Thursday, December 14, 2006

Artisan Wines

Just a quick post on a more positive topic.

Although I will not be posting tasting notes here I thought I would congratulate Artisan Wines for a small selection I bought from them recently.

Although they seem to be a small operation they have done everything right to get me to join their list and buy interesting wines from them.

As well as offering some mixed cases so I can get to know their wines, they were well packaged, they kept me informed of how my order was progressing, and when they arrived they came with notes on the wines and the producers. Everything I need to get to know about my wines.

It is also everything I need to talk to others about the wines!

All that is missing now is an opportunity to build a conversation with them and others who have bought, and enjoyed, these wines. Very Web 2.0 of me, I know.

More people and wines like this please!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Great Christmas Giveaway

I may be naive, but I think i still remember when "Sales" in shops really were a way of moving old stock lines to make way for the new ones, and before they were just another means of driving footfall and pushing volume.
Wine on the sofa
Sales have now become so common, for everything including wine, that we have become sale junkies. There is never a need to buy something at full price because if you hold off a short while it will almost certainly be on sale. In fact, consumers must feel cheated if they buy it a the normal price, then see it on sale the next week.

Can this continue?

Look at the DFS model. They seem to have a permanent "sale" at 50% off. They obviously rotate the models on offer so as to have them at the full price for the required period of time, but you'd be pretty daft to actually buy one at full price.

This goes for kitchens too. And clothes. And electronics. ...

So we are always seeking a bargain, that's fair. However, we used to have to seek one out and the reward/effort ratio was such that many people would not bother and would therefore buy products at their 'real' price. Now the effort is minimal (in fact try avoiding a sale!) and the rewards are massive (Buy One Get One Free, etc.).

You would have thought, therefore, that time critical events such as Christmas would be an opportunity for retailers to avoid sales as consumers cannot just wait and buy cheaper alternatives in the sales. Instead we have the great Christmas Giveaway, where even the products we must have and are prepared to buy in volume, are discounted.

As a consumer I can see how this is benefitting me, but it feeds the habit and I wonder how we can break the cycle? Do we even want to?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Cultural Bonus

I hate it when that happens.

I pretty sure it must have been when I was following a link of another blog, and I came across a short article about the benefits of having a stronger culture of wine. Then I lost it! Who wrote it and where can it be found???

The writer was suggesting that alcohol abuse was more likely when the history and culture of wine is divorced from the product. If you know something about where wine (or alcohol) comes from and how it has evolved, you are more likely to treat it with respect. Of course it was much more eloquent than that, but this was the overall point I got from it. And I agree.

What is wine, or beer, or any spirit for that matter, to an 18 year-old? In most cases, something they have only very recently started to discover, and have no context for. If they did experiment with alcohol it was probably in secret and as a way to get drunk for fun. If they had been able to experiment openly, or had been able to join in conversations about it, that bottle in Mum & Dad's sideboard might seem less mysteriously alluring.

I applaud the sentiment of the French governing party discussions about teaching school kids to appreciate wine, but I don't think that schools are the right places to do this. These are things that should be learned at home, with family and friends. This is not always easy, I realise, but replacing it with school lectures is not the answer. Seems to me that would be the fastest way to turn them away from it completely. This is one place where the media can play a positive role, and I am not talking about propaganda, just fun and informative content.

Alcohol abuse is a serious problem that does need to be taken into account. A drunk fellow passenger on the last train home the other night, throwing up in the carriage at my feet was a stark reminder of this. However, demonising alcohol does not work, so why don't we try being more relaxed about it, allowing both kids and adults to see the positive as well as the negative aspects of alcohol is surely much better?

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Four P's

Product, Place, Price, Promotion

They hammer that one home in Marketing 101. To market effectively you must manage all four (plus a few others they added later on) and create the right combination to match your customers' needs.

So why is wine SO stuck on Price alone?

I know, I know. Many will say that it is all about the product, but in fact the real message about product is so often lost before it gets to the consumer, that it is ineffective. Those in the wine business will tell you stories about the apparently confident consumer asking for Red Chardonnay or what country your Rioja comes from, etc. To those with knowledge, these seems ridiculous. In practice they are often the real example of the level of Product knowledge.

So what about Place (the distribution channel). Well, 80% or so of wine is bought in supermarkets, just like all other products, and this is only going up. There are no strong competitive channels at this point. Independent merchants and online retailers are there, and getting better, but where is the concerted campaign to get consumers to switch?

Finally Promotion. "If only we had [product x]'s budget" is the usual refrain, and I have used it regularly myself. But in truth we lack ideas for this rather than the money.

Look at Magners. They are probably London's biggest marketers for ice. Cider didn't sell, so they switched their four P's around, rethought their product, invested heavily (and I mean heavily) in distribution (place) and promotion. Did anyone ask the price? I doubt it. It took guts, but it paid off.

