Archive - April, 2012

The Art & Craft of Natural Wine

“… if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing: and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out comes all his roughness, all dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure; pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only when we see the clouds settling upon him. And whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.”

- John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice 1851

I’ve been trying to get my head around Natural Wine for a while. It’s not so as to understand the wines or what certain winemakers are trying to do, but why it creates such animosity and argument. If you will indulge me a moment, I’d like to put forward a way of looking at this which involves a sci-fi film, 19th century wallpaper designs and the Dynasties of Port wine which I look forward to discussing with producers and consumers at both upcoming ‘natural’ fairs – RAW (The Artisan Wine Fair) and The Real Wine Fair.

Jasmine block-printed wallpaper designed by Wi...

Jasmine block-printed wallpaper designed by William Morris. (Details from Linda Parry, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement: A Sourcebook, 1989.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do not want to be drawn into the debate over the term “Natural” to describe this end of the wine spectrum. I feel it is as good a title as any, and in any case, I believe this term will soon/eventually disappear. This style of wine will survive, we will just think of it differently. I am not arguing for one side or another, but I do think we should support a range of viewpoints.

Like most wine discussions, arguments about Natural Wine mainly revolve around the liquid in the bottle – how it gets there, what it tastes like, and what it should be called. This seems logical, after all, we are interested in wine, right?

In fact, I would argue that it is not.

Taste IS a personal thing, and one can like or hate individual bottles, but this is not the same thing as appreciating the motivation behind how they were made. I personally don’t like (any) cheese, but I do appreciate the craft of cheese-making.

The ‘features’ of the Natural Wine movement include: a focus on sourcing organically grown materials, minimising the human inputs and interactions with these materials in the winery, and attempting to bottle a liquid that expresses a unique character associated with the grape and the place it comes from. These are all laudable aims, but they are also open to measurement and criticism, which is what occurs.

We’ve come to accept organic viticulture as rational, but there are always choices to be made on details, such as ripeness for picking. Then, what counts as “intervention”, when in fact, as even Doug Wregg has pointed out, there’s no such thing as natural wine, only natural vinegar? And finally, when the resulting wine smells unlike any other wine on the market, is this to be interpreted as a fault, as a character of the terroir usually filtered out by technology, or simply a winemaker’s preference?

The two sides of the debate will argue these points interminably, but because they are seeing the argument from different perspectives, they will never agree. I believe that a little reframing of the discussion, might, if you will excuse the pun, bear more fruit.

“… we now have discrimination down to a science.” – Gattaca (1997)

In the general market, we have come to accept the role of technology [in its broadest sense - as the application of scientific knowledge] to allow us to consume with consistency, quality and reliability. This is true not just in wine, but across the board. Wineries proudly announce the technical qualifications of their wine-making staff and their latest investments in machinery.  They adopt ever more clever, innovative and ‘scientific’ practices to remove variability caused by nature and human error when making their wines in order to achieve these perceived values for the consumer. When they do come across issues, even ones such as environmental responsibility, they ‘fix’ them with more technology – lighter bottles, recyclable plastic, alternative energy and so on. Science begets more science.

This is the underpinning to quality marks such as “Parker Points”, Gold Medals and sweetness scales; it is taken for granted that we are all consuming the same product so we can measure these wines and judge them. If it ticks the boxes, it is good. If it strays from the accepted scales, it is bad.

From this perspective, Natural Wine is at fault. Like a brilliant child who has grown up wild without attending school, he fails the standardised test. In the great terms of reference of the film Gattaca, he’s an (in)valid. As the ambitious Vincent Freeman, conceived ‘naturally’ by parents who could have had him ‘specified’ from the lab, but who still wants to head into space, says:

“I’ll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God’s hands, rather than her local geneticist.”

Do we want wine lists made up from ‘perfected’ interpretations of wines, or do we want them to be varied and evolving, capable not only of fault, but of greatness?

Truth to Material

As I was vividly reminded when watching Zev Robinson’s latest wine documentary, “Life on the Douro” recently, making wine is just as much to do with the interaction of people and places as it is about the liquid that ends up in the bottle. Natural Wine should not argue over levels of sulphur, tannin or VA or whether a wine is ‘better’ because it was made in a clay pot. It seems to me that instead it is driven by a rejection of these technological terms of reference.

