For many people, even in the wine business, the Masters of Wine are a mysterious entity. They are the elite of the wine industry, having passed a very difficult series of tests. There are only 285 of them in the world: it is an exclusive club. At least, that’s what I thought before I met Christophe Macra, one of the five French Masters of Wine, a young and entrepreneurial spirit full of energy and humor, founder of Tasteo and Esensio. Thanks to Christophe, I was invited to the 7th Symposium of the Institute of the Masters of Wine held in Bordeaux last week and whose theme, “Forging Links”, for the perfect topic for someone who spent most of her professional life networking and “forging links” between several cultures and their people.
I will spare you the details of every dinner and tasting. I’d like to emphasize what was so new and fascinating during this symposium. Out of the 285 MW, “only” 75 attended the conference. The 250 other attendees were professionals from the wine industry: journalists, consultants, importers, distributors, writers and educators. There were 17 countries represented between everybody. The official language was English. I attended every session, every tasting and every dinner. I met people I knew but mostly I was able to “forge links” with people from all over the world: Russia, USA, England, Italy, China, Belgium, France, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, among others.
The inaugural session was moderated by Christophe Macra MW on “Wine on the Web” with four major topics: are blogs the new gatekeepers ?; Reviews : wine critics for Consumers; Social Media and Icons on the Web; mobile strategy. The speakers were Jancis Robinson MW for her blog, Eric LeVine, founder of CellarTracker/GrapeStories, Rowan Gormley, founder of NakedWines and Micheal Linton, from eBay. Most agreed on the fact that consumers and bloggers are replacing the wine gurus but Jancis Robinson is comfortable with the situation. Indeed a blogger is powerful if he/she has an audience: Jancis has the audience and even if her job is more difficult now, she likes it. Some other types of sites will attract a lot of people: CellarTracker, for example, has a strong following because of the comments left by its many users: it has 1,400,000 consumers’ reviews at the moment. What about social media? Jancis Robinson adopted twitter.com very early: she uses with talent and on a regular basis. According to her, Twitter is a good tool to react fast to a comment. The iconic figures of the wine industry, such as Yquem, are now on Facebook and Twitter to engage with their consumers. Mobility is an other key word for the future of the web: most people have a web access though their phones and use it to look for information and very soon to buy. The conclusion of this amazing panel: according to Rowan Gormley, Internet is the best way to cut down costs of marketing and promotion. It seems that social media, and especially Facebook, is now bringing more traffic on web sites than Google and any SEO techniques.
A pasionnate debate took place between Margaret Hernandez, head of the House of Krug, Sylvie Cazes, President of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, and member of the famous Bordeaux family Cazes and owner of Château Lynch-Bages with her brother Jean-Michel, Eduardo Chadwick, owner of Villa Errazuriz in Chile and Christian Seely, CEO of AXA-Millesimes, the insurer owner of several wine estates in the world. The debate was : “Who serves the consumers best? Families or corporations? A quick survey in the room seemed to show people trusted families more than corporations. Maggie Hernandez and Christian Seely preached so eloquently for corporations they turned some attendees in their favor! Both are very lucky to manage what was formerly family owned estates. The tradition of a strong family management is still very much alive in Krug and the estates managed by AXA-millésimes: Château Pichon-Longueville, Château Pibran, Château Petit-Village, Château Suduiraut, Quinta do Noval (Portugal), for example. As Eduardo Chadwick and Sylvie Cazes strongly emphasized, behind corporations or families, there are people. This is the quality of the people that make the quality of the management and of the wines. At the end of the discussion, almost everybody agreed that people are making the difference, not an administrative structure.
