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An unusual kind of wine tasting

Ember

Ember

I hadn’t intended to write about this quite yet (I only just posted my first post for ages last night) but the London Blogger Meet-up Group has just announced an exciting event for Christmas which I need to tell you about now if you want a chance to come along (as I write, 45 of the 80 places are already booked, and that in less than 2 hours since it was announced).

[UPDATE 16:45 - unfortunately the event is ALREADY booked out - 80 acceptances in under 8 hours. How exciting! Keep an eye on this site just in case we can make arrangements for a few more, you never know.]

I’ve been in contact with Andy Bargery from Marketing Blagger for some time as he was the one who set up an excellent networking event for London Bloggers of any subject – in fact it was through this that I won my wonderful trip on the Stella Artois Airship a few months ago. That event inspired me to volunteer to “sponsor” a future event, to also give something back to my blogging peers, and that is what I plan to do on December 9th, 2008 at Ember, opposite Farringdon Tube Station.

I will give you more details on this site and on the meet-up page soon, but I plan on talking briefly about Wine Blogging - who we are, why we do it, and specifically what benefits it has brought to my winemaking friends. I hope to have many different wines to taste and I also hope to show you some videos from these bloggers presenting themselves and their wines. I bet they LOVE that challenge!

The wines to taste will be courtesy of: Winzerblog, Poggio Argentiera, Tintoralba, Quevedo Port, Cortes de Cima, Casa de las Vides, La Gramiere (although this is a long-shot) and, of course, my own efforts with Dinastia Vivanco.

(EDIT: through the power of Twitter my friend Justin will also be trying to locate some sherry to try!)

I will also be looking to hook-up with bloggers who do not write about wine to participate in my campaign to “reach out from the wine bubble” – be warned! I’m in search of your views on wine.

There will also be some money behind the bar for some free drinks, and I might even chuck in a Christmas present or two!

If you want a chance to join in, Be Quick! Sign up to the event.

See you there!

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Would you give your details to a “Naked” stranger?

Unfortunately this isn’t as exciting as it might first appear, but it has potential, so let’s call it titillating.

I was sent a link to a soon to be launched wine company, excitingly called Naked wines. Unlike some other recent developments in nudity and wine (see http://www.slurpswish.com/ also known as the Naked Wine Show), the site does warn you up-front (so to speak) in their only Terms & Conditions that “Nudity is optional”.

The main thing that caught my attention was the fact that this site is recruiting 100 “tasters” to receive 3 bottles of FREE wine in order than they can taste and review them. This is, at least I believe it is, a means for the new company to select a range of wines that really appeal to their target customers. That is a great idea.

There is a rather questionable mission statement of sorts on the site that says:

… to cut to the chase, we believe that UK wine drinkers are being ripped off.
How? There are far too many over-priced, over-rated wines wrapped up in ‘The Emperors Clothes’ i.e. mediocre wines tarted up in fancy packaging.

Of course I would agree that there are many wines that do fall into this category, but “fancy packaging”  is not the main fault, in my view over-reliance on price promotions is, and there are no guarantees about pricing here. They seem to be creating an online retailer, and therefore a form of mail-order business, and fancy packaging doesn’t play nearly as big a role here as it does on supermarket shelves. At least the wines are being selected at least in part by consumers, so hopefully the wines themselves will be worthwhile drinking.

So, these 100 people have a great deal of responsibility to carry. Who are they looking for, and what are they going to do … and for whom?

No idea!

I thought I would try to find out a little more about this company and what they will actually be doing. Unfortunately, there is no information on this available anywhere on the site.

Being a curious type, I decided to sign up to their site. I was asked a few very basic, and slightly leading, questions about my age, wine buying habits and interests, and told that my application would be reviewed and then told if I am selected (I did get a £40 voucher for my trouble). I’m not sure how what they asked for would really differentiate one applicant from another. In fact, I eventually found out that they had already filled all their places because of an “overwhelming response” which to me implies that since they have not taken the form offline, what they are doing now is simply building their database!

