Everyone uses the term ‘sustainability’ these days, but what it means to everyone can vary enormously.
From simple carbon reducing measures, such as using lighter glass bottles and renewable energy, through changes to vineyard practice including organics, and even wholesale regional programmes, the term covers many issues and different levels of commitment.
Joao Portugal Ramos on Sustainability
When the issue of “Sustainability in the wine trade” was raised with a cross-section of the world’s wine trade on Vrazon’s AccessZone at the London Wine Trade Fair, what was noticeable was the ambition and commitment of producers from Australia and New Zealand and their assumption that this was a collective task. There were also interesting stories from Europe, but they tended to be from individual producers taking unilateral steps, often at a cost and risk to themselves.
Many of the answers revolved around what needed to change in the vineyard and the winery, and interestingly, how ‘sustainability’ is not synonymous with ‘organics’ (or is that the other way around?). There were a lot of laudable changes proposed to how we treat vines and how we protect water resources for example. There were also allusions to alternative packaging for wine and to philosophical approaches such as Natural Wine (more videos on this will be published soon). It made me wonder whether the driving force for these changes came from a concern for the planet, as a reaction to a consumer demand for action, or simply because they made business sense to those businesses with an eye on the future?
The answer, of course, was “all of them”, but I am not convinced that there is sufficient consumer awareness of the issue as it affects wine for ‘sustainability’ to be a positive differentiator for a wine or winery, and so any sustainability projects needed to be either required of all businesses (by governments, regional authorities or even retailers, to avoid some producers taking all the risks) or carefully tested for commercial returns on investment.
What do you think the future of ‘sustainability’ is for the wine business, and how might this topic be made more relevant to the wider wine trade?
What I discovered in that very interesting session in Vienna, with presentations by Adam Watson-Brown (Information Society & Media Department, EU Commission), George Sandeman (representing Wine In Moderation) and Ken Payton (blogger at Reign of Terroir), was exactly how governments and official bodies think of alcohol – and it makes a BIG difference in understanding their approach to the debate.
In this debate, there is no “Wine”. There are no “Spirits”. There are no “Alcopops”, “RTDs“, “artisanal cordials” or even “record-breaking alcoholic beverages”. There is no ‘good alcohol’ or ‘bad alcohol’. There is only ALCOHOL!
ALCOHOL is not a feature of a beverage, a natural by-product of age-old techniques, nor even an industrial process. Alcohol is a drug, and its consumption is a “non-communicable disease”.
“The World Health Report 2002: Reducing risks, promoting healthy life, identifies five important risk factors for non-communicable disease in the top ten leading risks to health. These are raised blood pressure, raised cholesterol, tobacco use, alcohol consumption, and overweight.” WHO fact sheet No. 273
In other words alcohol is seen as a disease to be eradicated.
It is like banning bridges because they can be used to jump off
Before I go further, let me state that I agree that alcohol abuse is a problem is many societies, and a factor in many problems, but I believe alcohol is also very different from most of the other drugs listed in Prof. Nutt’s study and so this debate is very ‘unhealthy’. Let me explain how.
The chart we have all seen today is this:
This illustrates that, according to a long list of criteria relating to the harm to the individual and also harm to society, and its widespread consumption, alcohol comes top of the list, delivering to the world’s media the nicely controversial headline: “Alcohol is more harmful than heroine“.
What this chart, and this way of thinking completely misses, in my opinion, is that this is only half of the story. It is like banning bridges because they can be used to jump off.
Take a look again at the list, but from a different perspective. Which of these items listed CONTRIBUTE to individuals and society, if any? Where are the BENEFITS? I think most of us would be very hard pressed to say that Crack, Methylamphetamine and Heroine contribute to society in any meaningful way. [Heroine is interesting. Unlike ‘Alcohol’, this chart doesn’t list ‘Opiates’ where Heroine = BAD but medically administered Morphine = GOOD]. However, the two ‘legal’ drugs on the list, Tobacco and Alcohol do.
Another look at Nutt Report on drugs and alcohol
[note: this is my crude attempt at modifying the graph, sourced from The Lancet, for illustration only]
(I’m not going to make the case for Tobacco, others can do that, but even here there are some benefits to society from taxation, even if they are outweighed by the costs.)
But alcohol IS different.
Let’s take wine, but you could argue a similar case for beer and some spirits too. The benefits include:
Huge revenue streams from Duty & VAT receipts to the Treasury
Vast numbers of people employed in production, supply, retail, marketing and distribution (not just winemakers, but bar and pub owners & staff, importers, wine shop assistants, glass manufacturers, cork companies, shipping companies, label printers, designers, journalists, educators, etc.)
