Just Williams

David Williams

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.

David Williams

‘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.


 

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.