Monday, July 21, 2014

The N Word


I love words and the way they can behave differently depending on the context in which they are used. So, if a middle-aged white TV presenter recites an old nursery rhyme that used to contain the N-word, he has to 'beg forgiveness', while a black musician who calls himself 'Handsome Ass Nigga' has attracted over a million followers without creating even a ripple of controversy. 


There's another N-word with a divisive quality of its own. People who make, sell and like to drink wine fermented with wild yeasts and produced with little or no SO2 happily describe it as 'natural' and can see no reason why anyone should object to them doing so. As someone who has been drinking wine for rather a long time and feel as strongly about it as I do about language, I however take offence at the suggestion that the Burgundies, Rhônes, Mosels, Barolos and Aussie Shirazes that I've enjoyed over the years are all, by implication unnatural. 

On the other hand, I relish the way that those who favour the use of 'natural' with reference to wine are so ready to align themselves with some of the cleverest flavour chemists and industrial food manufacturers on the planet. 


When I teasingly raise this issue, some N-word fans happily propose 'authentic' as an alternative. But that doesn't work for me either, because, as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing inauthentic about any of my favourite wines.

The people who choose to use these terms clearly care about language too. None of them have embraced my proposal that a wine made without any additives be called 'primitive'. Apparently, they find the term distasteful and 'negative'. So I'm relieved that they know how I feel.

Anyway, this post is merely to say that I not only vow to continue not to use the N-word that got Mr Clarkson into such trouble; I'm also giving up on the other N-word that - rationally or irrationally - offends me when applied to wine. From now on, I'll happily talk about zero-SO2 and low-SO2 wines, whenever it's appropriate. 



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

2014 Roederer Awards Short List


Congratulations to all of the 2014 Roederer Awards shortlisted wine writers and photographers from across the world. Choosing them with the other judges yesterday was a very tough but amicable process, rounded off by a great lunch at Chez Bruce, my favourite London restaurant


Jacques Lardière by Matt Wilson

Tasca d'Almerita vineyards by Andrew Barrow



Labours au Clos Vougeot by Thierry Gaudillière

Guill and Katherine by Adrian Lander

John Kongsgaard by Clay McLachlan


CATEGORY 1 – THE ARTISTRY OF WINE AWARD 2014
-          Andrew Barrow
-          Thierry Gaudillère
-          Adrian Lander
-          Clay McLachlan
-          Matt Wilson

CATEGORY 2 –DOMAINES SCHLUMBERGER EMERGING WINE WRITER OF THE YEAR 2014
-          Evan Dawson
-          Emma Harrison
-          Lucy Shaw

CATEGORY 3 – RAMOS PINTO ONLINE COMMUNICATOR 2014
-          Tim Atkin
-          Christy Canterbury MW
-          Michael Fridjhon
-          Julia Harding
-          Victoria Moore

CATEGORY 4 – DOMAINE FAIVELEY INTERNATIONAL WINE BOOK OF THE YEAR 2014
-          The Champagne Guide 2014-2015 – Tyson Stelzer
-          Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and sparkling wine – Tom Stevenson & Essi Avellan MW
-          Jura Wine­ – Wink Lorch
-          The New California Wine – Jon Bonné
-          The World Atlas of Wine 7th Edition – Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson OBE MW

CATEGORY 5 – DOMAINES OTT INTERNATIONAL FEATURE WRITER OF THE YEAR 2014
-          Tim Atkin
-          Michael Edwards
-          Richard Mayson
-          Anthony Rose
-          Gabriel Savage

CATEGORY 6 – CASTIGLION DEL BOSCO INTERNATIONAL WINE COLUMNIST OF THE YEAR AWARD 2014
-          Tim Atkin
-          Nina Caplan
-          Richard Hemming
-          Will Lyons
-          Francis Percival

CATEGORY 7 – INTERNATIONAL SHORT COPY COLUMNIST OF THE YEAR 2014
-          Susy Atkins
-          Tom Bruce-Gardyne
-          Michael Fridjhon
-          Joanne Gibson

Clever wine marketing from Vilafonte in S Africa



There are no tasting notes or reviews on this blog. Never have been. Never will be. Some people like writing them and, I guess, some like reading them. Chacun à son goût. So, I’m not going to tell you how impressed I was by the first 10 vintages of Vilafonte wine Mike Ratcliffe, Zelma Long and Phil Friese, the three partners behind this South African estate, showed in London today. What I am going to talk about briefly is the skilful way that Ratcliffe, who also heads up his family’s Warwick Estate winery, has combined great wine with great strategic thinking and marketing. 

