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What it takes to be admirable
Published:  10 May, 2018

Voting in this magazine’s redoubtable annual awards for the world’s most admired wine brands has forced me, as it does every year, to think about the subject of wine brands properly for a change.

This period of reflection is a form of due diligence, I suppose – a necessary corrective to the temptation to just plump for the names behind wines I happen to like. In other words, I have had to do what the name of the awards suggests and actually think about what makes a brand “admirable”. And, without giving away my final votes in what is a confidential poll (whose results aren’t even published yet), this year, as I prepared to make my decision, it occurred to me that my views on this matter have changed since I first participated in the voting some years ago.

With any brand – in any sector – the one inescapable element of an admirable brand is that the product itself has to be worthwhile. This is important for more than the final customer. As anyone who has spent time working on a product they don’t believe in will know, if the quality of the product is poor, it bleeds out into everything else, breeding a certain cynicism in the company culture. In the case of wine, I’m talking specifically about the liquid inside the bottle. You can create the most beautiful packaging in the world, and create the most compelling marketing stories, but if the wine is crap, the brand will always be soulless, empty, dishonest.

I still believe that. But whereas, in the past, I might have said that the wine was the only thing to consider when it came to the virtues of a brand and that everything else was beside the point, I’m no longer quite so purist.

For one thing, in a kind of vinous equivalent of some of the debates inspired by the #metoo movement, I’ve come to factor in the corporate culture of the brands involved. Just as I now find it hard to watch films with Harvey Weinstein’s grubby paws on them, so I find it hard to buy – let alone admire – brands that haven’t got their ethical house in order. A big part of this is the commitment to sustainability. There is no excuse, in 2018, for non-essential items such as wine brands to not to be taking the lead on such issues as excessive water use, soil erosion, carbon footprints and the use of agricultural chemicals.

But it goes beyond green issues. An admirable brand would also have to have a spotless record in its employment practices: that means no union-busting, sub-minimum wage labour, no discriminatory recruitment policies and, in countries where regulations are lax, it means proper protection of the health and safety of staff working in both vineyards and wineries. This applies to wineries small and large, incidentally – over the years I’ve steered clear of several cultish “artisanal” wineries having heard stories from ex-employees about cultures of corporate bullying.

Rather less self-righteously, another element that plays an ever-larger part in my calculations is something to which I used to be temperamentally allergic: marketing. There is, I’ve come to realise, an art in communicating a clear, focused message, via packaging, advertising, social media and in-person tastings, that marks out all the most successful brands – an art that, provided it’s built on honest, morally sound foundations and good wine, you’d have to call admirable.