Devil's Advocate - Personal Memories of ProWein and its Competitors

Robert Joseph looks back across four decades of wine fairs, and at the quiet ascendence of ProWein after a late start.

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Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

First, a confession. I know that many people hate them, but I enjoy trade fairs. I love the opportunity to catch up with people I may only see once a year. Professionally, too, I relish the ambience, the buzz and the chat of these events and the snapshot insight into the mood of the wine world and its component parts that would be impossible to gain without taking a lot more time and travelling a great deal further.

Over the last 40 years, I’ve lost count of the number of wine fairs I’ve attended. I missed the first Vinexpo in Bordeaux in 1981, when there were just 524 exhibitors and 11,000 visitors, but I was at the inaugural London Wine Trade Fair that year which was an even smaller affair held in a rooftop venue above a London department store. Four years later, as the French event grew in stature, I was invited to take part in a debate on the France 3 TV channel over whether Vinexpo should be restricted to French wines. Vinitaly – launched in 1967 – I was reminded, had almost no non-Italian wines.

France only

This was at a time when French producers were beginning to worry about competition from the New World. Allowing Californians and Australians to pour their wines alongside Bordelais and Burgundians was, it was suggested, inviting a cuckoo into their nest.

Whatever the French chauvinists might have preferred, Vinexpo steadily became a major international event, rivalled only by the London fair which soon outgrew its original venue and moved into the nearby 19th century Olympia exhibition hall.

The two events were very different. Bordeaux, thanks in part to the grand chateau dinners, attracted the great and good of the wine world, while the British capital seemed to be more the domain of winemakers than winery owners. London in the 1980s and early 1990s was, to wine, what Paris still was to fashion: the place where new trends began. Wine importers from the US crossed the Atlantic to learn what they should be selling in Chicago. And a lot of business was done.

As one Italian producer joked at the time, “If want to sell a couple of containers of wine, I go to London. If I wanted to sell my company, I’d be more likely to do that at Vinexpo.”

ProWein enters the fray - under a different name

When ProWein was launched in 1994, it was called Provins, the name of a French wine fair held in Germany the previous year. At first, while there were 321 exhibitors from Austria, Columbia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain and, of course, Germany, it retained its role as a German showcase for wines from France. All the stands fitted in one exhibition hall and there were just over 1,500 visitors. The following year, there was a new name - ProWein - two halls and 532 stands. And the first tasting zone, a cooperation between the fair and our sister publication, Weinwirtschaft that would subsequently become the Mundus Vini zone that visitors know today.

The fourth ProWein, in 1997 was the first to break through the 1,000-exhibitor barrier, and the first that I attended. I was immediately struck by the difference in style between the German event and Vinexpo and the London Fair. It was big, but not as huge as the French fair in its kilometre-long hall, and very well organised. As many would expect from a German exhibition, meetings started and finished on time – even on stands hosted by southern Europeans who might usually have a more relaxed attitude to the clock. And, in a period when former Soviet bloc countries were beginning to become wine markets, it attracted visitors from across Europe, many of whom didn’t travel to Bordeaux and London.

Vinexpo opens up in Asia

For a while, however, Vinexpo and the London International Wine Fair, remained the twin poles of attraction for the wine industry. This was especially true after the former launched its Hong Kong event in 1998 as the place to go in the alternate years between Bordeaux fairs and, at the end of the decade, as the latter relocated to a larger, purpose-built set of exhibition halls in the east of the city.

But the tide was about to turn in ProWein’s favour. First came the memorable 2003 Bordeaux Vinexpo in which the air conditioning failed during a heatwave. These things happen, but unfortunately on this occasion, the hall in which red wine had to be served from ice buckets was the one devoted to the New World, and exhibitors from Australia and New Zealand were unhappy enough at the organisers’ ‘arrogant’ response to draw up a petition. Some even muttered about there having been a deliberate plot against them.

Still too hot

Two years later, the cooling was more efficient, but even so, the Wine Spectator noted “At least one woman was taken away in an ambulance looking as if she might be suffering from heat exhaustion. Many vintners complained that the conditions weren't good for tasting and that their wines weren't showing their best. Some speculated that the hall had been shutting off the air-conditioning or electricity for the refrigerators overnight because the wines were warm when they arrived in the morning. At least one booth resorted to taking the wines back to their hotel rooms at night to keep them cool.”

There were other issues. The enviable tram system that Bordeaux boasts today came at the cost of several years of traffic chaos. On bad days, it could take an hour to get out of the Vinexpo car park and, via gridlocked roads, into Bordeaux.

Eighteen years on from the 2005 fair described by the Wine Spectator, it is clear that, while Vinexpo Hong Kong flourished in the wake of the Asian wine boom, this was the beginning of the end for Vinexpo Bordeaux. And the beginning of the road that would eventually lead to its metamorphosis into Wine Paris.

Decline of London

The London International Wine Trade Fair too was having its own problems. Some members of the UK wine trade had resented the move from its now-familiar 19th C. central venue, and disliked the train journey to the new one. More pertinently to business, British wine distribution was falling into fewer hands. The thousands of retail shops that had once been part of the Victoria Wine, Thresher, Peter Dominic, Bottoms Up and  Wine Cellars chains had all become part of a 1,200-outlet giant called First Quench which claimed 13% of the UK off-trade, just behind the Tesco supermarket chain. And ahead of a handful of other supermarkets that collectively had a market share of well over 50%.

In 2009, to no-one’s surprise, First Quench collapsed. Two years later, Oddbins, once Britain’s most dynamic retailer, with nearly 300 stores, suffered the same fate. The contraction of the UK wine market and the sluggish recovery of the national economy after the 2008 crash helped to explain the abandonment of the London fair by the New World generic exhibitors that had once been its strength.

2014 brought a frank admission of defeat by the organisers in the shape of a move back to the original venue and an abandonment of the ‘International’ part of the event’s name.

ProWein takes the lead

By now, ProWein, in its 20th year, had effectively won the race. Almost nobody outside Germany loved it being located in Dusseldorf, but they appreciated its ease of access and efficiency. As a French exhibitor ruefully said to me, ProWein is like a Volkswagen: it just works.

Today, that same Frenchman is faced with the choice of whether to exhibit at Wine Paris or ProWein, or both. He has yet to decide, but like me, this year he is looking forward to being back in Dusseldorf and meeting existing and hopefully a few new customers.




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