Monday, October 06, 2008
Wine - how much more than just a drink? An exercise in heretical thought.
The 2008 annual lecture to the Wine Communicators of Australia. Given in Melbourne and Sydney on September 22 & 23 2008
The speech began with this video clip. For those who are can't access youtube, it credibly depicts an elephant strolling into a gym, mounting a trampoline and happily bouncing in the air and turning head over heels.
I wanted to share this little clip with you, partly because I think it’s really rather wonderful and it never fails to raise my spirits. But also to illustrate a point. I imagine that everyone in this room has realised that a real life Dumbo wasn’t genuinely turning those somersaults. But I’ll bet that somewhere within each of us there’s a wish that all that trampoline action really did happen. And much of what I’m going to talk about today is the gap between wishing and reality. Much of it will sound like heresy, and some of it may sound downright irrelevant. Especially when I take in subjects like coffee, the rationality of oral sex among US teenagers and sales of cheesy classical music and a couple of the biggest but most widely believed lies in western civilisation
But before we head off on this magical mystery tour, I suppose I ought to say a few words about myself. Most of you, if you know me at all, know me as a wine writer, founder of the International Wine Challenge and occasional judge at wine shows in Australia, ranging from the Adelaide Hills to the Tri Nations which I chaired in Sydney last week. All of this is true, but I should also reveal three years ago, I effectively gave up consumer wine writing. Since then, I have become editor at large of the trade magazine Meininger’s Wine Business International, working alongside your colleague Felicity Carter, analysing the ins and outs and the who’s doing what to whoms of the wine world. And I have also been walking on the wilder side, producing, branding and trying to sell a few wines of my own. I am stating this, partly as a declaration of interest, and partly as an additional justification for standing in front of you and pontificating.
In fact, I now feel rather like someone who, after a lengthy career writing academic books about sex, finds that he’s taken on a part time job in a brothel. Which, I guess takes me back to the ins and outs of the wine world.
Just as we all wanted to believe in the elephant, every one of us in this room believes – or wants to believe – that when someone uses honest means to produce a wine that we think is good and fairly priced, that they somehow have a right to exist and continue to survive.
And Sarah Palin, quite possibly the person who’ll one day make us all feel nostalgic for the relative sophistication of George W Bush believes that God made the world and everything on it in six days.
I’m more of an evolutionist – and evolution is an amoral process in which – to the distress of my son – there are no goodies and baddies. Like nuclear war and the world of banks and insurance companies, there are just fatalities and survivors. Last year, in the UK alone, 10,000 novels were published. That’s more than one every hour. Some, probably most, were probably, to use a technical term, crap – though, unless they were self-published, someone apart from the author evidently thought otherwise – but a fair few were almost certainly fine and possibly minor masterpieces. We’ll never know. We hear about the JK Rowlings and Frederick Forsyths who, like characters in one of their own novels, fight their way through adversity – in the form of a thicket of rejection slips - to make it onto the best seller lists. We never hear about the writers whose work is abandoned in the thicket. Or about some of the great movies that never get to be produced or go straight to video. But we do get to see Kevin Costner and Nicole Kidman in Father Christmas Stole My Breakfast. (Okay, so I made that up, but I’ll bet something very like it is heading our way right now).
Let’s look beyond the elephant – at the reality of the wine world of 2008, a world which, as communicators we might all claim to have helped to create or at least to mould into its current state. Unless of course, we’ve all been indulging in conversations with each other. And ourselves.
Considered objectively in the latter part of 2008, there are lots of good things to say about the wine world. Average quality – taking into account the drinkability of the basest and the most exalted wines – is higher than it has ever been. The choice is wider, with new wines appearing on the market every day. Adventurous wine drinkers in New York and London are able to wash down their pizza with Uruguayan Tannat, Chinese Dragon’s Eye, Indian Sauvignon Blanc and Aussie Tempranillo. Financial rewards – for some – have been attractive too. People who bought first growth 2000s en primeur for £1,600 could sell them for £8,000 today. Or at least they’d have been able to do so a few weeks ago. Today I’m not quite as certain. The Casella family’s bank account is presumably rather fatter than it was, as I’d imagine are those of a few Shiraz producers in the Barossa Valley, not to mention Pinot Grigio and Prosecco purveyors in Italy, and the Spaniards and Eastern Europeans who produced the white wine that, by some kind of alchemy, is being transformed into Italian Pinot Grigio and Prosecco.
