Monday, February 18, 2013

The Metamorphosis of the Wine Media

A column that originally appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

It’s always interesting to watch a metamorphosis – especially when it has commercial implications. Not so long ago, before the advent of video recorders and catch-up tv, we all tuned in to watch television programmes at the same times, communicated by letter and fax and got our information from printed books and newspapers. And the wine industry did most of its communication through targeting hospitality, samples and press releases at a group of people known as wine writers.

The members of the industry – a huge majority, I fear - who still believe in that strategy, should take note of a keynote speech given by Andrew Jefford, one of the world’s most highly-regarded, thoughtful and poetic wine writers, to the fifth European Wine Bloggers Conference – EWBC - in Izmir, Turkey, last November.

 “The creature we used to call ‘a wine writer’ has died.” Jefford declared, going on to say that writing was now the “the least remunerative of the things I do.” He may still be a regular contributor to Decanter and World of Fine Wine magazines, but that part of his activity represents a shrinking 40% of his income. Tim Atkin another UK-based multi-award-winning critic who spoke at the EWBC, separately made a similar point, saying that, in his case, the figure is closer to 25%.

This is not to say that Jefford and Atkin are no longer in the business of exercising their skills and sharing their opinions about wine; they broadcast, teach, make public appearances of one kind or another and are simply no longer financially reliant on the publishers of newspapers, magazines and books. For Jefford, “There are no more livings to be made exclusively in the old way”, though there is still a place for “multi-tasking communicators”.

Who those communicators are, the nature of the “multi-tasking”, and how they make their livings, is increasingly blurred and varied. The days when journalists, publishers, consultants and those public relations executives lived in separate cubicles are over. James Suckling the former Wine Spectator critic now produces video clips and a newsletter that are available to subscribers. Jancis Robinson, like Robert Parker, is now a publisher who employs other wine writers, and Tim Atkin has recently begun to follow a similar path. (Declaration of interest: I am one of the people he has asked to contribute to his website.)

Atkin and two other leading UK critics, Oz Clarke and Olly Smith have become a brand called “TheThree Wine Men” which organises consumer tastings – a business model adopted by another set of UK critics who call themselves the “Wine Gang”. Similarly, in France, Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve, former employees of La Revue du Vin de France, are now also both publishers and organisers of an event called “Le Grand Tasting”.

Wine writers are involved to varying degrees in wine competitions (as I have been over the years), in hosting tutored tastings and in writing copy for wine companies’ brochures and websites. They are also, interestingly now offering their expertise in other ways. British blogger and newspaper wine critic, Jamie Goode, acknowledges - in his wineanorak blog - that “Those of us who communicate about wine have to make a living”. So, “it may be appropriate for skilled, experienced tasters with particular expertise to charge for consultancy or benchmarking services”.

For a wine producer or distributor, this evolution may lead to some lateral thinking. Where expenditure on the media might once have been limited to samples and hospitality of one kind or another, today canny marketers are considering the return on investment of other activities. One exhibitor at a Wine Gang consumer tasting quietly said to me “It’s cost me a thousand pounds to pour my wine for a few hundred consumers. I’ve no idea of how worthwhile that part of it has been, but exhibiting is a cheap way for me not only to get close to five critics, but also to support their business”. Goode acknowledges the access to top critics that can be gained by doing well in competitions in which they are involved.

In Bordeaux, chateaux owner mutter about the relationships their neighbours have developed with top critics whom they pay – often quite lavishly – to host dinners and tastings. Does this kind of payment buy influence? The Spanish regions that funded tastings by Robert Parker’s former associate Dr Jay Miller certainly thought so. Until someone accused Miller and Pancho Campo the organiser of these tastings and the visits that preceded them of offering a “pay to play” scheme.

That same accusation was levelled at Canadian blogger and newsletter publisher Natalie Maclean when it was claimed that anyone who wanted their wines reviewed had to take out a CAN$24 subscription. Maclean denies the charge; I would be surprised, however, if wine companies have not considered currying favour with publishers by subscribing, just as they wonder about improving their chances of a good review in some magazines by paying for advertising. And what might be the benefits of paying a writer to benchmark your wines? Some will decline the invitation, but I suspect that number is shrinking.