Some sort of illustration of this principle came out during the next session, “Passing the torch”. Three families, three stories: Jean-Bernard Delmas and his son Jean-Philippe both managing Château Haut-Brion and Château La Mission Haut-Brion owned by the Dillon family, Miguel Torrès and his daughter Mireia, Jean-Claude and Olivier Berrouet, managing Petrus for the Moueix family. Two families, who are now owners of the estates, figured out a way to pass the torch for 3 generations in Haut-Brion and 2 generations in Petrus to people ouside their own family. They showed that family owned estates trust the family managing the estate enough to create a sort of “succession” tradition. There is legitimacy founded on trust, high level of professional skills and a certain sense of continuation. Some people even questioned the legitimacy of passing the torch to a child who might not be as good as a hired professional. Of course, it was not the case with the Torrès family: Mireia is certainly one of the brightest wine professional of Spain. But the question was asked and deserved an honest answer: sometimes it might be better to let a professional manage the estate until a scion of a next generation can take over with the same passion and the same skills as his/her predecessors.
The next day, we were asked to concentrate on “Emerging Markets: BRIC”. We also focused on “Asian markets and their links with the world consumers”. On those dry and very technical subjects – full of figures and hard facts – we had the most amazing speakers: Judy Leissner, CEO of Grace Vineyards for China, Eleonora Scholes for Russia, Magandeep Singh for India and Dirceu Vianna Junior for Brazil. Full of humor and anecdotes, they filled us with thoughtful insights on their respective countries. Judy emphasized the importance of the government in the wine business: the three major wineries are state owned (ChangYu, Dynasty and Great Wall). When the typical consumers’ profile is changing in the Western world, the typical Chinese wine drinker is male, 45 to 60 yr-old and drinks frequently… without liking wine. Indeed drinking wine is a social status related activity.
Eleonora Scholes showed us the differences between the perception of the Russian drinker and the reality. Russians are considered heavy drinkers, big spenders, conspicuous consumers, unpredictable and opinionated. They are in reality not the heaviest drinkers, spend the few money they have because if they don’t, the government will take it or the economy will collapse; wine is still status related and Russians are cultured and educated. Russians drank in 2009 81 liters of beer, 15 l. of vodka and 7 liters of wine (down from 21 liters in 1985). Every third wine is imported but, being expensive (150 roubles=3,8 euros), they’re drunk by people with higher income.
Let’s move to Brazil now. It is a young, energetic and rich country where wine is important. According to Dirceu Vianna Junior, There are two markets: one used to domestic wines and entry level imported wines; then demanding professionals with high disposable incone. The Bazilian market meets with three main obstacles: uneducated consumers, price sensitive market and an invasive bureaucracy. But the potential is huge because of a strong population increase and the increasing interest in luxury goods.
India is the “mystery” land where an average salary is 90€ and a good salary 200€. Can Indians afford wine? Hardly, answered Magandeep Singh: the price of a bottle is about 10 to 20 euros. How often can you drink a bvottle of wine on a basic income of 90€ a month? The market is small considering the population of India: 1,200,000 9 liters cases are consumed in India, including 200,000 cases of imported wines. Mumbai and Delhi are 80% of the market. Any hope for the future: yes, with an up to date marketing to reach the younger consumers through social networking.
The highlight of the aftertnoon was our keynote speaker, John Hegarty, creative director of the ad agency BBH and ower of Domaine Chamans in Languedoc. “Lose the mystery, and enhance the magic” of wine, was his advice to an enthralled audience. He reminded us that the basic rule is “engagement” because of the fragmenting of the audience. he emphasized the importance of “brands” in the wine business because “brand=reputation”. He pleaded for innovative, creative, daring strategies to create differentiation. Differentiation generates traction, that generates premium. How to brand a wine to create the magic ? We have to understand the purpose of wine (we know the function) . Wine flavors our life.
Nothing was truer than this statement when we were sitting in front of four glasses featuring wines from Paul Draper, Alvaro Palacios, Paul Pontallier and Peter Gago: “modern legends”. No, because legends are make believe or dead and those wines and their makers were wonderfully alive.
After those four days spent with stimulating speakers and guests, I completely reviewed my idea of what a Master of Wine is: he or she is a great human being able to make 250 guests from all over the world gather in Bordeaux. They’re fun, bright, knowledgeable and open. I can’t wait for the next Symposium held in 4 years somewhere in the world. See you then!