First, there’s the fact that 50% of the wine is sold every year to Vilafonte Wine Club members  who get a six-pack of one of the estate's two wines in the first half of the year, and a second six-pack of the other style, a few months later. Everyone who has joined the club - there are around 800 - received a personal call from Ratcliffe, and gets a regular newsletter. Twenty-two top restaurants in S Africa are lucky enough to be able to buy and list the wine. Others have to wait their turn - just like anybody who now wants to join the Wine Club.



In the US, this kind of subscription wine club is commonplace; in South Africa it’s rare and in Europe almost unheard of. But there are some other little things that set Vilafonte apart. For people who lack a cellar or wine fridge, the winery offers perfect storage conditions to ensure that the bottles they have bought survive into maturity. 

For those who enjoy mature wine but haven’t already bought and kept any of their own, Vilafonte recently released limited numbers of cases of its 2004. Next year, the offer will be of the 2005. Whenever I suggest that wineries run this kind of classic release programme, people condescendingly accuse me of lacking business sense, pointing out that it’s not practicable because no-one can afford to hold the inventory. Ratcliffe disproves that theory by charging five times as much for the older wines - and selling every bottle. 

The highly-priced classic release bottles are also beginning to form part of a - for Vilafonte - virtuous circle, in the shape of a growing secondary market for its current and older wines. Anyone buying a Vilafonte bottle now has a credible reason to believe that its value will rise - unlike customers of some other wineries that sell their old wines far too cheaply.

I could also mention the emotional quality of the photography on the website and at the tasting, and the cleverly textured labels that are intended to reflect the texture of the soil. And then I could go on to talk about that soil, the winemaking and the particular brilliance of the 2007 and 2011 vintages. But, as I say, I don’t do tasting reviews and wine descriptions, though I’m sure you’ll find plenty of great ones online from other people who were there. Chacun à son boulot

Monday, July 14, 2014

No brands please, we're wine lovers. Why the Chinese are cleverer than us. Part 4

Putting your name above the title

Where's the brand?


"Where are the brands?" I was walking an Australian around Vinexpo. He had just got the job as CEO of a big wine business after experience in other fields, and wanted to get a quick fix on the industry in which he was about to immerse himself. We were walking past the umpteenth stand packed with interchangeably labelled Sancerre or Côtes du Rhône, or Rioja or Soave and he was shaking his head in confusion. Why, he wanted to know, were all the producers of these wines so happy to hide their identity behind a regional brand or grape variety over which they have no ownership or control? Even where the producers had taken the trouble to do more than print their names in small print at the foot of the label, there was little effective effort to behave like a brand: to burn their identity into the psyche of the potential or actual consumer. Over the last few weeks, I'll bet that, unless you don't do much wine drinking outside your home, or you're unusually observant or assiduous, you've consumed several wines whose producers you can't recall. If we were talking about beers or spirits, the proportion would be smaller. Over the same period, you've consciously or unconsciously noticed that people around you use a Samsung rather than an iPhone or drive an Audi rather than a VW.

But we're used to wine - apart from sparkling or fortified wine and efforts from a score or so big companies - being relatively lightly branded, and we don't see anything wrong with that. The Chinese, however, are coming fresh to the subject. They like - really like - brands and understand their value. A few years ago, even the most unobservant visitor to Beijing or Shanghai will have been struck by the volume of western big-brand advertising. Today, there are even more posters and electronic billboards; the only difference is the unfamiliarity of many of the brands. Like the Japanese four decades ago, China is creating its own brands. And it's doing so very, very quickly.