So when Threshers (40% off), Sainsburys (25% off) and Tesco (a belated match of the 25% off deal), et al start talking about discounts AGAIN, I find it somewhat depressing. It only feeds the obsession and depletes whatever coffers there might have existed with producers, agencies and retailers for investing in talking about anything else.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Ponce, meet Dunce. Dunce, meet Ponce.

Welcome to the second era of Oz.

The first era was Oz Clarke's now legendary partnership with Jilly Goolden on Food & Drink. Now, whatever they thought of each other, Oz & Jilly managed to get through to the national consciousness and raise the profile of wine. Unfortunately what we remember most are Jilly's over-the-top descriptions and therefore ridicule their legacy. However, Oz came across as a likeable and knowledgeable chap, and that legacy is very important and should be built upon.

It is for that reason I was very happy to see that Oz was coming back to our screens in not one, but two programmes in the run up to Christmas. However, it now seems you can't move without bumping into him. In the last few weeks alone I have seen him at the London Wine Show, BBC Good Food Show in Birmingham, BBC2 (more on this later) and in various magazines like Harpers and Wine & Spirit. Is that not enough Oz for one year?

Well, we will be seeing more of him (literally I expect) now that the BBC2 show, Oz & James' Big Wine Adventure, with James May is under way. There was much anticipation in the business for this show, some with dread, others with glee. I think I was in the latter category to start, but am wondering whether I expected too much.

The show first aired last week and I sat in my hotel room (after a rather long day at the BBC Good Food Show) to see what this was going to be about. The show is meant to be about Oz introducing "beer drinking","petrol head" and "man of the people" James May to wine. I am all for that concept, as it afforded all sorts of great opportunities to educate interested viewers. However, the producer is obviously a graduate of the reality TV or day time chat show school of television, where every programme must create a tension between different participants in expectation that they'll have a fight.

So instead of being well rested and clear headed, they are made to sleep in a tent together (WHY?). Instead of having someone drive them around so they can both taste wine, they go to top wine producers, and have James taste no wine (DUMB!). Then they have stupid stunts, like driving across a field in a 2CV to see if some eggs might break (not even funny on Top Gear) or making wine from bought grapes in a half gallon quantity with a packet of what looked like bread yeast (simply disgusting).

Why? There are SO MANY clever, fun, relevant things they could have done.

On top of all this, presumably to get a few cheap laughs and get people talking (at least that worked) they show us their two virtually naked bodies in various "wine spa" treatments. Yuk! On both counts.

I had hoped that Oz would come across as he is, an affable wine expert who is not stuffy and old fashioned, and therefore bringing wine to lots of potential new wine consumers. Unfortunately so far he comes across as a dotty old codger without a plan to actually get James on-side and enjoying wine. Why does he insist that there is a "right" answer to how a wine tastes? The whole point about wine is that we each have our own experiences and we should have fun exploring the thousands of wines out there. Why does he not get him to taste a range of wines to compare and contrast instead of getting him to sniff cow pats?

As for James May, well, I guess he is playing his part according to the script. I can't say I was overwhelmed by his style, and I do wish that everyone who has anything to do with Top Gear would stop trying to be Jeremy Clarkson. Get a life, or at least, get a personality of your own!

[For some other reactions, read some other reviews here, here, and here]

I fear that this will be not only an opportunity lost, but will reinforce the misguided stereotypes about wine, and therefore make us worse off.

Let us hope the producer has a trick up his sleeve and will rescue this programme before too long.

Damp Squibs

As could have been predicted, the result was not nearly as dramatic as the trade, the media and the excited consumers might have hoped.

The EU Courts ruled to keep the status quo relating to the payment of duty on wine (and other duty-payable products) imported for personal consumption.

To be honest, I expected this. The law as it is is already very complicated to monitor, and I could already forsee all sorts of ways to get around the remaining Customs oversight if it had changed. Pragmatically, the Court decided that only wines bought in person, in another EU country, and transported back by the consumer themselves would not be liable for duty in the home country.

It is important to note that this ruling did reiterate that even for "personal consumption" purposes, there is a maximum volume of 90L that you can bring in. I do know that a lot of people assume there is no limit, and they also assume that they can ship it without paying further Duty. In many cases the values are too small for Customs to bother with, but the rules are there so you ignore them at your peril.

So, are we any further forward after this? Well, this argument helped to highlight the future benefit of harmonising tax regimes so as to remove this difference, but governments that charge high duty will still need the money, so they will only collect it elsewhere if this source dries up. I will not hold my breath until the UK decides to lower duty on wine & spirits for UK consumers.

Secondly, it did make wine (and cigarettes ... shame we have to be connected all the time) the topic of a national conversation again. Unfortunately this was, once again, all about price and "savings". In practice all you would save was the duty anyway, so it would disproportionately have benefited cheap wines. Not ideal.

