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Will you celebrate National Prosecco Day? Our August newsletter

Today is National Prosecco Day. Hold your sighs. Don’t pop your indignant cork.

In the last decade Awareness Days have grown almost as rapidly as prosecco exports.

Awareness Days started with a focus on worthy causes, promoted by governments or campaign groups. Health, the environment, humanitarian causes – an Awareness Day is a great way to raise profile, engage the media, strengthen community and galvanise action. All great purposes.

But then there are Awareness Days which are trivial, playful – even straight up commercial. Case in point: today is not just National Prosecco Day. It’s also National Filet Mignon Day, International Left Handers Day and National Blame Someone Else Day (seriously).

Awareness Days have become a way to advocate for interests more niche and playful than global health issues. In wine, there are days to celebrate what feels like every grape – there are even 17 different days to celebrate winemaking regions. These “Days Of” can be a great way to build customer interaction by piggy-backing on high-engagement social media trends.

Awareness Days thrive on herd mentality and sociable frivolity. We engage with these discussions because we see others doing the same. Purists or technocrats may sigh at such shallow attraction, but it’s an easy hook for otherwise hard-won, flighty consumer attention. And once hooked, you can start to share the nuances of your mission with your new audience.

In our latest blog post we explore how to communicate nuance (in this case for Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore) on a day which feeds the shortcut-hungry attention of the average consumer.

We reckon that of all the wine-related days, Prosecco Day has cultural resonance. Prosecco has become a symbol for care-free happiness. As Andrew Jefford wrote in the Financial Times last week, prosecco wines “…are delicious; they seem to make happy moments happier.”

There is still reward, still meaning to be found in fun and bright surfaces. ‘Days Of’ are useful for drawing people to a deeper, richer seam of information – in the same way that the popularity of prosecco opens minds and palates to the rewards of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore.

Any irritations or errors in this newsletter are absolutely NOT OUR FAULT.

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Our work: Elevating prosecco, with Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG

“[Prosecco wines] are delicious; they seem to make happy moments happier” – Andrew Jefford, Financial Times [paywall].

Today, on National Prosecco Day, we have shared in our newsletter how we think Awareness Days like this are a great opportunity to tap into a new audience, drawn in by the fun of a social-media driven ‘holiday’. In the newsletter, we drew a parallel between the way ‘Days Of’ function in marketing, drawing people into a deeper, richer seam of information, and the way prosecco opens minds and palates to the nuances of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore.

Does a wine have to be ‘serious’ to be good?

Andrew Jefford’s glowing Financial Times article shows that the perceived levity of prosecco, it’s apparent lack of ‘seriousness’, is no longer an impingement to its popularity even among the most highbrow wine drinkers. His exploration of the complexities of the wine as you move from the DOC plains to the precariously steep hills of the DOCG gives a feel of unpacking a Russian doll. There’s always more to learn, another incredible wine to discover as you climb ever steeper into the mountains. But that’s balanced by the everyday pleasure to be had in the easy-going lift of familiar prosecco.

Our work with Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore

Swirl Wine Group has been working with Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore for several years and over that time we have held strong to one essential truth: very few wines ever gain cultural relevance. Most wines are not household names (unless you’re round ours with the other wine geeks!). Prosecco-with-a-small-‘p’, or prosecco DOC, has become a cultural phenomenon. It represents a carefree happiness – it represents fun. One the one hand, this can only be a good thing. But on the other, when prosecco begins to appear as a label on bath products, cakes, even paint colours, this success begins to erode the connection of the wine to its agricultural heart. With a ten-fold increase in exports in the last decade, it’s no wonder that, as Jefford puts it, prosecco seemed to ‘dance away from seriousness’.

When we first began working with Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore it was essential to us to address this perception. The DOCG hills, despite their deep-rooted cultural and historical relevance in the region, had given their name and image to a wine style which became associated with quite a shallow approach to wine drinking.

So, our mission was to unpick this.

How did we do it?

First, we tackled the prejudice against prosecco of all types by wine professionals and those who felt themselves ‘discerning’ drinkers. In every kind of art or cultural creativity there is an inherent dichotomy between the elevated, uncompromising and aspirational and the quotidian and accessible. We see it in literature, we see it in food, we see it in art and music and wine, too. We made it our mission to show that this principle – this dichotomy – applied to prosecco.

We did this, perhaps counter-intuitively, by embracing complexity.

We focused on the mountains, describing Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore as ‘mountain wines’ – a visual way to describe the difference between lowland plain DOC and DOCG wines. We focused on the complexity of the winemaking process. On the centuries old UNESCO-recognised system of grass terracing. On the single vineyard Rive. On the staggeringly steep vineyards which have to be maintained by hand.

