Hands up anyone who can remember a more depressing year than the one that has just ended? I thought so. Even for those of us who are positive, glass half full people, 2009 will go down as an annus horribilis for our industry. Sales were down, the companies that didn’t go under struggled to keep their chins above the rising economic waters and barely a week passed without someone in authority telling you that alcohol is bad for you. Add the pathetic performance of the pound against most major currencies (and the impact that has had on profitability), duty and VAT rises and mass redundancies at First Quench and you can see what I mean.
Will 2010 be any better? Or to put it another way, are there grounds for optimism? Everything is relative after a year like 2009 — even a small improvement in the state of affairs will be greeted with a fanfare — but I believe that there are. The economy appears to climbing out of recession and the businesses that have survived are arguably leaner, more productive and in better shape than they were 18 months ago. The fine wine market is doing very well internationally and what looks to have been an excellent year in Europe’s fine wine areas should boost sales.
Part of the solution to its remaining woes lies in the hands of the UK wine business. There’s nothing it can do about duty increases — lobbying doesn’t seem to achieve much — legislation on minimum pricing, currency fluctuations or drink driving levels, but it can have an impact on the way wine is perceived in this country. By educating people to drink wine with food (and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t begin in a family situation when children are in their teens) and by selling it at a price that reflects what it really costs to make we could change the way they think.
But let’s concentrate on the more immediate future. What would I like to see happen in 2010? I’m aware that this is a wish list, and that pigs might take to the skies before some of these things happen, but here goes.
• Wine Rack succeeds under its new owners. The wines that have hit the stores so far don’t look that thrilling. So come on Venus Wine & Spirit, surprise us. By all means list a few brands, but the 14 stores that survived the cull are all profitable and in good locations and better wines would sell. I speak from personal experience here because there is one 50 yards from my desk.
• Other parts of the First Quench estate are bought by Oddbins, Bargain Booze or Rhythm & Booze, rather than the appalling Greggs, a company that specialises in stodgy, carbohydrate-laden food. Better still, I hope that a few more independents, along the lines of Bottle Apostle or The Sampler, snap up some of the sites and bring new energy to the high street.
• The government makes it illegal to sell wine below cost, forcing the major supermarkets to sell wine responsibly, rather than using it as a tool to entice people into their stores.
• The wine business takes a stand against heavy bottles. Things weighing a kilo or more should be laughed off the shelf. How can we expect consumers to take the green credentials of the wine business seriously if we are shipping wrist-straining monstrosities around the world? At the same time, I’d like to see more everyday wines shipped in bulk or packaged in lighter materials.
• The wine business makes a greater commitment to Fairtrade and ethically-traded products. Admittedly, this is related to profitability and will require major retailers to charge a slight premium for these wines.
• No duty increase in 2010. The government has screwed the wine industry once too often over the last few years. The fact that these increases are rarely passed on to the consumer has damaged the average quality of the wine sold here. When it is passed on, it has made a lot of people trade down, not up.
• The 2009 vintage enables beleaguered independent wine merchants to generate some cash flow with en primeur sales. Let’s hope, too, that prices, particularly from Bordeaux are reasonable rather than greedy.
• The UK regains its position as the centre of the wine world. We kid ourselves if we think we are more important than the USA. To regain top spot we need to get over our obsession with sub-£5 wines and in-store offers. Decent producers aren’t interested in competing in that market.
• The World Cup in South Africa is a success, encouraging people to drink more wine from the Cape and elsewhere. Oh and that England win it, beating Brazil in the final. Told you it was only a wish list…
Originally published in Off Licence News