This years inaugural Imbibe exhibition saw wine companies line up next to spirits et al

This year's inaugural Imbibe exhibition saw wine companies line up next to spirits et al

Our resident wine columnist Chris Losh has had his eyes opened. All it took was to put the wine and the spirits industry in the same room, and compare and contrast. Guess who lost?

Every so often, events happen that drive a coach and horses through your cosy assumptions. A few years ago, for instance, I remember conducting a wine tasting for a group of ‘interested but non-expert’ wine drinkers, and being shocked at discovering that they didn’t know what a grape varietal was.

More to the point, I was shocked that I was shocked. I’d always thought of myself as being pretty good at not taking consumer knowledge for granted. Yet here I was, doing just that.

It’s what happens when you spend a long time immersed in the trade, conversing with like-minded people: you assume that what you feel is in some way representative of the wider population, when it isn’t.

Just like the ‘educated British wine consumer’ is a highly questionable cliché that the entire world seems to have swallowed (probably hoping that if they say it enough times, it’ll turn out to be true), so it’s become equally common to trot out the line that the wine industry in general, and the UK one in particular is ‘a lot more dynamic/inclusive/forward-thinking than it used to be’.

Well, this might, possibly, be true. Particularly since 30 or 40 years ago, it was, by all accounts, as dynamic as a tweed-wrapped mother. But, on the evidence of Earls Court exhibition centre in July, it’s got a fair way to go yet.

It was here that a magazine I edit, Imbibe, held its first trade show. Since the mag is aimed at purveyors of drinks across the entire on-trade – bars, restaurants, pubs, hotels etc - it wasn’t just a wine show, but was pretty evenly split between wine, beer, spirits and soft-drinks.

This is significant, because at every other big wine fair I’ve been to – London International, Vinexpo, Prowein etc – wine is 'The Main Attraction', with spirits etc allowed in as kind of funny little distilled afterthoughts to be tasted for ten minutes before going home.

Here, though, wine and spirits went toe to toe. And, I have to say, the spirits guys walked it.

Their stands were livelier and noisier, inclusive and more welcoming. They dragged people in and helped them to taste, they were lively and enthusiastic, and they created a buzz over their side of the hall.

Meanwhile, the wine stands looked stuffy and traditional, full of morose-looking exhibitors who sat in their cubicle behind a Maginot line of bottles with the facial expression of a bulldog chewing a wasp. They could hardly have been less welcoming if they’d put up a big ‘Go away and leave me alone’ sign.

The ‘bar’ side of the show had ethnic diversity, unusual couture and coiffure, and flamboyance; the wine side had white men in suits.

You see, one of the things that came over with depressing clarity during the two days of the Imbibe show, was the feeling of ‘keep ‘em out’ suspicion on so many of the wine stands. Exhibitor after exhibitor told me proudly how they had turned away barmen who had come to try to taste their wines, because they ‘didn’t feel they were serious enough’.

While I can understand them not wanting to pour drink for half-cut visitors, no-one gave this as an excuse; rather, they gave the impression that somehow these people simply weren’t deserving of trying the wines.

Now, quite why you would pay lots of money to take a stand at a trade show and then look for reasons not to pour your product is beyond me. Particularly when today’s humble barman could be tomorrow’s general manager.

Yet, even well-respected bartenders I spoke to admitted that they were too intimidated to go into the wine exhibitors’ den for fear of being asked to justify why they were there, what they did and how much they knew. This, remember, is the industry that will talk long and loud about how hard it is to get new listings...

Interestingly, this attitude is not limited to the bartending community. At the expo, a well-respected acquaintance of mine who runs a Michelin-starred restaurant complained that a (highly expensive) wine he had been trying was corked. The exhibitor removed it from display with a surliness that made it clear they thought he was talking nonsense. And as soon as he left the stand, they put the bottle back on display.

Anyone else struggling to see the benefits of showing a GBP50+ (US$80) bottle of wine that’s faulty?

Extraordinary, though, isn’t it, that an industry that peddles liquid bonhomie should be so dismissive of anyone who works outside the industry?

Forward thinking? Go-ahead? Inclusive? A month ago, I’d have lazily believed this was true. Now, with a few exceptions, I very much fear that it isn’t.

The wine trade desperately needs more energy and more ideas; to get some fresh DNA into its bloodline. Whether the industry likes it or not, it needs the ‘wrong sort’ to bring something different to what has become a chronically smug and introverted party.