The trouble with trendspotting for independents

wine glasses on their sides with different coloured wines in them

For many indies, the start of the year is about taking stock, literally and figuratively, as the dust settles on the most frantic month of the wine merchant’s calendar. After we’ve analysed the data and debriefed on the activities of Christmas past, we go into the new year armed with a sense of clarity and purpose.

That’s the theory.

But no matter how thoroughly we run the numbers, much is opaque. Partly this is because many don’t have comprehensive numbers but, more importantly, it is down to the nature of independent merchants; their variability and individuality.

This is a weakness and a strength, stemming from the people who run and work in them. Owners, buyers and staff bring their personalities and passions – good and bad – to the business and these are reflected in the spread of sales. Two independent wine merchants next door to each other can have wildly contrasting sales patterns, in a way that two supermarkets next to each other probably don’t – at least for wine.

Perhaps you’ve just hired someone who is mad about Furmint – unsurprisingly, Furmint sales are substantially higher now than last year. Or maybe one of your buyers has just come back from a winery visit feeling bullish about English sparkling wine, and suddenly stock is moving much more quickly than expected. Both of these are micro-trends rather than macro-trends.

Further unpredictability comes from the customers of indie merchants, who are perhaps less predictable and more adventurous than those of the large multiples or supermarkets. Or, if that’s flattery by association, perhaps we can say that they buy their more adventurous wines from independent merchants, and their less adventurous ones from elsewhere. I’m not the only merchant to hear that my customer has stocked up on party wine elsewhere, but wants some advice on the good stuff. This is never more true than at Christmas, when it feels like you have to stock a bit of everything because you never know who is going to walk through the door.

Independent merchants are the best people to talk to if you want to know what the zeitgeist is. In this fast-moving and changeable area of the wine trade, things don’t stand still for long, with many indie stores’ ranges changing more quickly than the wine lists of their sommelier colleagues. Independent merchants are truly at the coalface of wine trends and are the best people to talk to if you want to know what the next big thing could be.

A case in point: it has been several years since I worried about my stock levels of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Because of the industry headlines about shortages, I have sold more individual amounts of Dão Tinto, Cretan Vilana, Calabrian Gaglioppo, orange wine from Catalunya, Moldovan Feteasca Alba, Montecristo No 4s and even, believe or not, off-dry Riesling from the Mosel than all our New Zealand Sauvignon put together. Let’s not even start on the mania for Vinho Verde or Prosecco’s waning star. This is both frustrating and tantalising if your instinct is to generalise or draw a trend line. The temptation is, naturally, to extrapolate and make grand plans for any or all of these wines. Might any one of them be the next early-adopter trend? Quite possibly. Am I putting any money down? Certainly not.

If you want to see the emerging and expiring trends in wine, independent merchants are the place to be. Just don’t expect the numbers to tell you why.

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