What normal people are drinking
David Williams finds himself all at sea when questioned about the best selling wines in the UK market. You may not want to drink ‘spreadsheet wines’ any more than you want to watch the Kardashians, but professional curiosity can help put things into a useful context.
After not dropping a point in rounds on American states, British prime ministers and aquatic mammals, I was feeling pretty good about myself during a recent online quiz with friends.
I felt even better when the friend in charge of the next round said the questions would all be about booze.
The good feeling threatened to turn into something like smugness once he’d asked how many of the UK’s top five bestselling beer brands we could name. Easy. I got four out of five, missing only San Miguel at number five (when did that get so big?) but guessing each of Stella, Budweiser, Foster’s and Carling, if not in the right order.
I did even better when the topic moved on to spirits, correctly identifying Smirnoff as number one, and also including The Famous Grouse, Gordon’s and Jack Daniel’s (a quartet that must have been in or about the top five for decades), while missing out only on Glen’s vodka.
But that was as good as things would get.
“How many of the UK’s top five best selling wine brands can you name?” my friend asked next. And here a chill descended on this so-called professional wine writer as the realisation dawned that I had absolutely no idea what was going on in the world of big-brand wine.
Was Jacob’s Creek still doing the numbers? Blossom Hill? Gallo? Is there even such a thing as E&J Gallo or Oxford Landing or Kumala anymore? I had no idea. Even before my shameful score was revealed (one point out of five; thanks Hardys), I realised I was totally out of touch with a Top Five that reads Hardys, Barefoot, Yellow Tail, Casillero del Diablo and McGuigan.
Chastened, the next day I took a closer look at the Nielsen figures, in The Grocer’s end-of-year article on the biggest off-trade food and drink brands for 2020 where my friend had sourced his information.
I was taken aback by just how big these brands are. In a sector that has been the subject of many a business school essay about how wine is defined by market fragmentation and the lack of monolithic, sector-defining, must-stock brands, these brands seem to be doing a pretty good job of grabbing market share.
Hardys alone has 4.5% of the £6.5bn total GB off-trade wine market, while, between them, the top five have around 17.5%. That may not approach the levels of market dominance enjoyed by Coca-Cola in its home market (the corporation’s various Coke products have a combined share of 44% of the United States’ soft drink market, according to statista.com). But, in the supermarkets at least, it’s not quite the fractured, confusing market it’s sometimes made out to be.
The second thing that struck me was that this dominance appears to be growing. As a whole, off-trade wine was in growth of 12.4% by value and 8.8% by volume in 2020, a jump that is not at all surprising given the lockdowned realities of the year.
What is surprising – to me at least – is the massive growth shared by four of the top five: as The Grocer article points out, Barefoot, Yellow Tail, Casillero del Diablo and McGuigan collectively added some £182.9m in off-trade sales last year, with Barefoot, Yellow Tail and Casillero all growing at more than 30% year on year. What’s more, almost every brand in the Top 50 was in growth.
Should I be ashamed of myself about not having shown a bit more curiosity about what the rump of British wine drinkers have been pouring this year? Well maybe a bit: in the same spirit that I finally watched an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians before Christmas, and have leafed through the likes of the Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s good to get a bit of context.
But context is all it is. I mean, how many of the Top 5 – or Top 50, for that matter – brands do you stock in your stores? Not many, I’d guess. And there’s a reason for that. I have no problem with its existence, but the world of supermarket – or, more accurately, mass market or big brand – wine is a parallel universe with a largely tangential relationship with the kind of wine that gets me excited.
It’s not a question of snobbery. I’m not in the business of sneering at people’s tastes in drinks. For the millions of wine drinkers who are after a mildly diverting, unchallenging glass of something vaguely fruity at the end of a stressful day, branded wines do the job just fine, hitting a taste profile at just the right angle, and at just the right price.
Some big brands may even do more than that: Casillero has long cornered the “only safe choice in the corner shop” market; and I’ve had plenty of good wines from various parts of the upper end of the Hardys and McGuigan stables.
Still, once you’ve tasted what wine can do when it’s not produced by spreadsheet it’s very had to go back.
It’s harder still to drum up much enthusiasm beyond those occasional moments when a corporate supplier is just launching a brand and has decided on a strategy of over-delivering on quality as a means of getting early distribution (with corner-cutting arriving at a later date once the brand is entrenched).
In general, the wines that really hold the attention and lift the spirits are never going to find a place in a Top 50 sales chart. That’s because they’re overwhelmingly (if not exclusively) made by smaller producers who start from a very different position to their corporate peers: first making the best, most expressive, evocative wine they can, and then finding the right customers for it, rather than letting the focus-grouped consumer or a distribution plan set the agenda.
Both methods – both worlds – are equally valid. You could even argue that they’re interdependent. But I’m not ashamed to say that one will always be more attractive to me – and frankly, the big brands are doing pretty well all by themselves.
in praise of the co-op
In recent decades, Europe’s wine co-operatives have been dismissed as backward as buyers fixate on individual growers. But, says David Williams, there is plenty to admire in the way these collectives emerged out of times of crisis, and the wines they produce are by no means as unfashionable as some people assume
A crisis is a moment of opportunity. This bit of boilerplate wisdom can come across as a little glib at times. It’s especially unwelcome if it’s coming from someone who is patently not experiencing a crisis in the same way that you are.
“An opportunity for what, and for whom?” you might well ask, as the visibly well-fed politician continues his lecture on how many great entrepreneurs emerged from a childhood of extreme poverty and hunger.
Still, if we look back at previous crises, we may find that there is something worth retrieving at the core of a cliché that is too often deployed in bad faith. Humanity’s capacity for adaptability is at its most remarkably tenacious in the wake of traumatic events, and this might make us wonder what will emerge when (please not if) we emerge from this current moment.