How is prosecco seen now?

What we’ve achieved, as seen in Jefford’s article, is a shift change in the way that prosecco – especially Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore is seen. We’ve embraced all the nuances of the DOCG with the confident geekiness you’d usually find applied to regions known best for their top fine wines. We think we’ve shown that fine wine can come from anywhere – even places where the market is most familiar with entry-level, accessible wines. And this National Prosecco Day we raise a glass to the gate-opening simply delicious proseccos, as well as the filigree-fine, elegant mountain wines of Prosecco Superiore.

 

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Only connect: our July newsletter

We’re happy to share our July newsletter below:

The UK is officially open for business. For better or worse, the majority of the restrictions we’ve lived with for the past 18 months have been lifted.

So, we thought it was the perfect time to ask for a little feedback about the virtual events which have come to dominate our lives – and the in-person events many of us have been raring to get back to.

Last month, we surveyed a tight pool of UK trade professionals who had attended a Swirl event in the past 12 months. The findings were illuminating.

When we developed Swirl in the Cloud in the first months of the pandemic, we wanted to make the most of the opportunity to introduce event attendees to winemakers who wouldn’t typically be accessible without travelling to their vineyards. It was gratifying to see that 68% of respondents really valued this opportunity. Though, interestingly, having the opportunity to meet winemakers and importers in person was also ranked as the top reason for attending in-person events.

It shows that personal connection has a higher value than convenience. In a time where we are all starved of human contact – where we all newly appreciate the sheer luxury of setting the world to rights over a glass of wine – this finding feels especially prescient.

But accessibility and sustainability are still important values for us as we move into uncharted COVID-restriction-free waters.

70% of respondents said that they would welcome hybrid events in the future. To reach the portion of potential attendees who are unable or unwilling to travel, virtual events via Swirl in the Cloud will continue to be part of our offering.

You can see the full report on our survey’s results here.

At a time where we’re reflecting on many months of virtual-only events, we’ve also explored how the digital leaps we’ve made during COVID have enable us to host a global conference virtually.

The Old Vine Conference was a huge success – not least because the digital format enabled us to achieve things we wouldn’t have been able to at an in-person event.

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How we hosted a global conference digitally

We explore how the virtual format of The Old Vine Conference created an environment in which the conference’s aims could thrive.

The Old Vine Conference was created with a singular aim: galvanising a global movement to nurture and value great old vines, and their wines.

With a global outlook at the heart of their ethos, a digital conference was a great opportunity to give their message a truly international reach and focus with Swirl Wine Group acting as conference and PR partner, executing the events and securing coverage.

An incredible global response

We had an incredible response to the first Old Vine Conference, with over five hundred guests from more than twenty countries. It would have been unlikely to have achieved such a range with an in-person conference. We achieved 29 pieces of coverage for our client, in publications including The Telegraph and the Financial Times. Not to mention extensive features in the trade press.

Even more significantly, The Old Vine Conference also received hundreds of emails from new old vine champions all over the world who had been able to tune in and learn about why this ancient vines are so vital.

Connecting likeminded experts

The really transformative, powerful thing about this conference being held digitally was its ability to foster connections which otherwise would have been challenging. In almost every region and every country there are passionate, visionary individuals with a deep level of knowledge of their own specific old vines who had no idea that there were people like them, doing similar things in another part of the world. There was a parable send of excitement – of gratitude, even – when people were able to learn from each other in this way.

Changing perceived wisdom

Prior to this conference, there had been a palpable sense that the trade was acquiescing to the loss of these heritage vineyards. There was a belief that it was too hard to communicate to consumers why old vines are so special, an attitude which had bred apathy in some quarters.

But by bringing together people like Marco Simonit in Italy, Dylan Grigg in Australia and Jean-Philippe Roby in France – highly respected practitioners with incredible applied knowledge and understanding of how to cultivate these old vineyards – has completely upended accepted wisdom.

The digital format meant that these experts are no longer lone voices in the wilderness. They have been presented to the trade as a united, loud front.

As Sarah Abbott MW says:

“Since our first event in March, we have been contacted by passionate winemakers and old vines experts from around the world who want to engage with our initiative. This shows that there is a real need to harness this passion and turn it into real actions that can help secure the future of old vines around the world.

We have already started to build a network of regional ambassadors and producer sponsors around the world which will allow us to continue to develop future events and connections.”

But in-person meetings are still important

The one failing of this digital conference format is that we couldn’t share the selection of old vine wines we wanted to. While each of these wines may seem disparate, when united in a tasting under the banner of ‘old vines’ you can trace the effect these heritage vines have on their wines.

