Monday, February 24, 2014

Michael Cox RIP

Michael Cox receiving the Order of Merit, the country's
highest honour, f
rom P
resident Sebastian Piñera, in 2010 

Many of the people who read this will have personally known Michael Cox ; some may not. For those outside the UK wine trade, Michael who died last week way before his time, was as others have said, one of the gentlemen of wine. Tall, always warmly friendly, and with words to raise a smile (he happily promoted the use of the soubriquet "Ucker" as a suffix to his name), he is one of the people of whom the expression "sadly missed" will be true. 

No UK wine trade event was - or will be - complete without him, either at conferences, making important points from the front, or raising questions from the audience; or, after hours, making jokes and shaming everybody else with his performance on the dance floor. He was also the member of of the UK wine trade of whom most people would probably most readily think when the subject turned to sport, about which he was passionate.

In the 1990s he helped to drive the Australian wine boom, at the helm of Yalumba's business in the UK. Today, it is often forgotten outside Australia, just how formative a part Yalumba has played in the shaping of the modern wine world. One big chapter of that history owes hugely to Michael's collaboration with Robert Hill-Smith, head of the family company.

After a dozen or so years of devoting himself to Australian wine, Michael turned his attention to another New World country, Chile. Again, when one considers it today, it is easy to overlook the state the UK Chilean wine market was in before Michael took over the reins as head of the generic office.

The UK wine trade - like the wine world - had changed enormously over the last 25 years. Michael Cox is one of the people who has been present at, and important to, every part of that change. I personally enjoyed his good company and benefitted from his readiness to help in any way he could. Lord Ucker's memorial service will be a very, very well-attended and very very memorable event. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Venus, Mars and wine

The words "female-focused marketing" are wonderfully incendiary - at least to some women and a smaller number of men who want to believe that males and females come from the same planet. The very notion of targeting one sex rather than the other is thought to be demeaning and likely to lead to further gender stereotyping. I'm not going to go into that argument here because I'll be posting a full-on debate about it between Felicity Carter of Meininger's and myself in a few weeks. 

In the meantime, here's a first class example of a well-handled, female-focused product. Chloe is best known as a high-end fashion brand that belongs to LVMH. Now the canny Wine Group has launched a wine under that name, using packaging that owes a fortune to the worlds of fashion and cosmetics. 

My friend and business partner, Catherine Monahan, who sent me the picture above tells me that it is selling well in the US at at a premium price of $15.99. That would place it above the £12 mark in the UK so the likelihood of it crossing the Atlantic any time soon is probably small. Which is a bit of a pity because I can imagine the combination of negative reactions it will get from wine traditionalists who'll entirely miss the point by asking where the wine comes from and the grape it's made from (when did anyone bother to ask those kinds of questions about a fashion item?) and from feminists who'll complain of being patronised. Meanwhile, I reckon the Wine Group will be laughing all the way to the bank. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

For the the (thirsty) wine (and Coke) lover who has everything

Most news stories about glasses tend to be about Riedel*, so it's refreshing to hear of one that isn't. And this is a genuinely innovative product: the glass that enables you to drink a whole bottle all by yourself. Brought to us by the Stanger-to-Moderation company (okay I made that up) this is something I'm slightly surprised to see arriving before the beginning of April, but according to the Huffington Post article the good news is that it's available right now for just $18.

And just in case you have a nagging doubt over the acceptability of this item, never fear, the nice folk at Rioja say (on twitter) that it's perfectly ok, provided that the bottle is full of Faustino, Riscal, Campo Viojo, or Roda et al.

(I'm indebted to Olly Wehring, editor of Just Drinks for drawing this to my attention) 


*And here's (you know you want it!) is news of the new Riedel Coca Cola glass. A must-buy for any true Coke enthusiast for just 25 pounds per pair. Pepsi lovers are advised to wait until the release of their glass in early 2015 ) 

Never on a Sunday.

This is a new version of a previous post that included direct quotes from the winemaker to whom I refer. While I took pains to ensure that his identity would not be apparent to any reader, I respect his objection to my quoting his words. I still believe the subject to be of interest, however, and for that reason have taken the trouble to rewrite it.

