Saturday, September 26, 2009
The problem is that premiumisation is not only an ugly word; it’s also a term whose meaning depends on the person using it. For some, it applies to super-luxury products like the $10,000 Loewe Calle handbag photographed on Victoria Beckham’s arm in February when the credit crunch was arguably at its worst. Or the Armand de Brignac non-vintage Champagne that relies on its blingy packaging and link with the rapper Jay-Z to justify a price tag of $500 a time. Neither of these, interestingly, complies to the definition of “New Luxury” in from Michael J Silverstein and Neil Fiske’s excellent 2005 book Trading Up”. The focus for these authors is “products and services that possess higher levels of quality, taste and aspiration than other goods in the category but are not so expensive as to be out of reach”.
Of course, buried within this definition are several subjective issues. Who is to say whether one product is of higher quality and taste than another? What one consumer may aspire to might leave another completely cold. And how far can any consumer actually reach? Silverstein and Fiske acknowledge this last point by pointing out that “a consumer’s buying habits do not always confirm to her income level”. There may be a “disharmony of consumption” whereby she will purchase own-label dishwashing liquid but drink premium Samuel Adams beer.
A good illustration of the lack of connection between the amount of money in a consumer’s pocket and the way in which he will spend is offered in the UK by the current performance of two beverages: coffee and wine. It was recently reported that Tesco’s “Finest” wine range had been removed from some 200 of the chain’s 300 stores and its place taken by a “Value” range including Spanish Tetra Paks of wine at £3.15 per litre, a price which would allow for a wine cost of €30c per litre. Tesco's strenuously denies the first part of these reports, but most retailers acknowledge that "premium" wines are proving harder to sell. Meanwhile, however, Whitbread, the UK hotel, pub and coffee bar group which once brewed beer and retailed wine, has just announced first half figures for 2009 which revealed an 18.4% increase in sales at its Costa coffee outlets, where a cappuccino would cost around £2.00.
My own simple take on the relative success of the coffee vendors is that successful premiumisation is all to do with the way the product or service makes the consumer feel - irrespective of price. The ability to spend more than you need to on a cup of coffee, or on a pair of socks - or shoes - may actually be part of the appeal. And I doubt that this is a human emotion that is going to disappear simply because the world is going through a financial crisis.
What may well change for many people, is unconsidered spending. It’s not surprising that Nielsen and Datamonitor data show own-label purchasing as being on the rise in the US and UK. But that trend does not contradict the declaration by the up-market UK supermarket chain Waitrose that many of its consumers are returning to its aisles after an unsatisfactory flirtation with the discounters Aldi and Lidl.
The challenge confronting wine producers and marketers lies in ensuring that their product has that feel-good factor. And no brand exemplifies that better than Oyster Bay. Despite oversupply of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and the recession, Delegat’s its makers have just announced a 37% rise in annual revenue and 57% jump in net profits. Interestingly, Oyster Bay seems to be maintaining its premium price in the UK despite Tesco’s sale of an ocean of three-for-£10 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. It has also joined the ranks of the ten best-selling over $10 wines in the US, despite the general downward trend of wine prices there. The Costa and Oyster Bay factor is not easily defined - if it were, everyone would be applying it - but my guess is that it lies in maintaining quality that is at least at the higher end of its class, a premium image and a price that’s just high enough to make the buyer aware that he is treating himself without actually feeling any pain.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Once upon a time a little bird with a broken wing became lost in the frozen tundra of Siberia. Cold and hungry, he was close to death. Just then an old peasant came along, took pity on the bird and gave him a few crusts of his bread. But how could he warm up the shivering little creature? He looked around and noticed a steaming yak pat that had just been deposited by one of his herd. After a moment’s hesitation, he picked up the bird and inserted it gently into the pat. The smell was fairly unpleasant of course but, quite soon, the poor creature stopped shivering, began to feel considerably better and fell asleep. Having accomplished this small act of charity, the peasant went on his way, the yak pat began to cool down and as it did so, it became increasingly solid. When the bird woke up, it found that it was trapped and began to call for help. Soon, a fox happened by and heard the frantic cheeps. Almost immediately the fox picked up the yak pat with his mouth and gently tapped it against a rock until it broke and allowed the bird to break free from its prison. Thank you, thank you, thank you said the bird, to which the fox replied "my pleasure" and promptly popped the little creature in his mouth and swallowed it whole. And the moral of the story is: when you’re up to your neck in dung, it isn’t always your enemies who put you there. And it isn’t always your friends you get you out.
This little story sprang to mind when I began to think about the state of the Australian wine industry and its history over the last 25 years. Back in 1985, when I first visited Australia, its wine exports were almost insignificant. In those dim distant days, British wine drinkers were used to a diet of illustrious French classics – if they could afford them – and Liebfraumilch, Muscadet, , Rioja, Chianti, Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon and Hungarian Bulls Blood if they couldn’t. Californian wine was a new arrival on the scene and, then as today, seemed, when viewed on the eastern banks of the Atlantic, to be a musician with a very limited repertoire. There was bargain basement wine in Paul Masson carafes and ultra-ambitious Napa efforts modelled on the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux – in style, quality and price. And not a lot in between. The international head of sales at Mondavi famously never left home without a bottle of Lafite to set against his winery’s Reserve in the smartest possible restaurant. He and his fellow Californians must have imagined that a nation whose wine drinking classes were brought up on Bordelais formality would embrace their own west coast version. But, as they gradually discovered, they could not have got it more wrong.
The British wine buyers, critics and adventurous wine drinkers of the late 1980s and the 1990s sought something very different. What they – or perhaps for the sake of honesty, I should say we - admitted to looking for was unpretentiousness, and wines that combined deliciousness with affordability. We really did not care if the Australian wines did not taste like Bordeaux or Burgundy. Indeed we revelled in their difference. And we positively loved the fact that the winemakers were blokes we could go to the pub with and drink beer and discuss cricket and rugby – subjects on which most Americans have little to offer.
The honeymoon between the Australian producers and the British market lasted for the better part of 20 years during which the Australians saw their slice of the market grow ever larger until it overtook even the previously unassailable champions, the French. But outsiders might have noticed a dangerously incompatible note. Even Australian wine drinkers with moderate incomes aspire to occasional indulgences in the priciest jewels of their country’s vineyards. Well-heeled Brits, by contrast, can never quite keep their eyes off the price tag. When Australian winemakers arrived proudly bearing bottles from the cool climate vineyards they had been encouraged to develop by UK critics, they were politely received – and told that their wines were, like those Napa reds, simply too expensive. Worse still, we proved to be fickle in our affections: we were just as happy to drink a Shiraz from Chile or South Africa. For a while, like a wife wearing ever-more revealing clothes in a desperate attempt to keep her husband’s interest, the Australians indulged in an orgy of discounting before coming to the inevitable conclusion that We-Really-Can’t-Go-On-Like-
But what’s the alternative? The obvious answer is the US, still the most profitable major wine market on earth. The trouble is that few Australian winemakers ever learned how to play by American rules. They hadn’t modelled their wineries or their marketing on Medoc and Pomerol chateaux. They never established a globally-acknowledged super-premium category like Italy’s raft of $100+ Barolos and Super-Tuscans and Spain’s Priorats, all of which readily found USbuyers before the crunch. There’s no Australian equivalent of the Napa Valley Auction at which Versace-clad bidders buy bottles for thousands of dollars, and the only Barossa counterparts of Napa efforts like Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle are wines that were made specifically for the US market. And treated with derision for their pretentiousness by Australian and British critics. Most observers of the US wine scene now acknowledge that Australia occupies much the same role there as it does in the UK: as supplier of large amounts of reliable moderately priced wine. Stuff you might drink with a pizza on a Wednesday evening, but not if you want to make any kind of impression. The American fox may not be precisely devouring the little bird, but it’s not doing it much good. And who should we blame for its fate? The fox, the bird, or the well-meaning British peasant ..?