It’s a question that applies to the wine industry as much as it does to wider society. Most predictions about the post-Covid future of wine seem to focus on what, to me, seem rather dispiriting changes: as I wrote in these pages a couple of months back, 2020 has accelerated the switch to online in many various and, quite possibly, irrevocable ways.
However you look at it, on this reading, the wine industry from now on will be a whole lot less sociable and convivial than it was before the pandemic.
Looking back at how the wine world has responded to previous crises in history, however, I wonder if some rather more positive outcomes – outcomes that bring people together rather than sealing them ever tighter in atomised bubbles –might not be possible.
Specifically, I’m wondering if the 2020s might not herald the renaissance of a particular type of production that embodies collaboration – the European co-operative.
Certainly, most of the successful co-operatives operating today emerged in a time of crisis.
Think of the Cave de Ribeauvillé, formed in 1896 as the growers of Alsace looked to rebuild their vineyards in the wake of the twin catastrophes of phylloxera and military invasion. Or the Produttori del Barbaresco, which has a backstory straight from an Italian neo-realist film, with the local priest bringing the village’s growers together with a vision of high-quality Nebbiolo after years in which their livelihood was ravaged by economic depression and war.
And the foundational crisis needn’t be world historical: Gascony’s Plaimont was formed as a wine-producing collective as a response to the collapse in Armagnac sales in the early 1970s.
It’s easy to see why co-operatives emerge at such moments. The advantages of co-operative membership are all heightened in times of need: the shared resources, from winemaking to promotion; the economies of scale; the sheer reach that an organisation of several hundred people, representing several thousand hectares and millions of hectolitres, has, in terms of both lobbying and marketing, versus working with your own couple of hectares, alone.
Still, for much of the past few decades, the tendency has been to talk up the individual grower and talk down the whole idea of the co-op.
How many times have you read a profile of an exciting European grower who used to sell to the local co-op but has now boldly struck out alone, after tiring of the politics and the infighting? And how often have you spoken to a French, Spanish, German or Italian wine entrepreneur who says how much would be possible if the truculent growers at the local co-operative weren’t holding the region back, the commitment to buying up their growers’ harvest come what may always meaning quality takes a back seat to quantity?
Of course, we’ve all had experiences of badly run co-operatives: the buying (or press) trip lowlight with its filthy, prison-like 1930s facilities, unironic 1980s labels and rancid wines. But if they are bad in what seems like a distinctively co-op-y way, are they really so common? Are there more bad co-ops as a proportion of the total than there are bad private wineries, big and small?
I’m not so sure there are. And, purely in wine terms, Europe’s many well-run co-operatives are invariably a force for good, at their best acting as regional ambassadors, helping to shape regional styles and best practice, and making excellent mass-market and, in some cases, seriously fine, wines.
Among the best you can most certainly count Produttori del Barberesco, Cave de Ribeauvillé and Plaimont. To that list you could add Le Cave de Tain in the Rhône, Cantina Terlano in the Alto-Adige, Cantine Settesoli in Sicily, Cavit in Trentino, Chablis’ La Chablisienne, the Wachau’s Domäne Wachau and (although its members officially became shareholders when it became a limited company in the early 2000s) Bodegas Borsao in Campo de Borja, while Champagne’s powerful co-operatives are responsible for brands such as Jacquart and Nicolas Feuillatte.
There’s a commercial savvy behind the success of each of the above. But it’s underpinned by something stronger: a combination of regional pride and a social solidarity that will be more in need than ever as Europe’s producers attempt to work their way back from – and find the opportunities created by – a disastrous 2020.
give a somm a home
Hipsterish nerds with Benny hats and too many tattoos … it’s easy to pigeonhole sommeliers into a smug metropolitan subculture. But look beyond the caricature, says David Williams, and you might see a group of distressed wine professionals with a lot to offer the independent trade. October 2020
The rise of the sommelier is one of the more remarkable side effects of wine’s imperial period – those late-20th century/early 21st years when wine and wine culture conquered the drinks world.
Before the 1980s, the job itself was mostly an exotic curiosity outside the Francophone world (which for the purposes of my argument included the overwhelmingly French Michelin-approved fine-dining scene in the UK and the USA).
By the 2010s, however, the job had become sufficiently glamorous to inspire a successful documentary feature film, 2012’s Somm, which followed four candidates attempting to pass the Master Sommelier exams – a test that many claim is even more fiendishly difficult than becoming a Master of Wine.
In the States especially, but also in London and other big European cities, a kind of sub-culture had developed. And in the 2010s there was a hipster-ish element to it – for a moment around 2015, at certain events hosted by the more fashionable on-trade-focused importers, you could get the impression that all sommeliers, no matter their gender, had been inducted into a secret society that came with a uniform of a pair of too-short thick cotton trousers, a brace of esoteric tattoos and the kind of woolly hat once favoured by binmen and Benny from Crossroads.
Such was the impression at trade days at The Real Wine Fair. But the world of sommellerie has always been much more diverse than that sort of caricature allows. What unites the sommeliers I know is not a common taste in music or fashion or hedonistic nights out so much as an unquenchable thirst for wine knowledge. There is a studious – even (in the very best sense of the word) nerdy – side to sommeliers that you don’t often find in their peers in the bar world. And when it’s combined with the charm and discreet dexterity that all the best sommeliers share, it makes for a quietly charismatic whole.
From the outside, certainly, it looks like an interesting world to get involved in.
Rewarding, too, if you’re to believe the late master of the art, Gerard Basset. As he puts it in the conclusion to his fascinating and at times very moving, memoir, Tasting Victory (posthumously published earlier this year), the life of the sommelier may be hard work at times. But the pay-off can be enormous. “My efforts to serve other people, to choose wines that would take their meal to another level, to make them comfortable and give them a night, or a holiday, that they would remember for the rest of their lives, repaid me many, many times over,” Basset writes. “I would do it all again.”
If this column appears to be taking on a slightly elegiac tone, well we all know why that is. Sommeliers have been among the most affected by a year in which the livelihoods of many working in the hospitality trade have been whipped away like a tablecloth in a very clumsy, unsuccessful version of the old conjuror’s trick, with glasses and plates smashing all around them.
