Sunday, April 29, 2012

Being unique - at the LIWF

First some history. Just under a year ago, I was asked to give a talk to around three dozen New World representatives on the eve of the London International Wine Fair. During the course of my presentation, I asked them anonymously to write down on a piece of paper a sentence describing what was unique about their winery and its wines. What, I wanted to know, would set its bottles apart from the others on the shelf, in a consumer's mind. The responses were all too illustrative of everything that is wrong with the wine industry today. Twenty said that the wine was good and/or good value; eight said the winery was family-owned and six vaunted the fact that they used traditional grape varieties. In other words, not one of the people who were about to try to sell their wine to the UK market had any notion of the importance of having a USP. The wine industry, it seems, has yet to get the message Seth Godin set out in his excellent Purple Cow, that if you want to succeed, you really do need to have some point of individuality and difference.

More recently, regular readers will know that I have raised the issue of the challenges facing the London International Wine Fair, and the urgent need for some fresh thinking if it is to survive. One of the people who responded to my post was Catherine Monahan of Clink Wines who not only took the trouble to come up with some constructive ideas, but went on to turn one of them into a concept called WINESTARS - and to invite me to help make it a reality at the LIWF. The notion is such a perfect response to the challenge I threw at my audience in 2011 and my more recent post, that I was delighted to become involved.

The proposition is very simple: wineries that do not have UK distribution, and producers of wines that have yet to find a home here, are invited to pitch them at a panel of British professionals, including buyers from Laithwaites/Direct Wines (the world's biggest direct wine retailer); and Mitchells & Butler, one of this country's biggest restaurant/bar/cafe and pub chains. Unlike other competitions, such as the International Wine Challenge that I helped to launch and which focuses strictly on wine flavour and quality, WINESTARS is looking for a complete package. Of course, the wine has to taste good and be appropriately priced, but it also has to be packaged in a way that is going to appeal to consumers and there has to be a story behind it. Wines that convince the judges in a session that will combine elements of the highly successful X Factor and Dragon's Den television programmes, are guaranteed a UK listing.

There will be huge use of Social Media, and a consumer event is also planned.

There will doubtless be some purists who shudder at the idea of our giving importance to anything beyond the quality of the contents of the bottle. It's a noble thought perhaps, but like the belief that highly qualified job applicants don't need to take any trouble over how they come across at an interview, it belongs in cloud cuckoo land. 

If all goes well, we'll have helped to get some new wines into the UK, we'll have shaken up the trade - and we'll have breathed some new life into the LIWF. I'm certainly looking forward to it.

Wineries interesting in entering should complete this form or contact Catherine by email

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hand of God - Chilling thoughts about Domaine des Baumard and the INAO

What does Giovanni Antonio Canal (AKA Canaletto) have in common with Jean Baumard, the Loire wine producer? Both believe in the use of technology as being legitimate to their artistry. The Italian painter famously took advantage of a Camera Obscura to help him sketch his pictures, while the Frenchman favours cryoextraction in the production of his sweet Quarts de Chaume.

Both are, in the view of at least some people, cheats. If you put yourself in the shoes of some of Canaletto’s contemporaries who tried to capture all that perspective using only their brains and eyes, you’d have to feel a little as though he were an athlete on illegal drugs. M Baumard’s neighbours, and a fair few writers, including Jim Budd (in this post) and Alice Feiring feel similarly about M Baumard’s chilling tanks.

I have mixed feelings about this but, predictably to some I guess, I’m inclined to worry less about the method than the outcome. If M Baumard’s wine tastes as good as, or better than his neighbours, does it really matter? Any more than the tools used by Messrs Blumenthal and Adria in their kitchens. (If the Baumard wines do taste less good, that's another matter, but I haven't seen many suggestions that Baumard's quality levels are not good enough for the wines to carry a Grand Crulabel).

Wine is NOT a natural product. Man is involved, at least to the extent of tending, pruning the vines, crushing the grapes and fermenting their juice. Does an extra tool or two really matter that much?

Does banning cryoextraction fall into the same camp as banning irrigation?

