Tag Archive - wine

I have seen the future of artisan wine, and it comes in a can

This may sound odd, but there is a link between packaging innovation and the increasing focus on biodynamics and ‘natural wine’, it just isn’t a simple one.

I am not suggesting that natural wine producers are better served choosing tetrapacks, paper bottles or aluminium cans for their wines (although they might), but sometimes the simplest way to define what you ARE about is to explain what you are NOT, after all:

  • a desert is that area where rain doesn’t fall
  • land is all that planet surface not covered by water
  • silence is the absence of sound

Wine in a can

Wine in a can

The wine trade expends a lot of effort arguing over differences between organic, biodynamic and natural wines for example, but almost none trying to find a way to differentiate between the real extremes of the wine market, namely between all of the above ‘artisan’ wines and those wines made to be sold in vast volumes through mass distribution channels such as supermarkets. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking that the wine trade pretended that these wines in supermarkets didn’t even exist.

How do you explain to a consumer, in simple terms, what makes a bottle of Gallo Chardonnay different from a Gravner Ribolla Gialla? What ‘category’ of the market do they fall into? How is a consumer to differentiate between them when they both come in 75cl glass bottles, with similar corks and basic paper labels?  We need to develop a POSITIVE categorisation of these volume wines in order to have a meaningful conversation about the different needs and benefits of each part of the market.

ARTISANAL WINES

We may not all agree that ‘Natural’ is a fair category name, but we might all basically agree that the Gravner, and thousands of other small producers, are ‘Artisanal’ wines of some sort (read this great post by Robert Joseph on the subject of artist vs artisan).

Defining this is very hard however, so let’s take a “model” Artisan wine and say it probably comes from a small producer with their own vineyards, produced in limited quantities, that is different year on year, that has some taste characteristics that sets it apart from the vast majority of other wines (that not everyone will like) and is linked to the local ‘terroir‘, and that none of these factors are subject to change based on consumer feedback. Essentially, the wine is driven by the producer’s interpretation of what is ‘best’ from their vineyards, take it or leave it. Lots of wines will diverge on some of these points, but the general sense is there.

Artisanal wines are Producer driven (these are sometimes referred to as Terroir wines, but you still need a producer involved!)

The above is obviously not the driving motivation of the wines on offer in multiple grocers around the world. So, what do you call the rest?

  • Branded? No! Branding is very limited and not exclusive to this area.
  • Bulk? No, too negative and not necessarily true
  • Commodity? A good option, but it still implies a negative view of the factors.

How about a term like “Convenience Wines”?

CONVENIENCE WINES

The key features of these wines is that they are dependable, consistent, easy to drink, not overly challenging and widely available. All of these are driven by consumer demand, not producer preference. In simple terms, then, ‘Artisanal’ wines are wines that are NOT ‘Convenience’ wines.

Wine snobs may sneer at the quality of the “wine” in the bottle, but in fact this is only one aspect of the product that consumers are after. What’s the use of a “great” wine that I can’t afford, can’t find and may not even like? Great for whom?

Convenience wines are Consumer driven (to the extent that wine producers really understand their consumers).

The problem is that convenience wines still LOOK like artisanal wines.

If convenience is the key to this category of wine, then we have a reason to work to increase convenience by looking not just at wine styles, but also at packaging, branding & communication.

For example, glass bottles are great for longer term storage of wine, often benefitting artisanal wines. However, alternative packaging, such as bag-in-box, paper bottles or wine pouches for example, is logical in this context of convenience. It is potentially cheaper, easier to transport, more flexible for different drinking occasions, more flexible for branding and offers more communication opportunities. A wholesale move into alternatives would bring down their costs and remove a great deal of cost from the product, potentially meaning higher margins and/or cheaper products.

GreenBottle Paper Wine Bottle Alternative packaging has not really taken off in the UK compared to, for example, Scandinavia. One reason is that we treat ALL products of fermented grapes as “wine”, so the same communication rules are applied to all, resulting in an undifferentiated sea of “handmade” wines, from “historic vineyards“, made by “passionate” individuals that match any food you may choose to pair them with – whatever the truth might be.

