An article that first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International
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 firstname.lastname@example.org – 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)