But, there is, of course, the other side to this picture. When you consider the number of people it involves, our industry doesn’t seem to be quite as big and impressive at it looks. Last year, its total turnover was estimated to be 230 billion US dollars. Which I thought sounded like quite a lot of cash – until I realised that it’s actually 50 billion less than the US government has just doled out to save three financial institutions. Microsoft, by the way, turns over just over 4 times as much as the global wine industry.
But size isn’t everything, at least that’s what I keep saying… Who cares how big you are, provided you’ve got your health. Setting aside the little question of the sustainability – in this country at least - of much of an agricultural industry that depends on water that will not be available, there’s the little matter of current financial viability. In Europe, the traditional heartland of wine, you have an industry that exists on a lifeline provided by European taxpayers, a 1.3bn AU$ annual subsidy, by the way that, even before the current financial storms, was due to be unhooked. For this to happen, large swathes – one eighth to be precise - of vineyard land will need to be uprooted, with the social implications this will inevitably imply.
Wine writers like us, occasionally write about the way big financial institutions like AXA have been sufficiently impressed by the wine world to invest substantial sums into buying Bordeaux chateaux. Fewer of us direct attention to the holdings of another major French finacial institution, the Credit Agricole, which is currently the biggest vineyard owner in France. The difference between AXA and Credit Agricile, was that the insurance company chose which properties it wanted to have in its portfolio; the bank acquires – and continues to acquire its holdings every time one of its customers proves unable to service his loans. Australian wineries, don’t, of course, enjoy the same kind of government subsidies as their European counterparts, but over 90% do get a major tax break in the form of their exemption from WET taxes.
Where’s the pride in that. But can we really take pride in being involved in an industry that is largely fixated on price and discount? How much discounting do you really see of perfumes and cosmetics – products, whose production costs are far, far smaller, and whose retail margins are far larger than the ones for wine?
And what about the fact that ours is the only industry on earth that is effectively dictated to by one or two American critics? There’s no “Emperor of Fashion”, “Emperor of Art” or “Emperor of Music” in the sense that Robert Parker is described as the Emperor of Wine. I don’t actually like the use of the term “emperor” because it implies that the person in question has either been born to, married into, or somehow usurped the imperial throne. Robert Parker did none of these things. In fact, I rather think of him as Frankenstein’s monster. Essentially a perfectly decent soul who owes his power to a dangerously misled creator. And who is that creator? Us of course. The wine producers and retailers who reinforce Parker’s power every time they use his points to promote a wine, and many of us wine writers who do precisely the same every time we feebly use our public access to criticise his influence or taste.If none of us mentioned him for a year
12 years ago there were 20,000 individual chateau labels in Bordeaux. Today there are 9,000. 12 years ago, Yellow Tail didn’t exist. Today it’s 10% of the Australian harvest. In 12 years time, I doubt there will even be 2,000 Bordeaux chateau labels. And I have absolutely no idea how big a label Yellow Tail will be. That’s the fascination of the evolutionary process. No one could ever have predicted the demise of the dodo or Lehman Brothers. Or the survival of the mosquito and the cockroach. Or fall from grace of names like Seppelt, Lindemans and Leo Buring.
In the real world, good wine producers and good wine writers have a hard time. - while – to their chagrin, bigger, richer, better connected or simply sometimes luckier competitors seem to prosper.
RATIONAL CHOICE THEORY
Most of us at some time or other have gurus – people who influence the way we think. People like Brian Croser… In my case, I have to say that my thinking has been greatly influenced by my three year old son Noah – for the simple reason that he asks “why” 475 times – yes, I’ve counted – per day. And hearing him, has made me a lot more questioning about the wine world. Which, in turn has brought me to take an interest in a branch of economics called Rational Choice Theory. Which seeks to explain almost every form of human behaviour. The best book I’ve read on it is the Logic of Life by Tim Harcourt who writes in the Financial Times. I thought I’d quote part of that book that caught my attention.