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
Despite this madness, brave places like The Sampler, Selfridges Wonder Bar and now the Kensington Wine Rooms are braving the ire of the bureaucrats by utilising clever Enomatic machines to offer 40-80 wines in measures as small as 25ml. At a time when binge drinking (quite possibly involving Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio) is an undeniable problem, what could make more sense than a setting like the Kensington Wine Rooms where customers compare small servings of Chablis and Meursault; New Zealand Sauvignon and Sancerre and enjoy them to the accompaniment of a plate of good Spanish ham and/or English cheese and/or stuffed peppers? The Sampler is set to spawn a series of new outlets and the Kensington Wine Rooms was set up by the founder of a successful set of Paris pubs called Le Frog & Rosbif, so it's reasonable to expect it to multiply as well.
According to officials last week, the law is set to be liberalised, opening the way to tasting-flights of wines in wine bars across the nation. But don't hold your breath...
Let's be clear. All that's happening is a long-overdue tidying-up of an untidy mess. Prior to the new rules, producers in some regions happily declared their varieties with impunity (think of all that Sauvignon Blanc de Bordeaux) while their neighbours down the road were banned from doing so. Worse still, winemakers who steadfastly supported the law in Europe, hypocritically ignored it completely when they came to sell their wine in countries where European laws did not apply. So American wine drinkers were offered Mouton Cadet Bordeaux Merlot, but their UK counterparts were not.
The one valuable aspect of this part of the reform is that it serves as a reminder to producers that their customers are people with whom it is sometimes worth communicating. No one is forcing anyone to change a single label. All that is happening is that a winemaker is now free to help a wine buyer make a more informed choice.
Which, now I come to think of it, is worth rather more than a yawn. Actually a small glass of Champagne (with a small label reference to the fact that it's a Blanc de Noirs, Pinot Noir perhaps), might be more appropriate.
Saturday, August 01, 2009
The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC) has confirmed in a letter to restaurants and shops that Cycles Gladiator, a Californian wine from Hahn Family Wines may not legally be sold in Alabama. At least not if the bottle bears its label which depicts an 1895 French poster for the Gladiator bicycle brand. According to Bob Martin, attorney for the ABC Board, who presumably makes these kinds of statements with a straight face, the label contravened laws against the depiction of "a person posed in an immoral or sensuous manner."
The ban will not have caused much loss of sleep at Hahn Family Wines. Sales in Alabama were apparently around 500 cases per year and this figure is being easily made up - and exceeded - by Californians and others who are flocking to get their hands on bottles that are "Banned in Bama."
(For other labels that have upset the Alabama censors, and an interesting insight into Alabama official thinking. take a look at this site)
While Alabama protects its citizens from the shocking sight of a 19th century nude, it fortunately takes a relatively liberal attitude towards gun-ownership. Anyone over 18 may buy and own a rifle, shotgun, or handgun without the need for any kind of permit or registration (the minimum age at which one can legally drink alcohol is 21, as elsewhere in the US). The only official permit that is required is for the carrying of a concealed weapon. According to an informative site, I had not previously visited called learnaboutguns.com, a recent survey reveals that two thirds of Alabama's residents own guns and half have permits to carry concealed weapons.
Learnaboutguns.com proudly states that "This is one of the highest gun ownership and concealed carry permits in the country and corresponds with a relatively low crime rate."
Hmmmm, In 2006, 412 people were apparently murdered in Alabama, compared with 759 in the UK where gun ownership is effectively outlawed. Alabama has a population of 4,627,851. The UK has nearly 15 times as many people: 60,975,000.
Alabama has 7.4 murders per 100,000 people; the 6th highest rate in the US for murder.
Alabama legislators have a fine record of drawing up unusual laws - as you can find on the Dumblaws site. Here are just a few prime examples.
- Bear wrestling matches are prohibited.
- Incestuous marriages are legal.
- It is illegal to impersonate a person of the clergy.
- You may not drive barefooted.
- It is considered an offense to open an umbrella on a street, for fear of spooking horses.
- Dominoes may not be played on Sunday.
- It is illegal to wear a fake moustache that causes laughter in church.
- Putting salt on a railroad track may be punishable by death.
- You may not have an ice cream cone in your back pocket at any time.
- It is illegal for a driver to be blindfolded while operating a vehicle.
City Laws in Alabama
- You may not wear blue jeans down Noble Street.
- Men who deflower virgins, regardless of age or marital status, may face up to five years in jail.
- If an animal control officer is in uniform, it signifies to the public that he is an animal control officer.
- It is illegal to sell peanuts in Lee County after sundown on Wednesday.
- No person within the city may possess confetti.
- It is unlawful to wear women’s pumps with sharp, high heels.
It is considered an offense to open an umbrella on a street, for fear of spooking horses.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
July brings the publication of Gallup's annual survey into American drinking habits. And as the French site Winealley.com pointed out (in French), the big question was whether hard times would turn people to drink. Or away from it - for want of dollars with which to buy the bottles. In fact, Gallup's research suggests that 64% of Americans drink alcohol at least occasionally - a figure that is in line with the 62-66% figures recorded over the last decade.
Drinkers are actually knocking back an average of 4.8 alcoholic beverages per week, slightly more than in 2008 but, again, in line with recent findings. This figure reflects the 14% of the survey participants who admitted having drunk eight drinks in the previous week, and the 65% who had limited themselves to just one.
The wine industry will rejoice in the news that their product was the favourite drink of 34% of the respondents - up from 31% in 2008 - compared with 40% who voted for spirits - down from 42% - and the 21% who chose beer - a drop from 23%. Closer analysis, however, reveals that, while wine has seen its popularity rise from 29% in 1992, it had already attained its current figure in late 1999 and in mid 2005 actually hit 39% - overtaking spirits for the one and only time in the survey's history.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
According to a piece (in French) in the French site vitisphere.com, research in cellars in Burgundy, the Loire and the Rhône has found brett in 50% of pre-bottled wines; other studies have found even greater prevalance. The picture is further complicated by several factors: there is more than one strain of brett; brett can be stable or can grow and render a wine increasingly undrinkable; tasters vary in their ability to notice its presence; and finally that some professionals believe that a little brett can add welcome complexity. (This last notion which will strike many New World winemakers as heresy, would incidentally make sense to brewers of traditional Belgian ales).
In any case, for those winemakers who'd rather be rid of this hitherto untreatable ailment, there may be some good news on the horizon. Researchers at the Institut Francais de la Vigne et du Vin (IFV) in Bordeaux have found that electrical shocks may finally be the way to rid the industry of this nightmare. Between two and 50 brief, intense shocks of 1-10 micro-seconds are applied, using highly sophisticated equipment specially developed for the experiment by the French firm Thomson. It seems that the shocks work by rupturing the brettanomyces cell walls.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Pringles, like iPods, Gilette Razors, Starbucks, Nike, Campari, Krispy Kremes, Baileys Irish Cream and Coca Cola, are in the happy state of transcending their class. People buy them for what they are rather than, or certainly more than, the category into which they fall. Stated simply, the buyers would rather have them than an alternative. Few Coke fans happily accept Pepsi – and far fewer would drink any other kind of Cola. How many Campari drinkers outside Italy are even aware of the vast range of Italian bitters most of whose colours and flavours would be hard to distinguish from the global brand leader? How many Guinness drinkers would be as happy to accept an alternative dark beer?
