Just Williams

David Williams

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.

 


David Williams

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.

Memories of carefree times

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.


David Williams

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.