If we were to find a way to promote the specific attributes of Convenience Wine and differentiate them visually, in terms of branding and communication as well as style, the wine retail market could be made more straightforward for the consumer, to everyone’s benefit. Wine drinkers might no longer be confused about the difference between a simple wine for weeknight supping, and the experience of an artisan wine for special occasions.

Isn’t it in the interests of both ends of the spectrum to come to an arrangement?

Sometimes, the worst of enemies can find common cause, and in this case it is to fight consumer confusion and indifference.

I’ll raise a can of wine to that!

Blogging can’t die

Blogging can’t die. Take the original meaning of the word blog; it comes from the contraction of “web” as in the world wide web, and “log” as in to log ideas, or journaling. Today, and forever, there will be people logging what they think about all manner of subjects that they are passionate about.

I recently saw the statement on Twitter that blogging is dead. Sorry, you cannot kill an idea (journaling) that has persisted since man first took quill to parchment.

Seeing that we work in wine and discuss wine blogs as part of our job, we should talk about what a wine blog really is.

If you understand the idea of blogging as an online journal and nothing more, you will see that the idea of there being A “best wine blog” is just silly. As is, frankly, any system claiming to rate “best wine blogs”. Who is the best “runner”? Usain Bolt, Haile Gebrselassie or maybe Fauja Singh?

People often accuse wine bloggers of not being professional. You’re right, sometimes they aren’t. We need our industry to understand that there are a variety of types of communicators who write about wine. A wine blogger who writes to tell the story of their personal journey in wine is not the same as someone who writes about wine futures. And they should not be held to the same standards.

Just because you have a degree, MW, WSET diploma, have written a book, or have been awarded every prize for wine literature that has ever existed, you are not a “better blogger” than anyone else. You can’t, by definition, be better. You can, on the other hand, be: More persistent, Better at Wine Rating, Better at Wine Science, Better at Wine Educating, Better at anything you wish to communicate about. But you are not better than another person who wants to discover wine and share that discovery with an audience, large or small, online.

The blog part is only the tool, or the physical means, used to log your content. I do believe Robert Parker would have been the first blogger if the software had existed at the time. He wouldn’t be the best wine blogger though. He might be an influential wine blogger in certain circles, maybe even indispensable to the industry. That said, I could argue that he is the worst wine blogger when it comes to recommending a wine to my parents. He uses language that they don’t understand and talks about wines that my parents are never realistically going to taste.

I happen to be the best wine blogger for my parents. I won an award for it. Really! Ok, so not really, but I hope to one day when my parents finally get around to handing out awards for meaningless family skills.

So, to all you people who think your wine blog is more important than another person’s: Get over it! You’re one of many. You may be the best in your niche, or for your audience, and for that I applaud you. The truth is that a blog is publishing tool. Go find a cool way to use it. Quit worrying about what other people are doing. There are plenty of audiences out there, find your own. Or if you have it, remember to give them what they want, which I assume is wine content. Publish it however you want, wherever you want, whenever you want. Have fun. Or don’t, I don’t care.

 

Update: I was remiss in not crediting the image. Tombstone image courtesy of the Tombstone Generator [Robert]

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There’s no future for wine

Try this exercise. Imagine the world in 50 or 100 years. Picture the innovations, the changes to everyday life, and the things that will remain the same. How will life for you or your kids be different?

There's wine Jim, just not as we know it

There’s wine Jim, just not as we know it

[Maybe have a glass of wine while you think about it, why not?]

Here’s a shortcut. Think of any number of “sci-fi” films or series set in the not-immediate future. Spaceships, robots, physical chaos and massive-overcrowding, utopian societies and post-apolcalyptic zombie-filled misery. Take your pick.

What do all these visions have in common? NO WINE!