As I say, I have less than defined views, but wonder whether too much of this debate is not focused on the way something is made rather than the way it tastes. What I will freely admit is that I’d rather drink a delicious wine from irrigated vines and/or cryoextracted grapes than a less tasty one that accurately reflects the climate of the vintage.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Luxury of Distribution

Spot the odd man out: Château Latour, McDonalds, Nespresso and Hermes. All of these are luxuries (yes, even the burgers and the coffee if you use the dictionary definition of luxury as something that is "inessential but conducive to pleasure"), but three of the brand owners share a philosophy of how and where they like to distribute their products that is alien to the fourth. If you want to buy some more prettily-coloured pods for your shiny Nespresso machine, the only place you are going to get them is directly from the Nespresso shop or from their website. The same applies to McDonalds - a Big Mac can only be found beneath the golden arches - and it is true of most of the more premium items that carry the iconic Hermes logo. The perfumes may be on offer in Duty Free shops across the globe, but you're hard put to it to find the scarves, bags and belts outside the brand's own shops. Over 75% of Hermes's turnover is rung through Hermes tills.

Château Latour, like almost every other super-premium chateau in Bordeaux effectively prefers to distance itself from the end-user. The initial sale might be to a merchant known to the producer, but from there on, the wine is likely to make its own way, quite possibly across oceans and time zones, before it finally settles in the cellar of the person who is eventually going to drink it. Hermes knows who is wearing its scarves; the chateaux have little idea or apparent interest in learning who is sipping their wines or where they are doing so.

What makes this picture interesting is the fact that Château Latour belongs to a company with a highly sophisticated understanding of how to handle luxury goods, as can be seen from a glance at this 2008 report prepared for Latour’s stablemate Chanel on the dangers of internet distribution.

Of course, for many observers, Latour is not a luxury good, it’s a wine and as such has to be distributed as such – by superior folk called wine people. But just consider the way wine sales developed in Japan: through department stores. And look at the way premium wine is often used throughout Asia: as a gift.

Chateau Latour is no longer being sold through the mad system of en primeur. Apparently, it will continue to be distributed through the arcane system of la Place de Bordeaux, but even if this is the case, I’ll bet that a significant and growing proportion will follow other paths. Just as I’ll bet that one or two other big names, possibly in Sauternes and St Emilion, will join Latour in turning their backs on en primeur.

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RIP EP? Latour leaves En Primeur

Once there was a sad little boy with a football but no one to play with. So, he went to the park with his ball and started kicking it around for a little while. Soon enough, a few other boys joined him and they all began to play a casual game. Some of the bigger kids sometimes behaved as though it was their ball, but the boy didn’t mind too much because, he got to have the first kick.

A bit later, a keen American kid arrived and suggested a few rules he had made up that thought would make the game a little better. The boy was not entirely certain about this because the American seemed to have taken over the role of first kicker, but he’d also brought some really keen soccer players to the park, so the boy happily let him play.

Then one day, the boy’s dad came along and watched the game and noticed that the boy didn’t seem to be get his foot to the ball very often at all. Why, he asked his son, don’t we take the ball home and start a new game in our garden? We can invite your friends and make our own rules. And we can tell anyone who doesn’t like them to go and play somewhere else.

We are so used to En Primeur that we forget that it is a relatively modern construct. It was only really introduced in the 1960s. Before that, wine was sold by the even more lunatic system of “Sur Souche” – on the vine, during the growing season. Then came 1961, a surprisingly small vintage of surprisingly high quality. The chateaux who had done their deals with the merchants during the summer realised that they could have made much more money by waiting to fix the price until the wine was in the barrel.

Both En Primeur and Sur Souche were solutions to a cashflow problem at a time when even the top chateaux were barely profitable. Today, the picture has changed. The first rank of wines are sold for hundreds of euros per bottle; the cost of their production cannot exceed €10-15. This is – or should be – a highly profitable business for the producer, if not necessarily for those who subsequently trade in the wine.

Cashflow is still a concern, as it is for other businesses, but far less than it was when the chateau owners desperately waited for payment from the merchants simply in order to be able to pay their vineyard workers. In other words, for many producers En Primeur is a solution to yesterday’s problem.

But there is another reason to question its survival. One of the worst-kept secrets in Bordeaux is the volumes of 2010 wine that were “bought” by Chinese who have failed to follow through. That wine, to which the chateaux and negociants had effectively said goodbye, has torn up its travel tickets and its Chinese visa and is now freely available for purchase. In other words, on occasions like this, En Primeur no longer works. And in vintages like 2011, it certainly won’t work for any but the top 50-100 estates.

Supporters of En Primeur will claim that it has survived for a very long time and, for that reason alone, will continue to do so. But that is rather like saying that handwritten letters and printed novels can survive the arrival of email and e-books intact. Some will; most won’t. Distribution has changed. Buyers from emerging countries are not bound to play by the old rules (it is said that the Chinese don’t like buying a pig in a poke, or not unless there is a very strong likelihood of there being a high profit to be made from doing so).

