Thursday, 11 February 2016

Up, down and sideways – the wine on the shelves

When I heard that there was to be an investigation into wine retailers’ shelf placements,  I got rather excited.  But sadly, I find that it will all be about the possible skullduggery behind the choice of wines on supermarket shelves. The issues of shelf placement which concern me are somewhat different, however; for while I have no knowledge of how wines get on to the shelves, I do have some considerable experience in taking them off.

It’s now become accepted, for example, that the cheaper wines in supermarkets are placed on shelves as close as possible to the floor, so that in order to look at the labels, bargain-hunters have to squat on their haunches like simians.

Older customers groan as they hunker down to the lowest shelf, while even paupers baulk at kneeling in the spillage in aisle five. And women are forced to adopt what I believe is known in birthing circles as The Squatting Position of the Tonkawas.

Now, if we’re talking about skullduggery, why is this? Could it possibly be deliberate that spending less is made as physically difficult and unappealing as possible?

(The idea of putting the better stuff higher up is presumably derived from the notion that people will make an extra effort, when driven by desire and passion, to access products like good wine. Or porn.)

And then there is the selection destined for the Fine Wine shelving. In my own supermarket, this involves a tawdry wood-effect veneer cabinet which, along with a graphic of a bunch of grapes, actually says “Fine Wine” – whereas it might more accurately display a bunch of coins and say “Anything over a tenner”.

These more expensive wines in a supermarket are often stored horizontally, trading upon a folk knowledge that good wine should be stored flat. I doubt whether many shoppers could tell you why wine should be laid flat; to them, like a wine waiter offering forth a bottle for perusal, it simply suggests a touch of class.

And of course, most supermarket wines might just as well stand upright. They’re not going to age; most of them will be sold within a day or so; and the majority of them don’t even have corks.

Yet in one posh supermarket chain, they actually have a sort of presentation plinth, on which expensive and predominantly New World wines are segregated and laid out like the spokes of a wheel. It’s saying yes, these do come from places like Australia, and most of them have screwcaps, but we’re presenting them laid flat, so you should take them seriously.

Sure enough, many people now associate wine shelved horizontally with aspirational living. This is why kitchen manufacturers will fill up any space too small for an actual kitchen cabinet with a teensy little built-in wine rack. Here’s one in a kitchen corner, cleverly planned to take five bottles when wine comes in sixes. See how horizontal wine storage suggests a modern, classy lifestyle, along with your pastel kettle and Cath Kidston accessories? And how the top bottle is so classy, you will have to stand on one of your fashionably mismatched chairs in order to reach it?

Well, here is a word in the shell-like of Messrs Magnet; if a wine is good enough to benefit from being laid on its side, it is good enough not to shelve in the heat of the kitchen. Yes, it is a pain for me to go down to the cellar to retrieve a bottle, but less of a pain than finding my claret has been cooked in the steam from the sink.

It all reminds me of those little cradles in which posh restaurants used to lay expensive bottles of wine. Ostensibly, to keep them relatively horizontal and avoid pouring out sediment. And, coincidentally of course, to tell people at adjoining tables, who were drinking from ordinary, upright bottles of wine, that here was someone who had spent more than them.

Posh wine merchants have learnt from all this when it comes to the placement of their own bargains. Show ‘em low, show ‘em flat. In fact, forget shelves, put the bottles in open wooden cases on the floor. They’re selling so fast, we haven’t even got time to take them out of their boxes! Of course, wooden cases plus horizontal storage suggests undeniably classy wine. And like the prices, the cases are so low, they’re on the floor itself, even closer to the ground than the lowest supermarket shelf. Bargain!

Someone once asked me where to look for wine bargains. My answer still, I think, remains valid. Thanks to shelf placement, I was able to answer in a single word.



Thursday, 4 February 2016

Aldi Encounter: Koliburra Shiraz

So the good news is that Aldi have decided to offer an online wine delivery service. More than good news: up there with the Beatles releasing Hey Jude, it's that big. The thing about Aldi, and its coeval, Lidl, is that it's an adorable modern paradox - an aspirational discount supermarket, a place selling okay stuff at an affordable price, and so candid in its actions that middle-class bubbleheads like me are desperate to have one in the neighbourhood, partly to show the world our demotic love of a bargain, partly to drive down the prices in the adjoining Waitrose, partly to get away from the sheer chore of driving to Hounslow. And have you even tried to park in the Hounslow Aldi? It's always full, cars trailing out into the street like the rearguard of a defeated army. I mean it's hopeless.

However: here we are with a twinkly new wine website, in fact suspiciously sleek-looking, not the atmosphere of rent cardboard boxes and naked wooden pallets that I really want from Aldi as tokens of its good faith, but in we go, past something called the Exquisite Collection (a bunch of New Zealand Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Valpolicellas, all predictably sporting shingles from the IWSC) costing around £35 a half-dozen, a bit steep for my purposes, and onwards to a Kooliburra Australian Shiraz, much more like it at effectively £4 a bottle, plus some very fair customer reviews ('Cracking', 'Excellent', 'Reliable', 'A little rough round the edges, usually as an after effect') but what the hell is this? A 2013 Châteauneuf-du-Pape at £17 a bottle? Is this some kind of joke? Aldi?

