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What Does Biodiversity Mean To Our Trade?

In our May newsletter, we consider the significance of grape diversity and drinking bravely ahead of World Biodiversity Day on May 22nd.

Humans find efficiency reassuring. We crave certainty. Diversity bristles against predictable order. But the disorder of diversity makes us robust; it is here that we thrive, rather than survive.

Tomorrow is World Biodiversity Day. Is this a day the wine trade would have taken note of a few years ago? Consumers increasingly analyse the environmental and social impact of their food choices. Until recently, wine has avoided that scrutiny. But we no longer have a free pass. There is an increasing concern with the water use, packaging, carbon footprint and environmental transparency of wine. Such concern is behind success of wine brands whose proposition is transparency. The response of some in the wine trade is, naturally, sceptical. Of course, most wines meet these environmental and health credentials, we say. But can we really complain about perception? As a trade, we have failed to communicate information for which many consumers thirst.

We wish biodiversity didn’t feel like a political statement. Because it is fundamental to the world of wine. Biodiversity touches the life in our soil – in our vineyards. It’s a great measure of how sustainably and regeneratively we are working in our vineyards, and in our markets . And we have the ability to communicate our biodiversity to consumers in a unique way: grape diversity.

This quest for diversity is critical to wine. Despite the accusation in articles such as this (published, with blithe irony, at winesearcher.com) that we are fools for thinking anyone cares about protecting the variety and diversity of wine.

We talked to grape diversity champion Emma Dawson MW about how a diverse approach from both producers and consumers pays dividends.

Wine is waking up to our biodiversity crises, and treasures. In Soave, a concern for sustaining agricultural heritage alongside their communities and land led to the development of a biodiversity accreditation for grape growers with the help of the World Biodiversity Association.

In Argentina, Laura Catena asserts that grape genetic diversity and heritage vineyards are essential if wine is to adapt to climate change. In Spain, Torres are championing the genetic diversity of recuperated Ancestral Varieties.

Such leadership should inspire us all.

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Interview: Emma Dawson MW

Emma Dawson MW isn’t just senior wine buyer at Berkmann Wine Cellars. In her spare time, she’s run a number of educational wine ventures, including Naked Grape Tastings for consumers and 52grapes.com, a free website offering consumers the chance to join in and taste 52 grapes in 52 weeks. She’s passionate about grape diversity and has been instrumental in bringing wines from formerly obscure regions – Lebanon, Greece and Turkey – to the UK market. Ahead of World Biodiversity Day, we talked to her about why grape diversity is so important and how she brings her love of esoteric regions to her work.

Swirl’s purpose is to champion lesser-known regions and varieties – and diversity is an implicit part of this. What got you interested in grape diversity?

I was really lucky at Marks & Spencer. In 2012 I was given a project – one of my first big buying projects – to go and find wines which matched a new range of Eastern Mediterranean food. The remit was to explore that whole quite large swathe of countries and find if there were any decent well priced wines we could list. So, the brief was very broad and I did a lot of research because it was such a great opportunity to get such an adventurous remit as a buyer. Eventually I came up with five countries. It was actually really nice: I thought I was going to get about two wines listed from this exercise and we ended up with something like 12. And then, because I was at Marks & Spencer where everything is own label, I also had the great opportunity to go to these countries. Marks & Spencer’s way of working is that you have to go to the winery and check it meets all quality standards and so on, you can’t just put an own label on it. So, I could go to Greece and Lebanon and Turkey and see what those countries had to offer. I think that’s what really sparked my interest, the realisation that there was so much more out there.

How did 52grapes.com tie into this interest?

In about October 2018 my boyfriend and I came up with the idea as something fun we could do together. He was doing all these drinking challenges but they had nothing to do with wine. And I thought that was a bit ridiculous – you live with a wine buyer! So, [we came up with this concept] which I found interesting. Having worked in a supermarket I always wanted to champion customers trying something a bit different. Seeing from friends, too, how reluctant people are to try new things because they don’t have the information and the confidence, I wanted to give people a fun journey, to make the exploration [of different types of wine] something to enjoy rather than fear.

Of course, more obscure grapes or region may be a harder sell for consumers. How to you integrate your passion for grape and regional diversity with your role as a buyer?

When I talked to Alex Hunt about joining Berkmann, part of that conversation was that I was into these more esoteric countries. Before I joined, Berkmann did have wines from Turkey which was quite unusual. But Alex definitely did say to me – now you’re joining can you help us expand into these areas, so I therefore brought in wines from Greece, Lebanon and Georgia. I actually used the experience and knowledge I had from going to those countries a lot to know who the best people were to work with.

