So I went to a Morrisons supermarket and bought a bottle of their own brand South African smooth and fruity Chardonnay. It cost £4.99. So what?
Only this. A couple of weeks ago, Morrisons caused a minor panic in the world of food and drink retailing by announcing a new and aggressive price-cutting strategy: so aggressive, in fact, that their profits would halve over the next few years, as the price war took effect. This in turn knocked £2 billion off the value of all listed UK supermarkets (Morrisons included), as the announcement sank in: the race for the mainstream, it now appeared, would be straight to the bottom.
Why are Morrisons putting themselves in this position? Because they've concluded that the supercheap German invaders - Lidl and Aldi, basically - have won the battle for Everyman's wallet, and that there is no longer any point in attempting the we-do-everything rationale which has driven supermarket growth over the last twenty years. Rationalised product lines, great value, stark simplicity, no tiresome coffee machines - that's the plan, apparently, and the price-wise British are going to break down Morrisons' doors in their eagerness to get at the goods. Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury will look on in horror, and, to a lesser extent, given their higher-end clientéle, Waitrose - leaving Morrisons supreme.
Thing is, do I believe them? After all, Morrisons have always been a funny kind of enterprise, not least because Ken Morrison, the man who made the chain huge in the north of England before taking them south at the turn of the century, insisted on having a dedicated pie counter in every store: a typically belligerent Yorkshire antirefinement which made me want to sneer out loud every time I read about it. Here in the south they were unknown until suddenly they were everywhere, often in absolutely huge supermarkets which they'd bought off Safeway. The old northern Morrisons was a byword for good business practice and strong growth; the new, national, Morrisons became known for a shortage of interesting product lines, a failure to invest in their IT systems, scant online presence, and a general sense of having overreached themselves. Reinvention is going to be hard.
And it matters because of the drink. Wine = supermarket wine, most of the time, for most of us. And the big supermarkets, with their ungovernably vast ranges and their insanity-provoking pricing philosophies, have used the fantasy of limitless choice as a way to flog us a load of indifferent wines at tiresomely inflated prices. But will Morrisons' bold new plan compel the others to ditch senseless variety and two-faced pricing, in favour of simplicity and clarity, just like you get in Lidl?
To say nothing of quality. When Morrisons made their news, everyone parenthetically raved about the great value of Lidl/Aldi produce. What no-one seemed to be saying was that a lot of Lidl's stuff is not just cheap, but good. Yes, they have a weakness for bin-ends of frogman's flippers/assorted fusewire/lengths of plastic sheeting; and as many have said, you can get some great stuff there but you can't do your week's shop. But their booze is always worth checking out - genuinely Continental in its one-size-fits-all approach. Can a bunch of chippy Northerners do the same?
Well, just to show solidarity, I went straight to my nearest Morrisons, pleasant enough store, fairly busy, helpful staff, Tescoesque punters milling around, slightly undecided wine section wrestling for floorspace with the discount ciders and jereboams of knock-off vodka. I got my Chardonnay (rashly adding a sub-£5 Chianti and a smarter Fitou at £5.99), took it home and drank it. It was okay, more dentist's rinse than Chardonnay, but served headache-cold, it passed the time. Thing is, Lidl would have had it on offer at £3.99, maybe even less. And since it's all about the price point, we can only conclude that Morrisons are at least 20% off the mark. All right, it's far too early to tell; a return trip in ten months' time ought to reveal a different store altogether.
If, by then, it is a different store altogether, can we hail the start of a new realism in cheap wine? Will Morrisons live up to their thrilling promise? Will they stop Tesco in their tracks? I'd like to think so; but at the same time, I have doubts as big as an Aldi dogfood multipack, that such a thing will actually happen in my lifetime.