As wine writers evolve, so almost inevitably will the relationships they have with the rest of the industry. And that, for many people, will probably be something of a challenge.

Joseph's Law

A piece that first appeared on Tim Atkin's website
First things first. Before getting to the meat of my first contribution to Tim Atkin's site, perhaps I should say a little about who I am and how I came to some of the – to some people, sometimes surprising and annoying views - I often hold. My journey to this column began in the 1970s in my parent’s hotel in Sussex where, at the age of 20, armed with a copy of Hugh Johnson’s then newly-published Wine and Alexis Lichine’s Wines of France I took over responsibility for the wine cellar. It was around the time when Britain joined the EU and fell under French AOC laws. Genuine grower-Burgundies competed for space in our cellar with jammy Blended-for-Britain negociant Beaujolais, Beaunes and Chateauneuf-du-Papes that were all drawn from the same vat. Listening to the nonsense pompously spouted by some of the pinstriped salesmen who were offering these last efforts offered an early introduction to at least one aspect of the UK wine trade.
In 1975 I moved to Beaune and began a five-year flirtation with penury, living among the vineyards and surviving by translating, teaching English and casual work for growers and local brokers. Those were the days when otherwise well-informed vignerons earnestly explained how, every Spring, the wines in their cellars started to fizz in sympathy to the rising sap in the vineyards (a romantic way of looking at the banal chemical process known as malolactic fermentation naturally set off by rising temperatures). Vincent Leflaive was already sophisticated enough to appreciate the threat from Californian Chardonnay (after a blind tasting to which I invited him) and to track the way Premiers and Grands Crus he sold to the UK were being profitably resold to the US by the importers. But he too was no stranger to superstition, banning women from his cellar out of fear that they might “turn” his wine.
Returning to the UK, in 1983, I became wine critic of the Sunday Telegraph and launched WINE International magazine at almost precisely the time that New World wines were starting to hit UK shores. So, everything I had learned about terroir from those Burgundians was overlaid by down-to-earth explanations of viticulture and winemaking from the Australians and Kiwis. It was the New Worlders who taught me the essentials of packaging, marketing and distribution – factors that had apparently rarely even been considered in Burgundy.
The following year brought the launch – with Charles Metcalfe - of the International Wine Challenge – IWC - (of which Tim and Charles are now co-chairmen). Blind tasting thousands of wines confirmed what I already knew: price and region are poor guarantors of quality and possibly even of style. Few who have been involved with many of these events can ever take concepts like Cru Bourgeois and St Emilion Grand Cru (not “Grand Cru Classé”) really seriously. Running IWCs in places like Japan, China, Russia, Poland and Vietnam opened my eyes to the way wine is viewed outside the UK.
This distancing from the Anglocentric views of some UK wine writers (though not Tim, I’d hasten to say) was increased by the fact that since 2006, I have, with two partners, been working with producers in Languedoc Roussillon to produce branded wines called Le Grand Noir and Greener Planet that now annually sell over 1.2m bottles. More than 90% of that wine sells outside Britain, with a majority going to the US and Asia. That, combined with my role as editor at large of Meininger’s Wine Business International and my research and consultancy efforts for a wide range of clients at DoILikeIt? Ltd, has also given me an insight into the dirty underside of the wine business. To put it bluntly, a decade ago, when I attended the press tastings hosted by British retailers and distributors, I could never have imagined the nature of the negociations that lay behind getting the bottles onto the shelves.
All of which brings me to the present day – and ideas and responses that reflect a mixture of innate contrarianism and scepticism and the accumulated experiences I’ve just listed.