“Parents, brace yourselves." With those words, Oprah Winfrey introduced America to the shocking news of the teenage oral sex craze. Indeed, the American "blow job epidemic" has now been addressed everywhere from PBS documentaries to the editorial page of The New York Times. Between 1994 and 2004, young people between ages twelve and twenty-four became more than twice as likely to report that they'd recently had oral sex.. "Epidemic" might be putting it too strongly, but oral sex is definitely in vogue.
The question few people seem to have asked is "Why?" Might there not be such a thing as a rational blow job? The basic idea is not complicated: Rational people respond to trade-offs and to incentives. When the costs or benefits of something change, people change their behavior.
Armed with this basic definition of rationality, then, we can ask: What are the costs, benefits, and likely consequences of a blow job? Okay, perhaps the benefits are too obvious to be stated, particularly for the recipient.: HIV is much more likely to be spread by regular sex than oral sex. Many teenagers know that. The costs of oral sex are, quite simply, lower than the costs of regular sex. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that since the beginning of the 1990s, the number of teenage virgins has risen by over 15 percent.”
So what about the rationality – the cost-benefit of wine buying? Well, I’d argue that it’s rather more complex than oral sex. According to Hugh Johnson, the benefit is something very akin to a spiritual experience: “Its life, in the last analysis, is what sets wine apart. There is nothing else we buy to eat or drink that brings us the identity of a place in a time in the same way, that memorises and recalls (if we listen) all the circumstances that made it what it is...embrace the identity, enjoy the circumstances, be transported to other places and times. Embrace even the mythology: it adds to the colour of life.” I guess, at its most ideal, that’s supposed to describe people like us who work in wine, and the wide range of people one might term wine enthusiasts.
But when I look around the average bar, café or even living room I don’t see many people embracing the identity of the stuff in their glass. I don’t actually see many of them sniffing it for that matter. What they are generally doing is drinking it. For these people, the benefit is rather simple: it’s a liquid they enjoy, that happens to include alcohol.
For some, of course, there’s another possible benefit, whereby the wine serves a similar purpose to the tie or dress you’ve chosen to wear for a date or interview. It’s intended to make an impression.
Now let’s look at the costs – apart from financial. Important among these is possible disappointment. What if the wine doesn’t taste very nice? Or what if it fails to impress and I fail to get laid or get the job? Worse still, what if the bottle actually diminishes me, by making me seem stupid or unsophisticated?
Take all of these into account and quite a lot of behaviour seems to be very rational. Taking the costs and benefits into consideration, there’s a lot to be said for buying Yellow Tail. You like and can afford it, it always tastes more or less the same and, in most situations for its buyers, it will make a reasonable impression. For the occasions when it won’t, well, there’s Robert Parker. Serving a bottle of Cabernet with 95 points gives many US buyers the same kind of confidence they might get from carrying a Colt 45 into an area of marginal danger.
The success of screwcaps in Australia and New Zealand is entirely explained by rational economics. All the benefits of reliable wine with no perceived cost– but so is its snail-speed adoption in Europe where the risk of looking unsophisticated outweighs the possible benefit of getting a taint free bottle. Especially if the European drinker is as unaware of the incidence of taint as US teenagers apparently were of the risks of HIV before they shifted their allegiance to oral sex.
But what is the rational reason for buying most of the wines on any wine shop shelf. If you haven’t drunk it before, and/or know little about it, the costs of disappointment and failing to impress have to be taken into account. And what’s the benefit? Unless you are a curious wine drinker looking for new experiences, I’d argue that they’re very questionable. Which is why I’d argue that sales of branded wines are growing so fast across the globe.
Surely, some of you will argue, most people are more complex than that. They want to enjoy a broader range of experiences and to widen their horizons. That’s what you’ll argue, and I’ll argue back. In most areas of human behaviour, most of us tend to play safe. We have favourite restaurants and holiday resorts.. We favour the same brands of hair shampoo, coffee and tea. And we read books by the same authors.
One of our handicaps as wine writers is that we tend to treat wine as though it were a special case, unlike everything else we buy and consume. I prefer to seek parallels in other spheres, among which few are more instructive than music. If the beverage world has a “share of throat” – and I’ll come to that in a moment, the recording and more particularly radio industries have a Share of Ear. Essentially, you can buy or download innumerable pieces of music, but you can only listen to them one at a time. My premise, is that music could be likened to drink -helpfully pop is a term used in both industries – with wine – or at least half-way serious wine - being the equivalent of classical music. Stuff that is intended to be savoured, lingered over and thought about.
