Beyond bling – whither fine wine?


6 July We're republishing this free today as part of our Throwback Thursday series. 

4 July To celebrate Independence Day, we invite a well-placed American in France to contribute to At the recent Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines think tank I described on Saturday, I was most impressed by the contribution of Christian Holthausen (pictured below) and asked him to write this article based on it and his view of the likely evolution of fine wine in his capacity as Directeur Export et Communication Internationale for Champagne AR Lenoble . Since then I see that he, like our very own Julia and Richard, photographer and friend Jon Wyand and guest contributor Simon Reilly, features on the shortlist for this year’s Louis Roederer International Wine Writers Awards 2017, in Christian's case in the emerging wine writer category.

The panel discussion in which I was asked to participate at the Rolets' magnificent Chêne Bleu estate recently was entitled ‘Beyond Bling’ [our picture shows a gold-plated Brompton bicycle – JR], a particularly salient topic at the moment as the fine wine industry continues to seek ways to transform itself in the post-2008 era. Interest in wine may appear to have become a global phenomenon but some wineries are faring better than others. The most successful producers are those who have sought to reinvent themselves, some taking cues from the luxury market, others looking towards other industries for inspiration. The future of fine wine leaves little room for navel-gazing.

Conspicuous consumption may have gone out of style in many parts of the world over the last decade, but the luxury market is still a powerful force. LVMH, the world's leading luxury goods company, achieved sales of €37.6 billion in 2016, up 5% in a year defined by much political and economic uncertainty. The United States Commerce Department reported in January that total US consumer spending increased 3.8% in 2016 after a 3.5% rise in 2015. The Bain Report, the Worldwide Luxury Market Monitor, recently estimated a global personal luxury goods market of between €254 and €259 billion in 2017.

Consumers are spending – and they’re spending money on fine wine. But consumer behaviour has changed. Like it or not, each of us is now a card-carrying member of a global world defined by interdependence and technology – and resistance is futile. For those of selling fine wine, adapt or suffer the consequences is the mantra of the day.

But which concepts actually define where we are at this moment in time – and what do we have to contend with in the years to come?


One of the most talked-about changes in modern consumer behaviour has been the desire for transparency, something I believe is actually a paradox. Across nearly every aspect of our lives, there’s a burning need for transparency, for ‘real-ness’, for authenticity, for needing to know every single ingredient, every single step in the process. Yet we’re simultaneously having a harder time than ever distinguishing truth from fiction, reality from construct, in this era of ‘fake news’. It’s well documented that suspension of disbelief is an important factor in the success of any circus sideshow act, something to remember when each of us has a custom news feed that supports our respective fundamental world views.

This is one of the reasons why people must understand that there is a continued need to interact with qualified experts in each field. We might want to see things with our own eyes, but it’s always a good idea to have a teacher there to help you understand and interpret what you see. When it comes to wine, true transparency has to be witnessed at the source.

When Margareth Henriquez (above, with suspiciously pristine-looking proletarian bicycle at Krug) became president of Krug in 2009, one of the most famous houses in Champagne was living in its storied past. ‘Krug had lost the ability to communicate,’ says Henriquez. ‘The house revolved around Krug Grande Cuvée but nobody knew anything about how it was made. We live in the era of communication but we were not communicating anything at the time. The human part of the story was missing, as well as the creative part of the process. I knew I needed to find a way to show people the true craftsmanship that goes into every bottle of our Grande Cuvée. I wanted to clarify that Krug isn’t a brand, Krug is something real.’

Whereas the house used to be known as one of the more elusive places to visit in Champagne, Henriquez started inviting people to Krug to see things with their own eyes, and to touch and taste and feel. People now come to Krug each year to taste the vins clairs from the previous harvest as well as one of the most extraordinary selections of reserve wines in Champagne. They meet the people who look after the vineyards. They attend blending sessions with chef de caves Eric Lebel. They taste the final blend in the bottle of Grande Cuvée before it makes its way down to the cellars to age for seven years. They learn from the source and at the source. ‘Everything has changed and nothing has changed. We communicate differently now. One of the most important things for me was to add coherence and to reconnect.’

In 2011, she launched the Krug ID , a mobile application allowing each Krug lover to obtain all of the technical information behind each particular bottle: the blend, the age of the wines in the blend, the villages in the blend, and the disgorgement date. Transparent and modern, and completely accessible.

