Baby Duck and the Great British Wine Experiment

Gentlemen of a certain age, I’d like you to take a trip back in time. It’s Sunday morning and you’re probably in your teenage years.

Your parents are enjoying a late breakfast of marmalade on toast, muesli and yogurt-juice in the kitchen-extension. As they perch against the newly installed breakfast bar, de rigueur in the late 70s / early 80s, the quiet of the morning is disturbed only by the gentle radiophonic babblings of Noel Edmunds, as he broadcasts from Dingley Del; wise-cracking with celebrity guests and making prank telephone calls to an unsuspecting Great British public. Mum and Dad are scanning the various sections of the Sunday newspaper – or they are if they take a quality Sunday. If they take a middle-brow or tabloid, then Dad will probably be reading the main paper and Mum the colour supplement. In this case, you might want to subtract the breakfast bar from the scene, not to mention the muesli and yogurt juice. Some of you out there, and I know how you feel, might also need to remove one of the parents, probably the father, from the setting, too. I’m tempted to add that a neighbour’s older sibling might well be pummelling seven shades of sh*t out of you for some completely unknown reason, but decline to do so for fear of soiling the tranquil tableau we’ve just created.

What I’m driving towards here is the fact that, broadsheet or tabloid, you will at some stage have got your hands on the colour supplement, and thus will have found yourself flicking through the pages to find something worth looking at. Having found, and studied, the shower advertisement featuring a blonde lady, half-covered in soap suds and with her bottom tantalisingly appearing in view behind the lightly-steamed glass, you may well have disappeared with it to a private place for around 10 to 15 minutes before deciding whether or not to peruse the rest of the magazine. If you had read further, then you may well have found an article on food and possibly drink. The food would have covered anything from traditional British fare to Mediterranean, Indian, American or even Mexican cuisine. Any drink accompaniments would undoubtedly have been wine.

Some of you of a certain age might also remember, in those very pages, encountering an advertisement for a beverage called Baby Duck, a Canadian production described as ‘training wheels for drinkers.’ To this day, I’m still not sure about the wisdom of putting wheels and drink in the same advertising slogan but I think I can see what they were trying to do.

In 1979, the product, a light, sparkling wine of around 5% gravity, was launched in Britain to rival the world’s most popular wine, Mattheus of Portugal, a light effervescent Rosè sold in a fat, elongated bottle: the purpose of the British launch was to get Baby Duck on the UK’s collective dinner table, where it would be shared by adults and children; the intention being to establish the product as the world’s number one wine.

Our country was chosen because, although our understanding and appreciation of wine was considerably poorer in comparison to our European neighbours, this was a time when we really thought we’d like to try to give this wine drinking thing a go. Ironic that in trying to assimilate our habits to those of other cultures, we were hijacked by as limited a version of the real thing as was possible to find. As one of the men behind Baby Duck explained, the product was aimed at an ‘unsophisticated consumer, brought up on fizzy drinks like Coke and 7-Up’, leaving us in little doubt as to what the continental perception of British tastes was – and more often than not, still is.

Another facet of the sales strategy was that putting something like Baby Duck on our tables would make us more like the French; it would train adults, and help children to appreciate and respect wine from a young age. At the time, I’ve no doubt that this seemed like a good pitch, though you don’t have to be too much of a cynic to align it to the tactic of hooking kids onto fast food products before they can even read, thus guaranteeing a lifetime of brand loyalty. I’ve doubted, for a long time, the validity of the argument that says kids drinking watered-down wine at the age of five will ensure they won’t turn out to be washed-out addicts later in life, but let’s not go off on that tangent. 

Baby Duck actually appeared on my Sunday lunch table during my own childhood, particularly when we had visitors. Without wishing to condemn the product out of hand (as a thirteen year old, I liked drinking it, even though I’m not sure I actually liked it), I think we can all be just a little relieved that British tastes have evolved and that the range of wines now available to us proves that, even if you’ve been weaned on the trashiest, most sugar-saturated, carbonated swill, it doesn’t mean to say that your path’s been laid before you.

Baby Duck is still going strong in Canada, though I have no idea if is available in the UK. As I haven’t seen it on a British supermarket shelf for over 20 years, I think we can assume the experiment failed. Then again, if the idea was to turn us on to more sophisticated wines, then someone from the BD stable might claim it worked; a strange claim, to educate the tastes of others to the detriment of your own livelihood. All I can safely say is that I haven’t a seen a Baby Duck advert, nor one of those shower campaigns for a long time – not that I’ve been looking for either, of course.



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