One of China's successful new fashion brands

The problem for westerners trying to sell anything there is that this passion for brands affects them too. Castel, the most dynamic French exporter to China, is embroiled in a very expensive trademark dispute with a man called Li Daozhi who registered the Chinese version of its name, sued Castel for trademark infringement, and won - 33.73m RMB, or around £3m. According to the Australian Financial Review, Mr Daozhi - a 'notorious trademark squatter' who also goes by the name of Daniel Li, has also registered three versions of a brand called Ben Fu, along with an associate called Li Shen. In the west, this name would have no value; in China, it not only means “dashing towards wealth”, but more importantly it sounds like Penfolds. So, now Treasury Wine Estates, is having to fight a battle of its own to protect its brand. Under a Chinese law - amended in May 2014 - the first person or company to file a brand name has the right to use and protect it, possibly using the word 'protection' in ways that would not be unfamiliar to certain Italian family organisations. In 2012 it is said to have cost Apple $60m to retrieve the Chinese name for iPad.

If your reaction to the preceding paragraph is simply to resolve not to do business in China, maybe you should think again. The trademark squatters are obviously bad guys, but they're usefully exposing weaknesses that shouldn't be there - like a personal trainer revealing your underused muscles. For every ten ripped-off Apples, Castels and Penfolds, there is a clever big brand owner that has taken the trouble to protect itself, just as LVMH protects Veuve Clicquot against anyone who has the temerity to use its particular shade of yellow. Even if you don't have any interest in selling your wine outside your own country and have little fear of anybody squatting on your trademark - because you haven't really got one - maybe you should still think about protecting your brand. Against apathy. Against consumers mindlessly picking up another producer's Sancerre, Côtes du Rhône, Rioja or Soave rather than yours, simply because it's cheaper, or closer to hand.

I write this with a certain measure of personal knowledge. A decade ago, we launched a Languedoc wine called Mouton Noir, with a black sheep on its label. After receiving a note from a particular chateau in Pauillac, we renamed the brand le Grand Noir, but managed to retain the sheep. More recently, we discovered that our importer in China had registered the Chinese version of the wine's name. Subsequent discussions have resolved the issue amicably, but we've learned our lesson. In this respect at least, the Chinese behave rather like German holidaymakers: they understand that the only way to be sure of getting a good bit of the beach is to get up early and spread your towel. The choice is clear: either you need to get up even earlier than them and take an even bigger towel, or accept that you're always going to stand a high risk of being stuck on the pebbles next to the latrines.




Sunday, July 13, 2014

More about Robert Joseph than you want or need to know

When I was in Hong Kong for Vinexpo, I was asked if I would mind being interviewed by a delightful local journalist called Robby Nimmo. It's always interesting to see what other people do with your words - especially when you've interviewed as many people as I have.
Here, for what it's worth and for anyone who is interested, is what I appear to have said.


My life: Robert Joseph
The British winemaker talks to Robby Nimmo
about fakes, grapes, writing and wrath
· 

