Home  /  Opinion

This coming Saturday is annual Record Store Day. It’s an event when independent record shops get access to (almost exclusively vinyl) special editions of classic and not-so-classic albums that are, initially at least, sold only over the counter. The whole thing is pepped up by in-store performances and signings.

My first day as a trainee manager in Majestic Wine was in June 2001. I had applied for the job because it offered a graduate training scheme that promised quick promotion through the ranks, although the 25% staff discount was a factor too.

Recently, we were in our local Majestic. It was just a few days after the news that the historic wine hawker was winding up its warehouses and focusing its efforts online. Morale among staff was, unsurprisingly, very low. Their usual upbeat, friendly and welcoming demeanour had been replaced by anger, frustration and bewilderment at the decision to rebrand as Naked Wines, the company bought by Majestic for £70 million in 2015. 

Online wine sales are reportedly growing steadily across Europe, and the UK is leading the way with eCommerce currently accounting for 10% of total off-trade wine sales. This growing interest from consumers in purchasing alcohol online reflects the wider retail climate, which has seen internet sales increase from 5.8% to 20% of total retail sales in the UK in the last 10 years.

Lost in cartography

29 March, 2019

Among my most sentimentally valued possessions are a couple of old Denoyer-Geppert maps given to me by a history teacher making way for the technology of the overhead projector.

A few years ago, while living in the US, I was introduced to rosé wine in a can at a summer picnic. Being British, I set aside my preconceived notions, politely accepted the drink and sipped away. I had always believed that a great wine could only ever come in a bottle, but I was pleasantly surprised by the canned offering – it had a great taste and stayed cooler for longer, particularly during a hot summer. 

As sequels are to Hollywood, so vintages are to wine. The same franchises get churned out every year, and every year people faithfully buy into them. The only difference is, with the possible exception of heavily oaked Chardonnay, wine doesn’t go with popcorn.

Even as the ice caps melt, the world is becoming an increasingly polarised place. Nuance and rationale get bested by bombast and dogma; every disagreement seems irreconcilable. The middle ground has become No Man’s Land. Such polarisation was all too evident in recent discussions about Oddbins going into administration. While the response was almost universally sympathetic within the wine trade, the debate on social media became rapidly antithetical when Brexit was mooted as a determining factor.

January proved another success for committed abstainers. Granted, it’s the grimmest month to endure without the occasional glass of whisky, but the brave few suffered for our sins, seeing it tee-totally through to February while simultaneously inflicting a short, sharp kidney punch to the industry. Well done them.

The art of tastings

15 February, 2019

All of us who engage with the wine tasting circuit will be familiar with its general format – comfortable, predictable and generally pretty successful. Whether it’s held in a private members’ club on Pall Mall, a basement in Shoreditch or a private room in a restaurant, the basic form of the trade tasting is timeless: wines normally ordered by producer, a spacious room, good light, tasting booklets (with free pencils), spittoons and endless plates of Carr’s Table Water Biscuits.

When the notion of MUP was first introduced in Scotland, I remember thinking “this is big” and I wondered how the industry would react. I also wondered how I would react if the same were to be implemented in England. Would it make a difference to how or what alcohol I buy? Would I even notice the price rises? 

Beer writing legend Roger Protz wasn’t the only one “dumbfounded” by the decision by the Fuller’s board to sell its brewing business to Asahi of Japan in a £250 million deal.

Christmas now feels like a distant memory. The tree is down, the leftover turkey is gone and the phrase “new year, new me” has been bandied about one time too many. But we’re going to revisit the festive period just once more as it is such an important period for off-trade drinks sales. In the 11 weeks to December 29 shoppers spent £129 million more on alcohol than they did during the same period in 2017, a rise of 2%, and £245 million more than they did in Christmas 2016.

According to most observers, veganism is one of the fastest growing sectors in the world of food and drink. As such, there are plenty of producers, brands and retailers across the board lining up to take advantage, because where new trends emerge, there is money to be made.

At the beginning of each year, industry observers like nothing more than blowing the dust off their crystal balls, peering into the spirit world (and beer and wine), and proudly predicting the next “big thing” we’ll all be selling over the following 12 months. 

Anyone for Dry Tueday?

22 January, 2019

It’s a cruel world that rewards the wine merchant who has crossed the finish line of December’s festive mania with Dry January. Of course, giving up is the new giving in. 

You wouldn’t be surprised if I told you in recent years that there has been a trend of laying off alcohol throughout January.

Christmas is arguably the biggest trading period of the year for the off-trade, loaded with significant opportunities for retailers. After all, it is a time of indulgence, hosting, parties and many cosy nights in – people want to make Christmas special and this is reflected in their shopping habits. In fact, last year saw the biggest spend on premium products ever, with £470m spent over the four weeks to Christmas (Kantar).

Another year; another holly, jolly Christmastime. Cue the office parties, the endless playlists of Slade, Chris Rhea, and Shakin’ Stevens, and the desperate search for an appropriate Secret Santa present. And, of course, the mild panic of brands – both big and small – as they contemplate just how they are going to stand out from the crowd during the year’s busiest sales period.  

Christmas is my favourite season – I have been known to put my tree up in mid-November. Yes, I am one of those people.

How is cheap wine possible? This is perhaps the strangest and most perpolexing question in wine, alongside such conundrums as “is terroir real?” and “pink port: why, god, why?”

Students who sit their wine exams all around the world have long been familiar with the complicated classifications with which European wines are labeled, enshrining the idea that grapes are capable of articulating their origins, and that grapes grown in different sites will produce wines of different quality and nuance of flavour.

Leading investors gathered at the Mayfair Hotel last week to listen to Cam Battley, chief corporate officer at Canadian firm Aurora Cannabis, wax lyrical about the marijuana industry’s vast potential. Make no mistake, this is going to become a large, global industry, bigger than global brewing,” he said. And I’ll tell you why. Beer has no legitimate medical applications, no matter what we tell ourselves on a Friday evening.”

In my last column, I asked whether wine has enough cultural and historical value to survive the increasingly prevalent anti-alcohol sentiment in Britain, which is precisely the kind of #bantz that explains why I always end up standing by myself at parties.

As I write, there’s a ragu simmering on the stove. It began with the unhurried dicing of onions, carrots and celery, followed by the browning of the mince, and the addition of wine and tomato. It’s the first of the year, and like the returning blast of the central heating or the wearing of jumpers, it’s a sign that autumn is here, and with it the best season for wine lovers.

It’s strange but true that just five or six years ago customers were willing to travel considerable distances to get their hands on new and edgy beers from the latest craft breweries.

Attempting to see something from an alternative perspective is like leaving you running in circles before collapsing on the floor, panting heavily.

Jen Draper, head of marketing at Global Brands, looks at why the age-appropriate debate is growing old.

Surely it’s not just me who every so often looks round at the world of wine and wonders what on earth we are all going on about? It’s a feeling as blasphemous as a vicar questioning the whole resurrection thing, or Riedel suddenly wondering whether glassware actually makes the slightest difference to how wine is perceived.

If I had said a few years ago that flavoured gin would be bigger than flavoured vodka and be the spirit which contributes the largest growth to the alcohol market, would you have believed me?