Monday, October 06, 2008

Wine - how much more than just a drink? An exercise in heretical thought.

The 2008 annual lecture to the Wine Communicators of Australia. Given in Melbourne and Sydney on September 22 & 23 2008

The speech began with this video clip. For those who are can't access youtube, it credibly depicts an elephant strolling into a gym, mounting a trampoline and happily bouncing in the air and turning head over heels.

I wanted to share this little clip with you, partly because I think it’s really rather wonderful and it never fails to raise my spirits. But also to illustrate a point. I imagine that everyone in this room has realised that a real life Dumbo wasn’t genuinely turning those somersaults. But I’ll bet that somewhere within each of us there’s a wish that all that trampoline action really did happen. And much of what I’m going to talk about today is the gap between wishing and reality. Much of it will sound like heresy, and some of it may sound downright irrelevant. Especially when I take in subjects like coffee, the rationality of oral sex among US teenagers and sales of cheesy classical music and a couple of the biggest but most widely believed lies in western civilisation

But before we head off on this magical mystery tour, I suppose I ought to say a few words about myself. Most of you, if you know me at all, know me as a wine writer, founder of the International Wine Challenge and occasional judge at wine shows in Australia, ranging from the Adelaide Hills to the Tri Nations which I chaired in Sydney last week. All of this is true, but I should also reveal three years ago, I effectively gave up consumer wine writing. Since then, I have become editor at large of the trade magazine Meininger’s Wine Business International, working alongside your colleague Felicity Carter, analysing the ins and outs and the who’s doing what to whoms of the wine world. And I have also been walking on the wilder side, producing, branding and trying to sell a few wines of my own. I am stating this, partly as a declaration of interest, and partly as an additional justification for standing in front of you and pontificating.

In fact, I now feel rather like someone who, after a lengthy career writing academic books about sex, finds that he’s taken on a part time job in a brothel. Which, I guess takes me back to the ins and outs of the wine world.

Just as we all wanted to believe in the elephant, every one of us in this room believes – or wants to believe – that when someone uses honest means to produce a wine that we think is good and fairly priced, that they somehow have a right to exist and continue to survive.

And Sarah Palin, quite possibly the person who’ll one day make us all feel nostalgic for the relative sophistication of George W Bush believes that God made the world and everything on it in six days.

I’m more of an evolutionist – and evolution is an amoral process in which – to the distress of my son – there are no goodies and baddies. Like nuclear war and the world of banks and insurance companies, there are just fatalities and survivors. Last year, in the UK alone, 10,000 novels were published. That’s more than one every hour. Some, probably most, were probably, to use a technical term, crap – though, unless they were self-published, someone apart from the author evidently thought otherwise – but a fair few were almost certainly fine and possibly minor masterpieces. We’ll never know. We hear about the JK Rowlings and Frederick Forsyths who, like characters in one of their own novels, fight their way through adversity – in the form of a thicket of rejection slips - to make it onto the best seller lists. We never hear about the writers whose work is abandoned in the thicket. Or about some of the great movies that never get to be produced or go straight to video. But we do get to see Kevin Costner and Nicole Kidman in Father Christmas Stole My Breakfast. (Okay, so I made that up, but I’ll bet something very like it is heading our way right now).

Let’s look beyond the elephant – at the reality of the wine world of 2008, a world which, as communicators we might all claim to have helped to create or at least to mould into its current state. Unless of course, we’ve all been indulging in conversations with each other. And ourselves.

Considered objectively in the latter part of 2008, there are lots of good things to say about the wine world. Average quality – taking into account the drinkability of the basest and the most exalted wines – is higher than it has ever been. The choice is wider, with new wines appearing on the market every day. Adventurous wine drinkers in New York and London are able to wash down their pizza with Uruguayan Tannat, Chinese Dragon’s Eye, Indian Sauvignon Blanc and Aussie Tempranillo. Financial rewards – for some – have been attractive too. People who bought first growth 2000s en primeur for £1,600 could sell them for £8,000 today. Or at least they’d have been able to do so a few weeks ago. Today I’m not quite as certain. The Casella family’s bank account is presumably rather fatter than it was, as I’d imagine are those of a few Shiraz producers in the Barossa Valley, not to mention Pinot Grigio and Prosecco purveyors in Italy, and the Spaniards and Eastern Europeans who produced the white wine that, by some kind of alchemy, is being transformed into Italian Pinot Grigio and Prosecco.

But, there is, of course, the other side to this picture. When you consider the number of people it involves, our industry doesn’t seem to be quite as big and impressive at it looks. Last year, its total turnover was estimated to be 230 billion US dollars. Which I thought sounded like quite a lot of cash – until I realised that it’s actually 50 billion less than the US government has just doled out to save three financial institutions. Microsoft, by the way, turns over just over 4 times as much as the global wine industry.

But size isn’t everything, at least that’s what I keep saying… Who cares how big you are, provided you’ve got your health. Setting aside the little question of the sustainability – in this country at least - of much of an agricultural industry that depends on water that will not be available, there’s the little matter of current financial viability. In Europe, the traditional heartland of wine, you have an industry that exists on a lifeline provided by European taxpayers, a 1.3bn AU$ annual subsidy, by the way that, even before the current financial storms, was due to be unhooked. For this to happen, large swathes – one eighth to be precise - of vineyard land will need to be uprooted, with the social implications this will inevitably imply.

Wine writers like us, occasionally write about the way big financial institutions like AXA have been sufficiently impressed by the wine world to invest substantial sums into buying Bordeaux chateaux. Fewer of us direct attention to the holdings of another major French finacial institution, the Credit Agricole, which is currently the biggest vineyard owner in France. The difference between AXA and Credit Agricile, was that the insurance company chose which properties it wanted to have in its portfolio; the bank acquires – and continues to acquire its holdings every time one of its customers proves unable to service his loans. Australian wineries, don’t, of course, enjoy the same kind of government subsidies as their European counterparts, but over 90% do get a major tax break in the form of their exemption from WET taxes.

Where’s the pride in that. But can we really take pride in being involved in an industry that is largely fixated on price and discount? How much discounting do you really see of perfumes and cosmetics – products, whose production costs are far, far smaller, and whose retail margins are far larger than the ones for wine?

And what about the fact that ours is the only industry on earth that is effectively dictated to by one or two American critics? There’s no “Emperor of Fashion”, “Emperor of Art” or “Emperor of Music” in the sense that Robert Parker is described as the Emperor of Wine. I don’t actually like the use of the term “emperor” because it implies that the person in question has either been born to, married into, or somehow usurped the imperial throne. Robert Parker did none of these things. In fact, I rather think of him as Frankenstein’s monster. Essentially a perfectly decent soul who owes his power to a dangerously misled creator. And who is that creator? Us of course. The wine producers and retailers who reinforce Parker’s power every time they use his points to promote a wine, and many of us wine writers who do precisely the same every time we feebly use our public access to criticise his influence or taste.If none of us mentioned him for a year

12 years ago there were 20,000 individual chateau labels in Bordeaux. Today there are 9,000. 12 years ago, Yellow Tail didn’t exist. Today it’s 10% of the Australian harvest. In 12 years time, I doubt there will even be 2,000 Bordeaux chateau labels. And I have absolutely no idea how big a label Yellow Tail will be. That’s the fascination of the evolutionary process. No one could ever have predicted the demise of the dodo or Lehman Brothers. Or the survival of the mosquito and the cockroach. Or fall from grace of names like Seppelt, Lindemans and Leo Buring.

In the real world, good wine producers and good wine writers have a hard time. - while – to their chagrin, bigger, richer, better connected or simply sometimes luckier competitors seem to prosper.


Most of us at some time or other have gurus – people who influence the way we think. People like Brian Croser… In my case, I have to say that my thinking has been greatly influenced by my three year old son Noah – for the simple reason that he asks “why” 475 times – yes, I’ve counted – per day. And hearing him, has made me a lot more questioning about the wine world. Which, in turn has brought me to take an interest in a branch of economics called Rational Choice Theory. Which seeks to explain almost every form of human behaviour. The best book I’ve read on it is the Logic of Life by Tim Harcourt who writes in the Financial Times. I thought I’d quote part of that book that caught my attention.

“Parents, brace yourselves." With those words, Oprah Winfrey introduced America to the shocking news of the teenage oral sex craze. Indeed, the American "blow job epidemic" has now been addressed everywhere from PBS documentaries to the editorial page of The New York Times. Between 1994 and 2004, young people between ages twelve and twenty-four became more than twice as likely to report that they'd recently had oral sex.. "Epidemic" might be putting it too strongly, but oral sex is definitely in vogue.

The question few people seem to have asked is "Why?" Might there not be such a thing as a rational blow job? The basic idea is not complicated: Rational people respond to trade-offs and to incentives. When the costs or benefits of something change, people change their behavior.

Armed with this basic definition of rationality, then, we can ask: What are the costs, benefits, and likely consequences of a blow job? Okay, perhaps the benefits are too obvious to be stated, particularly for the recipient.: HIV is much more likely to be spread by regular sex than oral sex. Many teenagers know that. The costs of oral sex are, quite simply, lower than the costs of regular sex. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that since the beginning of the 1990s, the number of teenage virgins has risen by over 15 percent.”