Name ONE of these films/series set more than about 50 years from today in which wine (not alcohol in general, there’s lots of that, but the product of grapes grown in vineyards) appears in any meaningful way?

I’ll start you off, and then challenge you to add to this list with me:

1. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek – The Next Generation
Captain Picard is supposed to have grown up in the vineyards of a future France, and occasionally drinks his family’s Chateau Picard wines. So there might still vineyards in around 400 years time.

2. ?

I personally cannot think of ANY other film that features wine, and I’ve asked several film experts for help.

Why not?

Is it because wine is the kind of ‘agricultural’ product that we believe science will replace with something ‘better’?
Will future alcoholic discoveries make wine’s variety superfluous?
Is wine just one of those traditions we are even now just barely hanging on to?

Or is it because, despite consuming more wine today than we have ever done, we still lack an understanding of its importance to our culture (past, present and future) and so just take it for granted? Is it because the types of people who write science fiction screenplays are afraid, or don’t feel qualified, to talk about wine even if they can decide the fate of the universe?

I look to the future because that’s where I’m going to spend the rest of my life. – George Burns

Does it matter?

Not really, but there are plenty of films that still feature cars with combustion engines when other energy sources exist, revolvers being used in fights against lasers, or even sex when test-tubes can apparently do the job.

We have a responsibility to make wine sexier* and more important to consumers and to writers if we want to ensure those who are imagining and building our future have a bottle of wine mentally placed on the table for us to enjoy.

Your future is whatever you make it. – Dr. Emmett Brown (Back to the Future III)

If you know of any other example of “future wine” do let me know in the comments so I can build a list for my future viewing. I love wine and I love sci-fi and I would really like to combine them

WINE IN Sci-Fi MOVIES and TV (List to date):

  • Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek TNG (The Next Generation) – Various appearances
  • Gattaca – restaurant scene with Jude Law and Ethan Hawke “This wine was only opened 5 minutes ago!”
  • The Hunger Games – Woody Harrelson in meal scene in Sector 12 ‘Penthouse’ after trials

* of course by this I really mean “more appealing” as we must not, of course link wine marketing with sexual attractiveness, that would be irresponsible.

edited 11:26: to include missing quote from Doc
edited 09/01/2013 to include list of movie & TV scenes
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Who are the RAW Wine Fair’s Natural Consumers?

Our first day at the RAW Fair in London, the artisan wine fair focused on organic, biodynamic and natural wines, was eye-opening in many ways.

Setting up the RAW Fair

Setting up the RAW Fair

First, the space at the Truman Brewery at the top of Brick Lane, and its incongruous industrial past, seemed vast and empty when we arrived to see row upon row of tables, each stretching almost 100 metres. How on earth was this place going to be filled with consumers interested in this subject?

Then, the wines themselves, not just the funky, challenging and, for some commentators, faulty “terroir wines”, but many juicy, fresh, tasty and … simply lovely wines with attractive packaging and good stories.

Attractive Labels at RAW Fair

Attractive Labels at RAW Fair

But the most exciting, really, was that the space DID fill up for hours with happy people, tasting wines without a single sign of excessive alcohol consumption. The debate over wine ingredients, processes and manipulation gets quite heated within the trade, and we often assume consumers are either not interested, put off, or simply confused by the idea, yet here they were in the hundreds or even thousand or more.

The crowds enjoying the wine tasting at RAW Fair

If 'natural wine' is a niche market, someone forgot to tell the crowd #rawfair

The industry challenge, as voiced by Dan Jago from Tesco via twitter, was how many visitors were ‘trade’ and not ‘consumers’ .

 

The vast majority, in my estimation, were regular consumers attracted by the profile generated by Isabelle Legeron MW on the BBC, and the effective marketing of RAW. I spoke to a number of “human beings not directly employed by businesses involved in making or selling fermented grape juice” (aka ‘consumers’) who were all excited by the wines and the buzz of the fair. They did not experience any confusion, just the broad choice of wines.

