My Round: State of independence

Supermarkets are criminals out to mug suppliers, small rivals and you. Who says so? A key player who knows all the tricks

I've been working for years on a book provisionally entitled Quotations from Fair-Minded Business Leaders. So far, I've found only one quotation I can use. It comes from the American publisher Bennett Cerf, who said: "If you're making money, let the other guy make money too." Maybe I'll find a few others to join this example of capitalism with a human face. In the meantime, I'm reminded of Cerf's dictum by a report in Harper's, the drinks-trade weekly, of a speech given in Bordeaux by David Combe.

Combe is a former vice-president of Australia's giant Southcorp and non-executive director of the smaller Ozzie producer Evans & Tate. He didn't pull any punches. "Such is the arrogance of UK retailers that," he said, "they consistently commit abuses of retail power which... if committed in Australia, would represent major breaches of the trade practices laws and almost certainly result in the offending corporation being fined and the offending individuals quite probably being invited to enjoy the hospitality of HM Prisons."

In one of the abuses of power he cited, a supermarket that had agreed to promote a wine with a £2 reduction on 40,000 cases suddenly changed it to £1 off, "making it less attractive and leaving 20,000 unsold cases to be collected by the supplier". In another, the producer and the supermarket agreed to a price for wine that would be sold as buy-one-get-one-free. Then the supermarket changed the offer to a £2-per-bottle price cut, giving themselves an extra £300,000 profit. Combe said: "The only 'partnership' they [the supermarkets] are really interested in is one in which there is a 'screwer' and a 'screwee', with the supplier always being cast as the latter." Updating Cerf's dictum, it would probably say: "If you're making money, try to make even more money - at the other guy's expense."

The backdrop to these iniquitous arrangements is the over-supply of cheap, often anonymous wine. In Australia, for instance, the 2004 crop is expected to be around 20 per cent larger than 2003's, while prices have plummeted to as little as a fifth of their levels five years ago. Bad planning on the part of producers, you might think - and you'd be right. Their decisions have helped make the UK wine trade a buyer's market, and allows the supermarkets to get away with appalling behaviour of the kind Combe lambasts. But their foolishness doesn't excuse the penny-squeezing tactics.

The supermarkets' behaviour - seen in their dealings with suppliers in every category - underlines a point made often in this column. If you want to increase your choice of wine, and put your money in the hands of people who view the wine trade as a partnership, then you have to support independent merchants. Most have an on-line presence or mail-order service. The good ones will advise you well. They are an endangered species and a precious national resource.

One of the newer indies is a real specialist called Terroir. The brainchild of Gemma Crangle, an enterprising woman, formerly employed by London wine merchant Corney & Barrow, Terroir specialises in the Languedoc. She chose well: this is one of the most interesting and diverse areas of wine in France, with vast quantities of bulk-quality production but an increasing number of well-selected, carefully tended vineyards and carefully made wines. Three of Crangle's wines are featured in the box here, and her list (www.terroirlanguedoc.co.uk, tel: 01756 700 512) has plenty more where they came from. They are not cheap, to be sure. If you want cheap, you can find it elsewhere - like on supermarket shelves, for instance. But if you're getting pleasure from your money, let the other guy get some money from your pleasure.

Top Corks: Three Languedoc lovelies

Clos Bagatelle 'La Gloire de mon Père' 2000, St Chinian £18.57 The greatest wine I've tasted from this appellation. Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache. Berries, chocolate and pepper. Amazing.

Château de Lascaux Les Secrets 2000, Côteaux du Languedoc £17.23 Grenache and Syrah given careful oak ageing by a top producer. Utterly alluring spicy fruit, with fine ripe tannins.

Mas Champart Causse du Bousquet 2001, St Chinian £10.05 Good weight, lovely herbal notes, very silky in the mouth. To drink now while giving the others a few more years.

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