Sustainable environmental benefits from land cultivated, often where little else would be viable, and people making a living in rural areas instead of moving to cities
Developing tourism infrastructure around regions dependent on wine production
Thousands of years of historic and cultural legacies in production and consumption
I’m not even going to touch on the contentious issue of potential individual health benefits from moderate drinking.
I am not in a position to quantify these benefits, but others such as the WSTA might. However, it is obvious that these benefits do exist.
One of the main reasons this needs to be taken into account is because the blunt weapons of punitive taxation and medical warnings can disproportionately reduce the BENEFITS instead of reducing the harm. Raising taxes on alcohol might cut consumption rates, but it also costs jobs and tax revenue. It reduces the margin and incentive to increase quality for retailers and producers because their products are less affordable. This benefits large brands less connected to any local, cultural investments and driven by sales volume growth (which is the opposite of the policy’s aim).
It won’t be just those who are abusing alcohol the most that are affected, but everyone else as well. The approach is backfiring. We already have some of the highest taxes in the world, yet their own evidence shows that things are still not improving.
We have to change the rules of the debate they have set
I went to the EWBC hoping to make the point that wine blogging can have a positive impact on society, through education and reconnecting consumers with the cultural roots of wine enjoyment so that alcohol may be consumed responsibly. I realised, sadly, that the anti-alcohol lobby wasn’t just ignoring us, we weren’t even speaking the same language.
So, how do we engage with the discussion? We have to change the rules of the debate they have set. It is a time for much more concerted efforts by wine lovers and wine businesses.
Unfortunately, printing messages on labels and adverts about “drinking responsibly” are not the answer.
We need clearer data on the benefits of the alcohol trade to individuals, governments, countries and regions. We need to broaden out the debate about dealing with alcohol abuse from the purely medical, to the cultural and economic areas too. And we need informed politicians willing to have a sensible debate about these points without fear of being pilloried by the media.
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:
Slightly older consumers, already well off, who know what they like, buying these wines in top restaurants
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.
I was invited by a friend and ex-colleague to talk to her Wine Business and Wine Production class at Plumpton College yesterday where I met a very interesting and diverse bunch of people. I wish them lots of luck with their future careers in wine.
The subject of the talk was me (jokingly referred to as “An Audience With …“). More specifically, it was about my experience in the wine business, how I got (stumbled) into it, what I have done, and any suggestions I may have for those trying to do the same.
I will skip the vast majority of the content as it is irrelevant (and not all that interesting really), but I thought I would post a couple of the closing thoughts I had for them as they may be relevant to others, whether you are in the trade or looking to get into it.
1. Help solve a problem.
It isn’t good enough to turn up to interviews with a bunch of skills but no idea what is going on in the trade. There are some key issues facing the wine trade today, what do you think they are, and what do you think your prospective employer could do (with you) to address these (profitably)?
My own, very quick, list was:
How do we sell better wine? (upselling)
How can we reach more (new) consumers?
How do we grow our business responsibly?
How do we educate consumers?
No-one expects you to answer these questions fully (and if you can, set up your own business!), but if you have thought about them and about how you can help the prospective employer put this into practice, you’ve got a lot more to offer than other candidates.
The wine trade (in the UK) may not believe it at the moment, but I am convinced that blogging / self-publishing / consumer driven content / whatever you want to call it, will become a major influence in wine purchasing in the very near future. If nothing else, as wine retail develops online and more consumers purchase a greater range of products online, the need for recommendations and suggestions will increase. Blogging, and Wine 2.0 in general, also has the opportunity to change how we source information on wine wherever the consumer decides to buy it.
If you want to be in wine marketing in the next few years you really have to be familiar with this new trend. All it takes is to sign up to a few blogs, read them, contribute comments and share the conversation.
[I am particularly intrigued to know what they make of Wine Library TV(if anyone of you drops by, please leave me a comment) which I pointed them to as only 1 had heard of it before]
Even better, get involved and start your own. Blogging encourages you to put your own thoughts in order and encourages you to do a little more research (well, I did say a little). If you want to communicate about wine in the future day job, why not start now?
Also, the more there are of us providing interesting content, the better the general knowledge archive will be. Blog posts are permanent records, however well or badly they are written, and a well-meaning post, properly researched, might turn out to be invaluable to others
A Final Thought
We need more people to join the wine trade not just because they love wine, but because they have something to offer to improve the business. If you can find a way to tap into consumers needs and ways of thinking, then there will be lots of people willing to give you that dream job you are looking for!