What is quality?
Gerald Weinberg, the famous computer scientist and consultant, described quality as “value to some person”. This definition of quality is just one of many, but it is certainly appropriate to the subjective experience of wine consumption, and we will adopt it as a first step in this discussion. As a second step, we can add that value is realized when consumers perceive the presence in a product or service of a value that they themselves subscribe to. For example, if a wine lover values a specific aroma in a particular type of wine, that value will be realized in the consumption of a wine that exhibits this aroma, and the consumer will experience a certain level of quality.
If we then take a hedonistic perspective on quality, which is certainly amenable to the majority of wine lovers, we can further assert that the realization of value gives the consumer enjoyment. In other words, we can argue that the primary function of wine is to provide pleasure, which corresponds with another common definition of quality, namely fitness for purpose. Thus, in general terms, the more pleasure a wine provides, the higher its perceived quality and its value to the consumer will be.
The enjoyment provided by wine is firstly sensual, and it arises from wine’s inherent visual, olfactory, gustatory, and textural characteristics. Continuing with our hedonistic perspective, the more sensual satisfaction a wine provides, the higher its inherent quality. Most wine lovers and professional wine writers approach wine from this angle, and there is a broad consensus about the specific sensory attributes that constitute the inherent quality of a wine. Quality wine, apart from being free of obvious faults that compromise its fundamental integrity (e.g. excessive oxidation), is in general terms appreciated for the clarity and pleasing intensity of its individual aromas, flavours and textures, and for the complexity and harmony that the combination of these elements creates.
Furthermore, many consumers and critics, as well as quality classifications such as the European PDO system, place a high value on the typicity of a wine with regard to the grape variety or varieties from which it is made and/or with respect to the traditions in the region in which it is produced. Finally, many wine lovers value what they perceive as the distinguishing characteristics of particular wines in addition to their varietal and/or regional typicity, especially as an expression of their unique terroir – the geological, climactic and cultural factors that combine in their production. Terroir can thus also be understood as the typicity of a specific viticultural site and, if we include the differing weather patterns from vintage to vintage as a determining factor, in a particular year.
Our philosophy of intrinsic quality
Like most wine retailers, we subscribe to this quality perspective. We therefore seek to stock wines that fulfil the above value criteria, and especially those of integrity, clarity, intensity, textural agreeability, complexity and harmony. We are less dogmatic with regard to typicity and terroir.
Concerning typicity, we recognize the desire of many consumers for an assurance that when they buy a wine made from a specific grape variety and/or originating from a specific region it will conform to their organoleptic expectations. However, we believe that the same grape variety can produce excellent wines in different styles even in the same region. Furthermore, we are aware of the risk that the demand for sensory characteristics considered typical of a certain wine might reduce rather than promote quality. Winemakers and consumers who share this concern often point to the example of Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, in which the cat-pee aromas produced by under-ripe grapes have in fact become a sought-after characteristic among many wine consumers. We therefore see typicity as a subordinate quality attribute.
With regard to terroir, we highly value the vinous diversity that arises from the various natural and cultural factors of wine production in different regions, and we do not doubt that the combination of these factors produces a certain individuality that is largely retained from year to year. However, we disagree with the essentialist notion that terroir is an expression, across vintages, of a fundamental, unchanging identity, especially given the rapid climatic changes brought about by the Anthropocene. Furthermore, in this transcendental form, the notion of terroir arguably serves above all to attach monetary value to certain very specific geographical locations (e.g. the properties of the Bordeaux Premiers Grand Crus), and thus to naturalize and thereby perpetuate the enormous economic inequalities in the wine industry. We therefore maintain a healthy scepticism concerning the notion of terroir and especially the uses that it is put to.
Finally, the subjective nature of sensory perception requires that we respect and cater for individual preferences. De gustibus non est disputandum, whatever the members of the wine establishment might say to the contrary, even if that involves the belief that a pipi de chat aroma is a quality attribute. True to this maxim, we offer wines made in many different styles from a wide range of grape varieties. However, we seek to remain true to our own perceptions of quality, according to the principle that we do not sell wines that we would not ourselves want to drink.
