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Making the most of wine fairs

Do you like wine? How often do you get to taste it? I don’t mean drinking it, but tasting small amounts of many different wines, either to find out what you might like or to know what to buy?

Those of us who work in the wine business are lucky to get invited to tastings a lot – for our own education, information and ultimately to help bring the customer new wines in our shops, restaurants and wine columns.

But the wine buying public doesn’t get this opportunity often enough (but see below for a list of some fairs VERY SOON).

One of the BEST ways to get to do this is to go to a wine ‘fair’ (exhibition) where there will be many different wines present in one place. The entry fee hopefully guarantees that there will be a range of quality wines available, and also acts as deterrent to those who want to take (dis)advantage of ‘free’ alcohol to over-indulge.

Unfortunately these events can easily be a little overwhelming and confusing, and all that alcohol might make remembering what you ‘learned’ a little difficult. So here are a few pointers to make the most of these events, and below are a list of upcoming events I suggest you check out:

  1. Have a plan: Don’t just “go to taste”. The best way for wine lovers, amateur and professional alike, to get something out of a tasting is to have a specific objective in mind. There will ALWAYS be too many wines to try them all, so how do you focus? It doesn’t matter whether it is “Wines for Christmas dinner”, “Wines under £10″, “Pinot Noirs”, “Favourite wines I cannot pronounce” … as long as you have a mission, you can easily decide whether to stop & sip … or move on.
  2. Set a wine limit: Most of us struggle to differentiate between wines after a while. Professional wine judges might taste 200 wines in a session, most of us struggle after 20. If you set yourself a limit, you can politely refuse to taste through an enthusiastic producer’s entire range but dedicate your attention to a specific wine.
  3. Set a price limit: If you are buying wines, there is a temptation to try lots of lovely, expensive and unusual wines – but if you are not going to buy them, does it help? Remember your plan, and your limit. You can always taste a few ‘extra’ wines before you leave if you have the stamina and time!
  4. Prepare your visit (but be flexible): Most fairs will print a list of exhibitors and wines in advance. If you get a chance, make yourself a little map and plan of which stands are likely to be most interesting … but keep your eyes open as you go from one to the other. Don’t stick to it too rigidly, but it is better than wandering aimlessly and potentially missing something interesting.
  5. Go with a friend (or three): There will always be a time you need  second opinion, or simply someone to help you get out of a hard-sell pitch. But more than anything else, wine is social. Even wine tastings are more fun in the company of friends.
  6. Make notes: We’ve all done it. Found a great wine, been absolutely certain we’d remember it, then promptly forgotten its name. When you taste something, make a note – positive AND negative. It’ll help you when you are next looking for what wines to buy.
  7. Bring a camera: Notes are great, but our minds LOVE pictures. If you like something take a picture of the label. It saves a lot of unnecessary writing and will also help you share your favourites with friends.
  8. Be relaxed: The wine ‘experts’ (producers, importers, journalists, etc.) are there BECAUSE OF YOU! They need to impress YOU, not the other way around. Wine is meant to be fun.


So, with this plan in mind, where can you taste lots of wines in London in the next few weeks?

15-17 October Fine Wine Fair, Chelsea Old Town Hall – @finewinefair

A whole weekend of great quality wines. Well known producers will be showing their wines that are a cut above what we normally buy, but are still “affordable”. A great way to taste wines that will impress friends and family at Christmas, but don’t require a second mortgage. There will also be ‘personal shoppers’ to help you navigate the room, PLUS Spanish food delicacies .. and CHOCOLATE. What are you waiting for?

I’ll be going to this one and tickets only cost £20

6 November The Wine Gang Xmas Fair, Vinopolis – @winegang

The second edition of this fun event. The Wine Gang taste wines all year for their monthly newsletter and their top scorers are invited to show their wines at the tasting. Lots of masterclasses and wine tours. One day only, and you need to book a specific session, so book early.

Yup! I’ll be at this one too

13-14 November Decanter Fine Wine Encounter, The Landmark Hotel – @decanter

Decanter Magazine puts on several of these events a year and a re a chance to taste wines from the world’s top producers. Lots of high end wines, with prices to match, but the chance to meet some names that will impress even the most dedicated wine snobs!

Oh, and while we are at it, check out one of my favourite wine fair videos – with Olly Smith as the Pied Piper of wine:

Spot the wine blog – updated

How would you like to share a glass of wine with 700 potential new readers of your wine blog?

The Wine Gang have offered me the opportunity to showcase a small number of UK bloggers at their upcoming The Wine Gang Christmas Fair on November 7th, 2009 at Vinopolis. In exchange for spreading the word about their event (which I would have done gladly) and a little blog building expertise, I am being given the opportunity to bring 3-5 bloggers along to the show with me to taste the wines and showcase wine blogging to a community of wine lovers.

