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Chablis: Chic or Not

On Wednesday I was invited to taste through a small range of examples of 2008 vintage Chablis with Arnaud Valour of the Burgundy Wine Board. Naturally I accepted – and it had nothing to do with the branded gifts I took away (although I’m particularly grateful for a copy of Rosemary George’s wonderful book; The Wines of Chablis)

I’d say that the wines were great, but they were only a selection of 6 bottles (blind – i.e. without saying which they were) and chosen to be the best of the region in this vintage, so you’d expect them to be. I was particularly impressed by the quality and easier drinking style of the Petit Chablis wines – they had more character than I really expected. For those unfamiliar with the Chablis hierarchy, this is:

  • Petit Chablis – the least expensive, simple, crisp wines
  • Chablis – a range of wines, but fresh, delicate and with hints of “minerality” (like the aroma of shells on the beach – see video)
  • Chablis Premier Cru (or 1er Cru) – more complex wines that must come from only 40 or so vineyards
  • Chablis Grand Cru – the most intense, age-worthy and usually stunning examples; only 7 vineyards on one slope go to making these

I asked Arnaud what he though were the unique style characteristics of Chablis, and why people should chose Chablis, and I recorded the answer (I apologise for the poor quality sound):

Of course, the wines got better as we went up the scale, getting more rounded, more complex and showing those classic Chablis characters. It does seem that 2008 will be a good vintage for the region. It also seems that sales of this premium region are as affected by the credit crunch as everyone else, so you may be able to pick them up for a decent price when they hit the shops and merchants.

For the premier cru wines (I tried an interesting organic 1er cru) and above, it would be a crime to drink a 2008 now as they’ll develop over the next decade, but the trouble will be finding someone who will keep them for you, so it might be worth getting a few and keeping them in a cool corner for a future special occasion.

Chablis Online

But this blog isn’t about tasting wines or about specific regions. I also spent a while asking Arnaud about the online marketing and social media plans of the Chablis region. After all, Chablis already has brand recognition around the world, you would think it could leverage this to its advantage online too.

It seems that there are plans to launch a new site at – I see there is a site there now, but it has numerous flaws, so I’m hoping it is a work in progress. Considering how controversial internet marketing of alcohol is in France these days, it is good to see that not everyone is abandoning these efforts. Apparently Chablis is out to broaden its appeal to “women and younger consumers”, mainly, it appears, through tasting events in Chablis itself. For the rest of us, the plan is to focus on the wine trade. Unfortunately the wine trade is already familiar with the wines, and with hundreds of regions competing for their attention, I wonder how effective this will be (it got me writing about it I suppose). I was specifically told they had no plans for Facebook fan pages, blogs or twitter accounts, which unfortunately fits the stereotype of French wine marketing.

Arnaud himself was very articulate, friendly and spoke excellent English, but there are only so many people he can meet in person. Surely they could find a way to “amplify” his message through social media channels easily enough?

In short, Chablis continues to be a great wine, it continues to be a reasonably expensive wine, and it doesn’t have much new to say about itself from a marketing perspective, so continues to speak to the same consumers. If you buy it, you’ll probably keep doing so. If you don’t, what reason have you to start?

Question: What does Chablis mean to you?

I wonder if I could urge you to go and taste a bottle of Chablis, any style, any vintage, and let me know what you think of it? How did you find the wine? Did you like it? Was it good value for money? How was it being sold compared to the competition? If you would consider undertaking this mission, please do let me know what you thought here in the comments.

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No charge

Here’s an idea for wine brands – it’s free, or should I say “there is no charge attached”

As the BBC pointed out yesterday, people in Britain consider Broadband at home “essential”, like water or electricity. I agree. I’d also add, that the next move will be to demand it outside the home too, so they can continue their daily business – work, shopping and conversations, on their mobile devices.

There are more and more hotels, bars and restaurants are offering Wi-Fi (although hotels try to charge for it which is just wrong!) which is a great idea – although few are using this properly to their advantage (I’ll post on that as well soon). But as this becomes more common, it will lose its power to impress. Once it is expected, it will only be an issue if it is NOT available.

What no-one has yet done in the restaurant trade (to my knowledge) is address a major shortcoming of all this mobile interaction – access to POWER. CHARGE. ELECTRICITY.

A customer could easily walk into a bar with any combination of laptop, iPod, mobile phone, camera or games console. Want to be their friend for ever? Offer them access to power points (or should I say sockets). The clever bar manager will also have a set of chargers for the most common tools & brands (iPhone, Blackberry, Nokia, PSP, etc.) available which customers can borrow FREE.

There have been many times I could have been sharing my experiences of the food, wine, and the location but I couldn’t for fear of running out of battery (in my vocabulary for obvious reasons this is now called “twitter juice“). You should have seen the look I got when I asked recently if they happened to have a charger.

If you are a wine brand with ANY form of online presence, why not brand these tools and make them available instead of just sending out more ice-buckets or menu covers?

I’ve even got a name for the branding campaign – “No Charge”

Just a thought. If you do something like this, let me know!

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On wine and computer games

A Nintendo DS. My second attempt, this time wi...
Image via Wikipedia

I thought I’d share a quick thought which occurred to me as I was preparing a presentation concerning wine tourism:

Question: How do you sell games consoles to older adults? How do you reach a new audience?

Answer (or one of them): You don’t focus on features like graphic speeds, but on benefits.

Case in point; Nintendo. The Wii Fit isn’t a “games console and controller”, it is a home fitness tool. The Nintendo DS Brain Training isn’t a game, it is mental exercise. Clever!

What are the lessons for wine tourism, and wine for that matter?

Firstly, we need to move beyond the “my wine is a product of the best grapes and wine making processes”. This is almost a given. It has some attraction for the enthusiasts, just like graphic card speeds do for others, but it doesn’t attract a new audience.

I wonder if you can think of any innovative wine communications/marketing examples out there? I’m a little hard-pressed myself, to be honest.

There are a few “Wine as Luxury Lifestyle Product” experiences, such as the Marques de Riscal Hotel & Spa, or “Wine as Environmentally Responsible Product” such as Banrock Station, but these are very few.

If you have any thoughts, or know of anything out there, do drop me a line.

Now, back to my Wii (the Fitness can wait, I’ve got Quantum of Solace to finish)

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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 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 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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