Horrified, I run to the mixed cases, where I know there will be all kinds of muck going begging and, thank God, something calling itself Easy Drinking Reds jumps out, a bran-tub of Chilean Merlot, knock-off Chianti, tanker Pinot Noir, all sorts, £4 a bottle. Clearly, I am not going to get down to the magic £2.99 a throw, which would have been perfect (although now I think of it, the £2.99 Aldi Baron St Jean Vin De Pays I drank years ago was authentically disgusting), but we are where we are and I am determined to give the website a try.

The only thing which really causes me to hesitate is the fact that nearly every time I order wine to be delivered to my perfectly accesible house, something happens, an over-delivery, a non-delivery, an unwanted repeat delivery, it can't be predicted, but it will happen and it will make me vow never to buy mailorder again, at least until the next moment of slack-jawed inattention, seasoned with a kind of glib parsimony, steals over me and I make the same mistake, the same wilful confusion of the opportunistic and the short-sighted -

No: Aldi are going to be different, as well as cheap.

Ten minutes later: there it is, fixed up, a mixed half-case of Crisp and Refreshing Whites, price per bottle £5.11, yes, a bit grand, but you don't want to take too many chances with your Muscadet Sur Lie or your New Zealand Pinot Gris ('Just had it with a spicy pizza,' comments Mollymoo of Winchester, my kind of wine connoisseur), plus a six-pack of the Koliburra Shiraz. Total: £54.58, including free delivery, a clear inducement to get me to join the big Aldi community, the community which lives to give, an inducement which I have blithely accepted. Had I paid for delivery, that would have added another £3, at which point I might have started wondering if the convenience of having the stuff mis-delivered to my house wasn't outweighed by the price hit, and shouldn't I trudge down to Hounslow and the chaos of the carpark to see if there wasn't anything more affordable instore? But then that question has answered itself already, in the form of my refusal to get up and look for the car.

Actually, the only other thing which causes me to hesitate is that 2013 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Admittedly Aldi's stuff is going for less than other 2013 Châteauneuf-du-Pape offers I dig up on the internet, but it may just be a worse iteration of that vintage, I have no idea. No, the problem is the concept of Aldi selling anything for £17 - wine, an electric lawnmower, packet ham: no single item at Aldi should cost more than a tenner, or what's the point? It is a matter of trust, and trust, as we know, is the most precious component in any human interaction, especially when it comes to willing things to be better than they actually are. Still. I can't, in an apprehensive sort of way, wait to see how it turns out.


Thursday, 28 January 2016

Should wine be "convenient"?

What is this obsession with “convenience” in wine?

It’s more “convenient” to have a screwcap than a cork. To have wine in a box than in a bottle. To buy your wine at a corner shop or supermarket, alongside your groceries, than to visit a wine merchant.

A wine you can drink now is more “convenient” than one which needs to be cellared. A wine you can pour from the bottle is more “convenient” than one which needs to be decanted.

And wine you can carry with you ready to drink, in a can, a plastic bottle or a sealed plastic goblet, is more “convenient” than wine which requires those obstructively inconvenient items, a glass and a table.

Buying it, opening it, keeping it, carrying it or storing it, convenience seems to be the one thing everybody wants in their wine. Except me.

A little inconvenience can be a wonderful thing. Filling up a fountain pen before you write. Watching Guinness settle in a glass. In this always-on world, there’s something to be said for anticipation, for ritual, for slowness. And to me, inconvenience only enhances the enjoyment of wine.

I want a bottle, an actual bottle, brought back from the wine merchant’s in a twist of tissue paper. Or brought up from the cellar after due deliberation, perhaps with the added allure of a little dust on its shoulders. Not a box, parked in the kitchen, dispensing wine like handwash.

I want the peeling of the capsule, the squeaking as the corkscrew goes in, the deployment of the wrist in using a Waiter’s Friend, and the pop as the cork comes out. Not the crack, twist and toss of the screwcap.

I want my first sight of its colour, and first whiff of its bouquet, from the careful pouring into a decanter or glass. Yes, glass – not a prepoured plastic goblet. I’ll let you know when I want to drink my wine out of the equivalent of a yogurt pot.

Should this idea of “convenience” be interpreted generously, as an attempt to offer the pleasure of fine wine as easily as possible? No, because the wines which are marketed as “convenient” are rarely “fine”. They come from producers who simply believe that the more easily we consume, the faster we will buy more.

And hence the extension of effortlessness into even the wine itself. “Easy-drinking” – what a damning description of a wine! “It just slips down…” – without relish, without savour, without thought.

Well, I do not want to live in a world of “convenience”. Of clip-on ties and Velcro-closed shoes. Of elasticated waistbands, and long-life milk.

There are so many areas of life nowadays in which slower, traditional ways have returned and been acknowledged for their qualities over the easy and convenient. Proper coffee over instant. Slow roasts. Open fires. Pleasures where the rituals of preparation, and the growing anticipation, add to the enjoyment of the result. Pleasures worth waiting for.

So let us expunge from the vocabulary of wine such terms as easy, effortless, quick and handy – and, most of all, convenient. I don’t want wine to become an easy, flip commodity. I want it to remain slow and considered, prefaced by its rituals, enhanced by anticipation and enjoyed at leisure.

There are many good things about wine – and more of them come to those prepared to wait.