What should Chile do next? (pt. 2)

In my last post I explained just why Chile is an exciting place for wine, and for me quite possibly THE most exciting – sure I love South Africa – and there is a lot of really exciting stuff happening there too – but (and it is a big but) it’s been happening there for longer and the ‘new wave’ is significantly more established. South Africa also has the huge advantage that a lot of the really cool things happening are in places like Swartland where the vines are already well established and have good age on them.

There are a lot of issues that Chile faces, but I think probably the biggest one is the perception of the wines within much  of the trade, journalists, wine merchants, and even ‘fine wine buyers’ (and I’m going to  define a FWB as someone who spends in excess of £10 a bottle – why? because the average bottle of wine in the UK is sold for less than £6 – and once you go over £10 you are able to start making something altogether finer).

The vast majority of people in the trade will accept that Chile makes some very good wines below £10 – and particularly in the £5-7 price bracket. Where it has always struggled is to persuade people that their more expensive wines really are worth spending a bit of money on. As the quality of these wines continues to improve it’s a situation that makes  very little sense but one that will prevail unless perception changes.

So encouraging consumers to trade up to more expensive wines – or indeed consumers to trade across to Chile is one of the big challenges facing the Chilean wine industry at the moment – or at least that is my opinion on it! When I looked at the average spend on a bottle of wine with my previous employers, the average spend on a bottle of Chilean wines was approximately  £2 less than that of any other country – and I identified a couple of reasons for this – The strength of sales at £5-6, an unwillingness on the part of consumers to automatically spend more money on Chilean wine compared to other areas, a lack of confidence selling more expensive wines on the part of our retail sales  staff and finally a lack of more high end Chilean wine as an option to purchase. This last one was a quite interesting – I noted that within our regular wine list our most expensive Chilean wine was just £14 a bottle – less than half almost any other country. Having visited a number of merchants I don’t think we were all that different in many ways to many others – we did have some more expensive Chilean wines from time to time but nothing to build a following for.

What then would I do about it? It’s a hard one – but because the quality of the premium wine offering from Chile has never been better, it’s one that thankfully does have solutions.

I think the first and most important issue is to get the trade onside with the wines – now I am sure Wines of Chile do ask people what they think – and I’m sure they do get mixed answers – but let me tell you this – whatever people say to anyone connected to the Chilean wines industry say is at best a half truth. People will be polite, people will be charming – nobody wants to offend – but I’m not connected and I have asked people. By and large the answers that come back are that, in the main, they do not believe Chile is either making or in some cases capable of making wines that demand the premium charged for their more expensive wines. (NOTE – this is not what I am saying here – this is what I see the perception to be within much of the UK wine scene).

The first thing then to do it is to establish, using people with international rather than local palates – what really are the best wines – year in year out – at key price points £15, £20, £25 and £30+ – and do they deliver not just within a Chilean context but a truly international one too. In some cases there may be a plethora of wines that could fit the bracket – in others it may be just a couple of wines – but what Chile really needs are some serious flagbearers. Wines that any merchant or journalist is going to taste and get so excited about they want to tell the world.

Once you’ve established what these things are – you need to be able to get them in front of people – I know from experience that getting people to come along to a Chilean wine tasting is harder than it should be. Over the years I’ve run South African wines fairs, Italian ones, French, Australian and New Zealand fairs – and each one has been sold out with over 100 people coming along. I attempted the same things with Chile – and for whatever reason only managed to get a relatively few  people to come. The wine buying public need persuading in the same way that merchants and writers  need persuading – and it isn’t an easy task to change perceptions.

I think what I would do would be to arrange a number of special, ‘icon’ tastings of some of Chile’s very best wines. Put them on locally, in conjunction with regional wine merchants who are in touch with the local wine market. Invite journalists locally to come, and fund some of the event to make it accessible to as many people as possible. Invite wineries to come and pour their wine – each winery should only be allowed to bring one wine – the wine that they consider to be their best – but crucially it must be agreed with the organiser first. Forget putting wines costing £12 into the tasting – this is about consumer perception changing and not about selling wines that already do ok. We want to show just  how good Chile can be, and make it something that consumers actually start to think about in a serious way. I’d run a seminar or wine walk type thing during the event to highlight just a few of the wines at the tasting that really are the best of the best – judged by someone independent and not by the wineries themselves. The selection of wines for the tasting could even be selected by a writer (Peter Richards being the  obvious choice) and those wineries only invited. That approach might upset a few producers but if we want to achieve what we set out to do then it’s important that egos don’t get in the way and instead the whole industry comes  together to celebrate absolute success.