So how big a part of the music industry is classical? In 1980 it was 20%. In 2006, in the US, it was just 1.9%. not quite as popular as the 2% figure for jazz, and distinctly less impressive than the over 3% both enjoyed five years earlier. But now let’s look at the kind of music those classics lovers were buying. Of the top 20 best sellers recently listed by Amazon, there were no fewer than five albums for children, born and unborn, (Baby Einstein is the winning brand here), four by the blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, and a couple by Sarah Brightman. Bocelli and his fellow “crossover” artist, the American baritone Josh Groban are as important to classical music as white Zinfandel is to wine. When both failed to release a record in 2005, total classical sales dropped by 15%
Which is a bit depressing for those who think of Bach, Beethoven, Barolo and Bordeaux as being somehow essential parts of human civilization. But, that’s a dangerously arrogant and introspective view – unless you feel happy about totally dismissing the largely wine-free achievements of Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Indian civilisations over the last couple of millennia. The Chinese and Japanese, might in any case reasonably make a similar claim for tea, another agricultural product which comes in various subtly and dramatically different forms and relies on human intervention to become a potentially sublime beverage. Anyone who has visited China and learned even a little about the background to tea in that country will have been entranced and fascinated by it. And most probably returned home with a firm will to buy and prepare their breakfast cuppa with far greater care. And maybe, every wine writer in this room can name the precise origin and producer of shade-grown tea they like, And maybe some of you can’t. And those of you who are content to enjoy Liptons, Twinings or Bushells can feel relieved to know that they’re – we’re - in good company. Most of the winemakers I know pay little heed to their tea. But, then again, unless they chose to go to a specialist tea shop, they aren’t really going to be confronted by that much of a choice. One that’s certainly smaller than it is for wine. Every time you buy a basic commercial packet of tea bags (used for 96% of the global tea market by the way), I’d ask you to think of the person in another part of the store who’s mindlessly picking up a bottle of their regular South Eastern Australian Chardonnay or Shiraz.
But even here, we need to define terms. The image you all have in your mind when I say “tea” is probably a cup of hot liquid. You probably didn’t imagine a bottle of iced tea. But, for a growing number of people, that’s what tea represents. American consumption of iced tea stands at 13 litres per head, and represents 80% of all tea sold. In Australia, the figure is only a litre, but it’s growing at 30% per year. Another place where iced tea consumption is booming is China, where Coca Cola launched a brand seven years ago, in response to a fall in the sales of their eponymous fizzy drink.
This brings me neatly back to the Share of Throat. What Coca Cola is competing for with its iced tea, its bottled water and its fruit drinks, is precisely what Coopers and VB and every wine in the world are fighting for. Observers of the Australian scene can now acknowledge that RTD drinkers are not particularly loyal to their particular style of beverage. Jack up the price and they switch allegiance to spirits. In the UK, interestingly, our tax man declined to follow the same route as yours earlier than yours, for the simple reason that RTDs had already fallen out of fashion and there wasn’t enough revenue to be gained from increasing the duty on them. Wine, however, offered better prospects, and we saw the biggest tax hike in over a decade.
For most traditional wine people – and probably for some people in this room, the notion that a fine Shiraz or Riesling is in any kind of competition with Coca Cola or tea is an anathema, But it’s also a reality. Three days ago, I was asked to host a small dinner for a bank here in Australia – a case of eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die, perhaps. There were a number of serious wines to drink with the meal and a white to sip at on arrival. Except, that of the group of invitees and hosts – all of whom happily tucked into the wine on the dinner table, one kicked off the evening with as Diet Coke, one had a beer and another had a coffee. (And I must confess that I had a glass of water). The freedom to choose a beverage in this way, like the freedom to request a meat-free or gluten-free meal is something of a novelty. But it reflects the fact that we live in a world that is full – arguably over-full of choices.