CELLARS MARKET My parents owned a hotel in Sussex
(in southern England) and I started my career there. I was not
a great chef: I got bored cooking the same thing twice, and I
was a clumsy and forgetful waiter and barman. I got interested
in the cellar at a time when Britain was going into the
common market, and having to introduce European labelling
rules. Before that, the mid-1970s in the UK was the "Wild
West". You still had people taking wine from the same vat and
selling it as Nuits-Saint-Georges, Beaujolais and Chateauneuf-
du-Pape. Then, suddenly, Beaujolais had to come from
Beaujolais and taste like Beaujolais.
SOLVING BURGUNDY After we sold the family hotel, I ran
away to Burgundy with the then love of my life - she was a fair
few years older than me and, in France, that kind of romantic
liaison is more common. I chose this region because it seemed
the most complicated. There were plenty of books about
Bordeaux but none about Burgundy. I just wanted to solve the
puzzle. That's been my theme ever since. I starved and taught
English. It was a good place to starve, and my six-month stint
turned into six years. I then met a man at a cellar door event
who asked me if I wanted to edit his new wine magazine in
London. I 
could barely afford the petrol to drive home.
NEVER MIND THE BOTTLES We wanted to be the Top
Gear
 of wine magazines. We put Gorbachev, Reagan and
Thatcher's Spitting Image puppets on the cover holding
glasses of wine. We were trying to be punk in our own way.
Part of our 
punkiness was to not focus on France. We were
unashamedly 
poster children for Australian, New Zealand
and Chilean wine, 
as well as the lesser regions of Europe. I 
wrote about wine for The Daily Telegraph (newspaper) for 
14 years, and I wrote a couple of dozen books. The first was 
a quirky book called The Wine Lists, which was published by 
the Guinness Book of Records. It was well-timed, in 1985, 
when people wanted to discover wine. It covered things like
"What's the furthest that you could fire a champagne cork?" 
and the first nude wine tasting.
DRINKING UP THE COMPETITION In 1986, the
magazine held a tasting of English wines against those from 
the rest of the world, and it somehow became the world's 
biggest wine competition, with over 10,000 entries. The first 
offshore International Wine Challenge (IWC) in Hong Kong 
was at Vinexpo, in 1996. I ran several here, and then in China. 
Later, I  took it to Japan, Russia, Poland, Thailand, Vietnam 
and  Singapore. I would probably qualify for the Guinness 
Book of  Records for having run the most competitions, over 
50 of them.
FIRST SIGN OF MADNESS I woke up one day and found I
was talking to myself. Professionally, at least. I'd just been to
the 
fourth or fifth dinner party where the person beside me,
who  
was richer, better educated and more sophisticated than
I was,  
revealed he didn't know a Chablis was made from the
chardonnay grape. I realised all this stuff I'd been writing for 
all these years wasn't being read by a wide audience. That 
growing feeling coincided with two things: the sale of the 
magazine and the birth of my first child, in 2005. I have no 
regrets that I stopped being a consumer wine writer. It was 
also timely due to the wonderful free wine writing appearing 
online.
COUNTING SHEEP When I - with two partners - decided I
wanted to make wine, I didn't want to make the greatest wine
in the world; I wanted to make affordable, approachable wine 
that people could drink both on a Wednesday with pizza and at 
dinner party. So here we are - three Brits making a wine in
southern France called Le Grand Noir, with a black sheep on 
the label.
DIVORCED FROM REALITY If the wine industry and the
consumer were in a relationship, the consumer would have
walked out - a long time ago. Because what the wine industry
says is, "You don't 
understand me, you've got to learn how to
understand me, and you've 
got to learn how to understand my
language".
"You've got to understand my moods" (that's a good vintage
and a bad vintage). "You've got to understand my demands"
(prices go 
up and down; only they don't go down very often).
"You don't 
understand what I'm saying, because I don't tell
you what I am 
saying. But I want you to understand" (the label
usually doesn't 
tell you anything). "I use language you don't
understand. You 
need to understand me. You need help."
SEALING THE DEAL Australia and New Zealand were
early adopters of the screw cap, largely because they're small
countries. The screw cap hasn't worked in America, which is a
fragmented market where 
each state has different liquor laws.
Most of Europe has been resistant, 
and French-led China still
prefers cork. I believe in the screw cap, and I 
like good
synthetic corks. Corks are bad news. If condoms or tyres had 

the same unreliability factor as corks, we wouldn't accept it.
People are 
still selling wine for thousands of dollars that's
sealed with a 
closure that is acknowledged to be faulty. I also
don't 
understand why, in 2014, wine is still sold in the
traditional 
bottle size. The reason why the bottle is 75cl is 
because that was the lung capacity of a French glass blower in
the 17th 
century. My business partner has launched a square
wine 
bottle in the US. It's the same height as regular wine
bottles,  
but easier to ship. But why's that such an innovation?
SUMMER OF WINE Wine consulting brings me to events
like Hong Kong's recent Vinexpo. When I first came here, in
the 1980s, there were a handful of people working in wine. It
was all  about the big French names and one or two New World
efforts.  Today, Hong Kong is spoiled for choice. Living in
London, I wish  we had the wine shops you have here. But,
given the fact that  there has been no duty in Hong Kong (since
2008), I am surprised  how expensive wine is here.