I do think the most important thing, though, is to catch the right moment. For example, at the moment we have some great orange wines to meet the increasing demand for unusual wines – and they’re certainly selling well at the moment. I was having a chat with Mary Pateras from Eclectic Wines who has, from my perspective, done the job of bringing Greek wines into the UK and making them big. I don’t think she gets enough credit for that. She was talking about how her importing company is now finding there is so much more demand – it’s beginning to reach ‘peak Greece’. Consumers are no longer finding it to be an ‘unusual’ wine country, it’s becoming almost mainstream. It’s a lovely thing to see that progression.

How can producers of wines using more obscure grape varieties, or winemakers in more obscure regions position themselves for the best success in the UK market? Do you find things like grape names, for example, to be a barrier for consumers?

I think there’s enough interest in, say, Georgia, that grape names are becoming less of a barrier. People know enough about the country, want to try qvevri wines and so on. I think you have to be careful about getting overexcited. We’ve been looking at other countries like Armenia and Moldova, and whilst the wines are lovely, I do think you have to wait for the point where there is enough demand and there’s been enough awareness created.

Its why I really do think that there’s a lot of power behind countries like Georgia funding generic bodies to promote their wines. That’s a great thing for an importer to ride on the back of and list things. If you try to do it in isolation then it is very difficult and sometimes the risk doesn’t pay off. And that doesn’t just stand for unusual countries – we could be talking about a small region in Italy which could be quite hard to get people interested in. It can be a barrier to some but for a specialist restaurant it can be a great point of difference. So, I just think these wines need to be proposed in the right way.

A producer has also got to be conscious of where they want to position the wine and in what market. The acceptable cost price in the UK is very different from that in China or the US. I always encourage my producers if they want a chance in the UK you’ve got to make your wines at a reasonable price. People are only willing to experiment under a £15 price point. So, if you can hit that sweet spot, you’ll have much more of a chance of being recognised and then can introduce more expensive wines.

And don’t be sucked into using international varieties for name recognition. I listed a lovely Turkish Sauvignon Blanc at Marks & Spencer which completely bombed and we realised straight after that that it was because it was exactly the same price as a New Zealand Sauvignon. There was no motivation for someone to try a Turkish Sauvignon instead of the one they know they love from New Zealand.

Why is diversity important in the wine trade?

When I did the 52grapes blog Richard Smart, the amazing viticulturalist got in touch and we had some great conversations about grape diversity. He’s the one more than me who’s very passionate about the meaning of diversity and how we’re at a crunch point as many regions around the world are uprooting their native varieties to plant more commercial ones. It’s nice, for example, to hear that in Chile they’re looking at their old vines – but it’s still a tiny proportion of the country’s total wine production. I think we should really champion all the countries maintaining their old vines. Otherwise we will lose diversity, we will find at a certain point that there are fewer grapes in the world.

The most obvious reason we should celebrate grape diversity is climate change. A lot of these older varieties are more adapted to their environment. We need to really plunder our resources to figure out which grape varieties best suit the changing climate in various regions. In Australia they’re starting to explore this a lot, planting lots of Italian native varieties which are more adaptive [to the new climatic circumstances].

I’d also challenge why we think certain grapes are ‘better’ in the first place. I find it really funny that we have this ‘old’ and ‘new’ world division. It doesn’t make sense. I was actually doing a vertical tasting of Leoville-Barton for some clients and one of them asked me if he should try more Lebanese wine, he’d only tried Musar, and I explained that actually it’s the ancient world of wine. It’s the place where wine came from. As with Georgia, it’s one of the original winemaking countries. There’s a temple of Bacchus in Lebanon which shows that the Romans thought it was a good place to make wine. [When you explain these things] you suddenly see the penny drop. But I don’t think the penny has dropped for many consumers yet that there was a time before Europe, and before those countries were making wine. That to me is fascinating. I studied history at university and I find tracing it back to where it started, and not just assuming that the grapes became well established because they worked in France.

When you look at the history of European wine, even, France quickly became dominantly established with an efficient, well run wine industry. So, all of its grapes started to dominate the wine world. Arguably, if Italy had been a little bit more organised and focussed on higher quality before France – Italian grapes could dominate as international varieties. Not saying that Cabernet and Chardonnay and so on aren’t fantastic – but we should also consider all these lovely old ancestral grapes. We should add those older, [more obscure] grapes to the mix and open our minds to reconsider what really are the ‘best’ grapes in the world.

 

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Introducing: The Blend

The Blend is a series of virtual workshops created in partnership between our founder Sarah Abbott MW and business psychologist Julie Goddard, The Success Architect. These workshops are designed to increase the representation of women in leadership roles within the wine and drinks industry

The big picture

Women under-participate in the global workforce.

What does that mean, practically? According to the OECD, it means that the global economy is missing out on six trillion USD per year. $6,000,000,000,000.

Of course, some countries integrate women into the workforce more effectively than others. These countries uniformly have government polies which support more women in high-paying, productive work. Policies like differentiated, individualised tax systems; affordable, integrated childcare; education and training systems which promote awareness of and mitigate against the perpetuation of gender stereotypes. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that the UK only ranks 17th out of the 33 OECD assessed countries.

