How big a crisis will the wine industry have faced in 2020 and 2021? Time will tell, but, remembering my experiences in Burgundy during the very real crisis of the 1970s, I’m betting that it will bring some interesting opportunities for vinous entrepreneurs.
I was just 20 - on my gap year, as I believed - in 1975 when I rented an apartment in Beaune. What was then a quiet little market town initially appeared to be a haven of calm in a world that was going to hell in a petrol-driven handcart. The 1973 Arab-Israeli war had led to a rise in the price of oil from three dollars a barrel to $12, a 73% fall in the UK stock market and a British inflation rate that hit 25%. The UK was especially relevant at the time because much of the US had yet to discover Burgundy (or indeed wine) so orders from London were vitally important. And in 1975 the latest and worst in a run of poor vintages starting in 1972, those had pretty well dried up. So, calm was not the word to describe the mood of the growers I met in the cafes.
At that time, around 90% of the Côte d’Or’s wines were sold by negociants who bought them in bulk from thousands of vignerons across the region. Estate-bottling was so rare that, even a decade later, Edmund Penning-Rowsell, the Financial Times correspondent who religiously attended the Hospices de Beaune auction every year, had never previously set foot in a grower’s cellar when I took him to Domaine de la Pousse d’Or in Volnay.
Until the 1970s, those vignerons had been relatively sheltered from the realities of the wine industry. They (almost always the men) worked in the vineyards and cellars while their wives handled the money - usually with the help of a mobile Credit Agricole or Banque Populaire banking van that drove into the village square once a week. Brokers - courtiers - came to collect samples after every vintage, returning a week or so later with news of how much the merchants were prepared to pay, and a few pieces of paper to sign.
When the negociants’ cellars were full of unsold wine and the brokers stopped calling, the growers realised they’d have to take matters into their own hands and start distributing their wine directly, by the bottle. The printers of Beaune and Nuits St Georges had an instant windfall as couples queued up to choose from a limited selection of labels adorned with a bunch of grapes, a wine press or a coat of arms. That was the easy part. The bottling process was more of a challenge, as the producers who followed the example of Vallet Freres in Gevrey Chambertin by doing it directly from the barrel by candlelight, discovered. Almost none, however, had the money or experience to invest in an automated bottling line, especially given the small quantities they had to deal with.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man… In this case, I think he was called Pierrot (it was 45 years ago, so I could be wrong) who offered a simple, efficient, mobile bottling service from a van that might sometimes have been parked next to a vehicle owned by one of the banks.
Mobile bottling lines changed the lives of countless winemakers across Europe in the early 1980s and enabled them to satisfy a few dynamic US importers’ and their customers’ new-found enthusiasm for ‘small is beautiful’ estates.
Fast forward to 2020, and producers with bottling lines, and distributors who’ve never needed one, are now asked to package up and send mini samples of wine. Initially these were to be used for live online tastings of the kind pioneered by 67 Pall Mall in London when it had to close its doors to its members. Gradually, however, the environmental and economic advantages of mailing six different samples that even in a shipping carton with a tasting booklet, weigh less than a single 75cl bottle, became apparent.
But so too did the challenges of ensuring that, after a few days of being shipped, thrown around and left sitting around in all kinds of environments and temperatures, the contents of the little bottles were still truly representative of the bigger ones. Of course, behind the scenes lots of wine has always been shipped in sample bottles. How many producers of large-volume, inexpensive white or young-drinking red would wait until these wines are bottled before showing them to big retailers? Most want to be able to load the cartons onto the trucks almost as soon as they come off the line. Wines offered En Primeur may not traditionally be packaged in mini bottles but, by definition, the 75cl samples offered at tastings certainly haven’t been on a conveyor belt.
I’m betting that it won’t be long before 21st century versions of Monsieur Pierrot will be offering reliable package-and-dispatch services to a wide range of wine businesses who’ll increasingly discover the potential of giving a wide range of customers the opportunity to taste small amounts of wine rather than take their chances on heavy, environmentally unfriendly glass ones. I struggle to believe in a deity that insists on wine coming in 75cl glass bottles, but I do quite like the idea of Greek or Roman gods who create crises for us to struggle with and, in some cases, treat as opportunities. And contract packaging for small sample bottles might just be as much of a game changer today as mobile bottling lines were nearly half a century ago.