros & Rudd now offers as many Rieslings as Sauvignons.

Persuading people to change their eating and drinking habits isn’t easy, especially in a non-Soviet style environment where they have the freedom to choose for themselves - and it involves listening to them as well as talking at them. But the wine drinkers who’ve discovered the delights of Riesling will probably stick with it, while many of the Russians who were forced to read Turgenev may have switched to the Da Vinci Code as soon as they could lay their hands on it.

Robert Joseph

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