What does this show us? That we need top-down action if we want sustained gender diversity – just general diversity – in the UK wine trade.

The small, personal picture

In wine, certainly in UK wine, there is very little data on the rates of participation for diversity and gender equality. There have been some surveys conducted, for example by Gus Gluck and Jancis Robinson MW, which have been a great first step. Though we lack systematic data, we can look around us to see what’s going on.

Wine industry leadership is not diverse. You only have to look at announcements of recent senior-level roles being filled. We’re just acknowledging a global truth: underrepresentation in gender and ethnicity is costing the world in profitability and productivity. It’s costing our industry.

Why we need to take action

It is a fact that when businesses put diversity, participation and inclusion at the heart of their strategic thinking, their businesses become better. They make more money.

This is about doing not only what’s right – but what’s essential for the health of our industry. And for our souls.

What we’re going to do about it

We’re launching The Blend.

This is a new initiative of virtual workshops created in partnership between Sarah Abbott MW of Swirl Wine Group and business psychologist Julie Goddard, The Success Architect.

Aside from being a qualified business psychologist, Julie is also a leadership coach and mentor. Her speciality has been working with women in the financial services sector which has historically struggled with gender inequality. She’s seen the practical benefits for business, working with both individual women and companies in this sector to increase the number of women in leadership positions.

Essentially, that’s what we want to do in wine.

How will The Blend workshops work?

We aim to make these workshops as accessible as possible. They’ll be available online and will tackle the foundations of developing a leadership mindset, values, confidence and aspiration for women in wine.

One thing our industry does not lack is women with talent and ambition. But that can only take one so far. We must engender systemic change in our industry, to make our industry richer in every sense. To do that we need to ensure that women have clear paths to leadership – we can’t just wait and hope for it to happen organically.

You can encourage talented women as much as you like, but in order for that to be impactful we must engage everyone. From existing senior leaders in the industry down – that means talking to a lot of high-achieving men and women.

These virtual workshops will be delivered by Julie & Sarah – and we welcome support and help from every part of our industry.

It’s fundamentally practical training. But behind it is our hope that we can make this equal representation one of the most fervently held intents of our industry at large.

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Interview: Julie Goddard, The Success Architect

Swirl meets Julie Goddard, The Success Architect. Julie is an award-winning business psychologist and leadership coach who has partnered with our founder, Sarah Abbott MW, to create The Blend. The Blend is a series of virtual workshops designed to increase the representation of women in leadership in the drinks industry. You can find out more about The Blend in our blog, or via their dedicated website. But we also wanted to talk to Julie to give you a flavour of how her business psychologist’s brain and background in education bring a unique flavour to this exciting new initiative.

Tell us about The Blend and why you think that the workshops are important.

The Blend is world class leadership training for women in the wine industry. It’s a collaboration between me, The Success Architect, and Sarah Abbott, and is very exciting for both of us, drawing on Sarah’s highly developed skills and knowledge as an MW and my own skills as an award-winning coach and business psychologist.

To date, there have been a couple of initiatives designed to support women in wine. Things like sponsorship for various wine qualifications and a few surveys. It provides an excellent starting point to understand the different perceptions of the genders within the industry – but we want The Blend to build on these foundations. We will offer women professional development to complement their wine knowledge.

For both Sarah and I it feels increasingly important to do so. Wineries are having to operate in increasingly unpredictable, volatile conditions – from lockdowns to climate challenges. When you consider those factors in the context of studies which highly correlate female leadership with higher morale, increased productivity and retention of talented staff, removing barriers so that more women can take the lead is just good business sense.

I also think it’s something that consumers expect to see more of now. Sarah and I both feel it’s the right place, right time, with the right skillset (between us) so – it’s a no brainer.

But we wanted to be sure that anything we offered didn’t just resonate – that it would have highly practical applications. As far as we know, this is the first instance of women in the drinks trade being offered a practical course which will give them practical skills. Having a skill set which will see you through tough times is incredibly important. And to take others with you – that’s the goal we aspire to.

You’ve identified ‘qualification collection’ as a particularly female trait. Coming from a non-wine background, and with a clutch of your own professional qualifications in your field, what do you make of the wine trade’s emphasis on formal qualifications?

I’ve got two masters degrees; something like seven leadership qualifications; three coaching qualifications. At what point do you pause and think: “what’s driving this need for external validation?” Is it to stay abreast of developments in your industry – because that’s essential? Or is to do with self-validation – because then you should stop and pause. There’s just as much value in practically learnt skills which don’t give you a certificate for your wall.

Having said that – I thought your point about wine industry qualifications was very interesting. There’s a definite place for these sorts of industry-specific qualifications. You can’t become a teacher without your PCG. You need to get your CFA to work in finance. These qualifications also give you a shared lexicon and a shared ground base of experience and a way to relate to things. So, I do think there’s a place and a time for those formal qualifications.

