by Tim Atkin

Selling California: the Impossible job?

Managing England’s perennially underachieving football team is sometimes described as “the impossible job”. A delusional fan base, a fickle and vicious tabloid press and a set of players who, whatever the shifting personnel, seem to be incapable of fulfilling their international potential have done for a series of well-qualified candidates. Whatever their achievements when they take over, they leave as turnips, numbskulls and failures.

Running a generic wine body is a bit like that. The expectations aren’t quite as high, or as misplaced, as those that surround the start of a new England World Cup campaign, but to some producers – struggling to find an importer, to get reviewed by journalists or simply to survive – the person at the top is invested with magical powers. Disappointment is the only possible dénouement.

If getting a strong and consistent message across is an important part of the job, then what’s happened at the UK office of the Wine Institute of California over the last couple of weeks has fallen short of that goal. On August 18th, an email went out to the trade saying that, “owing to severe cuts in funding under the Market Access Programme from the Department of Agriculture in Washington DC, the UK office of the Wine Institute of California will close at the end of September”.

This was disappointing news, not least for John McLaren, who has run the office for 21 years, and his assistant Venla Freeman. But later the same day, Linsey Gallagher, Vice-President (International) at the Wine Institute in San Francisco contradicted much of what McLaren had said in the press release and in print.

Yes, budgets have been cut, largely because more competing industries are supping from the Department of Agriculture’s funding pool, but no, California isn’t abandoning the UK market. Yes, the date of the annual tasting is moving to the autumn, but it will be bigger and uniquely focused on California rather than the whole of the West Coast.

Gallagher has subsequently confirmed to me in an email that, “this is not a change in California Wines’ commitment to the UK, it’s a strategic marketing shift in one of our top export markets”. The London office, it turns out, will be replaced by a PR company and someone who will be “the face of California Wines in the UK” in due course. McLaren and Freeman’s contracts will not be renewed.

I wish the new team well. California is not an easy sell in the UK. It may have around 12% of the market, but a lot of its volume is sweet and pink. On the upside, “good value” Pinot Noir is showing some growth, as are wines over £10. In some countries, double-digit growth in this sector would be a cause for wild celebration, but everything is relative. Partly because its domestic market is so strong – and happy to pay high prices – decent, drinkable wine from the Golden State tends to start at £10 in the UK. Wines below that are invariably loaded with too much residual sugar, at least for my palate.

If California is to raise its profile here – no country, not even Portugal with Mateus, ever built its image on rosé – then it has to be at the higher end. The problem is that many of its best wines are over-priced, sometimes ludicrously so, in international terms. A return on ego appears to be every bit as important as a return on capital.

It makes me smile when I visit some California wineries and am shown “our entry point” range. The price per bottle is invariably over $20, which would put it in the premium category here. A top Burgundian producer can get away with selling his basic Bourgogne Blanc at £25, but the same indulgence does not apply to other countries. Just look at the trouble that Argentina and South Africa, both sources of much better value for money wines than California, have selling their top wines for more than £25 in the UK.

To some extent, the process has already begun. The work of importers like Roberson and Flint Wines, as well as the tastings held by the Napa Valley Vintners’ Association and In Pursuit of Balance (which will, sadly, cease to operate at the end of 2016), have all helped to demonstrate the excellence and increasing levels of elegance of the best Californian wines. As, it must be said, has the input of the Wine Institute of California’s UK office.

And yet satisfying the requirements of the 200-odd wineries that are part of the “export programme” will be very testing. The big producers – Gallo, Delicato and Constellation among others – don’t see the market in the same way as the boutique or smaller volume players. The latter are vital for the image of California, but it’s the former who are more influential in the market.

An impossible job? Not quite, perhaps, but one that requires diplomacy, charm, luck, compromise, determination and a Stakhanovite work ethic. As the latest England manager kicks off his tenure against Slovakia this weekend, spare a thought for the prospective new face of California wines.

Image © Shutterstock

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