The wine world has a few players with this kind of strength. A top-of-my-head list – excluding Champagne - would include Cloudy Bay, Penfolds Grange, Vega Sicilia, Romanée-Conti, Screaming Eagle, Mas de Daumas Gassac, anything by Gaja, Guigal’s single vineyard wines, and the top super Tuscans. But these are the exceptions to the rule. Most wine producers – unlike their counterparts in the worlds of beers and spirits – have traditionally been far keener to shelter under the umbrella of their region, style or country. Even the most illustrious Médoc chateau is a lot more bothered about being classed as a Bordeaux than Bacardi is to be seen as as a rum or Baileys as a cream liqueur.
For those lucky enough to be in a region that carries a premium, the umbrella can, of course, work well. Exploiting the fact that it is situated in Margaux or Napa can be as useful to a minor wine estate as a St Paris address might be to a modest perfumier. When Tequila is in fashion, there can be a lot to be said for a small brand hitching a free ride on a bandwagon driven by the people with the deeper pockets. But some categories rings no quality bells with the potential audience. There is little international value in being Bulgaria’s best –selling cheese? Few New Yorkers set out specifically to buy wine from Cabardes, or Castilla la Mancha.
Of course, there can be a lot to be said for pioneering and championing a category or region, as Mondavi did with the Napa Valley, Rosemount did with the Hunter Valley and Cloudy Bay did with Marlborough. If your fellow pioneers share your quality aspirations your critical mass could build an international reputation for your collective brand that few individuals could ever dream of.
But what happens when others within your region intentionally or inadvertently damage its image? Sometimes, as happened in Austria in 1984, a few cheats can temporarily bring down an entire industry. The Californian firm Bronco threatened the premium character of the Napa Valley when it marketed a cheap brand called Napa Ridge that was not made from that region’s grapes. Legal action eventually restored Napa Ridge’s authenticity, but there are plenty of Australians who fear the impact on their industry of Bronco’s imminent launch in the US of a $3 Aussie brand called Down Under to stand alongside its Californian Two Buck Chuck. The New Zealanders who sold Dan Jago of Tesco two million bottles of surplus Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc at a fire-sale price may be interested to hear what he Tesco had to say about the deal. If they cared about the long term value of their wine, Jago said, the producers should have poured every drop down the drain.
If you have already created a genuinely strong brand like Cloudy Bay, you should be able to survive some very hefty dents to your category or region. But if you haven’t, these are the times to focus your effort on building an identity sets your brand apart from its peers. Take a look at the label of a bottle of Bonterra, unarguably the world’s biggest and best organic brand. The reference to its organic credentials has shrunk over the years, for the simple reason that consumer’ unhappy experiences with organic wines has deterred many from buying them. So, Bonterra’s image is as a good, reliable wine that just happens to be organic.
Somebody once gave me a brutal but useful bit of advice: “Know where you are going. And who you are going with. And in that order”. Or to put it another way, when in doubt, emulate the Pringle.
Friday, May 29, 2009
The problem for wine opinions like Parker and Robinson is one of scale. As their success grows, so too will the range of wines they are expected to cover. Every day, a deluge of bottles arrives, as well as a flood of invitations to taste or visit. (I know, because in my previous life as a consumer wine critic I swam in this torrent, though never to the extent of Parker and Robinson).
At some point, the critic has to decide whether he or she is to continue to do everything themselves - and necessarily to place limits on that "everything" - or if they are to admit collaborators or, as Parker calls them "contractors" who can carry some of the additional load.
Parker's growing team is now quite well known, and Jancis Robinson frankly talks about her helpers - full-timer - Julia Harding MW - and occasionals, Richard Hemming, Walter Speller, Michael Schmidt, Mel Jones and Victoria Daskal. I am sure that both Parker and Robinson choose their running mates with care, both with regard to their personality and skills but, and this is my point, none of these people will ever share the famous critics' DNA, tastebuds and still-evolving experience. This is all too clear when Parker and Neal Martin his UK-based contractor disagree over Bordeaux.
These disagreements are fascinating to some but, I suspect, frustrating to a far greater number who are simply looking for a single consistent beacon by which to navigate the vinous ocean. I say this after years at Wine International of including occasional diverse Bordeaux en-primeur opinions from Charles Metcalfe, Derek Smedley and myself. Stated bluntly, no one really wanted to know that we couldn't agree over the long term potential of Chateau This or That. All they desired was a verdict they could use when deciding what to buy.
As Parker and Robinson - and others - evolve from individual human beings into multi-headed brands - as John Platter did a long time ago in South Africa, the consistency of what they offer will inevitably change. Do many of the consumers and retailers who glibly talk about "Parker" recommendations of Burgundies, Australian and German wines actually mind that the great man may never have tasted them? Does it matter?
Thursday, May 21, 2009
But, as I say, nothing remains the same. Now that the great British public has become thoroughly used to getting its Lindemans and Hardys wines for unrealistically low prices, the companies that produce these wines have - reportedly - finally become fed up with the game of supplying them. So, the big companies are laying off staff, refusing to agree to the deals the supermarkets are proposing and taking steps to largely withdraw from the UK market. As one exec said to me, Poland may be a much smaller market, but it's actually looking a lot more attractive to us in profit terms at the moment... Some people will be sorry to see them go; others less so. But like the western troops that will one day have moved out of the Gulf, no-one can ever say that the giant wine companies won't have left their mark.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
"Stinkfly is... a Lepidopterran from the swamp planet Lepidopterra (a play on lepidoptera, the scientific name for butterflies and moths)... [and is] meant to be a combination of various Earth insects (dragonflies, crickets, and praying mantises specifically). His primary ability is flight facilitated by the four thin wings on his back, which grant Stinkfly high mobility and speed. Stinkfly also possesses disproportionate strength, enough to carry people and objects heavier than himself. In "Don't Drink the Water", the child form of Stinkfly (Stinkyfly) was able to unleash a powerful herbicide gas by farting. Stinkfly's four eye stalks give him a wide range of vision from the sky, including the ability to look directly behind himself. Pollen ducts in his eyes and mouth allow Stinkfly to excrete high-pressure streams of liquids. The type of liquid can range from a flammable toxin to an immobilizing jelly. His razor-sharp tail and pincer-like legs can also be used in melee combat. Stinkfly's primary weakness is water, which can negate his flight if it gets on his wings. In addition, while his body is fairly strong, his wings are not. A more minor inconvenience is Stinkfly's intense body odor (hence the name), which is a result of the oils he secretes to keep his joints moving."
Similarly detailed descriptions are provided for all of the aliens in Ben Ten - which will come in handy if you find yourself having a conversation with a five year old fan. Unless of course, the five year old in question has switched his allegiance to fooball. In which case, you might have to remember the names of every member of the Manchester United or Arsenal squads - and the details of every goal, misjudged foul and penalty.
So what's my point? Well, most people who deal with wine on a daily basis have discovered that, as a subject, it is generally thought to be too complicated. It is replete with just too many appellations, designations and grapes. Okay, there are anoraks and buffs who delight in the differences between Chassagne Montrachet and Puligny Montrachet, and between the wines of the domaines of Alain Chavy, Philippe Chavy and Hubert Chavy-Chouet but they are the rare exceptions. And, being a wine buff is somehow more nerdy, less socially acceptable for many, than knowing the arcane details of sport or music.