Lastly, it did highlight that such a move would push most small merchants over the edge financially. Some of them got a chance to say this to a wider audience because of this story, so maybe, just maybe, there will be some consumers out there who take this to heart and decide to support those merchants by buying their wines from there instead. One can dream.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Tax me baby, one more time

Tomorrow the EU Courts finally give their verdict on the hotly anticipated issue of intra-EU Duty payments on alcohol and tobacco.

I see so many ways this could, and then might not, affect how wine is bought and sold, but I will hold fire until the judgement is released and try and make sense of it.

I suspect that after all the fretting (see how Majestic is getting concerned here), little will change in practice, but it has lots of people talking about wine ... but it is about price, once again.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Give & Take

Good and bad news recently.

On the positive side, I hear that Oz Clarke will be hosting a new wine (well, wine and food) show on ITV. As he says himself, there has been "a bit of a gap" since Food & Drink last aired and we lost his dulcet tones. Thankfully it does not involve Ms Goolden (but we do have to cope with Antony Worrall Thompson).

It may only be a Christmas special, but lets hope it heralds a greater interest in wine, and therefore restarts a wine conversation in this country.

On the negative side, the Independent on Sunday has decided to pull its regular drinks column written by Richard Ehrlich. I have criticised wine columns in the past, but mainly because they are given such tight word counts, and such limited scope, that the editors are boiling them down to mere shopping lists for supermarket brands.

The answer is not to cancel them. I agree that most, although not necessarily this one, are not very interestng, but rather than stopping publishing it, why don't they give their readers something to actually read about! If they dedicated one third of the space used for food or fashion or motoring, someone of Richard's skill would most certainly make this section really worth reading. THAT would attract readers, and that would then attract advertising. I must say I find that news very depressing, particularly coming from the Independent stable that I had some respect for.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Show Wines

Another extended absence, but it was worth it.

This summer was a great opportunity to spend more time in Rioja and get get to know the culture there properly. It is really worth getting immersed in other cultures as you see so much more than you get to see by visiting it for a few days. Obvious, of course, but it is not about studying, so much as of absorbtion. There is only so much you can be exposed to in a short trip, but just being there for 3 weeks means you pick up on all those little things that just happen while you are there.

A particular point of interest was the variety of sizes people 'serve'. We are so used to standard, legally-enforced measures that our wine experience is naturally limited to what we can manage to drink. If you are drinking 175ml or 250ml glasses each time, there are only so many you can try. But when you go from tapas bar to tapas bar in LogroƱo you get served everything from thimblefull glasses for €0.50 a glass (35p!!) to larger glass for a few Euros.

On the other hand, most punters are not interested in which wine it is that they are drinking in this context, and I don't really know why. One for the future.

Back to the main topic. Yesterday I attended the 2nd Wine Show in London. Whatever you might say about the range of wines on show, the fact that consumers can wander around, taste and learn about wine MUST be a good thing - as long as it is not an off putting experience of course. I will follow up on a few of my tastings in the next few days, but I would recommend you consider it next year (keep an eye on and you might even see me on a stand there next year.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Catch up

Keeping up a blog is more stressful than I imagined. It isn't the work involved, its the pressure to "get it right", but so far that has resulted in a rather extended period without actually posting anything. So, right or not, I think I had better get on with it.

A number of things have happened recently. I am writing an article on the topic of Wine Culture for a trade magazine, I have read that someone is producing a film (with Russell Crowe no less) that will be based to some extent in a vineyard, and I have re-started my own wine learning in earnest.

Wine Culture, now that I have started thinking about it, it a very useful way of improving the business prospects for wine in this country. The trade often moans about how the average price paid per bottle is so low (below £3.99) and yet our only efforts seem to be to encourage consumers to try more expensive wines by discounting them in the vain hope they will then pay full price. Unfortunately this leads to consumers getting hooked on "special offers" and switching from one to the other, never stopping to buy the full price wine they enjoyed when it was £2 off or even half price.

The result is poor returns for producers who stop paying for this promotion, so potentially opening the door for "fake" promotions where wine prices are artificially increased to allow for the eventual discount, but where the wine was never worth the full price. Why should that consumer ever decide to pay that price?

If, instead of funding these discounts, producers, importers and retailers worked together to "grow the category" (marketing speak for selling more of everyone's wine), then discounts may not be needed to encourage consumers to spend a little more.

How could we do that? Well, firstly by increasing our understanding of how wine gets into the bottle. Even if the film "A Good Year", due out in November, is a romantic drama, the fact that it was set in the vineyard and hopefully focuses on the year-round work required to make wine, then we will have educated consumers. If we could then follow this up with other programmes (wine tours, tastings, competitions, travel, etc.) or publications (books, magazines) we might just encourage people to think about wine in a different way. The wine trade does not make loads of money, but if we worked together to fund these, we could probably achieve it.

