I thought that you’d want what I want. Sorry my dear…

Send in the Clowns. Stephen Sondheim

Over the years, I’ve been at a number of wine competition awards presentations and similar wine events in London at which the after-dinner speech was presented to a multinational audience by a famous sports personality. On every occasion, I found the speaker highly entertaining and amusing but often, looking around the room, I made a mental note never to invite him or her to speak at any similar event for which I happened to be responsible. Why not? Because a significant proportion of the guests were not ‘getting’ it. References to Botham or ‘Blowers’ by a legendary former England batsman went straight over their heads, either because they hailed from a country that doesn’t apply willow to leather, or because – even as Brits, Antipodeans or South Africans – they just happened not to be cricket fans. Rugby stars may have been a little more successful, at least with the French, but to my mind the same rules apply.

Usually, the decision to hire the rugby player, cricketer or snooker champion is made by a fan who secretly relishes the prospect of dining and being photographed next to one of their heroes. Most of the inviter’s friends share his enthusiasm and some will probably be jealous of not being on the invitation list. But, sports fans are tribal too. Cricket lovers often have little interest in basketball and, to judge by some of my keenest rugby-fan friends’ single-minded enthusiasm for the oval ball, their delight at being given a speech by a similarly eloquent soccer player would be a lot more limited.

My point is that people with a passion, whatever that may be, from bowls to ballet, are usually very bad at appreciating that others might not share it. And that of course, is where wine comes in. Wine lovers can’t imagine not being at least quite interested in wine. For them, Sideways was a ‘wine movie’ and, as a fair few wine-enthusiast commentators excitedly wrote when it first came out, the harbinger of a raft of similar works. But of course it wasn’t. Apart from the truly awful Bottle Shock and A Good Year, arguably Ridley Scott’s worst film, all we’ve had has been a few tiny-audience documentaries like Somm and Red Obsession.. Because of course Sideways wasn’t a wine movie. It was that old-fashioned thing: a road movie, like Easy Rider. It just happened to have been set in wine country. You could rewrite it tomorrow, substituting horses for wine and, with the right actors and director, make a similarly successful film that could also fill cinemas in Saudi Arabia.

I always ask the people who regret the absence of a regular wine programme on a TV station’s weekly schedule how they’d feel about a weekly cheese show? And one about coffee. And tea. And beer. And fish. In fact, very few TV stations anywhere as far as I know have ever attracted and retained a sizeable audience for a wine series and, apart from the Wine Spectator (which is, I’d argue, a lifestyle publication), there are no wide-circulation wine magazines. Given that lack of active interest, is it any wonder that hundreds of thousands of people have not found their way to great online efforts like Paso Robles Man? How would they get there? Presumably via a link on another non-wine-focused site or by typing keywords like Cabernet and Chardonnay into YouTube. And why should they do that any more than non cricket-fans would take the trouble to go looking for video clips of Botham or Hadlee?

None of this will make any sense to readers who love both wine and cricket (or rugby) and there will of course be plenty of those. But I’d just ask those people to think for a second of the subjects in which they have no interest – like opera, for example. The team that produced Paso Robles Man could create a brilliant funny clip on Verdi and Puccini, with lots of jokes about tenors and divas. But would you take the trouble to go and watch it?

  1. Beautifully explained, Robert! The moral is that you should not let your passion put your ego into the driver’s seat of commercial decision-making. We wine enthusiasts are myopically fascinated by vinous nectar to the extent that we ignore or overlook all the eye-rolling and non-too-subtle grooming excuses used to extract oneself from a pending vinologue. The challenge is finding a way to help many of us escape the potential of social isolation….

    • Thank you Damien. But actually, I’ll disagree. Lots of great businesses only exist because their founder put his ego/passion fir my in the driving seat. And, yes, many more have failed. But lots of supposedly commercially-grounded businesses fail too. Someone may, indeed, find a way to make wine work on TV, and/or get big audiences on YouTube. All I’m saying is that the enthusiastic onlookers like us should stop being surprised that we’re not numerous enough to have made it work so far. (Oh and by the way, I should have mentioned: I’d rather watch Wolf Hall, House of Cards or Top Gear than a brilliantly made wine programme. And I really do love wine. Bu that’s just me.)

  2. Are you saying we should have no wine programs on TV or Youtube?

    Yes I understand that a coffee show would be just plain weird, but I am sure the coffee industry would be absolutely ecstatic.

    Perhaps what we need is a lifestyle show, or road trip show, with a crap of load of wine thrown in. Much like James May and Oz?

    What do you think?

    Vineyard Paul

    • Not at all! YouTube which represents the future of what we currently call TV is a perfect place for all manner of minority- and limited-interest stuff. You can build up an audience from across the globe over time. But don’t be surprised if your viewer numbers remain relatively low and far too low to justify a slot on mainstream, scheduled TV.

      Why would a coffee show be weird? More people drink coffee than wine and there are a lot more coffee bars than wine bars. Coffee beans are farmed by interesting people in a range of exotic countries. Coffee’s history, if you include the Coffee Houses of London which were the ancestors of businesses like Lloyds of London, is fascinating…

      The James & Oz story is revealing. Oz is a very good old friend of mine but he would admit that the shows would never have been made if they had not included James who brought part of the – huge – Top Gear audience and helped create a Sideways-like road movie style. But… look what happened: one wine-focused series in France; one in the US… and then a ‘drink’-focused one in the UK. And then… nothing. So not necessarily a model to follow.

  3. Damien do you get students to do qualitative ethnographic research? It was my second real eye-opener to REAL consumer behaviour. I didn’t live with people but certainly shopped with them, spent time in their houses asking probing questions, looking in their cupboards and fridges, had a big girls night out etc. Fascinating. I think it should be an essential part of any wine MBA/MW.

    During my sabbatical I have once again been deeply immersed in people. People who don’t care about wine in the sense that I can’t recall a single one of the rugby, cricket or football club asking me (and possible the same for a wine journalist within the same village) for advice, direction or information about wine. But we do have lots of conversations about football, rugby, the environment, schools, holidays, cars, meat/butchers countryside issues etc etc. They all drink wine in vast quantities vs Mr and Mrs Average and are very comfortable with their vinous lot. And I find it very difficult to bring myself to try to straighten their ways. For I like strong PG tips, medium sliced bread and baked beans; who am I to preach? Anyway got to go, Top Gear just started.

  4. G’day Robert, and Adrian (for so kindly asking),

    I was first involved in a qual research study for Pernod-Ricard, in Aus, in 2003. Before we even started, we were shocked by how little time consumers spent deciding on their wine purchases. It wasn’t until we observed their behaviour in store that we began to realise how little time is available to influence sales. This, knowing what works in the absence of staff is critical. That observational study was a real eye-opener on how little thought must go into a wine purchase for most people.

    My students have just started using qualitative methods (they were prepped as mystery shoppers in London). I hope they got a crash course in how difficult it is to capture good research data.

    I believe that many thought they’d just do what they could to finish the tasks as quickly as possible. However, despite my instructions to not visit any retailer in numbers greater than 2, groups of 4 and 5 turned up at retailers, where they promptly blew their cover.

    A valuable lesson, and I hope that it was one they learned.

    I’m a qual researcher at heart, and will compel my students to start with these methods. Whether the lessons are learned or not is another matter.

    Time will tell.

    Cheers from (somewhere near) Burgundy!

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