ARENI Sees Trouble Coming for Fine Wine—and Wants To Fix It

ARENI Global, based in London, calls itself a ‘think tank’—a place where people can come and ask questions about the future of fine wine. Robert Joseph catches up with CEO Pauline Vicard.

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Pauline Vicard
Pauline Vicard

Born and raised into a winemaking family in Burgundy, Pauline Vicard has been working in the wine sector for the last 15 years both in Europe and Internationally, in the market research department of the Burgundy wine office and the French Embassy, before creating her own corporate wine events and education company in Lille, France. She moved to London in 2015 to spearhead the Wine Library of the unique and acclaimed Clerkenwell London, a multi-space design destination, before developing the concept of Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines with Nicole Rolet that led to the creation of Areni Global.

What is ARENI? Who are the members and sponsors?

ARENI Global is an independent think tank dedicated to the future of fine wine. Our mission is to help companies and decision makers build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just industry.

I know that the concept of ‘think tank’ can be an alien one for people outside the English-speaking world. It’s basically a research institute that brings together experts and interesting people to discuss specific issues. In our case, we provide a forum to talk about fine wine. It’s a place where we share best practices, talk through problems, try and predict the future, and draw roadmaps.

Our members are drawn from across the international fine wine trade, and their membership gives them access to our research, as well as a forum to network with peers.

What are the origins of ARENI, and why does it need to exist?

ARENI is the continuation of Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines, a high-level gathering initiated by Nicole Rolet [co-owner of the Chêne Bleu wine estate] in 2017. Nicole and I come from very different backgrounds, but we shared the same understanding:  complex issues require a diversity of expertise. Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines existed as a stand-alone event for two years before we decided to broaden our reach of topics, format and voices. We now offer analysis and insights in six different formats, from online roundtables, workshops, podcasts, bi-monthly articles, quarterly publications and yearly in-person gathering.

What problem does it solve?

The climate chaos is not going anywhere, the energy crisis will continue to impact us directly or indirectly, and our food system needs to change. Finding people to work in vineyards or hospitality will remain a challenge in the years to come.

In other words, we have a whole raft of issues we look at. We don’t just draw on people from the wine trade, but also call on the expertise of academics, diplomats, scientists and public figures.

You have spent a long time, effort and brain power trying to define ‘fine wine’. Do you think you have nailed it?

In January 2023, we will be presenting, Rethinking Fine Wine, our fourth white paper on the topic of fine wine. The first Define Fine Wine white paper proposed that fine wine had three fundamental attributes: objective intrinsic quality, subjective qualities (what we call today “A Kind of Magic”), and a relationship to its maker.

We have now added two more. This is not simply because our work has led us to a more expansive definition, but because the world of fine wine itself has expanded, and the social frame in which fine wine exists keeps on changing.

We never intended to have an absolute definition that everybody agrees on, as that would be too ambitious. But if fine wine rneeds to define its role, as we believe it does, then this definition is a solid base for conversation.

What’s the difference between luxury wines and fine wines?

This is such an interesting question that we dedicated a full segment of the new white paper to comparing them.

First, both fine and luxury wines need to be of quality. Fine and luxury wines can be seen as superior in kind to the vast majority of wines produced around the world. Both of them are also responsible for a “sense of pleasure” or in ARENI’s case “a sense of wonder”.

But the rest of the attributes differ greatly. To some extent, luxury wines can be seen as focusing on the sense of privilege that they aim to confer on the owner, with price and managed scarcity being used to that end.

If fine wines are scarce and/or expensive—and they often are—this is a consequence, rather than a tool used by the producer to achieve a goal. According to our collective definition, fine wine sets itself apart through the unique vision of the winemaker. It also anchors fine wine as an agricultural product.

Whatever the definition, fine wine producers come in different shapes and sizes. Treasury Wine Estates, LVMH, DRC and, for example, Gravner, all make fine wine. Would they all sit around a table and share objectives?

Following the definitions above, some might argue than some of the wines you quoted are more “luxury wine”, consumer-driven, than fine wine, producer-driven. But ultimately, I believe that premium producers do share a lot of issues, regardless of their sizes and shapes. The big issues that  wine is facing are global, and are common concerns for every member of the fine wine value chain.

And it’s precisely because they are of different size, shapes or geographical position that they need to gather around the table to confront their worries, visions and best practices. We all want fine wine to still be relevant in two decades.

Fine wine and luxury are fairly closely entwined. You hosted a debate about whether luxury is still needed. What did you learn?

I think the main takeaway for me when talking about luxury and its place and role in society is that the notion itself is highly cultural. Our spiritual heritage impacts our modern vision of luxury a lot.

My background is Catholic, where luxury is entwined with art and architecture. The craftsmanship used in their creation is usually understood to be something of beauty that is worthy of God, and hence needs to be encouraged and revered. The French language is very revealing, as we do not talk about fine wine, but Grands Vins (in opposition to petits vins) or Haute cuisine, adjectives that reveals the will to elevate wine, food, or music from its popular condition, something that illuminates our mere mortal conditions, and brings joy and enlightenment. 

Anglo-Saxons usually see luxury as something decadent—an unnecessary excess of bling that needs to be repressed. A superficial way of creating and maintaining social class.

I believe that fine wine can be both.

Where does fine wine sit in relationship to scores? And price?