A winemaker in Southern France recently went on Facebook to complain about a request from a couple who’d had a recommendation to visit his estate, but regretfully would only be able to do so on a Sunday.

The vigneron said he’d agreed to the visit but feared that it might be a waste of his time and effort because visitors from that part of the world rarely buy more than a couple of bottles (and often none), his wine is not available in their region, and most pertinently “some visitors see the experience as being all about them”.

I responded as follows

Robert Joseph It IS all about them. It certainly isn’t about you. Be grateful that they want to see you and be grateful someone suggested it. One more post like this and I'll be tempted to spread the word advising people not to waste their time visiting the grumpy guy - however good his wine. (I know there are plenty of your neighbours who'd be glad of a visitor who might - who knows? - help boost sales in a market where their wines are currently unavailable.
And by the way, when these people do find their way to your domaine never forget that they are giving you their time. They could be having fun doing something else.

To which the winemaker thoughtfully pondered whether craftsmen/artisans/creators should welcome visitors into their workplaces. He also reasonably pointed out that there is more than one reason for anyone to visit a winery, and questioned his own readiness/ability to provide what they might want.

In the event, the couple arrived. He welcomed them graciously, offering salami, bread and olive oil and – quelle surprise! – they bought a dozen bottles of his wine.

Most Californian or an Australian winemakers would find this story surprising, to say the least. Obviously, some producers in those countries and elsewhere in the New World refuse visits, or have a rule of not accepting them on weekends – as is entirely their right. But the majority understands the value of meeting the people who might not only buy their wine (if only a bottle or two) but also spread the word about it. Many, quite reasonably, charge for visits – and then make sure that they deliver value for the visitor’s dollar. It’s the European attitude that “I’m an artist in my studio” that gets me. We live in a world where restaurants increasingly allow diners to see what’s happening in the kitchen and where even Chateau Margaux is opening a visitor centre. Say you can’t offer a visit, by all means, or offer one without chewing yourself up (or going onto social media) over it.

As I might have pointed out to that winemaker, just down the road from him, there are several potters – real artisans  in my book - who happily open their doors every Sunday and would be absolutely delighted to have people cross their thresholds.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

More alcohol please

For the full story, published by wine-searcher, click here

One of the classic lines used about consumers by wine professionals is that they "talk dry but drink sweet". There's plenty of truth in that - as the growing popularity of "fruity" wines with 10g/l or so of sugar amply proves. But I'd like to suggest a slightly less elegant new line to go with that one. Consumers may talk low alcohol but they like it high.

You don't have to talk to older European wine drinkers for long before some of them will start to lament the good old days when wine came with a strength of 12% or so, instead of the 14% that's common today. This sentiment is far rarer in the US, where the importance people place on alcohol levels is illustrated by their near invisibility on labels. In Australia, muscle - or a lack of it - seems to matter a little more, at least to the makers of new wave 12.5% Chardonnays and their fans.

In the UK a number of producers and retailers have tried to market lower alcohol wines - with strengths of 8-12%. None of these has been a commercial success, apart from the commercial rosés whose appeal almost certainly lies in their sugar content rather than a lack of alcohol. In other words, the people who talk about 12% wines seem to be happily buying ones with 13.5% or more.

The explanation for this paradox may have been provided by a study carried out by Dr. Keren Bindon, of the Australian Wine Research Institute and published in Food Chemistry
For the original research click here

108 regular wine drinkers were given five Cabernet Sauvignons from the same vineyard with natural strengths of between 11.8-15.5% and asked to say which they liked most and least. The clear winner was the 13.6%, while the heaviest losers were the 11.8% and 12.9% which were described as green and unripe. The most powerful samples were far more popular than the lightest ones.

Those who'd like to believe that consumers really do prefer wines with less alcohol (usually because that's what they themselves like to drink) will dismiss this research because a) it was in Australia; b) there were only 108 participants c) that Cabernet is not a great performer at lower strengths (sorry Bordeaux!) and d) the lower alcohol wines may have suffered from inappropriate viticulture. (In other words, vines have to be grown and tended in a way that is ideal to develop ripe flavours at lower natural sugar levels).

