Jason Millar: the nightmare before Christmas

When it comes to the terrors of the Halloween just past, Brexit took centre stage and on the streets of London kids and their parents dressed up as everything from Dracula to Boris Johnson. But there are more terrifying spectres than these at large in the wine world.

The story goes, on Twitter, mainstream media and within the industry, that people are scared of wine, although I’ve yet to see anyone dressing up as a bottle of claret on October 31.  

I exaggerate, but then so do those who misuse words such as scared” when talking about how people engage with wine. Bewildered, perhaps, as you stand in front of identikit supermarket wine selections. Anxious, often, as to whether the person you’re going to dinner with drinks white or red. Uncertain, of course, because you don’t know exactly what everything is like, and you don’t want to make a poor choice (let me help you with that). But I’ve never seen a single customer who has actually been scared of wine – the UK’s most popular alcoholic drink – the way you might be scared of addressing a conference or jumping out of a plane, or of Lucifer and his minions. 

In order to create this straw man, a key requirement is the mythical figure of the wine snob, the purist –  the bogeyman who has taken rites of initiation and decided to build a career out of humiliating normal people. You can easily create such a figure with some hands-off market segmentation that is neat, simple and wrong, and by reading too many books about business strategy. Like monsters under the bed, very few of these nightmare figures really exist. 

Besides, many customers are experts in their field, and experts in one field tend to welcome expertise in another, not be intimidated by it. And, before anyone jumps the gun and starts talking about liberal metropolitan elites, I will point out that plumbers are no less – indeed, sometimes more – likely to ask for, and respect, advice than lawyers. From QI to Wikipedia there is an understanding that sharing knowledge, in an unbiased and unpretentious way, is enriching, not frightening.

Assuming your customers are too stupid to understand any of the things you understand is not the way to engage with them. Treat customers neither as your superiors nor your inferiors, but as your equals. Celebrating complexity is, in the right context, as good a strategy as cutting to the chase. There is no justification for rudeness, condescension and snobbery, but conflating these with expertise, enthusiasm and knowledge is extremely foolish. The worst consequence of this specious assertion is that, because people are scared of wine, we must continually change it to make it less scary. But we don’t need to make wine sweeter, drier, sharper, softer, darker or paler. We need to respect the integrity of the thing itself, where it’s grown and what it truly is, and talk about why that makes it special.

Of course, the trade needs to be welcoming and see both sides of a matter, particularly when it comes to mass-market wines, which are crucial in breaking customers into the category. But I don’t mind if not everyone in the world drinks wine, and I’m not willing to trade the soul of wine – its complexity, diversity, history and culture – to make that happen. If you work in the wine trade and you are, then the only thing I’m scared of is you.

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