Note : This piece first appeared as my column in Harpers.co.uk though I have added a postscript.
I have always been a firm supporter of generic marketing. I’ve chaired importer committees and worked on developing regional strategies. I know how difficult it is to secure an appropriate level of agreement, across the producer and distributor base, to plans with real cut through, and I know how powerful a well coordinated generic effort can be. I also appreciate that coming up with innovative plans is particularly difficult currently when budgets are severely constrained. Given all this and given that generic marketers have no direct control over the producers and wines they represent, I tend to believe that they have one of the most difficult roles in our industry. All this makes me loth to criticise any generic activity.
However, I have to say that increasingly I have a problem with generic tastings, not in principle but in terms of how they tend to be executed.
My problem was perfectly demonstrated at the Beautiful South tasting last week. I had applauded the lateral thinking at the root of this event, the idea of bringing together three competing southern hemisphere producing countries and I applauded the quality of the pre- publicity. It deserved every success.
However as I wandered along rank upon rank of identical white tables I became rather dispirited. My expectations were, I accept, far too high. I had no right to expect that a mould breaking idea implied mould breaking execution and I realised very quickly that my problem was not with the Beautiful South as such but more with the one dimensional nature of such events.
It was perhaps the very size of this event (which is a tribute to the appeal of the idea), coupled with the particularly clinical nature of the hall itself, which brought home to me the problem in a way that, for example, the Australian tasting at the Saatchi Gallery had not.
I fully accept that as a trade event there has to be an emphasis on tasting, in addition to commercial discussion, particularly if the grass roots of the trade are targeted as attendees, but why can’t individual producers be given the opportunity to display their brands to optimum effect ? Why cant those that have something to communicate beyond what the wine tastes like be given the freedom to do so? We pride ourselves (or should do) on being involved in an industry which inspires passion to a degree that few other categories can match and yet when we come together at events like this it can appear as if we are selling surgical appliances.
If this is simply down to cost pressures, and the resulting need to cram a large number of producers into a limited space, then I accept that is a genuine barrier to change. Perhaps too exhibitors might not be prepared to splash out on mechanics that add more personality to their space. Finally, I do accept that generic bodies need to facilitate the attendance of as many producers who wish to attend; not restrict attendance to the more innovative or wealthy.
However, while feedback from the Beautiful South could well prove me wrong, in terms of increased footfall or positivism from attendees, then it seems to me we need a rethink. It will prove to have been a great cost saving exercise but as a show piece for all that is exciting about the individual brands, South Africa, Argentina and Chile, beyond reinforcing the quality of the wines, will it really have moved us forward ?
And if it is argued that wasn’t really the objective then isn’t that a wasted opportunity ? As an industry we badly need to encourage people to up their marketing game. Most producers and distributors have something to contribute, some point of difference, so in an ideal world it would surely be advantageous to create environments which stimulate creative thinking and individuality, not formats which, in effect, encourage dumbing down.
Why not rename all generic tastings ‘Wine Shows’: they are after all show piece events and not simply tastings. And as show pieces they could then perhaps reflect the direction in which producers need to go as opposed to reflecting the place in which too many appear to be trapped.
And who knows, maybe a bit more theatre just might be the missing ingredient in the mix when it comes to securing the levels of support such events need and, more importantly, deserve.
PS : The above appeared as my Harpers column in mid- September, a week after the tasting. Since then much has been written about the Beautiful South and much of this I should say has been complimentary. Not only that the numbers of visitors in total exceeded expectations, being 43% ahead of last year’s numbers for the respective individual country tastings.
Several journalists indeed described it as the best generic tasting they have ever attended with Tim Atkin adding that it was ‘buzzy, innovative and full of good wines ‘. He, and no doubt others, particularly enjoyed the ability to compare and contrast the differences in style and origin across the three countries.
There were criticisms: of the sheer number of exhibitors, the ongoing difficulty in persuading enough of the grass roots of the trade to appear and of the lack of merchandising.
Most of my particular comments were addressed at generic tastings in general rather than the Beautiful South in particular but I can’t see why it wouldn’t be possible to get the best of both worlds : an event which gave people such as Tim the opportunity to taste the three countries wines side by side, yet which also allowed the very different personalities of each country to shine through, other than simply through their wines.
And as for my point about the desirability of encouraging producers to promote their individuality I really do appreciate the difficulties involved in allowing a free for all, in terms of creating excitement around each stand, when budgets are small and 300+ producers need to be accommodated.
However when I read the comment by an independent buyer, about trade fairs in general, that ” what such events lack in charm, they make up for in practicality ” my heart sank. Surely the two are not that incompatible ? Surely even if you are under severe time pressure and are on a mission to select a short list of Argentinian Malbecs after tasting as many wines as possible, you wouldn’t mind being distracted by some particularly stunning piece of packaging or a video clip which helped bring the producer to life or even a couple dancing the tango. Did anybody pass by the rainbow coloured rhinoceros outside Olympia on the way in to the Beautiful South without smiling, however much of a hurry they were in ?
Events that charm, that make one smile, that stimulate all the senses and not just those used to select the best wine , must surely leave one feeling more positive than events that don’t, however focussed and rational we all like to think we are.