All of these are valid points, but I'll still counter them with the evident readiness I've already mentioned of consumers to buy and uncomplainingly consume wines with 13.5-14+%. I look forward to seeing some more research that proves me wrong...

(Thanks to Joelle Nebbe-Mornod for pointing out that Cabernet is less happy at lower natural sugar levels than some other red varieties, and to Tony Milanowski of Plumpton College for the link to the research paper.)

Rereading the wine-searcher piece, the section below reminded me of something I was told recently.

When it comes to wines marketed as 'low alcohol', she explained that many are often produced from riper grapes with the alcohol subsequently removed, which means the riper flavors that consumers like could still be found.

"The consumers probably disliked other things in the 12 percent alcohol wines that were related to unripeness in the grapes e.g. acidity or green characters rather than the lack of alcohol itself. So, it is not to say if you had a wine at 12 percent alcohol with the flavor profile of the ‘riper’ 13.6 percent alcohol wine, that they would not like it," she said.

Apparently some of the famous old Australian reds from the 1950s and 1960s were picked at sugars that created wines with 14+% alcohol. They were then watered down to the 13% or less at which they'd be sold.

Again, I'm looking for comments from anyone who knows more...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Suppose they gave a Bordeaux en primeur party and np-one came?

Two no-shows for the 2013
en primeur campaign. (Parker 
will review the wines, but
two months later than usual).

Two months ago, I wrote a post mischievously suggesting that Bordeaux might either not have an en primeur campaign at all - or not much of one. Well, predictably enough, it looks as though the annual bit of cinema is going to happen, but the signs are already that "not much of one" may well be the appropriate description. Neither Robert Parker nor Jancis Robinson will apparently be there for the traditional tasting dates - both are committed elsewhere, it seems - and we know neither Chateau Malescasse nor its second label La Closerie de Malescasse will be offered en primeur. There was too little le Pin produced in 2013 for it to be worth selling as a future and Maison Bouey will not be selling a 2013 Les Parcelles de Stéphane Derenoncourt. (Given M Derenoncourt's description of 2013 as a 'shit vintage' it will be interesting to see which wine he's involved with will be presented.

So far, no top flight wines have broken ranks, and Christian Seeley  of Pichon Baron and Petit Village has confirmed that his properties will be maintaining the tradition, but it's not entirely clear for whom they and the other players will be performing. Stephen Browett, chairman of Farr Vintners, one of the biggest buyers of top Bordeaux spoke for many when he told Decanter that 'We are expecting a very low-key year and in my humble opinion maybe there shouldn't even be an en primeur campaign. There is no interest from customers in buying the wines." 

Of course if prices plummet, that interest will be rekindled, though even the Chinese are unlikely to do much until their pipelines are clearer and the effects of the government clampdown on gifts and banquets lose a little of their bite.  Producers are in any case, naturally wary of creating a problem for themselves when they have to decide how much to ask for the 2014s. Watch this space.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What's in a name? What have Ch Lafite & a giant Aussie supermarket got in common?

Two similar stories from opposite sides of the globe. In France the team at Chateau Lafite is doing its legal best to stop Chateau Lafitte from using its brand in China. To be fair, the Rothschild-owned property can claim to have been using its brand since 1234, while Lafitte is a young upstart: it has only just celebrated its 250th birthday.

In Australia, in the Mornington region close to Melbourne, a producer called Gary Crittenden is complaining about the confusion consumers face between his Crittenden Estate wines and - far cheaper - bottles labeled as Crittenden & Co, a brand that belongs to the giant Aussie retailer WoolworthsCrittenden launched his business in 1984, a few years after Myer, another retailer had bought Crittenden’s Fine Wine stores in Melbourne. (The Crittendens in this story are unrelated.)

Gary Crittenden's side of the case (see the end of this post) has been picked up as part of a growing groundswell of discontent in Australia over the duopolistic power of Woolworths and its competitor  Coles- which reportedly control nearly 80% of retail sales - and the 250 or so private brands the two firms offer on their shelves. Sarah Collingwood, business manager of Four Winds Vineyard in the Canberra district, actually set up a website called Who Makes My Wine to provide a list of the retailer-owned brands, some of which are made-up names, while others, like Crittenden & Co are real brands the retailers have have acquired. 