Joseph’s Law

Remember that lovely little seaside village no-one had ever heard of where you went on holiday a few years ago? Well, I'm sad to say that it was written up in a few newspapers and magazines and...
a) it became overrun with high-rise, package-holiday hotels; tacky giftshops, bars, cafes and nightclubs
b) it's been completely smartened up and is now impossibly expensive
And that, in a nutshell ladies and gentlemen, is Joseph's Law.
Sooner or later, increased popularity either leads to a descent into bastardisation or an ascent into stratospheric pricing. Or both.
Fifty years ago anybody who wanted could drive to Stonehenge and have a private spiritual moment hugging the ancient stones. Today, there's a barrier that keeps the hordes of visitors 10 metres away. A decade or so ago, I was able to climb over the temples of Ankor Wat in Cambodia without anyone worrying about what I might do to the stones - or indeed to myself, given the risks of falling. I've not been back, but I'll guess that today there are a lot more opportunities to buy gifts and postcards and fewer to get close up and personal with the carvings.
Just think about how this applies to wine. Not so very long ago, even in Spain, almost no-one had heard of Ribera del Duero. Then, Robert Parker declared that Pesquera was Spain's answer to Petrus and prices of the top wines shot through the roof. More recently came the bastardisation: now you can buy bottles of Ribera del Duero for €3 in almost any Spanish supermarket.
Sadly, I believe that, over the long term, Joseph's Law is as inevitable as gravity. Regretting that Prosecco is no longer the noble product it once was, as Alfonso Cevola does in this post, or lamenting the fact that normal wine lovers can no longer afford to drink Ducru Beaucaillou, as Chris Kissack does here, is rather like arguing with Newton.
The challenge lies in not only keeping one step ahead of the effects of Joseph's Law - the equivalent of catching the egg before it hits the ground - but in exploiting that timing.
Some of the most cunning examples I've seen of this kind of exploitation are US retailers that offer their customers "pre-cult" wines. I remember asking how one of these companies could be so sure that the wines they were selling would gain cult status. The look I received was pitying. "We just say it's a pre-cult wine and our customers do the rest..."
Porthos - offering its customers the chance to buy "cult" wines while they're still affordable
 - offering its customers the chance to buy "cult" wines while they're still affordable
Of course, in the UK, we tend to laugh at the very idea of "cult wines" so most British wine merchants probably have little chance of adopting this strategy, but quite frankly, I can't see what's wrong with the idea of buying something before its price rises. And over the last few weeks I've been tasting a few fine examples of wines that are undeniably "pre-cult". Some of the top 2011 Burgundies are already out of mortal reach, but given the growing market for this region and the limited supply, I'd certainly place some very safe bets on lesser villages and less well-known growers. As for bastardisation, I’d be looking at Italian whites such as Gavi and Fiano which are in line to serve as follow-ups to Pinot Grigio. Only time will tell.

Let them eat Black Forest Cake - rather than Black Beauty Burgers

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Anoinette 

Marie Antoinette may not actually have suggested that her people eat cake (as Gareth Russell makes clear in this blog post), but the spirit of that comment has been alive and exceptionally well over the last week or so in Britain. Consumers, Rose Prince, food writer of the Telegraph made clear on BBC Radio 4, shouldn't buy ready-meals; they should pop round to their local butchers, buy some cheap healthy cuts and cook them at home for their family. Some of the questions this raised seemed as foreign to Ms Prince as knocking up Osso Buco probably is to the average Findus "Beef" Lasagne fan.

As a professional foodie, Ms Prince not only knows where to find her local butcher, and what to do with the meat it sells; she also has the time to go there - not to mention rather more cash than the average consumer.

There are three reasons why consumers in Britain and elsewhere buy cheap ready-meals.
a) they taste good - or good enough - to the people who buy them. (Findus's, Tesco's, Aldi's and all the other companies involved all pay food chemists healthy wages to make sure of this).

b) they are quick and easy to prepare for people who prefer to watch amusing characters on TV slaving over a stove rather than do too much of it themselves

and, most crucially of all

c) they're cheap!

Even Rose Prince conceded that replicating meat (whatever its origin) lasagne for £1.29 would not be easy. It was up to consumers, she implied, to change their eating patterns.