I was lucky enough to live  through what I call "the summer of
love of wine", watching wine love develop here and in other
parts of the world in the period  between 1985 and 1995. The
pomposity came out of it during  that time. I'm enjoying
watching China go through the same  summer of love. A good
wine is a wine that you love.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Looking at the world through wine glasses


Every time Margaret Thatcher met someone whom she believed to share her views, she apparently used to underline their names on a piece of paper; privately she would refer to them as 'one of us'. Those who disagreed with her were, by contrast, thought to be barely worth talking and listening to. That confidence in the rightness of her own opinions initially served the British PM well; ultimately, however, it contributed to her downfall. In particular it rendered her incapable of appreciating the vehemence of the opposition to the poll tax she introduced against the advice of some of her ministers.


Quite a lot of us might balk at being compared to Thatcher, but in truth there's a sliver of her in all of us. We might be capable of imagining either what it is like to be a Palestinian in Gaza or an Israeli Golan Heights settler within sniping range of Syria. But probably not both, and almost certainly not equally. Having to alter our worldview is not very comfortable, which is why most of us favour media that reflects it. If you worry about immigration, you're more likely to read the Daily Mail in the UK or watch Fox media in the US, both of which will feed you material that reinforces your opinions. People who are more concerned about social welfare tend to favour other publishers and broadcasters.

Similarly, we naturally tend to surround ourselves with like-minded souls. They are probably roughly the same age and more than likely went through similar education, do similar jobs and live in similar homes. Their kids may go to the same schools as ours and enjoy similar leisure activities (that may indeed be how we met them in the first place.) They might support a different football team but they probably have a level of interest in the sport that is very like ours. 

The problem with all this compatibility is that it ill-equips us to understand the way that other people think. When I tweeted yesterday about the launch of a set of Game of Thrones wines, one of a number of responses questioned the rationale behind it. How many wine drinkers, their authors variously wondered, would be persuaded to buy something, just because of a link with a television series? The exchanges were wholly reminiscent of the ones following my posts about the Downton Abbey wines and wines bearing the names of rock groups.


Almost needless to say, none of the people who failed to understand the reasoning behind the Game of Thrones wines were fans of the series; they were all wine drinkers who were looking at the world through wine glasses. Of course, it's not a matter of getting wine drinkers to buy a Shiraz because of a link to Westeros; it's all about engaging with people who really care about the Starks and Lannisters but have little or no interest in wine. And there are lots and lots of them.

Wine people similarly had difficulty understanding why Concha y Toro signed a multi-million dollar sponsorship deal with Manchester United. The few who noticed that the deal did not even include the UK were still more perplexed. What they failed to appreciate was the huge popularity of the Man U brand across Asia, in countries where Wayne Rooney is actually more of a star than he is in his own country. In these emerging markets, the link with the team they idolised was immensely powerful.



Less than two years ago, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, a British band many readers born since 1985 may not even have heard of, approached Robinsons Brewery in Cheshire to ask if it would like to produce a beer associated with them. 


Since then, Trooper, the ale that was born out of that conversation has sold 5m pints, is stocked in almost all major UK chains and is sold across the globe.

So, before you dismiss your fellow human beings who happen to prefer Pinot Grigio or White Zin to your favourite, cloudy natural Loire white, or who are more interested in watching X-Factor or football to Shakespeare or Wagner, just ask yourself whether Margaret Thatcher really is the role model you want to be seen to follow.





Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Why wine writing is just like wine labels

So, do you know what this wine tates like
and where it comes from?

How mind-numbingly boring can I make this first paragraph? Which sets of colourless words can I summon up that will be guaranteed to make all but the most obsessive readers give up and head off to do something else with their time? 

Baldly-presented facts are always a fairly reliable sleep inducer: 

"xxxxx, in the south-west of xxxxx is the third largest wine region in xxxx. Wine has been produced there since xxxx and..." 

