by Tim Atkin

Wine and the Olympic spirit

What a fortnight. Even if you have little or no interest in sports – be they sitting down, standing up or floating in a pool – you have to admit that the 30th Olympiad was a brilliant event, staged with style, humour and no little talent here in London. The athletes, the helpers, the security, the venues and (glory be!) the transport system were all excellent. Only the catering – I paid £3.50 for a flaccid sausage and onions in a tasteless baguette – and some of the sponsors (Visa, McDonalds, Coca Cola) were a let down.

The best thing about the games, at least from a British point of view, was the gap (chasm?) between expectation and reality. The Eeeyore gene is present in most Brits – we covet disappointment, as the comedian Bill Bailey once said – and we were duly prepared to be let down by Heathrow airport, overcrowding on the tube, the weather, the venues, the traffic lanes and the naked commercialism of the Olympic authorities. But guess what? Our pessimism turned to optimism, our cynicism to unbridled enjoyment. To our surprise, the games were a triumph.

Might the Olympic feel good factor infiltrate other areas of British life? We could certainly do with something to cheer us up in the wine trade. A combination of high duty rates, stubbornly low prices, supermarket discounting, an unusually wet summer and on-going pressure from the “health” lobby is making it harder than ever to make money out of wine.

Worse, there’s a sense that we don’t really matter anymore. Not so long ago, London could legitimately describe itself as the centre of the wine world. It’s still a fine wine hub, thanks to brokers, the auction houses and a handful of top wine merchants, but, in other sectors, the baton has been passed (these Olympic metaphors are contagious) to other places. Hong Kong and New York, to name but two, have more vibrant and diverse wine markets than we do.

The London Wine Trade Fair is typical of the malaise: far less important than it once was and visibly shrinking in size each year. It used to take 20 minutes to walk from one end of the hall to the other. Now you can do it in five. Prowein and Vinexpo (both in Bordeaux and Hong Kong) are much more important fairs, attracting a better class of visitor and exhibitor.

Is the decline irreversible, not just for the LIWF but for the UK wine trade as a whole? Should we be content that our industry is a has-been, rather than a never was? On the first count, I’m delighted to hear that a group of a dozen wine merchants has got together to prompt the normally supine Brintex to do something to improve the LIWF.

“We want better speakers, better tastings, better events and, once the contract is up, a change of venue,” one of them told me. “The wine fair should be like London Fashion Week, making news and attracting the best talent from around the world. It isn’t doing that any more, but it could.”

I’m less pessimistic than many observers about the future of the UK wine trade. To listen to some, we have become little more than a dumping ground for producers with cheap wine to flush away, trapped in a bargain basement of our own creation. Put off by the excessive margin requirements of the major retailers, the pessimists argue, many top producers are shunning these shores and heading to more lucrative markets: Asia, the Benelux, Scandinavia, Brazil.

There’s some truth in this – at the sharp end, wine is still too cheap and too heavily discounted in the UK for the long-term viability of the sector – but that’s only part of the story. Tesco, Waitrose, Majestic, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s have better wine ranges today than ever, the independent sector is more than holding its own and our on-trade suppliers are innovative, quirky and admirably professional. To name but five , Bibendum, Enotria, Les Caves de Pyrène, Alliance Wine and Liberty Wines all have a bit of the Danny Boyles about them. Any country would be proud of companies like these.

If you think I’m being too cheery, consider a few wine stories that have made the news recently. Wine Intelligence told us that UK consumers are more likely than ever to pay over £7 for a bottle of wine, Waitrose has become the first supermarket to stock Brazilian and Chinese wines and sterling is performing well against the euro and the New Zealand dollar, reducing the squeeze on margins and making it possible, at least in theory, to spend more on the wine in the bottle.

A light at the end of the tunnel, or just an oncoming train crash? The former in my view. There will be casualties before this recession is over, not least because summer trading has been so poor, but the UK wine trade is in better shape than many people think. Like Team GB and the organisers of London 2012, it has the potential to be a world beater once more.

Originally published in Off Licence News

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