The great English wine writer Andrew Jefford apparently addressed the issue of getting people to embrace or at least accept complexity. "If you're having difficulty teaching your kid chess, don't simply trade down to draughts. Look instead for a better way to get him excited by chess..."
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Luxury vs Premium
Luxury goods are needlessly expensive. By needlessly, I mean that the price is not related to performance. The price is related to scarcity, brand and storytelling. Luxury goods are organized waste. They say, "I can afford to spend money without regard for intrinsic value."
That doesn't mean they are senseless expenditures. Sending a signal is valuable if that signal is important to you.
Premium goods, on the other hand, are expensive variants of commodity goods. Pay more, get more. Figure skates made from kangaroo hide, for example, are premium. The spectators don't know what they're made out of, but some skaters get better performance. They're happy to pay more because they believe they get more.
A $20,000 gown is not a premium product. It's not better made, it won't hold up longer, it's not waterproof or foldable. It's just artificially scarce. A custom-made suit, on the other hand, might be worth the money, especially if you're Wilt Chamberlain.
Plenty of brands are in trouble right now because they're not sure which one they represent.
When you apply Godin's theory to wine, it's interesting to consider which wines really enjoy premium status, and which are luxuries. Traditional European wines applied the premium system assiduously: you paid more for a Reserva or a Premier Cru, and still more for a Gran Reserva or a Grand Cru. All of these were supposedly from better vineyards and/or more expensively made and aged. Then a pesky little boy called Robert Parker came along and impudently - but accurately - pointed out that some of the emperors were more shabbily dressed than their supposedly humbler subjects. And that some of the smartest players carried no quality credentials at all - apart from the score Parker himself had given them out of 100.
Today, I'd say that top Burgundies and Bordeaux probably fit into Godin's classification of "premium" in much the same way as a custom-made suit. And the same might have been said for Penfolds' tiers of Bin numbers. But what about Cloudy Bay, which is now produced in prodigious quantities but maintains an extraordinary image of rarity. No longer the best wine in its region, it still carries a quality image that presumably satisfies those who pay twice as much for a bottle as they would for something from a neighbouring vineyard.
The cult California Cabernets and Australian Shirazes can at least usually stake a claim to genuine rarity and to - relatively - higher cost production, but are they premium or luxury products. Or are they uncomfortable mixtures of both? Premium in the extra perceived quality they deliver but luxury in the distance between their astronomic price and the price at which they could be profitably sold.
Friday, May 15, 2009
If two out of every three cartons of Tropicana Orange Juice were made from something other than oranges, I guess there would be some kind of fuss made about it. When the same kind of thing appears to apply to wine, the noise seems to be far more subdued. In February of this year, the regional Les Depeches newspaper revealed that French authorities were investigating a major fraud. Or, to be precise, the gap between the 167m bottles of Pinot Noir the Aude Region exported every year between 2005-2008 and the 60m bottles that were actually produced by the entire Languedoc region, of which the Aude is a part. 100m bottles of fake Pinot is a sizeable number and the story was picked up by Decanter, Wine Spectator and winecurmudgeon among others. It also featured on the inner pages of US newspapers such as the New York Times. Since then, the silence has been deafening.
Now, I can understand the average US Pinot Noir buyer not having been affected by, or even noticing, this story, but I'd have imagined that a few wine store managers and a few wine enthusiasts might have been aware of it. I was personally rather more than curious about the impact of the fraud because - to declare an interest - I helped to create and have a third share of a French Pinot Noir - Le Grand Noir - that is on sale in the US. Its sales are brisk, and I wondered how much this success might owe to the fact that it's genuinely made from Pinot Noir. But apparently not. It seems that the booming US market for French Pinot Noir has not even been slightly bruised by the news that most of it is not what it claims to be.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
THE BOISSET 70% RULE
More than 31.2 billion bottles of wine are consumed on earth each year. 70% of that wine retails for less than $10 per bottle. Within that 70%, at least 70% is consumed between 28 minutes and 3 hours of purchase. 70% of the cost of that wine is the packaging (bottles, corks, capsules, and all other dry goods), shipping, and other related supply chain costs. The vast majority of the environmental impact of wine comes from the production and disposal of the packaging and from shipping the heavy merchandise around the world. We know that wine meant to be enjoyed young can be kept fresh and flavorful in a variety of packaging formats. Why then not offer this wine in lighter, more environmentally-friendly packaging that will reduce its carbon footprint and cost less to ship, yet still provide the high quality that customers demand? By lightening the packaging and reducing its carbon footprint, the wine world can make a dramatic difference in the health of our environment…and invest in better quality wines!”
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Saturday, May 09, 2009
The Tesco customers who reportedly bought nearly 2,000,000 bottles at 3-for-£10 over the space of a few weeks may wonder why they should shell out £6 for what they might perceive to be the same stuff. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Fred Franzia of Bronco Wine Co, has announced that he is about to launch a $3 Australian range (which, in his shoes, I might well call Three-Dollar-Bill) to sell at half the price of the US's biggest-selling import, Yellow Tail.
Franzia. it should be remembered, is the the man who invented "Two Buck Chuck" and, until he was legally prevented from doing so, sold vast quantities of cheap Central Valley wine as Napa Ridge. Tesco has been criticised for the damage it has done to the image of New Zealand and Franzia will face a similar charge. Especially given the difficukties Australia has had in building a premium image for its wines in the US. But, as Dan Jago of Tesco frankly says, "we were offered the wine. If we hadn't taken it, one of our competitors surely would have done. ". Franzia takes a similar line: "Bronco fishes where the fish are!". If the Kiwis and Aussies don't want to be seen as purveyors of bargain basement wine, maybe they should stop selling large quantities of bargain basement wine. As a major UK retailer wrily said, if they'd had any sense, the Kiwis would have poured every drop of their excess down the drain...
My bet is that the New Zealanders may just get this message. Their surplus in 2009 was apparently far smaller than in 2008, and if they have any sense, they'll dump it in China out of sight of their regular customers. The picture for Australia is more worrying. Mr Franzia plays a longer game than many people expect. When he launched Charles Shaw - aka Two Buck Chuck - most observers thought it a clever short-term way to help dispose of a temporary Californian glut. But the brand is now seven years old and still going strong. Three Dollar Bill is likely to be here to stay too. And, if I were a winemaker trying to make a living in the Barossa Valley, that would hardly be good news.
Saturday, May 02, 2009
For Heimoff "The wine biz today is more like show biz than a consumable industry... But in this troubled world of wine, the narrative is shifting away from exclusivity and exorbitant prices and more toward pleasure and affordability, which is where the narrative should be". Leslie responds that:
"[Screaming Eagle] is all about its customer. The wine itself has no intrinsic value above any other good tasting wine except that the buyer has evidence that many people are dying to have it, and only certain special people are able to buy it, and that owning the wine says something special about the customer and their status. The wine's value is in what it does for the ego of the SE customer.
Now, what happens when you tamper with that perceived ego-enhancing value?…a different winemaker…customer sees evidence that the wine’s price is arbitrarily set …perhaps by a greedy owner unrelated to actual demand…owners publicly split…America (and the world) has had its fill of greedy self-indulgent people…
What if instead of making you look special, buying the wine makes you look like a fool? I’d say that it isn’t that there is evidence there is trouble, there is trouble because there is evidence."
