Tag Archive - UK

Reaching the wine drinker

LIWF 2008
Image by RobWinton via Flickr

The UK wine trade has lots of events where we pour, taste, buy and sell wine, but the majority of the big events are “trade only” events where professional buyers, writers and winery representatives such as agents, importers and distributors, get together to do deals.

The great news is that the quality of wine being made is arguably as good as it has ever been, and the buyers themselves are also better qualified to choose wines for their businesses.

But someone is missing from the picture. The drinker.

Of course, the UK consumer is always on the mind of wine makers and importers, and certainly of the businesses that will ultimately sell them the wine. Yet, how often do these businesses make decisions based on feedback directly from their ultimate customers?

One of the reasons I bang on about Social Media for wine so much is that it allows all of us, whatever our role in the wine value chain, to hear directly from a whole range of consumers about their tastes in brands and products, including wine. Today, that audience is still somewhat limited to the more technically minded (i.e. geeky) but this is changing VERY fast.

I am very excited, therefore, about the possibilities offered by the combination of wine and Twitter‘s short, focused and public messaging as is being used by twittertastelive.com – in fact I like it so much I am involved in helping to bring this idea to a broader UK and European audience.

I used this in December as well, but this time we are giving consumers and influencers outside the wine trade the chance to give some feedback on wines during one of the most important UK trade events, Bibendum Wine Ltd’s Annual Tasting. I must state for the record that 1) Bibendum is the company that imports the wines I work for and 2) we will be tasting one of these wines as part of the event, namely the Dinastia Vivanco Crianza. However, no-one will be filtering the results or comments so I hope you’ll accept this minor potential conflict of interest.

From 4pm tomorrow (21st January 2009), there will be a group of food, wine and media bloggers gathered together at Bibendum’s physical event (at the Saatchi Gallery in London) and another 8 or more individuals and groups around the country particpating remotely. Each will taste the three wines and exchange tasting notes, comments, questions and desperate demands for refills using twitter. Click here to read more about “Beyond the Trade“.

Follow along on twitter by following me (@thirstforwine) and the others listed below, and look out for tweets with the code #ttl

I’ll report back on the success, or otherwise, later in the week.

The participants will include:

@bibendumwine
@thirstforwine
@documentally
@sizemore
@loudmouthman
@eatlikeagirl
@hollowlegs
@chrispople
@foodstories
@wmjohn
@bigbluemeanie
@jonthebeef
@mackney
@fraseredwards
@rjbirkin
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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 http://www.slurpswish.com/ 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 Last.fm 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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Scotland and Binge Drinking

Although I consider myself to be “Scottish”, I am really part of a substantial diaspora of Scots who feel quite passionately linked to the country whilst not having lived there much during our lives.

In my case, it was a visit to my family at least once a year for about 12 years, plus 4 years at University. I cannot therefore really comment on the day to day issues of alcohol abuse in the country, but I am quite aware that Scotland has major health issues associated with alcohol and drugs. Despite this, I think it is still important to speak up against decisions being taken that simply will not have any effect except to frustrate and inconvenience the vast law-abiding majority of drinkers.

You may already have heard that today the Scottish Parliament will be discussing the possibility of raising the age at which you can buy alcohol in the shops to 21 from the current age of 18. This will not apply in pubs and restaurants, only off licences.

To read more, click here for the Radio 4 Coverage (probably only available for 7 days from 16/06/2008) or here for the article.

I have already read a reasoned response from The Tasting Note which I encourage you to read as it prompted the following thoughts.

I agree with almost everything Peter says*. Why is it that politicians cannot think straight about alcohol? I posted something along these lines some time ago and it obviously needs updated. I have also mentioned my thoughts on binge drinking and taxation.

Education is key to this, such as the potentially useful developments at the Responsible Drinkers Alliance, but so is something else.

I find myself, maybe as I grow older (!), wishing that our country (Scotland or UK, whatever you identify with) had a shared purpose.

It occurred to me recently, listening to Bill Bailey on Desert Island Disks (see, told you I was getting old & fuddy-duddy) that in his past, as with many of the more creative personalities I happen to like that have appeared on this show, he was very much into punk music – it was liberating. It was an ACTIVE rebellion.

Now, the watchword is … Whatever!

We have never been so ****** PASSIVE. And instead what do we do? We go out and get blind drunk, then vent frustrations, anger, anxiety and energy on each other.

Our politicians, of any political persuasion, need to find ways to engage all of us in something positive, not to fiddle around the edges with confusing ‘initiatives’ attacking the symptoms rather than the causes of this behaviour.