But if that’s all there is it becomes quite closed. There’s a real danger of thinking: “well, this is the way we’ve always done it. This is the way of thinking you need to partake in. This is the language you need to use”. Then it becomes a story of stagnation. And I think disruption is essential for growth.

There’s a tension in the space between the demands and traditions of an established curriculum and the desire to be our own unique selves. That tension – that space between the two – is fertile ground for creativity and I think that’s what we’re seeing with some of the smaller wineries to find their own language, their own way of communicating.

I think both are equally needed. Where one becomes in anyone’s eyes worth more than the other, that’s where we open ourselves to the question of snobbery and elitism. There’s growth, room, creativity enough for everyone to find their own authentic voice in the story of wine.

If you could have every manager in the wine trade do one thing to promote gender and racial diversity what would it be?

Call out bad behaviour when you see it.

Every time you see it.

It’s practical. It’s immediate. It’s low cost. It works.

As a manger you’re key to setting the tone and defining the culture of your work place. So, don’t let it be labelled as ‘banter’, as a joke. Act as if what you do makes a difference. Because it does. As you challenge people, it will change things. When you do this, you begin to create safety for your team. They’ll feel like they have a place where they belong, where their ideas and opinions matter. That simple action of challenging bad behaviour when you see it – has the power to transform the workplace. And it costs nothing other than your awareness that inaction is an action in itself.

I’d also say, managers should remember that to do nothing, to think “that’s not my responsibility”: that keeping quiet is an action.

When we challenge embedded behaviour that’s where grow happens.

One thing we’re particularly interested in at Swirl is the tension between the perceived ‘right’ technocratic way to communicated about wine, and more emotional communication styles. What do you make of this? It chimes with other comments you’ve made about not having to use the typical boardroom language of machismo to succeed as a woman in leadership.

Your emphasis on the perceived ‘right’ way is the most interesting thing to me.

In psychology there’s a saying that two people can be looking at the exact same thing but see something completely different. It’s not logical – it’s psychological. Every action is a perception – so how can we say what is ‘right’? For me, the right way is using your authentic voice. That’s the right way – does it feel authentic to you. Because consumers connect far more strongly with an authentic voice and brand. It’s as much about the story behind the label as it is about the wine itself.

If you are rooted in your own authenticity then negativity will be like water off a duck’s back. Always remember – what you think of me is none of my business.

If the more formal, established language resonates with you then that’s great. Use it. Equally, if it feels uncomfortable or limiting for you then follow your instincts. The world is big enough to accommodate both styles of communication. And there’s a lot of disruptive influences emerging in the wine industry at the moment, especially on social media. I think it’s such a good thing. It’s all about finding your tribe.

Finding the people who get you, who understand you, who want your product and that only happens when you’re being authentic to yourself.

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Sarah Abbott MW introduces The Old Vine Conference

This month, we talked to our founder, Sarah Abbott MW, about another passion project: The Old Vine Conference. Together with Leo Austin and Alun Griffiths MW, she has founded this non-profit with the aim of creating a definitive category for Old Vine Wine, in the knowledge that commercialisation of a category is the best way to ensure the safeguarding of Old Vine vineyards for centuries to come. We talked to her about her motivations for collaborating on the project and why she thinks Old Vines are so important.

Wine is a connection to an ancient past – and old vines are tangible evidence of that.

I studied classical, ancient history. When you read those Greek and Latin texts – people’s concerns, their humours, their squabbles, their passions really are eternal, a fact I find incredibly soothing. I think this is why I am so inspired by the origins of wine. It’s an infinitely old culture which connects with this sweeping desire humans have not only to relate to each other, but to relate to their environment and create something beautiful from it.

I think it’s for that reason that the humanity of wine has always inspired me. You can open a bottle and drink and take into yourself a wine from another lifetime. I think this is the greatest power of wine – the connection to things bigger than ourselves, a cycle of people enjoying themselves and wanting to bless their important moments.

Credit human input. It gives the same specificity as terroir.

Being less sentimental, perhaps, as I learn more about regenerative capitalism and regenerative agriculture, I see how heritage vineyards can take us beyond mere organics and sustainability. One of the greatest environmental problems is the way that humans are not thought of as part of the system. Regenerative principles recognise that humans are not external to nature. We are part of it.

In Italy, for example, there is a movement to create a system of agriculture and viticulture which moves beyond mere sustainability into bio diversity. That system includes humans and recognises the importance of creating farming systems that benefit people working the land too so they can have good, prosperous, rewarding lives. When I’ve spoken to the viticulturalists and campaigners working towards this system, it’s recurrently important for them to acknowledge that the people working the land often possess great knowledge and rare skills which are passed down the generations. These may be knowledge of very specific local conditions or a particular training method. This specificity is at the heart of any premiumisation and we want to make clear the specificity involved in tending and making wine from old heritage vines.