I agree with both Heimoff and Leslie, and reckon that Warren Buffett's much quoted assertion that it's when the sea goes out that you see who's not wearing a swimming costume could be applied to wine. Over the next few years we may well see which currently astronomically-priced bottles manage to maintain their prices...
Friday, May 01, 2009
If the Wine & Spirit Association really wants to become involved with findings like these, and to embrace the notion of wine as an aid to longevity, it has one logical route to take: a call for a reduction in the size of wine bottles.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Sunday, April 26, 2009
And then there are blogs. Derided by those who haven't ventured beyond the tedious "what-I-had-for-breakfast-and-watched-last-night-on-tv" efforts as entirely self-centered, not to say downright onanistic, these have grown at a rate that defies belief. According to a 2008 Technorati report, featured in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, there were already over 22 million bloggers in 2007; 184 million people have started a blog; 77% of active Internet users read blogs and in the summer of 2008, four of the top entertainment sites (including numbers one and two) were blogs. A Guardian article earlier this month seriously floated the notion that the Huffington Post, which has just "invested" $1.2m into investigative journalism, might actually replace the New York Times. Anyone who dismisses the idea that a blog could ever supplant one of the world's great newspapers should pause to consider the fact that the former has raised $25m with apparent ease while the latter is, in the Guardian's words. "a life-or-death struggle to pay its debts".
The most thoughtful piece I've seen on wine blogging is by the Boston-based blogger Thor Iverson on Oenologic. In it, he points out that "blogging remains primarily a hobbyist’s pursuit… which, incidentally, is exactly the situation print wine writing has found itself in for some time. Only a tiny, tiny number of bloggers and print wine writers can actually support themselves by writing about wine." Iverson believes that, ultimately, the vinous blogosphere will reflect the traditional print world: writers/publishers with genuinely authoritative voices will increasingly dominate the market. In many cases, given the difficulties inherent in trying to have something valuable to say on every aspect of wine, the winners will be specialists like Peter Liem on Champagne and Allen Meadows on Burgundy who seek to share their obsessive interest, experience and expertise of a particular style or region. Access to sites like these comes at a price - of $79 and $125 respectively in the case of champagne.net and burghound.com - which shouldn't deter anyone who really wants high quality information on either style of wine. Many general wine fans will similarly find it easy to justify the £69/$99 it costs to subscribe to Jancis Robinson and/or Robert Parker. But, again as Iverson points out, blog-reading time is a finite resource. While you are perusing these words, Iverson's or Robinson's, you can't be reading anybody else's. Unless you are a very unfortunate in your personality or circumstances, you will also need to venture out into the real world and focus your brain on - and hopefully indulge in and relish - other aspects of the human condition.
And that's ultimately what I like best about blogging on wine - or on any other subject: the purity of the myriad relationships between reader and writer. This is the real world where millions of individuals pass each other by without noticing, indulge in brief conversations (fact-chasing via google), one-night-stands (deriving satisfaction from a single blog post without ever needing returning to it) and enduring marriages (aka subscriptions).
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
I was told about this scam by one of its victims, Graeme Avery, owner of Sileni one of the biggest wineries in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Avery, a pharmaceutical scientist and former owner of medical publishing company, is no-one's idea of a sucker, but he says that he was completely taken in by the sophistication of the fraud. As, it seems, were at least two other New Zealand wineries, and almost certainly many elsewhere, as well as manufacturers of every other kind of product. Type "guilin scam" into Google and you'll find nearly 300 sites. Apparently, Guilin has developed a Lagos-like reputation for this kind of behaviour, thanks allegedly to the involvement of local authorities, but I'd be surprised if similar fraudsters were not at work elsewhere in China, not to mention other developing countries.
You have been warned...
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
First, the mood is much, much less gloomy than the one I encountered at tastings in London last week. The UK wine trade is suffering from the triple whammy of a) being arguably the worst-affected recession victim, b) having a currency that buys 20% less European wine than it did a year ago and c) facing a fresh duty hike in a few weeks time.
Second, there´s Bordeaux. The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux ran a tasting here on Sunday and then headed home to ready themselves for the annual en primeur circus. If the buzz here is anything to go by, attendance will be thinner than usual - I´m certainly not going - and unless 08 prices plummet, there won´t be any buying. Several negociants are reported to be on the point of collapse and producers are openly suggesting that way Bordeaux sells its wines will have to change. As the always perceptive Thibaut Despagne said "we´re seeing the end of a 30 year era".
The busiest areas of the fair are the German halls (especially the VDP) which is not surprising, and the Austrians who have just overtaken Australia in their exports to Germany.
The Australian stands are not the cheeriest, and, according to visiting Aussie drinks writer James Wells, there´s much grumbling about the closure of the Wines of Australia European office. Sales to Germany are dropping and there is a feeling that Europe is being abandoned in favour of Asia. But since Aussie sales are growing fast there, maybe the Aussie powers-that-be feel justified in their decision to shift focus.
There´s much talk of lower alcohol wine, but no great evidence. Indeed, there are plenty of 14% plus German wines on show...
Next stops for at least some of this travelling circus are London for the London Wine Trade Fair in May and Bordeaux for the Vinexpo Fair in June. Rumours abound about the latter event which is said to have contracted from two halls to one...
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
There are many positive and negative things to be said about the UK wine market nowadays, but one that is rarely denied is the quality and global influence of Britain's wine writers. For any wine producer or region wanting to build awareness and sales in the UK and, by extension, elsewhere, all that is needed, surely, is to attract the attention of a few of this country’s leading names. Send them a sample or two or invite them to a tasting, or better still entertain them to a lunch or dinner in an appropriate restaurant. Or possibly, for the maximum possible effect, fly them to the place where the wine is actually produced, to allow them the chance to walk among the vines and barrels.
Today, courting the British wine press is arguably more important than ever. In Britain, unlike many other countries, it is very hard to build retail sales from the reflected glory of being served in smart restaurants; the influence of sommeliers is very limited. Well over 80% - and a growing proportion – of the wines is sold by a shrinking band of big brand- and discount-focused supermarkets, with the remainder being distributed through a handful of specialist chains and a couple of hundred or so significant independent retailers, most of whom offer ranges covering the entire world. Given the huge number of wines that are either already on, or trying to get onto the market, without a bit of critical help, the risk of an un-marketed, non-discounted wine going unnoticed is very significant. One favourable mention by the appropriate writer might, however lead to a significant leap in sales.
Sue Harris of Westbury Communications illustrates this with sales figures from ASDA (the UK chain owned by WalMart). When Anakena Varietal Chardonnay from Chile was featured in The Daily Express, a mid-market tabloid, on the 2nd of October 2004, sales rose from 741 per week to 1034. The following week, the same wine was recommended in featured in the Sunday Times, which has a larger circulation and a more sophisticated readership. Sales went up to 1128. In November, they slipped back to 938, at which point a mention in another quality newspaper, the Sunday Telegraph pushed it back up to 1205. In each case, the change in the wine’s fortunes could be directly attributed to the newspaper coverage rather than the effect of the writers’ words appearing on shelf-barkers. Asda regularly sales growth after articles by Matthew Jukes of the Daily Mail – and has just recorded a 4,000% increase in the throughput of an Italian white following a glowing endorsement by Tim Atkin of the Observer. It is generally acknowledged by chains like Sainsbury, Marks & Spencer and Oddbins, that Jane Macquitty of the Times “sells” wine when she writes about it, and almost all retailers know that a recommendation on Saturday Kitchen, a popular television programme, almost always translates into sales over the following days.
