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Interview: Sabiha Apaydin of the Root, Origin, Soil conference

This month we talked to Sabiha Apaydin, leader, coordinator and wine educator of Istanbul’s renowned Mikla restaurant. She is also a passionate advocate of heritage Anatolian grape varieties and the founder of the conference Root, Origin, Soil (Kok Koken Toprak) where Sarah was invited to speak on the importance of creating a credible category for old vines.

How did you come to wine?

I studied tourism and hotel management. I have worked in the food and beverage industry since I was a student so I’ve always had an interest in wine. In the last 15 years, I have focused on wine in more detail. I have a vineyard but do not produce wine yet; I teach wine and front of house at the culinary arts academy [as well as writing] articles and giving speeches on Anatolian grapes. Also, the Root, Origin, Soil conference, the second of which I organized on June 19th, 2022. I try to keep important issues on my agenda about wine.

The fine wine scene in Istanbul is small but incredibly sophisticated, attracting some of the most discerning and wealthy wine collectors in the world. It’s easy to imagine that such a wine culture might be traditional, even conservative – I know that Mikla lists all of the great iconic wines of the world, from Bordeaux to Italy and beyond. Have you found your customers at Mikla receptive to the Turkish wines you champion?

Mikla cuisine is made with only local products and ingredients from local research all over the country. With these dishes, we wanted to serve only the wines of local producers. We did choose as many high-end Bordeaux wines or wines from Italy and other countries as possible in our wine list but tried tried not to have foreign wines in what we call the ‘middle segment’. We also serve about 40 different local wines by the glass. Both foreign and domestic customers are pleased that there is more choice in the glass. In addition, our tasting menus are paired with only local wines. I can say that we mainly promote local wines.

Tell me what’s exciting you most about the Istanbul wine scene at the moment.

I am very excited about the increasing number of wines made with local grapes. Drinking wine from a grape whose name I have heard for the first time is priceless. Especially if these are wines fermented in their natural yeast, it seems much more interesting to me. In countries like ours, where the world of wine has been disrupted, it is exciting that domestic grapes come from behind and make up for it, even though international varieties dominate at first.

What is it that drew you to champion Anatolian heritage grapes?

We must emphasize the importance of the grapes and viticulture in Anatolia, which continues to exist in richness despite all the ignorance. The continuation of the processing of grapes that are about to disappear by local people and large and small wine companies should be the sole issue that we will not stop talking about, both in terms of a sustainable future and in terms of distinguishing Turkey from others in this large and global industry.

In 2018, I started to research Turkey as a country that dwells on the lands that gave birth to wine and the numerous grape varieties it had in the past. That’s why I decided to organize a “Root, Origin, Soil” symposium, which first took place in June 2019. I aimed to discuss our grape varieties’ past, present, and future. It is important to note that such an event has rarely happened in the past due to many regulations and that most other wine events that got the go-ahead were either a tasting or a competition but not a discussion. Tasting is essential, but we must also consider our wine history. Today, 70% of the wine produced worldwide comes from only 30 grape varieties!

According to the Tekirdağ Bağcılık Araştırma Institute, which is the vine Research Institute here, Turkey has more than 1435 grape varieties, many of which are genetically unique.

It is essential for a sustainable future that the wine produced from local grapes continue to be processed by wine companies of all sizes. The only distinctions between Turkey and the other wine producers are the size and globalization of the wine industry in the production of local grapes in a way that reflects their characteristics. Our common goal should be to protect the local grapes with thousands of years of history and value held back by mediocrity and uniformity in today’s conditions. However, the Turkish market is very different today. People are considering the type of grapes used in wine even though many remain unknown or forgotten, just waiting to be discovered out there.

We think your focus on autochthonous grapes is not just influential, but visionary. How have you empowered Turkish producers to feel comfortable working with autochthonous varieties rather than the international varieties which used to characterise Turkish wine production?

It was usual for the Turkish wine industry, which had been interrupted for various reasons, to prefer slightly more accessible ways to recover. Oenologists from abroad, the durability of international varieties, and their compatibility with all kinds of soils have benefited the survival of this reconstructed sector. Despite the persistence of local grape varieties, the grape varieties that continue today are used differently. I decided to support this issue when I realized that this diversity continued.