Oenotourism is expected to increase in the future. Many parts of Europe need to catch up with their counterparts in California and Australia quickly. If you’re a winery, you need to know that consumers are coming – and they’ll want to taste your wines and learn everything about them. In addition, they’re going to want to buy them directly from you, either on the spot or when they get back home. For some wineries, that will mean re-defining the route to market.

Will wine labels of the future be required to list every single ingredient along with every single part of the production process? It’s looking more and more likely. The continued interest in the natural wine movement has certainly been a contributing force but not everyone understands how to interpret what is real and what is not. (Just look at the number of consumers who claim to be allergic to sulphites.) An investment in education will continue to be a vital part of the future of fine wine.

Everyone strives to be an expert, everyone wants to do something unique

Consumers today think they are experts in nearly every single field. They take a couple of wine classes and say they’re studying to be a sommelier. Just look at any thread on TripAdvisor or Yelp and you’ll find someone who starts off a post with ‘My husband and I are such foodies’ or a person who says ‘My girlfriend and I know all the Michelin-starred restaurants in France’ (Michelin frequently being mis-spelt, a telltale sign of the amateurism that accompanies many ‘trusted reviews’) before launching into a tirade about everything that’s wrong with the place they just visited on the other side of the world.

Nearly every person hopes to be perceived as an expert in almost every single category (food, wine, restaurants, hotels, fashion, art, real estate, etc) and the culture of social media promotes external processing and documentation. We’re all writers, photographers, curators, content-developers, political experts and philosophers now.

‘I know what I want and I want it to be a reflection of me’ is a popular refrain.

Within the last decade, the retail world has been disrupted by custom retailers of all types and now everyone wants to be a designer. Even French high-fashion luxury goods manufacturer Hermès proposes that you pop into one of their boutiques and update your vintage scarves by dropping them into washing machines and dip-dying. Suddenly you can tell your friends you’ve designed your own Hermès scarf – and you love to recycle too!

But winemaking is not dip-dying. Genuine expertise is required.

Stephen Bolger, above, is the founder and CEO of VINIV as well as the COO of Société Jean-Michel Cazes. VINIV was started by him in 2008 (the Cazes family’s investment in the company dates back to 2012) with the vision to be a niche company that allows wine enthusiasts to create their own unique wine by working with Bordeaux’s elite winemakers and using vineyards from some of the world’s most coveted appellations. Their website says it all: ‘You don’t need land or a Bordeaux pedigree. All you need is a desire to immerse yourself in a wine experience unlike any other.’

A dramatic shift has taken place as for many consumers today; the goal is no longer about collecting possessions as much as it’s about collecting experiences. Bolger understands this perfectly, telling me recently, ‘In a world of global advertising campaigns, distribution and social media access, luxury products are becoming more and more commoditised. VINIV’s success is rooted in our ability to capture the power of authentic, bespoke experiences to stir the imagination of fine wine enthusiasts. With a dedicated winery, the availability of otherwise inaccessible top-quality vineyards and working with renowned winemakers, our clients immerse themselves in the rarefied world of Bordeaux winemaking and create a premium wine that is all their own, produced in their image. Our clients seek not only a product, but an experience, one that’s different and unique.’

At VINIV, you create your own wines under the supervision of one of the members of the team of winemaking consultants composed of Nicolas Labenne of Lynch Bages, Daniel Llose (chief winemaker with 41 vintages of Lynch Bages under his belt) and celebrated oenologist Eric Boissenot . The price ranges from €12,500 to €25,000 per barrel and you can design your own label.

Allowing customers to create something unique while also finding a way to make them loyal to your core brand can be a challenge, but it proved to be an opportunity for Champagne Duval-Leroy when they started offering consumers the ability to blend their own ‘cuvée sur mesure’ in 2015. For the sum of €60,000, you can blend 500 bottles of your very own champagne. According to Charles Duval-Leroy, ‘This programme offers us the ability to tell the story of our house directly from the heart of our winery. The cuvée sur mesure allows our customers to fulfil their dreams while allowing us to showcase our expertise.’

All systems are broken, new systems are in place – with new codes to decipher

Signs of consumption have now become so coded, it’s no longer about the nouveau riche trying to appear wealthy as it was during the first part of this century. It’s about the rich trying to appear ‘just like everybody else’ while simultaneously displaying coded signs for the benefit of their aspirational peer group. A lot of these codes are immersed in notions of self-care, health and altruism.