But working with the UK wine press is far easier said than done. While favourable press comment will help to move bottles off shelves, there is no Robert Parker-Wine Spectator duopoly of influence of the kind that exists in the US, and no individual critic who can single-handedly transform a wine’s fortunes. The diversity of Britain’s writers and their interests and audiences (especially, given the growing importance of media such as television, radio and the internet) is almost as broad and complex as the selection of wines on the shelf. Some consumers follow recommendations from presenters on television whose names they may not even remember, while fans of particular wine styles will learn to follow critics who share their interests and tastes. Jancis Robinson, for example, has a well-known affection for German Riesling; Steven Spurrier is more likely to recommend lower-strength, traditional French wine than powerful Australian Shirazes. Other names worth noting that certainly carry great weight among particular sets of enthusiasts are witers like Charles Metcalfe and Giles McDonagh (on Portugal), John Radford (on Spain) and Remington Norman (on the Rhone).
In October 2008, the UK-based research organisation Wine Intelligence attempted to throw a little more light on the issue as part of a study entitled Decisions Decisions in which it asked the over 1500 members of its Vinitrac panel - regular wine drinkers all - about the greatest influences on their wine buying behaviour. At first glance, the findings of this survey might actually seem to undermine the apparent importance of the wine press. Fewer respondents – 29% - said that the critics were a major influence on their buying than the 30% who followed the advice of staff in wine shops and the 34% who said that their purchasing decisions were driven by printed material on shelves. And, strikingly, none of these came close to competing with the 68% who rely on recommendations from friends and family.
A little closer analysis, however suggests that these statistics – assuming they are truly representative of UK wine drinkers’ attitudes - only paints part of the picture. First, of course, there is the fact that the shelf-talkers – the “printed material” in the shops that influences over a third of respondents – usually consists of quotes from wine writers. But second, there is the little matter of where all those friends and family got the information they were able to share with the respondents. Experienced public relations specialist Rosamund Hitchcock of R&R feels that the friends are almost certainly “heavily influenced by wine writers. Where else would they get their on-going knowledge of wine?”. For Hitchcock, the potential effective influence of wine critics/communicators is actually a huge 97% (68% friends plus 29% critics). The figure is of course an exaggeration, but the effect should not be underestimated. As another PR, Yvonne May says “the friends who shape most people's drinking are most likely ‘wine-aficionados’ who take insights from leading writers and broadcasters. Were I to be purchasing a car, there is nothing on earth that would persuade me to buy a heap of car magazines. I'd ask my brother-in-law for some leads, as he is a car-enthusiast".
The crucial question is how many of the 1500 Vinitrac respondents are wine-enthusiast brother-in-laws: people who effectively share the information they have absorbed. The most useful of these will be what US marketing guru Seth Godin calls “sneezers”: talkative people who naturally tend to spread the virus of their experiences to those around them. In other words, one assiduous reader of Decanter Magazine (UK circulation of less than 25,000) who tells all of his colleagues and friends about the wines he has read about in a column by a specialist writer like Steven Spurrier might be responsible for far more sales than the person who casually buys a single bottle for himself after seeing it described to millions by one of Spurrier’s fellow critics on television. This may be particularly true of the higher-price and/or more esoteric wines that are more likely to be mentioned by more specialist critics.
Considering the Wine Intelligence study, public relations professional Emma Wellings wants to know “who are these 1,500 regular wine drinkers? It's not enough to survey just 'regular wine drinkers'… For a survey of this ilk to command respect, surely you'd need to break it down into different categories and then compare responses from those who drink regularly, but never spend over £5, with the ones who spend between £6-12 and those who don't really drink anything under £12.
Wine Intelligence may not have segmented its respondents in the report it published, but it did try to use them to segment the wine writers. Which of these, the analysts wanted to know were most familiar to consumers? Here, they discovered an interesting phenomenon. 29% of the Vinitrac panel may have said that they followed advice from critics, but 82% were unable to name even one. The best known, by far, was Oz Clarke who scored 18% thanks largely to his exposure for over 25 years on a series of of widely watched television programmes. followed by 9%, 7%, 6% and 5% respectively for Olly Smith, Sarah Jane Evans MW, Matthew Jukes and Malcolm Gluck, none of whom has the kind of global recognition enjoyed by Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, Steven Spurrier and Tim Atkin, who all scored 4% or less.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these findings disconcerted some of the writers concerned - and those members of the wine industry who delude themselves that the people who drink wine are as obsessive about its background as they are. Victoria Moore, wine writer for the Guardian newspaper, and one of the few wine critics who earn most of their living from general journalism, took a more level headed view. "How many people who buy CDs could name a single music critic? Do people who own lawnmowers know the names of anyone who writes about gardening? How well would 1,500 drivers do at naming a motoring critic? And if you asked the same question about almost anything from fashion to books I'm sure people would mostly say they listened to the advice of their friends. What's wrong with that?" Public relations specialist Emma Roberts makes a similar point: "I have to say whenever I speak to my friends who all like wine and read the papers, very few of them read or take any notice of the wine columns, which in some ways is surprising but also isn't because there are a lot more interesting things to read in the papers than the wine columns…".
At this point anyone with ambitions to sell more wine in the UK might be forgiven for feeling rather confused about the best ways to spend their time and money on the UK press. To which the only answer has to be that the Brtish wine market is, as many have discovered, a country with no reliable maps. To succeed, it is essential to devote significant effort on defining the part of the market in which one is trying to establish a foothold – and the consumers to whom one is aiming to sell. Unlike mainland Europe, where there is a tradition of drinking cheap basic wine during the week and much more premium fare at weekends, in the UK, it is not unusual for financially comfortable wine drinkers to limit almost all of their their vinous spending to under £7 or £8. Britain is one of the few countries where it is socially acceptable to serve relatively inexpensive wine at dinner parties whose hosts and guests all drive Jaguars. This phenomenon helps to explain why, despite the sophistication of many UK wine drinkers, critics never embraced the £50+ super-premium wines that were routinely recommended by their US and some of their European counterparts in pre credit crunch days. Even wine writers like Jancis Robinson of the Financial Times regularly recommend best buys at £5 or so – and criticize premium California wines for being over-priced. But these are precisely the critics that producers need to be addressing if they want to sell wines that aspire to more than the supermarket gondola end. And if they seek to promote their brand. Yvonne May points, “We have had UK agents tell us about calls they’ve received from European distributors when articles have appeared in major broadsheets or Decanter magazine. Jancis is the journalist most frequently cited by those speaking to us from continental Europe”.
For sales in supermarkets, nothing will ever beat the numbers game. It is no accident that publishers talk about costs-per-thousand when selling advertising space. The more people who are exposed to any kind of information about wine – whether in the form of an advertisement, an article, or a recommendation on television, the greater the number of bottles that is likely to be sold. The newspapers that helped to sell the Chilean Anakena wine in Asda all have circulations of between a million and a million and a quarter copies. The Independent newspaper, in which, the highly respected Anthony Rose has a column, can only claim sales of around 250,000 so it is hardly surprising that it has less of a direct impact. Newspaper editors acknowledge that the proportion of their readers who follow wine columns is, in any case, limited (which is why the size and length of these columns has shrunk in recent years). Television viewers are more likely to absorb the wine component in a programme that is generally focused on food. Which helps to explain why Oz Clarke, whose most recent TV series attracted an audience of 3.4m viewers and Olly Smith, whose Saturday Kitchen show has 1.6m both came top of the Wine Intelligence poll. It is also, perhaps relevant to note that Clarke is a trained actor (he was Peron in the London production of Evita) and Smith has experience as a stand-up comedian. Both understand the need to present wine in a way that is as entertaining as it is informative.
