Comment - Wine - Trade Tastings: Small is Beautiful
In the olden days, when it came to wine tasting events for the trade, big was better. Here, in 2012, however, greater returns are coming from the smaller meet-ups, rather than the catch-alls. That's what Chris Losh reckons.
Wine needs to be tasted. The old sniff-n-spit is as much part of the trade’s modus operandi as the press release detailing "exciting new developments in label design".
A look at the early-year tasting schedule bears out this spit-bucket addiction. With dozens of tastings on any given week through January and February, it’s an exercise in diary congestion that Paris Hilton would be proud of.
But, how many of them are necessary? Is the trade doing them because they are a demonstrably successful means of driving business or just because, well, the trade has always done them and can’t think of anything else?
Certainly, over the past year, I’ve started to pick up an increasingly critical approach to the whole issue, with importers who once unquestioningly had stand space at every generic tasting and trade fair increasingly cherry-picking where they exhibit.
"Trade tastings are a comfort zone," says arch tasting-sceptic, Peter Darbyshire, MD of PLB. "They make us all feel like we’re working terribly hard. But, nobody has run the maths on whether they actually achieve anything."
Certainly, the cost in money and man-hours can be daunting – particularly for the biggest shows, such as Vinexpo, Prowein and the London International Wine Fair. If they are, indeed, simply an exercise in making the trade feel better, then they’re an increasingly expensive one. Darbyshire estimates the total cost to the wine trade of London Wine Fair week at GBP25m (US$39.3m) for travel, accommodation, stands and so on.
And, while Vinexpo is a logic-defying special case, and Prowein has won the battle to be the go-to European exhibition for international buyers, LIWF looks vulnerable. The last ten years have seen a number of well-respected merchants cease exhibiting. And, it’s interesting to see how many who pulled out as a temporary measure during the credit crunch haven’t seen any need to sign up again.
"Life went on. We didn’t die. It was a liberating experience," says Berkmann’s Alex Hunt MW of their (soon to be) four-year absence from Excel.
Such "liberation" is at least partly the result of the UK market’s diminishing influence in the world. With growth flat and profit margins squeezed, few producers or importers are looking for reasons to spend big on anything.
But, there is also a groundswell of opinion that this is a trade fair that doesn’t quite know what it’s for any more. Is it there to attract giant international retail buyers or hoteliers from Rhyll? Its critics claim that, at present, it’s doing neither well enough and, consequently, failing at both.
The feeling of disenchantment with the country’s most visible symbol of vinous virility is striking, shocking and rather sad. Increasingly, LIWF is looking like a fax machine in an internet age.
But, it’s not just the UK’s flagship event that is wilting. Generic tastings, too, are having their usefulness questioned. While they may be relatively cheap, this did not stop influential merchant Liberty from withdrawing its agencies from several generic tastings over the last year because "The business generated [didn’t] cover the investment required to participate", according to the company’s MD, David Gleave MW.
The same hard-nosed attitude that is affecting LIWF, in other words, is starting to seep into generic tastings. Using them as PR or educational events to generate a general feeling of wellbeing towards the country is no longer enough, with exhibitors demanding A-list visitors looking to do business.
Most in the trade believe that the latter are attracted by smaller, more targeted tastings that put various regions or styles under a sharp spotlight rather than giant, wide-ranging mega-tastings.
This is politically awkward for generic bodies, since they are funded by an entire industry, but it may be something they need to consider. Twenty years ago, when new countries were appearing out of the woodwork all the time, huge overview events made sense, but that rationale is less compelling now.
The one area that is definitely growing in popularity is the portfolio tasting. And, while it would surely make sense for more agencies to band together to make one unmissable multi-partner event rather than expecting time-poor, would-be visitors to make repeat visits for separate tastings, the element of control is attractive.
Interestingly, while some importers are holding entire portfolio tastings at multiple locations around the country, increasingly, small is beautiful. In fact, the one word that comes up time and time again is ‘focused’: targeted tastings of a select number of producers for a specific audience.
Tastings in the Teenies are less about getting big numbers than getting the right numbers. And, if that means (gasp!) hosting more events outside London, then so be it. Half a dozen of the latter might be less showy and macho than a two-deck stand at ExCel, but growing numbers of merchants now say they are a more effective (and more measurable) use of budget.
Over the last few years the wine market has had to ask itself some tough questions – and working out which tastings are dispensable is one of them. Inevitably, not all of the tastings will survive. But they are, after all, only a means to an end.
And anything that forces the trade to stop talking to itself and speak to new people has to be a good thing.
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