As Ronan Sayburn MS, one of the UK’s leading sommeliers, and head of wine at the wine-obsessed private members’ club 67 Pall Mall says in an article published by market researchers IWSR: “A lot of sommeliers are losing their jobs. It’s not necessarily the senior ones, but the more junior ones. I think the top-end restaurants will mostly be fine, but the mid-market could suffer – those with one sommelier, rather than a team.”
Where do the unlucky ones go? A lot, apparently, are returning home, which for many means countries across the EU, a decision motivated by concerns over Brexit as much as the prospect of spending lockdown in a tiny London room that they don’t even have the wages to pay for.
But there are plenty more suddenly inactive sommeliers with a UK passport who are contemplating a future in which they can’t put their many and varied, if highly specialised, skills to good use. There is a sense that many British sommeliers will find other jobs in the on-trade in which their wine knowledge will be a useful but far from essential skill: they’ll be working as waiters or, if they’re lucky, restaurant managers, as so many restaurants either close or, in times of drastically reduced covers, cut back on staff numbers.
My own hope is that at least some of the rest of the sommelier community can find positions in the sector that most closely resembles their original habitat.
It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. Even before Covid-19, the boundaries between the independent off- and on-trades had blurred. Not just in all those hybrid wine-bar-shops, or those off-trade outlets set up by trained sommeliers, such as Jamie Smith’s Tring Winery and Xavier Rousset’s Wine Shop at Le Comptoir. Over the past couple of decades, independent wine merchants have been at least as proactive as the best sommeliers in the role of setting trends and leading wine drinkers towards more interesting and rewarding wines.
An independent wine merchant is a setting where sommeliers should feel at home, in other words. And wise independent merchants will surely consider giving some of the talented sommeliers currently lost in the turbulence of 2020 a safe haven to ply their trade as we wait to see what happens in 2021.
Phrases for the new winemaking age
The lexicon of wine evolves all the time as producers find new ways to enthuse, entertain and even fool us. David Williams suggests some useful updates for anyone considering putting together a modern winemaking phrasebook. September 2020
The Winemaker’s Essential Phrasebook is one of my favourite wine books, an endearingly unfussy and practical tome that, as the title suggests, provides the English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese for hundreds of different wine terms.
Before the advent of reliable mobile internet, the Phrasebook was the place to turn if you wanted to know the German for malolactic fermentation or the Italian for crushing (Biologischer Säureabbau and pigiatura, in case you were wondering) ahead of a trip into wine country.
I still use my own dog-eared copy even now, but it’s getting on a little. And it could perhaps do with a little bit of an overhaul to add some new terms that have emerged in an industry that has changed a great deal since the dictionary was published by Mitchell Beazley in the early 2000s.
In case anyone reading this wants to take on the job of reviving this wonderful little book for the 2020s, here are a few of my favourite recent coinages.
This culinary term first came to my attention in a viticultural context via the wine writer Margaret Rand, who was quoting a winemaker in Toro – the hot, dry Spanish region where winemakers are currently experimenting with any number of techniques to rein in the unfashionably high power and alcohol with which it has become synonymous.
It refers to a particular stage of ripeness, when the grapes are still able to provide a bit of bite, be it from acidity or slightly tough (if not green) tannin, and before they make the transition into soft, sweet, billowing full ripeness.
I like it because I think it sums up better than any other term an increasingly dominant approach to winemaking, especially red winemaking, where freshness and drinkability are every bit as important as flavour per se.
See also, Crunchy: Al dente grapes may only provide a portion of the final blend. But when the cuvée is 100% just-ripe grapes, it will generally call for another wine term that didn’t exist 20 years ago to describe the sensual sensation: crunchy.
A term with a graphic etymology that I actually hadn’t twigged before writing this article (the Urban Dictionary definition is particularly, erm, engaging), spoofulated began to crop up in wine circles in the mid-to-late 2000s as a pejorative term for over-manipulated, over-ripe wines.
The etymology (that I’m too coy to describe here, but think of the related, Boris Johnson-endorsed term, spaffing) is important as it gets to the heart of the term’s utility in withering critiques of the excesses of Big Wine. It’s the idea that there’s something crassly priapic about wines where everything is dialled up to the amp-blowing max – something a touch pornographic about wines that have been subject to the ameliorative surgery of powdered tannins, Megapurple and all the rest.
But there’s also something tactile about the word – as you say it you can almost feel the gloopy texture of a spoofulated wine.
See also: Boardroom wines and spreadsheet wines, which both cut to the coldly detached and formulaic decision-making origins of spoofulated wines.
Let’s say you were presiding over a producer of spoofulated wines, and wanted to change your winery’s image. How could you do that without actually changing too much about your production, specifically getting rid of all those French barriques that had cost you so much to acquire when your consultant winemaker was still telling you they were essential? How does a large winery get hip on the cheap, in other words?
Well one very effective way is to invest in a few amphorae. You don’t have to buy very many. You can still carry on making the oaky wines that, as unfashionable as they may be with the geeks, continue to sell very well to your actual customers. You only need to make a very small amount of clay-fermented wine, about which you can make a load of distracting noise to get enough of the right people to say your winery “is really doing something interesting and innovative here”.
In a visit to Georgia, one winemaker described this as “clay washing”. But I am hoping to spread my own coinage for those times when a concrete egg replaces the amphora as the vessel for the limited hipster cuvée: concreting over.
A term I came across on a visit to the Languedoc a couple of years ago and haven’t heard since.
But it deserves its place in any modern vinous phrasebook for succinctly summing up the story of rosé wine of the past two decades, suggesting as it does, the clinical (cynical?) process of leaching pigment from the vast majority of pink wines to fit in with buyer and consumer demand.
That Languedoc winemaker couldn’t hide a certain disdain for drinkers who would choose only on colour.
