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A major trade show can offer telling clues as to the health of an industry. Chris Losh went to the London International Wine Fair in search of positive signs but found few.

Trade fairs are tiring and frustrating, and the food is always awful, yet it's hard not to get a frisson of excitement - particularly on the first morning - at the idea of so many movers and shakers being in one place at one time. And of course, precisely because of that, they're the best way to gauge the health or otherwise of the industry.

So, on the evidence of the London International Wine Fair 2009, how is the patient looking?

Well, it's obvious he's been better. Not dead by any means, or even critically ill, but certainly lying in bed with a thermometer in his mouth after a collision with a truck marked 'recession'.

This year, for instance, the number of exhibitors was definitely down. Stand in the centre of the fair and everything seemed much as in previous years. But move to the edges and it wasn't long before you found great echoing spaces where in previous years there had been stands, while hastily arranged seating areas hinted at exhibitors who had booked a year ago then found the finances too hot as the calendar ticked over.

Of course, the big companies were there, but a lot of the smaller, niche operators had given ExCel a swerve this year. In 2008, I managed to spend an afternoon tasting wines from 'unusual' countries; in 2009 they were either harder to find or simply not there.

Moreover, there were a number of influential players of varying sizes who were conspicuous by their absence. For Moet Hennessy, this was their second year away from the fair; I doubt Pol Roger will ever be back, while the mid-sized merchant Berkmann (a popular on-trade supplier) is desperately trying to steady itself following a gruesome 12 months.

One way and another, their absence spoke of a trade that is counting every penny and prepared to question long-held assumptions, such as 'you have to be at London Wine'.

So much for exhibitors, visitor numbers are harder to quantify. Officially, organisers Brintex say they're slightly down on last year, more or less back where they were two years ago. But then they also claim that 6,000 visitors went into Distil, the dedicated spirits area, which to put it politely appeared a rather generous estimate. On my visit there, the Mexican stand was so authentic it even had tumbleweed blowing through.

The 'separate spirits expo' was a nice idea, but I think timing has done for it and it will be folded back into the general wine fair next year. As I wrote in a column 12 months ago, it's never easy getting the on-trade to turn up to events even on their doorstep, so luring them to the outer reaches of the Docklands Light Railway was always a big ask.

My perception this year is that barman and sommelier numbers were down. A fair few of the latter have lost their jobs, and those that are still working have often had to cut some of their junior staff, making it harder to get away. Again, evidence of a trade that is currently focused on survival rather than the niceties of wider education.

So, is it all gloom? Well no. The bigger companies I spoke to seemed pretty happy. While there were obviously fewer store managers from supermarkets and multiple specialists, meaning stands were rather quieter, the important people still turned up and good business was still done.

And in among the esoteric tastings ('Unveiling the Friulano grape') and self-aggrandising, ego-stroking events like 'Remi Krug at the Fair', there were even a couple of interesting seminars. Indeed, the 'Wine and the Web' seminar, looking at social networking, was standing-room only - suggesting the trade is realising that there may be something in all this technology malarkey after all.

I'm perhaps not the greatest person to comment on this since I have no interest in making 300 'friends' on Facebook and firmly believe Twitter to be one of the most fundamentally useless inventions ever to grace the planet. (Do I really care that Celebrity X is having trouble with his spaghetti, even as it happens?)

I can see the attraction of the online community to wine, though. Get wine being talked about positively by a group of like-minded people and you can get a lot of good marketing for free. It's interactive and immediate and it doesn't cost much. In theory.

There are a couple of real difficulties, though. Firstly, the social networking communities tend to be suspicious of anything that looks like middle-aged marketeers trying to hijack their demographic to sell them something. Secondly, once a product is in an e-community, brand owners lose control of it; a trail of negative comments and the whole thing blows up in their face.

I remember an excitable presentation at a previous London Wine Fair by the team from Orbital wines. They had created the Stormhoek brand and built its presence almost entirely online through blogs, forums and general internet chat. It was, we were told, the future of brand-building; no unnecessary marketing spend, no need to be in thrall to the retailers.

Eighteen months ago, Orbital folded, suggesting that while online communities might be part of the answer, they're not the entire solution, and that immediacy of interaction with the public is less important than tying down the right deals with major supermarkets.

Sectors: Spirits, Wine

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