Why we had to stop our popular wine festival


Summer is a festival of festivals in Orkney. It kicks off with the Folk Festival and the Nature Festival in May, followed by the St Magnus Arts Festival in June. After that comes Science, North Ronaldsay Sheep, and the Blues. Rounding off the season is the Storytelling Festival in October. It’s a rich and varied cultural calendar, with one obvious exception.

So in June 2007 we launched the Orkney Wine Festival. At first it was a long weekend of events, but soon grew into a week-long programme. Eventually – after the exhaustion of hosting events for seven days and nights left me gibbering on the floor behind the counter – it spread over two weeks with a break in the middle.

We attracted outstanding speakers like Kevin Judd of Greywacke, Paulo di Marchi of Isole e Olena and Jan Pettersen of Fernando de Castilla. They didn’t fly in for a single event, but stayed for two or three days, assisting at wine fairs and shop tastings as well as at headline dinners, and becoming one of the team for a few days. Paulo di Marchi came out in the van with me delivering stock to restaurants. As a thank-you, I arranged for him to go fishing with a ghillie from a hotel we supply. Three freezing hours on Stenness Loch resulted (at the last minute, and much to his delight) in two reasonable trout.

Over the years we dreamt up new events to attract different customers. So as well as formal multi-course dinners, we held barbecues called The Thrill of the Grill. We developed a pop-up wine bar which we installed in the West Side Cinema. (My favourite movie-night was the matching of Donnafugata wines with that Sicilian classic Cinema Paradiso.) We teamed up with local producers of cheese, sourdough and Porkney Pies in tasting events outside traditional venues.

We held wine fairs in our two main towns. Kirkwall Town Hall is a convenient venue, being two doors along from our shop. Stromness Town Hall is a converted church halfway up a steep cobbled street with no parking. Pushing a trolley of rattling bottles and glasses up a cobbled ski-slope is a nerve-jangling experience.

Covid called a halt in 2020 and 2021, and even at the start of 2022 a full-blown festival would’ve been inadvisable. And yet this summer, when it would’ve been fine, we didn’t relaunch it; and we don’t intend to next year. “Why?” our customers ask, plaintively. I give them a tactful answer, but for you I’ll tell the truth.

The longer we did the festival, the less money we made. In the early days, we were establishing ourselves as a source of good wine and good advice. We took on every opportunity to promote ourselves and our services.

Affordable pricing was important in an area where incomes are low and there’s no great wine-drinking tradition. Festival events were priced with fantastic wines served at cost: profit came solely from orders taken on the night. That worked initially, with people coming to one or two events, and buying a case or half a case at the end of the week.

Gradually, customers realised what good fun and good value the events were, so they booked holidays and tickets for every event. But they still bought a case or half a case.
Every event was sold out, many potential customers were turned away, and yet orders were barely covering marketing and other costs, let alone the months of organisation and the extra-long days of chaperoning winemakers, carrying trestle tables and emptying spittoons. The festival had become about great nights out, rather than great wine – or great wine sales.

It feels strange to give up on something started from scratch that became a tremendous success. But sometimes that’s exactly the right point in a business trajectory to wield the guillotine.

Now we must think of something new, and start all over again. Which is, after all, the fun part.

  • Duncan McLean is proprietor of Kirkness & Gorie, Kirkwall

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