People are fascinated by potatoes
If you read this a year ago, I apologise for repeating it here. If not, I don’t think I can express these thoughts any better than I did in this column 12 months ago…
Whenever I tell people that I know a little about potatoes, there’s a brief pause while – as I now appreciate – they privately relish the prospect of being able to broaden their knowledge of a subject in which so many of them are fascinated. I tell them about the 4,000 varieties of potato, all of which probably come from one place in Peru. I remind them that the roast potato on our plate is of the same family as the deadly nightshade, and that man domesticated potatoes 8,000 years ago and that they first arrived in Asia in around 1600, a few decades before they were introduced to Europe. Then I go on to list some of my favourite types of potato – Désirée, King Edward, Maris Piper and Highland Burgundy Red – and the best ways to cook them.
Of course there are some – you might be among them – who are surprised to learn about the depth of general interest in potatoes. But just think how many we all eat, and the range of potatoes that are now on offer in supermarkets. Just consider the evidence: the popularity of websites like lovepotatoes, and the number of online references to potatoes. Try googling “potatoes” and you’ll find there are a staggering 377,000,000 results.
I’m joking of course (though not about that google statistic). I actually know very little about potatoes. Like most other humans, I enjoy eating them in a number of forms and could, if tortured, list a maximum of half a dozen varieties (a list that wouldn’t include Highland Burgundy Red by the way). You may have read my first paragraph with a growing hunger for a lot more information – or you may have thought “that’s enough for the moment thank you…” And you might actually have even questioned the title of this post. “No”, you might have thought, “people may have a passing curiosity about potatoes, but they’re not really thatinterested in them”.
Which is precisely what I’d say about wine. At best, to judge by the number of sites on offer by Google (919,000,000), they are more than a third as interested in wine, with its myriad varieties and place in western culture as in the humble spud.
People who are interested in anything tend to imagine that large numbers of other people share their enthusiasm – or would if given the chance and the encouragement. In a few cases they can justify that belief. Tens of millions of viewers do tune into watch soccer matches. These sorts of numbers do not show any visible signs of a fascination with wine. They don’t buy large numbers of books or magazines or read blogs. When newspapers drop their wine columns or columnists, the protests are audible but limited.
The he enthusiasts blame negative forces. We would, they claim, have lots more wine columns in newspapers and wine programmes on television if it weren’t for narrow-minded publishers and tv companies who won’t let people have them. It’s only a lack of advertising, they say, that explains the lack of wine columns – while conveniently overlooking the absence of regular articles on watches in publications that are full of Rolex ads.
The point behind this post is that a misplaced belief in a widespread interest in wine handily removes the need for wine producers to make an effort to engage with potential buyers. When these enthusiasts say things like “surely there is a difficulty that’s inherent in the complexity that we most like about wine?” and “I look for information on the internet first, then I buy” (both direct quotes), they reveal the gulf that lies between them and the vast majority of normal potato eaters and wine drinkers.