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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?

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?!

Fashions in wine

Guest writer Aleesha Hansel applies fashion’s ’20 year rule’ to wine as she ruminates on the resurgent popularity of Beaujolais Nouveau.

‘It’s all just a little bit of history repeating’, Dame Shirley Bassey

Fashions come and go. As the dominance of skinny jeans crumbles and high-waisted ‘mom jeans’ take their place, it’s good to remind ourselves that fashions change and nothing lasts forever.

I was made aware of this being just as relevant to the wine industry this week with the release of Beaujolais Nouveau.

As a fan of the easy-going Gamay grape, the day always sounds like quite a lot of fun. But I’d never looked any further into the history of it, other than knowing it was the brain child of Georges Duboeuf.

Imagine my surprise then to hear of yuppies having Beaujolais breakfasts, Porsches laden with cases driving through the night.  Even the Red Devils parachuting into Covent Garden with a few bottles in hand. This Nouveau mania unsurprisingly passed me by, as I was a child more interested in Cartoon Network than carbonic maceration. So too did its eventual decline.

The 20-year rule

There is a well-known concept in fashion, the 20-year-rule, referring to the life cycle of trends, and if we look at what is on sale on the high street, or indeed online, currently it all takes inspiration from the 90s – slip dresses, scrunchies, crop tops, platform trainers, neon – the list goes on.

How interesting then that exactly 20 years after its peak consumption in the UK (1999), exports of red and rose Beaujolais to the UK last year grew by 22% in volume and 17% in value – the highest of any French region.

Today, if you ask anyone what is they believe to be the most expensive and ‘prestigious’ wines they will likely be Bordeaux or Burgundy. A hundred-and-fifty years ago it would have been Hock. This German Riesling is what most people would nowadays relate to sweet, cheap wine – mainly thanks to the arguably too successful Blue Nun.

It’s an all too familiar situation. Lambrusco, Chianti and Sherry are others which have become victims of their own success. Imagine scores of consumers drinking sparkling red wines, fortified wines and off-dry wines in their droves! It’s something wine merchants wouldn’t dare think possible today.

We did it before, we can do it again

But the former popularity of these wines is proof that the public can, and indeed do, enjoy a diversity of wine styles if they are marketed, discussed and sold in an engaging and accessible way. Of course, there is no road map for ensuring the resurgence of a wine’s popularity. But there are clues as to what might help.

Let’s go back to Beaujolais. It seems to do particularly well on Instagram. That’s hardly surprising, given the social media platform’s focus on aesthetics. It’s perfect for these wines with their appealing, colourful, interesting labels would do well.

It’s also a wine which doesn’t take itself too seriously, allowing consumers to relinquish the concern of looking silly if they don’t say or do the ‘right’ thing. I think embarrassment and confusion felt by drinkers when it comes to wine is vastly underestimated by the industry.

And of course, it’s managed to find itself on the list of several trendy wine bars, often frequented by younger clientele.

What more impetus is needed to broaden our communication and help the consumer to discover wines from lesser-known countries, grapes and styles?

History has proven we shouldn’t underestimate how adventurous consumers can be when given freedom and encouragement.

Drinkers have taken the plunge and done it before, and they’ll do it again. We just need to make them feel more engaged in the conversation and make wine fun again.

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End of term report

Sarah Abbott shares her end of term report reflecting on our work and our clients’ successes in a turbulent 2020.

2020 began in disarray. We had the best laid plans – but my fantastic team and clients kept calm and carried on. Together, we found ways to be adaptable, creative and resilient in order to deliver what was needed, sensitively.

At the time we didn’t grasp what a crucible of adjustment it was. Fortunately, towards the end of 2019, we’d become interested in the growing trend in other industries – especially events and conferences – for blending in-person events with virtual augmentation. We had begun to research it to see how it could translate for wine – which gave us a great basis for the wholesale pivot to digital everything.

Our job is to communicate and engage on behalf of our clients, as well as assisting commercially. And I’m proud that we achieved this, in a time when promoting a product, wine, which is all about togetherness, contravened the essence of our daily lives.

So, we came up with Swirl in the Cloud – proof that every cloud has a silver lining.

From the get-go we were strict about the structure. The most important thing was fostering a sense of togetherness so, at the most basic level, either everyone got the wine, or no one did. So, we really jumped on the informational webinar format. Packing these presentations chock-full of great data and information has helped us learn so much about what really engages our clients’ audiences.