Others look at exchange rates. What if the relationship between the euro and the dollar, pound and yuan changes dramatically over the next 12 months? This – hardly unthinkable – suggestion could make discussions over an En Primeur price cut of 40, 50 or 60% seem entirely academic.

Back at the boy's house, he was enjoying the freedom to decide when a game would start and the rules that would apply. There were fewer players, of course, and every now and then he could hear the grumbles from the park from his old friends, but he looked at the ball and remembered whose it was...

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Naturally stark raving mad

I'm honest. What about you?

I'm also clean. Can you say the same?

And polite.

And modest, of course.

Or should I have said 'naturally'?.

As for the wines I'm involved with making and most of the wines I've ever enjoyed drinking - well, they're all regrettably unnatural. And inauthentic. Or maybe, to be a little kinder, 'not quite natural' or 'somewhat less than authentic'.

Those are rather tough words to use about 99.99% of the world's wines including the Figeac, Pichon Comtesse and Haut Bailly 2011 I tasted last week in Bordeaux - not to mention the 1934 Beaune and 1953 Chateau Margaux that are, quite possibly the finest wines I have ever drunk.

But, if the Natural Wine brigade are to be believed, that's what they logically have to be because they were all produced in ways that the Natural Wine producers do not approve of. (Precisely which methods they do approve of are not absolutely clear, of course, given the fact that no rules have been agreed between them.)

When you raise this issue with the Naturalistas, they claim not to understand why I'm offended at my wines (even the ones with organic credentials) being called unnatural. and ask whether I would prefer them to be called 'manipulated' (as opposed to the unmanipulated, natural, authentic fare they favour). And I respond that, thank you very much but no I wouldn't really like that, and that I would like those wines to maintain their previous happy existence - outside any pigeon hole.

But one thing that no one seems to have done is compare the Natural wine saga with the story of Biodynamic wines. Producers of these - usually 'unnatural' but, in my opinion, often sublime - efforts have managed a) to draw up a set of rules to which they have to comply and, more importantly in my view, b) to adopt a name that does not set them on a podium above their neighbours.

Which makes me feel naturally far more warmly towards them

(PS apologise to any dishonest, unclean, impolite, immodest readers I may have offended)

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Time for a change... from varietals to blends

Once, there were 'quality' wines with regional identities such as Chablis, Rioja and Chianti and cheap blended wines such as Mateus, Blue Nun and Wild Duck, not forgetting the emphatically non-regional Gallo Hearty Burgundy...

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, the focus was shifted - largely by New World producers, with the enthusiastic support of UK importers and retailers - to grape varieties. At first, there were a few 'fighting varietals' such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Then, quietly, others such as Tempranillo, Carmenère and Vermentino tried to nudge their way onto the shelf, with varying success.

Today, in the US, the evolutionary process is moving to another stage... towards premium branded blends: wines that rely on the recognizability of the producer and the name of the blend, rather than the region or grape. Of course, there is nothing really new about producing a premium wine with neither regional nor varietal identity - Penfolds Grange and Barca Velha spring to mind - but these were exceptions to the global rule. Now, you can pay $20 or $25 or more for a bottle that just describes itself as "Red" or "White" and my bet - based on listening to the ground-level buzz in the US - is that you are going to see a lot more of them.

The logic behind this trend is perfectly clear - and ironically in line with the (often legally imposed) argument by French and other European wine producers against adding grape varieties to their regional labels. "I'm not selling Chardonnay" some would say, "I'm selling Chablis". And, now that Chardonnays and Merlots can be found on every cheap shelf, it could be argued that those Europeans were right to hold their ground.

The alternative to sheltering behind a regional appellation is to rely on the prestige of your brand and to regulate supply to the volume of demand, behaving, in short, like a spirit or beer producer.

Little could better illustrate the growing polarisation of the modern wine world, with crowd-pleasing blends on the one hand and limited-appeal 'natural' wines on the other. And I have a few thoughts to offer about those...

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Saturday, April 07, 2012

Nonsense about Pinterest & Twitter (a picture worth 140 characters?)

"Pinterest already a third as big as Twitter"... "Pinterest to be bigger than Twitter in less than a couple of years"...

"Last month, Facebook had more than 7 billion total visitors; Twitter had 182 million; and Pinterest had 104 million total visits from people in the United States, according to data sent to CNN by Experian." (, March 2012)

For those of you who haven't heard of Pinterest (a perfectly normal state for any human, by the way) or want to know more about it, I've been playing with it here. And, yes, I think it is an interesting other-side-of-the-coin to Twitter (images v words) and yes, I think it will grow.