Old vines are a gift to diversity.

Old vine culture has connections with biodiversity and resilience. I know there are many growers, for example, Torres in Spain, who are keenly aware of this. They find pockets of old vines – and old varieties. While the pockets themselves many be miniscule and not necessarily viable, what they’ve found is that the genetic material from these old vines has been absolutely essential as they develop new plantings of new varieties. It’s evidence of old vines informing the future of viticulture.

They find that these varieties bring resilience in the face of climate change, and of increasingly unpredictable environments. It’s a gift of diversity. It’s not just that the vine is old. It’s that they contain value, genetically, as well as embodying generational agricultural skill.

Let’s celebrate wine as an agricultural product.

I think another very important part of these heritage vineyards is that actually we can crack open the agricultural side of wine. If you look to premium food and other drinks, producers are unafraid to get into the detail of growing and production methods. But in wine, we seem to feel this is too boring or complex. Of course, not everybody wants to know this sort of detail, but it’s important enough to enough people that it can elevate the value and the enduring commercial integrity of these products. That’s what we need to do with these great old vineyards.

The inaugural Old Vine Conference is being shown live virtually on Tuesday 23rd and Wednesday 24th March. For more information visit the website, or sign up to attend the conference.

You can read more of our interviews with women in wine doing interesting things here. 

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Translating Italian wine: Laura Donadoni

“…wearing all that weight

Of learning lightly like a flower.”

Tennyson, from ‘In Memoriam A.H.H. 1850’.

Swirl meets Laura Donadoni, The Italian Wine Girl. A US-based wine educator, writer, marketer and influencer, she’s got 51k followers on the ‘gram, and counting. She also has a PhD in communications and a newly published book. Her social platforms are accessible, and glamorous. But she’s no stranger to the vitriol directed at our trade’s social media personalities. We talk about listening first, ‘old fashioned’ bias and Italian wine.

You’ve embraced the really fun side of wine comms to communicate via social media in a way which is really elegant but also so lighthearted. But you also have a PhD in communications – not to mention your book (more on which later!) How do you so deftly balance the real seriousness and depth of your wine knowledge with such a lightness of touch? Is there a special knack to it?

I think that a good communicator must be in the first place a good listener. It’s the only way you can craft the right communication approach for the receiver. During my wine classes or conferences, in an academic environment or while serving as a wine judge in several international competitions my audience, my colleagues or other professionals expect deep knowledge, technical details and extensive explanations. And I give them all of it, thank to my studies, my experience and the numerous certifications I collected during my career.
On the other hand, my social media community looks for hints, curiosities, quick news, fun, beautiful images, engaging conversations.
Wine is always the main theme, and my ultimate goal is always to educate about Italian wines, but the means are different, so the language must adapt. My communications’ studies and my degree and experience as a journalist help me in understanding my audience and in being flexible in providing content.
Something we see a lot is with women who communicate about wine via social media in the way you do – not ploughing into the conversation qualifications-upfront, but as though you’re talking to a new friend at a party about wine. Well, it seems to provoke a lot of vitriol from a certain part of the wine establishment. Why do you think this is? Do you think it is men especially who are threatened by this approach? 
I don’t define it as a sexist point of view or a “male predominant bias”, but rather an “old-fashioned” vs “modern” way to communicate about wine. In the past professionals working in the industry were categorised mainly as being in either in sales or hospitality. Today, there are communicators, influencers, brand-strategists, social media managers, brand ambassadors, etc…
The “old” establishment have a hard time to understand these new roles in the wine industry and the new language that is required to succeed in a competitive consumer market driven by Millenials, Gen Z and similarly tech-based shoppers. I think this is the reason why a certain group of “wine snobs” feel the urge to distance themselves from social media’s wine communities, especially if lead by women with a colloquial and friendly tone. They simply cut us off saying we don’t know how to properly talk about wines, just because we choose to avoid the old school technical language and we try to experiment with the new communication opportunities.
I agree that in a 15 -30 seconds reel on Instagram you can’t educate as much as in a 2 hours masterclass with guided tasting, but if we look at the reel as an opportunity to generate curiosity and then to attend a masterclass to learn more, why should we not take the chance?
Your book is coming out in English this year. Can you tell us more about it?
I am working on the translation with my publisher and it’ll be released in Autumn this year. The title in Italian is Come il Vino ti Cambia la vita, which means “How wine can change your life”. It includes my story (and how wine literally changed my life!), and the stories of courage and rebirth of six Italian wine producers. Each of them could easily be a movie! There are intrigues, passions, struggles and a lot of bravery. It has been published in Italy during the pandemic and I collected a lot of readers’ feedbacks saying they could easily relate with the struggles and the emotions of the protagonists.
It’s a book about resilience, which is the first characteristic of the vine: the more she struggles, the better the grapes will be, giving a wonderful, memorable wine. The vine is a fighter and so are we, especially during this time.
Can you tell me more about how you use your specific communication style to promote Italian wines in the US via your business? 
Italian wines are greatly appreciated in the U.S., but the majority of the american consumers tend to drink the usual and most renowned 4-5 Italian wines. Every time I say that Italy counts more than 600 registered indigenous grape varieties, which account for one third of the world’s grape varieties, jaws drop.
My communication strategy revolves around diversity: Italy is the most biodiverse place on earth. I work with wineries and wine producers’ associations who focus on the native varieties and my mission is to get the American drinkers curious about these territories and the lesser known wines coming from there.
It is a challenge, but also a great opportunity for my homeland. If the market builds a sustained appetite for these wines, we can help the producers’ communities to keep their traditions alive, and save less famous varieties from extinction.
What are you thoughts about the status of Italian wine export market in the UK? 
I see a bright future for Italian wines in the UK – if the Italian producers and associations will invest more in promoting the “underdog” wines and regions among the professionals and the ‘above average interest’ consumers.
The phenomenon of premiumization has been important for Italian wines in the US: our market is growing more in value than in volume. I think this is the way to go also in the UK, fighting the preconception that Italian wines are cheaper and easier compared to the premium fine wines of France, for instance.
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Interview: Christina Rasmussen