Arts and Crafts Armchair

Arts & Crafts Armchair at V&A Museum

The Natural Wine movement is not the first to take this approach, and looking at other experiences might be able to teach us lessons. The Arts & Crafts movement famously did much the same for design and architecture in the late 19th Century. John Ruskin and William Morris may not be names you are familiar with, but they too were reacting to a society falling for technology (the Industrial Revolution) and argued that the division of labour and reliance on machinery was damaging society. They argued for design to be “true to its materials” and avoid unnecessary ornamentation or fakery, for the designer-craftsman to be involved in the product at all stages (hand-making everything), and for a return to ‘craft’ production instead of machine precision. It is really not hard to see the parallels with wine.

Let’s compare an IKEA chair with a craft-made kitchen chair. Both are used for sitting on, but they are different, not because of exactly how they were made, but because of what they mean to us. One is a disposable, mass-produced consumer good to be replaced when it inevitably falls apart (it must, they need us to buy again); the other is an heirloom, a piece of furniture and art to be treasured, and one whose minor flaws are integral to its story.

Even if this is true, there is always a time and place for both approaches, and no reason for being absolutist. There’s space in our life for IKEA kitchens and 3L bag-in-box wine as well as Morris & Co Wallpapers and Qvevri wines.

Arts & Crafts did not survive for long, but it did matter. It failed in large part because although craft production is attractive, it is not commercial – it doesn’t scale. There are only so many tables & chairs you can make each year if you have to do every stage yourself, and they become expensive. Natural Wine faces the same issue. But the ideas behind Arts & Crafts did inspire others to change, to make more honest products, to think of the people and societies who made and consumed the products they were creating. This movement inspired designers like Charles Rennie Mackintosh and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bauhaus movement and still influences thinking today.

But will it age well?

You can convince someone to want to taste a bottle of Port by telling them a story about carving vineyards out of steep rocky valleys, shipping wines up and down treacherous rivers and across dangerous seas, and the huge wealth and desperate ruin that families experienced as a result, without once having to mention what the wine tastes like.

Taste is only a part of the consumer experience, but the process can be important if it is part of the context and the experience.

If we accept this, then it won’t matter how it is made on either end of the spectrum, and we can get on with focusing on the people and the story, and the impact, of the wine.

I honestly believe that the term “Natural Wine” will eventually disappear because once this extreme of the wine world is accepted and less radical, once its principles have been more widely adopted and reinterpreted, it will be meaningless as a differentiator. I look forward to new terms and movements emerging, and the wine trade should support this, not fight it.

It will have been a success because a small group of people encouraged us to see the world of wine differently and reach for the clouds.

[Disclosure: Vrazon has agreed to attend the RAW Fair to run the "Access Zone Unfiltered" social media space during the event in 2012, and we look forward to listening and learning about different views on these wines, and tasting wines. This post is not meant as promotion for one event or another however]

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What 1% increase in spending will sell you more wine?

Ironically, the answer is probably not by increasing the quality of your wine.

A vineyard tractor

Will this sell wine? (by @ryanopaz)

With the one exception, moving from a Parker (or other pointillistic) rating of 89 to 90, there is very little chance that you can find any benefit to a 1% increase in wine quality leading to a measured increase in wine sales. Yet wineries will spend thousands and thousands of dollars/euros every day to try to make it happen. They spend on things such as: a new bladder press that presses the grapes even more gently, a consulting winemaker to come in and tweak the style of their wines, or maybe a whole set of new fermentation tanks just because the current ones are not quite the right shape to attain maximum extraction. I’ve seen all of these implemented by wineries who were struggling to sell more wine. Each time the winery was looking for a way to get more people to buy their wine, but from what I can tell, all that was achieved was a larger bank debt and the same amount of wine being sold.

I’m talking about wineries with established markets and established ways of doing things. A new winery might quite rightly need to upgrade the materials they have as they begin to grow, but even in that case, measuring the quality of the wine in relation to the wine making gadgets’ fixed costs is a VERY difficult thing to do. As we used to say in the kitchen I worked in: “It doesn’t matter how fancy your knife is if you don’t know how to use it.”