There was a certain resentment, too, that the colour required for modern rosé should be so strongly associated with a rival southern French region – a resentment and disdain that come out so well in a sentence where “pastellisation” comes shortly after “banalisation”.
Growing tensions in Champagne
The Champenois are taking steps to avoid a price crash, with the region’s houses and the growers who supply them at loggerheads over the best way forward. We might not be seeing riots like those of 1911, but Covid has fractured a peace that has been beneficial for both sides. By David Williams, August 2020
It’s sometimes said that a quick glance at a graph of Champagne sales will tell you all you need to know about the headline state of the global economy. In which case, if you’re of a nervous disposition, look away now.
Back in May, the Champagne trade was digesting the latest terrifying monthly figures. In total, shipments were down by 68% for the month of April. Faced with a cash crisis, desperate producers had already begun dumping in French supermarkets, with off-brand bottles sold for as little as €8.
In a hastily convened meeting in early May, the industry’s Executive Bureau took some radical decisions to try and prevent a total price crash: sales of vins sur-lattes (or unfinished wines) were banned for a month (the ban was later extended for June), and the last two quarterly payments to growers for the 2019 harvest were deferred.
With sales figures for a still-lockdowned world in May showing little improvement on April’s performance, the Champenois had begun to accept that, unless something truly remarkable happened in the summer and autumn, sales for the full year were likely to be down by at least a third (or 100 million bottles) on 2019 – and that’s despite a strong start to the year.
Just as we’ve grown accustomed to politicians from across the spectrum committing to unprecedented levels of state support, so the Champenois were getting ever more radical. At the end of May, the Executive Board met again, this time announcing details of changes to the system of payment for the 2020 vintage, which will be divided into two, with the second half deferred until the beginning of 2022.
The Board also said it was for the first time planning to extend the amount of grapes that grower-producers (récoltant-manipulants) can buy from outside their own vineyards. Normally set at 5%, the idea is that a large, one-off increase would allow RM producers to compensate for the significant drop in permitted yield that will inevitably be announced for this year’s harvest.
Just how low remains a real point of contention, since the current crisis has led to an escalation of tensions between growers and houses. The Union des Maisons de Champagne producer association wants the permitted yield to fall by a third, reflecting the Covid-hit in sales. The Syndicat Général des Vignerons de la Champagne growers union, by contrast, wants yields kept at last year’s level, which was already much reduced on previous years. As I write this, any decision has been deferred until August 18, when the harvest could already be in full swing.
Update from Comité Champagne on August 18:
“Winegrowers and Champagne Houses met this morning in Epernay and agreed a yield of 8,000 kilos per hectare (equivalent to 230m bottles) for the 2020 harvest.
“Bearing in mind the uncertainties faced by the industry, Champagne has altered the terms relating to bottling and payments for this harvest, which will now depend on figures reported by the markets in the course of 2020.
“This approach, which demonstrates the resilience of Champagne’s interprofessional organisation, will allow the sellers of grapes to maintain an acceptable revenue, while allowing sellers of bottles to match the demands of their customers and protect their cash flow.”
Fear of division
The spectre that haunts all outbreaks of disagreement between the two main stakeholder groups in Champagne is the period immediately before World War I, when the effects of phylloxera and an influx of cheap grapes from other parts of France, borne on the newly expanded and efficient railway network, had massively hit Champagne growers’ incomes.
This was a time of great friction between the growers and the houses. According to one unnamed grower quoted in Don Kladstrup’s fascinating history of the time in the region, Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times, “They [the merchants] live in châteaux; we live with holes in the roof.”
The famous riots of 1911 were the inchoate result, as resentment at those merchants buying grapes from outside the region boiled over, and 40,000 troops were sent from Paris to quell the rioters.
The development of co-operatives and growers’ unions in the straitened economic circumstances of the 1930s began to alter the balance of power towards the growers, with the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne, formed under German rule in 1941, doing a quite remarkable job of adjudicating the competing interests of growers and houses in the region ever since.
Indeed, as Michael Edwards puts it in his Finest Wines of Champagne, the CIVC is “by far the most powerful and effective wine body in France”, with Champagne becoming, in the years since its formation, “probably the greatest agro-industry in the country”.
A large part of the explanation for the CIVC’s and Champagne’s post-war success has of course been its jealously guarded association with glamour via snazzily swish marketing and the maintenance of high retail prices. For a while back there, before the great global quality sparkling wine revolution of the past decade or so, it was the only sparkling wine for celebration, the go-to wine for status symbolism.
In recent years, however, and largely but not exclusively thanks to the best grower-producers, Champagne had begun to move away from the widespread feeling that it was the vinous wing of the couture industry. Terroir, previously a word as dirty as the region’s actual, Parisian-littered vineyards used to be, came into wide circulation as the vineyards themselves cleaned up and got greener. The art of the blender was still all-important; the art of the satin-lined limited-edition gift pack slightly less so.
Or so it looked to me at least. But I’m not at all sure I’m representative, if my experiences writing about the stuff are anything to go by.
Here’s a quite telling anecdote. In March, before things had got really serious in the UK at least, I filed a column on Champagne to my editors at The Observer. Three weeks later, I got a slightly panicked email saying, or words to that effect, this is completely unsuitable for the times, could you file us about wines under a tenner to get through lockdown instead?
And therein lies the problem for a drink of celebration at a time when nobody wants to celebrate. Should a vaccine ever come into circulation, we are perhaps looking at the biggest global party since the end of World War II. Until that time, however, the Champenois are going to need all their fabled powers of compromise if they’re to stick together and overcome the worst crisis since World War I.
the accidental tourism tailspin
All over the world, wine producers have been eager to attract tourists – not just because they spend cash during their visit, but because they become unofficial brand ambassadors after they’ve returned home. Covid-19 has, for now, disrupted a lot of plans, and balance sheets. By David Williams, July 2020
It was not the most dramatic, saddest, or in any way the most significant story you’d find in the news in the past few weeks. Indeed, the way it was presented made it look almost like the past six months hadn’t happened, that everything was just normal and tickety-boo.