On the other hand, if the trade were here at all, on a Sunday, it was not because they were doing it for business, but because they love wine. Many of the trade are in the wine trade because they enjoy the product themselves, and although wine communications try to separate “trade” from “consumer”, this definition is really artificial because the trade are some of the biggest consumers, and the consumers increasingly influence business decisions.

Is it time to move beyond this differentiation? Is it time to embrace the idea that there are lots of wine fans out there looking for new experiences, even if we don’t all have to embrace it all ourselves?

Whether you agree with the tenets of ‘Natural wine’ or not, this has been an exciting time for wine in London – and we have not even had a chance to visit the ‘Real Wine Fair’ happening at the same time.

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The Art & Craft of Natural Wine

“… if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing: and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out comes all his roughness, all dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure; pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only when we see the clouds settling upon him. And whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.”

- John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice 1851

I’ve been trying to get my head around Natural Wine for a while. It’s not so as to understand the wines or what certain winemakers are trying to do, but why it creates such animosity and argument. If you will indulge me a moment, I’d like to put forward a way of looking at this which involves a sci-fi film, 19th century wallpaper designs and the Dynasties of Port wine which I look forward to discussing with producers and consumers at both upcoming ‘natural’ fairs – RAW (The Artisan Wine Fair) and The Real Wine Fair.

Jasmine block-printed wallpaper designed by Wi...

Jasmine block-printed wallpaper designed by William Morris. (Details from Linda Parry, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement: A Sourcebook, 1989.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do not want to be drawn into the debate over the term “Natural” to describe this end of the wine spectrum. I feel it is as good a title as any, and in any case, I believe this term will soon/eventually disappear. This style of wine will survive, we will just think of it differently. I am not arguing for one side or another, but I do think we should support a range of viewpoints.

Like most wine discussions, arguments about Natural Wine mainly revolve around the liquid in the bottle – how it gets there, what it tastes like, and what it should be called. This seems logical, after all, we are interested in wine, right?

In fact, I would argue that it is not.

Taste IS a personal thing, and one can like or hate individual bottles, but this is not the same thing as appreciating the motivation behind how they were made. I personally don’t like (any) cheese, but I do appreciate the craft of cheese-making.

The ‘features’ of the Natural Wine movement include: a focus on sourcing organically grown materials, minimising the human inputs and interactions with these materials in the winery, and attempting to bottle a liquid that expresses a unique character associated with the grape and the place it comes from. These are all laudable aims, but they are also open to measurement and criticism, which is what occurs.

We’ve come to accept organic viticulture as rational, but there are always choices to be made on details, such as ripeness for picking. Then, what counts as “intervention”, when in fact, as even Doug Wregg has pointed out, there’s no such thing as natural wine, only natural vinegar? And finally, when the resulting wine smells unlike any other wine on the market, is this to be interpreted as a fault, as a character of the terroir usually filtered out by technology, or simply a winemaker’s preference?

The two sides of the debate will argue these points interminably, but because they are seeing the argument from different perspectives, they will never agree. I believe that a little reframing of the discussion, might, if you will excuse the pun, bear more fruit.

“… we now have discrimination down to a science.” – Gattaca (1997)

In the general market, we have come to accept the role of technology [in its broadest sense - as the application of scientific knowledge] to allow us to consume with consistency, quality and reliability. This is true not just in wine, but across the board. Wineries proudly announce the technical qualifications of their wine-making staff and their latest investments in machinery.  They adopt ever more clever, innovative and ‘scientific’ practices to remove variability caused by nature and human error when making their wines in order to achieve these perceived values for the consumer. When they do come across issues, even ones such as environmental responsibility, they ‘fix’ them with more technology – lighter bottles, recyclable plastic, alternative energy and so on. Science begets more science.

This is the underpinning to quality marks such as “Parker Points”, Gold Medals and sweetness scales; it is taken for granted that we are all consuming the same product so we can measure these wines and judge them. If it ticks the boxes, it is good. If it strays from the accepted scales, it is bad.

