Richard Hemming MW: The only certainty is uncertainty
Life’s only certainties are supposed to be death and taxes – but maybe not for much longer. These days, tax evasion has become increasingly normalised, while “amortality” is apparently coming within our lifetime. So to speak.
In a world in which nothing is certain, how can we possibly know what the future holds for wine? The London Technology Club’s recent Future Technology in Wine report covered everything from blockchain wine investment to apps that crowdsource viticultural decisions. But what’s going to change for retailers? Let’s consider the future for wine styles, in-store experiences and society more generally.
Predicting stylistic trends is tricky. The recent booms in Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Argentinian Malbec and Prosecco may seem obvious in hindsight but were largely unexpected at the time. Meanwhile, the trade has been predicting the rise of Riesling since time immemorial, to the general indifference of the wine-drinking public. The best advice is to keep your range broad and regularly refreshed.
Predicting trends at lower price points is easier, since the guiding factor is cheapness. Eastern Europe is emerging as one of the most cost-effective sources right now, with the boom in Chinese plantings making it a prime contender as a future source of bulk wine – unenviable though that may be.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Burgundy has been challenging Bordeaux for top-shelf primacy, with Piedmont rising up the ranks too. In this context, the best reds of the Rhône seem primed for the spotlight. Or perhaps premium Chinese wine will be the next big thing, considering the investment from the likes of Lafite and LVMH.
That’s what we might be selling, but how we will sell it? Online retail is still in its infancy and its further growth is inevitable. Succeeding in such a competitive environment requires significant investment – but there are still plenty of opportunities for physical retailers.
The “experience economy” requires wine shops to offer more than just rows of bottles. The hybrid bar/shop model is already testament to that, and offering customers an enhanced in-store experience will be vital. Technology will continue to play its part, from sampling devices to augmented reality labels. But, ultimately, the objective is an original rule of retail: fostering a strong relationship with your customers.
Having said that, supermarkets have been focusing on the no-frills approach, with Aldi and Lidl showing that value and convenience are still vital tenets for selling wine in the UK. Looking ahead, it seems certain that high volumes of cheap wine will always be needed – and that will always be a cut-throat arena in which to do business.
All this assumes that no significant societal changes take place, but this is perhaps the hardest area to forecast. The past few decades of growth in wine consumption have stalled, alcohol is increasingly vilified and abstention is growing among young adults. Alongside the chaotic political outlook we’re enjoying, perhaps the only safe prediction nowadays is that nothing in life is certain, not even death and taxes. And certainly not wine.