Historically, people used to drink what was available to them. But that did not prevent the Share of Throat from being an issue. The time this was most apparent was during the 18th century in the UK. Every wine writer knows about the invention and arrival on the scene of Portuguese fortified wine as a replacement for the unfortified claret which was suddenly barred from British shores following one of Britain’s spats with France. What is less often referred to is the fact that wine during that century had to compete with such recently introduced phenomena as coffee (the coffee houses didn’t serve port) and tea. Nor is it often noticed that, unlike their neighbours to the south of the border, the Scots did not actually embrace port. They switched from claret to whisky, in response to the English raising their duty rates on lowland scotch.
INTEREST RATES FALL
To return to my rational economics, our biggest problem would seem to be that we have collectively failed to create a sufficiently deep level of interest in wine. As consumption has grown in the English speaking world, the number of column centimetres and the number of books sold has shrunk. Newspapers, including the London Sunday Telegraph for which I used to write, the London Evening Standard, the Los Angeles Times and a newspaper you might be familiar with in Queensland, have all dispensed with their wine writers.. Wine International Magazine has also disappeared, and Decanter almost certainly sells far more copies outside the UK than within it – and declines to publish audited circulation figures.
There are two responses to this. Most wine writers and a fair few wine buffs respond to this trend by lamenting that editors and publishers are philistines who refuse to give readers the wine coverage they want, need and deserve. But publishers are no different to the wine retailers who have reduced their ranges. They are responding to demand. Or lack of it. I cannot speak for other countries, but I know that newspapers like the one I used to write for, regularly ask their readers what they do and don’t want from the publication. And then they use that information when deciding how to allocate space. And yes, they are inevitably influenced by advertising – or the lack of it – but less than some people might like to claim. After all, newspapers are packed with advertisements for watches and perfumes, but few – apart from the New York Times – have regular scent writers and none carry regular articles on watches.
My belief in the weakness of basic interest and curiosity about wine is supported by data I dug out using a hidden away corner of Google called Google labs which generously allows you to analyse the number of searches there have been for particular subjects. The iPhone, for example showed a huge spike of interest. But as these charts show, wine interest is small and relatively static. And less than 25% of Google searches for Margaret River fell into the category of Food & Wine. (I particularly like using Google as a measure of interest, because it’s quantifiable – unlike guesses about how many people have even looked at a particular article in a newspaper; you actually have to click a button) and it’s free.
Wearing my wine-selling – or would-be wine-selling – hat, I recently learned how wine is bought nowadays in major British supermarkets, in the US and in China, to name but three markets. And it led me to I must admit to having had romantic memories of keen professional wine buyers scouring the globe for exciting new delights to set before their customers. Sometimes, I recalled, these buyers would spend hours in tasting rooms, closeted away with winemakers, intent on producing the ideal blend. Today, the buyers are often just as talented as their predecessors, but they are subject to quite different constraints. When I prepared for a meeting with one chain recently, it was unclear whether we would actually get to taste the wines we were going to discuss. In the event, thankfully, we did. But all too often the preliminary meetings involve looking at the labels, at powerpoint displays listing the key selling points and – and of course this is crucial – the “financials”. Get over all those hurdles, and provided you are a supplier with whom the retailer is already happy to work (and they generally don’t want to increase the number of companies with whom they have accounts) and provided the category is not one that has not been deemed to be full or, worse still, in need of pruning… then they might get round to tasting your wine. In the US, you can add the need for Parker or Wine Spectator points. Nothing with fewer than 87 need apply.
THE NEW PARADIGM
For this part, I’d like to give credit to a bright American called Mark Engel who gave a speech last year about what he calls the New Wine Paradigm. To understand Engel’s theory, it’s worth starting with his notion of the Old Paradigm which he sees as effectively consisting of the winery saying “Hey, consumer, here’s my story and why you should buy my wine”. Basically, it’s a monologue focusing on the age of the vines, the awards or points that have been won and the wonderful way the wine goes with particular dishes. Engel believes that consumers don’t want to be talked at; they want a conversation. In effect they are saying, “Hey, winery, catch my interest and I’ll build my own story around you based on what’s important to me”..They want to decide for themselves what they think of – and possibly like about the wine.