This future hope was reflected in our recent survey of virtual versus in-person events. 68% people said that the ability to taste and connect with others could not be replicated online, an important lesson as we come to plan future Old Vine Conferences.

View the coverage

You can view the full coverage from the first and second Old Vine Conferences here: Conference 1 and Conference 2.

 

 

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Survey results: virtual vs in-person events

Last month, we conducted a survey to explore attitudes to virtual versus in-person events in the context of the governments’ easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

We surveyed a tight group of people: only those who had attended one of Swirl’s events in the last 12 months.* This decision ensured that the results were highly relevant to Swirl and could help us make decisions in a couple key areas for us: creating events which serve our attendees best, and making eco-sustainable choices.

But while these results are highly specific to Swirl, we still think they’re worth sharing for their general relevance to our industry.

In-person tastings

We asked respondents to rate the following topics, ranked here in order of importance:

  1. Opportunities to meet winemakers and importers face to face
  2. Opportunity to network and discuss wines with peers
  3. Ability to taste at own pace
  4. Tasting from full bottles
  5. Opportunities to sample wines with food

Notably, 68% of respondents highly valued meeting winemakers face-to-face. 54% of people also liked having the ability to taste at their own pace, and enjoyed networking opportunities.

On the other hand, 68% of people didn’t relatively find it important to be able to taste from full bottles in-person. 88% of people also said they didn’t value tasting wines with food. In a later question, 68% of people said food at tastings isn’t relatively important, but it is nice to have (see chart below). This was an interesting finding for us, as clients often ask us to present food specifically paired with the wines at in-person tastings.

Other key findings regarding in-person events included the following charts which show that respondents are generally flexible about how in-person events are structured – they’re mainly just happy to be back!

Virtual Tastings

We asked respondents to rate the following topics, ranked here in order of importance:

  1. Opportunity to meet a wider range of winemakers live virtually who perhaps wouldn’t be so easily accessible in UK
  2. Convenience and accessibility
  3. Health security in times of COVID pandemic
  4. Pre-recorded multi-media that you can access at your convenience after the tasting
  5. Tasting and discussing online with others

A key contextual takeaway is that for the whole survey it was apparent that people were evenly split in terms of the importance they placed on COVID-19 health safety at the time of taking the survey. Given that by mid-June over 60% of UK adults had been double vaccinated, this reflects the public mood.

For the purpose of thinking about virtual events long-term, 70% of respondents comparatively thought that hybridised events should continue to be offered:

 

This tallies with the 54% of people who said that, relatively, the accessibility and convenience of virtual events was of most appeal to them. We had a number of additional comments which pointed out that, geographically, in-person tastings tend to be London-centric, which means they’re not as accessible for people not living in the capital.

But for us, one of the most interesting findings was that 68% of respondents said that, similarly, the opportunity to meet ‘live’ a wider range of winemakers who perhaps wouldn’t be so easily accessible in UK was the main appeal of virtual events for them. In tandem with the finding that another 68% of people relatively valued in-person tastings for this very same reason – to interact with winemakers, we know that having this connection in any way possible is very important for event attendees.

“I would just like to add that the only thing that is not useful about virtual tastings is allowing winemakers to talk endlessly about how wonderful they are. Swirl is very good at making them keep to the point!”

A key concern for the Swirl team when we created our digital arm, Swirl in the Cloud, was replicating as best as we could the experience of chatting to peers you’d experience at an in-person tasting. While necessity is the mother of invention, it’s still notable that now virtual tastings are no longer the only option, 60% said that, comparatively, discussing wines online with others was not important to them.

All in all, virtual tastings present a very efficient use of time but they’re still not seen as a desired alternative to the ‘real thing’ – in-person events.

Sustainability

Sustainability, in both environmental and business terms, is vitally important to Swirl’s future. We’ve noticed a sharp uptick in awareness of eco-sustainable practices in terms of sample delivery and the execution of events. In this context, there are benefits to both virtual and in-person events.

Virtual events reduce travel, especially air travel. But it’s necessary to send samples out individually, whereas in-person tastings require only a few bottles.

We found that, comparably, 75% of respondents rated recyclable packaging as very important. But, given everyone has different means of processing information, opinions were split on the relevance of printed materials.

Other feedback

We were really happy to see some lovely feedback about Swirl in the Cloud events, and in-person Swirl events.

“I love Sarah’s presenting style – the combination of wine, geo-politics, history and culture is always fascinating. More of that, please!”