I suppose it is another difference between luxury wines and fine wines. Luxury wines are defined by their scores and their prices, as you need to achieve high scores and high prices to enter the luxury category. Fine wine being driven by the producer’s will to achieve intrinsic quality and sense of truth, the high scores and the high prices are a consequence more than a condition.

Top critics like Jancis Robinson and Eric Asimov may dislike the notion of fine wine being a luxury, but LVMH is a luxury business that considers all of its products to be luxuries. Why isn’t every bottle of Champagne a luxury? And every bottle of any kind of wine selling for more than $50?

I don’t want to speak for Eric and Jancis, but usually when people are talking about “luxury” wines they mean the association with consumer-driven, highly marketed products, often seen as the contrary of authentic.

If you reduce luxury to everything that is not needed for our survival, then every single wine is a luxury.

If we understand luxury as something that morally unacceptable, then we will have a hard time agreeing too, as people operate with different ethical assumptions.

Even if you have a definition, how confident are you that it will be shared and understood by the wine community globally?

One of the major takeaways of this upcoming white paper, to me, is the fact that it associates fine wine and responsibility, which is something that we don’t talk about enough. Because yes, it is important to define fine wine and to understand how status is constructed. But I don’t want to spend too much time fine tuning “who’s in” and “who’s not” in the “fine wine club” based on the wines they produce or their positioning in the market. Because however you chose to define it, one thing is clear―fine wine sits at the pinnacle of the entire wine production pyramid.

So what I believe the real question is: What responsibilities come with being part of the fine wine ecosystem? Starting from producers and working our way up to the value chain, can we come up with some sort of shared values, ethos and fine wine’s own Sustainable Development Goals? This is what I’m willing to debate.

You have incorporated sustainability into your definition. How much do you think super-rich, private jet- and gas guzzling sports car-using Tignanello and Petrus-drinkers really care about the carbon footprint of the wine they drink. Do they question how the diamonds and  gold in their jewellery were sourced?

Fine wine drinkers come in many shapes and form. Not all of them are private jet users, but I see your point. The latest studies that we’ve done confirm that fine wine consumers do not care much about sustainability, meaning that it is not an important criteria that they consider before buying. When it comes to the very established fine wine brands, I doubt that it will change soon. Unless there is a very public health scandal, people won’t stop buying first growth Bordeaux because they are not convinced by their sustainability approach.

But even if consumers don’t care that much, the trade does. In our study, Fine Wine and the Restaurants – where we studied how restaurants re-opened after Covid and the changes in their wine lists – we’ve seen more and more sommeliers and retailers restructuring their wine lists based on what they understood of the estates’ sustainability approach.

Pauline, you are French but live in the UK. Do the two countries see fine wine in the same way?

As mentioned above, the language itself used in French is very revealing. You can’t exclude this spiritual heritage that places fine wine – and by extension the ones who produce it and drink it—in  a totally different position towards God, as they managed to elevate themselves away from the “lower people” and “little wines”. We can still see this legacy alive through pompous and haughty manners in the French wine trade.

There is also this thinking in France, shared across the value chain, that “we know wine”, so we don’t have to learn, and we overestimate our knowledge and competences. The British fine wine trade has, in comparison, an incredible knowledge of wine, and remarkable trade skills as well, notably in their relationship with private customers.

But I believe that sometimes the Brits struggle to understand the reality and the day-to-day life of French wine producers, who they are and where they come from in terms of mindset. Again, language is revealing, as I struggle to find the right translation for vignerons, exploitants agricoles or any words that actually depicts the condition (the cultural heritage) of those who produce  wine.

So many times I have seen Brits and French using the same English word thinking that they were saying the same thing, when the reality they were depicting was very much different, leading to frustrations on both sides.

And how does fine wine fit into the process of studying for the MW?

Fine wines usually represent benchmark in terms of style and quality within a given region, hence it is important to understand them for the MW, or any sort of blind tasting exams.

ARENI is avowedly ‘global’. What differences do you see in the attitude to fine wine from one country to another?

So many differences!

One of the main differences that I see is how general bodies consider fine wine. Every year, we invite the local bodies to take a seat at our international think tank. Every time we’ve done it in France, we couldn’t get a general body representative to attend, because they need to represent everyone, and it is perceived that the “grands” don’t need any help, and all their energy should be focused on the “petits”. In the New World however, the general bodies are eager to talk about fine wine, and to use it as global vision, and is used to pull everyone upwards.

One criterion for fine wine is that it should be capable of ageing. Is this something modern wine drinkers are as interested in?

To which I answer: who’s the modern drinker? Once more, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that all modern wine drinkers are the same. When it comes to High-Net-Worth-Individuals, we see people of all ages building a cellar or a collection, with a desire to see the wines they buy evolve through time.

We have wine enthusiasts with no notable cellar who will track wine lists in restaurants and know exactly where to go for old vintages.

So yes, there are categories of fine wine drinkers that won’t age wines, because they like them young or because they don’t have the logistics for ageing, but from what we can gather, event for them, this idea that wine can go through time is still appealing.

How does ARENI relate to the buyers of fine wine who treat it as an investment? Are they really so different to many buyers of fine art?

The financialization of both fine wine and fine art is a really interesting process to study. A full segment of the white paper is dedicated to examining the major changes (among them geopolitics, a shift within the auction houses themselves and the rise of Instagram) that led to the results we are seeing today.



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