In addition to this basic philosophy, we realize that value can be defined not only as equivalent to quality, but also as a function of quality relative to price, i.e. as the price-quality ratio. The importance of this definition arises from the fundamental fact of limited resources, which is to say that in choosing one good, most consumers must forego another. The price-ratio quality ratio is thus an instrument that helps consumers to maximise the value provided by their limited disposable income. This is a reasonable strategy, and we support it by striving to offer our customers the highest possible value relative to the money that they spend on our products. Indeed, we see value for money as imperative to the long-term survival of our own enterprise.
Extrinsic quality and the value chain
Intrinsic quality is thus important, but it is only one part of a much larger value system. Quality in fact extends far beyond the appreciation of wine’s organoleptic characteristics. Consumers are embedded in a complex web of human action that contains a large number of extrinsic quality elements. This web is also known as the value chain, and it informs the acquisition and enjoyment of each bottle that wine lovers drink. The nature of this web, or more accurately wine lovers’ perceptions of it, has a determining impact on what is referred to as the consumer’s Total Quality Experience (TQE). In the present context, this can be described as the sum of the pleasure and thus value that consumers draw from the purchase and/or consumption of any specific wine.
From a wine retailer’s perspective, this extended sphere of extrinsic quality characteristics is first of all connected with the quality of service offered to customers. We aim to fulfil and where possible exceed our customers’ service expectations, and thereby add pleasure and with it value to their consumer experience. Our detailed service quality commitment is described below.
Many wine retail companies limit their consideration of extrinsic quality to their customer service offer. We disagree with this restriction, as beyond sales service quality, extrinsic quality attributes – and thus value – arise at every point connected with a bottle of wine’s production, marketing and consumption, from the clearing of land to plant the vineyard to the disposal of the empty bottle. The quality points in this extended chain thus represent opportunities for companies to provide their customers with added value. The question, however, is the extent to which consumers are interested in this wider network, and therefore the value that they themselves attach to its various elements.
Humans tend towards short-term and short-range thinking, and wine consumers are certainly no exception to this rule. Indeed, an emphasis on the immediate personal pleasure provided by wine’s intrinsic quality characteristics perfectly illustrates this tendency. It might therefore be argued that it is not in the interest of wine retailers to invest in the realization of the value present in the more extended product value chain, as their customers are on the whole indifferent to it. According to this argument, which can be summed up as ‘out of sight, out of mind’, the Total Quality Experience of wine consumers is typically limited to those elements in the value chain that are closest to them. These are the intrinsic product and sales service quality that most companies indeed focus on, as well as external criteria such as the wine’s packaging or reputation, or a specific personal association, for example a connection with a foreign holiday or an important anniversary. We are convinced that this argument is wrong, and that it is mistaken on both ethical and economic grounds.
The ethics of the Total Quality Experience
The fact that people tend to focus on the benefits to be gained from their immediate personal situation does not mean that they are unable to act otherwise. Philosophers throughout the ages have insisted that humans are endowed by nature with a rational faculty that allows them to understand the extended consequences of their actions in time and space, and thereby to maximize the good arising from them. This faculty, they argue, is what makes humans human, and the Greek philosophical maxim γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself), which was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, points to the necessity of humans’ exercising it if they are to realize their full natural potential.
This injunction applies equally to a hedonistic perspective, whereby reason can be seen as a tool that can and should be employed towards the maximisation of pleasure throughout a person’s life. Thus, if a wine lover, or, to apply a philosophically inflected name, an oenophile, claims to perceive no value in the web of causal connections in which their love of wine is embedded, if they argue that they are only interested in ‘what is in the glass’, we must reply that they neither value their true human nature, nor even the fullest enjoyment of their passion. Their oenophilia in fact possesses a pathological character, and as such they can only elicit our pity.
The process of wine consumers’ rational reflection thus involves a movement beyond their momentary enjoyment of wine itself, towards a consideration of the effects of their oenophilia on themselves, on others, and on their non-human environment. This process could obviously be continued ad finitum, but in the following analysis we will restrict it to the extended network of quality points described above. Furthermore, we will limit ourselves to a hedonistic analysis, i.e. a consideration of the pleasure that the wine value chain provides to the consumer, in order firstly to provide a kind of minimal moral framework with regard to vinicultural ethics, and secondly to remain close to the typical perspective of wine lovers and thus the likely readers of this text.