Anyone who makes predictions of how Pinterest will be placed in a race against Twitter (and the prophets include some very well-informed people) is surely missing an essential point. At the beginning of 2011 Pinterest only had 10,000 users. If it can grow at this speed, so can some other start-up no-one of has heard of - a Social Media offering that elbows Twitter and Pinterest out of the way, while kicking Facebook in the genitals.

But, even more likely, Twitter and Pinterest - and the others - will evolve. Who'd have predicted that Google would be developing driverless cars? In 12 months time - maybe six - Twitter and Pinterest may be quite different animals. The tortoise might become a rhino and the hare might become a carnivore.

Science has not yet mastered prophecy. We predict too much for the next year and yet far too little for the next 10.
Neil Armstrong

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Sunday, April 01, 2012

Why the Australians and Swedes are cleverer than us

Charles Haughey, the disgraced former Irish Taoiseach – prime minister – and good friend of ‪Muammar Gaddafi, had quite expensive tastes. These included ownership of a holiday home on his own private island and a passion for good food and wine. At some point, his island getaway needed a little renovation and a team of builders was sent there by boat. After a few days, the hard-working contractors ran out of the beer they had brought with them and – the nearest shop being on the mainland – they began to look for some in the house. Their search was in vain, but they did find a cellar that was well stocked with Haughey’s favourite claret. The men, who would far rather have been drinking Guinness, apparently made do with a dozen or so bottles of Lafite-Rothschild 1953 and Margaux 1957 which they knocked back over a few games of cards.

The next day, one of the builders took the boat to the mainland to buy some food, beer and, being an honest man, replacements for the bottles he and his friends had drunk. The shopkeeper had a limited range and the builder little idea of what he was looking for but, after turning down a few bottles that were the wrong shape, he opted for the ones that looked most like those he’d found in the cellar.

The next month, the Taoiseach who had some guests he wanted to impress, invited them to help him choose the wine they’d like to have with dinner. Instead of his beloved Lafite and Margaux, however, in the rack facing the cellar door the first thing he saw was a dozen high shouldered bottles… of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon.

When I have told this story to friends in the wine business, they have usually had a good laugh at the expense of the dodgy Irish politician and the unsophisticated workmen. That’s the way I initially reacted to it too. But we were all wrong. The laugh in fact is on us.

Let’s remove our wine goggles and put ourselves in the shoes of that unfortunate builder; how was he to know that he was replacing some of the priciest wine in the world with some of the cheapest? All that separated them after all was a few square centimetres of paper in the form of a possibly indecipherable label,

Just imagine if we treated food in the way we treat wine. There would be no more sandwiches, hot-dogs or burgers, sushis or beautifully presented Michelin-starred soufflés. Almost everything we eat would come in one of three or four shapes of box. If our dress code followed the wine rule, men would all wear the same suits all day, every day, while doing the gardening, clubbing or going to the office. All that would change would be the pattern and colour of their ties

Sweden, Australia and Norway are all much cleverer than mainland Europeans and North Americans. Between a third to half of all wine in those countries is sold in bag-in-box. In other words, for most people there, a Wednesday wine to be drunk with a pizza in front of the television comes out of a tap, while a Saturday dinner party wine is poured from a bottle.

Setting aside the environmental impact of taking all that wine out of glass and putting it into recyclable boxes (or Tetrapaks), there is the obvious advantage of giving consumers a visual indication of how the stuff might fit into their lives and giving them a literally tangible reason to trade up. There are few cheap bottles in an average Australian bottle shop – but plenty of cheap bags in box (or casks as they are more sensibly known there).

Of course a minority of premium wine producers have acknowledged the problem of the wall of near-identically-packaged wines by resorting to recognizably bigger, heavier bottles. The reaction by some very illustrious critics has been to pillory these producers for their environmental irresponsibility and, in at least one case, even to threaten to refuse to review any of the heavily-packaged wines. I’d be readier to applaud those critics’ greenness if they took a more holistic view. Heavy bottles represent such a tiny proportion of the wine currently on offer that repackaging every single one of would have a negligeable effect on carbon emissions. Repackaging hundreds of millions of glass bottles of the cheapest wine into Tetrapak or bag in box would, on the other hand, have a truly dramatic impact. Seven one-litre recyclable Tetrapaks have the same lifespan carbon footprint as one recyclable glass bottle.

I fear that I’m whistling in the wind with this argument. Instead of embracing truly low-impact packaging for the vast majority of wine, the current call seems to be for putting all wine in the same light glass bottles – effectively making pricier wines look cheaper. Maybe, like politicians, we simply enjoy confusing and playing with the brains of our fellow human beings; maybe being straightforward with them is simply not our way.

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