But still, there was something particularly poignant about the item, posted on the Harpers website on July 1, about how “Amorim Group’s Taboadella winery is delivering a striking new vino-tourism experience in the Dão region with the opening up to visitors of a dedicated cellar door experience and accommodation”.
As the modern parlance has it … good luck with that!
What made the news all the more touching somehow was that nowhere was there any suggestion that the timing of this launch might be a little off. With its willful blindness to the prevailing conditions, it was almost possible to believe that we were still in the other, more hopeful era when the project was conceived.
And then I woke up. Wine tourism. Now tell me, what was that again?
“All over the world, wine companies have realised there’s money to be made – and, equally important, valuable PR to be communicated – in attracting visitors in increasingly slick and varied ways.” I wrote this, just a year ago, in an article about wine holidays in The Observer.
The piece was prompted by the first edition of the World’s 50 Best Vineyards, a spin-off of the 50 Best Restaurants set up to identify the best wine tourism destinations. The very existence of the awards – and the similar, more established Best Wine Tourism gongs handed out by the Great Wine Capitals organisation – was, I thought, acknowledgement of the big deal wine tourism had become.
According to French government statistics, France was attracting some 10 million wine tourists a year by the end of the 2010s, a growth of some 30% in a decade. Between them they brought in around €5.2bn to the French economy. Market researchers Mintel, meanwhile, suggest that the rapidly growing US wine tourism market is worth as much as $20bn a year.
Even with the diplomatic finagling of air corridors and governmental promotions of domestic staycations (or whatever the French, German or Italian equivalent might be), few wineries are expecting to recoup even a fraction of their pre-pandemic annual income from visitors.
That doesn’t just mean the immediate loss of cellar-door and on-premise sales at the wineries themselves. As a recent online event hosted by Sandra Carvao, chief of tourism market intelligence and competitiveness at the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, stressed, there’s a whole “ecosystem” of small businesses – from restaurants, hotels and tour-guides to hot-air balloon and cycle-hire firms – that rely on the income brought by tourists to wine regions.
Although keen not to underplay the damage caused to tourism of all kinds by Covid-19 – the unprecedented reality of “100% of destinations” implementing travel restrictions of varying degrees of intensity more or less simultaneously; the uncertainty of the whens and hows of the “new normals” of socially distanced travel amid a severe global economic downturn – Carvao did say wine tourism had two things in its favour as the world re-opens.
Its ability to host small groups, and, importantly, to entertain them in the open air may make a visit to a vineyard more attractive than, say, a museum, art gallery or urban restaurant.
Still, you wouldn’t say the UNWTO Zoom call – which also featured wine tourism specialists from South Africa and the Napa Valley, and in which the importance of reaching out online was once again presented as at least part of the suggested solution – was exactly surging with optimism.
One of the great joys of wine in lockdown has been its ability to transport the drinker to faraway places through the medium of taste
Besides, the suspension of tourism isn’t simply counted in the tangible, immediate loss of dollars and euros for wineries and their dependents. For the wine business, there’s also wine tourism’s much less easily quantifiable – but no less important – function: cementing wine’s connection with place.
This is the priceless PR effect I was writing about a year ago. It could be the young future Châteauneuf-du-Pape fan lost because of the skipped city-break in Avignon. Or the American pensioner who cancelled his Cape Town cruise stopover and never got to taste and then evangelise for the wines of that stunning Stellenbosch estate. Or it might be the Japanese businessman who never got the chance to be won over by Rathfinny before that flight from Gatwick. It’s ambassadors like these – and there are thousands each year – who are essential to maintaining wine’s status as the drink of place.
Can wine do the same without tourism? Of course it can. The phenomenon of visiting wine regions as a leisure pursuit is barely a century old, and only really got going in many places in the past couple of decades. So that’s only a few millennia of trading in geographically specific wines without the help of coach parties and Sideways-style stag weeks.
Equally, one of the great joys of wine in lockdown has been its ability to transport the drinker to faraway places through the medium of taste: wine, as someone once said, is liquid travel.
Still, as anyone lucky enough to have had the experience of drinking great wine in the place where it was made will tell you, a social media video of a vineyard is no substitute for the real thing.
And for members of that lucky club of well-travelled tasters, reading news stories about grand new wine tourist projects – or indeed casting an eye down the 2020 winners of Great Wine Capitals and the World’s 50 Best Vineyards – is not just poignant. It’s painful.
‘IT’s nice … but I REALLY JUST MISS SEEING PEOPLE’
The wine trade has found digital ways of adapting to lockdown. Some have been pretty successful.
But in the longer term, the “generous rectangle” of a screen is no substitute for real human contact. By David Williams, June 2020
Even for an author with a reputation for writing about the more grotesquely surreal and alienating features of modern life years before they have actually come to pass in the real world, JG Ballard’s short story The Intensive Care Unit is disturbingly prescient.
Written in 1977, it depicts a society where everyone lives alone in splendid, luxuriously comfortable isolation, and where all social contact (including school, work, and time spent with families) is experienced through “the generous rectangle of the TV screen”.
What makes the story all the more uncanny is the way Ballard builds the sense of unease even as the characters describe their collusion with the situation – they don’t want social interaction, they willingly comply with their isolation. Contact with other humans feels to them archaic, dirty, something to be looked back on in horror and disgust in much the same way that we look back on medieval hygiene.
Reading the story at any time would have been an uncomfortable experience. Most of us have long had the creeping feeling that we are spending too much of our lives online, willingly (blindly) reducing human contact for something mediated by more or less sinister organisations and their algorithms.
But reading the story (on real paper pages, imagine that!) during a rare break from the flickering screen during a global pandemic was something else altogether.
This is a time when, for many of us, the virtual world’s victory over real life has seemed to be almost complete, a time when the screen has annexed more and more parts of our existence.