So what about the rationality – the cost-benefit of wine buying? Well, I’d argue that it’s rather more complex than oral sex. According to Hugh Johnson, the benefit is something very akin to a spiritual experience: “Its life, in the last analysis, is what sets wine apart. There is nothing else we buy to eat or drink that brings us the identity of a place in a time in the same way, that memorises and recalls (if we listen) all the circumstances that made it what it is...embrace the identity, enjoy the circumstances, be transported to other places and times. Embrace even the mythology: it adds to the colour of life.” I guess, at its most ideal, that’s supposed to describe people like us who work in wine, and the wide range of people one might term wine enthusiasts.

But when I look around the average bar, café or even living room I don’t see many people embracing the identity of the stuff in their glass. I don’t actually see many of them sniffing it for that matter. What they are generally doing is drinking it. For these people, the benefit is rather simple: it’s a liquid they enjoy, that happens to include alcohol.

For some, of course, there’s another possible benefit, whereby the wine serves a similar purpose to the tie or dress you’ve chosen to wear for a date or interview. It’s intended to make an impression.

Now let’s look at the costs – apart from financial. Important among these is possible disappointment. What if the wine doesn’t taste very nice? Or what if it fails to impress and I fail to get laid or get the job? Worse still, what if the bottle actually diminishes me, by making me seem stupid or unsophisticated?

Take all of these into account and quite a lot of behaviour seems to be very rational. Taking the costs and benefits into consideration, there’s a lot to be said for buying Yellow Tail. You like and can afford it, it always tastes more or less the same and, in most situations for its buyers, it will make a reasonable impression. For the occasions when it won’t, well, there’s Robert Parker. Serving a bottle of Cabernet with 95 points gives many US buyers the same kind of confidence they might get from carrying a Colt 45 into an area of marginal danger.

The success of screwcaps in Australia and New Zealand is entirely explained by rational economics. All the benefits of reliable wine with no perceived cost– but so is its snail-speed adoption in Europe where the risk of looking unsophisticated outweighs the possible benefit of getting a taint free bottle. Especially if the European drinker is as unaware of the incidence of taint as US teenagers apparently were of the risks of HIV before they shifted their allegiance to oral sex.

But what is the rational reason for buying most of the wines on any wine shop shelf. If you haven’t drunk it before, and/or know little about it, the costs of disappointment and failing to impress have to be taken into account. And what’s the benefit? Unless you are a curious wine drinker looking for new experiences, I’d argue that they’re very questionable. Which is why I’d argue that sales of branded wines are growing so fast across the globe.

Surely, some of you will argue, most people are more complex than that. They want to enjoy a broader range of experiences and to widen their horizons. That’s what you’ll argue, and I’ll argue back. In most areas of human behaviour, most of us tend to play safe. We have favourite restaurants and holiday resorts.. We favour the same brands of hair shampoo, coffee and tea. And we read books by the same authors.

One of our handicaps as wine writers is that we tend to treat wine as though it were a special case, unlike everything else we buy and consume. I prefer to seek parallels in other spheres, among which few are more instructive than music. If the beverage world has a “share of throat” – and I’ll come to that in a moment, the recording and more particularly radio industries have a Share of Ear. Essentially, you can buy or download innumerable pieces of music, but you can only listen to them one at a time. My premise, is that music could be likened to drink -helpfully pop is a term used in both industries – with wine – or at least half-way serious wine - being the equivalent of classical music. Stuff that is intended to be savoured, lingered over and thought about.

So how big a part of the music industry is classical? In 1980 it was 20%. In 2006, in the US, it was just 1.9%. not quite as popular as the 2% figure for jazz, and distinctly less impressive than the over 3% both enjoyed five years earlier. But now let’s look at the kind of music those classics lovers were buying. Of the top 20 best sellers recently listed by Amazon, there were no fewer than five albums for children, born and unborn, (Baby Einstein is the winning brand here), four by the blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, and a couple by Sarah Brightman. Bocelli and his fellow “crossover” artist, the American baritone Josh Groban are as important to classical music as white Zinfandel is to wine. When both failed to release a record in 2005, total classical sales dropped by 15%

Which is a bit depressing for those who think of Bach, Beethoven, Barolo and Bordeaux as being somehow essential parts of human civilization. But, that’s a dangerously arrogant and introspective view – unless you feel happy about totally dismissing the largely wine-free achievements of Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Indian civilisations over the last couple of millennia. The Chinese and Japanese, might in any case reasonably make a similar claim for tea, another agricultural product which comes in various subtly and dramatically different forms and relies on human intervention to become a potentially sublime beverage. Anyone who has visited China and learned even a little about the background to tea in that country will have been entranced and fascinated by it. And most probably returned home with a firm will to buy and prepare their breakfast cuppa with far greater care. And maybe, every wine writer in this room can name the precise origin and producer of shade-grown tea they like, And maybe some of you can’t. And those of you who are content to enjoy Liptons, Twinings or Bushells can feel relieved to know that they’re – we’re - in good company. Most of the winemakers I know pay little heed to their tea. But, then again, unless they chose to go to a specialist tea shop, they aren’t really going to be confronted by that much of a choice. One that’s certainly smaller than it is for wine. Every time you buy a basic commercial packet of tea bags (used for 96% of the global tea market by the way), I’d ask you to think of the person in another part of the store who’s mindlessly picking up a bottle of their regular South Eastern Australian Chardonnay or Shiraz.

But even here, we need to define terms. The image you all have in your mind when I say “tea” is probably a cup of hot liquid. You probably didn’t imagine a bottle of iced tea. But, for a growing number of people, that’s what tea represents. American consumption of iced tea stands at 13 litres per head, and represents 80% of all tea sold. In Australia, the figure is only a litre, but it’s growing at 30% per year. Another place where iced tea consumption is booming is China, where Coca Cola launched a brand seven years ago, in response to a fall in the sales of their eponymous fizzy drink.

This brings me neatly back to the Share of Throat. What Coca Cola is competing for with its iced tea, its bottled water and its fruit drinks, is precisely what Coopers and VB and every wine in the world are fighting for. Observers of the Australian scene can now acknowledge that RTD drinkers are not particularly loyal to their particular style of beverage. Jack up the price and they switch allegiance to spirits. In the UK, interestingly, our tax man declined to follow the same route as yours earlier than yours, for the simple reason that RTDs had already fallen out of fashion and there wasn’t enough revenue to be gained from increasing the duty on them. Wine, however, offered better prospects, and we saw the biggest tax hike in over a decade.

For most traditional wine people – and probably for some people in this room, the notion that a fine Shiraz or Riesling is in any kind of competition with Coca Cola or tea is an anathema, But it’s also a reality. Three days ago, I was asked to host a small dinner for a bank here in Australia – a case of eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die, perhaps. There were a number of serious wines to drink with the meal and a white to sip at on arrival. Except, that of the group of invitees and hosts – all of whom happily tucked into the wine on the dinner table, one kicked off the evening with as Diet Coke, one had a beer and another had a coffee. (And I must confess that I had a glass of water). The freedom to choose a beverage in this way, like the freedom to request a meat-free or gluten-free meal is something of a novelty. But it reflects the fact that we live in a world that is full – arguably over-full of choices.

Historically, people used to drink what was available to them. But that did not prevent the Share of Throat from being an issue. The time this was most apparent was during the 18th century in the UK. Every wine writer knows about the invention and arrival on the scene of Portuguese fortified wine as a replacement for the unfortified claret which was suddenly barred from British shores following one of Britain’s spats with France. What is less often referred to is the fact that wine during that century had to compete with such recently introduced phenomena as coffee (the coffee houses didn’t serve port) and tea. Nor is it often noticed that, unlike their neighbours to the south of the border, the Scots did not actually embrace port. They switched from claret to whisky, in response to the English raising their duty rates on lowland scotch.


To return to my rational economics, our biggest problem would seem to be that we have collectively failed to create a sufficiently deep level of interest in wine. As consumption has grown in the English speaking world, the number of column centimetres and the number of books sold has shrunk. Newspapers, including the London Sunday Telegraph for which I used to write, the London Evening Standard, the Los Angeles Times and a newspaper you might be familiar with in Queensland, have all dispensed with their wine writers.. Wine International Magazine has also disappeared, and Decanter almost certainly sells far more copies outside the UK than within it – and declines to publish audited circulation figures.

There are two responses to this. Most wine writers and a fair few wine buffs respond to this trend by lamenting that editors and publishers are philistines who refuse to give readers the wine coverage they want, need and deserve. But publishers are no different to the wine retailers who have reduced their ranges. They are responding to demand. Or lack of it. I cannot speak for other countries, but I know that newspapers like the one I used to write for, regularly ask their readers what they do and don’t want from the publication. And then they use that information when deciding how to allocate space. And yes, they are inevitably influenced by advertising – or the lack of it – but less than some people might like to claim. After all, newspapers are packed with advertisements for watches and perfumes, but few – apart from the New York Times – have regular scent writers and none carry regular articles on watches.

My belief in the weakness of basic interest and curiosity about wine is supported by data I dug out using a hidden away corner of Google called Google labs which generously allows you to analyse the number of searches there have been for particular subjects. The iPhone, for example showed a huge spike of interest. But as these charts show, wine interest is small and relatively static. And less than 25% of Google searches for Margaret River fell into the category of Food & Wine. (I particularly like using Google as a measure of interest, because it’s quantifiable – unlike guesses about how many people have even looked at a particular article in a newspaper; you actually have to click a button) and it’s free.

