( Note: This piece originally appeared as my first column on the new Harpers.co.uk website last week )
I’ve just read “ Antifragile”, Nassim Taleb’s thought provoking sequel to “ Black Swans “. At one point, in a diatribe against large corporations, he writes ‘ have you noticed that whilst corporations sell you junk drinks, artisans sell you cheese and wine’. He goes on to argue that large corporations cannot produce wine and puts forward Wine as the ‘ best argument in favour of the artisanal economy.’
I would suggest that this view would resonate across much of our industry and, indeed, with many consumers. The irony, however, is that his book is essentially about defining a more realistic economic and political doctrine. If he was to study the wine industry in more depth he might well be less convinced that our industry model is either ideal or sustainable.
To me it’s a question of balance. If we were to lose the artisanal flavour of our industry, if we fail to understand the difference between simplification and dumbing down and that the complexity and diversity of our category is not just excess baggage, then we might find that wine’s core appeal becomes significantly diminished.
On the other hand, we need to understand that Taleb is hardly the average consumer. A large number of consumers see wine simply as an alcoholic beverage. And with Beer, Cider, certain Spirits, and fusion drinks, in the ascendancy, the competition is intensifying. We need to understand the implications of being too highbrow and arcane to such consumers and the more general need to engage with different consumers in specific ways. Otherwise, while we may retain our soul, the prognosis for large swathes of our industry is arguably pretty dire.
In part linked to this overriding issue I believe there are a number of aspects of our industry where we are out of alignment.
- There is a fundamental need to balance the focus on production with a focus on marketing . It would help if more people saw them as complementary. This would lead to sounder business plans and less waste of resources.
- There needs to be a much better balance in our education programmes between developing wine skills and commercial skills. We have moved in the right direction but we need to accelerate the process.
- We need to listen to the consumer at least as much as we listen to the trade (and each other).
- However we also need to develop the confidence to occasionally ignore consumer research. We need to balance the need to conform with the need to stand out. How many consumers does any producer actually need to engage with? We need more ‘marmite’!
- We need more broadly to work out where regulation works, both in terms of production and marketing, and where it doesn’t. Where it does it should be tightened up and vice versa.
- Critically we need to balance supply and demand. Producing more than one can sell, as a producer or a region, is the most basic of errors and destroys value at every price level.
In summary our industry is economically fragile even if Wine as a category to many may be a role model for our times. Our challenge, therefore, as I see it, is to become more commercially astute while protecting the essential qualities that, as Taleb implies, lie at the heart of wine’s appeal. The implications of this challenge, and how we steer the correct course, will be a recurring theme in this column as it is on my blog.