Comment - The Losh Cause – Fairtrade wine has a fair way to go
Chris Losh attended three UK wine trade events this week and found that the most interesting and perhaps the most important - a tasting of Fairtrade wines - attracted the poorest turnout, indicating that the trade is yet to wake up to the significance and opportunities offered by the growing interest in Fairtrade products.
If the wine trade were a person, there are times when you'd just want to slap it. Three events I've been to in the last few weeks perfectly sum up its ability to create teeth-grinding frustration.
The first was an interesting, but highly arcane seminar on oak; the second was the launch of Pol Roger's 1998 Winston Churchill, and the third was a tasting of Fairtrade wines. The first two events were packed; the third had a turnout that could politely be described as "focused".
OK, there's no surprise that there should be a rush to the launch of a prestige cuvée fizz, but why the big turnout to learn about quercus roble and quercus alba, and so little interest in wines that have a quantifiable human impact? The only conclusion can be that the wine trade feels more comfortable (once again) with technical abstraction, than with human issues - something that's particularly annoying since it makes it way out of step with the man in the street.
Fairtrade is something that the public love and, broadly speaking, understand, particularly in the UK, where it enjoys the largest following of any European country. Sales across all categories are set to hit GBP380m (US$787m) this year, and Fairtrade wine sales will come in at GBP7m.
Moreover, Fairtrade is growing at 40% a year, and if that growth is being replicated in the Fairtrade wine category it will, by my reckoning, be outperforming the total wine market by a factor of ten. By 2009, turnover on Fairtrade goods is likely to be GBP500m a year, which isn't bad given the effort that goes into qualifying as a Fairtrade supplier.
Before even beginning to gain accreditation, the living facilities and working conditions of the workers must be up to scratch, which might sound painfully obvious sitting in an office in New York, but carries rather more resonance in the winelands of the Cape, where workers weren't paid if weather stopped them working, and were unceremoniously turfed out of their houses once they retired and were no longer useful.
Assuming the buildings and working practices are up to the mark, workers and growers then need to get together to set up a separate legal entity that will be jointly run by both groups. Profit is distributed according to shares held in the company, but the real key to Fairtrade wine is the levy that is taken off either per kilo of grapes or per litre of wine sold.
Currently at EUR0.05 per kilo, this money must be used for social enrichment - it doesn't simply go into the pockets of the workers. In other words, sell 20,000 kilos of grapes to a winery, and the Fairtrade body has EUR1,000 to put towards the likes of educational bursaries or sports facilities for the community of workers. The Du Toitskloof project in South Africa, for instance, has raised US$300,000 to set up daycare facilities, a craft centre and a community bus.
Sadly, this isn't entirely a win/win situation. With margins being increasingly squeezed, anything that puts added costs, however small, onto a wine is always going to make it tough to catch the attention of the supermarkets, and the per-kilo levy is exacerbated further by the additional fee (1.8% of turnover) that must be paid by the importers to the (non profit-making) Fairtrade organisation.
This explains why more than one exhibitor at the tasting admitted that the biggest problem lies in getting the buyers onside in the first place.
"The retailer and the importer both have to compromise," says Nick Day of importers Ehrmanns, chairman of the Fairtrade Wine Committee. "But they're also under less pressure to promote because the wines already have a USP, and generally speaking deal-junkies don't look for Fairtrade wines."
Nonetheless, whether it's down to a growing social conscious or simply climbing on the bandwagon, there certainly seems to be a gentle melting of resistance from the big chains. Both Tesco and Sainsbury's have significantly increased their Fairtrade lines in the last year on the back of increased demand from the public.
"The Fairtrade logo has an 89% customer recognition," says Nick Day. "The rate of sale on Fairtrade is higher than for any other products."
So why, then, aren't there more Fairtrade wines on the world's retail shelves?
Well, for starters, there are very few producers who are accredited. All of those who were eligible to attend took part in the London tasting, yet this still numbered only around a dozen wineries, plus the supermarket chain, Co-op, which has taken a laudably active stance on the whole issue.
Secondly, the quality of the wines on show was patchy. There were some very good wines, a fair few unremarkable ones, and some that should never have seen the light of day. Sticking a Fairtrade logo on a bottle is no excuse for rotten wine.
That said, I would suggest that the wine trade can, at times, be over-obsessed with what's in the bottle. There's little to choose between most wines selling at the GBP5 mark, and I would imagine that a bottle that is fractionally less good but has a human interest story is more likely to sell than a marginally better bottle with nothing more interesting to say for itself than that it's "good with pasta" or has spent three months in oak.
The look of wonder on the face of Berty Jones, assistant winemaker at Stellar Organics, as he told those present, "If you'd told me three years ago that I'd be here today in London addressing you guys in English, I wouldn't have believed it was possible…" said it all.
It's just a shame that more people weren't there to see it.
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