How conservative is the wine busisness? Less than it once was is the obvious answer, at least in the UK. When I started writing about the subject in the mid-1980s, a pinstriped suit and a tie were de rigueur at tastings, and that was just for the women. The New World was all but ignored – it was famously covered in a morning at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust – and innovation was frowned upon. It was a world of claret, Burgundy, port, sherry, Rioja, Hock and Moselle.
I should say now that I have nothing against a bit of tradition. I still get a thrill walking into the premises of Berry Bros & Rudd, with its sloping wooden floors and beamed ceilings, and I was proud to attend the 650th anniversary of the Vintners’ Company in London only last week.
And yet I’m also proud of what has happened to the world of wine in the past 25 years and the small part I’ve played in the revolution. Wine has been democratised, moving from a drink that was considered the preserve of an elite to something that most people purchase with their groceries.
The Aussies played a crucial role in this, making wines that were fruity, easy to understand and consumer-focused. As a winemaker from Down Under once responded to a supermarket buyer’s question about the styles of wine he made: “What styles of wine would you like me to make?”
The wine trade today is more diverse and exciting than it’s ever been. I may bemoan the consolidation that has befallen the UK high street and the deal-obsessed shenanigans of some supermarkets, but things are still pretty positive. Stroll into your local M&S or Tesco and you can find wines from more than 20 countries on the shelf. We’ve also embraced organic wines, biodynamic wines, even natural wines, bringing them into the mainstream.
So far, so good. But where next? Are we still engaging consumers, particularly young consumers? Or have we lost our edge? I was invited by Wine Intelligence to chair a panel discussion about mavericks at the London International Wine Fair and was fascinated to hear what Sarah Warman from Brewdog had to say about the craft beer scene.
If you’re not familiar with this quirky Scottish brewer, or its publicity-garnering stunts, you should be. “We’ve broken taboos, caused a lot of uproar and rubbed people up the wrong way,” she said. To take only one example, Brewdog launched its new bar in Stockholm with a funeral procession for boring lager. Then there’s the colourful packaging and the funny names: Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Sunk Punk, Dead Pony Club. No wonder the Daily Mail is such a fan.
The marketing, especially the use of social media, is only part of the brand’s success however. The other, much larger, part is the quality of its beers. If they tasted like Budweiser they wouldn’t appeal to the same audience. And the crucial thing is that Brewdog’s fans are mostly young drinkers.
Does the wine trade have a Brewdog, an edgy brand that is cool to drink and offends traditionalists? I asked the audience at the mavericks seminar this very question and the suggestions were few: Some Young Punks, Mother’s Milk and d’Arenberg (all from Australia), Fat Bastard and Arrogant Frog (from France) and Bonny Doon (from California).
Yet we all agreed that none was as engaging or as much fun as Brewdog. The best I could come up, with one eye on a Daily Mail headline, was to suggest a brand called Illegal Immigrant, made from, say, Tempranillo in Bordeaux or Grüner Veltliner in Soave. Might be fun.
One crucial difference between a beer brand and a wine brand, of course, is potential volume. Even if you use the best hops, yeast and barley, you can make as much beer as the market wants. Wine is slightly trickier, as the small crops in most of the world’s wine-producing countries in 2012 demonstrated.
With beer, you can turn on the tap and keep quality high. With wine, you are subject to vintage variation and, the more successful you get, a shortage of good grapes. You could make a global brand that blended wines across different countries, but it would lack authenticity and a sense of provenance.
For all that, there are things the wine business can learn from Brewdog: namely, great packaging, clever use of the internet (including Twitter and Facebook, as well as its website) and the ability to make news. Significantly, Brewdog doesn’t advertise, preferring to connect directly with its consumers who can even design their own beers through the use of “mash tags”.
Some wineries are adept at social media and other forms of marketing, but they are in a tiny minority. Most rely on the product alone, which is frequently badly labelled and unengaging, particularly to a younger audience.
The wine trade’s a lot less conservative than it was, but it’s still very traditional, whatever it might tell itself.