What concerned me is that they are asking for quite a lot of information about the consumers, whilst providing absolutely nothing at all about themselves. Would you be happy to hand over your details to this stranger? There certainly isn’t a privacy policy statement that I could find.

Naked wines might have an exciting new model to offer, it shouldn’t be too much to ask that a company setting out to use the internet to build this might just provide some details about themselves, should it?

Anyway, watch this space, and we can hope that recent economic problems do not stop this business from doing something new.

===

Since I first started writing about this, I have read on Alastair Bathgate’s excellent wine blog “Confessions of a Wino” that one of the people behind Naked wines is Rowan Gormley who used to run Virgin Wines (who seem to be doing quite well right now) and you do get a certain echo of their style on this site. It also refers, interestingly, to this being the Last.fm of wine. Hmmm.

Does anyone else know anything about this project? What do you think?

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“It’s grim out there”

Mr Lawrence Wine Bar, Crofton Park

Image by RobWinton via Flickr

Whilst entirely subscribing to the idea that recessions and “bubbles” (and now “crunches”) are to a great extent about a state of mind and driven by an irresponsible media (including blogs!), and therefore not wishing to add to the misery, I think it is important that bloggers are seen to recognise the real difficulties being faced by businesses in our various spheres of interest.

Even if our own jobs may not be directly involved, if we write about wine (or beer, or whetever) then we rely on producers, shippers, importers, distributors, retailers, restaurants, bars, pubs and a whole host of other suppliers. I get to speak to a lot of business people in my job, and there is a general mantra out there which goes something like this:

My business is theoretically fine, I’m doing the best I can, but I can’t be sure that other businesses I rely on will not suddenly fail, nor that some unforseen event will have a catastrophic effect on me. My customers are also not in trouble, but they are being very cautious and spending less, particularly after all the recent bad news. I’m holding on, but this needs to pass quickly!

Each reticent customer has a knock on effect on others up and down the chain; raising costs, slowing payments, spreading nervousness, eventually driving people out of business.

We are regularly reminded that the “engine” of the economy for the last decade or so, particularly in Europe and the US, has been consumer spending, financed by cheap credit and rising house prices. Oops!

So, as this is not (for good reason) an economics blog, does this have to do with wine culture and the wine conversation?

The long period of growth has encouraged the belief that things would always be good (anyone else remember the “end of history” comments after the fall of the Berlin Wall?), so the idea was to capitalise on this and “move upmarket”. “Premium products”, “Trading up”, “Luxury brands”, “Icon wines”, are all familiar terms, and it spread to all sectors. The UK, starting in London and the South East, turned its pubs into “Gastro Pubs”, more and more “Style Bars” opened up, and lots of “Clubs” emerged too. Unfortunately, everyone around the world has heard of British Pubs, but I doubt anyone really talks about British Bars.

Wine consumption in the UK is tied to this drive up market. Wine has been seen as a luxury product that those with the time, money and interest could get to enjoy, and therefore, as more of us felt we did have that time and money, we began to drink more and more wine. This was also good for business, because being a luxury product, these outlets could charge more for wine, including a healthier profit margin. In turn, everyday products, like beer, began to compete on price to drive volume, and the margins were lowered. It made more sense for pub owners to create spaces where rich, relaxed and unworried customers would want to gather to buy more luxury products. Spending on these “evening leisure activities” grew massively.

The result is that the local “community pub” fell out of favour to such an extent that they closed, were converted to upmarket outlets, or were sold off to developers to create more trendy living spaces.

Then, the new “Age of Austerity” dawned. It happened 3 months ago. With the credit crunch, possible recession and all its implications, those “rich, relaxed and unworried” customers have evaporated. One friend who runs a great local bar told that around 12 weeks ago the numbers of customers coming to the bars dropped like a stone. So how will they all survive? They won’t.