We also got some valuable feedback on what key information is vital for event attendees. Of particular importance was the label information breakdown: grape, ABV, RRP, vintage. Tasting notes and further background was considered less important.

These are valuable insights for Team Swirl. If you responded, thank you very much for your input. We hope wine trade colleagues find this information as useful as we do.

*50 respondents from across the UK wine industry who had attended a Swirl Wine Group led event in the past 12 months.
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The power of stories

“Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds” – Paul Zak

In the UK, our wine industry is anything but ancient. Perhaps that’s why it’s hard for us to get our heads around how wine can be as integral a part of a culture as Christmas rituals, or the way we greet friends at a bar.

But that’s how wine is in Georgia. It’s a fundamental part of their culture. So, when we were thinking of ways to further the (already impressive!) market share of Georgian wines in the UK, we knew we couldn’t turn to ordinary solutions. We needed to find a way to communicate the cultural relevance of these wines in their country of origin.

The answer? Storytelling.

Of course, in a market like the UK, simply making good wine is not enough. We’re a market of sophisticated consumers who demand access to reliable wine information – and story-led marketing. Stories have become much bandied about marketing ‘concept’. But their power has real neurological basis.

Georgia had the wines. It even had the stories. But it didn’t have them in an easily digestible, saleable format. So, we created Georgian Wine Connect.

Fundamentally, Georgian Wine Connect is an online platform to develop and share the details of wine and winery that have proven difficult for trade buyers to find. But we also worked with over 50 export-ready producers, surveying them (in Georgian where necessary) to identify their most promising wines for the UK, and to present their story and offer in the most accessible way.

Our hope is this story-led approach will become the norm, especially for emerging regions where wine is culturally embedded. Where wine is part of their story.

You can read in more detail about Georgian Wine Connect here and explore the portal here.

This month we also talked to the winners of the Indie Trade Alliance Fund. This fund offered small and medium independent UK retailers the opportunity to apply for a grant towards increased promotion of their Georgian wine listings.

We had some fantastic entries, but together with our client, Wines of Georgia, we whittled it down to the strongest proposals. We talked to the winners about the impact of pandemic restrictions on their marketing plans and how they’ll use Georgian Wine Connect.

Of course, we also spoke about how wine is at the heart of Georgian culture and how they communicate that to their customers.

 

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Pioneering producer connections

At Swirl Wine Group, we specialise in helping emerging wine regions reach their full potential in the UK wine market. For ‘emerging’ or lesser-known wine regions it can be a battle to match the great wines we know are out there with the passionate sales people who we know will get those wines into people’s glasses.

One of the biggest barriers that we encounter is extracting the compelling, saleable story behind great producers – and then presenting clearly to potential stockists. So, for one of our key clients, Wines of Georgia, we devised a pioneering solution: Georgian Wine Connect.

Georgian wine in the UK is booming, but it remains a small, young market. The old markets of Russia and the CIS still consume the majority of Georgian wine. But the new markets of Western Europe and North America are where sales are growing most rapidly.

The Georgian National Wine Agency has pursued this strategy of market diversification for ten years. The health and survival of their wine sector depends on it. It is impossible to overstate the importance of wine to Georgia’s culture, identity, society and economy.

Of course, new markets demand new approaches. Good wine is not enough. Markets such as the UK require consistent access to reliable wine information, and story-led marketing. Georgia has the wines. But not the information. Georgian Wine Connect is a project and online platform to develop and share the details of wine and winery that have proven difficult for trade buyers to find.

We are inspired, of course, by the excellent platforms run by the generic bodies of major wine exporters. Australia is a fine example, (we promise that we didn’t mean to copy the name!).

But our work with Georgian Wine Connect has required that we didn’t only provide a platform for producers and buyers to connect. We have worked with over 50 export-ready producers, surveying them (in Georgian where necessary) to identify their most promising wines for the UK, and to present their story and offer in the most accessible way with producers filterable by winery size, wine style and positioning.

The Georgian Wine Connect platform combines a producer directory and events hub. Our program of in-person and virtual tastings are hosted on the platform, as well as a series of monthly Doing Business webinars that will start at the end of June. UK buyers, journalists and educators are invited to log into the hub, join events, and request information, live chats or a zoom call with the representatives from wineries.

Together with the Indie Trade Alliance initiative, the winners of whom we interviewed this month, we’re providing a progressive, user-friendly way of grabbing one of key clients even more market share.

