Thinking about wine disruption

Sunday, 29. April 2018 - 14:15

Display stand at Verona 2018

A couple of weeks ago, I did what I always do at this time of the year: give a brief talk to the students of the WSET Business & Consumer Knowledge (BACK) course, a form of three-day boot camp for young, high-flying industry employees. My role is to challenge them, to get them thinking, and ideally to boost their appreciation of the fact that they really are part of the future of wine; the people who can help to choose the shape it will take.

I change the presentation every year, but inevitably a certain amount of futurism is a constant. This time, I kicked off by telling the attendees how I had come to be in the wine world – basically as a result of an accident involving my parents. They had planned to develop a large empty country house into apartments but lacked the funds to do so. Distant cousins who did have the cash preferred the idea of converting it into a hotel – but dropped out after six month when it wasn’t making enough money. (Their background was in retail, where the potential of a shop is often judged within weeks of it opening.) My parents, who had zero experience of running hotels and restaurants had to acquire new and unfamiliar skills. And I, as their only son, almost inevitably got sucked into the process. After failing in other departments, I ended up in the cellar, and the rest is, as they say, history. But every time I meet a lawyer or a doctor or a chiropodist who knows nothing about wine, I remind myself that, if the cards had fallen differently, I might have been wearing their shoes, and they mine.

So, if I had gone on being a hotelier what would be bothering me now? In Britain, the obvious answer might be the impact of Brexit. (Staff? Food costs? Corporate clients?) But globally, forward-thinking members of the hospitality industry are concerned with much bigger, more existential issues, such as the way Airbnb might affect them. Accor, one of the world’s biggest and most successful hotel companies has taken an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them approach to the situation by launching its own onefinestay operation.

US restaurants are similarly pondering the effect startups like UberEats – by far the most profitable part of the urban transport disruptor – and its rival meal delivery firm GrubHub are having on their businesses. UberEats turned over nearly over $4bn last year, matching GrubHub’s 2016 revenues. Fully ten percent of the company’s revenues now come from food delivery.

The restaurateurs are increasingly discovering that once regular customers are crossing their doorways less often – preferring to eat the same meals, but in their own homes. On the one hand, the 30% of the diner’s bill demanded by Uber as its fee may mean that many restaurants are losing money; on the other, canny caterers are considering the economics of having bigger kitchens and fewer tables.

Meawhile, two new car rental businesses called Audi on Demand and BMW Reach Now have been launched by the two German car manufacturers, in response to a world in which owning a car is no longer nearly as much of a priority.

So what, I asked my audience of professionals, ought they to be considering as likely game-changers in their industry over the next couple of decades? How, for example, might logistics be affected by driverless electric vehicles? What are the threats from cannabis-beverages (in which Constellation has already invested) and buzz-providing, ‘alcosynth’, non-alcoholic beverages (one of which is due to be launched this year)? What will be the effect of DNA testing that warns individuals of their risk of getting breast cancer, for example, from drinking even moderate amounts of alcohol?

After concluding my presentation, I returned to my table for a much-needed glass of wine – which turned out to be a good Langhe Nebbiolo in a Bordeaux bottle. And this raised another question. Given that none of us around the table could even approximately guess its price without recourse to the internet, might wine packaging – three basic bottle shapes - and labelling, evolve to give consumers a clearer idea of what they are drinking?

A senior member of the UK wine trade who was a fellow course lecturer openly scoffed. The existing bottle shapes aren’t going to change, he scoffed. They’ve worked well in the past. They work well today and they’ll go on working in the future. I had no way of knowing whether he’d not heard what I’d been saying, or simply thought it all nonsense. In either case, I’d clearly failed to convince him.

And yet, very early in the morning after my talk to the WSET students, I flew to Verona, to Vinitaly where one of the most obvious trends was the adoption of a shorter, retro, more premium-looking style of bottle.

The glass manufacturers’ stands in the Enolitech – equipment and dry goods - hall were full of innovative shapes and colours, while their neighbouring exhibitors showed off clay barrels eggs and qvevris, which I imagine, that short-sighted British Master of Wine would dismiss as a passing fad.
Robert Joseph