At the heart of these stories lies the gulf that lies between the wine industry and the modern capitalistic system and the growing role of distribution. Bordeaux has some 9,000 chateaux (down from 20,000), including a bewildering array of Lafites and Lafittes and Bel-Airs and Latour de Somethings and Pichons and Rausans. Some have the same or similar names because they happened to be christened after the same kind of local landmark in different parts of the region many years ago. Others, like the famous Léovilles and Pichons and Rausans reveal what happened when a large estate is split up. I recall visiting a grubby rat-infested Bordeaux chateau once on behalf of a friend who - poor misguided soul - was looking to buy one. I can't remember its name, only that it was almost identical to that of another, slightly smarter property a little further down the road. The original estate had been divided in the 1920s and no-one had seen any problem in sharing the name. I guess it's no stranger than Bill Smith calling his son Bill.

In Burgundy, the bewilderment stems from a combination of estates being divided after winemakers' deaths, and marriages between families in the same villages. So wines labeled Rossignol-Pamplemousse; Rossignol-Pomme; Pamplemousse-Rossignol and Pomme-Rossignol could all come from the same or neighbouring vineyards, but four different cellars. I don't remember hearing any Burgundy lovers getting their knickers in a twist over any of this. Like classical music fans who know whether the London Symphony Orchestra or the Royal Symphony Orchestra made a better hash of the Eroica, they know which Rossignol made the best wine in any vineyard in any vintage. And what of the less well-informed? Well, they simply don't deserve to drink Burgundy or listen to Beethoven.

The Burgundians coexist reasonably well - they're often related to each other after all - but spats like the one between Lafite and Lafitte are becoming more frequent in Bordeaux and elsewhere. When we launched our Le Grand Noir brand in 2005, we wanted to call it Le Mouton Noir; it seemed reasonable, given the presence of a great big black sheep on the label. We knew we might be skating on thin ice, but reckoned that as a Languedoc Syrah selling at $10, we were hardly likely to threaten anyone in Pauillac. Needless to say, however, the lawyer's letter duly arrived and we decided that our resources were possibly a little weaker than theirs. So we backed off. Since then, we've had various discussions with other brands with sheep on their labels and a robust one with our Chinese importer about the registration of our brand in his country. All of which is to say that I know a little about the travails of brand protection from both sides of the fence.

While I instinctively support the little guy, I understand the rules. It's no fun being Mr Crittenden against Woolworths or Lafitte against Lafite, but the same is true of my football team, Fulham, which currently sits at the bottom of the premier league and tomorrow faces a match against Liverpool which sits near the top. Like the other most successful teams, Liverpool has individual players who are worth nearly as much as our entire squad. But there's no handicapping system to make life easier for the - financially - poorer team. It is, as they say, a level playing field. Few care to remember that Oyster Bay and Yellow Tail were brands that were created by - in global terms - small family firms. Both are big enough today to bother the Gallo's and Diageos. Ch Lafite is engaged in a daily struggle against Chinese and other counterfeiters, some of whom intentionally or otherwise spell their fakes with two 't's instead of one. And Woolworths' responsibility is to its customers and shareholders. If it can make money by giving its shoppers bottles whose contents and packaging they like, why shouldn't they go on doing precisely that? I'm sure the campaign by Australian campaigners like Sarah Collingwood will appeal to hardcore wine enthusiasts and the we-hate-big-retailer communities, but I doubt that a boycott by either of these will hurt the supermarkets enough to make them change a strategy that is currently paying high dividends.

But what are Gary Crittenden and the >>>> family who own Ch Lafitte to do? Well, the first thing they should do is to stop playing the downtrodden victim and start to exploit the glorious marketing opportunity they've been given. Everyone loves the David & Goliath story and, as Richard Branson proved in the days when he was fighting to make Virgin Atlantic a credible competitor to British Airways, there's a lot to be said for being able to portray oneself as a plucky underdog fighting back against a bigger, less likeable foe.

