Wine market knowledge more important than ever

Robert Joseph says that as economies begin to open up, there will be new pressures on wine retail. One way to cope is to arm yourself with knowledge.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash
Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Where do you get your news? Do you read online tabloids like Britain’s Daily Mail or Germany’s Bild or watch America’s Fox News? 

If you don’t look at these types of outlets – and I confess to doing so rarely – it’s unlikely you can say anything meaningful about the popularity of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Brexit, among scores of millions of people.

The information that followers of these outlets are getting is so different to what outlets like the BBC, the New York Times and the Guardian offer, that it’s like the difference between a quinoa salad from a brasserie compared to a Big Mac.

The same principle applies to the shops that we visit. If you pick up your favourite wines from two or three local stores in Brooklyn, New York or in North London, you might believe the entire world is in love with Pet Nat. In fact, a brief look at Google Trends shows that, in the US, online searches for the term – a reasonably good indicator of the level of interest – come from just five metropolitan areas: San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC and Chicago. Compare those results with the state-wide ones for ‘bourbon barrel wine’, and you find some interesting differences. People in Ohio, for example, rarely search online for information about naturally pétillant wine, but often for wines that taste of whiskey. In Oregon, the reverse is true.

Of course, interest and curiosity do not necessarily reflect popularity and sales. In early March 2020, the second most popular daily search in the UK was for Tesla cars, which did not mean that huge numbers of people were about to buy one. But it’s a useful indication – especially for a non-mainstream product. As the name ‘Google Trends’ implies, it shows how tastes and interests are changing. Your importer may have been totally correct when he told you three years ago that his market was no place to sell Viognier, for instance. But is he aware of the sudden recent spike in online activity since Viognier was featured on a popular TV drama?

Over the last few weeks, as wine professionals across the globe have been under house arrest, Google Trends and wine retailer websites have been among the only available ways to keep abreast of what’s happening in any particular market. Soon, hopefully, visits to real-world retail stores and restaurants will be possible again. But which of these outlets will producers get to see?

Market visits are – quite naturally – planned by local distributors with the aim of supporting their existing customers and enlisting new ones. But do they offer a true picture of the market as a whole? Are the six outlets on an itinerary similar to others in the region, which means growth potential for your business? Or are they the only likely outlets for your wine in the area? 

Of course, your distributor should be able to answer this kind of question, but producers and brand owners need to realise that the same market may be described totally differently by two different distributors.  

So, one might say that consumers in their area really love sparkling rosé, while another will say the opposite. Sometimes consumer preferences may not be why something is selling; a gorgeous boutique, excellent value wine might be left alone on a shelf, while the money and resources a big brand can pour into a retailer means their wines are on promotion up front.

This last scenario may be one that many producers will encounter as we move out of lockdown. Big companies seeking to hit sales targets set at the end of 2019 will be flexing their considerable muscles, while cash-strapped retailers may want to reduce inventory. In order to survive in what could be very tough times, smaller wineries will need to use all the means at their disposal. And that includes market knowledge. Lots of it.

So, leave your comfort zone. Visit the retailers your distributor has never told you about. Take a little time to read publications that aren’t to your taste and which never comment on your wines. And, unlike those professionals who simply dismiss the success of hard seltzer, bourbon barrel wine, orange wine,  Pet Nat or $200 red blends as inexplicable aberrations, taste a few of them and try to understand the secret of their attraction to the people who buy them.

The great British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, noted over 150 years ago, “As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information”, and that would include not only knowing how other people think, but why they think the way they do. Which may, I’m afraid, sometimes involve reading Mail Online or watching Fox News.

Robert Joseph

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