Eton's headmaster, Tony Little, recently complained that "we live in a strange society where it is possible to talk with impunity about elitism in football, but not in medicine or plumbing". Coincidentally, the editor of Decanter Magazine, Guy Woodward, was accused of wine snobbery by Asda for point out that there's a "huge amount of difference" in quality between a bottle of wine that sells for £4.99 and one that sells for £6.99.
Claiming that its "world beating wines can give you plenty of spare change from a fiver", an Asda spokesman gave the example of one of its wines, Marques del Norte Rioja, at £4.23, winning a regional 'red Rioja' award from Decanter in May.
But was the Asda spokesman talking through his or her hat? You have to wonder, because said spokesman didn't appear to have taken much of a wander around the supermarket's own wine aisles.
At its summer press tasting, of the 138 wines on show, 115 were priced at over £5 a bottle, while only 23 cost less than a fiver.
I haven't done the sums on the average price of the 138 bottles, but most of the wines on show were in the £5.97-£8.97 range. Not that I'm complaining. In the July report by The Wine Gang, of which I'm one, we praised Asda, saying: "It's worth pointing out that Asda is making an effort to encourage its customers to trade up from commodity to quality, and we hope to see this trend continuing".
Asda's trading up is in line with the general trend. According to the stats people, Nielsen, in a steady market, off-trade wine sales at under £4 a bottle have dramatically fallen while wine selling at over £5 a bottle has broken through the 10 million-case mark for the first time, with sales of wine in all higher price bands also increasing. Occasionally, a wine at under £5, like Asda's Rioja, will punch above its weight, but it's the exception that proves the rule.
Back on 15 January this year, I explained why we at The Independent have decided that we needed to raise the bar on our cheapest Something For the Weekend wine from under a fiver to under £6. It's inevitable when you check out the price/value equation. At just £4.37, the average price of a bottle of wine is still low when you consider that after tax and other costs such as packaging and shipping, there's only about 50p's worth of wine left. Add £2-£3 to the price of the wine and, with most of that going on the wine itself, the quality of the wine increases exponentially.
I'm not denigrating Asda's efforts to move upmarket. If Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Majestic can do it successfully, why shouldn't Asda? What's hard to swallow is the inverted snobbery behind the notion of Asda as consumer champion for selling wines on the cheap. As the latest report from market research specialists Mintel found, 55 per cent of Britons who buy wine to drink at home buy "depending on which has the best discount".
If such deep discounting means lower quality, lack of adventure and binge drinking, bully for Asda and the myopia of being unable to tell the difference between price and value. As Woodward himself tweeted in the wake of the débâcle: "particularly British to attack wine lover for being 'snob'. Wouldn't happen in France/Spain/Italy etc". How true.