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Alternatively, there is the dull personal revelation: 

"I have never really liked eating fish with red wine, but last weekend, when our friends Nick and Nigel came for dinner..." 

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Over the last few weeks, as one of the judges of the 2014 Roederer International Wine Writers Awards, I have struggled with tens of thousands of these kinds of words, as I worked my way through over 400 articles, columns, blog posts and books. Each writer could enter up to four pieces of writing in each of five categories (apart from possible submission in the 'Books' and 'Artistry' sections) which meant that, in some cases, I had the chance to experience multiple doses of some of a wine communicator's work. This was not always a joy.

If the writing was often uninspiring, so too was the content. Far too many people talk about the importance of 'the story' behind a wine without, by all appearances, having any real idea of what a story really is. Stated simply, unless you are James Joyce or Proust, neither of whom would necessarily have made a very successful wine writer, a story has some kind of beginning middle and end. It has a who?, a what?, a where?, a when?, a how? and a why? or at least a few of these. It is not a succession of facts or opinions. The only place for that kind of writing is business reports and textbooks whose reading is generally involuntary. (For a perfect example of the genre, just compare the tedium of the WSET course textbook with any of the wonderfully readable general wine books published by writers like Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson and Oz Clarke). 

And, dare I say, there's an incentive to getting this right. One of the hats I wear is as editor at large of Meininger's Wine Business International and rarely a week passes without Felicity Carter, that magazine's brilliant editor, lamenting the poor quality of yet another batch of articles she's been sent by people who imagine they have a god-given right to see their words in its pages. Interestingly, given the global nature of the publication, we've discovered that one's native tongue has little to do with the understanding of the importance of story-telling. Some of the best contributors have English as a second or third language. If you think you can tell a really interesting story to an audience of people who earn their living from wine at a high professional level, please contact her. But please, please don't do so unless you've really assimilated the previous paragraph.

Part way through the Roederer judging exercise, as I plodded my way through yet another dull opening paragraph and desperately struggled to maintain the will to live, I had a minor moment of revelation. Most wine writers are just like most wine producers: they presume that the people looking at the words on the label or the page or screen are already on their side, and have a significant level of interest and knowledge in the subject. 

The parallel is striking. On the one hand, we have a producer baldly labelling his wine Grignan-Les Adhemar; on the other, we have the writer starting his piece "Grignan-Les Adhemar is is the northernmost wine-growing AOC in the southern area of the Rhône". Both approaches work perfectly well for people who either already know and like Grignan-Les Adhemar or are sufficiently wine geeky to want to learn everything about every single one of France's wine regions. The bad news is that if we were to assemble all of the people who fall into both groups, we'd end up with a pretty small congregation. How many more might choose to read on if the piece began "There can't be many wine regions that owe their name to a nuclear accident..."? * 

Obviously, there are winemakers whose production is small enough not to mind only appealing to a small niche of consumers, just as there are writers whose work is directly aimed at geeks - and bloggers who appear to be targeting their efforts directly at themselves. And that's fine by me, but when it comes to judging for awards like the Roederer, geek-fodder and onanism aren't going to get my vote. What I have been looking for is inclusive writing: fascinating stuff that even someone with only the most passing interest in the subject might find themselves reading, almost against their will.

Fortunately, there have been some really fine examples of this kind of writing - both from established names with shelves full of awards, and from new writers I'd never encountered before, so I'm looking forward to discussing these with my fellow judges when we meet to choose the winners next week.

In the meantime, if you're a wine writer who has entered a number of this kind of competitions and failed to win, I'll pass on a piece of invaluable advice I was given a very long time ago. 


It was apparently originally coined by the late 19th century US short story writer O Henry who said something to the effect that "after every sentence and paragraph, put yourself  in the shoes of the reader. If he says to himself 'And then?' and can't help wanting to read the next sentence or paragraph, you're getting it right. If on the other hand, the instinctive reaction is 'so what?'. you're not".

But then of course, putting yourself in the consumer's shoes has rarely been a skill I'd associate with the wine industry.