Of course, it's fair to point out at this point that we spend less of our income on wine than previous generations. Back in the 30s, Brits, like their cousins on the other side of the Atlantic, spent around a fifth of their disposable income on food. Today, the figure is under 9% - significantly more than the Americans - who spend around 6% - and less than Italy - where they spend a huge 14%

Revealingly, however, and not very surprisingly, when one stops to think about it, the proportion of their money people splash out on food bears a direct relationship to the relative wealth of the country in which they live - and indeed their own financial situation. Most of the richer countries - the US, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden - spend under 12%. The highest proportion - as the chart below illustrates - is spent by countries where malnutrition is rife. Even in Britain, the poorest 10% of the population spend twice as big a proportion - 16% - on food as their richer compatriots.

Obviously, for cultural reasons, there are relatively wealthy national exceptions to this rule, such as France and Belgium (both at over 13%). Now if the Brits, Canadians and Americans were like the French, they'd enjoy a better and probably healthier diet. Whether they'd be happier is harder to say. (Unless you are the kind of middle-class journalist who knows what would make other people happy).

To download a readable version of this chart, click here

It is interesting - to me at least - to take a level-headed look at the way Brits have spent all of their disposable income over recent years. They are mocked for devoting too much of their cash on Sky subscriptions, and it is true that the £58.10 each household spent per week in 2011 on "Recreation and Culture" actually exceeded their bill for food and non-alcoholic drinks (£53.10), but it has only risen by a pound in six years. The food bill, by contrast rose by 19% over the same period - and it has gone up still further since. The proportion that went on "Housing, Fuel and Power" spiraled at a similar rate, while Transport grabbed an extra 8%. As the Guardian pointed out, the "typical British household now spends 20% more meeting transport costs – £65.70 a week – than on food and [non alcoholic] drink". Regular readers of this blog will notice that the proportion that went on alcohol barely moved - despite the duty rate increases over that period. Thanks to a tax-funded welfare state, the £11.80 dedicated every week to beer, wines and spirits by a household is actually more than is spent on education and over twice as much as goes on health costs such as prescription charges.

Twenty years ago, Britons did not have satellite tv and broadband bils to pay, but many of them didn't have cars either. In 2011, the average household had to find £488.80, just to cover their car insurance, a whopping 17.5% more than the previous year. The cost of that insurance now exceeds the total expenditure on fruit and vegetables. 

The people who complain at consumers' unwillingness to spend more on food might also note their unwillingness to dig deeper when they do their clothes shopping. In 2011, we are, it seems, giving less of our income to what we wear than we did in 2005. Unless, this trend changes, presumably, our underwear will become flimsier or the sweatshop workers will have an even more unhappy time. 

So do we blame Tesco, Findus, Top Shop and Primark for offering us all this cheap stuff,or do we blame the customers who stand at the checkouts of those stores every day.

To download this Office for National Statistics chart go here

One answer to this question was offered by a survey in the trade journal, The Grocer. Despite everything they have read, 50% of meat eaters are not prepared to pay even a penny more to be sure of getting beef in their cheap lasagne. Admittedly a substantial minority (30%) said they'd shop from their butchers more often while nearly a quarter said they'd do more cooking. Ms Prince should be gratified.

It is easy to dismiss surveys like these, but I recall British housewives piling into supermarkets in December 1997 to buy discounted - possible BSE-infected - beef over a weekend before the imposition of a government ban.

Sadly perhaps, those who'd like to imagine an ideal world where British, American and Canadian people on moderate incomes forgo their TV sport and movies and their car in favour of better, healthier food and wine are likely to be disappointed. 

Tip of the Day - Give up (Reading & Talking about) Wine

It’s Lent. For some people, that means giving up something they enjoy. Last month, there were those who followed an annual routine of giving up alcohol for the whole of January. My proposal requires a different kind of self-denial, but one that might be genuinely useful to you professionally
Give up reading and talking about wine (apart from on a strictly professionally necessary basis, obviously) for 4 weeks.
Stop discussing the wines you’ve enjoyed. (You’re allowed a few words of appreciation, but no more). Stop reading wine columns, blogs and magazines. Stop responding to wine-related comments in blogs and on Twitter, Facebook etc. Stop wandering into wine shops and chatting to the staff. (Unless you have to do that professionally)
Find other things to read and talk about.
Try it, just for a month
Try to behave like 95% of your fellow wine-consuming citizens.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Wine Industry Tip for the Day

Good use of Facebook by Barefoot Wine Cellars

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How small wineries can compete with big ones

Yesterday's post inevitably raised responses along the lines of "it's all very well for a big winery like McGuigan with huge budgets, but how can the little guys compete?"