The attention you can attract with new world-style wines and international grapes by saying that we live in the land where wine was born will not be permanent. Despite everything, Turkey is a famous region in terms of tourism. It is not something to be expected in the first place for a foreign group to come and order a Chardonnay from Turkey. Even if we make delicious Chardonnay, the thing you will want to try for the first time will be a local grape. Our level of good winemaking has come to a head. I think most producers are in pursuit of innovation. Consumption trends are changing rapidly both in the world and in Turkey.

I keep asking Turkish producers how we should describe ourselves as a wine country? It is necessary to find the answer to this question. If we start the work now, maybe we have a chance to catch it from somewhere. How do we raise the bar? How do we differentiate? Uniformity and mediocrity are increasing but being different are intriguing and demanding.

What were your key takeaways from the second edition of the Root Origin Conference?

I had gained momentum in the first conference, and people had a question mark in their minds. I saw it. I got perfect feedback. Local grape trials began to increase, and the majority shared it. As in the world, we took a two-year break from our lives, and although the second program was ready, I had to cancel it. This year, I wanted to show that I am determined despite everything. My determination could also affect producers and consumers. So, it happened. Our collective selves need to keep working. We do not have government support; we only have ourselves. We must keep moving.

What is it that you think makes Turkish wine unique?

With its geographical location, Turkey has the most suitable climatic conditions for viticulture and grape growing. It ranks 5th in the world regarding the size of vineyard areas.

It is in the place of civilizations where grapes were cultivated, and the variety of grapes is very rich in terms of local species. The wine regions of Turkey haven’t changed a lot since the ancient peoples were here. Turkey has a wealth of its native grapes.

Despite all this, it continues to produce wine in modern ways. But the number of producers returning to traditional methods and using local grapes is increasing day by day.

 

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Interview: Belinda Stone of the Old Vine Conference

This month we talked to Belinda Stone, Consultant Head of Marketing for the Old Vine Conference, about why she thinks that this is old vines’ marketing moment.

There’s a quote from Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit that “a brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is – it is what consumers tell each other it is.” This really resonates in terms of how you seem to be planning to build the Old Vine collective into a viable, stand-alone category – via WOM, ambassadors, and other grass-roots marketing. Why do you think now is the right time for old vines to step into the spotlight?

Old vines pull together so many very topical threads: sustainability, organic, responsible farming and value for heritage varieties of common foods. Old vines are sustainable by nature: the lack of pesticides needed, the organic way that old vines need to be nurtured and are often as a default farmed, is all incredibly sustainable. They are treated individually and with respect. Talking about old vines also acknowledges the elephant in the room: that there are way too many vineyards in the world, and we don’t need to keep planting. Old vines, by the very virtue of being in the ground for so long, shout their suitability. They express that they’re in the right location, they’ve done well, continue to do well – they help tell the story of why a specific type of vine does well in a particular place. They’re doing well regardless of climate change, droughts, heavy rains, whatever. They are important resource sustaining the genetic information we can then gather to help identify old vines of the future.

Old vines have always been used in a small way in marketing. But now it really does feel like the right time fora cohesive, well-defined marketing messaging to be heard.

In terms of differentiating from a pure marketing standpoint, old vines are incredibly useful. There are so many vineyards, so many wineries, so many regions – old vines add weight to quality/ price point argument. They also give weight to green credentials wineries might otherwise be struggling to express. There is also a continued frustration around the world about the age of vineyards and not having a globally recognised standard for what is an ‘old vine’. Most people accept 35 years and above; but in some regions 35 isn’t considered an old vine – it’s a baby. People are keen to help consumers understand why an old vine wine would be different in so many ways to a non-old vine wine that they produce. And if they have a group of people, us, who are explaining it for them, it can help a lot of producers feel part of a bigger, global category which can help with their domestic and international presence.

We’ve referenced that Scott Cook quote above – other consumers are now the most influential tool in establishing a brand or product or, in this case, a product category. But we’re interested to know where the grass-roots style of your marketing approach.

Well, budget-wise it was a necessity. But with Old Vines and the messaging we’re trying to communicate, it somehow didn’t feel appropriate to create a big marketing campaign; to see pages of editorial in Decanter or online. It doesn’t fit the feel of the Old Vine message, so really there are ideological reasons as well as budgetary ones!

