Hello 2017

It is easy to look back on a year like 2016 and lament only the poor decisions made – ahem, UK and USA – and the lives lost. See only the bad and seem to forget that there have been awesome parts as well. 

Good people. Doing good things. Work going well. Achievements made, goals reached. 

In my personal world, the health bit went phenomenally pear-shaped, and I’d really like to find someone to eradicate the blood infection doing its level best to destroy me. Extreme options WILL be considered. Go nuts, world. Suggest away. I have people in my world who have lent a degree of support and strength for which I can never express enough thanks. I promise to not do it again. As much as I can. I’m going with no calls to ambulances in the next twelve months. Hopefully. I have so much gratitude to those around me and to the smart, searingly honest voices around me. And some of it is not great, but there are doors closing and opening apace. 

On a side note, many thanks to the friends who helped and the ambos who are always awesome. Always.

Many thanks to the customers who understood when I couldn’t quite make an appointment. The ones who helped when they didn’t need to do so. The venues who took the time with me to understand my brands, my wines and my people. 

And yet. Yet 2016 delivered in SPADES on my capacity for disappointment in community and world growth. I enter 2017 hoping that this abandonment of basic humanity doesn’t take over… This year? NOT. BEING. QUIET. 

The fact that the sheer fury and disappointment at the world’s rampant inanity is a stimulus to do better in 2017. To stand tall and be better. To speak for our beliefs and for those without voices. 

But 2016 was not just a melange of the middling to awful. And occasionally we need to push away the vile to search for the better. 

Working with awesome peoples. Learning stuff. Not screwing up the health thing too much. Getting better at who we are. If you can look back on your year and see no improvement here then maybe you need to make changes. 

This is an opportunity. As each year is. We think about diet and exercise when there are bigger issues. Start big. It filters down.

Be better.

Hello 2017.

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Complacency

This old 2016 has been full of loss and political chaos, war and discrimination, anger, and a feeling of disenfranchisement.

That last one though – the disenfranchisement. This sense has been blamed for the electoral madness engulfing the world: from One Nation here, and Brexit in the UK to the rather frightening Trumpitude in the US. People in economic strife look to change-makers – or at least change-promisers. Those bellowing loudest that they speak for THE PEOPLE – with scarce knowledge of what lives these PEOPLE live. Those fear-mongering to promote themselves. Those instilling despair and terror in the face of relative well-being. Those blaming otherness, and fostering hatred.

This is where we find ourselves at the end of 2016: the political system in the US is being staffed by race-hate, science-denialists and religious zealotry. The UK is terrified of the very immigration system which staffs their hospitals and schools, their pubs and shops, and creates such a vibrant nation. Australia leaning so far in to the right-wing populist approach that the reasonable and sane man supposedly leading the country has such minimal power and voice to do, you know, anything. Russia is sowing dissent everywhere and the Middle East is destroying its history and peoples at an unprecedented rate. Climate change is still being debated, rather than addressed, in the face of blatant facts.

We rant on social media. We post emojis of wonder at the pace of the world. We blog our snide and sarcastic posts. We laugh at the inane politics of the world. And we go back to our lives, and settle in to complacency.

This however, is our call to arms. This is the voice of the world trying to rouse us from our complacency. And where are we? Looking at youtube videos instead. Politics turns. People get angry and power switches sides. This is the entire point of political freedom – get angry and DO SOMETHING. Case in point – America essentially got bored of the whole election brouhaha and decided that voting was too much trouble. Those who voted were angry, or disenfranchised, or fired up – they heard the call to arms and rose up. In Australia, people who rarely take heed of political issues were befriended and entranced by candidates who sounded like them, and played on their fears. They voted in great numbers for the fear-mongerers and left old Malcolm and Bill with barely a toe between them upon which to stand.

This, dear world, is our chance. We have been stagnating and taking our sane, progressive world for granted. Progress requires action. It requires strident voices and a willingness to engage ALL members of the community. It needs us to stand up and speak out for those at the fringes of society. We do need to keep fighting for action addressing climate change and racism, religious persecution and gender bias, hatred and fear.

Knowing that we are right is a dangerous position. It encourages blind faith that the world will come around eventually.

