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Thoughts from the AccessZone

How the Internet Changed my Business” is a great introduction for some thoughts on the excitement of the Access Zone at the London Wine Fair last week.
Access Zone Logo
Not only is this something that we at Vrazon talk about a lot, but it was also the first session and one that we got some great feedback on. In some ways, the whole point of the Access Zone programme and ethos is to showcase the ideas and opportunities of social media for the wine trade, and kicking off with the stories of three people who are not the usual suspects, talking from a perspective beyond the usual winemaking or retailing one, helped to set the scene.

We are so grateful to our MANY friends who came by to say hello, to contribute to the programme and also to contribute to the informal networking and advice that happened on the AccessZone. It was wonderful to see so many great wine content creators from around the world stopping by in London from bases in France, Italy, USA, Portugal, The Netherlands, Spain and Canada (did I miss someone?). If you’ve created some content on the fair or the access zone, let us know so we can share it.

Over the next few days and weeks we will be publishing and commenting on the sessions that were all recorded & produced so professionally by our friends at Mad Cat Media (HIRE THEM NOW!). We will also start to publish the series of interviews that were conducted on the stand with many influential figures in the wine business for our “Unfiltered” series. These are being edited and made ready as we speak and will be a great resource for anyone interested in the future of wine. Keep an eye on this site.

We also have to congratulate Catherine Monahan and Robert Joseph for the success of Wine-Stars which took place on the Access Zone on the Thursday (visit their site to learn more about this event). Vrazon was very happy to have been able to support the activity and help to bring the event to life and record the proceedings for the world to experience. Good luck to all those involved, especially the fantastic wineries who took part.

If you missed any of the key sessions, such as the announcement of the Born Digital Wine Awards 2012 winners, or the presentation about the EWBC Digital Wine Communications Conference in Turkey, all these are available now.

Thank you so much to the partners who helped us make the Access Zone happen including the London Wine Fair, Laithwaites, Wines of Turkey, the Circle of Wine Writers, p+f wineries, freewine and others.

In the meantime, do watch and enjoy this:

Some related Access Zone posts we’ve come across:

Le “Social Media” fait le plein a la LIWF

Who are the RAW Wine Fair’s Natural Consumers?

Our first day at the RAW Fair in London, the artisan wine fair focused on organic, biodynamic and natural wines, was eye-opening in many ways.

Setting up the RAW Fair

Setting up the RAW Fair

First, the space at the Truman Brewery at the top of Brick Lane, and its incongruous industrial past, seemed vast and empty when we arrived to see row upon row of tables, each stretching almost 100 metres. How on earth was this place going to be filled with consumers interested in this subject?

Then, the wines themselves, not just the funky, challenging and, for some commentators, faulty “terroir wines”, but many juicy, fresh, tasty and … simply lovely wines with attractive packaging and good stories.

Attractive Labels at RAW Fair

Attractive Labels at RAW Fair

But the most exciting, really, was that the space DID fill up for hours with happy people, tasting wines without a single sign of excessive alcohol consumption. The debate over wine ingredients, processes and manipulation gets quite heated within the trade, and we often assume consumers are either not interested, put off, or simply confused by the idea, yet here they were in the hundreds or even thousand or more.

The crowds enjoying the wine tasting at RAW Fair

If 'natural wine' is a niche market, someone forgot to tell the crowd #rawfair

The industry challenge, as voiced by Dan Jago from Tesco via twitter, was how many visitors were ‘trade’ and not ‘consumers’ .

 

The vast majority, in my estimation, were regular consumers attracted by the profile generated by Isabelle Legeron MW on the BBC, and the effective marketing of RAW. I spoke to a number of “human beings not directly employed by businesses involved in making or selling fermented grape juice” (aka ‘consumers’) who were all excited by the wines and the buzz of the fair. They did not experience any confusion, just the broad choice of wines.

On the other hand, if the trade were here at all, on a Sunday, it was not because they were doing it for business, but because they love wine. Many of the trade are in the wine trade because they enjoy the product themselves, and although wine communications try to separate “trade” from “consumer”, this definition is really artificial because the trade are some of the biggest consumers, and the consumers increasingly influence business decisions.