Wearing my wine-selling – or would-be wine-selling – hat, I recently learned how wine is bought nowadays in major British supermarkets, in the US and in China, to name but three markets. And it led me to I must admit to having had romantic memories of keen professional wine buyers scouring the globe for exciting new delights to set before their customers. Sometimes, I recalled, these buyers would spend hours in tasting rooms, closeted away with winemakers, intent on producing the ideal blend. Today, the buyers are often just as talented as their predecessors, but they are subject to quite different constraints. When I prepared for a meeting with one chain recently, it was unclear whether we would actually get to taste the wines we were going to discuss. In the event, thankfully, we did. But all too often the preliminary meetings involve looking at the labels, at powerpoint displays listing the key selling points and – and of course this is crucial – the “financials”. Get over all those hurdles, and provided you are a supplier with whom the retailer is already happy to work (and they generally don’t want to increase the number of companies with whom they have accounts) and provided the category is not one that has not been deemed to be full or, worse still, in need of pruning… then they might get round to tasting your wine. In the US, you can add the need for Parker or Wine Spectator points. Nothing with fewer than 87 need apply.

For this part, I’d like to give credit to a bright American called Mark Engel who gave a speech last year about what he calls the New Wine Paradigm. To understand Engel’s theory, it’s worth starting with his notion of the Old Paradigm which he sees as effectively consisting of the winery saying “Hey, consumer, here’s my story and why you should buy my wine”. Basically, it’s a monologue focusing on the age of the vines, the awards or points that have been won and the wonderful way the wine goes with particular dishes. Engel believes that consumers don’t want to be talked at; they want a conversation. In effect they are saying, “Hey, winery, catch my interest and I’ll build my own story around you based on what’s important to me”..They want to decide for themselves what they think of – and possibly like about the wine.

The way I translate this into a visual image, is to imagine a shop or gallery with a set of doors each of which appeals to a different person, or the same person in a different state of mind. For a winery, one door might be marked “Awards, Medals, Points”. Another might refer to the fact that the winery is 150 years old. A third might focus on the quality of the winery restaurant, while the fourth might direct attention to the human qualities of the owner or winemaker. The fifth, might be about the organic nature of the grape growing, while the last might have something to do with the fact that the wine appeared in a movie. (Just think how Otago as a region has benefited from a range of stories covering the quality of Felton Road, the nearness of the ski slopes and bungee jumps, and the presence and involvement of the bloke everyone remembers from Jurassic Park and the Piano.

To quote Engel directly “. I’m not saying that terroir, the care of the grapes or differences in production methods are not important. Of course they are. But not everybody who enjoys wine—and who might enjoy your wine—takes the time to learn why such things are important and remember the rich details that distinguish wines. The stories surrounding them often sound the same to all but the most hardcore enophiles. Without a deeper, more personalized connection to your wine, how do average consumers differentiate among the thousands of options available to them?”

What Engel isn’t talking about here, but I think is also relevant to his thesis, is the limited attention span of most modern consumers. It has been established that the average wine buyer in a supermarket – where 80% of wine is now sold in the UK and Germany for example – spends less than two minutes in the wine section, and makes their selection in 18 seconds. These figures, which help to explain why brands – and memorably striking labels – are so important, taken along with Engel’s stress on the need for conversation, set me thinking that maybe the best way for anyone to hone their skills and marketing and selling, is by doing a bit of speed dating. The key to which, lies in learning as much about your prospective date as rapidly as possible, so that you can respond in ways that will prove most effective. If she lets you know that she isn’t into sport but loves watching wildlife programmes, you’d be well advised to express an interest in real tigers rather than an obsession with Tiger Woods. Of course, those of us who are in committed relationships may find some difficulty in selling the idea of having to do speed dating as part of our jobs, but they’ll just have to understand the sacrifices we are prepared to make.

Of course, tailoring your message to the listener – and offering an array of tailored messages - is a lot more easily said than done. And it raises interesting questions for professional wine writers as to where they fit into this new paradigm. Because many of the messages that are now going to need to be sent out are not the ones we are used to transmitting. One of the very best examples though, of this approach being skilfully adopted is Dom Perignon. Which contrives to be different things to different – or possibly the same – people. On the one hand, there’s Richard Geoffroy passionately explaining the wine values that lie behind the oenotheque programme, while on the other, there are the Dom Perignon private rooms in clubs across the world – and sexy advertisements depicting Claudia Schiffer in poses that might have been used to sell underwear or perfume. In Australia, I’ve been impressed by some of the things Yalumba has done along similarly broad lines in its efforts to promote its range of Viogniers.

But far too many Australian wineries follow the old paradigm. And worse still, I believe, are becoming more European than the Europeans, and throwing away the skills with which they achieved so much overseas success.
European wine was traditionally, hard to like, hard to understand (in the way that it was labeled) and generally inconsistent. All aspects that made it unappealing to rational buyers. Australian wine was quite the opposite. As someone once said, Australian wine owed its early wins to the fact that Aussie producers went into buyers’ offices and declared “the answer’s yes. What’s the question”. Let’s look at the picture today.

We have a growing number of Tempranillos, Nebbiolos and Barberas which taste perfectly ok, until you compare them with European run of the mill efforts on offer at a third of the price. Of course, their lack of brilliance is easy to explain, given the age of the vines and inexperience of the makers. What is less easy to accept is those makers’ notion that they have the right to charge $20 for what is essentially work in progress. It smacks all too much of the way the winegrowers of Burgundy and Bordeaux traditionally believe they have the right to ask high prices for their least successful vintages. The readiness of local critics to over-praise these wines, similarly seems reminiscent of the tendency of French wine writers to give a soft ride to their favourite compatriot producers. Labelling too is becoming very European. Winemakers in Vouvray and Alsace often annoyingly neglect to provide any indication on their labels of the fact that their wines are actually pretty damn sweet. Here, the trend is to fail to mention that a Chardonnay is unoaked.

And then of course there’s the thorny question of regionality. According to Jock Osborne, executive officer of the GI committee (part of the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation),, 'The establishment of the New England Australia GI will enable wine growers in the district to regionally brand and market their wines. 'The emerging wine industry in this region will have the opportunity to benefit from its new status.'
No they won’t. Any more than the producers of Cabardes a relatively recently created appellation in Languedoc Roussillon. Wine regions want appellations, GIs, DOCs or whatever you want to call them in much the same way that countries want national airlines. And often with about as much justification. The fact that Air Gabon exists does not give it any right to survive and prosper. Swiss Air went bust, as did Belgium’s Sabena – the acronym stood for Such A Bloody Experience Never Again, by the way, which may be relevant. And today, Alitalia – Always Late In Taking-off; Always Late In Arriving – can’t afford to pay its petrol bills.
I was once chased around the world by a bossy South African PR woman who wanted free help for a pitch she was about to make. How, she wanted to know when she finally caught up with me on my mobile in a hotel lobby in Hong Kong, could a South African region become as famous as the Napa Valley? Conscious that I was paying for this call, I was possibly a little more brusque than I might have been. Tell them to get a few producers who make great, attention-grabbing wine. That’s how Margaux, Napa and Marlborough all did it. Other places, like Mendocino, Moulis and Mudgee failed to do so – and there aren’t many queues of people wanting to buy wines from those areas. Gerard Magrez, owner of Chateau Pape Clement, the oldest estate in the Graves – and of over 30 other estates in places ranging from Priorat and Napa to Uruguay and Japan recently sold his Cotes de Bourg chateau on the basis that the only Bordeaux appellations anyone is interested in are St Emilion and Margaux. Another friend who was, until he finally managed to sell it, co-owner of Chateau Fourcas Hosten in Listrac in the Medoc took a very similar view.

However, there is a downside to being a famous wine region. Unless you are very small – like Pomerol and Pauillac – there’s a grave risk that you’ll eventually become a commodity. Supermarkets wasn’t Own Label versions; Scandinavian monopolies invite tenders and the lowest common denominator raises its head above the parapet. Today, you can buy inexpensive Barossa Shiraz in UK supermarkets which does nothing for the image of the region. And, following the 2008 harvest, you’ll be seeing similarly cheap, and similarly basic Marlborough Sauvignon. And, being a commodity does not do much to engender true appreciation and understanding.

Last week, in London, I bought two bottles of Rioja from the same store to taste on air for a BBC radio programme. Both had the word Rioja on labels that were the same shade of yellow. One was Campo Viejo which cost me just under £7. The other was an unknown wine that cost just £2.98. When I got to the studio, the young university graduate who greeted me said, “Oh, I like Rioja, but I’m a bit embarrassed to ask. Can you tell me, is Rioja the grape or the region? I explained that it was the region. After a pause he said, so does that mean that you only get Rioja from Spain?

I think that the fundamental problem facing the wine industry globally is that it’s bi-polar. Winemakers don’t know if they are artists or artisans. Are they making tables with four equal-length legs, because that’s how tables work, or are they making two legged tables that won’t support a cup of tea. Mr Casella is a supreme artisan, delivering huge numbers of very serviceable tables. You may liken what he does to Ikea, but I suspect he wouldn’t mind. Far too many other producers are offering what they want to make. And that’s their absolute prerogative, just as it’s our right as wine or art critics to praise or deride their work. Sadly, what they do not have – and they and we often forget this – is any right to survive and prosper. It’s a hard world out there. You either sell what people already want to buy – and do so more attractively than your competitors, or you have to find a pretty good way to persuade them that they are going to like what you want to sell them.

