Is there a Grand Cru in your future?

 
1976, BA begins Concorde flights

Another classic that failed to keep up with the times? Image via Wikipedia

I went to a great tasting event not that long ago, but the kind of “trade” tasting that has me scratching my head. Who goes to these things, and what do they achieve?

“Trade” tastings are officially intended to offer insights into certain wines (by region, style, importer) etc. to those whose job it is to buy, promote, review, or sell wines. However, this definition encompasses a great many people, and the reality is that they are mainly about reaching out hopefully to try and find an audience and champion, and avoid too many people coming simply for the free booze.

The problem is that they cost a LOT and achieve rather less, and the biggest issue is that many of the people there selling their wines don’t know what they want to achieve.

Anyway, the tasting in question was the Union des Grands Crus de Chablis (I’ve linked this, but since the site has not been updated since 2008, not much point clicking through). An organisation of some of the best producers of a marvellous style of wine, Chablis, representing the top fraction of wine produced in what is already a tiny region in France. The thing is, those who are invited all KNOW they are great. Why spend so much money hiring a room, marketing an event, flying over and pouring free samples in order to tell us so?

In order to try and work out what they were hoping to achieve, I asked most of the producers there who they thought their customers are. I got two “stock” answers:

  1. Slightly older consumers, already well off, who know what they like, buying these wines in top restaurants
  2. Those who recognise that Grand Cru Chablis is “better value that other top White Burgundies”

Well, the second answer is just ridiculous. Buying my own Boeing 747 might be cheaper than running my own private Concorde, but I still can get around the world quite easily without either.

The first is more worrying. Not only does it show a worrying lack of any understanding of the nature and motivation of those who choose £30-£50+ bottles of wine, but those folks are disappearing!

Being almost 40 (shock!) I remember a time about 20 years ago when ordering a “Chablis” was still a demonstration of great wine knowledge. When faced with hundreds of French & Italian wine options, knowing this one word made a great difference. These drinkers, trained on this style, were then more likely to ‘trade up’ to Chablis Premier Cru for special occasions, and eventually maybe discover Chablis Grand Cru as the boom-time bank accounts allowed.

The problem is that keen wine novices are no longer weaned on Chablis, and these are no longer boom times. Choices in general are much better, better value and more varied. Ordering a bottle of Chablis is no longer the ‘quality default’ it used to be.

The Chablis consumer pipeline is drying up.

“Classic” wine regions that simply rest on their laurels can become outmoded and struggle to become relevant again. Think about Sherry, Madeira and others . I’m not saying Chablis will disappear, but will it become sidelined?

The time has come for several things:

  • Cooperate! Producers need to work together, properly, to promote regions and their brands. Regionality is a key differentiator in wine that needs better promotion, and the benefits only come if producers can communicate its distinctiveness.
  • Invest! Investing in marketing and working out who the customer is and what motivates them – then work out how to reach them.
  • Engage! Stop preaching to the converted at cosy trade events, and reach out to consumers. If people want to buy the wine, the trade sales will follow. Two year old websites are an embarrassment.
  • Stay relevant! See these wines in a much broader, modern, context – understand that consumers have many more options.

Hopefully a new generation of consumers can be reminded that Chablis wines ARE distinctive and delicious, and that exploring them can be rewarding, but the UGCC must get its act together if these new customers are to arrive before the current crop die out.

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