The Old Vine Conference’s mission is to ‘galvanise a global movement to nurture and value great old vines, and their wines’. It’s quite the aim – so it makes sense that there is no real yardstick for comparison. Rosé is the closest comparable ‘category’ we can think of, but they have no ‘generic’ body. How do you think this comparison holds?

Rosé is something similar as a category in that it can be part of anyone’s portfolio. But – there’s no generic office for rosé, [as we are trying to establish for Old Vines]. Really, we keep stumbling over this word ‘generic’. It’s a word – a concept – the trade immediately understands. But it sort of complicates our purpose because [the Old Vine Conference] is so much more than that. What we’re proposing is sort of the mother of generics – something that touches every generic body from Wines of Argentina to Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore D.O.C.G.

I was talking to Anita Jackson of Wines of Chile [at the launch party on Monday] and saying that I thought that it was the first group of Old Vine wines gathered together to be tasted before and she pointed out that at Wines of Chile tastings they’d had a table showcasing Old Vine bottles before. But, and I think this is the essential point, the tasting on Monday was the first gathering of Old Vine wines which was purely about old vines. It made the statement that Old Vine wines – they are all things. They touch every category; every region; every type of wine. It’s as though Old Vine wines are the blood running through the body of the wine world – flowing to every point.

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Interview: Jane Anson of janeanson.com

This month we talked to Jane Anson of janeanson.com, ‘the world’s most informed and accomplished expert on the wines of Bordeaux’ according to John Stimpfig (we can only agree). After two decades at Decanter, Jane is now taking her own path as the founder of her already wildly successful eponymous site. We talked about why a content subscription model was right for her – and why using different content mediums is essential to her business.

Consumer wine subscriptions are commonplace now, but content subscription models are also gaining traction in wine. There’s the original pioneers such as JancisRobinson.com, and new sites like thewineindependent.com, but your specificity is unusual. What made you decide a content subscription model was right for your business?

I thought – [what content] do I pay for? So, paying for the New York Times, I’m paying for Eric Asimov; paying for Christopher Clarey because I love tennis, he’s been writing about it for 20 years, he knows everything there is to know and I really appreciate his expertise.

So many people write about Bourdeaux. It’s such a big area, it can feel intimidating. So, I needed to offer something different. Expertise. I’ve written seven books about Bordeaux; I’ve been writing about it for 20 years. I have a deep knowledge of this region and I think I approach it in a slightly different way in that I try to give context, I try to give the history, to compare what chateaux are doing today with what they did in the past.

If you look at how the content model is developing today, I think I fit well into it. Think about who people pay for on Substack. They pay for people who have true depth of knowledge of their field. I hoped that was how my site would find a place in the market. And I’ve been so thrilled – it’s only been going for 4 months but it feels like I’ve been doing it forever in many ways and it’s had great traction. I got to the number I had in my head of where I wanted to get to by the end of the year – but I got here within 9 weeks.

So actually, the narrow focus, the specificity – it’s the strength of your subscription model?

Exactly!

Bordeaux is sold all over the world and there are a lot of people who are interested in this region. Maybe they only need to look at stuff at key moments of the year, but I hope they’d think ‘oh, I’ll go to Jane’s site because she’s the expert’ rather than a more general interest site where they have to dig through to find the information they need.

Your multi-media approach gives you a fascinating overview of a variety of content channels. Why?

I’m different from a lot of comparable sites with content subscription models because I don’t have outside partners. I could have done – I had people asking me if I was looking for investment. But I decided because I wanted to be able to prove it could work, and I wanted to do it on my terms. I didn’t want to owe somebody money until I knew it was a business which could work. But I [also couldn’t] do everything myself. So, it was very important to find the right partners.

67 Pall Mall can produce video content that is so much better than anything I could produce on my own so it seemed sensible. And it helps me to reach more people. They already have a lot of engaged members globally and I’d already worked with them for a number of years, so it made sense.

I’d also been involved with The Wine Conversation since the beginning. It’s so helpful for me to have someone who’s a true expert, who knows how to edit and put it all together. It means I and my subscribers have the benefit of that without having to learn all of those skills at the same time as I’m learning to launch a business and do all the marketing and so on.