So, where has the magical mystery taken us? What, if any, are the points you might want to take away from it?

Producers and marketeers need to give far more thought to the rationality of why people buy the wines they do

They need to create a range of stories to appeal to a range of consumers – or the same consumers in different states of mind

They need to engage in conversations – sometimes literally – with those consumers to understand more about them, and to encourage them to go on buying the wine – and passing the word on to others

Wine writers need to think very carefully about where they fit into the short and longer term picture. Do they want to talk to a small number of like-minded souls? Or do they want to be heard beyond the walls of the church in which they are giving their sermons

There’s a crucial set of questions that applies to everyone who wants to sell anything – from a bottle of wine, to an article or book, to themselves.

Who are you?
What do you do?

And most crucially of all

And why should I care?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Bernard Magrez - the French wine revolutionary

An interview that appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Bernard Magrez is an unusual figure in the world of
alcoholic drinks. He has not only personally created lead-
ing brands in both wine and spirits, but has also recently
launched a new form of wine globalisation, in the shape of a
collection of more than three dozen super-premium, limited-
production wines from numerous countries, all sold under the
Magrez brand.
The son of a stonemason, Magrez was born in Bordeaux in
1936. After an unusually harsh upbringing, he joined a
Greyhound tour of the United States at the age of 25, with a
number of other ambitious young compatriots. He was struck
by the supermarkets he saw there (his travelling companions
included the future founder of Auchan) and by Anglo-Saxon
skills in wine branding. Three years later, he bought a small
importer of port based in Bordeaux and renamed it Pitters, a
name he subsequently extended to William Pitters. While mak-
ing little effort to expand beyond France and its European
neighbours, Magrez quietly built a set of brand-leading spirits
under labels such as William Peel and San Jose, as well as
Malesan, the only branded Bordeaux ever to compete with
Mouton Cadet (and to beat it soundly within France).
After profitably selling his spirits and Bordeaux brand,
Magrez, who had already acquired Chateau Pape Clement, one
of the jewels of Bordeaux, plus Chateau Fombrauge, the largest
estate in Saint Emilion, began to focus exclusively on premium
wine from estates like these - and from micro cuvées such as
Magrez-Fombrauge within them. Earlier this year, he courted
controversy by giving journalists Cartier watches as gifts to
mark the 1,700 years of winemaking in his estates. His Bernard
Magrez group now turns over €40m.

Joseph: Your father was evidently a very formal, unusual-
ly strict man who threw you out of the house when you were
12. But he also hid Jews from the Nazis in his cellar when that
kind of behaviour was rare in Bordeaux. How do you think
these factors influenced the way you behave today with the
people with whom you work?

Magrez: My father was a man of unusual rigour, at the limit of
what might be considered acceptable. He had a personal idea of
duty that included the efforts I had to make at school, where I
was very poor, and the sanctuary he felt he should give to
people who needed it. But sending me away to a woodworking
school in the Pyrenees at the age of 12, where I wore clogs and
was surrounded by children who had virtually no education at
all, gave me confidence - and a certificate for my proficiency in
sawing wood. I also met a boy there who had been sent for the
same reasons as I and who today owns one of the very top
chateaux in Bordeaux. Maybe my father’s demanding attitude
is genetic. I have some of the same traits and that does not
make it terribly easy for people to work with me.

Joseph: What lessons did your experiences selling spirits
at William Pitters teach you about selling wine?

Magrez: Most importantly, I developed a fundamental desire to
understand the motivation behind consumers’ behaviour.
When you are competing to sell spirits against the likes of
Diageo and Allied Domecq, you discover that research is indis-
pensable. So, I learned that the average purchase takes 18 sec-
onds, and that 28% of people turn the bottle to look at a back
label. In France, especially in Bordeaux, back labels are not
generally used. But all of mine, including Pape Clement have
them, with my photograph. It’s part of a policy of transparency
about the wines - and it obviously helps to promote the other
Magrez wines.

Joseph: Why is it so difficult to build a Bordeaux brand?

Magrez:If Bordeaux enabled us to make a good enough margin
to do proper marketing, it might be possible. Brands need
public relations, advertising – and time. Up to ten years,
though we created Malesan in four. If you are swallowed in a
market of Bordeaux at €1.50, it’s almost impossible to compete
with the New World. Especially when wines like Yellow Tail are
produced in a place where you can plant everywhere and
produce wine of a regular quality. There’s no secret why people
put San Pellegrino in their shopping basket: they know that
they aren’t going to be disappointed.

Joseph: You began your business selling into French
supermarkets and your wines are still sold in those outlets.

Magrez: Supermarkets sell 80% of the wine in a large number
of countries. One can’t not be there. And they are increasingly
having to meet the demands of the consumers who are looking
for wines at over €15. If they don’t satisfy those demands,
they’ll lose customers to the Internet.

Joseph:Your business model is focused on ‘micro cuvées’.
What is the largest volume you can have? And don’t these small
batches lack the critical mass you need to build brands?

Magrez: From the outset, my aim was to produce crus
d’exception, wines that offered something astonishing or excep-
tional. Traditionally, people used to look for established, famous
names, but now they increasingly want to be astonished, and to
surprise their friends. Wine buying at the premium level has a
great deal to do with the ego of the purchaser. But critical mass
is a valid issue. Over the last four years, I’ve been moving
towards cuvees of 4-5,000 cases, with the possibility of going
up to 20,000. But there’s a maximum volume for any wine:
Chateau Latour could sell 120,000 cases, but not 500,000

Joseph:How do you react to the charge that all your wines
share a common style, irrespective of their origin?

Magrez: Michel Rolland and I are easy targets for criticism.
And yes, there is a common denominator in all of my wines:
they are all made from grapes that are picked as late as possi-
ble, when the pips are ripe. People like the combination of fruit
and ripeness. And I’ll admit that this may give them a family
resemblance, but nothing can change the soil in which the
grapes are grown.

Joseph:At William Pitters you kept away from the UK and
US. Why was that?

Magrez: To be in markets outside France, you need money. At
the time when I had Malesan, producers in Australia and the
other New World countries were already there with cash to
spend on marketing. It would have taken me 20 years to win a
battle with competitors like them.

Joseph: You apparently want to add a first growth to your
stable. Wouldn’t the payback be ludicrously long?

Magrez: All the top estates that are traded on the Place de
Bordeaux as well as others in five countries have received a let-
ter from me declaring my interest. And, when you consider the
price, you have to consider the property values. I paid 100m
francs for la Tour Carnet. It was recently valued at the equiva-
lent of 130m.

Joseph: You once said “Bordeaux chateau owners should
no longer rely on traditional Bordeaux merchants; to succeed
today, you have to run your own dynamic sales policy”. But you
still rely on the Place de Bordeaux system of chateaux, nego-
ciants and brokers. Isn’t that inconsistent?

Magrez: The Place de Bordeaux still has its role. There are
150-200 top estates and they can’t all be everywhere. Bordeaux
still has 400 negociants, or merchants, of which 200 or so work
with the grands crus. Some chateaux work with 25 or so.
We work with 150. While half of these might have one sales-
man, the other half has two. That means that we have over
225 people selling our top Bordeaux into places like little wine
shops in Singapore.

Joseph: You have just sold your three least prestigious
Bordeaux properties. Does this mean that you’ve lost some of
your belief in the lesser levels of Bordeaux?

Magrez: Like Angelo Gaja, I think 30% of Bordeaux wine has a
future. A future that will be created by consumers. It’s my view,
and I’m not saying that I’m right, but I don’t see a role for many
of the smaller appellations of Bordeaux, however good the wine
they produce. Areas like Bourg, Blaye and Fronsac have almost
no resonance with consumers and in the future they’ll have
even less. The names people know are Bordeaux, Saint Emilion
and Margaux. That’s why I’m selling the Cotes de Bourg
chateau I bought four years ago. Nowadays, I’m only interested
in buying Medoc estates.

Joseph: Why, though, sell estates after such a short time?

Magrez: I’ve done the same elsewhere. In Spain, I sold our
Rioja estate to move into Toro and Priorat, regions that are
definitely up-and-coming. I got Italy wrong, but I want to go
back there, with four or five estates.

Joseph: Outside France, you have 32 vineyards in
Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, California
and Portugal. And now there’s a joint venture in Japan and
even talk of England. Why not Australia?

Magrez: In every country, I want to be among the five best
producers, or certainly near the best in quality. If that’s not
possible, I won’t do it. Australia has big companies like Foster’s
who make excellent wines and have the means to let people
know about them. Besides, it is also a very long way away. I
have far more interest in Chile.

Joseph: To say that an average piece of terroir can
produce beautiful wines is heresy in the French wine world.
Does this make you feel lonely?

Magrez: It was Henri Duboscq of Chateau Haut-Marbuzet who
said that terroir is what gives wine its genius, but that a good
all-round vigneron can give it charm. Sometimes charm is more
attractive than genius.

Joseph: Which markets do you see as being the most
promising in the near future?