Education can start the discussion and even foster the conversation, but what alternatives are we offering people, whether they are children, young adults, or even disillusioned adults?

I realise this may not be the forum for this sort of topic as we are straying deep into the territory of political blogs, but I think it is part of the discussion.

If I was to suggest a possible path to follow, it would be to take the green agenda and REALLY go for it. We could make Scotland, or the UK, a real leader in this area and get everyone involved in recycling, living in a sustainable way and thinking of the implications of our actions.

There is no direct link with reducing binge drinking, but if we were engaging people, especially young people, and giving them opportunities to get involved in something they believed was meaningful, then I am certain it would be addressed.

The combined benefits to the planet and our society would be great, and we would have a tough, but useful, goal to share – and this could translate to all walks of life, including wine.

I sincerely hope that the Scottish Parliament will see that raising the legal age for buying alcohol is not the answer any more than simply increasing the price of alcohol through taxation or demonising the product itself.

For goodness sake, can we not have an adult conversation about this?

See also: CARDAS – Campaign Against Raising the Drinking Age in Scotland

* It is just a side issue, but one thing I am not sure about is the idea of limiting what individuals can buy. You’d easily get around it by buying from two shops and all it does (again) is annoy respectable drinkers wanting to buy alcohol. I do, however, think it would be a good idea to encourage ALL of those who buy alcohol to prove their age. Think 21, or 25 or whatever is fine, but it just makes everyone less uncomfortable and does make it easier to go after irresponsible retailers if necessary.

UK Blog Fest

In my last post about the LIWF I mentioned that I happened to run into lots of interesting people at the show.

Whilst I’m sure most of the people I spoke to had interesting stories to tell, I did not know them well enough to make much of the 5 minutes we had together beyond trying to tell them the story of my wines.

On the other hand, having got to “know” them over the last few years by reading their output, the vast majority of the most interesting people I spoke to happened to be other UK wine bloggers.

What was interesting to me was the fact that last year none of us might have bothered to seek the others out, or maybe even present ourselves as “wine bloggers”, but this year we are joining forces, proud of our medium and even getting some benefit from it.

Maybe it is my own experience alone, but it feels like this year marked a BIG change for wine blogs in the UK wine trade. I think I might propose that next year Brintex host a UK Wine Bloggers Area, where we wine bloggers can hang out and meet those who regularly read our blogs. What do you think?

In the three days of the show I bumped into:

Peter May; The Pinotage Club
Peter was kind enough to come to the stand to meet me. He was meeting up for lunch with other wine-pages.com contributors and wondered whether I wanted to come along. It was great to meet “Mr. Pinotage” even if he failed to turn up with the fedora I hoped he would be wearing.

Thank you Peter for some great comments and for insightful questions. We are still due our own catch-up!

Douglas Blyde; The Daily Wine

Douglas thought he could sneak by my stand, but unfortunately for him I make up for an absolutely dreadful memory for names with a pretty damn good one for faces, and having seen a photo or two of him on his site, he was snared!

I really like Douglas’ reviewing style, often somewhat cruelly direct, but I’m sure not undeserved. He turned out to be a much mellower, polite and reserved person when face-to-face, but pretty much as I had pictured him.

Keep investigating Douglas, we need more individual and insightful reviews like yours!

Andrew Barrow; Spittoon.biz
Jeanne Horak; Cooksister.com

Andrew and Jeanne turned up together which was fun, a bit like a reunion of our visit to Vivat Bacchus. I suspect that the LIWF was a little overwhelming for Jeanne, but hopefully she enjoyed it (?).

Jamie Goode; Wine Anorak

Jamie was far too busy to stop and taste (if you read his blog you’ll understand why), but he did “pass by”, so I think it is fair to add him in (he did seem rushed, and that is saying something by LIWF standards).

And since the event I have also heard from a blogger that I didn’t manage to meet as he too was stressed out on his stand, but was kind enough to leave me a note:

Colin Smith; Grapefan
Good luck with your Diploma!

Thank you to all the bloggers for helping to make this a much more interesting, and personal, show. I hope those who stopped to taste with me enjoyed the wines and the chat, and I do hope we can all plan a bigger UK get-together in the near future

I wonder whether we might even create our own, blogger-led tasting for consumers in the near future. What do you think?

UPDATE: Damn! Forgot to mention Olly Smith. His own ‘regular’-ish Hot Bottle email seems to be on-hold, but I think Olly should DEFINITELY start his own wine blog as I honestly think he is one of the most genuinely entertaining and funny people in the wine trade at the moment. Olly, we still need to speak about that business about the loo!

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