The oldest Sunday newspaper in the world, the English daily the Observer published this fascinating look at Private Brand wines in the United Kingdom. Overall both the wines and the strategy seem to fare well.
The Observer’s wine writer (David Williams) selects the best from the big stores
Few people are more schooled in the art of spin than supermarket executives. Their skill is almost admirable. Listen to one of the big four grocers’ chief execs being grilled on the Today programme and marvel at the audacious way they manage to bring every question round to the same message: “The customer always comes first, choice has never been greater, prices have never been lower…”
Such a relentless adherence to the party line does have its flipside. If you’re in the habit of passing off even the most cravenly self-interested things you do as essentially altruistic, then you can hardly complain if some of your more laudable initiatives are greeted with scepticism.
I was thinking about all this as I tasted my way through the 80-odd wines that comprise Tesco’s Finest own-label wine range at an event held, appropriately enough, just up the road from New Labour’s former HQ in Millbank. Not every wine was great or even good, let alone the “finest” of their type. But there were a number of very good wines, and there were grape varieties and styles that you wouldn’t expect to find in a risk-averse supermarket wine range.
Just as intriguing was the range of 10 wines from the 2000 vintage that Tesco had sourced to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Finest range. The Limited Edition Vintage 2000 range, as it’s known, went into 150 of Tesco’s stores in the middle of July, and included small quantities of some terrific wines such as Pessac Léognan from Château Smith-Haut Lafite in Bordeaux (£22.99); a bright, focused vintage champagne from Chanoine Frères (£24.99); and a gorgeous, velvety vintage port from the Symington Family (£9.99, 375ml).
It’s not just Tesco: Sainsbury’s uses much the same language for its consistently good, 50-strong Taste the Difference range, as does Asda for its improving Extra Special line-up, and Morrisons for its The Best wines.
Look beyond the touchy-feely stuff, however, and you’ll find some more compelling reasons why the supermarkets might wish to sell more of their wine in this way, all of them connected to the grocers’ real abiding concern: profit. From their perspective, it makes more sense to sell own-branded products, not simply because they have more control over setting the price (and the margin), but also because it’s much easier to avoid price comparisons with their rivals. It’s also easier for the supermarket to shop around for the best deal from its suppliers when the producer’s name is relegated to tiny type on the back-label: few of us will notice any change.
Having a strong upmarket own-label brand is a good way, too, of giving otherwise ordinary products a patina of quality, and adding a couple of quid to the price. I’m thinking here of wines like Morrisons’ The Best Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Tesco Finest Vin de Pays de Gascogne, neither of which seem to me to be any better than much cheaper basic own-labels in the same range.
I’m not saying posh own-label is something to be avoided. There are some great wines to be had, as my recommendations this month show. All the same, as an ex-wine buyer once told me: never forget that if a supermarket tells you something is good for you, it’s usually even better for them.