Instead of (or as well as) writing letters like the one below, Criitenden should head down to the shops and buy a load of cheap Crittenden & Co Pinot Noir. Then, he should make up a batch of two-bottle packs with one of his and one of the retailer's and send them to the 20 most influential wine people in the country, inviting them to send him their tasting notes on the two wines. When he's received those - and assuming they justify the higher price his wines command, he should then include them in a press release to a much wider audience. To make this effort really effective though, he should bite the bullet and rename his brand Crittenden Family to emphasise the difference between his business and the corporate one. In fact, he should probably already have done this anyway because people like buying from family businesses - which explains how E&J Gallo got to be renamed Gallo Family Vineyards. Over at Ch Lafitte, they could do a lot worse than to produce a photograph showing just how many bottles of their delicious (I'm sure) wine you get for the price of 75cl of the Rothschild effort. They could focus on the genuineness of their bottles. (by using one of the new watermarking methods) thus subconsciously reminding people of the risk of buying a fake Lafite. But they too should consider changing their name. Le Grand Lafitte.  has a nice ring to it, I'd have thought.

The Crittenden letter

Good Morning / Afternoon,
I am writing this letter to you and many others who I believe have an interest in wine and the Australian wine market.
My family has been making wine on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria since 1984. As a result, the name Crittenden has, we believe, become synonymous with the high quality wine that we produce.
Since 2004, however, the Woolworths liquor group has been marketing a range of wines under the "Crittenden & Co" label. These wines are produced for the mass market end of the wine scale and are widely available in most Woolworths owned retail stores such as Dan Murphy, BWS and Safeway.
We, the Crittenden family of winemakers, have no connection with the "Crittenden & Co" brand, but we believe that there is confusion in the wine drinking publlic about the origin of "Crittenden & Co" wines. 
We say this because of the significant amount of email enquiries we receive concerning these wines.
Many of the emails we receive are critical of, or voice concerns about, "Crittenden & Co" wines and are sent to us because the writers believe that we, the Crittenden family are the makers of these wines.
This is most certainly not the case - and it is of great concern to us that there is confusion over who does make "Crittenden & Co" wines.
We want this letter to be published as widely as possible in order to diminish this ongoing confusion as to who owns the "Crittenden & Co" wine brand.
So feel free to pass this letter on to anyone you think may be intersted in what we see as an unfortunate case of mistaken identity in the wine trade. And feel free to use social media to disseminate the information.


Garry Crittenden

Days after I posted this, Woolworth's announced that they will cease to sell wine under the Crittenden & Co label. This unexpected change of mind and heart by the retailer is attributed to the twitter (and other social media) waves that were generated by Gary Crittenden's letter (above). Australian journalist Jeni Port reports that Woolworths say they have sold 15m bottles since 2003.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Collapse of top mousetrap manufacturer. A fable for the wine industry

Build a better mousetrap, even if you do it in the woods, and the world will beat a path to your door.
Misquotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson (see below for the correct version)

This week brought the sad news of the closure of BMC - the Better Mousetrap Corporation - almost exactly 80 years since it was founded by Mr R.O. Dentkiller, a close friend of Walt Disney who was a fellow member of the Hermosa Rat, Mouse & Ferret Fancier's Club. His 93-year-old son, Randy Dentkiller believes that the failure of the company was entirely attributable to its In-The-Woods location. "We make some of the best mousetraps in the world. Hell, we've a shelf full of trophies from the International Mousetrap Challenge. And we've had Great Value awards too. But we're just in the wrong place."

Mr Dentkiller pauses before ruefully continuing "When my pappy started out, In-The-Woods was a great place to be. There were lots of firms like ours and lots of path beaters. Today, there's loads of firms making much worse mousetraps than us, sellin' them by the cartload  in their own stores on main streets and factory outlets throughout the country. And there's some that are sellin' through the supermarkets, and a whole lot more that are focusin' on the interweb. Mr Disney believed in all that marketin' stuff, but my pappy couldn't be doin' with any of it. We always wanted to just focus on makin' darnn good mousetraps... Seems to me that maybe path-beating just ain't as fashionable as it used to be" 

Ironically perhaps, Mr Dentkiller's grandson, creator of the highly successful Ratinator computer game, is maintaining the family tradition but with more of a Disney approach

The correct version of the Emerson quote: If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.