* In case you were one of the hundreds of millions of wine drinkers who were blissfully unaware of the fact, Grignan-Les Adhemar is the new - since 2008 - name for the Coteaux du Tricastin whose wines lost sales in France following the accidental release of uranium from the Tricastin power station.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Social Media - where it's not rude to interrupt other people's conversations

Yesterday, on a London bus, a complete stranger who'd evidently overheard me struggling with a question - helpfully provided the answer. The details of what we were talking about, and the contribution from the girl sitting behind us, are actually irrelevant (Angelina my newly arrived intern from Ningxia and I were trying to work out the best way for her to get to a flatshare she was going to check out); what interests me was her readiness to chip in, and our gratitude for her having done so.

Now try to put yourself into a few imaginary situations. 

You are a writer, dining in a restaurant. The man at the next table is telling his companion how much he was enjoying reading a book you had written. Do you keep quiet? Or do you politely admit to being the author?

You are at a party where you overhear fellow guests - to whom you haven't been introduced - talking about the rude behaviour of the builders working on a house on their street. You immediately realise that the workmen in question are the ones rebuilding your kitchen. What do you do? Ignore it? Keep quiet and resolve to say something to the builder tomorrow morning? Acknowledge your connection and ask precisely what had happened?

The way you responded to these three anecdotes probably depends largely on how you were brought up (how rude is it to join on other people's conversations?) and your personality (extrovert or introvert). And you may, in any case, have reacted to them differently. After all, it's a lot more socially acceptable to join in a conversation between guests at a party to which you've also been invited than to interrupt one between people you don't know. On the other hand, it's not much fun admitting - even indirect - responsibility for causing offence.

In an online world, the rules are different. The clue to social media is clearly in its name. Twitter and Tripadvisor are parties that anyone can attend and where chipping in is 100% legitimate. Big companies understand this. Just try saying that you've had a bad experience on an airline or a bad stay in a hotel belonging to the bigger chains and you'll see a response in moments. But it's not just the giants who understand this. There are plenty of stories of individual hotels and restaurants responding to online comments. One I noticed was to a diner who was complaining about the food and slow service he was getting in a steakhouse in the US. The tweet he got was not from the place where he was dining but from a competitor. As I recall, it said something like, "sorry you're having a bad time. Hopefully it'll get better".

So what's this got to do with wine? As Cathy Huyghe points out in a good Forbes piece, fewer than two online conversations in ten get any attention from wine brands. To put this in perspective, according to an estimate by Silicon Valley Bank in its 2014 report, we're talking about 1.2m (yes, 1,200,000) exchanges across all social media channels every day that are going unnoticed. That's people who had a corked bottle of your wine (or a competitor's), or are wondering about visiting the winery, or don't know where to buy it, or thought it went well with ceviche, or ... heaven knows what else. And as a producer or distributor, you have the right to chip in - provided, obviously, that you do so politely and helpfully - just like the lady on the bus.

So, how do you know about all these conversations? Well, you can find out about quite a lot of them absolutely free of charge. Just set up a google alert:



You could get Topsy to keep track of how well you are doing - and which of your own tweets have been most effective. 




You could sign up with twilert which will do lots of searches for you in real time for less than 50c a day (and I'm guessing your time is worth more than that).


Mention.com is another affordable service that keeps an eye on what people are saying about you.


And then there's Social Report which is a little pricier ($39/month) but theoretically tells you not only how many people are talking about you and where, but also, who's doing most of the talking.  


Once you've played with these tools - they all offer free or cheap introductory packages - you may well want to go the  extra mile and pay an agency to do your social media monitoring for you. There are lots of these and their costs vary, but in some cases they are a lot higher than the ones for the tools I've listed, and for not much more in the way of results.

For really serious social media monitoring, I know nobody who does it better or more seriously than Paul Mabray's Vintank


To get the most out of any of these services, of course, you have to be prepared to put in the effort to engage with the people who are talking about you and your wine, but I'll almost guarantee that the return on your investment (the time you put in) will compare pretty damn well with the hours you've spent talking to journalists nobody reads, and standing behind tables pouring wine to often uninterested attendees at £1,000/table wine fairs.