The wine world sees what it wants to see

People see what they want to see, says Robert Joseph. And that could spell trouble for some, including the English sparkling wine industry.

Photo by Neil Bates on Unsplash
Photo by Neil Bates on Unsplash

For the last couple of years, I’ve been driving an electric car: a Nissan Leaf. Over that time, I’ve been noticing a growing number of Leafs, BMW I3s, and Teslas on the road, and a couple of months ago, I was at dinner party whose guests, between us, owned no fewer than four of these vehicles. Electric cars are now officially a ‘thing’.

xcept, as I’ve just been told, they aren’t. Looking at the statistics, sales are apparently still tiny; to find even two owners at a dinner party is exceptional.

But that can’t be right. I know lots of people who’ve got them.

That’s as may be, says my informant. The numbers don’t lie. Electric cars still aren’t anything like a ‘thing’. At least not yet.

The person who was setting me straight actually knows what she’s talking about. She works for BMW and is involved with marketing the new electric Mini. If her company manages to sell 4,000 models this year, she’ll be delighted. According to the latest figures, electric cars now represent around three percent of all new purchases in the UK, but that doesn’t make a very big dent in the mass of vehicles on UK roads.

Having discussed her line of work, we moved onto mine. My new acquaintance likes buying English wine directly from the vineyards in the part of Britain where we both live. Given her evident ‘involvement’ with wine, what, I wondered, did she know about natural wine.

You mean organic?” she asked. As we talked it became clear that she had never heard of, let alone tasted a natural, orange or amber wine or pet nat. This was interesting because, as a widely travelled 30-something working with a high level marketing job in London, she might seem to perfectly fit the profile of the kind of person whom – I’m frequently assured – is asking for all of these with increasing frequency.

Obviously, she doesn’t go to the right bars or restaurants. But just as she was able to tell me that electric car ownership in the UK – and most other countries apart from Norway and, increasingly China – is too small to make it onto any chart that does not measure in fractions of a percent, Lulie Halstead of Wine Intelligence confirms that awareness of natural wine is too small to be included in the data gathered by her researchers.

The tendency to overestimate the importance of something we find desirable was identified in 1947 by Jerome Bruner and Cecile Goodman in New York - and named as ‘wishful seeing’. There have been numerous pieces of research into how it affects human beings, but one I particularly like was conducted by David Dunning and Emily Balcetis of Cornell University in 2006. Participants were told that a computer would randomly assign them a number or letter. Depending on which they were given, they would get to drink an unpalatable smoothie or a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Half were told that the juice would go to the recipients of a letter; the others were led to believe that the key to getting the tastier drink lay in being allocated a number.

The trick – because there’s always a trick – was that the image they all saw could be perceived as a ‘B’ or ‘13’. The way they saw it depended on their expectation; if they thought a number was lucky, they tended to see the 13; if they wanted it to be a letter, they ‘saw’ the B. Wishful seeing can be applied to all sorts of situations, from the football match in which attendees will see a legitimate tackle or an appalling foul, depending on the team they support, to politics and investment – which is why so many accomplished liars are able to achieve power or swindle innocent people out of their life savings.

In wine terms a great recent example was the credence given to a report by the IWSR that English sparkling wine producers had shipped 887,000 bottles of their wine to the US in 2018. The real figure was smaller. At 46,000 it was, in fact, nearly 20 times smaller. The erroneous statistic – which was picked up by Bordeaux-based wine producer Gavin Quinney – was explained by the IWSR conflating all exported wine from the UK, including UK-bottled wine and large quantities of super premium Bordeaux and Burgundy.

The reason the error passed unnoticed was the optimistic mood surrounding the English wine industry which has attracted some very sizeable investment recently from wealthy Britons with no professional experience of wine. Vineyard acreage has swelled from 1,360 in 2019 to 4,490 and it’s still growing, which, given the time sparkling wine tends to spend on its yeast, is going to make for a lot of extra wine on the market in a year or two as the UK struggles to deal with the repercussions of the current Brexit maelstrom.

The rationale behind the growth of the English wine sector seems to have been largely based on the famous line in the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it they will come”, and on the belief that there’s always a market for high quality. So far, the bubble of optimism has grown pretty much unchecked, but there are a few thorns on which it might settle. Losses by one of the most critically highly regarded vineyards, Gusbourne, have just led to it needing a short term loan from its owner Lord Ashcroft, of £2m ($2.5m) to tide it over until October . Gusbourne currently has 231 acres (93.4ha) of vineyards and plans to plant a further 57 (23) this year.

This winery is not alone in planning further expansion. The success of the bumper 2018 harvest, which erased memories of the disastrous, frost hit 2017, has fuelled the continued boom. UK real estate agents now reportedly offer ‘vineyard-suitable’ land at twice the price it would normally command.

English sparkling winemakers will need to export millions of bottles rather than tens of thousands; time will tell whether Americans really will ever buy that much British fizz. Or whether shoppers in Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco will ever develop a taste for Pet Nat. I reckon that the eventual dominance by electric cars is unstoppable – but maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see.

Robert Joseph

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