Time for the wine industry to plan ahead

Almost everyone has more time on their hands right now. Robert Joseph looks at some tried and tested ways to use it productively.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

“We’ve done OK during this crisis because we’re prepared for it. Now, while everyone else is fighting fires, we’re preparing for the good times”

The comment, by a British businessman on a UK radio programme, referred to the financial crisis of 2007/8 rather than a pandemic. He also took pains to dispel the impression that he and his colleagues had any supernatural ability to see into the future. As he explained, economies move in cycles: booms follow busts, just as floods follow droughts. When the sun is shining, you buy an umbrella; the best time to stock up on sun cream is when everyone else is struggling to get out of the rain.

Most of us don’t think like this, because there just isn’t the time or space in our brains. Every day, we rush around like hamsters on our wheels, doing whatever necessary to pay the bills. 

Now, on the other hand, most people in the wine industry are now in possession of a lot more mental space and time. Even if we’re still trying to run businesses and keep in touch with the outside world and look after our families and do some mental and physical exercise, we’re no longer commuting to work, or travelling to see customers or suppliers. There are far fewer non-productive phone calls and emails to respond to, and we all have at least an hour a day that we can spend considering ‘What if?’

What if we weren’t making or selling the stuff we’ve always been making/selling? 

What if now were the time to think seriously about starting something new? A novel blend, or a single-vineyard wine, or maybe even opening a brewery or a micro-distillery? Or, heaven forbid, pulling the plug on that cuvée that we all love but is always so hard to sell. Or that large-volume 50-year-old legacy brand we sell to a monopoly and on which we never make any money.

What if now were the time to consider ringing some changes when it comes to packaging? Could we switch to lighter bottles or smaller formats? Might we experiment with new labels?

How about pricing? Could we break out of the straitjacket of matching our neighbours or the price the supermarket is prepared to pay? Could we imagine finding a different set of customers who are more relaxed about how much they are prepared to spend?

Which, of course, might mean taking a long hard look at distribution. Do we have to go on ploughing the same furrow of selling through an agent/importer? Yes, we might not have a choice in some markets, but could we explore alternatives in the countries where more direct selling is possible?

Living under lockdown, as so many people reading this will know, is introducing countless wine drinkers to online buying. Italians, as Camilla Lunelli of Ferrari Trento pointed out in a Real Business of Wine webcast last week, have been much slower to embrace the notion of selecting wine digitally than clothes, for example. But since they have been unable to pick up physical bottles from the shelves, online sales in Italy have soared. When the pandemic is over, are all those people going to give up the convenience they’ve just discovered?

Lastly, there’s the way we communicate. The experience we are all having with online video chats with our families is going to change our lives as fundamentally as our introduction to Facebook and WhatsApp has done. Laura Catena of Catena Zapata in Argentina revealed in the same webcast that she began to host online tastings for journalists long before the current crisis, and she’s not likely to stop doing so now. There are other options, too. Sommeliers working for shuttered restaurants are posting online food-and-wine matching recommendations. Maybe wineries and distributors could join forces with them on a long-term basis. Wineries in California are partnering with local farm shops to offer packs that combine their wares. That could be another model worth exploring.

You may not be ready to exploit Instagram as flamboyantly as Jean-Charles Boisset, but you could almost certainly follow the example of Reka Haros and her husband as they keep an online diary of isolation in their small Prosecco winery. Why not a similar effort after the restrictions have been lifted?

Don’t just learn from the people in the wine industry. Skip the bad news in your social media feed and look at what other sectors are doing. Even a sizeable winery would struggle to follow the lead of LVMH in switching production from perfumes to hand sanitisers, but it cost the luxury giant nothing to get its messaging absolutely right when it told its Chinese customers “Every paused journey will eventually restart. Louis Vuitton hopes you and your beloved ones stay safe and healthy.”

The harsh truth is that this existential crisis and the recession that’s bound to follow is almost certain to close many wine businesses whose existence was already marginal. But every crisis creates opportunities. Now’s the time for the canny members of this industry to start to prepare for the boom that will come after this horrendous bust.

Robert Joseph




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