If we begin our analysis with consumers themselves, we can note that wine drinkers who think beyond their immediate enjoyment will seek to maintain their future health, and thus their future opportunities for pleasure, through moderation in their wine consumption. Furthermore, they will not allow themselves to become so intoxicated that the pleasure provided by wine turns into pain (for example in the form of a severe hangover), or that their behaviour might damage their social relations. Therefore, another Delphic maxim, μηδὲν ἄγαν (nothing in excess), is – or at least should be – a fundamental element of the quality experience of wine consumers, and at the same time a central ethical injunction of wine culture. We support this principle through our membership of the ‘Wine in moderation’ programme.
In a second step, the well-being of wine consumers can be extended to the well-being of all the other persons involved in the value chain. This can be framed in terms of another fundamental human trait, namely empathy. In these terms, even hedonistic consumers primarily interested in their own good will recognize the benefit to them of knowing that the people who have enabled their vinous enjoyment, from vineyard workers to the driver who delivered their wine, enjoyed safe, sufficiently rewarding and fairly-remunerated working conditions. Empathy produces suffering in the individual who perceives the suffering of others, and the suffering on the part of an oenophile who is aware of an unjustified lack of human well-being in the vinicultural value chain necessarily detracts from the pleasure provided by the consumption of the wine produced in it, and thus from the consumer’s Total Quality Experience. Furthermore, the contrast between the pleasure provided by the wine and the oenophile’s empathetic suffering with the victim of social injustice causes mental conflict and thus a loss of personal integrity that further detracts from the pleasure provided by the wine in question.
Now, the oenophile might grant the existence of empathy, and agree that it is a fundamental human characteristic, but nevertheless disagree concerning either the moral weight that should be accorded to it, or the sum of pleasure in the value chain. With respect to the former, it might be argued with Paul Bloom that empathy by nature decreases with the psychological distance of the observer to the suffering person, in which case the perceived distress of the victim of unjust working conditions in the value chain might be vanishingly small in comparison with the pleasure with which the wine provides the oenophile. The plight of an exploited itinerant harvest worker is a long way away from the gilded dining room of the connoisseur.
Similarly, and from a utilitarian perspective, the oenophile might argue that the pleasure provided by a certain wine outweighs all but the most flagrant acts of inhumanity in its production. Utilitarians argue that not the individual benefit or harm associated with an action is ethically relevant, but only the final sum of good arising from it, which in this case, according to the wine lover, remains positive. Here we cannot refute the argument by asking wine lovers to put themselves in the place of the victim, and thereby to measure their pleasure against the misery that they seek to dismiss, as they could simply reply that they would indeed be willing to undergo all manner of indignities for one of their favourite producer’s prized bottles. It is of course doubtful that, when put to the test, they would indeed take this suffering upon themselves, but that does not detract from the logic of their position. A stronger reply is provided, however, by the argument that at every level of intrinsic quality a wine is available in whose value chain generally accepted principles of social justice are adhered to, and that empathetic hedonistic oenophiles by definition enjoy the added value of this social justice and must therefore logically prefer the wine in which it is embodied.
Of course, wine lovers might still insist on the validity of their original preference, for example by insisting on the existence of what the French call vins incomparables, wines beyond compare with any others. Wines might achieve this status through their individuality, their rarity, or the social cachet that they possess, quality criteria that are very much in the minds of connoisseurs. In this case we must resort to a universalist argument regarding the rights of others, which can be simply stated as the golden rule to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but that is not our intention here. Suffice it to say that at this point the hard-hearted oenophile is running very short on argumentative ammunition, and has almost certainly already lost the agreement of at least the majority of other wine lovers, not to mention the broader circle of ethically responsible citizens.
The third step in this reflective process is connected with the well-being of the natural environment. Here the arguments of empathy and self-interest also already provide a guide to principled action. If the production of a wine leads to the depletion and/or degradation of the natural resources on which not only the wine itself, but all human life depends, it cannot be reasonable to purchase that wine, and thus send a signal for further production back up the value chain, when an alternative product of similar inherent quality but with a less damaging or even positive environmental impact is available. To do so would be to condone the human distress and, if we apply the principle of empathy to our relationship with animals, the non-human suffering that an abuse of the environment at some point inevitably causes, which must in turn cause a reduction in the pleasure of the wine consumer’s experience.