These headline events are just the beginning – it’s about being a catalyst, changing some attitudes, getting peoplle talking about Chile again. Opening doors and building confidence. If the retailers see positive reactions to these wines, if consumers love them, if sales people see a wow factor and writers engage then you’re starting to see some real benefit. It’s necessary to take this out to people for the simple reason that as I explained above – sometimes it’s just hard to get people to come to taste Chile so take it to them.

I often think that retailers need a bit of help with their Chilean ranges – for whatever reason I get a lot of samples of Rioja, Italian wine, Australian and New Zealand wine but the only samples I ever see are inexpensive house wines – it doesn’t feel as if a lot of importers actually really get behind the wines. If I were a Chilean winery I’d want to know how many of my wines had been send out as pre-listing samples to potential customers – and if it wasn’t very much I’d be asking my importer some difficult questions. The wines will not sell if people do not taste them. Period.

When Wines of Argentina approached me a couple of years ago about trying to increase our Argentinian sales they offered a lot of interesting help, from sales incentives for sales staff – which work in the short term and may have some lasting effect to providing point of sale, help with customer tastings  and staff training. But perhaps the biggest help they gave me was to ask permission to get me sent some samples. OK it was A LOT of samples – but they  were carefully picked to reflect the type of business that we were and took into account our current listing and suppliers so that we could make sure we had the right range. It was really really useful. Yes I had to taste a lot of wine, but I did so in my own time, at my own pace. I made notes and sent WoA feedback on each batch which helped them to hone further selections to meet with my preference for style.

A trade tasting can be a great way to make some decisions – but I’m never going to make a final decision based on tasting a wine in a day I taste 150 wines. It’s also entirely possible that given the number of wines available that I’ll miss those things that would actually sway me – because my knowledge isn’t all that good. So having someone shortlist a selection that I really should try and work with me to build my list is incredibly useful for a merchant. Now obviously that cannot be done for every merchant  in the UK – but if I were Wines of Chile I’d be looking at a number of (probably larger) merchants to partner with to try and help them improve and  increase their range (with the right wines for them!).

I’d help them to launch this new range with staff training and consumer tasting activity and ensure their suppliers knew the activity was going on so that they were keyed up to support it too for everyone’s mutual benefit. Getting sales teams on board with the premium offering cannot be under-estimated. Include them in the process, most of them will have little chance to taste an interesting range of wines – so as part of an education programme engage with them but also get them excited.

It’s pretty safe to say that unless a wine has a reputation the chances of a bottle costing £30 or more selling are significantly  increased if people get the opportunity to taste them first. Some merchants have Enotec or similar machines – I’d look to work and get a premium Chilean offering in these machines for consumers to try – but I’d also look at alternatives for other merchants who do not have these. Virtually  no merchant is  going to open an expensive Chilean wine and put it on tasting – simply because the chances – as it currently stands – of selling enough bottles to make it worthwhile are not great – particularly if the wine is only going to be good for a couple of days. There are alternatives – I’m amazed at how few people look at (or know about) Wikeeps these cost about £100 a unit and essentially do a similar job to an enomatic – or there is Coravin as another type of solution. If I were a Chilean winery or even Wines of Chile I’d be investigating ways to get these into key partners shops to ensure there was a premium Chilean offering available to taste, all the time. That could be a very powerful sales tool, and further builds the relationship between partners.

So it’s not rocket science, it’s tasting and education, education and tasting – sure things like trips – particularly for journalists are important too – as long as the winery visits are carefully  selected (I have been on a trip where one winery produced nothing but particularly dreadful wines – it wasn’t Chile!).

One note of caution however. Many of the ‘iconic’ Chilean wines sell very well in N. America and in Asia – and it is tempting for wineries to increase their UK  price. But in many cases I’ve seen a number of these wines go up in price to a point where I no longer feel that they can offer much in the way of value. £55 for a Chilean  Cabernet has to be really rather exceptional to compete with other Cabernet Sauvignons that cost similar or less from regions such a Stellenbosch, Margaret River, Coonawarra and even Napa, Bordeaux or Tuscany. This is where I do struggle. There is a need to have some flag waving ultra premium wines that attain iconic status and have a price tag to match – but within the UK market it needs to be set by demand and not by the brand owner’s own perception of what they would like to be selling it for. Demand for wines at this price is not great – and from Chile in particular is low. If wineries want to sell them then they need to work exceptionally hard to prove their worth and support those trying to sell them.


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