Which form of content do you find the most valuable? And how do you make your content stand out in a saturated market?

I strongly felt that one of the reasons I wanted to strike out on my own and [launch this site with multiple content streams] is that nowadays we all want different ways to consume our content. Sometimes we’re listening to it while we’re travelling; sometimes you just want to sit down and read something in a more old-school way. So, it was really important to me from the beginning that I could sometimes cover the same topic but in different mediums.

I’ve found that people love podcasts – it’s such a powerful way of reaching people. Being a writer you research, do the interview, write it up – it’s such a long process. But there’s something quite liberating about doing the research, doing the interview and that’s it. For me, it’s liberating. So, when I’ve had a history subject where I’ve had both the written version and the podcast, they both get traction but I do find that it’s the podcast which really takes off.

What I try to do is not make them wine wine wine specific, but to find the stories around it. So, for example I’ve interviewed the guy who started the UC Davies wine library, and a historian who specialises in Irish merchants in 18th century Bordeaux. I try to not just make it interviews with winemakers about how they make wine – there are already so many that do that. I’ve been thrilled by how well the history context stuff has done. I’ve put a lot of it as free to read because it’s such a good way to get people into the site and again, it’s a point of difference for my site. Now I get chateaux saying to me ‘we have this cool piece of history; would you like to write about it?’ which is great.

Partnering with Sarah for the Old Vine Conference is another way to give my site a point of difference. I want to be a resource for people who need to research Bordeaux – and that’s amotivation for me, to think ‘oh I want some content about old vines because of the OVC’. So, I’m looking at where are there old vines in Bordeaux and going out to talk to the producers. I’ve only done one so far but have more lined up for the next six months – all content inspired by that partnership.

We really like that you are determined to give ‘real world benefits’ to members. Why did you feel this was an important element of the subscription?

This again is an aim I’ve been clear on from the beginning, designed to be another point of difference for me. Working for Decanter was wonderful, but you’re always one step away from the person you’re creating content for – I didn’t know who the subscribers were. So, I was really clear that with my site I wanted to know who they were and have a relationship with them.

If someone is choosing to become a part of my site, that’s a big deal to me. They’re choosing to spend €110 that they could spend anywhere – so, I wanted to give them a genuine reason. If you’re my subscriber you have the option of coming to Bordeaux for a week and having the most unbelievably awesome week, you’ll get to have sinner with Lafite-Rothschild – you name it. This is a true point of difference I can offer because of my personal links in the region.

And then I’ve had the idea of doing this mentor week – a completely free week for young people who want to get involved in wine. It’s my recognition that people dismiss Bordeaux [as impenetrable], but Bordeaux has given me a great career. I want young people to know that you shouldn’t be afraid of thinking that you can have a career in wine which gives you a great sense of personal development. I think Bordeaux offers a lot for that. So, I’ll bring people to Bordeaux, give my time for free for a week, and have my chateaux partners lined up so they’ll do things like a day’s harvest, stay at chateaux, explore biodynamics [and so on]. I want my subscribers to nominate people – people who think Bordeaux is too closed off, so I can open the doors for them. There will be a day during the week then I ask them specifically which area they’re interested in and I will match them up with the right people to help them. It’s a way to pay it forward.

It’s good to have a link with my subscribers which is real – a recognition that I didn’t want to just be another website wich publishes my notes. I wanted to do something which was a bit more real.

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Interview: Anne Krebiehl MW, EIC of Falstaff magazine

This month we talked to the editor-in-chief of Falstaff magazine, Anne Krebiehl MW. We talked to her about her motivations to join the Falstaff team and launch a print publication in the midst of a dramatic decline in print sales – and to explore the origins of her wine story. As expressive as you could hope a writer to be, Anne reveals the influences which have brought us to where we are today, including Martha Stewart, Birkbeck College and her school English teacher. The latest edition of Falstaff is out now.

What brought you to wine?

I did not grow up with wine – but I grew up with a lot of flavour.

There is a kind of sensuous inclination in me. As a child I was brought up with nature and was already baking a lot, as an adult I was cooking a lot.