The way I translate this into a visual image, is to imagine a shop or gallery with a set of doors each of which appeals to a different person, or the same person in a different state of mind. For a winery, one door might be marked “Awards, Medals, Points”. Another might refer to the fact that the winery is 150 years old. A third might focus on the quality of the winery restaurant, while the fourth might direct attention to the human qualities of the owner or winemaker. The fifth, might be about the organic nature of the grape growing, while the last might have something to do with the fact that the wine appeared in a movie. (Just think how Otago as a region has benefited from a range of stories covering the quality of Felton Road, the nearness of the ski slopes and bungee jumps, and the presence and involvement of the bloke everyone remembers from Jurassic Park and the Piano.
To quote Engel directly “. I’m not saying that terroir, the care of the grapes or differences in production methods are not important. Of course they are. But not everybody who enjoys wine—and who might enjoy your wine—takes the time to learn why such things are important and remember the rich details that distinguish wines. The stories surrounding them often sound the same to all but the most hardcore enophiles. Without a deeper, more personalized connection to your wine, how do average consumers differentiate among the thousands of options available to them?”
What Engel isn’t talking about here, but I think is also relevant to his thesis, is the limited attention span of most modern consumers. It has been established that the average wine buyer in a supermarket – where 80% of wine is now sold in the UK and Germany for example – spends less than two minutes in the wine section, and makes their selection in 18 seconds. These figures, which help to explain why brands – and memorably striking labels – are so important, taken along with Engel’s stress on the need for conversation, set me thinking that maybe the best way for anyone to hone their skills and marketing and selling, is by doing a bit of speed dating. The key to which, lies in learning as much about your prospective date as rapidly as possible, so that you can respond in ways that will prove most effective. If she lets you know that she isn’t into sport but loves watching wildlife programmes, you’d be well advised to express an interest in real tigers rather than an obsession with Tiger Woods. Of course, those of us who are in committed relationships may find some difficulty in selling the idea of having to do speed dating as part of our jobs, but they’ll just have to understand the sacrifices we are prepared to make.
Of course, tailoring your message to the listener – and offering an array of tailored messages - is a lot more easily said than done. And it raises interesting questions for professional wine writers as to where they fit into this new paradigm. Because many of the messages that are now going to need to be sent out are not the ones we are used to transmitting. One of the very best examples though, of this approach being skilfully adopted is Dom Perignon. Which contrives to be different things to different – or possibly the same – people. On the one hand, there’s Richard Geoffroy passionately explaining the wine values that lie behind the oenotheque programme, while on the other, there are the Dom Perignon private rooms in clubs across the world – and sexy advertisements depicting Claudia Schiffer in poses that might have been used to sell underwear or perfume. In Australia, I’ve been impressed by some of the things Yalumba has done along similarly broad lines in its efforts to promote its range of Viogniers.
But far too many Australian wineries follow the old paradigm. And worse still, I believe, are becoming more European than the Europeans, and throwing away the skills with which they achieved so much overseas success.
European wine was traditionally, hard to like, hard to understand (in the way that it was labeled) and generally inconsistent. All aspects that made it unappealing to rational buyers. Australian wine was quite the opposite. As someone once said, Australian wine owed its early wins to the fact that Aussie producers went into buyers’ offices and declared “the answer’s yes. What’s the question”. Let’s look at the picture today.
We have a growing number of Tempranillos, Nebbiolos and Barberas which taste perfectly ok, until you compare them with European run of the mill efforts on offer at a third of the price. Of course, their lack of brilliance is easy to explain, given the age of the vines and inexperience of the makers. What is less easy to accept is those makers’ notion that they have the right to charge $20 for what is essentially work in progress. It smacks all too much of the way the winegrowers of Burgundy and Bordeaux traditionally believe they have the right to ask high prices for their least successful vintages. The readiness of local critics to over-praise these wines, similarly seems reminiscent of the tendency of French wine writers to give a soft ride to their favourite compatriot producers. Labelling too is becoming very European. Winemakers in Vouvray and Alsace often annoyingly neglect to provide any indication on their labels of the fact that their wines are actually pretty damn sweet. Here, the trend is to fail to mention that a Chardonnay is unoaked.
And then of course there’s the thorny question of regionality. According to Jock Osborne, executive officer of the GI committee (part of the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation),, 'The establishment of the New England Australia GI will enable wine growers in the district to regionally brand and market their wines. 'The emerging wine industry in this region will have the opportunity to benefit from its new status.'
