Keep It Simple Stupid: the four words that give us the acronym K.I.S.S. that was supposedly coined around 50 years ago by a US aircraft engineer called Kelly Johnson.

Complexity is beloved by fans of poetry and art and by everybody who takes wine seriously. A simple wine is generally unrecommendable, unless it’s cheap and appealingly rustic. Complexity is what wins medals in wine competitions like the many International Wine Challenges I have chaired. The more complex the aroma and flavour, the greater the chance of a Gold or Trophy.

I’m not stepping back from that basic tenet, but I am acknowledging that I’ve often noticed little difference in my friends’ and dining companions’ reactions to the complex and the simpler wines I put out on the table. Often, in fact, it is the latter whose levels go down the fastest – our £7/$10 le Grand Noir Pinot Noir getting more positive comments than the mature £30/$50 Brunello or Bordeaux. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying for a second that the Pinot is a “better” wine, just that it’s a fruitier, easier drink.

But the complexity of the liquid is only part of the picture. Wine people relish all sorts of other layers of complexity. They think that the variation between vintages is one of the most valuably fascinating characteristics of wine. They delight in the fact that regions like Marlborough and Barossa that were once seen as the source of wines with fairly predictable styles and flavours are now breaking down into a mosaic, as producers seek to express the character of their “terroir”, or of their own personality.

In the goldfish bowl of wine enthusiasm, these developments are as welcome as the release of fresh interpretations of great operas is to opera buffs. For people outside the bowl – the mass of wine drinkers – they are fundamentally undesirable. If you’ve discovered that you enjoy Producer X’s 2011 Marlborough Sauvignon or Bodega Y’s Rioja Crianza, what you essentially want is more of the same. How many non opera-lovers have more than one boxed set of Aida or Traviata? How many more are perfectly happy with Verdi’s greatest hits?

As Alan March wrote with refreshing candour in a recent Facebook thread (my highlighting)

I shop in Tesco (I confess) and it genuinely pains me to see bottles of Blossom Hill, cheap Frascati and the like piled high in trolleys and baskets. When I talk to some people [who buy these] (including colleagues from educated backgrounds) they tell me what they want is a wine which will taste the same whenever they drink it. They don’t want variation, terroir etc they want their £4.99 to deliver what they expect. They don’t read wine journalism, why would they when papers like The Sunday Times deliver such crap in any case. At Christmas I get asked countless times to recommend wines to buy for presents or lunch as long as it is only at a certain price of course.

We who take real interest in wine are a minority and because we mix in wine circles and read the literature etc we form our own communities and, as with other interests such as racing or football in my case, there is a tendency to assume everyone must have similar thoughts and should like what we do. It is simply not the case. As much as I dislike the Blossom Hill, I don’t really expect Tesco to offer some 1er Cru Vosne Romanée to allow customers to see the wider picture. I’m delighted that more people like good wine but we remain the minority and such is life

It seems clear to me that there are two separate markets – for complexity, and for simplicity – and the mistake lies in trying to force one onto the other. If you are in the business of supplying wine enthusiasts, by all means pile up the complexity. The more cuvées the better. Why not release individual barrel-bottlings that illustrate the effect of oak from different forests? Or tiny lots that show off the effect of subtly different blends or ages of vines? Even if these flights of my fantasy are a little further than you want to go, you should certainly be sure to pack your website with all sorts of geeky information. 

If, on the other hand, your customer wants simplicity, give it to her or him. Deny yourself the luxury of experimenting with new styles – at least not under existing, successful labels – and if you can’t achieve consistency across harvests, 
follow the Champenois model and launch a non-vintage blend.  Avoid the geeky language but focus instead on the part your reliably predictable wine can play in your customer’s life.

Anyone who doubts the appeal of the K.I.S.S. principle should take a look at almost anything Apple has ever produced. Steve Jobs ad his team stripped the geekiness out of word processing when they brought us the desktop, wastebin and mouse, and then went on to revolutionise the way many things are designed by eliminating every unnecessary button from the first iPod.

iPods don’t appeal to hi fi buffs. But they sell in rather larger numbers than more complex gear.

  1. Well you summed it up Robert by saying there are two markets..for complexity and for simplicity. And, as a generalisation, we tend to assume all people want complexity. And the problems of this can be seen I would suggest at most levels of knowledge and interest. In a recent trip to Burgundy with friends from outside the trade but with well above average knowledge they were very frustrated at the astonishing level of inconsistency across generic names such as Rully. However much in to wine you are this must discourage trading up.

    On another level, however, I have no issue with complexity per se. I am not a coffee drinker and the complexity of coffee, in terms of the range on offer and the language, I find amusing and bewildering in equal measure. There is no question however that this has added value to the coffee category. And coffee is hardly alone in this regard. The difference though is that complexity has been added in a way that is appealing to large numbers of consumers ..they have been encouraged and cajoled to learn the language and embrace the diversity.

    Perhaps the fundamental difficulty here is that categories such as coffee started off with simple propositions ( as perceived by most consumers ) and complexity has been added. Wine has always been perceived as complex and when you look across the industry for all the attempts to come up with propositions that cut through the complexity there are even more attempts it would appear to make it even more complex and diverse as you point out. This may make sense for individual producers attempting to achieve their own objectives but more broadly its just increasing the density of the maze!.

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