A May report from McKinsey showed that in March to May of 2020, “we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks”. I can definitely believe it. Digital events are a great democratiser. They ensure equal access for everyone – whether you’re shielding, less mobile or just can’t get child care. That’s incredibly valuable – as we recognised in the opportunity it gave us to connect with people from across the globe. For example, for Wines of Georgia, we did a webinar about Qvevri and were joined by people from 20 different countries. Among them were some winemakers who had just started making qvevri wines in South Africa, and another using the method in Lebanon. Without that connectivity, we would never have been able to introduce them to some Georgian qvevri specialists who are now helping and advising them. That feels incredibly rewarding.

Looking forward, there are several things that this year has extracted from us which I don’t think we’ll ever put back. Clients have really risen to the occasion, making exquisite videos showcasing terroir. Combining this kind of content with in-person events is here to stay. It’s hugely valuable, especially given the high per-attendee cost of in-person events. Of course, in many ways in-person events are irreplaceable. There’s nothing like showcasing wine in the context in which it’s to be enjoyed – and we want to get back to hospitality venues as soon as possible. But there’s a high level of wastage and no-shows with the current model. I predict that this will change with a swing to smaller, more flexible in-person events blended with a digital element.

Wines of Georgia 

It came as no surprise that the team in Georgia were some of the first to embrace digital innovation – they know the importance of being creative and adaptable in difficult times.

In collaboration with their team, we’ve run 13  different virtual tastings and presentations. Year on year sales of Georgian wine to the UK have increased by 240%. We now have over 60 merchants and retailers stocking Georgian wines – a fantastic result for the producers and for our wine market. We’re also so pleased to report that importers have shared what an invaluable resource the in-depth online courses and training have made to their sales.

JFOODO

This year we’ve been running two different projects for JFOODO – one on their wines and one on sake.

Just before lockdown 1, at the beginning of February, I was in Japan. I am a complete sake novice, but though the style and tone of sake is so different from wine, I find that the depth of the culture, heritage, craft and intersection of place, personality and technique is very familiar to me. It’s just as rich as wine, so I’m really thrilled to be running two events on sake later this year.

Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superior DOCG

Conegliano Valdobbiadene is the premium end of Prosecco. And latest figures show that they have maintained their 2020 exports at the same level as 2019, in which exports to the UK from this specific zone doubled in volume and increased by 80% in value.

This year, we hosted six virtual tastings and supported the Consorzio with two virtual press trips. It was revelatory that a virtual event allowed us a deeper insight than what would be achievable in person. For example, we worked with Professor Digeo Tomasi, a leading authority on soil science and its effect on wine style. Using recorded video and live Zoom we were able to take attendees all over the region, sharing technical analysis of the aromatic compounds which resulted from each different soil type. While tasting the wines from each zone. It was an enormous piece of work to bring that together but it was really worth it to feel like we broke through those last vestiges of Prosecco prejudice.

Wine GB

We’ve just completed a really interesting project with Wine GB, focussing on classic method sparkling wine. The UK is emerging as a wine making nation and it was tremendously exciting to be able to work with Wine GB to explore how to express our identity and place in the world of wine.

We devised a communications hierarchy for how to talk about and differentiate classic method sparkling wine from England and Wales. We wanted to articulate the uniqueness of our wines made in our terroir, informed by our culture. I was really keen to move away from that trite way of talking about UK sparkling wine – in comparison to Champagne. Of course, Champagne is the benchmark for great classic method sparkling – but we’re not wannabes. We have an even more extreme climate and a much younger wine culture. We revel in the audacity, the boldness and experimentation which typifies our wine culture.

We were able to show a range of wines to predominantly trade journalists, and it was brilliant to hear them saying ‘I’ve never heard of this producer before, but this wine is fantastic’.

Respected by Gaggenau

This is a consultancy project, and one I’m really proud to be a part of. I love working on projects where wine is part of the story but not the only character. It puts wine in the broader context of humanity – a world which is broader than the ‘fellowship of wine geeks’ (among whom I’m happy to live).

Gaggenau makes really high-end, craft-focussed kitchen appliances. Their ‘Respected by…’ project celebrates culinary culture, of which wine is a part, by asking three curators from the worlds of wine, food and design to judge nominations from regional experts in each field. I’m so delighted that wine is being considered in the same breath as design and culinary excellence and look forward to sharing more when the winners are announced next year.

 

 

 

 

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Interview: Collette O’Leary

Swirl meets Collette O’Leary, head winemaker at Henners Vineyards.

Colette is an English winemaker on the rise. She’s in charge of the small team at Henners, a stone’s throw from the coast in Sussex, where they make delicious English wine. We talk about her career switch from PR to winemaking and what English wineries could do to improve their communication.

Career changes to work in the wine trade are not at all uncommon – maybe it’s the romance of grape and glass! – but pivoting to become a winemaker is far more unusual. What inspired the change? 