Stand up. Speak your mind. Argue the path forward. The standard we walk past is the standard we accept; the lies we ignore are the lies we accept; and I for one do not accept this political swing to borderline fascism. Complacency is easy. Complacency is expecting someone else to stand up for our beliefs. Complacency is the breeding ground of fear. Encourage debate, discussion and education. Look for answers rather than thundering statements. Get political. Get invested in our future, because by the looks of world politics, no-one else will do so. Have a voice. Because those fringe voices? Are getting louder by the day.

Grow up, 2016. We need to be better next year.

 

Perspective

So, recently I found myself getting rather miffed. I had achieved a massive goal, in terms of sales and branding. *I* was excited. VERY excited. It was a great get, and an awesome opportunity.

Except. Except some of the beneficiaries of this goal seemed less than enthused. As in, not excited at all. As in, unwilling to even provide the basic information that would turn this opportunity into action. 

So I was a teensy bit annoyed but people have lives and other things on and that’s fine. All I can do is present opportunities. And that’s completely okay. Because at the end of the day, they are the winery’s opportunities. Not mine. And yeah yeah, effort, time, connections, etc. But it is remembering that it is never about me, despite the efforts, and it is ALWAYS about the winery. 

So: perspective. It’s an interesting one in the wine game because there are SO MANY perspectives between the vineyards and the end drinker. Winemaker and owner. Marketing guru. Distributor. Reps. Retailers. Somms. Waiters. The successful brands are ones which appreciate the variety of perspectives and address this without compromising the brand identity or story. 

The story must be consistent. And if your story is based around a huge personality then that must be evident across your branding and events. If it is the husband and wife winemakers, chilled and laid back, then their choice of events and presentation to the wine-drinking community must reflect this. 

Wine shows can be a little limiting due to their format – trestle, bottles, banner, spitoon, order forms. Any chance to shift this alters the perspective. Move the trestle to the back of the display area. Talk to people without a bit of furniture getting in the way. Forget the banner, use a collage of photos instead and invite people to come up close. Be different. Shift your perspective. More importantly – shift the consumer’s perspective. Make them more than another body tasting another wine and enable them to engage more closely with your wine, your brand, YOU. 

The selection of wine events is crucial. They must fit your targets and your ethos. They must deliver a return – whether it be exposure, or branding or cash. The scales must err in your favour. And that means having a really clear idea of your purpose and the tracking path of your brand. 

And occasionally your choices will surprise people. But look at every opportunity as a chance to see what others are up to rather than purely focusing inwardly. Ask attendees for feedback. Exchange notes with other wineries. Each event is a chance to see where you can optimise your investment, or improve. 

See outside your own perspective – and that of your brand – and appreciate how others go about achieving the goal we all hold front and centre. For our wines to be bought, savoured, recommended, and purchased again. In a crowded market, a return sale is golden. Out of all the choices, they’ve effectively said “I like you. I want you in my world.”

And there is little better than being the choice of someone out of all the wines they could have. They become your brand ambassador. Pouring or recommending for friends. Sending colleagues and family to your event, your cellar door, your world. Every happy customer is a chance to reach even more people. And to reach then with an independent endorsement. 

Because essentially, whilst my perspective as an agent, a helping hand, has minimal relevance, so does that of the maker. The only relevance really is that of the drinker. And maybe if we could stop repeating the same story over and over regardless of the audience, we could ask them about their world. Their perspective. And what makes them happy. Let them invite us into their lives. Listen. And find a way to make our wines relevant which extends past the glass in front of them. 

Because if we are the only ones being excited about the wines and the identikit story we could recite in our sleep? We’re doing it wrong. 

My being excited for this awesome opportunity is one thing. But unless the other party is too, what’s the point?

At risk of repeating myself: there is no need to preach from on high. There are so very many politicians and churches and media types and spruikers already doing that. How about we throw out the script? 

When we invite guests into our houses we ask them how they are. Why, then, is the script at wine events generally to simply bleat at people until they leave?

My wines are way more personal than my house. I want to invite people into my wines. Ask them their opinions. Value their input. Find out how it might just fit into their world. Enjoy a splash together. Not just tell then how special the wines are, but to show them why they are special to me. Share. 

It’s all a matter of perspective. 

I just wanna have fun.

This time last year? I was dying.

This year? Massive improvement. Not dying. Broadly being industrious.

Much on the cards for 2016. But simply? Great people. Great wine.

And possibly a few rants…

If nothing else we need to be a better nation.

We need to be a better industry. Those icons we fete as they pass away? Take on their lessons. We have had, and do have, some brilliant minds. Let’s use them.