When I then as a young adult came to wine – because I was a bit of a puritan when I was a teenager, a bit scared of drink – it was very much the recognition that wine is so much more than just booze. It then took me quite a while from just enjoying it to finding out more about it.

That [investigative, academic] interest was sparked on a camping holiday in my very early twenties, travelling with the Sotheby’s wine bible in the car – of course! The key moment happened in Tain-l’Hermitage at the shop of Chapoutier where I was given two glasses of a white wine. I was told: ‘this glass if from old vines, this glass is from young vines. It’s the same vintage and the same grape’. I didn’t believe it could be possible. This was the trigger which made me find out more about wine.

It prompted the realisation that wine is the intersection of so many things – of a place, of a climate, of topography, of geology, of politics, of culture, horticulture, of so many things. That has always appealed to me and throughout all my studies where I nearly lost my mind! It still appealed to me, that beauty. That is wine’s fascination for me. The nuance and variety available – the transformation of grape juice into wine is a miracle.

You are, of course, German. What’s it like to write in your second language – and study for your MW in the same? What sort of impact, if any, has this had on your career?

I grew up in a small village – a small world. I was never really made aware of how big the world is. But, somehow, I cottoned on very early that learning a language was a passport of sorts. I also always found it really easy to learn English.

I had an English teacher, an Austrian woman who was the first really intellectual woman I had ever met. She made such an impression on me. She showed me the nuance of language. I left Germany to become an exchange student in the US for a year which completely exploded everything I had thought before.

And then I learnt about Birkbeck College: that was my gift from the gods. That college has always been seen as a ‘workman’s institute’. It was created for people who worked in the day and went to school at night – which suited me down to the ground. I wanted to study English Literature even though I knew it wasn’t career oriented, but I had an undergrad in Business so I could come to London. And I did. I arrived with two suitcases and a rucksack and I started working in a dull back office in a bank. Really mind numbingly boring. But at night, I went to school and studied English. And really, Birkbeck College and London have made me.

Studying alongside a full-time job was hard but I’ve never lost that love for words, for poetry, that love for language and nuance.

At a time where print circulation for Decanter, perhaps the world’s best known wine magazine, is in steep decline, we think it’s incredibly brave and confident to launch a new print publication. What made you think now was the right time?

Well, the decision wasn’t mine! I was contacted by Wolfgang Rosam, the publisher and owner of the Falstaff publishing company in Vienna, for the first time in March 2020 – and I thought he was a crank. And then we spoke again in July – really spoke – and I ended up going to Vienna in August 2020 where we spoke non-stop for two days by which time I could see and share his vision.

I am aware this is counterintuitive [to launch a new print publication at a time of print decline]. But it was interesting for me that when our first edition came out in summer how positive the reaction was. Of course, we did a lot of competitor analysis and we believe we’re in a sweet spot, in Wolfgang’s words, where we have the ‘holy trinity of wine, food and travel’. Because you cannot really separate one from the other.

Yes, there is wine in the magazine, it is my field of expertise. But, you know, I’m also in the kitchen and in the garden; I’m in the world, so wine, food and travel and that inherent pleasure which is flavour, taste, and experiencing something viscerally, something real and undeniable is as much a part of me as any wine.

Falstaff was originally founded as a rather old-man’s wine journal in the 1980s. Since purchasing the publishing house, Wolfgang turned Falstaff into the most successful Wine-Food-Travel magazine in German-speaking Europe – so there was already an international drive and ambition there. But by keeping it in German it was confined. By putting it out in English, it is unfettered. It is a big task, but it is exciting.

My counterpart, the Managing Director, Jana Schiedmantle, is a born digital generation whizz kid. It’s really interesting the different angles we approach this publication from. I grew up with physical magazines and I still love them. I think there’s something so special about holding a beautifully photographed and laid out magazine in your hands. I think the photography and beauty of it will make people want to touch it. I think there is still appeal there and that appeal will translate. And it is certainly exciting to be part of something so counterintuitive and counter-cyclical.

What is your aim with Falstaff? Is your aim to bring wine out of the geeky closet? It is a unique publication in its broad focus on epicurean delights which takes a broad view of wine.

When I spent my exchange year in the States, Martha Stewart’s publications were still going strong and I lovedthose layouts, I loved the photography. I still have clippings, (I am one of these people who keeps clippings). I am just in love with print and with paper and layouts and fonts. I want to create beautiful things in this way.