To which I have an answer. Go look at this.

Okay, smaller wineries won't have a e-bookful of recipes by a famous chef, complete with mouthwatering images, but they can come up with recipes and images of their own.  And all they need is a computer, Powerpoint or a cheap alternative, Slideshare (free), some imagination and a bit of initiative.

Watch this space for some examples. Or better still, send me some of your own.

(By the way over 100 people viewed yesterday's recipe; how many people have looked at that pricy Youtube clip you took the effort to put up a year ago?)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Potatoes and wine - another chance to read...

People are fascinated by potatoes

If you read this a year ago, I apologise for repeating it here. If not, I don't think I can express these thoughts any better than I did in this column 12 months ago...

Whenever I tell people that I know a little about potatoes, there's a brief pause while - as I now appreciate - they privately relish the prospect of being able to broaden their knowledge of a subject in which so many of them are fascinated. I tell them about the 4,000 varieties of potato, all of which probably come from one place in Peru. I remind them that the roast potato on our plate is of the same family as the deadly nightshade, and that man domesticated potatoes 8,000 years ago and that they first arrived in Asia in around 1600, a few decades before they were introduced to Europe. Then I go on to list some of my favourite types of potato - Désirée, King Edward, Maris Piper and Highland Burgundy Red - and the best ways to cook them.

Of course there are some - you might be among them - who are surprised to learn about the depth of general interest in potatoes. But just think how many we all eat, and the range of potatoes that are now on offer in supermarkets. Just consider the evidence: the popularity of websites like lovepotatoes, and the number of online references to potatoes. Try googling "potatoes" and you'll find there are a staggering 377,000,000 results.

I'm joking of course (though not about that google statistic). I actually know very little about potatoes. Like most other humans, I enjoy eating them in a number of forms and could, if tortured, list a maximum of half a dozen varieties (a list that wouldn't include Highland Burgundy Red by the way). You may have read my first paragraph with a growing hunger for a lot more information - or you may have thought "that's enough for the moment thank you..." And you might actually have even questioned the title of this post. "No", you might have thought, "people may have a passing curiosity about potatoes, but they're not really thatinterested in them".

Which is precisely what I'd say about wine. At best, to judge by the number of sites on offer by Google (919,000,000), they are more than a third as interested in wine, with its myriad varieties and place in western culture as in the humble spud.

People who are interested in anything tend to imagine that large numbers of other people share their enthusiasm - or would if given the chance and the encouragement. In a few cases they can justify that belief. Tens of millions of viewers do tune into watch soccer matches. These sorts of numbers do not show any visible signs of a fascination with wine. They don't buy large numbers of books or magazines or read blogs. When newspapers drop their wine columns or columnists, the protests are audible but limited.

The he enthusiasts blame negative forces. We would, they claim, have lots more wine columns in newspapers and wine programmes on television if it weren't for narrow-minded publishers and tv companies who won't let people have them. It's only a lack of advertising, they say, that explains the lack of wine columns - while conveniently overlooking the absence of regular articles on watches in publications that are full of Rolex ads.

The point behind this post is that a misplaced belief in a widespread interest in wine handily removes the need for wine producers to make an effort to engage with potential buyers. When these enthusiasts say things like "surely there is a difficulty that's inherent in the complexity that we most like about wine?" and "I look for information on the internet first, then I buy" (both direct quotes), they reveal the gulf that lies between them and the vast majority of normal potato eaters and wine drinkers.

Your thoughts please on a new way to communicate with wine drinkers

Following yesterday's - unusually widely-read-and-commented-on - post detailing my view of the apartheid separating wine and food, I'd like to ask readers of this blog what they honestly think of the concept - the personalized Recipe Collection e-book - we were working on when we discovered the rarity of wine-and-food photographs.