The Blog Spot

I have a small area in the show where we can set up our laptops with free wifi (for us, not the general public I’m afraid), power and the space to speak to wine lovers about our blogs, our views on wine and what they can learn about wine from bloggers. This is called the ‘Blog Spot

I believe that this is a great opportunity for bloggers and readers;

  • Bloggers can meet their potential target audience and find out about what interests them, what sites they read (if any), what motivates their wine buying and what wine lovers really think of wine blogging. These blogs will be exhibiting alongside some of the biggest names in UK wine retail as well as distributors, brands and generic bodies. It is an amazing opportunity to create a brand new audience for your blog content
  • Wine consumers can learn what motivates bloggers to go to the efforts of maintaining a blog, usually for no reward (except appearing at wine tastings) and what their particular passion is. It is an easy way to find some great new sources of wine information to complement their own wine buying research and maybe even new friends to share experiences with.

Want to come along and feature your blog?

1. Who is eligible?

If you are based in the UK and write a blog on any topic, but include wine regularly (but not necessarily exclusively) then you qualify. This offer is open to wine bloggers, food bloggers, travel bloggers and anyone else who likes to talk about and share their thoughts on wine.

2. What do you need to do?

Create a post on your own blog in the next 10 days (published before midnight, Tuesday 6th October, 2009) on the subject of “Buy Smarter and Drink Better Wines” (The Wine Gang strapline). Interpret this as you like! You can write in your own style, in the context of your own blog and for your audience, even produce a video or any other format content, but we want to hear what YOU think about how consumers can learn more about wine and improve their appreciation of better wines.

Most importantly, you need to link back to this post and to the new The Wine Gang Live blog so I know that you have written it (it wouldn’t hurt to leave me a comment or notify me on twitter as well, just in case).

All participating posts will be read, and The Wine Gang and I will select from these the ‘best’ entries. Unfortunately I can’t give strict criteria as I want to leave you free to interpret the brief as widely as possible, but we are looking for creativity, a good sense of how wine appreciation can be improved and of course for those ideas that can encourage more people to enjoy wine, responsibly!

I will also try to feature as many as possible of these posts on The Wine Gang Live blog at:

Those selected will be notified before October the 12th so you can make plans to be at the show, but please put Saturday November 7th, 2009 in your diaries now!

I hope you agree that this is a fun and exciting opportunity for wine bloggers and wine blogging, and I look forward to reading your posts.

UPDATE 06/10/2009: Today was the deadline for submissions, but I have been too busy to remind people about it. I already have a number of candidates, but I would like to spread the word a little further, so I am extending the deadline to the end of this week (ending on Sunday 11th October). Due consideration will be given to those who did get their posts up for the original deadline, of course!

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The case of Majestic’s big small announcement

I just heard via two sources on Twitter (isn’t it great?) that Majestic are about to radically change their business model and potentially make them an even greater player in the world of wine retailing.

Now Majestic’s minimum purchase it to be halved to only 6 bottles

Until now, Majestic required consumers to buy a minimum of 12 bottles at a time. Their “warehouse” model of large stores, plenty parking and knowledgable staff had  made them a favourite of keen wine drinkers.

However, the vast majority of UK wine drinkers do not buy 12 bottles at a time. Most buy 1 bottle for a specific evening, or maybe 2-3 if on a promotion. This made them a ‘specialist’ as opposed to a regular ‘wine shop’ in the minds of most consumers.

The theory has been that by buying in larger quantities, you could take advantage of more volume deals and get a better price overall for your wine. In practice I wonder quite how much better that price was unless you were really picking the promoted lines, but …

Despite targeting a relatively small number of wine drinkers, Majestic has been enormously successful in the last few years, especially if you compare them to their peers; Oddbins, Wine Rack/Threshers and pretty much any other high street wine retail name. It makes a BIG difference to have 1 customer walk into your shop and buy 12 bottles with an average price around £6-£8 and therefore spending £70-£100 instead of them walking out with a single bottle, no matter how expensive.

… spare a thought for the independent wine merchant struggling to survive

Now Majestic’s minimum purchase it to be halved to only 6 bottles. Clever, or crazy?

  • On one side, getting consumers to move up to buying 6 bottles is easier than jumping from 3 to 12.
  • It means that the wine consumer on a budget who already buys at Majestic might feel less guilty about going back to the store to “only” buy 6
  • Many modern flats do not have space for storing 12 bottles at a time (sad to say)
  • Majestic is obviously hoping that their “£2 off per bottle if you buy 2 or more” type discounts will encourage shoppers to buy more than 6 anyway (I always seemed to buy more than 12 I admit)

However, it risks upsetting the delicate balance they have achieved that has made them successful.

12 bottles was not a ‘legal’ requirement, at least not once you could mix & match your own. It was simply the business saying “you will buy 12 bottles or we won’t sell to you”.

People accepted that, in part because 12 bottles was a psychologically significant number (as the number of bottles in a standard case measure). How will consumers react to this being changed? Happy that it is now “only” 6? Or will they wonder why they have to buy 6 at all, and why they can’t just buy 3, or 1?