Magrez: We have a commercial team of 10 people, twice the
size of the larger Bordeaux negociants. And then we use good
local agents such as Pieroth in Japan. Our sales people spend
30% of their time promoting the wines that are sold on the
Place de Bordeaux, with the rest of their effort expanding the
number of outlets and consumers for the entire range.

Joseph: Isn’t the launch of a Japanese and an American
wine all about image building in those countries? Calling your
California wine Magrez Napa is not exactly modest.

Magrez: If my name was Rothschild, I wouldn’t have needed to
do that. People in the US don’t know Magrez; producing a top
wine like this makes me part of the Californian wine scene and
shows that I believe in it… And the same philosophy applies to
my project in Japan.

Joseph: But your friend Alain Dominique Perrin, head of
Cartier and owner of Chateau Lagrezette in Cahors, recently
said that Bordeaux pricing was immoral. How do you justify a
$160 price tag on your new Napa wine? And is this the moment
to launch it?

Magrez: Prices that seem immoral or excessive to some people
don’t strike others in that way. If you go to the Cote d’Azur,
you’ll see that the people there aren’t troubled by the price – or
the current economic crisis. At Pape Clement (the only top
class chateau to be open seven days a week, by the way), we
organise tastings where we are regularly asked for wines such
as Petrus by individuals with no limit to their budget.

Joseph: You are famously associated with the French film
stars Gerard Depardieu and Carole Bouquet. What is your
business relationship with them?

Magrez: We have a small 50:50 joint venture, called la Clef du
Terroir, which has five little estates, each with two to three
hectares. Apart from that, their own wines go through the
Magrez international distribution network.

Joseph: Let’s talk briefly about the saga of the journalists
and the Cartier watches. Were you surprised by the reaction?

Magrez:If I’d wanted to buy the press, that wouldn’t have been
the way to do it. I wanted to hold an event to mark the number
of vintages that had been harvested at my estates, and since
this was all about time, I thought that watches engraved to
commemorate what we had done, like the one I’m wearing now,
would be appropriate gifts. Most of the criticism came from
people who weren’t there and, while I won’t reveal names or
numbers, I will say that the people who refused the gift were
in the minority.

Joseph: You are over 70. Isn’t it time to hand over to your
son, Philippe?

Magrez:My son has an estate. I gave him Chateau Plaisance in
the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux. He’s responsible for sales of
our wines in Belgium and Switzerland and he does the public
relations for the firm in the US, China and Japan.

Joseph: So, will he take over the business?

Magrez: S’il a des tripes– If he has the guts.

Joseph: Is that your father speaking? Or you?

Magrez: Ah… now, that’s a good question.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The lost generation

Listen to almost any member of the French wine establishment and, sooner or later, you’ll hear them say that the recent ascension of easy-to-drink, easy-to-understand, branded, varietal New World wines can be put down to a lack of sophistication on the part of younger drinkers. Just give these poor unenlightened souls time to grow up properly and they’ll naturally come to appreciate the naturally subtler, more food-friendly character of wines from France.
I’ve always thought this as questionable a notion as the one that suggests one that a significant proportion of the people who are listening to Coldplay and Carla Bruni today will one day wake up to discover a taste for Mozart and Bach. My journalistic instincts have always been to raise two questions: when do these metamorphises take place – at what age? – and why? To which, the usual response is that the change in behaviour is linked to the establishment of a traditional home and nuclear family.
Well, in the UK, at least, I have some interesting data that Gallic optimists won’t want to hear. When one of Britain’s biggest supermarkets analysed the purchasing patterns of its customers it apparently discovered a striking fact. Women who buy nappies almost never buy French wine. To be more precise, their overriding tendency is to choose examples from the New World.
Delving elsewhere, I can tell you a little more about those nappy buyers. According to an official report called Social Trends 2007 published by the British Office for National Statistics, the average age for a woman in the UK to give birth is 29.3 (this is two months older than in 2006, by the way, and 30 months older than in 1971). Other figures from the same source reveal that, in 2006, there are now more first-time mothers in the 30-34 age group than in the 25-29 age group, and an almost 50% increase from ten years ago in the number of women over forty who are now having babies. Over one British mother in eight is now aged between 40-44 when she has her first child.
Add, say three years or so of nappy wearing per child, and that makes for a lot of 30-45 year-old British women who have evidently failed to develop the wine tastes that the Old World optimists might have hoped and expected. As someone who is trying to make and sell French wines, this is not the kind of news that I have any pleasure in reporting. Like other lovers of French wines, I'm painfully aware that the 30% of shelf-space they currently occupy in most of the larger shops is not justified by their sales. With all of the major retailers looking to prune their wine ranges, there seems little chance for France to escape the approaching secateurs.
There's no silver bullet that will solve France's problems - I'm doing what I can with the wines I'm involved with (which can be seen at ) but what I can say is that the sooner my French friends bury their panglossian notions that everything is going to come right by itself, the better.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

(Pre) Olympic trials and tribulations

After the near euphoria of the Hong Kong Vinexpo in May and, given the steady flow of news about growing wine consumption in China, it would have been reasonable to expect the run-up to the Olympics to have been a boom period for the Chinese wine market. Little could be further from the truth. With just one month to go before the first fireworks would be lit at the opening ceremony, hotels and restaurants in the major cities were far quieter than usual. Some major hotels were admitting occupancy rates of under 60%, at a time when Beijing was about to see the opening of over 5,000 new hotel rooms in time for the Olympics.

The explanation for the empty restaurants was simple. The authorities' fear of terrorism (supposedly from Tibetans or Falun Gong) has fueled one of the heaviest clamp-downs on internal movement and the allocation of visas to foreigners. Anyone seeking a business visa in June and July discovered that they were almost unobtainable and most people with work-related reasons for traveling to China over this period did so with tourist visas, though even these were often provided slowly or sometimes not at all. Officially, from April 30 would-be tourists could be required to provide a letter from their employer stating that they were taking holiday leave between the arrival and departure dates shown on their airline ticket. There is no evidence of this rule being enforced, but tourists could also be asked to offer up a bank statement confirming a minimum of US $3,000, or showing (but not giving) US$700 in cash to the official in the visa office. These moves led to many Chinese-based businesses canceling meetings that involved overseas colleagues – or relocating those meetings to Hong Kong.

The low-key pre-Olympic mood was also attributable to widespread anti-Chinese sentiment in the west, in the wake of suppressed protests in Tibet and China's apparent support for a Sudanese regime that is widely blamed for the crisis in Darfur. This is also thought to have contributed to slower than expected sales of tickets for Olympic events. While it is unlikely that there will be many empty seats in the dazzling new stadiums, there are questions over how many will be filled with wine drinking foreigners.

The wine market is still coming to terms with the three-week imprisonment of a number of importers including Don St Pierre, managing partner of ASC Fine Wines, China's biggest and most prominent wine company. St Pierre, whose sales have grown from $5m in 2001 to $40m in 2006. was accused of falsifying prices to avoid customs duty. The case was finally settled with the payment of a $250,000 which Don St Pierre Senior, co-founder of the firm said represented just over 1% percent of the $22 million ASC had paid in import duties over the relevant period.

ASC and other firms accused by the authorities, deny any wrongdoing, but there are expectations within China that wine prices may rise over the coming months. This is, in any case, highly likely in the light of the increase in the value of imports over the first quarter of 2008. According to the Chinese website, the volume of wine that passed through customs was actually 4.9% lower during the first quarter of 2008 than in 2007 (a year when, according to China Wines Information, China imported 4.5 million cases of wine, over twice amount shipped in 2006). The average value of the 43.490 litres, however rose to $2.1 per litre, 71% above the figure recorded 12 months earlier.

Most members of the Chinese wine trade are waiting for the dust to settle after the Olympics, but optimism for the short term future remains high. Retail distribution is growing fast, with the arrival of new players such as Tesco and the reportedly planned opening of chains of wine shops by several Chinese wineries. As Ethan Perk of dynamic importers Jebsen International pointed out, the market is evolving very rapidly. By his estimate, only 40% of the current imports are being handled by long-established companies such as ASC, Torres, Somergate and his own, which would, a few years ago, have imported almost all of the wine that came into China.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

An article that originally appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Robert Joseph at Vinexpo, Hong Kong
Robert Joseph with
Hugh Kevin & Robert
wines in Hong Kong
There was once a New Yorker magazine cartoon in which a man having breakfast in an featureless hotel "buttery" turns to a diner at another table to enquire "Excuse me, could you settle a bet: is this the Athens Hilton or the Vienna Hilton?". I must confess that I almost had a similar moment of dislocation at the end of May. Was I in the Hong Kong Convention Centre or the Excel Exhibition Centre in London? With only a few days between them and so many of the same faces, the London Wine Trade Fair and Vinexpo Asia occasionally felt like consecutive episodes of the same television series.

But, you only had to look or listen for a moment to tell the difference between these two events. One of them was a serious commercial gathering, packed with people eager to taste and buy top class wine, while the other was… the London Wine Trade Fair. In the British capital, the talk was still of the recent hefty increase in duty rates that was threatening retailers' ability to offer three bottles of wine for £10 and seemed set to halt the growth in UK wine consumption. In Hong Kong, the chatter was about the total removal of excise duty and import licences, and the revelation by the Chief Secretary Henry Tang at the opening ceremony that, even before the abolition of duty, the volume of wine imports into Hong Kong had risen by 120% percent, while the value had gone up by 200% since 2007.