Screens haven’t just replaced the newspaper and the cinema during Covid-19. They’ve filled in for the dinner party, the pub, even the gym (up to and including providing the annoying motivating instructors – hello Gregg, hi Joe – barking and grunting you through your workout).
I don’t want to be the condescending killjoy here, the patronising digital refusenik going on about his “amazing concentration app” that blackmails you out of looking at social media by growing a virtual tree or sending links to articles about 11 ways to digitally detox in a pandemic.
Online, after all, has provided a lifeline for those of us lucky enough to have stable broadband connections. And just as I’ve had to accept that my teenage son’s ballooning online gaming habit is actually a perfectly reasonable way for him to maintain his social relationships when he’s basically not allowed to leave the house, so I’m never going to decry the compensations offered by online sales (and those via phone and email) to retailers.
The internet has made a kind of facsimile of normal life possible for wine journalists, too, with Zoom tastings and winemaker webinars providing some sort of replacement for the content we’d normally find at tastings and on travels to vineyard areas.
It’s also allowed The Wine Merchant to hold the judging of our eighth annual Top 100 competition, a logistically complex but (by all accounts) satisfying alternative to real-life judging where the 36 judges received their wines (bagged up and coded ready for blind tasting) via courier to taste at home or in their shops rather than, as has always hitherto been the case, in a clubbable gathering in a room in west London.
The solution was successful enough – in terms of the quality of judging and results – for us to at least ask the question of whether we might want to make it permanent. And many Wine Merchant readers will be asking the same thing about the emergency restructuring they’ve carried out in their businesses this year.
As, indeed, is the whole wine industry. In the USA, for example, a recent report by Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division suggested that direct-to-consumer sales (phone and e-commerce) have so far leapt from 3% to 25% of the average California winery’s business during the Covid-19 crisis. The bank suggests this kind of radical change in distribution – one driven by the average 44% loss in revenue from the closure of restaurants and cellar door operations – could be permanent.
Similarly, Liv-ex recently published a report, Selling Wine in a Post-Covid-19 World: A Guide for Merchants, which is largely concerned with how businesses and consumers are “finding ways to do online what they once did offline and engage people from a (social) distance”, with particular emphasis on how to “accelerate” e-commerce strategy.
Of course, while the virus remains a clear and present danger, this kind of advice, and other imaginative initiatives such as St James’s wine club 67 Pall Mall’s £10 virtual membership or the Symington Family Port shippers’ “world’s first digital launch of Vintage Port” for its 2018 single quintas, will carry on being essential.
What I’m concerned about, once the virus is contained or defeated, is that we don’t make a permanent virtue out of what we all hope is a temporary necessity. As one of the Top 100 judges said to me in one of the dozens of Zoom calls that we held during the event: “It’s nice, it’s all good, but I really just miss seeing people.”
She was talking about her lockdown business as much as our competition. But it’s something we feel at The Wine Merchant, too. If, come this time next year, we have to repeat our socially distanced judging experiment, we will. But we would really rather not.
Like our Top 100 judge, we miss people. As the wine industry attempts to work out what comes next, let’s not forgot that this is a trade built on the social – and that not everything is better for being experienced through the “generous rectangle” of a computer or mobile screen.
Are you having a good Covid-19 crisis?
That’s an outsider’s perception of the wine trade in the time of coronavirus. Look closer and it’s clear that not everyone is seeing a sales boom – and there are challenges and tensions for us all to deal with. By David Williams, May 2020
Covid-19 already has a rich vernacular. So rich, apparently, that the Oxford English Dictionary felt the need to make an intervention in its latest publications to take account of all the new words that suddenly came into ubiquitous currency in February and March.
Alongside such new – to most of us – terms as WFH, PPE, social distancing and self-isolation, however, a handful of existing stock phrases are also enjoying a boom.
The king of the Covid-19 platitudes is without question “when all this is over”. Have you managed a single exchange – on or offline – of more than a few words in the past two months that hasn’t at some point involved one or both of you saying “when all this is over”?
Not that I object: repeating WATIO is really just a means of sharing a certain wistful longing – a way of talking about the kinds of things we used to do and want to do again, in a hopefully coming-soon, healthy future. It’s the kind of thing your loved ones say to you to cheer you up when you’re ill, repeated thousands of times a second all over the English-speaking world.
Rather more troubling than WATIO – if equally understandable – is the widespread use of the subtly resentful “it’s all right for some”.
IARFS has always had a slightly passive-aggressive feel to it – the kind of thing a colleague who you’ve never quite trusted would say when you leave the office early for a dental appointment.
In the current moment, however, the radically different experiences we are having of lockdown can make the implicit sarcasm of IARFS feel particularly pointed.
IARFS is what you might write under the Instagram post of the golden happy family on “furlough vacation” with their “quarantine groove” garden party, complete with homemade sourdough bread and “lockdown sundowners”, while you’re in the midst of another long lonely night in your one-room flat fretting about how on earth you’re going to pay your credit card bill now that your gig economy jobs have disappeared between the cracks where Rishi Sunak’s support don’t shine.
The resentful feeling isn’t just about social division between individuals. There’s a real imbalance between sectors of the economy, too.
And this is where those working in wine need to be careful if they’re not to be labelled with another phrase from the Covid-19 dictionary: pandemic profiteers.
You only need to look back on the reaction on social media (which, if it wasn’t already, is what passes for public space at the moment) to know how a large sector of the population was appalled by the inclusion of alcohol in the essential goods definition that allowed off-licences to stay open. As the journalist Dawn Foster put it in a tweet on March 24: “So @majesticwine are claiming they’re an essential service and jeopardising the health of staff for pure profit”.
Such sentiments are unlikely to have been assuaged by headlines talking about how alcohol sales have boomed since the lockdown: up 31.4% according to an ONS report. In these circumstances, a bookseller, his store shuttered for the foreseeable, could be forgiven a lot more than a bitterly envious IARFS at the booming trade at the wine shop next door.