Swirl meets Christina Rasmusen, head of content and co-founder of Little Wine.

Christina, together with her business partner Daniela Pillhofer, is on a mission to change the way we learn about wine. “Learning about wine shouldn’t be like going back to uni; it should be more like watching David Attenborough on TV!” We talked about how the environment is at the heart of Little Wine, and how emotion isn’t something to be afraid of in wine communications.

Little Wine takes a novel approach to wine content, not just with your subscription model, but in the type and tone of content you produce. How are you different?

When Little Wine was born we [Christina and her co-founder Daniela Pillhofer] were united buy a joint frustration with the lack of winemaker-specific content out there. The majority of wine content is tasting note and score based – but both of us had fallen in love with wine through the winemakers. As a writer myself, frustrated by typical wine content, one of our first ideas was to remove by-lines. In doing so I become anonymous, and push the winemakers I’m writing about into the limelight. We’re trying to focus on the winemaker and what they have to say about their wines – rather than what I think about the wines – because that’s the content that I knew I was looking for when I was first learning about wine.

You’re unafraid to use eco-agricultural terms which is a refreshing rebellion against the dumbing down of these topics. We find it strange that, whereas in the food industry it’s fairly typical to have a crossover of interests, in wine you’re a wine expert and that’s it. Interestingly, your approach seems to be much more ‘eco before wine’, lending itself to crossover with other fermented drinks. Do you think your customers are coming to you for wine or your eco credentials first?

Every single wine we have is what I call ‘organic plus’ – because I think you can also be a bad organic farmer. So, organic but minded very much in how to regenerate the soil and how to create an agricultural system which is sustainable for both the planet and the farmer. I do know that it’s perhaps a big ask to put complex terminology out there but our readers seem to be interested in it.

We’re still trying to suss out what our customer is. The wine club [including subscription to all content] is majority 25-34-year-olds, 50:50 men and women, and people who are not necessarily looking for every day wines, but for a few special bottles for the weekend. I hope that the majority of our customers would find us through being eco-focussed because it’s such a core part of our approach – also through carbon neutral delivery. We know they find us through searching for organic wines and eco packaging. We get the most amazing Trustpilot reviews about all of the packaging and the fact that it’s all biodegradable, compostable and made from recycled materials.

I think one of the issues I have with the wine industry is that for so long it’s been seen as a luxury product with luxury branding. Wine is this very romantic thing and if you think about it as a consumer you think grandiose cellars and fancy barrels and some dude in a suit. Whereas, in reality, the majority of vineyards and winemakers out there – they are farmers. Wine’s an agricultural product. That’s a huge goal for us – to re-educate people about what wine is and how it’s made, because the majority of it is farming. There’s far too much focus on the winemaking in my eyes. I think actually one of the most beautiful aspects of wine is that it does come from nature. In a world where we all eat things with god knows how many ingredients in them – to sit with a bottle of wine which has been manipulated as little as possible and that is delicious, you can really connect to nature that way.

For me it’s very important to always educate people and approach these topics in a positive way. You could go down the other route and do an expose on how some of the most famous mass-produced wines are made. I think people would be a bit shocked to find that this wine they think is made in a beautiful cellar is actually made in a factory.

Leading with the positive rather than trying to frighten with the negative resonates with your approach where you are unafraid to be unemotional and philosophical about wine. Do you ever have any kickback against this?

Yes and no. Because I like to communicate about wine from an emotional and philosophical standpoint, I do encounter people who assume that I don’t know the technicalities of wine. Actually, I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to stuff like that. I don’t know if it has to do with being a woman or because I communicate from an emotive standpoint but I do encounter people who – until I disprove them – assume I don’t know what I’m talking about. But then I do like to whip out the science.

