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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.

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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?!

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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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Interview: Clara Latham

Swirl meets Clara Latham, General Manager of Della Vite.

Working with Seedlip, Clara created a whole new category of drink. It was called ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ – but today Seedlip is the king of the ever-growing distilled non-alcoholic spirit category. Now with recently launched Della Vita, can Clara change how we view Prosecco too?

What’s it like to create a category?

Establishing a normal brand – you know who your competitors are, the category and concept are established and the trade understands what you’re doing. They know what to expect from your product. But when you are creating a whole new category you can’t look at the world as it currently is – because otherwise you don’t exist. You have to look at the world as you think it could be.

Before Seedlip, if you weren’t drinking for whatever reason, your options were really limited. People expected to feel disappointed. Taking that as our starting point, Seedlip created something that made people feel good, irregardless of whether they were drinking alcohol or not, they felt considered. We have an opportunity to change the way things are today and to do that for the better. That’s endlessly inspiring.

How are you seeing the that the world could be different with Della Vite?

Though Della Vite is a very different proposition from Seedlip, I felt that they had lots of parallels. I felt a bit nervous to lead with the word ‘Prosecco’ when people asked me what my new venture was. Their faces would drop. ‘Really?’ they’d say, ‘not English sparkling? Not a category that’s on the rise?’.

But when I look at the Prosecco category as it stands in Great Britain, I see a massive opportunity to reposition it and change how it’s perceived. At the moment it’s seen as an entry-level cheap commodity, I think mainly because the large proportion of Prosecco which reaches us here is mass market and mass produced. But we have an opportunity to get people understanding that there is such a thing as really high-quality Prosecco – that they could be feel proud not just to say that they drink it, but that they even prefer it. That it’s their chosen drink.

Compared with other celebrity wines, there’s an unexpected focus on technical detail with Della Vite. What’s the motivation for that? And what challenges did you experience working with both Prosecco and celebrities – two things the established trade aren’t overly fond of?

It’s not just a beautifully designed bottle with the name of some celebrity sisters slapped on the bottle. Della Vite aspires to be a category pioneer – and we can only do that with a really well-crafted product. The most important factor for me taking this role was connecting with the sisters and understanding that they didn’t just want to launch another celebrity wine.

Della Vite is quite a different thing. It’s not just another premium rosé with a celebrity endorsement that does well in a category which people already understand and appreciate. The premiumisation of prosecco hasn’t happened yet – but Della Vite is more than up to the challenge. And it’s backed by these sisters who really understand that Prosecco can be a premium product and who know what they’re talking about – and who are prepared to surround themselves with people who give their ambition the best chance of succeeding.

Of course, people are always resistant to change. It’s natural to meet resistance when you’re doing something that’s not been done before. That’s why we really own the importance of education.

When you were marketing Seedlip what did you learn about the alcohol sector? And now you’re marketing alcohol, what can you apply from your experience with Seedlip?

Seedlip was a steep learning curve. Being in and around the alcoholic trade you suddenly realise in order to win in the on-trade the trade play a gate-keeper role in that. They’re the people who display your product to the consumer. Gaining their respect and investing time in getting them onside was really important.

But I also think the naivety can be an asset. Not being blinkered by what’s expected means you can approach things in a fresh way in a very ‘challenger’ way. Part of behaving like that gets people very interested and excited by what you’re doing.

I have also learnt the difference between the ‘wine trade’ and the ‘alcoholic brand world’ and their two schools of thought, for example when speaking to the wine trade, a heavy focus is on the product and liquid credentials. I describe Della Vite as being the perfect brand sitting between the two ways of thinking. We can lean into our wine credentials, and have a technical, intellectual conversation about the wine, and then we can also lean into the fact that we’re bubbles, we’re contemporary and that we have incredible lifestyle credentials. There’s a common ground for everyone.

What are you ambitions for Della Vite?

For me, success wouldn’t only be measured by how many bottles we sold, but alongside this, whether we’d become the brand which opened the door to a new space for Prosecco which was more celebrated, higher quality, and better understood.

Really, I’d love people to recognise that our brand was part of that step change.

Think of Fevertree – they did something fantastic for tonic. Before Sipsmiths and Hendricks gin was just Gordons. They managed to change people’s perception of what the norm was for that particular category. I hope that Della Vite will do the same.