The Losh Cause - Small the next big thing in wine?
As the economic downturn supposedly slows down, could one upshot of these troubled times be an upturn in popularity for the smaller players, when it comes to wine? Chris Losh thinks the little guys are coming back with a vengeance.
Last week I was one of a party of journos to spend the evening in the company of a trio of very pleasant guys from a new Slovenian winery. It was an instructive few hours, not least because until then I had next to no idea of where the hell Slovenia actually was beyond a vague idea that it used to be part of Yugoslavia.
But in fact, as well as filling in a lamentable hole in my geographical knowledge, I think the evening provided a significant snapshot of the changing forces at work in the wine world of 2009.
For starters, the wines weren't bad at all. OK, aromatic white wines with next to no barrel ageing are the sort of thing that it's possible to produce without too much drama provided you have a bit of vineyard knowledge and a modern winery - as did the team at Verus. But still, these wines were a couple of steps up from 'crisp neutral dry white' territory. They were not, at GBP8 (US$13.50), especially cheap, yet none of the assembled hacks complained about the price, which, from a co-op-dominated part of the world that gave us the egregious Laszki Riesling, is not bad going.
Neatly packaged, and topped with screwcaps (hooray), these were quintessentially modern wines, yet still of their place; a good illustration of what can happen when people with a bit of brains and ambition put their mind to something.
It's the kind of story that is being repeated all over the world; small producers getting together and trying to make smallish volumes of good wine. In fact, I'd suggest that this is the next trend. I deliberately don't use the expression 'next big thing' because it's more like the 'next small thing'.
Over the last 30 years, the wine world has been drenched by the giant waves of wine from Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa et al. But, in a trend sense, they've all been and gone. Or, more accurately, the waves have broken and we're all paddling in the bottles.
And I can't see any other big-volume countries saturating the world's shelves in the near future. Bulgaria? Hungary? Too much negative baggage, and the vineyard ownership in the former is a dog's dinner. China? A few people have talked about it, but I can't see this happening for at least another 20 years. In a time of global oversupply, it's hard to see any reason for go-ahead wineries to be ploughing research euros, dollars, pesos or whatever into setting up vineyards behind the bamboo curtain.
No, I think we've had all our changes at the macro level; what I think we'll see increasingly is micro-developments such as Verus - small producers from unheralded or forgotten areas doing something that's genuinely worth a look.
Key to their success will be distribution. And this, I think, was arguably the most interesting element of the whole Slovenian evening for me.
Verus hasn't hooked up with a big national distributor - at a total production of just 60,000 bottles a year, split over half a dozen markets, they're unlikely to attract the big importers. Instead, they've hooked up with Mark Davis of the Real Wine Co, a tiny one-man internet-based operation.
Davis' story is the last ten years of the wine world in microcosm. He'd been a respected buyer with a national supermarket, lost his job when it was bought by a rival, moved on to trying to set up a mail-order operation with a big Australian wine group in the early 2000s, hated it, and finally went out on his own a few years back.
It began almost as a hobby, importing a few cases of wine for friends, but rapidly grew by word of mouth. Now, despite not spending a penny on marketing or advertising, he is sitting on a business with a turnover of a quarter of a million pounds, selling not through mail order but the internet.
"[With the big Australian company] we were selling GBP3.99 Vin de Pays d'Oc Chardonnays for GBP9.99 then discounting them to half price," he says. "I hated it. And the figures just didn't add up. We would get a 4% return on our mailshots - and that was among existing customers. Say it cost GBP1 to send out each brochure, for GBP1,000 we'd only get 40 orders.'
You do the maths...
But as the wider off-trade has homogenised, with supermarket wine listings shrinking, so has opened up a window of opportunity for smaller producers, whether through independent bricks-and-mortar merchants or e-tailers such as Davis.
For these operations, the reputation of the head honcho is key. Customers, if you like, buy into their palate and go with their recommendations. Which explains why, at the height of the economic misery last winter, some of them were still doing rather well.
In January, I spoke to a small wine merchant based near where I live. He was, he admitted, working hard, but he'd had a record 12 months as customers with even a passing interest in wine deserted the supermarkets.
Small producers, unusual but modern wines, niched sales channels. It's a pattern that's being repeated across Europe and the US.
If the last 20 years has been all about the men with the muscle, perhaps the next 20 will be where the smaller guys bite back.
As the power of brands grows, two approaches by smaller wine producers has left Chris Losh somewhat puzzled. Has he missed something, or could it really be that the consumer isn't always right?...
Les Domaines Paul Mas' Estate Single Vineyard Collection...
As the economic downturn supposedly slows down, could one upshot of these troubled times be an upturn in popularity for the smaller players, when it comes to wine? Chris Losh thinks the little guys ar...
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