Let’s listen to our consumers, not force a point.

Let’s be better at explaining what we do. Showcase the weird, the quirky in a more comprehensible manner.

Let’s be happier. Brighter. More… bold wine.

Be accessible.

Pride need never get in the way of our marketing.

Pride is why we are here.

I adore my wines. That adoration is my catch-cry. Not always. But those would not buy anyway. Pride. Faith.

These are my wines.

It is vintage. It is our sleepless, never-ending, somewhat-mad time of year. And we’re still all here when we can be to talk about our wines with you.

We’re here. Taking a chance on you.

Take a chance on us.

Charming

So, in general, the wine industry is pretty well behaved. We play nice at events, are polite about others’ wines and enter into discussion only when appropriate. So, when we are not in front of the buying public, and generally in a calm tone allowing for interaction and discussion.

Until the other night. When a winemaker who did not know me, nor the wines I was representing, became aggressive.

He interrupted a conversation, stabbed his fingers at me demanding I look at the wine in his glass and agree with him that it was faulty.

I refused. I suggested that if he did not enjoy the wine, that was absolutely fine. We all have different taste buds and requirements of our wines but his voice and approach got louder.

There were other consumers around. People who were enjoying the wines I was pouring.

I refused to engage and ended up abandoning my post at the bar with a short statement to the effect that we could argue until the end of time but this was not the place and we were unlikely to come to an agreement anyway.

He doesn’t know me. I don’t expect him to know me. I, however, know him.

And a copy of this will be sent to him.

I found his behaviour to be boorish and unnecessary, impolite and demeaning. To behave this way in front of others? Highly disrespectful.

I expect no response. His approach and demeanour was dismissive and aggressive.

The great thing about wine is its diversity. This guy? Poster child for a different kind of winemaking. Which has its place.

But not in my world.

Grow up, little man.

A punter walks into a bar….

So. Recent months have seen a number of people contact me asking about ordering wines.

Seems simple, right?

On a Facebook group, the point was made that the punter should try something new,  or different, or outside of their comfort zone when they go to a bar with a good wine list. Much in the same way that one orders from the menu food that we generally do not make at home, a good wine list is an opportunities to branch out.

And I completely get the pride a venue takes in their wine list.  It takes time,  inspiration, money. And that deserves a certain respect.

And yet. Yet I have wine-aware friends and family asking me continuously how to avoid the feral wines (to their palates) on the wine list. Sure. Some of them are more likely to just accede to a suggestion rather than voicing a preference. They are terrified of being “wrong”. Or looked down upon. They just want a wine they *want* to drink.

This is where a number of consumers find themselves today. And it is the industry which creates confusion rather than clarity – something we have accomplished admirably. We tie our industry and our products up in knots. We use a very specific language much of the time which draws a line between those in the know and those just looking for a glass of wine they might enjoy. We make it a mystery where we are trying to make it a discovery.

Case in point: friend goes into a bar. Looks at list. Bar person spruiks for a wine which my friend is fairly sure is not their thing. Bar person has not met my friend before. Bar person knows nothing of why the friend is there, how their taste buds skew, whether or not they plan on ordering food. Bar person didn’t even ask whether they might prefer white, pink, or red. Sweet or dry. Full or lean.

Bar person wanted to show off,  and all they showed was a fatal lack of comprehension of the service industry.

Serving someone a drink has very much to do with the drinker’s tastes.  And very little to do with the preference of the bar person.

Good sommeliers understand this. Good sommeliers also understand that their role is about providing a great experience for the diner.  Full stop. Whether they want the same wine style they drink at home, or are willing to be taken on a journey. A good sommelier will find a way to enliven the experience and slowly open the diner’s mind and maybe tempt them with a half step to the left of the usual selection next time.

A good sommelier does not push. They tempt. They entice. They enhance the experience where suitable. They understand when someone just wants a safe choice, and to not diminish that choice.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of people working in hospitality with some experience, but often not necessarily the tools and experience of a good somm. A distinct preference for a wine does not necessarily make for a good fit for your customer. A venue which is entirely bound up in their own preference is missing one of the key bits of hospitality. That of actual ‘hospitality’.

The wine industry is often guilty of the same thing to a certain extent. Being too focused on the sales pitch to ask where the punter fits is a common error. Everyone brings something to their wine selection. Past experiences. Personal preference. Earlier tipples. Unless we ask, how are we to adequately take to this into account when guiding choices?

