Comment - Wine - LIWF 2011: How's the Patient Doing?

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After a week of therapy, detoxing and early nights, Chris Losh appears to finally be over this year’s London International Wine Fair. And, with so much of the wine world under one roof, he's been able to take a long, hard look at how the global wine trade is looking in 2011.


It always takes me a good few days to recover from The London International Wine Fair (LIWF). Okay, three days pounding the boulevards of ExCeL drinking wine might not be working down a coal mine. But, there’s nothing else I do that reduces me to a persistent vegetative state for quite so long quite so regularly.

Three years ago, the trade fair was in the rudest of health: a luxuriantly-maned creature that had expanded to take over a second hall in the aircraft hanger that is ExCeL in London'd Docklands: one for wine, one for spirits. This year, the hall opposite seemed to be taken by the Games Manufacturing Industry. Alongside the vast ads banners for wine and fizz on the way into ExCeL was one excitedly proclaiming a stand where you could check out the “innovative thermoplastic elastomers”.

If nothing else, it makes you realise that, a) we’re lucky to be in the booze industry rather than, say, the go-ahead world of paperclip manufacturing, and b) however much we’d like to pretend that we are the centre of the universe, there is a life out there beyond alcohol, whether we like it or not. Hell, some of it even includes elastomers.

For a hack such as myself, LIWF is the best way of taking the temperature of the UK market. And on this year’s evidence, the patient is, if not exactly so ill as to be bed-bound, then certainly still walking with a stick after a nasty bout of 'Recessionary Flu'.

In just-drinks’ latest annual survey of wine producers, less than half of the respondents (42%) felt that the UK was the most important and dynamic wine market in the world. That doesn’t sound too bad, until you realise that, just five years ago, the number was over 80%.

And, looking around the ExCeL centre, evidence of the country’s new lesser status was everywhere. Not only were big-budget companies not there at all – the likes of Gallo, Constellation and Moet Hennessy – but influential, medium-sized merchants like Pol Roger, Berkmann and MMD were continuing to give it a miss.

Even the companies who did exhibit were clearly saving money. I counted just four double-decker stands this year; when the trade fair first moved to Docklands, there were dozens.

As for the spirits section of the LIWF – it’s hard to believe that a couple of years back this was a reasonably-sized expo in its own right. The spirits area, bereft of big names, was a sorry sight; all bad news for those hoping for an annual fix of leggy Ukrainian blondes in skimpy bikinis. One top barman told me he’d “done the spirits bit in half an hour”, and this is a guy who doesn’t particularly like to rush.

The ‘end of empire’ feeling continued with the various seminars, briefings and so on. While there were positive features on re-energising the US market, importing to Russia, or tapping into the Chinese revolution, most of the talks on the UK could be paraphrased as “so, how screwed are we exactly?”

And yet, for all that the wine trade is clearly older, wiser and a bit sadder than it was five years ago, rumours of its impending death are exaggerated. Indeed, the vibe around the fair was, if not exactly positive, then (perhaps surprisingly) not negative either. Certainly, there was nothing to rival the drawn, exhausted face of an importer I met two years ago, who, in the wake of the financial meltdown, looked like he’d just come back from a stint at the Western Front.

Nobody was talking about getting rich quick, ‘upselling’ or dreaming of a super-literate new generation of wine consumers shelling out GBP20 (US$33) on a bottle on a regular basis. But, nor were they talking about going bust.

And, hearteningly, there’s still a bit of innovation. Like, real product innovation, not just people creating communities on Facebook or messing about with bloody Twitter. In fact, I thought that the ‘wine for women’ that Freixenet showed me was one of the most interesting new launches I’ve seen for a while.

Made by the admirably no-nonsense Gloria Colell, Mia red and white are exactly right for the 25- to 40-year-old market, and well packaged to look female-friendly without going down the patronising ‘women all like pink’ route.

They haven’t messed around giving information on grape varieties, soil or ageing techniques. “Our drinkers aren’t interested in that,” says Colell decisively (and rightly). “Sometimes all that information just puts up a barrier. We make wines so difficult to understand.”

Freixenet are rolling this out across Europe, with the plan to shift 1m bottles in the first year. It’ll be interesting to see how it gets on. With the refreshingly clear-eyed thinking behind it, Mia strikes me as the kind of genuine brand that the wine trade has historically been poor at creating, but that could well work. Supermarkets ought to be queuing up to stock it.

And if it does do okay, in amongst all the fake BOGOFs, crap own-label wines and dusty European bottles talking about percentages of limestone on their GBP4.99 labels, then perhaps it offers a vision of an alternative future.

This might be a trade that has lost its mojo, but it ain’t dead yet.

Sectors: Wine

Companies: E&J Gallo, Constellation Brands

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