As I was thinking about this, I realised that my own knowledge of wine was quite narrow, so if I was to be able to talk knowledgably about wine with others who are interested, then I really ought to explore the subject further myself. So rather than drink things I know I like, it is time to explore more areas and take more risks, and hopefuly have some fun.

So, here we go again. More thoughts in the near future.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

More places to revel in the culture

Following yesterday's thoughts, I think I had better collect links to those places that do offer something dedicated to wine in a modern and attractive way, so here goes. If the list gets long, then I'll find a way to list it separately. In the interim, take a look at these;





Monday, July 17, 2006

Do we have a "wine culture"?

A friend of mine from South America came by recently and over conversation we were talking about coffee. He made an interesting comment that Chile, his country" had "no coffee culture".

The vast majority of Chileans consume instant coffee, he even called Chile "World Champions of Nescafe", but at the same time a small number of people had always enjoyed "good coffee". Chile grows no coffee, but Colombia, for example, is very close and therefore this "good" coffee is cheap. Although people do enjoy it, he felt that they had no common understanding of it, and simply did not think much about it. Therefore, no coffee culture existed.

That is changing. Not because connoiseurs have discovered the great product on their doorstep, but because Starbucks has "landed" (to use his word). Starbucks may have a bland and unexciting coffee offering, but it is using its marketing muscle to create the coffee culture and hopefully this will raise the general standard of coffee in Chile, hopefully setting more people on the road to disovering the better alternatives there to be tasted.

The same could be said for pizza in the UK. Once we had no concept of pizza, then Pizza Hut arrived and it was a revelation for most. Of course, 30+ years later they are no longer fashionable, but they created the market for the stonebaked, wood fired, thin crust and unique pizzas of today's restaurant and take away market.

What has this to do with wine? Well, I can't quite decide whether we will eventually emerge, pizza style, from the standardised wine offerings of the supermarkets, but we have certainly benefited from the fact that wine "landed" in the supermarkets not that many years ago.

It may seem depressing to the true wine lover with extensive knowledge of wines from around the world, but arguably we do not yet have a true wine culture in the UK where wine itself is the reason people get together. Whilst we might get together "for a coffee" or "have a pint with mates", we have yet to gather "for a carafe". What we have yet to create are wine environments that are focused on a specifically wine culture, but I am sure they will happen, and when they do, people will demand different, better and unique wines and THEN we can sit, back, order our organic thin crust quatro stagioni and enjoy our glass of wine.

[However, things are already changing ...]

Friday, June 30, 2006

The History and Culture of Wine

So, like many others out there (you too?) I have convinced myself I could have something interesting to say, so I am starting my own blog with a particular focus on my favourite subject at the moment, wine culture.

This is not a site about wine tasting notes, collecting and investing in 'fine' wines, ranting against the 100-point systems and a certain reviewer (although it may come up from time to time) or matching it with food. When I say "Wine Culture" I am thinking of how the vine, its fruit and the fermented by-product has played some role in our lives for thousands of years, and how even today this agricultural product is present in our digitised, mechanised and hectic lives. Just as well.

This is an important subject. Wine is not a recent invention, but drinkers who only discovered it recently, probably in a supermarket or trendy bar, would be excused in thinking that the product they are consuming is just like the spirits, RTDs, and most beers they are being offered as alternative alcoholic refreshments - simply another mass-produced means of getting drunk, just slower.

The better wines, but by no means all, are more than this simply because they are a product of nature as well as man, and in the past this was recognised and celebrated in religion, art and when consuming it with family and friends. There is a beautiful legacy of artefacts for making, ageing, drinking, storing, opening and presenting wine (more on this later). These are relics of Chinese, Roman, Greek and Egyptian historical periods, items of mysterious charm as well as offering tantalising insights into their day to day lives.

Today's equivalents can be found all around us. Riedel glasses. Films like Sideways. The Poster Art of the 1930's. The latest wine preservation gadgets (either inserting or removing oxygen). However, the one that intrigues me most is how the experience of wine is moving online. There are hundreds of sites dedicated to wine in some form. The most interesting thing about it is that wine cannot be shared through this medium, only the experience of wine, but it is becoming increasingly common to decide what to drink through the web, or to share the experience you had afterwards.

The wine world needs to understand how this will affect what, when, how and why wine is consumed in future as it will probably have as profound an implication as the development of the glass bottle did.

And as for the future? Well, who knows, but one can imagine all sorts, including computers being able to recreate taste sensations across the web to share an experience, or virtual wineries being created to blend wines to particular user's tastes and requirements, or, less radically, some means of delivering limited quantities of a specific wine to individuals immediately, negating the need for them to build, manage and pay for a cellar.

I will try to look into all sorts of such fantasies and maybe you too will find them of some interest. Let me know.