The irony is that so many wineries are already full of fancy wine making equipement with shiny wineries and fancy bottles, and yet they have either forgotten to invest in a website, or the website they currently have hasn’t been updated in years. Today the website is not an option.

So what 1% increase in spending might help these wineries to sell more wine, if not by making the wine better?

If poor wine quality is stopping you from selling more wine then you will need to spend a lot more than 1% of your budget to improve the wines. If you’re selling wine already and you want to sell more, a new tractor is not going to make difference to your sales. The problem is, buying a tractor is easy to understand. It’s a physical object that you can touch and you know it’s there. Marketing, websites, and PR are less so. You can’t physically touch them and, like a ghost, that can be scary! “New wine press, no problem, I can see that and touch it and all is good! New online social media campaign? Well, I don’ t think that that will help much, plus I don’t understand it”.

Not understanding how something  works does not mean you don’t need it. 

I don’t understand how the hard drive in my computer remembers what I put in it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need it. I buy it, and use it, because it is useful. Social media, and a functioning website, are not optional winery tools, they are as essential as your destemming machine.

That is if you want to sell more wine.

I believe that a 1% budget increase spent on your winery’s sales, marketing, or online engagement will make a small difference to your bottom line. Quite often a very large difference. If you have the courage, I dare you to try.

An example: What is your annual operating budget for your winery? 250,000 euros? 500,000? More? Less? Let’s start with the first one, where 1% gives us 2,500 euros. Take that money and go out and hire a professional, not a relative who took a weekend class in web design, but a trained professional, and have them sit down with you and teach you about Twitter, Facebook, or even help build your first blog. For that 2,500 euros, and a bit of shopping around, I bet you could get a new website and some in-house training. Maybe not the fanciest website, but you could trade that in for a Facebook fanpage, some Twitter help and more in house training. Now you’re set. Just remember to ask questions and get involved; this stuff won’t run itself.

Then spend 1% of your time each week engaged with it. That’s just 15 minutes a day.

2,500 euros of social media education and initiatives + 15 minutes a day = more wine sold. Guaranteed. Or rather you won’t sell any less wine. You can only gain.

This won’t happen overnight. I bet you didn’t learn to make the perfect wine your first day in the winery. It probably took some time to learn how to do it. That’s ok. It didn’t stop you from trying though, did it? No, you wanted to make better wine, so you went and did it no matter what. Next thing you know, you got the hang of it and pretty soon it became easier and easier. The same goes for social media.

By getting out there and talking to consumers and promoting yourself online, you will sell more wine. The social part of getting out there won’t be tangible, but your selling wine will be. What have you got to lose? With the crisis here in Europe impacting sales, wineries can’t afford not to try. Make 2012 the year you try something different.

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The electricity of creativity

“I’m like a great big dark cloud, floating over the land, discharging my creativity in a sudden burst, like a lightning storm. If I were on twitter, facebook, etc. I feel I would waste the energy in lots of small bursts. I do not want to do that. You won’t find me on social networks. … Of course, that’s what I feel today and it could change.” (paraphrased, from sketchy memory) – Iain Banks, 2012

Iain Banks Reads Stonemouth

Iain Banks Reads Stonemouth at Foyles, 2012

I attended a book reading & signing for Stonemouth by one of my favourite authors last week at Foyles in London. Iain Banks is the author of not only some amazing fiction, such as Wasp Factory, but also of science fiction (under the name Iain M. Banks). I particularly recall a book called Feersum Endjinn that included a very early model for Wikipedia/Internet he called The Crypt. He comes across as lots of fun, very creative, very Scottish and I happen to know he is also a wine lover (he admits to a fondness for Chateau Musar which also appears in a couple of books).

I took the opportunity to ask him if he used social media in his creative process, and I got the answer above. As an advocate of these platforms for wine, I feel it is a shame, but I totally understand what he is talking about. He says he writes his books in one, sudden, 3-month flash (after 9 months of “thinking about thinking, thinking, thinking about planning, and planning”). For authors who have to publish large creative works like a novel, I can see how the ongoing conversation might be a distraction. People would expect him to be creative, funny, innovative all the time. He admitted that if it helped him sell (a lot) more books, he’d probably do it, but I’m guessing he’s not desperate for cash after his 26 or so published works, so it is unlikely to happen.

