WWC 18 – Seyma Bas


Our eighteenth entrant into the wine writing competition brings news of a wine business under serious threat, the more informative and moving of the two articles submitted. 

I was born in Istanbul, one of the most beautiful and exciting cities in the world, on a nice autumn day in 1987. I spent my childhood travelling from one city to another; I didn’t know it would easily become an addiction. I was studying chemical engineering at Bogazici University in Istanbul when I fell in love with wine. I spent a year as an assistant winemaker on a wine island called Bozcaada in Turkey. Afterwards, I completed my MBA with an emphasis on luxury brand management, food and wine in Bordeaux.

My next stop was a dreamland: Tuscany. I spent a year working in the cellar and in the vineyards. After discovering many wine regions in Italy, I worked as an export marketing manager in Istanbul in a premium winery and took over the challenge of introducing Turkish wines to the world. Recently, I have completed a re-branding project for Château de Pommard in Burgundy.

By combining my background in brand management and international sales, I have now established WineArt Projects in Zurich. I also write about wine in my blog Dionysian Impulse that was voted Best New Wine Blog in 2016. I have just started a new journey as a Master of Wine student, discovering new tastes every day!

The Turkish drinks trade after the Gezi protests

As most of you already know, Istanbul witnessed a great protest in the summer of 2013. Thousands protested against the demolition of Gezi Park as well as the government’s repressive policies. 'It was the best of the times; it was the worst of the times', as Charles Dickens says. People were out there, asking for freedom of speech and freedom of press regardless of their origin. It was the first time I witnessed many Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian people coming together and discussing political issues, reading books, singing and dancing together. This utopia was interrupted by the police forces. They reacted violently. Many people were seriously injured and some even lost their lives.

Among all the chaos, a new law came into force on 11 June concerning the wine and spirits industry in Turkey. The government banned all marketing activities related to alcohol. Wine producers are not allowed to encourage alcohol in any manner. (Websites, brochures, wine events.) Alcohol can only be sold until 10 pm in retail stores. Alcoholic beverages and all the items carrying their logos may not be shown in shop windows. Producers are prohibited from communicate with the end-user and all wine tastings, sponsorships, wine-related events are forbidden.

So after all these restrictions, what has changed in the world of wine and spirits in Turkey?

First of all, the producers edited their websites and almost all photos have been removed and only brief information remains. The producers protested against the law by advertising in newspapers without using any logos or brand names. The Turkish Wine Producers ad stated that Turkish wine, which has a history of 7,000 years in Anatolia, 'is now entrusted to our people'. Many other brands such as Yeni Rakı, Suvla Wines and Efes Beer also joined this protest. Efes Beer, for example, advertised their distinctive bottle without its label.

‘Even though we don’t see, we still know.'

Following the first few months, the majority of the wineries converted their efforts to export. Zeynep Arca Salliel, the partner and director of Arcadia winery  in northern Thrace, shared her thoughts: 'As an artisanal producer, it is very important for us to speak about our products, their differences from industrial type production, as well as to inform people about our new releases and new brands. All this has been impossible with the new law, as we are not able to communicate with the end user.' Regarding their export strategy, she added: 'We started a marketing project abroad. What we have seen though is that Turkish producers need to act as a group and promote the whole region, not only their individual brands, to build a strong place in the market. So we organised a marketing co-operation named the Turkish Wine Alliance with 10 other producers of all sizes. We started promotional activity in the UK, holding trade and end-consumer tastings throughout the year.' As Mrs Arca Sallıel mentions, the Turkish Wine Alliance has been actively using social media to present Turkish wines, organising tastings and events in London. Ten wine producers are involved in the project: Arcadia, Barbare, Büyülübağ, Diren, Doluca, Kavaklıdere, Kayra, Kocabağ. Pamukkale and Vinkara, all based in different parts of Turkey. Sarah Abbott MW acts as the brand ambassador and brings her expertise and enthusiasm to the project.

Although the local market is very challenging for Turkish wineries, things are more promising in export markets. For instance, I had dinner with Laurenz M Moser a few months ago. Moser has always been working on bringing something new to the market. He was the first one to import Chinese wines from Chateau Changyu to Europe many years ago. Despite the restrictions, he certainly thinks that Turkey is the next big thing after China. He has visited Turkey many times and imported wines from Kocabağ Winery in Capadoccia while he was still a partner at TXB International Fine Wines. He named the brand K of Kapadokia and created an innovative label with the balloons that are famous in the region. It is a great way to discover the indigenous varieties of Boğazkere and Öküzgözü.

Another refreshing development concerns Mey Icki, which was bought by Diageo in 2011. Two years after Diageo’s purchase, the new regulations came into law. The big group didn’t give up on Turkey, however, and, against all odds, the annual reports show that net sales for Turkey grew 6% in 2016 driven by Johnnie Walker and premiumisation of raki. Diageo also mentioned in its reports that they focused more on trade channels. They supported new server and bartender programmes to build brands since they could no longer focus on the end consumer.

As can be seen, the wine industry has been through a tough period since 2013 and has been focusing on export markets. The AKP [Justice and Development Party] was re-selected at the latest elections in Turkey in November 2015 and the results have caused more despair among producers. Last year was even harder due to repeated terror attacks in the country. The tourism industry has suffered deeply in every part of the country. Russian tourists account for a certain percentage in Turkey although the crisis in Turkish–Russian relations has had a significant effect on this. Instead, the number of tourists from Arabic countries increased and this resulted in lower alcohol consumption. The all-inclusive hotels in the south did not manage to sell entry-level wines. The producers are now trying to sell these wines in supermarket chains with private labels. According to Selim Zafer Ellialti, the CEO of Suvla Wines, 'Premium wine sales have also decreased significantly in the on-trade in Istanbul. Many high-end restaurants have closed their doors and the sales of wines over 35 TL (€10) in retail chains decreased by 70%. Many wineries producing entry-level wines have also shut down.' Apparently, only brands that already had a reputation  can survive and Suvla is luckily one of them.

When I think about 2013, I remember the days I carried both a gas mask and my green book as I was getting ready for WSET Level 3 Exam during the Gezi protests. I was spending some evenings at Gezi Park, studying for my upcoming exam, regularly interrupted by gas bombs. In the end, we managed to save the trees in Gezi Park. Today our war of freedom is still not over. During this time, the Turkish wine and spirits industry has faced more challenges than ever. The local industry has shrunk but export efforts have started to pay off. The wine world started speaking about Turkish wine more and more. I am optimistic and hope all turns out in the interest of producers in Turkey. I prefer to stay optimistic because I simply believe in the spirit of the Gezi protests and all those talented people in Turkey (not only in wine) working harder than ever to survive and to create something beautiful for the good of the humanity.