Never mind that the rise in the off-trade has overwhelmingly fallen at the feet of the one sector of the economy that really doesn’t need any help right now: the supermarkets. Or that the rise in online sales – or orders via phone and email – experienced by so many indies, large and small, doesn’t always compensate for the complete loss of their wholesale or on-premise business. If you’re in the wine business, you’re perceived to be having a good crisis.
All of which means that, if you feel you’re not doing well, it will take a great deal of delicacy to explain why life isn’t all right for some merchants – and why you, who can continue trading, deserve help and sympathy over and above other devastated sectors of the economy. And if you are doing well, it almost goes without saying that any talk of “booming” sales should be banned from anywhere in your business.
Not that many in the wine trade seem to need reminding of any of this. Indeed, for the most part, I’ve been heartened by how the trade has responded to the crisis.
Most merchants have had the sense not to complain as they’ve struggled to meet delivery slots. And the support given by many retailers to various causes – local and national – has been truly impressive. There have been many stories, too, of mutual support and intra-trade solidarity, with extended credit from suppliers providing a potential lifeline for the independent off-trade.
Only the bad feeling provoked by the way some suppliers have attempted to replace their restaurant customers with direct-to-consumer sales at trade prices has shown how fragile that solidarity can be.
Although we could do without the aggressive pricing of some of the more desperate of those suppliers (sometimes dramatically undercutting their own long-term independent retail customers), I’m inclined to be a little forgiving about this, however.
If you’ve lost, in some cases, 90% of your business at a stroke – when you’re scrabbling to stay alive – I don’t think accusations of short-termism carry quite the same weight as they would in normal times. At the very least, we might want to practice a degree of empathy, however justifiably pissed off we may be. In other words, let’s not be too judgemental or resentful. Rather than constantly looking to shame those some for whom it seems to be all right, better to think constructively about how we get to that beautiful, mythical time when all this is over.
Wine lover or wine geek? Can you be both?
For some, wine appreciation is all about romance and sensuality. For others, it’s effectively a science. Both camps have a point, and it makes sense for us in the trade to accommodate them. By David Williams, April 2020
Serious wine enthusiasts, I’ve increasingly come to think, tend to divide into two groups.
The first group I’m going to call the wine lovers. These are people who enjoy wine, and learning about wine, in a totally natural, unselfconscious way, and not just because it offers them a way of imbibing alcohol while still being able to stake a claim on some kind of moral and aesthetic high ground.
The true wine lover doesn’t approach the object of her affections purely as posh booze, in other words. She loves wine because she loves the connections it makes.
That means connections to places: she will drink a wine and be transported to the region where it was made. That may be because it takes her back to somewhere she knows well: a sniff of a Languedoc red with its reminders of dusty tracks through lavender-scented scrub and that meal of barbecued lamb. Or it may just bring a set of sensual clues or suggestions of what a country or region she’s never been to might be like: what kind of place is Georgia to make this kind of crunchy, dark Saperavi sensation?
But it also means connections to people. She will love the idea of getting to know a wine producer, whether that means visiting them at their cellar door, meeting them at a tasting, reading about them in a book or following them online. And she will be loyal to these producers once she’s come to know them and their wines.
She will also see wine as a way of bringing people closer together. For the wine lover, wine is always a drink to share (even in dark Zoom-bar days when your friend is sipping their glass in the glitching frazzle-dazzle of your laptop screen), a drink that breaks down the inhibitions, opening up discussion, but also, when it’s good, anchoring it, demanding to be talked about.
That talk is unlikely to stray too much into the technical, however. It’s not that the wine lover has no grasp of the hows and whys of wine production. But the percentage of grape varieties in the blend; the amount of time in new oak or concrete; the residual sugar and even the alcohol will be more of a background, a foundation, than the essence of the thing. When it comes to wine knowledge, a wine lover will be keenest to reach that position where she knows instinctively what the wines of a given place are likely to taste like. She’s very much less concerned with ranking producers, giving scores or passing judgements.
Which brings us to the other group of wine lovers, the wine geeks, whose first identifying characteristic is that she is likely to view the wine lovers’ approach as more than a little wishy-washy.
Dangerously wishy-washy, in fact, when the conversation turns to biodynamics, terroir, food matching and other concepts that don’t fit neatly into a strictly scientific worldview. The wine geek, you see, is much more concerned with the technical side of wine. She has a yearning to understand that requires as much data as possible, a belief that what makes a wine great is a set of wholly observable, measurable factors, if only we could get access to them: the precise micro-biological content of the soil; the day-by-day details of growing season weather; the genetic details of the vines; yeast types; vessel types; fermentation temperatures and maceration times …
The need to classify and categorise will more often than not carry over into the geek’s approach to appreciation: a wine will be ranked, with a numerical rating based on tastings that will be as formulaic as possible. Marks and descriptive terms will represent objective criteria: intensity and duration of flavour; weight of mouthfeel; presence of tannins and acidity; presence or absence of faults …
The geek will then use this information to make judgements and lists, endless lists. She prides herself on ensuring that her buying and interest in producers is based on her own solid analysis of a wine – or the careful perusal of scores from trustworthy critics, not on some fluffy story about the winemaker’s cat. It’s a view of wine that sees it as a kind of global competition – seeing past regional differences and matters of taste to an all-powerful objectivity.
Geek v wine lover isn’t just a way of describing groups of wine enthusiasts. It can help to explain much of what happens within the wine business, too. Certainly, it has informed recent developments in the natural wine scene in France. Most natural winemakers can see the need for the sort of protection afforded by the newly unveiled Vin Méthode Nature designation and its official set of practices (from natural yeast and organic viticulture to a 30mg limit for added sulphur), as a way of seeing off charlatans and corporate imitators and of allowing them to market their wines clearly.
