Giants are not supposed to shrink.
Two decades ago, Vinexpo was still King Kong, the world’s biggest annual get together for the wine industry. The movie world had Cannes; publishers and authors went to Frankfurt; art dealers headed to Basel and, every June, the wine world came to Bordeaux. Quite apart from the famous kilometre-long, lakeside hall (and adjacent buildings), there were the conferences and tastings, the lunches and dinners hosted by illustrious Bordeaux estates themselves, or at their chateaux by brands from elsewhere. People booked hotel rooms or cottages a year in advance, or often found themselves driving up to 50km every day to get to the fair. Accommodation was so scarce that one resourceful British merchant allegedly negotiated the use of a bed – and, he stressed. only the bed - with one of the prostitutes who used to hang around the old food market in the heart of the city.
Space at the fair was at a premium too. In the late 1990s when Vinexpo struggled to attract exhibitors to its first events in Hong Kong, wine companies were ‘encouraged’ to take stands there if they wanted to have a well-situated spot in Bordeaux.
Then came the heatwave of 2003 when the air conditioning failed in the hall where the New World exhibitors were to be found, and wines rose to soup temperature. Mechanical breakdowns occur in the best-ordered establishments, but the organisers of Vinexpo were perceived to have handled the situation poorly. I met Robert Beynat, the then CEO, on several occasions and recall him as being a perfect model of Gallic arrogance. I enjoyed imagining the robustness of conversations between him and some of the over-heated Australian exhibitors.
Two years later, many of those New World producers were noticeable by their absence. Some of the Californians who did attend, however, complained that customs officials had blocked the access of their samples to French soil. Again, it was said that Vinexpo was unsympathetic to their plight.
If those outsiders felt ill-treated, it’s also worth remembering that even the idea allowing producers from other countries to be present at Vinexpo was originally highly controversial. I remember taking part in a French TV programme during the third edition of Vinexpo in 1985 in which it was seriously suggested that, just as Vinitaly was a showcase for Italian wines, the Bordeaux event should focus on France. There was a nationalist mood at the time; the Japanese conglomerate Suntory had recently acquired Chateau Lagrange, one of the ‘jewels’ of the Médoc, and Australian, Chilean, and Californian wines were beginning to make inroads in the UK. Perhaps it was time to batten down the hatches against foreign incursion.
The more outward-looking – and commercial – members of the Vinexpo board evidently won that battle and, thereafter, the event presented itself as a global event, but some of the frictions remained - and not just about the Frenchness of Vinexpo. There was always some murmuring about the chateaux competing with the exhibition for visitors’ attention – especially when key buyers and critics were whisked away to the Médoc by helicopter for lunches that lasted until it was time for dinner.
For a visitor to Vinexpo 2019, the question of Vinexpo’s raison d’etre was back on the table. There were a lot of mixed messages at this year’s event. On the one hand, access to the fair was now through a smart new entrance, but it was hard not to notice that there were no queues. At 10am, the car park was less than half full and, in case anyone imagined that this was because of the availability of trams from the centre of the city, these too had plenty of seats when they arrived.
King Kong had met the Godzilla of Dusseldorf – and lost. As Prowein has grown, Vinexpo has shrunk. And it’s not hard to see why. The German city is easy to get to, has plentiful hotels and the impeccably-run fair is more ideally timed for buyers and sellers. Critical mass has done the rest. Just as ‘everyone’ went to Vinexpo; now, it’s Prowein that has the inked-in pages on the wine industry diaries.
For anyone who had never attended the fair before, Vinexpo is still huge; it takes a while to walk the kilometre from one end to the other. But for those who remember the early years, it is easy to see how cleverly the space has been filled with tasting areas and bookshops and restaurants to make up for the absence of stands. And, of course, this year, there was only one building and one less day than in the 1990s.
There were lots of physical absences too. Once, there were palatial tents offering hospitality on the banks of the lake, and a ‘Club des Marques’ reuniting the biggest, smartest brands. Not this year
Apart from Treasury with a big Penfolds stand, Australians were hard to find, but where was LVMH? Boisset? Jadot? Guigal? Where was the big Californian generic area?
In their place, there seemed to be many more Bordeaux negociants, leading at least one mischievous local visitor to question whether ‘special deals’ had been offered to encourage their presence.
Some exhibitors were delighted with the smaller show. Christian Wylie of Garzon in Uruguay, for example brandished a list of international buyers he’d seen, including representatives of Canadian monopoly and a big Asian importer. Others, while not wishing to be quoted, were much less enthusiastic. ‘C’est calme. Très calme’ was a common refrain, supported by the organisers’ admission of a 30% drop in visitor numbers. Taxi drivers – always a good source of local rumours – were openly saying that this was going to be the last year.
I hope they’re wrong. I actually enjoy many aspects of the Bordeaux event and would be sad to see it go. And I’d be surprised if the great and good of Bordeaux allowed that to happen. My instinct is that we’ll all still be traipsing out to the south west of France in two years time, but what shape Vinexpo will take, remains to be seen