The Losh Cause – Sommeliers, distillers and cowboys
The focus at this year's London International Wine & Spirit Fair was more heavily on the off-trade than ever before, confirming for Chris Losh that the organisers have all but abandoned attempts to target the on-premise sector. And while he understands that it makes sense, it has clearly put him in a nostalgic mood.
There's an understandable, yet naïve tendency among human beings (and I include members of the press here) to assume that money, good intentions and brave ideas are enough to turn around failing fortunes. But business is a cruelly unsentimental mistress, and there's plenty of evidence to prove that one man's 'commitment' is another's 'flogging a dead horse'.
Allied Domecq's mass-funding of Glide, was a case in point. The company's big mistake was not so much in putting up a brand that dared to go toe to toe with Bailey's, but in continuing to pour money into it long after it became obvious that this particular equine was never getting up again.
Sometimes in business, you're better off swallowing your pride and cutting your losses. Or as that famous business guru Kenny Rogers put it in his epic Coward of the County corporate seminar, 'Know when to walk away…know when to run'.
Which is why I'm not too surprised to see that the organisers of the London International Wine & Spirit Fair (LIWSF) seem to have largely ditched any attempt to schmooze the on-trade. They've realised that the time has come to walk away…
Sure, there was the usual token seminar aimed at sommeliers, but since it was at 9.30 in the morning, and most sommeliers would have been working until gone midnight the previous night, I'm not quite sure who they were expecting to attend.
Likewise, the on-trade tasting-zone has bitten the dust. No great surprise here, either. The theory was good - an area where exhibitors could show off their on-trade exclusive wines to hordes of adoring sommeliers. But it failed abysmally. It was, by all accounts, nigh-on impossible for the exhibitors to keep their display bottles stocked up, particularly if they were a ten minute walk away at the other end of the ExCel warehouse, with the result that far too many of the bottles were empty.
Moreover, there's no real proof that these well-intentioned efforts were successful in attracting the on-trade in any case. Sommeliers are notoriously difficult to drag out of their restaurants even to events that they really want to go to. So a giant, packed tasting the best part of an hour from the centre of London was always going to need more than a few token events (however good on paper) to redress the balance.
I'm sure the LIWSF organisers would beg to differ, but the developments this year are an admission that the trade fair is - as everyone has long known - really about the off-trade. Sure the on-trade can come if they want (and some do), but space is too precious to waste on an area of the industry that has never really got behind the event, and which deserted it in droves once it moved to Docklands.
The shift back is a realisation that the efforts of recent years haven't really worked, and it's to the credit of the organisers that they have realised this. Likewise, the amputation of the spirits section (announced 23 May) was a piece of surgery long overdue. And it will be fascinating to see if the standalone spirits fair, Distil, which is to run concurrently with the wine fair in the hall opposite in Excel, is supported by the big spirits companies.
Talking of spirits, I had a similar Kenny Rogers feeling when visiting Glenlivet last week. This was the venue for Chivas' announcement of the mass relaunch planned for Ballantines, and there was a stirring of excitement when it was revealed that the company plans to spend EUR40m on the brand in the next year, the highpoint of which is a swanky TV campaign.
The more misty-eyed of us wondered whether some of it might possibly be used to kick-start the stalled blended market in the UK, or the tumbling one in Spain.
But Christian Porta, chairman and CEO of Chivas, was having none of such sentimental nonsense. Yes, there would be some work in Spain, where the brand is second to J&B, but even though the company gave no specific figures on how the money was to be divvied up, it suggested that the main focus for this vast investment will be the Far East and Latin America. Growth there, after all, is impressive, and could drive the brand globally past J&B to the number two slot.
You can't argue with the logic. Yet it still hurts to think that two such traditionally significant markets as Spain and the UK are slipping off the radar for the big distillers.
As one seasoned observer put it to me sotto voce at the time, "this shows what everyone's been saying for a while - that whisky distillers are turning their backs on the UK".
We shouldn't be too critical at their walking away from this challenge, though. As a wise man with a large beard once explained, "It don't mean they're weak … it just makes them more of a man".
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