Part of the reason I like to think about wine so philosophically is because I worked a vintage with a very close friend of mine Abe Schoener. He is a philosophy professor. He knows the tech side of winemaking in and out – but he always always approaches winemaking from a totally non-scientific standpoint. And when you do that the world of wine becomes so much broader because you’re thinking about other sides of it. How the wine makes you feel. Where that feeling comes from.

It’s interesting that you raise the conflict between perceived technical knowledge and emotional connection with a wine. The more progressive someone tries to be in the way they communicate, the more some clamp down and insist on utilitarian, “objective” assessment. Why do you think that people are always forced to prove that they know what they’re talking about?

I think it’s such a competitive world, which is sad because the competitive aspect of it can end up being dis-inclusive and scary. If I were a newcomer coming to the industry and went on wine Twitter for a couple of days then I’d be like ‘get me out of here’. I think it is possibly because so many of us have gone through WSET training. When you go through a course which is so rigid, and so time consuming—and all-consuming—I don’t know if that then sparks some kind of irritation or jealousy in people when they see others communicate in a way which isn’t prescriptive.

I don’t know – it’s a strange, innate response going on, like a pack mentality. I think it’s really cool to see people approach wine with a fresh mindset. All power to that person who is doing so. People who don’t embrace that – it’s coming from a place of bitterness and jealousy. It’s like this recent article [Winesearcher: The Incurable Plague of Wine Influencers] which came out which is just so bitter and angry.

Does your eco-first approach inform the emotion you put into your content?

Definitely. When I visit a winemaker who works hand to mouth and thinks about every single part of their business to make it eco-friendly, you really get the sense that it’s someone doing something powerful for the environment and for our future. That makes me feel indescribable emotion. That is something that should be championed and definitely affects the way I communicate about that wine as a result. At Little Wine we approach tasting notes from how the wine makes you feel. Because different wines provoke different feelings. One of our most positive feedback elements has been people saying that our approach to tasting notes has really helped them understand when and where they want to drink a wine.

I remember after I went through WSET I would visit winemakers and be so fixated on writing tasting notes. And I would take my book back home and read through my and think – they’re so boring. They didn’t mean anything to me really. I wished I spent more time writing down the winemakers’ quotes, because that to me was something far more interesting and a lovely thing to keep safe in a diary and go back to. That was how the winemaker profiles for Little Wine were conceived.

Time to crown unsung heroes?

Written by our guest writer, Aleesha Hansel

As the world of wine evolves so too should wine education.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the British educational curriculum not teaching wider history, and most noticeably skimming over the less-than-desirable aspects of the British Empire.

The lack of education leads, obviously, to ignorance, but also stifles critical thinking on the subjects, and the ability to look at the bigger picture.

History is, after all, written by the victor.

Within wine, education also has a bias.

Given the idolisation of French wines, people new to wine would be forgiven for thinking that viticulture started there, but the birthplace of wine actually lies in the Caucasus region. The oldest winery was found in an Armenian cave and evidence of winemaking, dating to some 8,000 years ago, is claimed by Georgia.

And yet, Georgia’s most planted red grape – Saperavi – pales in comparison to France’s Merlot when it comes to recognition.

Learning about wine, it’s easy to get swept up in the romanticisation of certain regions and grapes that have an almost consecrated affinity to the land, making them highly desirable.

Often, when we are taught about the history of wine, we are actually being taught about the history of political alliances.

Let’s take the two most well-known (and most attention-winning within formal wine education) regions – Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Bordeaux was under English rule between 1152 – 1453, and it was during this time that “claret” (from the French “clairet” – a deep coloured, full bodied rose wine) grew in popularity.

Similarly, Burgundy has a strong connection to England – with its dukes and counts largely supporting England against France during the Hundred Year War. Philip the Good even recognised Henry V of England as heir to the French throne, in the 1420 treaty.

In comparison, England’s historical relationship with the Caucasus isn’t as significant and these countries receive just a glance in the syllabus.

What I, and many others, adore about wine are the stories behind the bottles. It teaches us about geography, anthropology, history, chemistry, biology and much more. So, isn’t wine education and communication doing itself a disservice by not sharing them all with equal enthusiasm?

I recently asked a group of wine folk why we put so much emphasis in learning about wine making in France, and was given the answer that it was because they taught the wine world so much, and that it was a standard to be admired and to be emulated.

Would I have got the same answer 150 years ago when German wines were the gold standard?

Or even 2000 years ago when the Romans were educating the French in the ways of the vine?

And, perhaps most importantly, will the answer be the same in another 150 years, with the growing success and knowledge of new world and ‘old old’ world?

The seminal Judgement of Paris proved that when the safety net of indoctrinated thinking is removed, and wines are judged solely on their presentation, a new future is written.