The only refuge for the obstinate oenophile with regard to the environmental argument is to repeat the twin assertions of the overriding pleasure provided by certain wines, and the fundamental incomparability of individual examples. Here we could again respond with an appeal to the universal rights of humans, including future generations, and we could add to it an insistence on the rights of the natural world as a whole. This argument is a very important one, but there is no need for an extended discussion of it here. Once more, we can conclude that most ethically informed wine lovers and an even higher proportion of responsible citizens would agree that consumers are morally obliged to consider not only the intrinsic quality of the products that they purchase, but also the wider impact that the production, marketing and consumption of these products have on the natural environment.
The ethical stance that we describe above naturally applies not only to consumers of wine, but to all actors in the wine value chain. As a responsible wine retailer, we therefore obviously subscribe to it. Indeed, we believe that sensual and aesthetic pleasures, and thus wine’s organoleptic qualities, are not equal but rather subordinate to social and environmental principles. We do not value a harmonious wine whose production or marketing involves the erosion of the communal harmony provided by social justice, and nor do we value a complex wine made in a way that unnecessarily reduces the complexity and diversity of the natural world. Therefore, we seek out producers who are not only committed to inherent quality, but also to making wines that embody these higher values, and we choose our business partners in the further areas of logistics, finance, marketing and IT as far as possible according to the same basic philosophy. In addition, we encourage all our partners to join us on the journey to a sustainable future, by communicating our philosophy to them and by engaging them in a dialogue aimed at discovering and exploiting opportunities for improvement in the ethical Total Quality Experience of the wines that we source and sell.
The challenge we set ourselves as a responsible wine retailer is therefore to combine intrinsic, organoleptic excellence with extrinsic quality demands in the areas of customer service, social principles and environmental responsibility, and to promote these standards throughout the value chain. We are convinced that this challenge is not only an ethical imperative, but also a sound business proposition, not least because of the rise in social and ecological consciousness that we are currently witnessing throughout the world. Consumers are paying increasing attention not only to inherent product quality, but also to the social and environmental impact of their purchase choices. We believe that our business concept can take advantage of these trends, and that by doing so our company can achieve long-term success. More information on our definition of business success, which for various reasons cannot be simply described as profitability, can be found in the following section on sustainability.
Our quality commitment
Our commitment to social and environmental quality is set out in the separate sections dedicated to these topics (Equitability and Sustainability). Our commitment to product and service quality is expressed in the following principles:
- We only stock wines from producers whose philosophy of intrinsic and extrinsic quality corresponds with our own.
- We stock a wide range of quality wines in order to satisfy all tastes. We place a special emphasis on the price-quality ratio of the wines that we offer, as we believe that this emphasis corresponds to the demands of a majority of our customers. More information on our philosophy regarding price and margins can be found in the ‘Equitability’ section of this website.
- All of our wines can be purchased as single bottles. In this way we aim to encourage our customers to try different grape varieties and different wine-making styles, and thereby to develop their personal preferences.
- We process and ship orders as quickly as possible. However, we do not risk compromising the quality of our products by shipping them when ambient temperatures at any point along the delivery route are likely to rise above 28 degrees Celsius, unless the customer specifically requests this.
- All customer purchases are protected by the EU regulation for online retailers that allows a 14-day cooling off period, during which the customer can decide to return the goods for a full refund. We support this regulation, in part because it allows customers to return unopened bottles of a wine that does not meet their personal quality expectations. It is therefore a key element in our quality assurance strategy. Furthermore, we extend this policy to all wines purchased from our Swiss-registered company by customers in Switzerland and Lichtenstein, to whom we offer a Swiss return address. We only require that the customer covers the costs of the return shipment, for which we offer fairly-priced return labels upon request.
- We welcome feedback from customers whose expectations are not met by either our products or our service. We regard this information as a source of quality improvement, and we seek to provide fair and timely solutions to all customer complaints.