Life is life and it brings us what it brings us. But there are things which just make life good. We talk about the greatest wines of the world, and the prestige cuvees, but they are more than just prestige cuvees: they are pinnacles of culture.

Last night I was interviewing a wine maker in Patagonia and he showed me a video of the southern winds beating the landscape. I thought ok yes there is somebody trying to grow something in a place that is so difficult. They’re bringing forth something that is then just so touching. And the same thing – if I am stressed out and I go into my kitchen and cut up some basil, to have a nose full of that I think: wow, how is that possible.

I want to bring real things to people – because they are real, they are not the added extras of life. The pandemic taught us to really respect the everyday experiences which can elevate us. This summer I went to the sea. Boy, was it wonderful to smell the sea after being landlocked; to feel the wind and the sunshine. Whatever life throws at us there are things that are always real and they ground us and make us feel human.

That’s what I want Falstaff to bring to people. Escapism and beauty.

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Interview: Lydia Harrowven, Head Buyer at Adnams

Lydia is evidently a self-starter. She left home aged 17 to work in Holland as a pastry chef. Since then, she has worked as a cellar hand, graduated from Plumpton University, sold and marketed wine in the Maldives, and been a sommelier. Her current job as Head Buyer for wine at Adnams is her most exciting yet. We talk about how she’s using her decision-making position to effect real change.

At Swirl we’re huge fans of yours! When we were discussing this interview, Sarah described you as a ‘guardian of quality’ who never walked past a low standard without working to fix it. Where does this approach come from? Do you think it’s a particularly female quality?

I actually attribute this all the way back to my training in catering and hospitality management. Working as first a pastry chef and then as a sommelier – it was drilled into you to notice the details. The miniature of detail is where real success lies. I do agree that there is a certain ‘women’s touch’ element to it – though, particularly in the hospitality sector, I’ve met several men who have that same mindset. It comes from having interest too. I’m interested in people. I’m interested in their happiness, and them getting the what they need and what they want and anticipating people’s needs. So, for me, [being a ‘guardian of quality’] is not letting other people notice errors or problems, but fixing them before they become an issue.

How do you think your background of varied roles in the industry informs your current role and buying ethos?

Going through university I was a mature student and self-funded, holding down three-to-four jobs to pay my way. If you’re looking for a job you panic and think bloody hell! If anyone looks at my CV they’re think I’ve had 350 million jobs which can be seen as a bad thing. But for me, I see it as a good thing because I understand the context. I think [having a background of varied roles] helps you think of costs from every angle, and understand quality from every perspective. The whole point of buying, the whole point of doing what we do, is for the customer to have a fantastic experience at the end point. So, it’s important for me to know where our customers are [when they’re enjoying our products].

How are they experiencing us? How are they interpreting us? It’s more than just spreadsheets – that wine ticks all the boxes, done. I’m thinking about whether people are enjoying our wine in a restaurant, in a pub or  at home. I’m always asking myself: what’s the context? What does the wine say about us? So, it’s really important for me to have a wide perspective and I think a varied professional background has laid the foundations for this.

Adnams is most famous as a brewer and spirits company, though of course they’ve more recently built a great reputation for wine too. I’m interested to know if you see any correlation between wine being seen as a relative outlier when people think of Adnams and your experiences as a woman in the trade?

There is absolutely no denying that wine has historically been a male dominated environment. I’ve always felt that – from day one of my career. But that’s obviously changing. People are lot more open minded than they ever were. But I think also that my experience has meant that I can hold my own in that environment. I left home at 17 and went to work for the Roux brothers in central Amsterdam. I moved there on my own, worked in a kitchen with 16 chefs as the only woman. It was a bold, difficult move but I always held my own because I knew I was doing a good job.

There are still lots of businesses, I think, where men hold the space – women are seen as contributors but perhaps not leaders. Most women in any position of power [in this trade] are very aware of that. There’s a feeling there that you’re one of the few.