In order to do justice not just to students, but producers and consumers, we need to teach a balanced world view of wine.

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The three drinks our 2020 interviewees couldn’t be without

This year we interviewed some fantastic women in the wine trade. To celebrate the festive season we asked them to name three drinks they couldn’t do without this Christmas. Unsurprisingly, there are some real corkers!

Clara Latham, General Manager at Della Vite

Della Vite Prosecco Superiore DOCG

I’ve chosen a Prosecco as my sparking for the festive season, because its light – making it perfect as an aperitif to kick off an evening. Della Vite’s Superiore specifically I find to be less sweet compared with others, really balanced in taste and crisp in texture.

Chenin Blanc – Coulee de Serrant, Loire Valley – Savennieres, 2013

I fell in love with this wine whilst celebrating my partners birthday at the Pig Hotel in Bath – some of the younger vintages are easier to get hold of and are still fantastic. A natural wine with real minerality – always a special treat.

Barolo DOCG Villadoria, Piemonte, 2015

Full bodied, and perfect to accompany cosy dinners with open fires – bang on for delicious wintery moments.

Melanie Jappy 2.4.19
Photo © SBurnett

Melanie Jappy, Producer of The Wine Show and founder, TWS Creative

Belsazar Rosé Vermouth with tonic

This is a German vermouth and it’s a lovely light apero that still feels like a drink but doesn’t get you too squiffy while you’re stirring the bread sauce. I’m not a champagne girl (although I can be persuaded if it’s vintage!) so for me a vermouth and tonic is a perfect way to open the festivities.

Quinta da Boa Esperança Syrah 2016

For the last couple of years my life has been dominated by Portugal – filming there, socialising there and certainly making friends there. So I’ll be opening a bottle of  Quinta da Boa Esperança Syrah 2016 on Christmas Day. It’s going to be an intimate lunch so I’m cooking a Challans Duck with persimmon and I think it can take the magnificent Syrah they produce which, with candlelight and some gentle music will let me snooze away to dream of those dusty hot summer days in Portugal. The owner of the winery, Artur Gamma has become a great friend and I’m a huge fan of all the wines from the Quinta, but this one leaves me swooning every time.

Grahams 20 year old Tawny

I’ve also fallen back in love with Port unsurprisingly. We’d been on hiatus from each other after an unfortunate encounter at a University Dining Club in the early 1990s. But having found each other again, the relationship has found a solid footing. I adore vintage, but as there won’t be many around the table, I think I’ll go with Grahams 20 year old Tawny which we can enjoy over a few nights. Not only is it a great wine, but it also takes me back to one of my favourite day’s filming ever high above the Douro River when we ate Pizza out of an old fig drying oven and drank chilled Tawny with Charlotte and Rob Symington and Olga Martins and Jorge Moreira. It really was a day I’ll never forget. Everything you hope the wine world will be…full of laughter, friendship and warmth.

Thank goodness for headphones! Clare shares her desk with her three homeschooling children.

Clare Malec, Founder and Director of Island Media

A Bloody Mary with Sapling Vodka and Pickle House Spiced Tomato Mix

The mixture of spiciness and warmth from a really well made bloody mary is the perfect antidote to a bracing walk in the cold at this time of year.  Keen to support innovative British businesses I have just discovered the two perfect ingredients – Sapling Vodka produced in London using local ingredients with very green credentials (they plant a tree for every bottle bought).  Mix this with Suffolk produced Pickle House Spiced Tomato Mix, generous in its spiciness, and you are already well on the path to feeling the Christmas warmth and cheer.

Ashling Park Cuvée

Christmas is time also time for celebratory fizz and again I will be looking close to home for the right bottle.  We have so many incredible wineries on our doorstep wherever we are in this country but one of my favourites is Ashling Park Cuvée from the foot of the South Downs in West Sussex.  Their talented team won two of the top awards at this year’s Wine GB Awards and its not difficult to see why.

Anything South African!

Looking further afield 2020 has been the beginning of my love affair with South African wine. I feel I have only just started on my voyage of discovery, so have filled our wine rack with a mixture of reds and whites from a host of different producers. They present amazing value for money and the diversity of styles and flavours means that whatever we are eating, it is not difficult to find something interesting to pair with it.

Collette O’Leary, Winemaker at Henners Vineyard

Henners Brut NV

Of course! I may be biased but this is the perfect fizz for celebrations large and small this season.  It’s the wine I will give friends and family, as well as enjoy myself.

Domaine Berthelemot Puligny-Montrachet

A treat for Christmas, ripe fruit, acidity and lovely oak balance gives it a delicious richness to match with food at Christmas.

Domaine Boutinot Le Six

For me this is a perfect all-rounder, soft, velvety Rhone blend, fruit driven and just so appealing.

A little extra…

And an espresso martini….because when is that ever a bad idea?!