Having chosen the critics that seem most appropriate to their wine, how should a producer approach the UK press for the first time? For this article, we canvassed leading UK writers including Jancis Robinson, Tim Atkin, Anthony Rose, Joanna Simon, Simon Woods, Steven Spurrier, Sarah Jane Evans, Jamie Goode, John Stimpfig and Christine Austin. They were asked to imagine their likely response to a range of possible approaches from a producer with whom they are unfamiliar – and from a region they do not already know well. First, the good news, in budgetary terms at least, is that they don’t want to be entertained at one of London's top restaurants – or the ballet. One critic admitted that a major rugby game or tennis match might work greater magic – but had only accepted one such invitation in the last year. A one-on-one interview with the winemaker was also generally rejected, as was the chance to join them in a private tasting of their latest vintages. Sarah-Jane Evans generally “really dislikes” meeting winemakers, however famous, “in anonymous hotel rooms in London… Always the conversations are less interesting than you get in the winery". There was marginally more keenness to taste old vintages with the winemaker, but not enough to justify pulling out precious mature bottles. Some were slightly more tempted by the offer of a talk by the winemaker on the soils, rootstocks, clones or terroirs of their region or a tasting of the producer's wines for a larger group of writers, "providing" as Simon Woods' of Wine & Spirit says "I'm not obliged to talk to anyone". There was a similar lack of excitement at the proposal to sample the wines with a specific style of cuisine, though Sarah Jane Evans recalled "an unforgettable evening tasting Georgian wine at the Georgian restaurant. Very eye opening in plenty of ways". Ms Evans, however admitted to being "less attracted by big budget wineries bringing over a chef to cook food that is probably rather international and lecturing me about what I ought to think about the pairings”.
Apart from simply posting a bottle and fact sheet and hoping for the best, the approach that it most likely to succeed with the critics was the tasting of the wine alongside others from the same region. Most of the critics would consider taking a brief trip to visit the wineries and vineyards - provided that it was organised generically. As Jancis Robinson said, "I'd want to know exactly who was funding this as I try not to be beholden (other than for tastes and the odd meal) to individual wine producers". Finally, unless you already know the writer quite well, don't waste the time and expense of laying on a private jet trip to your winery. This earned an average of 1 point out of a possible 10.
Sarah Jane Evans’s comment about the PR raises another crucial question. Should a winery approach the writer directly, or should it employ a public relations company? In theory, there is little reason for not going it alone, and a significant financial incentive. PR companies charge £600-£1000 per day, plus costs to put the winery and critic in contact with each other. Simply subscribing to the database of UK wine writers from the Circle of Wine Writers – from email@example.com – would cost a mere £95 per year, a sum that would enable you to contact them all personally. But before you rush to adopt this strategy, listen to Jamie Goode of the Sunday Express and wineanorak.com “It depends who's asking. For me, one of the main determinants in whether or not I'd accept the invitations below is my relationship with the PR companies in question, and my judgement of their competence. There are some who I trust to the degree that I know they wouldn't waste my time”. And this is a point echoed by Sue Pike of Pike PR. “An important part of our role lies in persuading clients not to waste particular critics’ time with invitations or information that might actually be counter-productive”.
For anyone with serious ambitions in the UK, the use of a good public relations company is almost essential. Their fee does not only cover the insight a professional can provide into the market (an alternative view to the one offered by the producer’s importer) and the relationship they have with the writers. It should also pay for local knowledge such as the best choice of when and where to hold tastings. A skilled PR knows which venues are most likely to be convenient for critics, and which time and date will attract the greatest number of invitees. The challenge of hosting events that do not clash with other tastings is huge in the UK, and the better PRs actually work together on occasion to enable the writers to move from one to another. Finally, though it goes beyond the scope of this article, a PR should be able to introduce a wine to writers who are not specialists in the subject. As Sophie Vallejo of A la Carte Public Relations says, “When I started looking after the PR for a young brand of Champagne a few years ago, I was surprised to discover that journalists from women’s magazines were not contacted much by Champagne companies. Unlike wine writers, they did not receive many invitations to Champagne events or many wine samples for photos. Consequently, they responded very well to our campaign to build a new brand of Champagne.”
The Meininger Lists
The UK Wine Writers you need to know
1) Tim Atkin MW www.timatkin.com (The Observer, TV, radio Off Licence News, Intelligent Life, Decanter etc. A member of the newly founded The Wine Gang with Tom Cannavan, Anthony Rose, Joanna Simon and Olly Smith. Wines tasted by any of these may appear on the thewinegang.com website. Professional subscribers can use comments to promote wines.
2) Suzy Atkins www.susyatkins.co.uk (Sunday Telegraph, Delicious magazine, TV, radio).
3) Christine Austin (Yorkshire Post. Probably the UK’s leading regional wine writer)
4) Michael Broadbent MW (Decanter magazine, books. Specialist on fine wine)
5) Steven Brook (Decanter, books. Very respected on Bordeaux)
6) Jim Budd (Decanter, editor of the Circle of Wine Writers newsletter – read by most UK wine critics)
7) Tom Cannavan. (top online critic/editor, The Wine Gang, www.wine-pages.com)
8) Oz Clarke (TV, radio, annual guide, books, online, www.ozclarke.com)
9) Sarah Jane Evans MW (BBC Good Food Magazine, TV, radio )
10) Jamie Goode (Daily Express, magazines, influential online writer www.wineanorak.com)
11) Malcolm Gluck (Formerly the Guardian, Sainsbury Magazine. Now books, radio)
12) Andrew Jefford (Radio, Decanter, books. Leading radio wine commentator. Very well respected on France; now looking at Australia. www.andrewjefford.com)
13) Matthew Jukes (Daily Mail, annual wine guide. Very influential, particularly focused on Australia. www.matthewjukes.com)
14) Hugh Johnson (Decanter, books – with Jancis Robinson)
15) Jane MacQuitty (The Times. One of the most influential newspaper columnists)
16) Charles Metcalfe (Magazines, books. Specialist on Spain and Portugal)
17) Victoria Moore (The Guardian)
18) Jonathan Ray (Daily Telegraph)
19) Peter Richards (TV-Saturday Kitchen. Specialist on Chile)
20) Jancis Robinson MW, OBE (Financial Times. www.jancisrobinson.com. Most influential fine wine critic)
21) Anthony Rose (The Independent, magazines, the Wine Gang)
22) Joanna Simon (The Sunday Times, magazines, the Wine Gang)
23) Matt Skinner (Annual wine guide, Waitrose Food Illustrated, www.mattskinner.net)
24) Olly Smith (TV- Saturday Kitchen, Wine & Spirit, The Wine Gang, www.ollysmith.co.uk)
25) Steven Spurrier (Decanter magazine, books. Specialist on fine wine)
26) Tom Stevenson (Decanter, books, annual guide. Particular focus on Champagne and Alsace)
27) John Stimpfig (Financial Times, Decanter)
28) Simon Woods (Wine & Spirit magazine, books, www.drinkingoutsidethebox.blogspot.com)
Ten years ago, if anybody had predicted that I would one day lose sleep over the best way to seal a million bottles of wine, they might as well have suggested that I’d be thinking of methods to steal the stuff. But a lot can happen in a decade. Back in the last year of the 20th century, I divided my time between writing articles and books on wine, and chairing wine competitions in London and Asia. It was then that I started to metamorphose into a dangerously geeky creature: a person for whom wine closures would be a special subject. The process began gradually, as I began to notice how many wines in the competitions were tainted with TCA by bad corks and a recogniseably “flat” character of wines that were stoppered with a then-recently developed and widely used “technical closure” called Altec that was made of tiny cork granules and touted as being totally free of TCA.
