How 2020 changed our wine social life

It was a dreadful year for the international wine trade and yet, says Robert Joseph, it glimmered with one silver lining.

Image by Jagrit Parajuli from Pixabay
Image by Jagrit Parajuli from Pixabay

So how many top wine industry people did you see, listen and talk to in 2020? More or fewer than in 2019?

Given the emptiness of the skies, airports, hotels and restaurants and the cancellation of all the major trade shows, the obvious answer ought to be “far fewer”. But looking back over the last nine months and counting all of the faces that have been on my screen, thanks to Zoom or an alternative online meeting platform, I’m not so sure. I also know I’ve spent longer with some of these individuals online than I might have done at ProWein or Vinexpo.

I might, for example, have met Laura Catena at one of those events, but probably wouldn’t have had as long and fascinating a one-on-one tasting with the Catena Zapata winemaker, Fernando Buscema. This was just one of a number of Zoom tastings I attended, even managing to host a couple for 67 Pall Mall myself. Of course, sampling great wine in a group of geographically separate individuals means not being able to swap notes with your immediate neighbour, but it also allows you to exchange opinions with people in Singapore and San Francisco who might well be far more experienced and better informed than the person who happened to sit on the chair next to yours at a real life tasting.

Without Zoom, I doubt I’d have been able to ‘meet’ D’Lynn Proctor and André Mack, Gary Obligacion, and Tanisha Townsend and talk about diversity in the wine world, as we did in one of the early Real Business of Wine sessions. I look forward to many more such discussions next year.

Then there were the conferences and seminars. Giving a presentation is certainly very different when you can’t see how the audience as a whole is reacting to what you are saying, but to judge by the Wine2Wine and Areni sessions, it seems that online speeches are more concise. As an attendee, too, there’s the welcome option of joining in a group chat in the margins.

Two of the industry figures whose on-screen efforts stick in my memory from 2020 are Jean-Charles Boisset and Sandro Bottega.

JCB, as the first of these two likes to be known, is the flamboyant California-based proprietor/president of the Boisset Collection: more than 24 enterprises turning over some €350m, which include the Clos de la Vougeraie estate, several negociant houses in Burgundy, operations in the Rhône and southern France, plus California wineries including Buena Vista, de Loach and Raymond. Apart from wine, Boisset also sells a line of brooches for men and women, which he designs (and models) himself. One of them, ’Gina’s Kisses’, is named after Gina Gallo, his wife and mother of his twin daughters.

Sandro Bottega dresses as smartly as one might expect of any Italian from the Veneto, but as far as I’m aware, he does not wear brooches, has none of Boisset’s air of the theatrical impresario, and has not been seen bopping on Instagram during the pandemic. But, like Boisset, he inherited and turbo-charged a regional business founded by his father and has a keen understanding of the importance of branding, packaging, marketing and distribution. Back in the days when we used to check out the airport duty free shops on our way to catching a flight, I often saw his gold bottles of Prosecco competing for attention with Veuve Clicquot and Moët.

The blingy coating, Bottega explains, is both a nod to the roofs of the basilica of San Marco, and a way to protect the wine against light-strike. But it also neatly and unmistakably separates his Prosecco from all of the others on the market.

Marketing, branding and packaging are often disparaged by wine professionals who see them as being somehow incompatible with quality – with the exception of Champagne, which is allowed to behave like a luxury good.

Bottega and Boisset positively embrace luxury and luxury packaging, for still as well as sparkling wines. The leather-with-studs label on Bottega’s Brunello competes directly for over-the-topness with the gold star that adorns Boisset’s Buena Vista ‘The Sheriff” red blend.

But the two men know that simply applying eye-catching lipstick to a pig is not a good long-term business strategy: flashy labels need to be supported by wine of real quality. So, as Bottega demonstrated in a recent Zoom tasting, his Proseccos, which come from Treviso hillsides, really do taste a cut above the ones most consumers will have experienced. The gilding of the bottle removes these wines’ eligibility for DOCG status, but I suspect that buyers will not be too bothered about the presence or an absence of a ‘G’.

Boisset’s wines also stand the taste test and, like Bottega, he ticks a number of sustainability boxes. In his case, this includes following biodynamic rules and using solar power for his US wineries. In Italy, Bottega’s vineyards are organic, the winery powered by renewable electricity, and 50 tonnes of water recycled annually. And 50% of those blingy bottles are made from recycled glass.

The wine industry has room for a wide range of players of every size and style. It would be a pity if they were all like Boisset and Bottega, but it would be equally sad if there weren’t room for the fun and glamour that both men and others like them, bring to the sector.

In 2021 I hope I’ll be able to clink glasses with a wide range of wine people, but irrespective of pandemics, if our efforts to survive in straitened times and reduce our carbon footprints mean that those encounters are often online, so be it.


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