Veritas Vini – The Wine Trade Exposed

10th October 2004

Anne McHale takes a close look at the wine business through the eyes of a recent language graduate

“What do you do?”

A question one invariably gets asked upon making a new acquaintance (and if you go speed-dating, twenty times in the space of one hour, but that’s another story…).

“I work in the wine trade” is my invariable answer.

“Oooh, that must be good!” is the impressed reply.  “What do you do, sit around and drink all day?”

And there you have it.  The general public’s view of the wine trade.  Not glitteringly glamorous, not hugely lucrative – but more importantly, not really much work.  This charmingly romantic view of the trade is often embellished by images of old men in tweed waistcoats who spend their mornings sipping glasses of Sherry, before going on extended 6-hour lunches.  But if this popularly held notion strikes anywhere near the truth, and the inhabitants of the wine trade are permanently in a state of relaxed inebriation, how then does any business ever get done, and any wine sold and delivered on time?

I gravitated towards my current job in a French wine agency partly due to my desire to make use of my French degree, and partly due to a (not insignificant) interest in the liquid itself.  I was a keen member of the Wine Society in university, but had always viewed wine as a hobby more than a potential career.  I’m not really sure why I didn’t seriously consider it, since looking back, my view was similar to that of most people – that the wine trade involved a lot of drinking and swanning about visting vineyards in foreign countries.  So when my first job offer turned out to be in wine, I was optimistic for the future, imagining languorous days spent sipping wine from crystal glasses, whilst penning tender French verses about the heady passion of wine (‘Ah! Le vin! Le plaisir! L’amour!…’).  A year later, I am in an excellent position to take a closer look at what it’s all about. Is it really one big drinking session, as public opinion would suggest?  Or does it in fact involve some work?  What really is the truth behind the trade?

As Oscar Wilde once said, ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’.  The reality is of course that the popular view of the wine trade is more than a tad oversimplified.  Ok, so I may get given free wine to take home every Friday, and I do also regularly get to taste wine as ‘work’ (these are the parts I always mention in small-talk – it went down particularly well with the speed-daters), but the inescapable fact remains that the wine trade is just that – a trade, like any other.  As elsewhere in the commercial world, the daily grind of paperwork, orders, phonecalls, faxes, emails, invoices and stock control still has to be endured. In addition to this, I have had to acquire a new vocabulary which I had never dreamed would be mine, far removed as it is from the days when I wafted through quadrangles as a student, reading Charles Baudelaire or contemplating the philosophical nature of sociolinguistic dialectology.  It took some getting used to.  A notable example is my initial confusion between a word acquired during my study of phonology, palatalisation (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the changing of a velar consonant to a palatal by moving the point of contact between tongue and palate further forward in the mouth’) and the word palletisation (which cannot be found in its nominal form in same dictionary, but which describes the manner in which cases of wine are stacked on a pallet).  I actually wrote ‘palletelisation’, a bizarre mélange of the two, on an order confirmation in my early days…

All this commercial complexity was a shock to my system, but how much worse for the poor souls who arrange the transport of wine (or should I say those who work in ‘Global Beverage Logistics’)? Their days are spent discussing order numbers, lorry sizes, full loads vs ‘groupage’, and of course a lot of palletisation.  They book timed slots for delivery to warehouses, they calculate the tonnage of wine that will fit in each lorry, they fill in ‘admininstrative accompanying documents’ (or the AAD to those in the know) in triplicate.  Strictly speaking, they’re in the wine business – but do they get to see a single bottle?  Most probably not. At least those of us who work as the sales and marketing agents for wine producers benefit from the particular ‘perk’ of the job which leads most people to form their somewhat Bacchanalian image of the wine business – the necessary and regular attendance at tastings.

In my first year I have had the chance to attend a couple of major tastings, as well as participating in frequent ‘office tastings’.  However it’s not quite as jolly and hedonistic as it sounds.  The virgin tasting-attendee is presented with several unexpected predicaments.  First of all, there’s the old ‘spit or swallow’ dilemma.  In this case, swallowing is postively frowned upon.  It’s also remarkably hard to get away with letting the odd mouthful slip down, especially when you’re standing in a small circle of people all hmming and haaing and spitting into a central spittoon.  You soon stand out if you’re the only one not joining in.  Having said that, your first attempts at spitting can in fact be even more embarrassing than being caught swallowing.  The venerable Masters of Wine, with their years of expectoration experience, have perfected an amazingly impressive direct stream of spit with impeccable aim, which somehow manages to appear elegant and dignified.  Try this as a nervous amateur though, and you typically end up with dribbles down your chin and half the wine over your clothes – not a good image if you’re trying to impress a potential client with your suave professionalism.  Yet, on the other hand, it is too big a risk to swallow every mouthful, since the subsequent inebriation might well have a detrimental effect on one’s ability to negotiate prices successfully and generally impress the customer.