In those long-distant days, screwcaps were still more or less restricted to the cheapest most basic wines. The talk was all of synthetic corks which were predicted by some to replace the real thing completely. But there were also suggestions that they caused wine to age prematurely and broke corkscrews. And then there were the spin-doctoring skills of the larger cork manufacturers who not only brazenly denied that TCA taint was a problem, but also seemed to be associated with scaremongering rumours linking alternative closures to cancer.
I remember a number of thought-provoking moments. There was the encounter with a brilliantly youthful 25 year old screwcap-sealed Pewsey Vale, Eden Valley Riesling which proved that white wine at least could age perfectly well without a cork. There was the well preserved 1907 Piper Heidsieck rescued after 86 years on the ocean floor during which time it presumably didn’t do much “breathing” through its cork. And then in 2000 there was the blind tasting of wines produced by the then newly-formed Union des Grands Crus de Chablis at which low level taint or random oxidation caused one of Michel Laroche’s wines to tasted uncharacteristically flat and dull - and drove M Laroche to use screwcaps for his Grand Cru.
The more I thought about the issue of closures the more fascinated and frustrated I became by the lack of available information. So, in a moment of madness (I really did have better things to do with my life), I started a non-commercial website called corkwatch.com which impartially covered news about all kinds of natural and alternative closures. Over its nearly five years’ lifespan, the site raised issues such as the blame that corks unfairly received for TCA-taint from newly treated timber in wineries and cellars. It looked at rubbery “reduction” odours from screwcapped bottles (almost always a result of winemaking not being adapted to the closures) and scraped the surface of the mysteriously short-lived white Burgundies of the late 1990s (probably caused by a combination of factors including insufficient use of sulphur and faulty corks). It covered the threats to Iberian wildlife caused by the move away from natural corks, and the stories of unfortunate producers such as Elio Altare in Barolo who lost an entire vintage to tainted corks. Perhaps most usefully, its existence also prompted me in the summer of 2003 at the Vinexpo wine fair, to set up the first blind comparative tasting of older wines sealed with corks and alternatives.
My experience at that tasting - where the alternatives, including a 1983 Beyers Truter Paul Sauer from South Africa generally showed well, left me with no patience for the four-legs-good-two-legs-bad absolutism of the pro-cork and pro-screwcap lobbies. To talk generically about”cork” is like referring to “beef” or “claret”. There are 700 manufacturers in Portugal alone; some are a lot more conscientious than others. Synthetic corks vary too, as indeed do screwcaps, though this last category does seems to be more homogenous than corks. Some wines suit some types of closures better than others. Any discussion of the way a wine improves with time under a cork, for example, is of absolutely zero relevance to a Pinot Grigio or a rosé that’s intended to be drunk within weeks of its purchase. On the other hand, despite my deep misgivings about the unreliability of corks, I’d still rather not unscrew a Romanée-Conti.
In 2005, after the sale of the International Wine Challenge and my retirement from the role of its co-chairman, these questions ceased to be hypothetical. With former flying winemaker Hugh Ryman and label designer Kevin Shaw as partners, I became involved in the business of creating, branding and packaging some entirely new ranges of wines. Working with producers in France, Spain and Italy, our self-appointed role was – and is – to come up with wines that look and taste good and sell in reasonable volumes in a wide range of countries, for the most part at under £7 or the local equivalent. Hugh and I had mixed, and in some cases, differing views on the subject of what we would put in the necks of our bottles. We had to consider a wide range of criteria. Performance - which, for us, meant consistency and an absence of taint rather than long-term ageing - was crucial, but we also had to consider price. When you are being paid €3 a bottle, it makes no sense to spend a sixth of that sum on a top-quality cork, or the new glass Vini-Lok stopper which might score highly in the next category: aesthetics. Then of course, there are environmental factors, ranging from preserving Portuguese flora and fauna to carbon footprints. For some people, of course, these last considerations are sufficient in themselves to tip the scales in favour of natural cork, despite its shortcomings And I respect that view, just as I respect the decision by a biodynamic producer like Vanya Cullen in Australia to seal her bottles with screwcaps in order to allow the flavour of her “terroir” to get into the glass without any interference from a closure.
But it’s not that easy. British supermarkets, for example, don’t want natural corks in our kinds of wines, because they don’t like having to deal with bad bottles. And ever since they switched to synthetics and screwcaps, the number of returns has dropped dramatically. As the price of corks has risen, getting even half-decent ones for much less than 25 euro cents is almost impossible. Reliable Nomacorks, cost 5-7 cents by comparison, while screwcaps cost 12 cents. These, however, need no capsules, so ultimately work out at around the same cost as the synthetic closure. Until recently, it was generally agreed that synthetics offer very short-term prospects for wine, but Nomacork’s manufacturers now guarantee their closures for up to three years, rather longer than some of those white Burgundies survived.
For our Greener Planet organic wines, we decided, with the encouragement of the US retailer who is our biggest customer, to use natural corks. Corks have certainly improved in quality over the last few years, but random oxidation is still a problem and any suggestion, such as the one made in a recent BBC 2 programme, that TCA taint is a thing of the past is frankly laughable. I did not, for example, appreciate opening a nastily corked bottle of Greener Planet in the tasting room of one of Britain’s biggest supermarket chains. Happily I had a perfectly sound spare bottle to hand, but I couldn’t help wondering how many of our customers have their own disappointing experiences when they pour this wine. Ideally, we’ll switch from these to Diam, the reliable and relatively environmentally friendly successor to the awful Altecs that so used to bother me a decade ago. But I can’t help noticing that Bonterra, my favourite US organic brand has recently moved from corks to screwcaps…
That decision may help us to persuade our US customers to let us use screwcaps for our non-organic Grand Noir Chardonnay-Viognier and Viognier-Chardonnay - and possibly the Pinot Noir - but so far , they have more or less insisted on Nomacorks for both reds and whites, and with sales of over 750,000 this year, we’ve had absolutely no complaints. I suspect that one of the attractions of these synthetics, apart from their reliability, is that for the casual corkscrew user, they may actually pass for natural corks, and in America, this still seems to be preferable to either screwcaps or Diam. But, I’d be very surprised if this didn’t change, and if screwcaps didn’t become as acceptable in the US as they are in Britain. Bag-in-box was, after all, similarly slow to take off on the west coast of the Atlantic, but now has a huge following.
But we’re now looking at other forms of closure and indeed bottle. The Vive la Revolution and Greener Planet Sustainable wines we’re just launching both come in a low carbon footprint, easily recyclable, one-litre PET bottle which has a built-in PET screwcap and a guaranteed two year shelf life. I’m not for a moment suggesting that these, any more than screwcaps are the ultimate answer for wine; they are merely another stage in vinous evolution. After countless false starts in Portugal, new NASA technology may finally get rid of TCA taint from corks, but I still doubt that millions of new wine drinkers in China and India are all going to buy corkscrews. The challenge for us all lies in finding ways to package wines that are both good for the liquid and good for the planet. And for the Portuguese farmers and manufacturers to come up with profitable alternative uses for the bark from their trees.