At least one British visitor sniffed disdainfully at the US$100,000 Acker Merrill had spent on hospitality before its first-ever Asian auction, and the red and gold hardback catalogue. But it was the New York firm that laughed all the way to the bank - where they deposited the $8.2 million raised by the sale; 10% over estimate, and conveniently a figure that includes the two luckiest numbers – 8 and 2 - in Chinese culture. Just as happy, presumably, were the great and good of Bordeaux whose Union des Grands Crus tasting of 2005s proved so popular that stocks of many of the wines ran out a full three hours early, allowing them to head off for lunch.

Many of those chateau owners had less than fond memories of Vinexpo 1998. Hong Kong's Peregrine Investment Bank had just collapsed, creating a panic in the local stock market, the Hong Kong Dollar had to be propped up against attacks from speculators, and Japan was officially declared to be in a recession. Unsurprisingly, attendance that year was sparse and exhibitors spent much of their time complaining to each other that most of the people who did attend were local – very local – expatriates. That gweilo – western foreign devil - focus was just as evident at the dinner to launch the first Watsons Wine Cellars shop where I only recall seeing one Chinese face.

Ten years on, Vinexpo 2008 was packed, with over 8,000 professional visitors, of whom over a quarter came from the mainland; gweilos were firmly in the minority. Watsons Wine Cellars now has a dozen stores whose customers – mostly Chinese – choose from a brilliant range of 2,000 wines. Today, thanks to these stores a wine lover in even the more obscure parts of Hong Kong has far easier access to good bottles than his counterpart in London. But much the same can be said of Seoul, Osaka and Taipei… For an outsider – even one like myself who spends over a month a year in Asia – the most striking development is the speed at which the market is evolving, and the way that evolution is affecting areas that you might not have expected. When talking to a wine importer with a focus on Cambodia and Laos, I used what I thought of as a bit of my local knowledge in saying that I presumed that the main market in Cambodia would consist of the recently-built international hotels around the temples of Angkor Wat. “Not exactly”, came the response. “we’re actually selling rather a lot of good wine in Phnom, Penh. Aurelio Montes from Chile can tell a similar story about Vietnam, where he’s selling several containers of wine every year. Canny producers are increasingly studying their maps of the region, knowing that planning a trip to China that only takes in Beijing and Shanghai is like aiming all your US sales efforts at New York and Washington DC. My next excursion, for example, includes hosting a Leoville-Barton dinner in Guangzhou…

As Robert Parker who had spent two weeks of “the most exciting trip of a lifetime” hosting that kind of event across the region wrote it in his blog, “Asia Rules....and then some”.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Wine Tourism - for beginners

An article that originally apeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Sometimes one of the best ways to understand a situation is to approach it obliquely. The view from underneath or above can suddenly provide a clarity that was previously frustratingly absent. That, at least, is a conclusion I came to when working on the Wine Travel Guide to the World, a book published in late 2006 that was aimed at consumers who travel and enjoy wine. The focus, in other words, was on “wine tourism”.

But the moment you set those two words down on paper – or make them a major discussion point at a conference (and I've spoken on the subject at several such events), it becomes clear that they mean very different things to different people, countries and regions.

A fascinating illustration of these different attitudes is provided by a pair of the world's most dissimilar wine regions. On the one hand, there's Bordeaux, home to some of the most illustrious wine estates in the world and, in itself, a brand whose name is familiar to almost anyone anywhere with even a shallow knowledge of food and drink. On the other hand... there's Queensland. This part of north eastern Australia is not quite as well known for the wine it produces. Indeed, even within Australia, you'd be hard put to it to find a wine enthusiast who could name as many as one of Queensland's 150 or so wineries.

But now compare the way these French and Australian region approach the matter of wine tourism. For a clear-headed view of the Bordeaux attitude, one of the very best places to look is a thesis published last year by Marc Torterat Wine as part of his Master of Business Administration. Torterat focused his attention on one part of Bordeaux: the Graves and Pessac Leognan. This area, close to the city of Bordeaux itself, is home to Chateau Haut Brion, arguably the world's oldest wine brand (thanks to its 17th century promotion in Britain) and Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte, the highly successful chateau-hotel-restaurant-and-spa. Torterat's paper is invaluable because there is so little authoritative information available from other, official sources. Type “Queensland” and “wine tourism” into a search engine, however, and you find a detailed website created by the state government, and aimed at producers, complete with headings such as “The Need to Plan for Tourism” and “What is a tourism development plan?“. All 150 wineries are listed on the website, with their contact details, information on what they offer visitors and, where relevant, links to their websites. The entire effort needs updating – as the case for many winery websites – but it serves as a handy aid both for anyone considering visiting the area, or for wineries thinking about how to take advantage of the the potential tourism has to offer. Usefully, it challenges the winery owners to take the business of wine tourism seriously: “A marketing campaign may very well produce results, but if the tourism infrastructure and product does not meet visitor expectations, then the response will be short lived. Visitors may travel to the area once but never return”.

Back in Bordeaux, as I say, information is less easy to come by. While researching this article, and having just received an email that described the Medoc as “exceptionally gifted” in wine tourism, I telephoned the Bordeaux regional tourist office to ask for some statistics. How many wine tourists take advantage of the area's exceptional gifts? I wondered. The representative – who preferred not to be named – responded directly. “We have no idea”. I was a little surprised. The Napa Valley, I pointed out has recorded its wine tourist numbers carefully, noting growth from 15m in 2002 to 20 million in 2005, with spending rising from $1.3 billion to $2 billion. Surely Bordeaux has some kinds of statistics to set alongside these. “No”, came the answer. “If you can persuade the chateaux to tell us what they are doing, I'd be very grateful. We contact them and we try to get information back, but it never comes”.

Marc Torterat had slightly better luck than I did, discovering a total potential market of 450,000 visitors (based on interviews with tourism professionals in the region) and an actual number of 100,000 visitors for the region as a whole. This figure, however seems questionable when once learns that Chateau Mouton Rothschild (which does record the number of people who pay to enter its chais) welcomes some 18,000 of them. Are we really to believe that nearly one visitor in five join an organised group tour or make their own appointment to see around and possibly (for an extra €8.50) taste? According to Torterat, other classed growths in the Medoc report 5-8,000 visits.

While it would be useful to have some more accurate statistics for Bordeaux vineyard visits, Marc Torterat, who is now a consultant in strategy and marketing, makes a very perceptive point about wine tourism in general. “wine is not necessarily the first motive in visiting a region. For example, heritage is the dominant motivation for visiting the region of Burgundy, wine being only fourth. In Bordeaux, seaside recreation and visiting the Atlantic Ocean come before wine and food, being listing fourth.... This means tourists would require other types of attractions and would visit wineries along other sites”. In this respect, regions like the Medoc perform doubly poorly. On the one hand, the chateaux generally offer little beyond the chance to taste wine and possibly look at barrels - in many cases, there is not even the opportuity to buy – but on the other, the region is poorly stocked in alternative activities. The Hunter Valley, for example, offers golf courses and garden resorts; in the Médoc it is often hard even to find a restaurant.

Any analysis of the way wine tourism is viewed in the Old and New Worlds reveals that in Europe, most producers focus on the business of tasting and selling, most probably placing a significant amount of their effort into annual festivals at which all of the producers of a village or region gather to show off their wares, possibly alongside foods and handicrafts. In the New World, there is a far greater emphasis on offering a broader experience at the winery on a daily basis. Winery restaurants – a rarity in France – are commonplace in areas like Marlborough in New Zealand and Margaret River in Australia. And where food is not offered, there is often a picnic or even a barbecue area where visitors can cater for their own needs. The best explanation for this difference in approach may lie in the traditional European notion of “to each their own craft”. Many French producers have only recently even begun to bottle sell their own wine. Historically, the job of a vigneron lay in tending vines and crushing and fermenting grapes. The process of transforming the wine into cash consisted of negociating with a broker or merchant. Once one understands this basic attitude, it is easy to comprehend why wine labels are often so unadventurous (usually being bought from a local printer “off the peg”), and why the very thought of setting up a restaurant is a total anathema. The contrast with, say, the newer wineries of Patagonia could not be more striking. In that southern part of Argentina, selling food for money is an almost inevitable part of the initial business plan.

In the New World, there seems to be a far greater readiness to consider what the Queensland authorities call “tourist expectations” in a broader way. It is revealing to look at the criteria that were recently established in the Rhone Valley for its “Welcome of Quality” “Welcome of Service” and “Welcome of Excellence” ratings that wineries are invited to apply for.

Those wineries that want to be considered for a “Welcome of Quality” have to offer cleanliness, a place to park, “at least one correctly functioning toilet and a water distribution point available to its visitors”, chairs, a tasting (using wine glasses and apprropriate temperatures), a spittoon and non-alcoholic drinks for children (though not carbonated examples). To be considered “excellent “ - the highest possible rating – the bar is not raised very much higher, The glasses must now be crystal, englidsh must be spoken (and available on the mandatory) website and the staf should have some training and be able to “offer other services: arranging visits to other wine making cellars, restaurant reservations and booking accommodation”. Little, in other words, that will set one “excellent” winery apart from its neighbours.