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Interview: the winners of Wines of Georgia’s Indie Trade Alliance Fund

Each month we speak to a someone doing things a little differently in our industry. Usually, this takes the form of an interview with an interesting woman in our trade, but this month we decided to do something a little different. Our newsletter highlighted the novel approach we’ve taken to connecting export-ready producers with UK retailers via the Georgian Wine Connect hub. Wines of Georgia are one of our key clients, and we’re proud to showcase how their trust in us has enable us to come up with a pioneering solution for a common issue faced by producers in emerging wine regions: how to get their wines in front of consumers in key markets.

In tandem with Georgian Wine Connect, we also worked with Wines of Georgia to develop an Indie Trade Alliance fund giving small and medium independent UK retailers the opportunity to apply for a grant to use to increase their exposure of Georgian wine to their customers. We had some fantastic entries, but, together with our client, we whittled it down to the strongest proposals.

This month, we talked to those winners about how initiatives like Georgian Wine Connect and the Indie Trade Alliance can have a positive impact on their business, showing why they’re such an important part of what we do at Swirl.

The typical way to get people interested in wines from new places is to get them to taste taste taste! But the pandemic has put restraints on these sorts of marketing activities – so we asked the winners how they’re adapting their marketing of Georgian wine to mitigate these barriers.

Danilo di Salvo of Georgian Wine specialist Gvino UK admits that they’ve pivoted to be fully online. “We have invested in a part-time Marketing Director who looks after our digital marketing activities [and have] re-vamped our website for a better use experience. For example, we have included filters to choose a specific bottle of wine based on the questions that we get asked most face-to-face. We have also had to turn to online wine tasting, which we were nervous about at first. However, our online wine tastings have been very successful (with fantastic support from Swirl). We will do more of these in the future.”

But Danilo isn’t the only one who’s innovating. Duncan Findlater of Smith & Gertrude says that “we are going to be taking the wines to people in their own homes through our wine club and through the weekly cheese and wine packs that we send out.” While Chris Coombes of Turton Wines says they’ve initiated “Home Tasting Kits, Online Tastings [for] private and Corporate clients, Mystery Cases with online Youtube Channel presentation, and targeted staff tasting sessions.”

The latter investment is repeated by Emily Silva of The Oxford Wine Company who says part of their grant-winning strategy is to focus “heavily on staff training, which will provide our lovely, enthusiastic staff with all the information they need to spread the word about delicious Georgian wine”.

But there’s also a clear desire to offer ‘normal’ in-store tastings where possible. Tom Boronat of The Salusbury Wine Store & Bar admits “[they’ve] channelled [their] efforts into a higher social media presence and began writing more frequent newsletters […but they’ll] host the event in store as easing of restrictions means we can get away with an indoor tasting’.

One of the most powerful things about an initiative like the Indie Trade Alliance fund for an emerging region like Georgia, is that it gives indies the opportunity to do what they do best: hand sell compelling stories. Wine is enmeshed in Georgian culture in a way that’s quite unique, so the winning plans all explore this significance.

Danilo of Givno UK is putting a strong focus on the cultural importance of wine: “The cuisine from Georgia is absolutely incredible and so we are going to use our generous funding from the GITA to commission a short series of YouTube videos celebrating the relationship between Georgian wine and food from a famous Georgian chef.” Les Hall of The Wright Wine Company agrees: “[I’ve said before] that in order to promote Georgian wine I felt that Georgia as a whole should be promoted and that there should be an exploration of the absolute bond linking family, hospitality, food and wine. Doing all that in a shop is certainly going to be a challenge. But we’re up for it!”.

This cultural focus also rides on the coattails of sweeping wine trends – something Carrie Carruthers of Carruthers & Kent will definitely exploit. “We can’t quite believe it ourselves how through the roof [the rising demand for natural and Amphora wine has] gone, in particular with young people.”

Speaking to the winners of the Indie Trade Alliance has also highlighted how powerful a tool this will be to enable Georgia, a still ‘emerging’ region to gain even more market share in the valuable UK wine market.

Isa Bal of Trivet restaurant says “we have plans to work with a number of producers directly at this point in time it gives us a good idea what we can do.” Emily of The Oxford Wine Company agrees, saying the tool is “very efficient and a great way to connect without needing to travel either abroad or to London” – highlighting the success of portals like Georgian Wine Connect which engender personal connection in tandem with the ease and accessibility of online tools.

Danilo of Givno UK says it all with his comment: “This is a fantastic innovation – well done to all of those involved. We have plans to increase our wine variety significantly over the coming 12-18 months and so this tool will be invaluable. We currently source our wines through our relationships in Georgia, which has both pros and cons. One of the cons is that we may miss out on bringing some fantastic wine to the UK because we simply don’t know about it. This tool will help us mitigate this issue.”

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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.