Why trying to make wine less snobby is futile

By , 24 May 2017

Smiley NV

Smiley NV.

Should the wine industry work harder to position wine as a lifestyle beverage rather than the special interest preserve of a few elites? Silwervis Wines was started in the spirit of “healthy rebellion” that the now defunct Swartland Revolution epitomized by winemaker Ryan Mostert and partner Samantha Suddons, financial whizz Michael Roets and wine retailer Roland Peens. One of the wines in their portfolio is Smiley White, incorporating multiple vintages and variety of techniques to make it including fermentation under flor, with skin contact and maderisation. Oh, and the label is a pop-art drawing of a sheep head, this part of the animal a traditional meal for many South Africans…

The third release of this has just hit the market at R150 a bottle and suffice to say, it’s anything but neutral. Production is now at 20 000 bottles and the stakeholders believe that this wine which started out as a happy accident is set to become their mainstay, all of which I find remarkable (and most encouraging) since we supposedly live in a world were all most people want is a glass of Sauvignon Blanc with a block of ice in it.

What the budding phenomenon that is Smiley White NV suggests to me is that there is no fundamental division between a few obsessive wine geeks and a vast majority of unimaginative souls who occasionally drink wine as a social lubricant, the fact that it is grape based being merely incidental and therefore leaving them quite prepared to consume it interchangeably with beer or spirits.

Instead, people exist on a continuum of involvement with wine. Those with low involvement might never end up engaging very much with the subject (and there’s nothing wrong with that) but there always exists the possibility that there will be some sort of trigger that fires their enthusiasm such that they leave wine as “commodity” behind and instead pursue “fine” wine – that trigger is probably different for each of us (in the case of Smiley, it might be anything from the funky packaging to the compelling flavour profile) but once you realise how life enriching even moderate involvement with the subject is, then it’s very difficult to going back to being entirely indifferent about it. Much the same for literature, music, art and even fine dining…

Which brings me, without too many leaps of logic I hope, to the subject of wine listing fees which sees restaurants charging producers to stock their wines. One of the problems with the practice is that it limits customer choice, the counter-argument to this being that most customers find choice a burden not a boon. Another problem is that it creates an obstacle to entry for many producers to which the counter-argument might be capitalism is a game of survival of the fittest and sometimes, it’s not pretty.

The thing is it’s usually the artisanal producers who either can’t or won’t pay the listing fees and the large-volume, more commercially inclined producers who do. Smiley NV might not be your particular preference but the world’s certainly more colourful with it around and we need to make space for such wines.


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