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Robert Joseph – one of the most experienced and successful representatives of the wine world. He is the wine critic of the London Sunday Telegraph and award-winning author of more than 28 books on wine, including French Wines, Bordeaux and its Wines and The Complete Encyclopedia of Wine. He also contributed to the progress of winemaking by founding the world’s largest International Wine Challenge competition. Robert Joseph appears regularly on television and radio. Decanter magazine named him as one of the 50 people who would influence wine drinking in the 21st century. Robert Joseph is an editorial consultant and columnist for Meininger’s Wine Business International. Joseph shared his thoughts, knowledge and forecasts with the Editor-in-chief of Drinks+ magazine.
D+: Mr. Robert Joseph, you have a unique experience in many areas of the wine world. What is important for you now and what kind of activity in the wine business is the most attractive today for you?
Robert Joseph: Creating new wines (I’m working on a project in Georgia), and discovering ones that are new to me.
D+: It had been almost a year since you finished the work on your book ‘The Future of Wine Has Changed’. It was a difficult year for the wine world. What would you add or change now, given the situation today?
R.J.: In fact, the publication was delayed, and I am happy to have the chance to reconsider some of my assumptions. The one thing of which I am sure is the growth in digital communication (online tastings, Augmented and Virtual Reality) and distribution. I honestly believe that the supermarket ‘wall of wine’ will soon be a thing of the past.
D+: The future of wine has changed, and not only wine, many industries have fundamentally transformed their businesses. However, if we talk about the wine business, as a part of the global economy, in your opinion, changes that have occurred are positive and expected?
R.J.: We have seen relatively few changes, compared to other sectors. In most countries, most wine is still sold in supermarkets in glass 75cl bottles. There has been a general resistance to producing premium still wine through blending across regions and even the cheapest wines tend to have vintages.
But changes are happening. On the one hand, the natural wine phenomenon, whilst being initially associated with amateurish production of faulty wines, is evolving into something quite interesting and it is clear that just as Nouvelle Cuisine reduced the use of flour, cream and butter in cooking in the 1970s, natural wine will encourage lower-intervention winemaking.
There are more innovative premium blends, especially in the US where red blends (not based on French recipes) are now selling at up to $100. In Europe, categories like Vin de France are similarly and simultaneously allowing more experimentation and more production of higher volume wines with consistent quality and style. Multi-vintage wines are arriving too, even from wineries as prestigious as Opus One, but they are still treated with suspicion.
I honestly believe that the supermarket ‘wall of wine’ will soon be a thing of the past.
In packaging, while heavy bottles quite reasonably upset those who care about the environment, there is a move towards more environmentally friendly options such as (lightweight and almost infinitely recyclable) aluminium cans and kegs that allow wine to be served on draught in the on trade.
All of these changes are positive. Many traditionalists dislike the arrival of innovations such as wines aged in whisky and rum barrels or fermented using beer yeasts… As far as I’m concerned anything that sparks an interest in wine is to be welcomed. Especially at a time when global consumption has flattened (before coronavirus) and shows little signs of short-term return to growth.
D+: In the context of climate changes, we are already producing new wines, changing the wine legislation that regulates production, and new wine countries with higher wine quality than before are entering the market. In your opinion, for the most part, we are at the stage of adoption of the changes and will we adapt or at the stage of their denial – and, accordingly, will we try to fight with them?
R.J.: This will vary. Many traditional wine models face an existential crisis. Merlot is increasingly unviable in Bordeaux. It will rarely if ever be possible to make the 12% red Burgundy of the 1980s. Will Pinot Noir be sustainable there in 30 years time?
Attitudes will vary from region to region and producer to producer. New sub regions will develop. In the hills of the Cote de Beaune when I lived there, grapes often struggled to get to 10%, and the wines were rarely noteworthy. Now, Burgundy expert Jasper Morris recommends examples grown in my old village.
60% of the marketing budget should be spent on brand building, rather than discounting – in order to foster ‘price elasticity’ in the mind of the consumer.
Burgundy will be slow to abandon its current – and historic – single-variety model. Bordeaux has always been a blended wine and the region has already allowed producers to use a slightly different recipe. Franciacorta has done the same. Other regions will follow.