What wine retailers might learn from bookshops, Apple, Nespresso - and China

Waterstones 5th Floor cafe

Has anybody else in the western wine world noticed that bookshops have changed pretty radically over the last few years? Most of the big ones and plenty of the smaller independents have introduced coffee shops and cafes. The 5th floor Cocktail Bar/cafe in the Piccadilly Waterstones, for example, is a very fine place to meet up with someone if you are looking for a central London location. There are a few wine shops/bars (pioneered by Nicolas in France) but they are rarities. Wine shops are not places to relax and kick back. They're places for nerds to browse the shelves, fondle bottles and imagine the flavours of wines the wretched bankers and Chinese have now rendered unaffordable by common folk like us. And, of course, for normal mortals to feel thoroughly intimidated. 

Depressingly, this model - walls of wine with a person behind a counter - seems to be the default for far too many of the recently-opened "indies", the independent wine retailers who, like the US cavalry, are apparently (and ludicrously) supposed to save the entire UK wine trade from abuse by supermarkets. 

Even as a wine nerd myself, looking at the images of some of the shortlisted shops at the Off Licence News Awards this week made me want to weep. It wasn't the lack of cafe/chill-out zone - though this would have been nice; it was the lighting and the layout and the presumption that customers can find their way to a bit of the wall of wine that includes the bottle they want or would like.

Hopefully for their owners, there are enough nerdier folk than me - or enough people sufficiently desperate to buy wine they can't find in a supermarket or Majestic - for them to survive and possibly prosper, but I wouldn't want to back many of them with my own money. And these were the ones that made the shortlist.

Among the winners, Roberson and Selfridges are shops I'd definitely hang out in, while the Sampler is a company where I'd happily spend my money and my time. I don't recall Hedonism being listed and I suspect it's too swanky to impress the judges of that particular competition, but I love this London shop - and the fact that its management has actually given thought to providing a zone for shoppers' kids to have fun while mummy and daddy are spending thousands on a few choice bottles. Outside the UK, I also have great memories of  Mielżyński* in a Warsaw industrial estate where wines are browsable, tastable and available to enjoy with a wide range of food. It's what I'd love some Majestic stores to evolve into.

Has he just smelled what some of the customers
have been smoking?

The key word - and it's a buzzword at the moment - is experiential. My first memories of experiential shopping were of record stores in the 1970s where the experience consisted of going into a tiny booth to listen to a track or two of an album you might have wanted to buy. Richard Branson put a rocket under all that with his first Virgin Records shops. Instead of booths that smelled of the last occupant's stale cigarettes, you did your try-before-you-buy stuff through headphones, lounging on beanbags surrounded by fellow browsers who might or might not have taken mind altering substances before entering the premises. As a schoolboy I spent hours there hoping Tubular Bells or Jethro Tull would take me to the same places as their illegal roll-ups had transported my neighbours.

More recently, there have been the brilliant Apple stores where you are invited to play with the gear at your leisure and to talk to cool young staff about any problems you've been having with your iPhone. And the even more brilliant Nespresso cafes that feel like First Class lounges and are even better places to catch up with people than Waterstones.

I'm still waiting for a chain of wine shops in the UK - or elsewhere - in which I'd like to be as much as I like to be in a Nespresso cafe (and I speak as someone who, in various ways, actually hates the concept of Nespresso), but I've seen several in China that would probably work very well for me if I were Chinese. The Changyu Pioneer shops - like their competitors - start out with the premise that its customers are probably not confident when it comes to wine buying, so it seeks to put them, literally, at their ease in armchairs. The decor doesn't happen to suit my taste, but I'm not their target customer. These are places to which I'd like to drag some western wine professionals by the ear when I hear them repeating old tropes about China only being good at copying rather than innovation.

A suburban Pioneer Wine Shop in Chengdu

*Thanks to Wojciech Bońkowski for leading me to correct my original reference to Joseph's here.