I recently spoke with a very wealthy woman in New York who asks her nanny to change into a white organic cotton ensemble (provided by the nanny’s employer and washed nightly by the employer’s housekeeper, no doubt in organic washing powder) as soon as she arrives for work in the morning. Her official reason is that she doesn’t want her baby’s skin to touch non-organic fabric but it’s also an easy way to explain why your nanny wears a uniform.

Lindy West’s recent piece for The Guardian about her day at Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Festival in Los Angeles was fascinating. West concludes that many of the current range of popular consumer goods claiming to promote self-care ultimately serve to rationalise self-entitlement. One particularly interesting passage chronicles a group of Hollywood heavyweights delivering a ‘bounty of platitudes about ambition, female friendship, self-care, their mothers and sticking to one’s practice’ while deliberately playing down the realities of wealth and the household staff that enable them to live well.

It’s not cool to look like you’re trying too hard – and formality continues to slip away.

Paris’ famous Hôtel de Crillon reopens this week after a long renovation and Marc Raffray, the hotel’s managing director, told The New York Times, ‘We want to be humble, approachable and non-intimidating. Instead of having an air of formality, our staff will greet everyone with warmth like friends.’ Rooms at the hotel start at €1,200 per night.

These new aspects of consumer behaviour have most certainly affected the ways we eat and drink.

Around the world, young waiters talk about foraging for obscure ingredients and everyone at the table stares blankly and nods, unwilling to admit that nobody has a clue about the difference between brining in sycamore sap or hickory sap. The most difficult table to get in town is often run by someone who looks as though he could have played with The Red Hot Chili Peppers. But you’ll gladly wait three months for a table just to tell everyone who couldn’t get in that it was one of the best meals of your life – and you have the photos to prove it.

In many wine circles, you’re now expected to know just as much about Pét' Nat and Romorantin as you are about Chablis and Pauillac. Sommeliers are looking for obscure or lesser-known varieties, regions and production methods. Not all of this is bad of course. Many wonderful places like the Jura in France, Etna in Sicily and Kakheti in Georgia are finally getting some of the attention they deserve.

But in the larger scheme of things, marketing gimmicks are not going to last for much longer.

Generation z – should we be worried?

One of my biggest frustrations about current mainstream market research is that we keep lumping huge groups of diverse people into a dumpster category known as Millenials without stopping to wonder how each of the next generations is going to be different from one other. Since everyone is so concerned with the here and now, perhaps more than at any other point in human history, we’re not looking far enough down the road ahead.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Generation X refers to those born between 1960 and 1979 and that Generation Y refers to those born between 1980 and 1999. Then Generation Z would cover those born between 2000 and 2019. Those of us in the wine business don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about them.

The world is already spinning too fast for Generation Z. All studies indicate that children today feel increased pressure to perform and are putting even more expectations onto themselves. Anxiety and depression are at an all-time high. Navigating the actual physical world is very difficult for them as it’s been so difficult for them to distinguish between actual reality and the projection of a constructed reality since the moment they were born.

If Generation Y is often described as the Generation of Disruption, isn’t there a chance that Generation Z (not to mention Generation Alpha, arriving soon as of 2020) is going to crave structure and order in the future more than ever? Millions of teenagers already seem to be yearning for something more autocratic. What happens once the next levels of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, big data and genetics research emerge as active forces in their lives?

In 2015, MTV surveyed 1,000 children who were born after December 2000 and ultimately concluded that they will be the generation known as ‘The Founders’ based on their need to rebuild. At the time, MTV President Sean Atkins commented, ‘They have this self-awareness that systems have been broken, but they can't be the generation that says we'll break it even more.’

At the moment, consumers are more aware than ever. That awareness puts a great responsibility on all of us, including those of us in the fine wine community, to build bridges, especially as we might need to stand together in the not-so-distant future. In addition, those of us who are wine producers are part of the greater agricultural community. We need to stop thinking of ourselves selfishly and collaborate more closely together. The false dichotomies (English sparkling wine v Champagne, natural v conventional, etc, etc) and sectarianism have to stop.

We must cultivate alliances between like-minded producers who care about sustainability, who worry about climate change, who champion human rights, regardless of where they are located in the world. This is the ultimate vision for which the fine wine community needs to strive moving forward.