But at the same time many are reluctant to be do something so deeply, unremittingly geeky, stripping away the romance, and asking them to put on an approved winemaking uniform that feels like it goes against the anarchic spirit that makes the natural wine scene so exciting.
Terminal fence-sitter that I am, I’d argue that this story shows as well as any how the wine world can only really thrive if it makes space for both geeks and wine lovers. And that, no matter which way we ourselves lean temperamentally, we’d all be better off if we could combine, as much as possible, the romance, poetry, and dreaminess of the wine lover and the rigour, focus and scepticism of the geek.
Facing up to Frankenstein
There are big questions being asked about the future of agriculture, and wine has to be part of that conversation. Maybe lab-based solutions won’t be quite as scary as the nay-sayers assume. By David Williams, March 2020
Lab-grown food made from water will soon destroy farming – and save the planet.” “Meghan Markle wears lab-grown diamond earrings.” “Leather: grown in a lab without cows.”
Are these ideas for an episode of Black Mirror? Scenes from a series of post-apocalyptic young adult fiction books? A trio of Donald Trump tweets?
It’s actually more exciting – or terrifying, depending on your perspective – than any of those. Each of the above represents a real-life tale of technology in a time of increasing scarcity, extracted, more or less randomly from, respectively, The Guardian, Vogue and The Atlantic magazine – stories that would have felt feverishly sci-fi a decade or even five years ago, but now reflect just the latest evolution in our relationship to the natural world and its resources.
That lab-grown food Guardian article is about a twist on Jesus’ water-wine process. Patented by a cutting edge bio-food firm in Helsinki, it takes bacteria from the soil and multiplies it in a lab using hydrogen extracted from water to produce what the article’s author, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, calls a “primordial soup”. After being dried into a kind of yellow flour, the idea is that the bacterial stew will be used to make lab-grown versions of pretty much any food you can think of.
Markle’s diamonds, meanwhile, were not a symbol of newly straitened post-royal circumstances, but the most public outing yet for the work of London-based firm, Kimaï, one of a burgeoning movement of high-end “ethical” jewelers who have ditched the time-honoured diamond-sourcing method of waiting a couple of billion years for diamonds to form before sending in teams of underpaid and exploited workers to risk their lives to find them 200 miles underground. Instead, Kimaï’s jewels – indistinguishable from the “real thing”, the company says – are produced by replicating the conditions in a lab, with carbon “seeds” melting and dissolving in a process that takes two weeks for a 1 carat diamond.
And the lab-grown leather? That’s a New Jersey firm going by the charmingly bucolic name of Modern Meadow, which “biofabricates” its cow-free material by cultivating a strain of yeast that’s been bio-engineered to make collagen, the elastic but resistant material that makes leather do its useful leathery thing.
As a recent report from market researchers Mintel entitled Global Food & Drink Trends 2030 says, these developments are all part of “a new agricultural revolution” – a revolution with enormous consequences for producers and consumers alike.
This isn’t about food fashion, the report makes plain – this is not, as the work of market researchers so often is, merely an attempt at second-guessing consumer fads in 2030. Mintel doesn’t think consumers will be asking for more sustainable products as part of some more or less urgent, but frankly rather vague notions about ethical consumerism.
It’s more that the effects of the climate emergency will have become so pressing that companies simply won’t have any other choice but to ditch conventional methods of farming and resource extraction. They will be forced to revert to such modern-agri-tech solutions as vertical, floating, and indoor hydroponic farms – maybe even farms in space. Similarly the fashion world’s jewels and textiles are highly unlikely to involve the kind of extreme use of resources required by diamond or gold mining, and traditional leather and other fabric production.
Vin du laboratoire
There are urgent lessons in all this for the wine industry, although how far it’s willing or able to react to the new reality – and how quickly – is rather a moot point.
Certainly, much of the wine world has always been resistant to change to the point of cultivating a profound suspicion of anything that smacks of the technologically advanced or that can be classified as mucking about with nature. When, for example, the INAO gave its approval to a quartet of new varieties that had been bred by scientists to be resistant to rot (and to therefore drastically reduce the need for fungicides) two years ago, the reaction of many traditional French winemakers was to deride them as “Frankenstein grapes”.
Similarly, when Californian start-up Ava revealed its (ultimately unrealistic) mission to recreate the great wines of the world in their San Francisco lab with nothing more than flavour molecules, sugars, acids and ethanol back in 2017, there was a flurry of indignant criticism focused not on the project’s viability but its heretical assumptions and possible use in wine fraud.
In Ava’s case, it wasn’t the contention that it was possible to make wine in a lab that got up the conventional wine industry’s collective noses, in other words – it was that it would be just, somehow, ethically wrong.
As much as I have sympathy for wine’s rigid traditionalists – and understand that, by my own decidedly scientific estimation, at least 80% of wine’s charm comes from its association with land, vine, season and year via traditional farming – I don’t think they can ignore the radical reshaping that is affecting every other form of agriculture completely.
As a brilliant article by Australian viticulturist Dr Richard Smart on jancisrobinson.com pointed out recently, wine may not be in the big league of carbon emissions. But with Australia’s wine business alone, for example, contributing some 1.6m tonnes of CO2 in 2017 (according to Australian Wine Research Institute estimates) versus 22m tonnes for the Australian aviation industry, says Smart, “neither is the extent of pollution insignificant, nor so small that it can be ignored, as happens at present”.
As the Mintel report says, lab-based solutions needn’t lack glamour or be any less aspirational and Instagrammable. Indeed, for an increasingly large number of consumers, the very fact they’re lab-produced (and therefore resource-low and sustainable) actually lends the likes of a Kimaï diamond or a Modern Meadow leather belt a very modern form of glamour.
As the climate emergency intensifies, the wine trade may well have to follow the fashion and food business and contemplate breaking its own long cherished, assiduously cultivated connection between traditional production methods and quality. And while they’re working that out, it surely won’t be long before someone, somewhere is making a killing out of lab-produced fine wine.