Is it time to move beyond this differentiation? Is it time to embrace the idea that there are lots of wine fans out there looking for new experiences, even if we don’t all have to embrace it all ourselves?

Whether you agree with the tenets of ‘Natural wine’ or not, this has been an exciting time for wine in London – and we have not even had a chance to visit the ‘Real Wine Fair’ happening at the same time.

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Making plans for the wine fairs

There are so many things going on in the next week, it is hard to keep track of everything. Here’s a handy summary and guide of some of the fun wine stuff we at Vrazon (that’s Ryan Opaz, Gabriella Opaz and myself, Robert McIntosh) are involved in.

Why not add these to your calendar and come along to as many of these as possible?

20 May, 2012 – Sunday

First appointment is the RAW FAIR, organised and run by That Crazy French Woman, Isabelle Legeron MW. This is a wine fair for those who want to explore what Natural Wine is all about. Come along and try something different – you might like it.

If you do come, make sure you pop over to the Access Zone ‘Unfiltered’ booth where we will be helping small artisan producers learn about social media and sharing some of the fun stuff happening at the trade with the world. We’re inviting all our friends from the EWBC, the Digital Wine Communicators par-excellence, to join in the fun & advice sessions too :)

21 May, 2012 – Monday

We will be back at RAW for the trade-focused day. Gabriella will be there all day and would really appreciate any moral support while Ryan and Robert head off to ExCeL to set-up for the London Wine Fair.

22 May, 2012 – Tuesday

Come along to the London International Wine Fair 2012 at ExCeL. I know, I know, I hear the moans about “getting out to ExCeL” already, but really it isn’t that far or hard, just make sure you avoid the main rush hour at the very start and end of the day and in fact the DLR is pretty handy and there are some good views.

11:00 – One of our first activities will be a debate on “The Birth of a Generic” on the Wines of Turkey stand (N20) with Taner Ogutoglu and guest-starring Willi Klinger from the Austrian Wine Marketing Board and a great friend of the EWBC and the digital wine communications community. We’re also tasting some great Turkish wines. SIGN UP HERE

Vrazon is running our third ‘official’ Access Zone on stand K70 with so much exciting stuff. Here is the full Tuesday schedule, but highlights of the day include:

  • 10:30 – “The internet changed my business” – a discussion with three wine trade professionals impacted by social media, but NOT producers or retailers. This affects us all
  • 13:00 – “Why do you hate your customers?” – a lively discussion with Robert Joseph about how the wine trade interacts with customers. Always fun to hear Robert speak his mind
  • 14:00 – a superb mystery wine tasting with the highly entertaining Joe Wadsack. We’ve got one wine to taste, discuss and give feedback on, and even a chance to win a prize. Be there!!
  • 16:30 onwards belongs to Grenache. First we’ve got a discussion about “Grape Days” and promoting individual grapes in social media and how that has worked for the innovative Grenache Symposium members. Then ….

The end of the day PARTY! G-Night is a party where we drink wine, we don’t study it. Lots of grenache wines to taste in relaxed surroundings a short trip from ExCeL. Drink Grenache with Pizza & Burgers .. and refresh the palate first with a beer or two. BOOK YOUR G-NIGHT TICKET NOW.

23 May, 2012 – Wednesday
Back to ExCeL for the LIWF, possibly requiring a decent coffee to get the energy up first thing. Today’s full Wednesday schedule is here, and the highlights include:

  • 11:00 – “Using Social Media to Organize a Wine Tasting” – a discussion including Gabriella (our in-house expert) and Andre from Adegga. Tips and tools you can use yourself. This session will be quickly followed by an overview of the tools we are using on the Access Zone in case you fancy doing anything like this elsewhere yourself.
  • 14:00 – Freewine tasting. Just in case there wasn’t enough wine to taste at the show, we’ve nabbed some more. It *is* technically free BUT this is special because it is an association focused on reducing SO2 in wine and building an awareness campaign around this. Good wines and interesting messages
  • 15:00 – “Natural Wine – Finding the Middle Ground” – after a weekend of RAW and Real Wine action, plus the Freewine tasting, we want to have a reasoned debate on how the “Natural” message reaches the consumer; with expert opinion from Isabelle Legeron MW, Jamie Goode and Giampiero Nadali for Freewine
  • 16:00 – BORN DIGITAL WINE AWARDS – we announce the winners of the €1000 top prize in 6 categories for best online wine content. A session not to be missed, particularly because Laithwaites (a BDWA sponsor) will be supplying some beers to refresh the throats which will be hoarse from cheering.

