On my way to the Digital Wine Communications Conference (DWCC) in Rioja, and noticing the reactions to the responses I recently gave to Jamie Goode’s manifesto, I thought it might be worth explaining why my views are so at odds with Jamie’s, and those of a lot of other wine communicators. Some people I’m sure, imagine that I’m simply a naturally negative or pessimistic person. Tim Atkin dubbed me the “Cassandra of the wine world” a long time ago. Others probably think of me as being naturally argumentative: unable to read or hear anything without wanting to offer an alternative, opposing view. And then there are those who, like US Democrats listening to a Tea Party stalwart, reckon that I’m just jam-packed with stupid, downright wrong ideas and more than likely in the pockets of big business.
There may, I guess, be small elements of truth in some of these. I’m actually far from naturally pessimistic, but I’d plead guilty of valuing realistic optimism over wishful thinking. Anyone who knows my history will know just how many new – and at the time, dare I say, often courageous - things I’ve been involved with. Wine International magazine – was an attempt to create a groundbreaking publication that would appeal to non-enthusiasts and the women who were increasingly buying wine in the 1980s when we launched. I ran wine competitions in the UK and countries ranging from Russia and Poland and China, India and Vietnam where the very idea was totally revolutionary. I wrote lots of books and even published one myself for a supermarket. I set up a now defunct online wine school, way back in 1995, and around a decade later started Hugh, Kevin & Robert wines and a research and consultancy company called DoILikeIt?. And most recently there’s Winestars World and Great Food & Wine Sites… All of these have required a fairly large dose of optimism. Some have worked well; some haven’t, but they’ve all taught me that recognizing the reality of a situation increases one’s chances of success.
We tried 101 ways to make a success of Wine International, ranging from putting pretty girls on the cover to giving it away to credit card holders and Readers Digest readers and selling it cheaply to The Wine Society and wine club members. Over 23 years, we commissioned great writing (and won awards) and tried going up- and down-market. We looked at Bordeaux en primeur – and the cheapest wines in the high street. None of these worked. The magazine never made money, and it only survived as long as it did thanks to the success of the International Wine Challenge. Wine communicators bang on about how people “want stories”. We filled our pages with stories every month, and the only issue that always reliably sold well was the most boring and story-free effort of the year: the IWC Results mag. I tried telling stories in the column I had for 14 years in the Sunday Telegraph – and was regularly – and I now believe correctly – told by my editor to focus on best buys in the supermarkets.
The wine encyclopedia I personally put together for Tesco on a first generation Apple Mac – in response to the one Oz Clarke’s publishers produced for Sainsbury – also won some nice awards, and is still available, in an updated form and under a new title. We printed 35.000 copies and offered them to the supermarket shoppers at a ludicrously low £4.95 for a 256-page full-colour, hardback book. It sold poorly. The price was reduced to £2.95. We got rid of the rest of the stock, but did not reprint. Sainsbury and M&S (who had a good book by Charles Metcalfe and Kathryn McWhirter) also gave up on trying to give their customers cheap opportunities to “educate” themselves.
At the IWC, I also witnessed the questionable value of our efforts as conscientious tasters. Every year, Charles Metcalfe, Derek Smedley and I, slogged our way through thousands of samples in the search for the best of the best: the wines that would get gold medals and trophies. And every year I saw some of these brilliant trophy-winning wines fail to secure UK distribution. Or to attract shoppers’ attention on the shelves. And every year I saw our sales of Seal of Approval stickers rise as the public flocked to buy inexpensive bottles that carried them.
If I knew how few copies of Wine International we were selling, I also knew how poor the numbers were for our competitors. They actually sold even fewer than we did, but were rather better at getting wine companies to buy advertising. Then there were the discussions with newspaper publishers and TV production companies who shared with me the (dismal) results of their reader surveys and their viewing figures. Yes, the people who bothered to turn to my words in the Sunday Telegraph really did appreciate my shopping-list buying advice more than my award-winning story-telling.
All of these experiences have contributed to my oft-repeated mantra that consumers – especially in the UK – are simply not very interested in wine and are more interested in getting a drinkable bargain than a bottle of something more interesting.
Much of what I’ve described here was personal however. After the sale of Wine International and the IWC in 2005, I got the chance to gain a lot more insight into the ways of the wine world. First, there were my own le Grand Noir and Greener Planet wines – produced with Hugh Ryman and Kevin Shaw at Celliers Jean d’Alibert in the Minervois. We seem to be doing something right with that business, if sales of 1.2m bottles in 17 countries is any measure. But it’s far from easy. I suspect I am one of the very few wine communicators in Rioja this week who has sat, holding my samples, nervously waiting to see buyers’ of retail chains in the UK, US and China. But if I know how hard it is to get wines into those chains (and how much one often has to pay for the privilege), I also know how tough it is for them to sell anything that isn’t branded and/or marketed and/or (especially) sold at an attractive discount.
I also smile when I see wine communicators urging producers against making wines with high alcohol, residual sugar and obvious oak. Left to their own devices, these are precisely the wines huge numbers of consumers flock to buy. Actually they’d buy even more if it were on offer. A few years ago, wearing my DoILikeIt? research hat, and on behalf of a big client, we gave a large number of middle aged UK wine drinkers samples of Australian red, French rosé and Bordeaux with varying levels of sugar. In every case, the vast majority preferred the sweetest or next-to-sweetest sample, including a red Bordeaux with 12g (even more than in most Yellow Tail)
The research we have done – and continue to do – at DoILikeIt? often throws up information that many wine communicators might not like to hear. A significant proportion – 25% - of a sample of several thousand UK consumers sad that they really liked “oaky white wine”, and an even larger number said the same about red.
My involvement with DoILikeIt? and its bigger clients, along with my role as editor at large of Meininger’s Wine Business International, has helped shift my focus to facts and figures rather than the anecdotal stuff that is often wine communicators’ stock in trade.
Now, when someone says that X, Y or Z is a “hot topic”, I take the effort to see what’s happening online. I was interested, for example, to see that “natural wine” was getting no more google searches than “blackberry wine”. Do what I did and look up qvevri (in various spellings) on twitter and count how many times it gets mentioned and, more importantly, by how many people.
UK observers often rejoice in the apparent rise in the average price of wine in their country over the last few years from £3.86 in 2006 to £5.10 in July 2013. This sounds like a positive trend, until you pull out the calculator and work out that UK inflation would have raised the figure to £4.82, to which has to be added an extra £0.85 in increased taxes. In other words, the average bottle is over 10% cheaper than it was in 2006.
So, to go back to those three accusations I listed in my opening paragraph. Am I naturally pessimistic? No, I normally like to look at my glass as being neither half full nor half empty. And if I see the level dropping steadily (like the average price of wine in the UK for example) rather than rising, I’ll say so. Am I naturally argumentative? Yes, I’ll plead guilty as charged – and I’d say that anyone who considers themselves to be a journalist should certainly have a natural tendency to question what is set before them as fact. Whether or not I’m “downright wrong” is obviously a matter of opinion, but the fact that I happily undertake consultancy for wine producers and regions of varying sizes leaves me open to the charge of being “in the pocket of big business”. I’ll freely admit to being able to see things through the eyes of producers whatever their size, as well as through those of the consumers on whom they rely. From where I stand, the producers of a qvevri wine in Georgia or Cupcake Red Velvet in California are in the same game: using grapes to make a beverage that will sufficiently satisfy the people at whom it is aimed for them to buy another bottle.