The idea of an oficial, regulated system of wine tourism seems, though, to appeal to the European industry, in direct contrast to the laisser-faire attitude of the New World. And, while winemakers in the the Antipodes and Americas go their own way, benefitting from, but not relying on generic local websites and promotional bodies, in Europe, there seems to be a preference for officially-structured organisations. Perhaps the best known of these is a body called “The Global Network of Great Wine Capitals” that was launched in 2003 and brings together Melbourne, Bordeaux, Porto, Cape Town, Florence, and two cities that are apparently known as Bilbao-Rioja and San Francisco-Napa Valley. Santiago was also briefly part of the group, but dropped out at an early stage, to be replaced by its neighbour on the other side of the Andes, Mendoza. The aim of the network is to build “business networks and relationships in the viticulture industry” and to “encourage international winery tourism, as well as economic, academic and cultural exchanges between these famous capitals of wine”.

In fact, the group's highest profile activity has been in running a series of annual conferences and the creation of a set of “Best Of Wine Tourism” awards which are listed on the – – website and promoted through a limited amount of advertising and public relations and a colourful brochure which can be viewed on, and downloaded from, the website. The awards, for categories ranging from “Sustainable Wine Tourism Practices” and “Innovative Wine Tourism Experiences” to “accommodation”. “architecture” and “parks” reveal much about the differences between the various regions. Not to mention the fact that the organisation was established by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce (rather, revealingly, than either the tourism or wine promotional organisations).

The prizes are given by an unnamed “international panel” which seems to have an interestingly Gallic and generally European bias. Of the 210 awards made since the announcement of the 2004 list in 2003, 40, nearly a fifth, have gone to French entrants. Spain, Italy and Portugal have 34, 31 and 24 respectively, while Australia has to make do with 21 and the USA a mere 12. But when one considers the winners themselves some more interesting facts emerge. First, there is the fact that the same names seem to appear with curious regularity from year to year, making it easy to imagine that the number of entries is limited. But second, and more curiously, in France awards are given for Best Winery Restaurant to establishments such as Chateau Grand Moueys that actually have no restaurant at all but would cater for a party if required. Hardly what one might consider “wine tourism” as we know it.

The issue of wine tourism is, however, set to become a far more important issue over the next few years. For many – and I would say most – wineries, the business of welcoming visitors and sellling them wine will no longer be an option. It will be a necessity for survival. As routes to market become ever more narrow and prices are squeezed downwards by wholesalers and retailers – not to mention currency fluctuations. And, as producers globally struggle to escape the tyranny of Parker Points, the appeal of direct sales will inevitably grow. And as it does, my guess is that there will be a major move by European producers to learn the tricks of wine tourism from their New World counterparts. If they haven't left it too late.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Studying the (post) classics

An unedited version of a cover article that appeared in the G2 section of the Guardian on March 4. 2008 (invaluable additional reporting from the Global Warming Conference by Felicity Carter)

For anyone who feels they have finally mastered the concept of postmodernist books and architecture, there's a brand new intellectual and linguistic challenge, in the shape of "post classic" wines. The term was coined by the world-leading viticulturist Dr Richard Smart at the second World Conference on Global Warming and Wine in Barcelona late last month before an audience of the great and good of the wine world and – via a carbon-saving video link - Al Gore. If even a few of the more alarming predictions made by experts at that event prove to be accurate, over the next 50 years, many of the world's most famous wines may either simply cease to exist or be altered beyond recognition. And the effect may not be restricted to wine. For Dr Smart, wine may be "the canary in the coal mine of agriculture".

According to French tradition, the character of a classic wine – its DNA if you like – is attributable to four factors that are collectively known as terroir. Three of these – the slope of the vineyard, its soil and subsoil and the climate - were, it was believed, immune to human influence. The other ingredient – the choice of grape variety – was dictated by custom or law, so a Burgundy producer, for example has to make his red wine from Pinot Noir grapes; even the thought of his experimentally planting a few Merlot or Shiraz vines is as acceptable to the French wine establishment as birth control to the Vatican. For true believers in terroir – a group that now includes a growing number of Californian self-termed terroiristes - the part played by the winemaker is very similar to that of a musician performing a musical score. One vineyard should always produce the liquid equivalent of the Eroica while another will give you Clair de Lune. This is nowhere more evident than in the cellars of small Burgundy estates whose vignerons might produce small batches of wine using the same grape variety and methods from each of a number of plots situated often only yards apart. The variations in weather from one season to another and the winemaker's skills will all naturally affect the final result, but in theory at least, the Meursault he makes from his Chardonnay vines in the Perrières vineyard which was planted on the site of an ancient quarry, should always taste recogniseably stonier than more immediately softer, more appealing wine from a plot called les Charmes made from the other side of the road.

To a Gallic chauvinist, the subtleties of terroir are rarely if ever found outside France. Aimé Guibert of the Domaine Mas de Daumas Gassac in Languedoc Roussillon has dismissed all New World wines as "industrial" and said that "every bottle of American and Australian wine that lands in Europe is a bomb targeted at the heart of our rich European culture". But you only have to watch a gifted, experienced taster such as Michael Broadbent, former head of Christie's wine department, or wine critic Oz Clarke successfully identify Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra in Australia, the Stags Leap area of Napa in California or Curico in Chile when presented with them "blind", to see that unique combinations of grape, site and climate abound across the planet. Even a complete vinous novice can spot the differences in flavour and style between the Rieslings top Australian winemaker Jeffrey Grosset produces in his Watervale and Polish Hill vineyards in the Clare Valley. Which is just as well, because the Polish Hill can cost a fiver a bottle more. And the effects of those combinations transcend the climatic influences of particular years or winemakers. In other words, a 1955 Chateau Latour should be as recogniseable in a line-up as the 2005, even though the cellarmaster and the weather of the two vintages were quite different.

Whether this will be as true of the 2055, however is another question – and that was the issue that most troubled the 350 delegates to the Barcelona conference. According to research across 50 wine growing regions by climatologist Gregory Jones of Southern Oregon University, Bordeaux will be 1.2˚C warmer in 50 years, while Chianti's vines might be baking in temperatures that are a full 2˚C hotter than they are currently. Stated bluntly, both areas will be enjoying a similar climate to North Africa today. This warmer weather will give riper, sweeter grapes, which then become stronger more alcoholic wines: "post classics" that lack the fine, complex subtle characteristics and defined flavours that are now associated with the world's finest wines.

Many wine lovers will have already noticed the phenomenon. In the 1991 edition of his seminal book on Bordeaux, David Peppercorn recalled that the great reds of the Medoc in the 1940s usually had alcoholic strengths of 11-11.5%. By the late 1980s, he regretted that the trend towards 12.5% had become "the norm to be aimed at". In 2005, the norm was closer to 13.5% and critically well-received reds such as Chateau Balthus and l'Ynsolence weighed in at a wopping 14.5%. In California, where, in 1971, red wines averaged 12.5%; the Martinelli winery now makes a Zinfandel with an alcohol content of 17.4%

Whatever you might think of a red wine that's a strong as a gin-and-tonic, there's no denying that California's Zinfandel grape is actually quite well suited to producing high alcohol wines. But that's not true of a number of classic European varieties. According to Dr Richard Smart, (you’ve introduced him), Burgundy may become too hot for the Pinot Noir, the grape with which it has been associated for over a thousand years. Jacques Lurton of Chateau la Louviere in Bordeaux expects the widely-grown Merlot in his region to be increasingly supplanted by the less heat-averse Cabernet Sauvignon and legal but currently unused grapes such as the Malbec and Carmenere that are now more usually associated with wines from Chile and Argentina. And what's true of these ancient French regions will be apply to areas like Barolo in Italy, La Mancha in Spain, Australia's Hunter Valley and Rioja, all of which will effectively be rewriting the melodies and orchestration of their terroir.

As the world's top viticulturist Dr Richard Smart told the conference, research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and INRA (the French national agronomic research institute) show that even a one degree rise in temperature leads to significantly different weather patterns. Smart's point about "different" weather is a crucial one. What we are already seeing is a greater variation between vintages, and far greater unpredictability. For one of Germany's most respected estate owners and winemakers Ernst Loosen, "Every year seems to be another challenge... a new problem. How do we handle these weather patterns? How am I to keep the style of my wine? It requires a lot of experimental stuff".

Among the solutions to Loosen's and hundreds of thousands of other winemakers’ problems will what his compatriate Hans Schultz of Geisenheim University called "climate adjustment" or "shaping wines with technology". This will include new ways of growing and training vines and the introduction of irrigation to the classic regions of Europe. Watering vines is currently illegal in these areas because of fears of the overcropping it might facilitate but, as Jacques Lurton revealed to the conference, grapes may ripen better in higher temperatures, but if all that sunshine isn't accompanied by rain, they can simply shut down and stop ripening completely. If the legalisation of irrigation seems to be an undramatic move, lovers of classic wines may be more affronted by the use of sophisticated reverse osmosis filters to remove alcohol from wine. These machines are already widely employed in California where it has been estimated that some 55% of wines initially pack too much of a punch.

