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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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And the beat goes on

It has been an embarrassingly long break between posts recently for someone who helped to organise a Bloggers’ Conference, but that’s the price you pay for getting involved in so many exciting projects.

In fact there are so many, I’m finding it hard to focus on all the opportunities out there, so let me give you a little run down of what is afoot:

1. Tonight (18 September, 2008 for future reference) is the 3rd edition of Twitter Taste Live, the coordinated tasting of wines by wine lovers across the world. Unfortunately this month is a little less coordinated due to the sad reality that we do not all have access to the same wines as everyone else. Tonight the event celebrates the wines of Michel-Schlumberger that are unfortunately rarely exported, so those of us not in the US will merely be peeking in the window of tonight’s event …

2. Which brings me to the next project which is to create a version of this event more suited to the UK and European audience, possibly involving starting earlier and maybe even different wines. I am in talks with some very exciting potential partners, so sign up to the event site and keep an eye on this site

3. Another good reason for the delay in posting is that I’m working on the transfer (at last) of this blog to a new platform. This will inevitably mean headaches for me, broken links for you, and tumbling technorati ratings, but I hope to keep these all to a minimum with help from my friends’ blog marketing expertise. However, the result will be a more exciting blog with the flexibility to put in place even more features. Did I mention you need to keep an eye on this blog?

4. I’m off to spend a few weeks in Rioja for vintage, and hope to have LOTS of information on the vintage there, and ideas from the people I meet. This time you can keep an eye on this blog AND my Rioja specific blog (sadly neglected of late too)

5. Later in the year I will be helping to run a series of wine tasting events … with a social media twist. I have made some very interesting new friends in the last few months that have opened up my eyes to quite how many exciting things are happening online in London and around the UK (check out Qype, Unchained Guide, TrustedPlaces and more) – and things we can probably take around the world too, so my head is buzzing with ideas. Erm, … check this blog!

6. Some older friends of mine (sorry guys, I mean I’ve know you longer) have just launched an exciting new site called The Wine Gang. I want to give it a proper review and share my thoughts on it, … you know what’s coming next, so I’ll not bother saying it again.

I could go on, but I’ve probably lost you by now anyway as you know you’ll just be coming back again soon anyway.

Exciting, and busy times.

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Lots of Wine Conversation at the EWBC

There is a LOT I need to think about, do and write about following the success of the European Wine Bloggers Conference (EWBC) this weekend – so much so that I have neglected to put up a post on this blog since my return, which rather misses the point!

So, what does the EWBC mean for The Wine Conversation? Here are some very early thoughts:

  • The wine conversation needs to be less insular. We talk about wines we know and have access to, but there is so much more to learn and experience. We need to find ways to broaden our horizons, and listening to wine lovers from other countries is a great place to start
  • Wine bloggers are as diverse as wine drinkers. Very few of us are doing the same as one another (wineries, marketing, tastings and more), which gives great scope for sharing ideas for conversations and exploring our different takes on them. We should find out what readers want to know more about and explore it together and maybe get debates going
  • Let’s stop being too introspective (says a great offender) and be more innovative, particularly with media. Enjoying wine is NOT all about tasting notes and points systems. We need more video, audio, imagery and other creative content
  • Honesty is not just the best policy, but essential to the trust bloggers need to build credibility. This doesn’t come from Codes of Conduct or Terms & Conditions, but from action. Let’s get on with doing the kinds of things that will really surprise and delight readers (like winery bloggers sharing details of the harvest and even tasting each others wines – coming soon!)
  • Wine brings people together. Naturally. We must continue to get across that drinking and enjoying wine is more than getting drunk and avoid playing into the hands of those who would kill off the wine culture

Continue Reading…

Wine, Sport and the Olympic Ideal

This weekend I was watching a great deal of the Olympics, as were around a billion other people. I wonder how many people were considering the link between the Olympics and Wine?

At first it seems a strange thing to compare, but on Saturday morning I turned on the television to watch the excellent BBC coverage with my daughter.

She is just over 3 and therefore this is her first Olympics. How exciting is that? Your first chance to see all these sports; these wonderful sights of humans achieving such heights of physical strength, skill and sportsmanship. What better education and model for an impressionable mind?

So what does it have to do with wine?

Well, after a bit of rowing, and her wonderment at the gymnastics, coverage turned to … boxing.

Who would want a 3 year old to watch boxing? Two men in a ring doing exactly what we tell kids not to do. “No fighting!” “No punching!” “Play nicely together!”

I almost turned the channel to watch one of the dozen channels dedicated to MORE cartoons. Then I stopped. First, I wanted to watch it (there are a couple of very good British boxers). Secondly, it is an Olympic sport too, so why should I shield my daughter from it more than any other?

It occurred to me that allowing her to watch boxing is similar to be being prepared to allow her to see me drink wine (I should point out that I am only talking of AMATEUR boxing).

Both alcohol and violence are “wrong” in a general sense, but we are talking here about a controlled, ritualised performance. Amateur boxing is not ABOUT the violence, and wine is not ABOUT the alcohol, but they are part of the package.

The boxers have spent years developing themselves physically and their skills, and the judges are not there to decide how much they hurt the other contestant, but how skillful they were at landing a punch. Of course, people do get hurt, and it does still involve pain and physical damage (no question about that), but all those involved are aware of this and have chosen to take part.

Alcohol is a damaging substance, and winemakers are “alcohol pushers” – but they are not doing this to hurt drinkers. Wine is an expression of the skill of grape growers and wine makers, and a way of experiencing this personally for those of us not directly involved in the production process.

My daughter didn’t like the boxing (naturally) and after I explained why they were doing what they were doing, she was still worried about them, but at least understood that this was friendly competition. However, so far it is one of the few sports she has seen that she doesn’t want to grow up to do (she does want to row, become a gymnast, dive, lift weights and sail).

There are those who would ban boxing just as there are those who would ban wine, or at least tax it out of existence.

Banning or hiding wine is not going to stop some people abusing much stronger and damaging alcohol any more than banning or hiding boxing will halt street violence (or worse, the horrible kinds of atrocities in Georgia/Russia/South Ossetia that I also had to explain to my daughter).

In fact, I believe that a certain amount of escapism or “letting off steam” is important to humans everywhere. Cultures that manage to find positive ways to do this through responsible consumption of alcohol, or responsible attitudes to sports are more at ease with themselves. This is one of the best things we can learn from the Olympics, as the ultimate expression of this in sport.

On that note, I was very affected by seeing two competitors sharing a hug and a kiss on the podium. One was Russian, another a Georgian. There was something very symbolic about the fact that they had been competing in a shooting discipline. There was also something symbolic about the fact that those who could take this positive, conciliatory attitude were women.

I’m glad my daughter is learning valuable lessons like that!

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