I see, on the other hand, that for other creative types (like bloggers), the creative process is much faster, less intense in some ways, and the potential for the social conversation to spark more ideas and deliver value, more direct.

I do find myself, from time to time, involved in a discussion or reading a post, and thinking: “Hey, I wrote about that and covered it already somewhere …” then realising that it was never a fully formed thought, but just a comment or status update, and therefore seen by very few. If only I’d bothered to see it through, maybe it might have advanced the discussion a little further.

I know this is a feeling that many wine bloggers have experienced, but despite the many benefits of having channels for “micro-blogging” and reaching large audiences of followers and friends with wine content, it is fairly certain that this is diminishing the output of truly creative, fully-formed, valuable thoughts on our blogs, and that is a shame.

Is it time to change the balance and get back to longer form publishing? Save up some of that electricity for a proper show of lights?

This is a topic I know will be coming back to, including at the EWBC (and see these excellent points made by Andrew Jefford on the same subject as well).

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Wine labels done right, a discovery at VinCE

A couple weeks ago I found myself in Budapest for the VinCE wine event – An event that is more consumer focused than trade, but a place to discover new wines and meet new people. I have to admit that I rarely find myself discovering  a wine label, or bottle design, at such events that makes me stop and say, “hey, now that is a great idea!” The wine world is full of copycats and formulaic marketing that usually bores me or fails to reflect the wine that it is supposed to represent. The wine inside a bottle is often either represented by a horrific label with a fancy font and ridiculous food pairing suggestions; or the opposite, by a label that is itself a work of art, meant for a museum, while the juice inside is second rate at best.

This year, one winery did stop me in my tracks to exclaim, “Yes, now that is what I’m talking about!”

Dénes Pécsi-Szabó, a young man from the Janus winery in Villány region of Hungary came up to me after the Gary Vaynerchuck masterclass and asked me to try his wines. Needing a reason to roam around, I found his table in the back corner of one of the main tasting halls, and within minutes I knew it was a good idea. Dénes, having very little time left in the day, quickly showed me his wines and the new labels that he was in the process of switching his wines to. Colorful and patterned I thought nothing of it at first, another pretty label. After tasting one of the wines, I remember noting that at least the pretty label contained some good fruit.

It was at that point that Dénes started to explain the story behind the label and I proceeded to inspect it closer. Turns out the patterns on the label had meaning. I’ll let Dénes explain in his own words how he worked with a designer to create them:

We created them with Marton Kenczler, Art Director of Kirowski Isobar. I used to work with him in film productions, and I wanted to bring a designer to create our logo and labels from an outsider world. Marci…had no knowledge or experience in the wine business.

We thought, that the old label is a little boring, as it was created to try to please all consumers and also family members of Janus Winery. We wanted to do something, which we feel[sic] closer to us, looks nice and sticks out of the Hungarian label crowd…

We both felt that the long label hugging around the bottle is a good form for what we want to do. Then I said one or two words about all of our wines, and Marci reflected with the symbols.

Rosé: Fresh, girly
Portugieser: wine for everyday
Cabernet Sauvignon: royal grape
Cabernet Franc: King of Villány Wine Region
Merlot: soft
Syrah: eastern influence, Big body

Using Icons as the base of the design the two decided that each grape would receive its own, unique icon. Therefore, each wine could reflect what was inside the bottle with a few visual cues. By playing with the quantity of each icon, they could give the consumer an idea of what the final wine might offer.

What’s interesting is that this winery was not only branding grapes, but branding them in a visual way that overcomes language barriers. Combine this with fun, lyrical label messages that play with the character of the grape, leaving out any silly food pairing suggestions, and they’re onto something fun and different.

Now I’m not saying that Janus solved all major problem, or that these are the most innovative label designers and marketers I’ve come across, but they took a risk to think differently. They realized that people do shop by grape, and by relating these to visual cues, can create deeper branding. Additionally, they stepped out of the wine bubble to consult a designer who is able to see their world differently. Objectively.

