Thursday, July 23, 2009

US turns to wine. Or does it?

Publish Post

July brings the publication of Gallup's annual survey into American drinking habits. And as the French site 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

Shocking wine, (Can electrical shocks cure brettanomyces?)

For those of us who are sensitive to the complex bouquet of stable floors and would rather not find it in their glass of red, brettanomyces - or brett as it more familiarly known - has competed head-to-head with cork to be seen as one of the biggest wine problems in recent years. There is plenty of controversy over why brett has become so much of a headache, but the recent trend towards producing ultra-ripe wines with higher pH levels and not filtering them before bottling almost certainly has a role to play.

According to a piece (in French) in the French site, 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

Transcendental Meditation

What is a Pringle? According to Procter & Gamble, its makers, a Pringle is a kind of food, to be categorised alongside cakes and biscuits. The UK tax authorities beg to differ. They reckon that its 42% potato content makes a Pringle a potato crisp (or “chip” if you prefer), an edible savoury luxury that’s subject to the 15% Value Added Tax from which other kinds of food in the UK are exempt. Sadly for P&G, the UK Appeals Court recently agreed with the taxman, but, and this is my point, the vast majority of people who eat these distinctively shaped savoury snacks really couldn’t care less what category they fall into. They simply enjoy them – and pay a relatively high price to do so.

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.