And unless we take this into account, we are not suitably working toward the best exposure of our wines.

Simple.

When serving at events and tastings, my first question is what the punter would choose to purchase. Given their choice. This is a starting point. It’s not rocket science but understanding from where a customer comes is the key to building a relationship and not wasting people’s time. Let’s be honest – a scattergun approach might graze its target but it is rarely a bull’s eye.

Same goes in a bar. I’m certainly all for taking the path less travelled, but it is probably fair to say that I am also in the minority. And yes. I want this minority to gain ground. I’m just not entirely sure about how we are going about doing it.

Pushing wines onto a customer is not the same as listening to them and educating them. It annoys people. It makes them less likely to take that step to the left next time. It does not help any of us. Except for the more commercial end of the game.  Making it harder to select and enjoy wines only drives people to the predictable choice.  Because most people want to know what they are getting. A degree of predictability is about delivering security to the buyer. They know that what they have ordered will tick the boxes.

I would rather that everyone tried new things. That they handed over the keys to their palates and let us take them on an adventure. That they were open to their minds being expanded.

But.  They are not our palates. We as the wine trade, the vendors, the somms, the bartenders do not get to dictate the preferences of another’s palate. They do not belong to us. What we can do is listen. Take on board what the customer tells us. Believe them. And use this information to either deliver what they want exactly, or to best provide a viable, engaging alternative. This is our role.

Never to denigrate. Always to listen. Engage. Build a bridge from where they are to where our wines might reside. Make it fun, rather than a hard lesson learned.

Why do we make it so damn hard to enjoy wines? No freaking clue. We build walls of words and language. We as an industry struggle to define our own terminology consistently. We write tasting notes embedded with the science and zero connection. We say we engage because we do events and talk to the people. But look around. The people are bemused.

Wine can be a journey. An outstanding, vibrant, engaging journey. Except the guidebook appears to be written in a foreign language and the translator is banging on about technique and tools rather than addressing the journey in the glass.

My favourite customer back in the day came to the restaurant four or five times a week. He had the same thing. A half dozen natural, fish of the day grilled, sauce on the side. A couple of glasses of Cloudy Bay sauv. He didn’t want anything else. And it was our job to deliver that.

Occasionally he hosted larger tables. And then he asked me as the somm to recommend wines his guests would appreciate. Not him. His guests. He was a consummate entertainer, and it was purely about ensuring his guests had a great time.

Simple really. There are probably a few people who could learn a trick or two. It’s not about us. What is about us is getting it made and in the bottle.  Spruiking/marketing/selling is about translating our wine into a voice. Once we are there, it is all about the consumer palate.

Ramblings. Because it is that time of year.

So. An interesting year.

I have worked with some outstanding people, and learned some difficult lessons. I’ve eaten a little too well, drunk even better, and made some outstanding new friends.

I also came a wee bit too close to dying – twice – due to my silly body and some inept medical professionals. My ankle is due to be sliced into again in coming months. And I worked harder than I ever might have anticipated at the gym. Because: balance.

The wine people have been wonderful, as always. Supportive, fascinating, and inquisitive.

The hospo trade have been generous, and accommodating. Mostly. Except for the ones who are not. A sale is definitely NOT a sale until it’s been paid. And I will be a thorn in the side of those who try to take advantage.

I wonder, still, how we can improve our wine world. Make wine easier, accessible, less of a club and more of a free pass to fun. We need to address our wines to the wider society and be clear about varieties, styles and our voices. Open the gates and invite the world in rather than drowning our industry in words (and yes, I am well aware of the irony) and confusing our consumers. A back-to-basics approach with us simply finding out what people like and selling it to them. Take them on a journey, sure, but let them enjoy the sights (tastes) rather than just listen to a tour guide.

We need to find a way to find the fun again. Enable people to enjoy the diversity without drowning them in lingo.

But it is the end of 2015. And vintage 2016 looms large for many of us.

I’m going to be kinder to myself, and possibly less grumpy as a result.  I promise to buy fewer shoes and to contribute more to society. I’m not making wine in 2016, but I am laying the plans to be back in the winery in 2017, making the wines I like to drink.

I’m going to meet more people, and join random clubs. I’m going to say yes way more often. I’m going to complain less and fix things more. I’m just going to be me. If anyone wants to join in at any point, go nuts.

Hello 2016. You will be what I make of you and that will be awesome.