The alternative to altering the way wine is made in traditional regions will be to shift production to places where the process is easier. Spain's leading winemaker Miguel Torres who is spending millions of dollars on research into ways to counter climate change is, for example, developing new vineyards high in the Pyrenees. Others are looking beyond their own borders. The challenge of course is to choose which countries offer the best prosects.

For Dr Smart, some areas that already produce wine will fare better than traditional parts of Europe. Tasmania, New Zealand and Argentina are all on a "lucky list"; at the very top is Chile, thanks to the cold current that runs runs along its long coast. The southern hemisphere, Smart believes, will be generally less badly hit than the north because of its smaller land masses, and larger cooling oceans. But there is one northern hemisphere region that has caught his fancy. China is currently the seventh largest wine producing country in the world. Most of its existing vineyards are less than ideally situated, but there is a cool, new, unexploited region to the to the north west of Beijing that shows real potential.

Anther surprising possible beneficiary of post classic wine may be England, though when English winemaker Stephen Skelton stood up at the conference wearing a Union Jack shirt he was at first, perhaps understandably, taken less than seriously. When he began to describe his experiences, however, the audience began to take more notice. "For the first seven years of my wine growing I never saw a day with a temperature of over 29 degrees,” he said. “Since 1994 there has only been one year when it did not rise about 29. Last year was actually the second warmest year... in 356 years of record keeping, even though it was overcast in June and July.” For the moment England's strongest suit lies in its sparkling wines – which not only beat Champagnes in blind , but which sell at Champagne prices.

Skelton has apparently had interest from two major Champagne houses but so far the costs of investment, have proved too high. Another worry is the thought that global warming might lead to a stoppage of the gulf stream, leaving England a better place to develop ski slopes than vineyards. This theory of possible gulf stream failure has recently been dismissed by some experts but it still has supporters, and there are even suggestions that the stream actually did stop for 10 days in 2004.

One person who evidently does not believe in the fragility of the gulf stream is Bernard Seguin of the French research institute, INRA, who pointed out that, with just two degrees of global warming, there will be places in Finland that might enjoy a climate that is very similar to that of wine regions in northern France today.

And then of course, there are those who simply dismiss global warming as being of little concern – or as being manageable. Bruno Prats, former owner of Chateau Cos d'Estournel in Bordeaux said that he was very confident in the future of that region, provided the producers amended the blend of their grapes to suit the new conditions. In his view, the spicy Petit Verdot, traditionally a bit player in red Bordeaux where it rarely makes up as much as 5% of the final wine, may have a major role to play. But Prats is hedging his bets: today, the wine he makes comes from Chile. Another participant in the conference who seemed relaxed about climate change was the Bordeaux-based superstar winemaking consultant, Michel Rolland who has successfully helped to produce wine almost everywhere, including such unlikely countries as India and Uruguay. "So far" he said "climate change has been very good for us…Perhaps the warming will stop? We don't know,". But, it is interesting to note that, like Prats, Rolland has cannily invested some of his money in high altitude vineyards in Argentina.

Rolland might in any case respond to the suggestion that the move to post classic wines is exclusively explained by a changing climate by saying that long before climate change was a cloud on a distant horizon, many of us had already begun to discover wines that bear more than a passing resemblance to the ones that Old Europe is wrestling with today. Way back in 1993, Oz Clarke, author of an excellent recent book on Bordeaux, published an equally good one called "The New Classics", in which he heaped justifed praise on then-new regions such as Casablanca in Chile, Margaret River in Western Australia and Marlborough in New Zealand. All of these were places that were already delivering wines that offered a new spin on the traditional efforts of regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy. Fifteen years ago, however, the idea that southern hemisphere countries could be talked of in the same breath as those Gallic meccas was complete anathema. When Clarke launched his book at an international tasting event in New York, many of the French members of the audience ostentatiously left the hall. Today, some of those same Frenchmen and women are busily prospecting for vineyards on the other side of the world.

When lovers of classic wines that taste the way they did in the 1950s and 1960s have wanted to apportion blame for the fact that their modern counterparts have become bigger, richer and less "elegant" and "austere" - to use the old fashioned wine taster's vocabulary – the two words that have sprung to their minds have rarely been "global warming". Far more usually, they have pointed their fingers at the US guru Robert Parker and his favourite winemaker Michel Rolland. Parker, the "emperor of wine" whose opinions shape the destinies and even the pricing policies of the most famous wines in the world, likes the big flavours that are associated with ripe grapes. His tasting notes rarely include words like "elegant". The bottles that get the highest marks tend to be described as "opulent", "inky" "blockbusters" with "gobs of fruit". That 17.4% Zinfandel was, for example, a wine he particularly liked.

Parker owes his success to the fact that large numbers of people across the world agree with his tastes – or, at the very least, have lost their inclination for the way wines used to be. A glance at the shelves of Tesco or Thresher reveals that, far from being at the dawn of the age of the post-classic wine, we’ve been increasingly surrounded by it, and enjoying it, since the arrival of the first bottles of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon and Rosemount Chardonnay two decades ago. Today, it is an inconvenient truth that while thousands of producers in Europe still strive to make classic “elegant”, food-friendly, wines with moderate levels of alcohol, to judge by the supermarket shelves, the bottles most of us apparently prefer to uncork come from Australia and the Americas. Or from European producers who welcome the unusually warm weather of years like 2003 and 2005 to make wines with more than a passing resemblance to those more opulent New World offerings. No wine exemplifies this trend better than Chateau Pavie, the St Emilion estate that, since a change of ownership, has fully embraced the post classic style - to the approval of US critics and the dismay of many a Brit. Robert M. Parker described the “inky” wine from the hot 2003 vintage as a “brilliant effort...a wine of sublime richness... with extraordinary richness". In Britain, Jancis Robinson, thought it "Completely unappetizing. Porty sweet. Ridiculous wine more reminiscent of a late-harvest Zinfandel than a red Bordeaux”. For the moment, at least, you pays your money and you takes your choice between ckassic and post classic Bordeaux, but who knows how long that will last? And how long it will be before we switch our allegiance to the post-post-classics of China, Finland and, just possibly, maybe even Yorkshire.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Going for the throat

A column that originally appeared in Meiningers Wine Business International magazine

"Wine is part of civilization". "Wine offers a consumer an unequalled link with a specific piece of soil or region". "Wine is a necessary accompaniment to food…" These are comments almost guaranteed to get a small nod of appreciation from most readers of this magazine – and most members of the wine industry. But how about this? "Wine is an alcoholic beverage which has to compete with vodka, beer, Coca Cola and coffee for its 'share of throat'". In other words, wine is just another beverage competing for consumer attention. I'll admit that ‘share of throat’ is not an attractive expression. But it's one that is common at Starbucks and Coca Cola.

According to research conducted in 2006 by NPD Group, a New York consumer research firm, "consumers eating breakfast outside the home order soda pop with 15.1% of their breakfasts, compared with 7.9% in 1990". Coke and other soft drinks appear less often at the home breakfast table in America, but the trend is still striking. In 1985, only one morning meal in every 200 would have been washed down with a carbonated soft drink. Today the figure is just under one in 40. And, over the last 15 years, coffee consumption with breakfasts outside the home plummeted from 49 to 38%.

For many of us, this statistic – like the one that says 17% of US meals are now eaten in cars (where they are presumably not accompanied by wine) – is yet another example of the increasing barbarism of North American life. But, in the case of at least one carbonated drink, there's a kind of logic. A standard 12oz serving of Diet Coke contains 46 milligrams of caffeine. That's 30mg less than a similar serving of Starbucks’ cappuccino or latte, and 34mg less than Red Bull, but is probably still enough caffeine for some people to kick start their day.

The ‘share of throat’ issue is just as important for tea manufacturers who saw their total British tea market plummet by around 12% over five years, from £707m in 1999 to just £623m in 2004. This helps to explain why the tea industry has increasingly shifted its focus to Ready-to-Drink – RTD - bottled and canned iced tea. Sales of iced tea in Hong Kong now account to over 15 litres per head and sales in China grew by 29% in 2005, boosted, as Just Drinks reported, by leading brands such as Tingyi, Uni-President, Wahaha and Coca-Cola.

Now, just pause for a moment and consider what you have just read. Coca Cola is helping to convert the Chinese from a traditional hot, unsweetened beverage to a cold sweet one that, apart from the absence of bubbles, bears more than a passing resemblance to some of its other products.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I haven't so much as mentioned wine since the opening paragraph, but I make absolutely no apology for its absence. The wine industry globally spends far, far too much time analyzing its own navel. The interminable discussions over screwcaps and other alternatives versus corks, the use or abuse of oak chips and the European legality or otherwise of designations like Vin de Pays des Vignobles de France all remind me of the discussion had by orchestral players on the Titanic about which songs they would play as they sank beneath the waves.

As a member of the wine industry, just ask yourself how much time you have devoted to watching trends in the rest of the drinks industry over the last year. Did you notice, for example, the way that heavy promotion by one brand – Magners – about serving cider on the rocks (anathema to traditional cider drinkers) contributed to a growth in the previously dormant UK cider market of 23% in 2006? Maybe you didn't, but I'll bet the trend didn't go unnoticed by E&J Gallo, the South African brand Stormhoek and Piper Heidsieck, all of whom launched wines specifically intended to be drunk on ice. Wine may indeed be part of civilization, but civilization itself is evolving at a frightening rate.