In 2010 I went on holiday to visit my sister in Nepal when I was stranded there by the Icelandic ash cloud which shut down air travel for a few weeks. Nepal doesn’t have great internet or beaches to lie on, so for that fortnight I was really alone with my thoughts – which were increasingly centring around my work in government PR. I really felt at a crossroads. I’d been doing PR for a long time, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I didn’t want to be doing it in my 50s or 60s. Plus, with the financial crisis and changing government the cash for the sorts of campaigns I liked doing was drying up.

I’d done a sort of gap year in 2006 when I’d worked at a cellar door in New Zealand. It had quick started a real passion for wine – so when a friend pointed out that vineyards had become my ‘happy place’, the penny dropped. I know I could’ve moved into wine PR, but it can be really high octane, working deadline to deadline so sometimes you feel like you are chasing your tail.  I decided I wanted to work on something longer term, where you take your time, plan for the future and works towards its fruition and the wine industry is perfect for that because nothing happens overnight, you have no choice but to be patient and go with the trials and tribulations of each season. I came back to the UK and never looked back.

What’s been your experience of training to be a winemaker at a later stage in life? 

I’m a city girl and don’t have a scientific background, so winemaking was a considerable change for me. But what I do have is a strong work ethic. I’m tenacious, I don’t let things get to me and if I want something then I’ll work until I get it. I was in some ways an advantage coming to this change a bit later in life. Coming to a new profession later in life gives you a new perspective, you know what it can be like to do something you don’t truly love, so you don’t take it for granted. I’d also spent my career to that point working out what my strengths and weakness were so I’m very aware of what I can bring to the table – and where I need to ask for help. When you’re younger, there can be a bit of a reluctance to show weakness. When you’re older, you really have the confidence to admit when you don’t know something which is really valuable in a winery.

How do you use your PR/ marketing expertise in your new role as winemaker? When you’re making a wine, are you also thinking about the story which will appeal to your customers? 

Making wine can be such a challenging journey and you really are led by the fruit, rather than the customer when you are making wine.  It’s a natural product so it will do what it’s going to do, as winemakers we just try to guide it along. You can’t make wine with just your customer in mind because wine is a living natural product. The seasons will give you what they give you. To a certain extent, if you think you’re making wine to a recipe because you have a certain style in mind then it doesn’t work. It has to be quality and vineyard driven.

But on the other hand, there are quite a lot of small wineries who have the attitude that ‘this is how we make our wine; people will like it because they should’. I think craft spirits and beer companies have got the right balance. They don’t lose their integrity of quality because they’re also minded of a story or category which their consumer can engage with. It’s partly why we’ve rebranded in the past three months. We’re celebrating our approach as, for want of a better description, a craft winery.

What’s the one thing UK winemakers could do to improve their communications?

I’ve spent a lot of time at tasting rooms while working overseas so I really understand how powerful that experience can be. The thing about English wineries is that we are still smaller – so the experience you get is often more personal and exciting than you get at big, established overseas Tasting Rooms. Here, you’ll meet the owner, the winemaker. They’re not reading from a script. You are introduced to the wine by a person talking with authentic passion. When I worked at that cellar door in New Zealand, I delivered a lot of the tours and my experience is that visitors are sponges. They want to understand as much as possible. There’s so much technical lang used in the wine industry which, to extent, is used to keep people at bay. It’s part of a general aloofness around wine. It was typical that as we move through the winery people who always be saying ‘I don’t know’, “I can’t taste’, ‘my opinions aren’t valid’ – the job of a cellar door is to give people confidence. It’s also a great opportunity for us to change price perception. There’s been a move in the UK towards valuing provenance. There is a cost to quality which people are really understanding in relation to food, and cellar doors can share that information too. After listening to a winemaker talk about how hard it is to make wine in the UK, people go away thinking ‘how can I buy a £4 bottle in Aldi’, not ‘this English wine is expensive’.

I genuinely think that the more we reach out to people, the more they’ll buy into it and take pride in the fact that these wines are made on their doorstep. They just been to try it and be given confidence to stand firm in their choices.

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Brave new world – Gunma craft sake with Master of Wine Sarah Abbott

Gunma craft sake

For a winelover, discovering sake is like being teleported to a new planet. The balance, aromas, texture and profile are so different – but the richness of culture, heritage, craft, climate and, yes, terroir, is reassuring familiar. Sarah Abbott MW became interested in sake while visiting Japanese wine regions in 2019 (and being treated to some seriously good sake by her hosts). In February this year, she visited the rural, land-locked prefecture of Gunma to find out more about Jetro’s project to supports the many small sake breweries there, and to raise awareness of the ‘terroir’ approach to rice selection and cultivation.