From this perspective, Natural Wine is at fault. Like a brilliant child who has grown up wild without attending school, he fails the standardised test. In the great terms of reference of the film Gattaca, he’s an (in)valid. As the ambitious Vincent Freeman, conceived ‘naturally’ by parents who could have had him ‘specified’ from the lab, but who still wants to head into space, says:

“I’ll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God’s hands, rather than her local geneticist.”

Do we want wine lists made up from ‘perfected’ interpretations of wines, or do we want them to be varied and evolving, capable not only of fault, but of greatness?

Truth to Material

As I was vividly reminded when watching Zev Robinson’s latest wine documentary, “Life on the Douro” recently, making wine is just as much to do with the interaction of people and places as it is about the liquid that ends up in the bottle. Natural Wine should not argue over levels of sulphur, tannin or VA or whether a wine is ‘better’ because it was made in a clay pot. It seems to me that instead it is driven by a rejection of these technological terms of reference.

Arts and Crafts Armchair

Arts & Crafts Armchair at V&A Museum

The Natural Wine movement is not the first to take this approach, and looking at other experiences might be able to teach us lessons. The Arts & Crafts movement famously did much the same for design and architecture in the late 19th Century. John Ruskin and William Morris may not be names you are familiar with, but they too were reacting to a society falling for technology (the Industrial Revolution) and argued that the division of labour and reliance on machinery was damaging society. They argued for design to be “true to its materials” and avoid unnecessary ornamentation or fakery, for the designer-craftsman to be involved in the product at all stages (hand-making everything), and for a return to ‘craft’ production instead of machine precision. It is really not hard to see the parallels with wine.

Let’s compare an IKEA chair with a craft-made kitchen chair. Both are used for sitting on, but they are different, not because of exactly how they were made, but because of what they mean to us. One is a disposable, mass-produced consumer good to be replaced when it inevitably falls apart (it must, they need us to buy again); the other is an heirloom, a piece of furniture and art to be treasured, and one whose minor flaws are integral to its story.

Even if this is true, there is always a time and place for both approaches, and no reason for being absolutist. There’s space in our life for IKEA kitchens and 3L bag-in-box wine as well as Morris & Co Wallpapers and Qvevri wines.

Arts & Crafts did not survive for long, but it did matter. It failed in large part because although craft production is attractive, it is not commercial – it doesn’t scale. There are only so many tables & chairs you can make each year if you have to do every stage yourself, and they become expensive. Natural Wine faces the same issue. But the ideas behind Arts & Crafts did inspire others to change, to make more honest products, to think of the people and societies who made and consumed the products they were creating. This movement inspired designers like Charles Rennie Mackintosh and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bauhaus movement and still influences thinking today.

But will it age well?

You can convince someone to want to taste a bottle of Port by telling them a story about carving vineyards out of steep rocky valleys, shipping wines up and down treacherous rivers and across dangerous seas, and the huge wealth and desperate ruin that families experienced as a result, without once having to mention what the wine tastes like.

Taste is only a part of the consumer experience, but the process can be important if it is part of the context and the experience.

If we accept this, then it won’t matter how it is made on either end of the spectrum, and we can get on with focusing on the people and the story, and the impact, of the wine.

I honestly believe that the term “Natural Wine” will eventually disappear because once this extreme of the wine world is accepted and less radical, once its principles have been more widely adopted and reinterpreted, it will be meaningless as a differentiator. I look forward to new terms and movements emerging, and the wine trade should support this, not fight it.

It will have been a success because a small group of people encouraged us to see the world of wine differently and reach for the clouds.

[Disclosure: Vrazon has agreed to attend the RAW Fair to run the "Access Zone Unfiltered" social media space during the event in 2012, and we look forward to listening and learning about different views on these wines, and tasting wines. This post is not meant as promotion for one event or another however]

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