24 May, 2012 – Thursday

Last day of the LIWF but SO MUCH still to go, so save your energy. Full Thursday schedule here, but the main highlight session would have to be:

  • 11:30 – EWBC 2012 – we will make some exciting announcements about the schedules of the EWBC Digital Wine Communications Conference itself, and the trips before and after it. We will taste some of the fantastic Turkish Wines we will be exploring in Izmir, thanks to our sponsor and host Wines of Turkey, and meet some of the speakers.

This will be followed from 13:00 for three hours or so, by the brand new WINE-STARS competition being organised by Catherine Monahan of Clink Wines. The excitement surrounds 10 wineries competing in the finals for some listings with top on and off trade customers in the UK market, Dragon Den style. You have to see this in action, and your opinion will probably count too – so come along and support some wineries hoping to make it BIG.

Is that enough to be getting on with?

If you are coming along, do get in touch or follow online at http://vrazon.com/accesszone

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As my Riesling gently weeps

Wine glass and guitar

Ready for musical accompaniment

Riesling. It’s like the wine world in microcosm.

Wine experts love it but cannot understand why consumers don’t go gaga over it, but ultimately this is our fault.

Consumers have heard about it, and when it is poured in their glasses really do enjoy it, but feel confused by its many styles, provenances and the ways it is presented. However, it ends up with a depressingly familiar tale, with an elegantly circular argument:

1. Wine experts wax lyrical over the amazing complexities and variety (of Riesling) …

2. Consumers hear too many conflicting messages, get confused about the overall concept and cannot internalise the information, so ignore it …

3. Wine experts decide that their favourite grape is underappreciated and decide to promote it, so … [Go To 1.]

The BIG problem is that saying “Riesling is great” is that it is a bit like saying “Guitar music is great”. Of course there is great guitar music, no-one would disagree, but if I pick some at random am I going to get Rock, Classical, Jazz, Blues, Rock & Roll, Folk, Heavy Metal, …

When complexity in wine is bad

The wine industry ignores this complication because they have lived in the world of wine for so long that they (we) see the myriad of styles as a positive feature, but for regular consumers it is a complication, a confusion, and ultimately a negative feature.

It means that the wine world sees the success of Australian Rieslings as a sign that consumers are rediscovering the grape, but they are left wondering why Germany and Alsace are still not benefitting.

The point is that the buyers of “Rock Guitar” Aussie, lime-citrus, steely, dry, crisp Riesling are not at all interested in the “Jazz Guitar” Alsatian honey-and-nuts Riesling, nor the “Classical Guitar” of German floral, citrus, mineral and high acid Riesling.

They buy Australian Riesling because Australia Rocks! and “Australia” in many cases trumps “Riesling”.

I obviously exaggerate and oversimplify, there are many styles of wine in each of these regions, but consumers don’t know this detail, so most work from limited experience and “common knowledge” models.

Common knowledge tells you that Riesling is sweet, cloying and stuff that is best left to the 1970′s.

Common knowledge may very well be wrong.

Common knowledge is VERY hard to change.

Let’s face it, for Riesling (and Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and many more, if not most, varieties) “varietal labelling” is a misleading simplification anyway. It doesn’t say anything really useful, or relevant, about what the consumer will experience from this bottle.

You cannot convince an audience that is not listening. Until the message we send resonates with the ultimate consumer, it will continue to be ignored. Wine writers need to find a way to write about Jazz Guitar for Jazz lovers, not sell the instrument to all. It means we have to understand the consumer much better, and speak to them directly, not shout and hope to be heard.

Some varieties are guitars, let’s play accordingly.

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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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