So don’t believe the rumours, enchanting though they undoubtedly are. Despite the mythology of the masses, the wine trade is lamentably not just one big drinking session.  But although we must leave behind these shattered illusions, to close the door on the discussion simply with the drawbacks and dilemmas would be to miss the point.  As far as my career is concerned, the wine business has certainly opened many more doors than free bottles of booze for me.  On a day-to-day basis, especially in a small office, you are involved in everything – sales, customer service, marketing, accounting, product sampling, translation, editing, publishing, event organisation – how to make a choice?!  And whilst I may not be making use of my more erudite linguistic trivia on a day-to-day basis, the French wine trade is nevertheless ideal for those keen to both maintain and improve their language skills, whilst simultaneously avoiding having to live with the French!  Moreover, returning to the small-talk, wine has distinct advantages beyond the initial drinking session banter.  For instance, had I landed a job importing industrial strength bleach or steel pipes from France, I doubt that my answer to the ‘what do you do’ question would ever elicit such an involved response. Wine is interesting. It is surrounded by an aura of romance, sophistication and prestige.  A knowledge of wine provides an almost inexhaustible source of waffle at dinner parties.  Fellow diners defer to your superiority as you swirl, sniff and slurp at your glass, waxing lyrical about the ‘sultry fruits’ which are balanced by the ‘silky tannins’ and the ‘incisive but non-intrusive acidity’.  The more you consume, the wittier and more descriptive you become.  A source of wisdom for all those happy enough to be near you.

These dinner party delights are all very well, but why exactly is it that wine does provide such a source of interest?  Its fascination is of course partly due to the relaxing and tongue-loosening benefits of its alcohol content.  But vodka and Coke can loosen the tongue just as much  – so whence the extra kudos?  The answer lies largely in the language.  For me this is one of the most amusing aspects of the business, and one of my favourite.  The variety and diversity of the world’s wines allows us to play around with words in many ways.  The list of vocabulary used to describe wine appears to be limitless and never ceases to amaze.  For example, I recently saw the Viognier grape variety described as the ‘wonderbra of the wine industry’ (since it is often used to ‘boost’ Shiraz wines which don’t quite have the structure to stand alone)… Or try this one for size: ‘like a Chippendales dancer in leather chaps – tight, full-bodied and ready for action’ – an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, apparently.

Pretty witty, but what a load of nonsense! Yet great fun – and without a doubt one of the major appeals of the product.  Wine writing allows involvement in both a commercial environment and the more ethereal world of artistic creativity.  Suceed in this side of the business and you may never again have to voice concern over packaging dimensions, order numbers, or, for that matter, palletisation.  The waffle without the weariness, perhaps?  It is not only a passport to exotic locations, new cultures and eccentric characters, but may also be the only way of preserving in one’s routine the rapidly dying trend of the Old School six-hour Sherry lunch!  Famous wine writer Jancis Robinson puts it very decisively when she says that ‘we wine writers feel deeply guilty about what a cushy and privileged life we lead…it is unsurprising that we’re unwilling to give up one of the very few jobs which pays us to eat, drink and travel to some of the most beautiful places in the world.’  Sounds like a few lucky wine writers enjoy the closest experience to the decadent mass mythology that might ever be sensibly achieved.  So could writing be the way forward for the bemused language graduate, anxious to uphold the traditional image of the wine world?  It is certainly one highly appealing option.  Yet let us not forget that whilst the real truth behind the trade, the elusive veritas vini, may for the most part be somewhat mundane, wine has always been considered a fascinating product by all who work with it, whatever the nature of their involvement.  A shortage of recruits is no more likely than a shortage of drinkers.  The Worshipful Company of Vintners summarise it perfectly in their motto: vinum exhilarat animum.  Wine cheers the mind, and in more ways than one….