Adnams is incredibly liberal – especially compared to my former job in the Maldives which is very not liberal. But there may always be that feeling that I’m in a male dominated environment and I’m very young – but because I left home so young and have held down so many different jobs – I sort of just plow on and try not to overthink it. It’s so easy to think ‘that’s difficult because I’m a woman’ – but sometimes I think it’s a bit about how you interpret the circumstances. Though, there’s no denying that sometimes when you’re meeting an older male supplier, I do catch myself wondering: ‘what are you thinking about me and my position here’. I do get those questions a lot to be honest. Historically, Adnams has had older male wine experts in this role.

The sustainability of local sourcing is a key part of your beer and spirits offerings. How do you reflect these values in your wine sourcing, given that the UK is still in its relative infancy in wine-producing terms?

I’m completely onboard with the movement for sustainability. But I also think we’re all a bit fed up with talking about sustainability but not really meaning it, or not really knowing what it means or how to follow through with concrete actions.

I’m really keen to delve a bit deeper into what we exactly mean by ‘sustainability’ and how we stand by the definition we come to.

In my role, part of that is working with more local producers where we can. But we do face a lot of challenges there – pricing, availability, volumes, and quality – I’d love to work with all of the local [English] wineries but I’m not willing to take anything but the very best so sometimes I’m having to go a bit further than I’d like to. We’re a very small island and we still have a low footprint when you look at the wine world more broadly. So, I am focussed on working with the best UK suppliers or producers I can find. I championed an Adnams Bacchus launch two years ago, as well as an Adnams rosé and I worked really hard to make sure they were best in class. That does mean to some extent that there’s very little sustainability behind those products because [the UK trade is] in its infancy so I’ve found consistent quality and volume a challenge across vintages.

These products we took on a couple of years ago are now limited edition because we can’t access them anymore. We have to be more agile in our approach. We have to be able to readily chop and change our range. I want to work with English producers as much as possible so I imagine our range there will develop quite significantly because I want to represent the diversity in the industry and we do have some really exciting English listings coming up.

[But apart from local sourcing] I see broader sustainability as a much bigger subject. One person’s interpretation of sustainability can be very different from another’s. For example, the previous buyers here their view was to make sure everything was UK packed to reduce freight impact – which I do agree with. However, I think that if we do that too much, we lose a bit of interest within our range. It can homogenise things a bit. So, I’d like to bring back a bit of uniqueness.

One of the things I’m trying to do is make sure that as many of our wines as possible have sustainability credentials on the bottle so at least the wineries we’re working with are considering their own sustainability and their impact. And I’m also being more conscious of the producers we’re working with and how sustainable that relationship is. So, while cost is very very important and we must have the best prices to pass on the consumer, it’s got to be sustainable. If you push your producers too hard they don’t enjoy working with you, you don’t enjoy working with them and everyone’s always battling over prices. You’re in this battle every year – or every couple of months even – and it’s just not sustainable. We need sustainable prices and sustainable relationships with our producers and we then need to consider how that impacts our customers in a sustainable way. Can we produce that product sustainably in terms of quality, pricing; are we fair, are we presenting real value for money. Is the product even necessary?

We’re really interested to know how you approach emerging regions/ esoteric wines in your role as obviously now you have a bit more weight to say ‘let’s go with stuff that’s a bit unusual’.

Absolutely. I’m so excited about this category. It gives us a story to tell and gives our marketers something to say. Everybody in our stores is hugely passionate and hugely qualified – they’re all very very interested in wine. One of the things we teetered on the edge of was homogenising our range and losing its identity and excitement. There’s just such a huge world of wine out there and our customers are interested. Yes, the sales might not set the world alight but it will keep us interesting and revitalised so [wines from esoteric regions or using lesser-known grapes] can only be a good thing.

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Interview: Emma Dawson MW

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

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

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

How did 52grapes.com tie into this interest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is diversity important in the wine trade?

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

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

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

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

 

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Introducing: The Blend

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

The big picture

Women under-participate in the global workforce.

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

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

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

The small, personal picture

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

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

Why we need to take action

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

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

What we’re going to do about it

We’re launching The Blend.

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

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

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

How will The Blend workshops work?

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Julie Goddard, The Success Architect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call out bad behaviour when you see it.

Every time you see it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sarah Abbott MW introduces The Old Vine Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old vines are a gift to diversity.

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

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

Let’s celebrate wine as an agricultural product.

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

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

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

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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.