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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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Translating Italian wine: Laura Donadoni

“…wearing all that weight

Of learning lightly like a flower.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Interview: Melanie Jappy