The London International Wine Fair (LIWF) celebrated its 30th anniversary this May and it was probably my 27th visit to the fair. Particularly in the past decade as I’ve split my time between France and the UK, it’s become a really important catch-up and networking event for me.
The biggest positive change to the fair itself over the years is in my view the move to the ExCel Exhibition Centre in Docklands (not far from the London 2012 Olympic stadium and village). Not only does getting to ExCel happen to be convenient for me, but also I like the venue because it’s both spacious and properly air conditioned, making it possible to taste in decent conditions. The addition of separate seminar rooms, with each year more seminars and events available has been a real plus too.
To make the most of three days is always a challenge and however organised I try to be, I do end up feeling I’ve only crossed off my list a fraction of the wines I wanted to taste and people I wanted to see. This year, three things occupied my thoughts most during and after the fair and here they are:
Chile – After the Earthquake
I’ve had a long love affair with Chile’s wine, its wine regions and its people. I was probably far from alone in the way the February earthquake left me feeling helpless in that personal way, which is so much more affecting than with tragedies that hit strangers or places you’ve never visited. Many Chilean wine producers came over to London as always for the fair, less than three months after these traumatic events having had, somehow, to bring in the 2010 harvest.
One was consultant winemaker Irene Paiva who I met first in 1999 when she was winemaker for Caliterra and later when she had moved to manage winemaking for the vast Viña San Pedro winery. She was at the fair partly to co-present a useful seminar on how the grape variety Carmenère has evolved over the nearly 20 years since it was first identified in Chile (the tasting after showed some real stars). Irene also has her own winery I-Latina part of MOVI (a group of independent Chilean wineries) and lives with her family near Curico, one of the wine towns badly hit by the earthquake. Her family and home was left intact, but she told me how there was nothing left of the old town of Curico and her description of the horror of the moment the earthquake hit in the middle of the night, made my blood run cold. It’s hard to write about, but suffice it to say that when she and her husband tried to actually walk out of their house with their children, it was simply impossible as the building was moving too much.
Chile had a superb presence at LIWF. Unlike several large generic country stands, Wines of Chile UK made sure there was a central information point, with on-stand seminars and clear directions, with someone helpful on hand to point you to the Chilean wines or winemakers you needed to see. As ever René Merino, president of Wines of Chile and owner of Viña Casa Tamaya, was upbeat but realistic about the current challenges Chile’s wine regions face.
The winery I first knew well in Chile, Viña San Pedro, a huge exporter and now part of the VSPT group, decided not to have their own stand at the fair, though their export manager was present on their importer’s stand. The money they saved from not going to the fair is being directed to help in the re-building of their workers’ houses. Many more funds are still needed to help those who lost their houses and their livelihoods through the earthquake and Wines of Chile are working through the Levantando fund to channel donations. Please click on the link above to give what you can – remember, they are still today suffering from after-shocks. Chilean-based photographer Matt Wilson toured the wine regions and earthquake-hit areas and has collaborated with Wines of Chile on a photographic exhibition (see his poster above) to help raise funds – some of his moving photos were displayed at the fair as part of a touring exhibition ‘Shaken but not Broken’ and it’s well worth reading his diary too.
Australia’s First Families of Wine and other Winery Groupings
I love the growing trend of several wineries grouping together in a semi-official way, aside from official generic country or regional bodies. France has increasing numbers of unofficial groups who band together for trade, press or even consumer tastings including the perfectly-named ‘Contains Sulfites mais pas trop’ whose tasting I attended during the Grands Jours de Bourgogne week back in March. Charles Sydney, a well known broker for Loire wines, alerted writers to a group of four young Loire wine producers who bravely banded together specifically to exhibit at LIWF – named Hors La Loire – I hope they did well, because the enthusiasm was a good start.
With a lot more clout and a lot more means than the above groups, Australia’s First Families of Wine held a tutored tasting of 12 excellent wines (one for each of the 12 families in this new group) in the wine fair’s press office. After a short introduction about the group, their ideals and their reason for existence (in short, to combat the image of Australia as an industrial wine producer, by focussing on terroir or regional specific wines produced by wineries with a long family history of wine production, mostly from vines of great age!), each winery presented its chosen wine, and in almost all cases it was one of the family presenting the wines. I was impressed with not just the wines, but the dynamism of the group, its aims and the way they want to work together for the greater good of ‘real’ Australian wines.
The Access Zone – Social Media for Wine
Right now none of the above groups have much, if any, social media presence. I wouldn’t be surprised to see something soon from Australia’s First Families, however, with a much lower budget I wonder how long, if ever, till we see those small French vigneron groupings work on social media to gain recognition, friends and customers. Personally, I think it would be a very cost effective form of ongoing promotion for them.
A year ago, when I discussed with friends and colleagues at LIWF about how I was using Twitter and Facebook to promote Wine Travel Guides, I was met with incredulity by most Europeans in particular and some derision even by Americans. This year was quite different. When I mentioned that I had been a regular user of Twitter and Facebook for nearly two years and believed that they were really important for the wine trade as a low cost 21st Century public relations tool, people were actually interested enough to discuss it.
Ryan and Gabriella Opaz of Catavino and Robert McIntosh of Wine Conversation, who also run the European Wine Bloggers Conference, had a stand named the #AccessZone to promote social media and provide a focal point for bloggers and anyone interested in discussing how this new media can be used by the wine trade. The presence of the stand and the tweeters’ and bloggers’ use of the #AccessZone and #LIWF hash tags aggregating lots of comments, created a gentle buzz throughout the show. On the stand there was a series of informal social media seminars, most of which were professionally filmed as well as live blogged – find out more on Catavino’s live #LIWF page.
I used the fair to launch – in an ultra low-key way – my own consultancy services on social media for the wine trade – aimed at either those who are just beginning and need a helping hand, or for others who need an experienced wine voice to actually handle some of this work for them. On the Access Zone, I presented a short talk, giving an introduction to Facebook Pages and their relevance for wineries, producer groups or even writers and other freelance wine professionals.
I shall be launching a new blog shortly to promote these services and will add in a note here when it’s live. In the meantime, contact me if you know anyone who could be interested. LIWF often feels for me like a new beginning: three years ago I launched Wine Travel Guides, which continues of course, and now this new business venture will simply run alongside.