D+: In your speeches, you noted that buying wine there is a big gap between consumers and those who have deep technical knowledge about wine. What exactly needs to be done by the producer to fill this gap and sell, bring the wine to the consumer?
R.J.: There is a need for much more empathy in the wine industry. Professionals need to put themselves in the shoes of consumers with little wine knowledge or the desire to acquire it. These people should pause to consider how little most of them know about tea or coffee, or possibly beer or spirits.
Once they acknowledge the lack of innate wish to know more about wine, they will be able to think about how to communicate more successfully – to have conversations with their customers rather than deliver lectures.
D+: You note that the wine market is extremely diverse and saturated, and it is very easy to get lost for the brand. According to your articles, just a good quality is not enough to sell a bottle. More attention should be paid to the wine marketing. Please tell us in more detail how to act in this situation? What percentage of the marketing budget should be spent on promotion, what resources should be used, in your opinion?
R.J.: Speaking on our recent Real Business of Wine webcast, advertising and marketing expert, Tom Lewis estimated that 60% of the marketing budget should be spent on brand building, rather than discounting – in order to foster ‘price elasticity’ in the mind of the consumer. Price promotions do the opposite, making them associate the brand with low, discounted, prices.
Prices and margins are not talked about enough in wine. In other sectors, it is common to add 20 cents for marketing on top of every dollar it has cost to produce a product. This 20% marketing budget is common for sparkling wines and spirits; with wine the figure is closer to 5%.
In the 1980s there were 20,000 Bordeaux chateaux. Today there are less than 6,000 and I expect that number to halve within the decade.
A main reason for this is pricing which is too often based on what neighbours charge, or what is ‘acceptable’ for the appellation or varietal. Apart from the minority whose acknowledged quality allows them to escape this fate – or those like Bottega in Italy with its packaging and marketing skills – this is inevitably a race to the bottom.
Selling in supermarkets which demand low prices and discounts doubly exacerbates this situation. Branded – but weakly marketed – wines sit on shelves alongside the retailers’ well-packaged own labels. And often lose the battle.
D+: Recently, we see the tendency that not-so-typical wine regions of England, Denmark and Holland, Thailand begin to produce wines. Brands from Eastern Europe enter the world market, new wines appear (for example, the so-called crossover wine products). Does this mean that competition in the wine market is in the most active phase? Or the competition will be intensified?
R.J.: Competition will not slow, as new regions and styles emerge. But I expect the number of producers and distributors to reduce. There are many cheeses in the world, but far fewer dairies than wineries. As craft breweries succeed, they are bought by bigger businesses and I expect to see this continue with wine. In the 1980s there were 20,000 Bordeaux chateaux. Today there are less than 6,000 and I expect that number to halve within the decade. And a post covid-19 financial crisis would speed that process.
Small, agile producers (under 10,000 cases) with low costs and local sales and/or high value sales elsewhere will survive and may prosper.
D+: Do the new products, wine producing countries affect the tastes, preferences of wine lovers? Can you predict how tastes and demand will change in the near future? What will become especially fashionable, popular?
R.J.: If I could predict anything with any accuracy, I’d be a lot richer. But I foresee continued polarization between esoteric ‘natural’ and ‘traditional’ wines and more crowd-pleasing examples designed to satisfy public tastes rather than historic models.
D+: In connection with the climate changes and taste preferences, which of the once outsider wines can take a leading position?
R.J.: Good question. One obvious answer is blends from countries with heat-resistant varieties. This could include countries like Greece and Turkey. On the other hand, obviously, as temperatures rise, cool climate regions – like Britain and northern France – will benefit.
D+: How, in your opinion, did the development of social media influence the wine business?
R.J.: Hugely, because it has allowed smaller producers to communicate alongside bigger ones, and consumers to learn from each other.
D+: What do you think about the impact of journalists, Instagram bloggers on wine consumers’ opinions? Can coups of such magnitude be expected as Parker did for Bordeaux or Spurrier for California?
R.J.: I believe that Parker was a unique phenomenon. There was never anyone with his global influence in any sector. Spurrier’s role in helping to boost California was also a one-off. Black swans are, by their nature, unpredictable, but media and communications have changed since the 1970s and 1980s. More recent Judgment of Paris-style tastings have had less impact.