Also, I’m certain there were those who bought extra bottles to fill their 12 bottle quota. What happens to those purchases?

It is a bold move that will hopefully attract some of those customers who like wine and knew of Majestic but for whom 12 bottles and the thought of £75-a-visit were a substantial barrier.

Let’s also hope it encourages more consumers to make wine drinking a more planned activity.  A little research can make the appreciation of the wine so much greater.

Finally, spare a thought for the independent wine merchant struggling to survive in your town, village or high street. This potentially makes their life even harder, but maybe you could learn about new wines with Majestic’s offers and education, then go exploring the wines of smaller wineries and regions with the help of your local merchant?

Good luck in your wine adventures!

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Coffee and wine

A Starbucks coffee shop in Leeds, United Kingdom
Image via Wikipedia

It seems that Starbucks is about to start selling wine and beer alongside its coffee in New York Seattle.

Is this a victory for common sense and the treatment of the public as responsible adults, or something else? Sadly, it is probably 99% something else: financial self-interest.

Starbucks are in a whole heap of financial trouble and looking for ways to turn around the business. Their coffee brand has lost much of its lustre and now they have too many outlets selling too little coffee to keep shareholders happy (never mind all the jobs they provide). So, a new model is to be found.

Is the idea of alcohol served in a coffee led retail space revolutionary? Not at all if you have ever visited France, Italy, Spain and pretty much all of Continental Europe. Unfortunately it says a lot that this is not the norm in the US, or in the UK.

It worries me though, not because of what they are doing, but because of why they are doing it.

This will be one of the first experiments on liberalising the straightjacket of alcohol licensing in the UK and US, and as such it will be watched carefully and treated as a case study. If it were to be done properly, the staff in the local area would select suitable drinks for their clientelle, one they had a relationship with, to ensure they were selecting the mix that would be right. In practice it will be treated as an auction with the biggest brands bidding to be listed and ‘marketed’, and there is every chance the customers will not be interested.

Will that do anything for Starbucks?

Maybe in the short term, but if it is a failure in the medium to long term, it will not only be bad for Starbucks, it will make it that much harder for any well intentioned cafe owner doing it properly.

I must say I am very pessimistic about it working in the UK if all else stays the same.

If you like good coffee, like me, you will realise that the very robotic uniformity and ‘global solution’ approach to serving coffee that is killing Starbucks’ coffee brand is total anathema to the real world of wine and beer.

Dear Starbucks, don’t you realise we are laughing and crying when you say:

“We’ll be equally as proud of our beer and wine as we are of our coffee,”

PLEASE do this properly, or not at all!

Oh, and by the way, I’m available at reasonable rates to advise on implementing this in the UK, and while you are at it, I have an idea that will REALLY change the business – feel free to ask :)

Update: if you are interested in these two subjects you might also want to check out:

Further Update (23:34): In case you didn’t decide to follow the link in the first paragraph, and have not read this story elsewhere, Starbucks is trialling this coffee + wine + beer concept in only 1 store in Seattle to be called “15th Ave. Coffee and Tea inspired by Starbucks” (except missing the inspiration bit in the name). This is not (yet) an announcement that they will do the same in the main Starbucks branded outlets.

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Malo what?

Do you know what Malolactic Fermentation is?

If you do, you are probably amongst the tiny, miniscule, one-bubble-out-of-a-bottle-of-champagne’s-worth fraction of people in this country, including most wine lovers, that do. Congratulations!

In that case, I wonder whether this advert by Champagne brand Lanson that I saw this week on the London Underground is for you? It is certainly not for the average Champagne drinker and wine consumer.

Lanson Advert

Lanson Advert

The full text of the advert is:

“Since 1760, we’ve crafted Champagne the traditional way, choosing to avoid malolactic fermentation and insisting on 3 years’ cellar ageing. What emerges is an uplifting, crisp and fresh tasting Champagne with an exceptional purity of fruit.”

Does anyone in the wine business believe that consumers on the underground care all that much about the conversion of Malic Acid into Lactic Acid? I’m afraid that at best this advert was a bit of a waste of money for a good Champagne house, but at worst it confirmed that Champagne (and wine in general) is for snobs that know words like “malolactic fermentation”, “cellar ageing” and “purity of fruit”.

C’mon Lanson! Please use your undoubtedly strong brand, and your marketing budget, to do something a bit better and encourage the wine conversation. Oh, and while you are at it, you might like to improve your website – THAT is where you can reach out to wine experts and provide details of your winemaking.

Now, I wonder if there’s a name for the process of converting harsh, unapproachable advertising into well-rounded, consumer friendly material instead?

UPDATE 13:39 10/07/09: It occurs to me that really this is a classic error of selling Features not Benefits (loads of articles if you search, but this is a good one on selling the zaz.

COMMENTS: Thanks to all those who have commented on Facebook and on Twitter – it would be nice to pull some of that discussion together here too. Anyone?

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