Yes this is a moot point for the first time wine buyer. They are not going to know the “system” when they first pick up a bottle, but it is the “plastic bull” idea – where the consumer, if they like the wine, has an easier route to brand loyalty [Back in my wine shop, if a buyer couldn't find a wine for their pizza on friday night, they defaulted to the one with the plastic bull around it's neck]. These symbols, when first noticed, can create enough curiosity for the casual buyer to connect with them, and possibly seek out new combinations. Beyond that, they represent what is inside visually, and thus go much further than most wine labels who rely on fancy art or funny fonts.

I have yet to taste the full range of Janus wines. This will be remedied soon, but I will say that the couple wines I did taste at the end of a long day were showing great potential. Wines that I would buy, without a doubt.

Wine marketing is a challenge in a sea of copycats. Thinking ‘different’ can be hard to do, but the rewards can be great. Congrats to Janus on their efforts.

Cheers!

Note: This label shown here has a music note icon. This icon has been added as this wine is the official wine of the Pannon Filharmonics Orchestra. In their mind the wines grapes blend with the music so they are shown together.

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A re-telling of a wine fairytale

This story has been put together in a sustainable way from recycled & organic tales collected from around the world, and  its morals are entirely a product of indigenous references. Consume in moderation

Illustration from The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Illustration from The Pied Piper of Hamelin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time, there was an old man who had been a respected winemaker, but his intended bride had pricked her finger on a screwcap in her youth and fallen into a long, deep sleep. In his depression, the man had fallen on hard times. Few liked any of his wines any more and he was down to his last basket of grapes. All seemed doomed.

He went to bed that night, dejected. Unbelievably, he awoke the next day to discover that a magic elf flown in, and had been toiling all night and transformed his grapes into delicious wines using a “micro-oxygenation” spell. The man was overjoyed and with the money made selling that wine, he bought more grapes which the elf would transform, … and business boomed.

In time, the old man became so successful that he built the most fantastic winery, designed along Feng Shui principles with fermentation tanks fashioned after Dragon’s Eggs. His winery kept attracting more and more elves to make, design and package his wines, and the wines became hugely attractive, sought-after and collectable.

This posed a problem for the old man. All the wines being made now were  fantastically bejewelled, exotically styled and devilishly expensive. His regular customers could no longer afford to shop from him, so he turned to others for help.

The old man was canny. He decided to engage the services of wine merchants Rump & Stiltskin to sell the wines with the slogan “we turn your wine investments into gold”. He also hired Fay Reega, of the PR firm “Mother”, to invite the right sorts of people to a lavish annual Ball that was to be decorated and stage-managed by a couple of weavers whose incredible new material only fools could not see.

Success was guaranteed … as long as people would come.

Fortunately for them, a young piper from the Land of Mary came passing through town. He not only had a magical tasting instrument, but was also well versed in numerology. His magical instrument could turn the merest sip of wine into a charming song, and anyone who heard his number chanting would follow him wherever he went.

And so it was to pass. The date of the Ball was set for early April. The stage was (apparently) decorated. Other musicians and entertainers from all over the world came to lead the procession behind the Piper, and the old man and representatives of Rump & Stiltskin awaited, haggling over the future spoils, in their castles by the river.

The procession wound its way slowly around the castles of the region, picking up more and more of the rich and powerful as it went, heading towards the main event, whilst spectators, too poor to afford the gowns and the wines, and not in possession of the golden tickets, watched on, bemused from the sidelines.

At the stroke of 12, more specifically 2012, things started to go wrong.

The famous Piper decided he’d had enough and threatened to stop and rest. The other musicians from around the world tried to keep the procession moving, but it had only been the Piper’s magic number chant that had enthralled the crowds. The stage, it turned out, had not been decorated after all, Fay Reega’s magic golden tickets changed back into mere RyanAir vouchers, and people woke up and starting demanding the names behind Rump & Stiltskin in order to get their money back.

The fantastically expensive wines were locked in a vault, untouched, undrunk, unloved.

And while everyone was distracted, a handsome young writer appeared from behind a computer and kissed the sleeping beauty, who awoke from her long slumber and decided that she too wanted to make great wines, … but this time, with no elves.

Someone, somewhere, lived happily ever after.

The End?

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