No they won’t. Any more than the producers of Cabardes a relatively recently created appellation in Languedoc Roussillon. Wine regions want appellations, GIs, DOCs or whatever you want to call them in much the same way that countries want national airlines. And often with about as much justification. The fact that Air Gabon exists does not give it any right to survive and prosper. Swiss Air went bust, as did Belgium’s Sabena – the acronym stood for Such A Bloody Experience Never Again, by the way, which may be relevant. And today, Alitalia – Always Late In Taking-off; Always Late In Arriving – can’t afford to pay its petrol bills.
I was once chased around the world by a bossy South African PR woman who wanted free help for a pitch she was about to make. How, she wanted to know when she finally caught up with me on my mobile in a hotel lobby in Hong Kong, could a South African region become as famous as the Napa Valley? Conscious that I was paying for this call, I was possibly a little more brusque than I might have been. Tell them to get a few producers who make great, attention-grabbing wine. That’s how Margaux, Napa and Marlborough all did it. Other places, like Mendocino, Moulis and Mudgee failed to do so – and there aren’t many queues of people wanting to buy wines from those areas. Gerard Magrez, owner of Chateau Pape Clement, the oldest estate in the Graves – and of over 30 other estates in places ranging from Priorat and Napa to Uruguay and Japan recently sold his Cotes de Bourg chateau on the basis that the only Bordeaux appellations anyone is interested in are St Emilion and Margaux. Another friend who was, until he finally managed to sell it, co-owner of Chateau Fourcas Hosten in Listrac in the Medoc took a very similar view.
However, there is a downside to being a famous wine region. Unless you are very small – like Pomerol and Pauillac – there’s a grave risk that you’ll eventually become a commodity. Supermarkets wasn’t Own Label versions; Scandinavian monopolies invite tenders and the lowest common denominator raises its head above the parapet. Today, you can buy inexpensive Barossa Shiraz in UK supermarkets which does nothing for the image of the region. And, following the 2008 harvest, you’ll be seeing similarly cheap, and similarly basic Marlborough Sauvignon. And, being a commodity does not do much to engender true appreciation and understanding.
Last week, in London, I bought two bottles of Rioja from the same store to taste on air for a BBC radio programme. Both had the word Rioja on labels that were the same shade of yellow. One was Campo Viejo which cost me just under £7. The other was an unknown wine that cost just £2.98. When I got to the studio, the young university graduate who greeted me said, “Oh, I like Rioja, but I’m a bit embarrassed to ask. Can you tell me, is Rioja the grape or the region? I explained that it was the region. After a pause he said, so does that mean that you only get Rioja from Spain?
I think that the fundamental problem facing the wine industry globally is that it’s bi-polar. Winemakers don’t know if they are artists or artisans. Are they making tables with four equal-length legs, because that’s how tables work, or are they making two legged tables that won’t support a cup of tea. Mr Casella is a supreme artisan, delivering huge numbers of very serviceable tables. You may liken what he does to Ikea, but I suspect he wouldn’t mind. Far too many other producers are offering what they want to make. And that’s their absolute prerogative, just as it’s our right as wine or art critics to praise or deride their work. Sadly, what they do not have – and they and we often forget this – is any right to survive and prosper. It’s a hard world out there. You either sell what people already want to buy – and do so more attractively than your competitors, or you have to find a pretty good way to persuade them that they are going to like what you want to sell them.
So, where has the magical mystery taken us? What, if any, are the points you might want to take away from it?
Producers and marketeers need to give far more thought to the rationality of why people buy the wines they do
They need to create a range of stories to appeal to a range of consumers – or the same consumers in different states of mind
They need to engage in conversations – sometimes literally – with those consumers to understand more about them, and to encourage them to go on buying the wine – and passing the word on to others
Wine writers need to think very carefully about where they fit into the short and longer term picture. Do they want to talk to a small number of like-minded souls? Or do they want to be heard beyond the walls of the church in which they are giving their sermons
There’s a crucial set of questions that applies to everyone who wants to sell anything – from a bottle of wine, to an article or book, to themselves.
Who are you?
What do you do?
And most crucially of all
And why should I care?