Monday, March 28, 2011

Artisan for artisan's sake

Sticking with wine, a bottle dispatched over the weekend got me to thinking about the industry's relationship to marketing and branding.

It's hugely diverse from the modern corporate processes that inform brands like those within the Constellation group - Hardy's, Banrock Station, Kumala - to the luxury language of the champagne houses and Bordeaux chateau. But in between these, at least at a certain quality level, wine remains an artisan product made by independent producers and sold largely on the strength of what is in the bottle; a refreshing antidote to the fetishisation of goods with little to differentiate them beside the myth making of the marketing industry.

The apotheosis of this kind of anti commoditisation is found in Burgundy where the wines are so unique, the levels of production so small and the industry itself enshrined in family production for so many generations that marketing is scarcely necessary. There was a time when it seemed to be hard to tell the wines of different producers apart in Burgundy as one calligraphy adorned bottle looked so similar to the next, as remains the case with this pair for example:

But it was a bottle of wine from Spain, where there seems to be a huge effort of modernisation in the styles and visual languages in which wine is sold to the wider market these days, that got me to thinking about the issue. Not a dusty old Rioja carefully stamped with its certification of "Reserva' or 'Gran Reserva', but this wine from neighbouring Navarra:

It's nice isn't it? A kind of retro styling with great use of type and not a single part of the experience up to the point of pouring the wine untouched by brand - from label to foil and cork all beautifully presented. Apparently this is selling like hot cakes at my local wine merchant, understandably, in a style conscious corner of east London where it looks great on the table. The wine itself is good, a slightly confused blend of varietals which is at present dominated by slightly dry tannin and the coffee and bramble character of the Grenache (here's Jancis Robinson's note). Not bad, but I doubt its charm is what's helping to shift it so quickly in E9, there are better wines at this price.

The recent troubles at Oddbins have been well documented and the most insightful commentary I've seen on their current strategy came from a commentator who observed that they were hardly likely to succeed with shelves full of wines that no one had heard of. A shame, because the selection seemed to have improved considerably under its recent management. But it's true that at Oddbins' price point it is no longer possible to 'break' new wines (in the 90s I tried my first bottles from now cult wineries like Ridge and some of the blockbuster producers of Brunello from their shelves).

But have any of the shoppers at my local heard of Emilio Vallerio? A few perhaps, but it's unlikely they are in the majority. This - like the first bottle of Ridge I spied in Oddbins years ago - appeals because its bottle promises a wine with attention to detail, all the best assets of modern technique, the cult of artisan craft and because it's going to look really nice on my table, damn it.

So, 'artisan' is marketable and marketed (except perhaps in Burgundy where a label as shonky as that of Sylvain Cathiard can yeild one of the most incredible things you ever tasted) and is that a problem? Well, in the final judgement that really will depend on the impact it has on the quality of what we drink. Naked Wines, has established a smart business by providing the model and infrastructure that those unrecognised, unglamorous but great wines need to find a market. Oddbins, however, might need to pursue the paradoxical 'commodified artisan' category to regain its foothold on the middle class high street.


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