If you haven't already looked at it (via the link above, followed by downloading an e-book), stated simply, the Collection is a hopefully innovative attempt to breathe life into some of the thoughts I've expressed here and elsewhere. It's about looking for ways to approach wine marketing and communication differently. It unashamedly is not about talking to the small minority who read wine magazines, books or blogs, visit wine shops or chat to sommeliers; the target is the mass of UK wine drinkers who do most of their buying in supermarkets and probably know the names of little more than a handful of grape varieties and brands. 

The company with which we created the concept is McGuigan, Britain's 8th biggest wine brand and the name that appears on the labels of 40-50m bottles, most of which sell for £4.50-£8. This is mainstream British wine drinking... 

Consumers will get to the Recipe Collection by scanning a QR Code on the back label of McGuigan bottles or magazine advertisements, or via links on Facebook and elsewhere. People are currently scanning these codes at the rate of nearly one bottle per hour. 

To be blunt, I'm really not looking for people's thoughts on Australian wine in general or McGuigan as a brand; or John Torode's recipes or Neil McGuigan's specific food-and-wine matches. What I'm interested in is reactions to the notion of inviting consumers effectively to direct their own food-and-wine show.

This particular effort was the culmination of a year's efforts by a team that includes software developers in Toulouse and Chattanooga, website and microsite designers on opposite sides of London, John Torode, food and props stylists, a photographer and many, many hours from people at McGuigan.

However, many of the lessons we are learning from this exercise could and will be applied to wineries with far more limited resources, and we are in fact working on a couple of smaller projects with budgets that are a fraction of the one devoted to McGuigan.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What's wrong with these pictures? A fresh look at food & wine photography

Please take a brief look at these six photographs and tell me what makes them surprisingly unusual?

1) from a Tagus Creek Video Clip presented by Charles Metcalfe

Got it? All of these are images that include both a recognisable plate of food and an identifiable bottle of wine. A year or so ago, I imagined that photographs like these would be commonplace, but as I began to look through food and drink magazines and a wide range of books in preparation of the McGuigan Recipe Collection, I discovered that they actually competed with hen's teeth in their rarity. Even The Great Wines Of Bordeaux With Recipes from the Top Chefs of the World, a book dedicated to pairing great dishes and wines only includes 14 such photographs out of the 88 in its pages. Italy, we are told, is a country where wine is almost always drunk with food; I've just leafed through the 98 pages of the 2012 Decanter Italian supplement and failed to find a single picture of a bottle and a plate. 

How Italian producers like to advertise their wines...

The November 15, 2012 Wine Spectator - the issue that happened to be closest to hand - runs to 154 pages; the nearest to food-and-wine photography is a shot of Napa Cabernet with bowls of cherries and mint. Stated simply, an apartheid principle applies: there are photographs of food (possibly including glasses of wine) and photographs of bottles, probably including glasses. You are far more likely to see a vine or barrel in a wine advertisement than any kind of food - which seems a little odd when you come to think of the way most of the advertisers say they'd like to see their wine consumed. (To be fair, producers in Latin countries do sometimes move away from the vineyard/cellar model - usually in the direction of depicting raven-haired beauties holding the bottle in ways that exploit its phallic quality.)

There are three reasons why there is so little food photography that includes bottles of wine. First, there's the obvious fact that photographers would rather the wine wasn't there. Bottles bring in a vertical element that makes it much harder to compose a pleasing image. Second, there's the other obvious - and not unrelated - fact that magazine picture editors and book designers have rarely asked anyone to take photographs like these. But third, and most significantly, there's no denying that wine producers and distributors have shied away from them too. And that - for me - is the strange part. Do we really believe that barrels and vines are really better at making people want to buy and drink a bottle of wine than a plate of appetising food? If not, maybe wine producers and regions could consider encouraging better food-and-wine photography - possibly by sponsoring a competition or two.

McGuigan Wines took a step in this direction by launching the John Torode-Neil McGuigan Recipe Collection (which - full disclosure - I helped to conceive and produce), an e-book that contains 150 (three sets of 50) food-and-wine pictures taken by Cath Lowe. The 50 combination of dish and wine any individual gets depends on their personal tastes... Please do take a look at it and let me know what you think.