D+: Which of the world’s oenologists do you consider to be the most talented, or perhaps even genius? And what is his merit?
R.J.: There are so many – too many to choose one. It is unfashionable, I know, but I believe that Michel Roland has had a very positive impact on the wine world internationally. His contribution to great wines like Chateau Ausone, Ornellaia and Araujo and to regions like Mendoza in Argentina cannot be overstated.
D+: What style of wines is especially close to you?
R.J.: I have a very wide range of tastes, but particularly enjoy Burgundy, Gernman an Austrian whites, the Rhone and Italy. I probably drink Bordeaux less than many traditional wine professionals.
D+: Please tell us about your wineries where you are a co-owner: Greener Planet and Le Grand Noir. What wines do you produce and from which vineyards? Who are your customers? What countries are targeted? What is your role in brand development?
R.J.: Both wines are unusual in being created from scratch by a wine writer with the consumer in mind. I often like to say that the Le Grand Noir – which I love to drink at home by the way – are made for people who wouldn’t read the wine books I used to write. They are designed to be delicious, above all, but also consistent in style and quality – something many wine enthusiasts don’t actually want. They are also easy to drink – without cellaring or decanting or matching with particular – or any – food. Finally, they come in a wide range of styles – 14 – but all from the same place and vineyard landholding.
To achieve this, we took a Champagne approach, blending wine from the different altitudes, soils, aspects and microclimates of the 7,000ha of vineyards we work with in the Minervois region of Languedoc in Southern France. Most if our wines fall under the IGP / Vin de Pays designation, which allows us loots of freedom to experiment with blends and styles. I’m proud to say that they have been good enough to be served in Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill in London, while being affordable and easy enough to drink to take on a picnic .
Greener Planet was a different project in which we set out, in the same region, to make attractively-priced wines that were both organic and good for the environment and community. When we launched them in 2007, I think we were a little too early, but now may be their moment. Stylistically, they are more obviously terroir-focused than le Grand Noir, and are not aged in oak, for example.
D+: How do you think the pandemic will affect the winemaking? Perhaps there are aspects that we are not aware of, but which are visible to professionals like you?
R.J.: It is too early to say how the pandemic will affect the industry, but in winemaking it may accelerate the mover to automation – for producers who can afford the investment. For the industry as a whole, everything depends on economics. One scenario suggests a repeat of the wild excesses of the 1920s after WW1 and the ‘Spanish Flu’. Another is that we will have a big economic crash. Unfortunately, I expect the latter is more likely, especially as we were already ‘late’ for a downturn on the 10-year cycle we’ve seen in recent history.
If this is the case, the likelihood is that strong brands (which will include distributor own-brands) will get stronger. Small, agile producers (under 10,000 cases) with low costs and local sales and/or high value sales elsewhere will survive and may prosper. Producers in the 10,000-150,000 case range will suffer, unless they have built unusually strong brands and distribution.
Marketing, communication and distribution – especially direct-to-customer – will all become even more important than ever.
It’s our tradition, after serious questions, to give a short blitz of a personal plan. If you don’t mind, we would ask you to answer in just a few sentences:
If you weren’t in the wine business, you would be …
I would probably still be a journalist or lawyer or researcher. I love discovering new things and ideas and questioning the status quo.
How your working day is built: what time you usually wake up? What are your priority tasks? In what time does the day end?
I wake quite early – at around 6.30 am and often start to work at 8am. My days vary, and often I’m still working at 8pm.
Favorite wine that you can drink on week-ends and the most expensive – which you drink on special occasions?
I love Grenache blends – from our le Grand Noir GSM to Chateauneuf du Pape and Spanish Garnachas. For special occasions, it would have to be red Burgundy – possibly from Volnay or Vosne-Romanée
The most interesting wine region for you.
Probably Italy – because of the diversity of its wines.
Hugh Johnson’s first book – WINE – now out of print was the one that turned me onto the subject, way back in the 1970s.
A film about wine?
I’m not sure I love any of them. The best, in my opinion, including Sideways, were not films about wine. They were good stories set in a wine environment. The recent Netflix ‘wine movie’ Uncorked is actually an enjoyable film about family. I loved the way wine was savoured in Babette’s Feast. Out of the documentaries, I might go for Sour Grapes.
Reading, walking, photography, listening to music…
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