How do you convince a worried customer to go out and spend money that they are afraid of losing in your restaurant or bar? Well, you have to be part of the community, the place these individuals go to talk to friends about their shared predicaments. Unfortunately, many of these places are no longer community pubs where one meets friends, only ‘leisure providers’, and therefore something to be avoided.

There is no easy prescription. Bars and restaurants will struggle to attract a reasonable volume of customers willing to by the range of premium wines, spirits and foods in stock, so they are probably going to change their ranges. I’m afraid to say that the Wine Conversation will struggle. However, not all is lost.

A possible glimmer of hope, and it is faint, is that the drive to reduce costs and prices will be accompanied with a desire for value for money – after all why waste your money at all if it isn’t good value? It might encourage more places to price their better wines more keenly to at least differentiate their offering from others, and the search for these places will encourage more people to talk about “that place with the great value wines” that they found. Wine does not need to be a luxury product (as Tesco’s healthy wine volumes shows), but we do need pricing to reflect that it is now a firm part of the mix available in the on trade.

But, this is also a plea. Not for wine, but for local businesses. Times may be tight for you, but they are equally so for your local suppliers – restaurants, pubs, bars and shops. If you want them to survive, you HAVE to continue shopping with them, maybe diverting your money away from cheaper, but more anonymous, offerings from bigger brands. Support your local businesses as much as you can, and in turn you will see benefits, and hopefully we can come out the other side reasonably intact.

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The benefits of being a wine blogger

… if you work in the wine trade

There are already a lot of benefits to working in the the wine business, and I probably do not need to list the main ones (if you work the business you know the truth, and if you don’t, keep dreaming!)

However, one downside is that a traditional “brand marketing” mindset would seem to imply that you cannot be seen to drink, promote or even mention other wines. “If my wine is the best ever, why should I drink anything else?”

The truth is, of course, that we all do. We love wine, we are consumers as well as producers and suppliers. Traditional marketers might recoil in horror, but Social Media aware communicators know that honesty, openness and frankness help to create trust, and that is the most important currency in building any brand. The more I discuss other brands, the more you can put my brand and my point of view, in context.

Winery Cellar for Bottle AgeingSo with this in mind, imagine how sensitive it is to visit another winery.

If I visit a winery, I’m being let into the soul of a ‘competitor’ winery. This is the place the product is made, where the decisions are taken and is the brand’s home. Should I be treated as a competitor and infiltrator? Of course not, after all I’m a consumer too, and just as much a target for the winery’s marketing as anyone else. However, how is that business (with its own commercial realities) to know that I am there honestly?

Well, because I blog and give the whole world the chance to decide. The benefit of being a blogger is that I can prove that I will review the wine/brand in a certain way, and tell others what I think. A winery is investing in these visits specifically to get their story across and to encourage loyalty and to get visitors to spread the word. It used to be said that a happy customer would tell 3 or so friends about their experience, an unhappy customer would tell 10 or more. Now, bloggers tell hundreds, if not thousands, about their personal experiences.

I’d be happy to agree that I’m not as influential as bona-fide members of the wine press, such as Tim Atkin and Oz Clarke (who happen to be visiting this region at the same time as me), but a blogger is still a worthwhile person to attract – so long as they are ‘honest, open and frank’. As a blogger, I owe my readers entertaining, useful and original content, not propaganda. The most enlightened bloggers and producers understand that, and as such bloggers should be welcomed with open arms.

To their great credit, all the wineries I have visited (where I mentioned I wrote a wine blog) have gone out of their way to showcase their wines and wineries, and to offer me any information I may need.

If you are a winery (or in fact any other business that offers visits and tours), one of the first questions you should ask is: “Do you have a blog?”

If you are in the wine business, you should consider sharing your thoughts and experiences on a blog, after all you are wine consumer too. You probably have access to wines, or parts of the wine business, that most others who like wine do not. You will probably have a different perspective to a consumer and to a member of the Press. Not only will other wineries thank you for it, but your own wine brand will benefit too.

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