Women & Wine- A Special Relationship?

IMG_3994With all the recent hoopla about the US election, you may be forgiven for not noting another fascinating global trend – the marketing of wine specifically to women, on the basis that women have a some sort different, “special” relationship with wine.

In the past couple of month I have come across two start ups in France that are marketing wine just to women, Les Millesimes de Ces Dames and Chais Elles, plus a website aimed directly at women consumers as well as rosé wines packaged as the equivalent of pink Lego (such as Les Jolies Filles, pictured).  And State-side, there are non-profits, such as Wine Women & Shoes, that pair wine with shoes to fund-raise with a feminine flair.

This marketing trend seems to be betting that women taste wine differently, or at the very least, purchase it based on different criteria. That there are certain “female” characteristics that differentiate  wines is definitely not new; the French often use the term “un vin féminin” to describe light, delicate, elegant, subtle, round, supple and easy to drink wines, in contrast to masculine ones that are strong, coarse, tannic, full bodied and structured. In this context, Burgundy is seen more of a producer of feminine wines, while Bordeaux is viewed as the source of more masculine ones.

But there seems to be a more serious trend a foot worth taking note of. Women vignerons are banding together, as profiled by TFI recently in regards to a female association in Champagne created to counterbalance the male-dominated industry or “Femmes Vigne Rhônes” in the Rhone Valley that since 2004 has been promoting female viticulturists.  More women viticulturists are being profiled in the industry press (such as the top women in Italian wine), and even honored for their achievements in the field. And only last year  was it revealed that since 2006, all winners of WSET’s top award, the Vintners’ Cup, have been female.

Which begs the question – do women actually have a competitive advantage in wine? There seems to be some scientific basis to the idea that women are predisposed to have a better sense of taste and smell than men, thus lending credence to the notion that women are better wine tasters. But interestingly, women are also less confident of these skills, while “men use confidence in lieu of ability”, which helps to explain why only about 20 percent of sommeliers today are women.

That women systematically underestimate their abilities and are less self-confident than men is something that infiltrates all professional domains (check out the imposture syndrome),  whether its banking or Beaujolais. But here is an area where genetics may actually be in women’s favor, and I for one drink to that…







Can Blockchain Solve the Wine Provenance Issue?


Anyone familiar with the wine industry knows that premier crus and other upmarket vineyards have serious issues with counterfeiting – whether its French wine exported to China today or  a 1787 bottle of Château Lafite Bordeaux sold in 1985 by Christie’s of London for $156,000 to a member of the Forbes family. Such counterfeiting practices include adding prestigious labels to non descriptive wines to refilling empty upmarket bottles with plonk, and this has been creating reputational risk for premium vineyards. According to a recent report of the Comité National des Conseillers du Commerce Extérieur de la France (CNCCEF), “The situation of imported French wine and spirits in China has deteriorated significantly since 2014,” blaming mainly, Chinese consumers’ distrust of wines “too often reputed to be counterfeit.”

As discussed in a recent blog, entrepreneurs are working on finding solutions to this problem using technology, whether its placing RFID or NFC tags behind labels (which prevents label switching) or using Mid Infrared Spectroscopy to evaluate the quality and authenticity of wines (better at detecting fraud in a bottle). But all these technologies work within a proprietary system, in that you can only tell if a bottle is authentic by having access to the database that corresponds to the markers on or in the bottle. And thus unless these systems are very wide spread – or at least in the hands of the majority of players that find them useful, such as wine experts or custom officers – their effect on dismissing counterfeits will be minimal.

Enter blockchain. Best known as the underpinning technology for the infamous bitcoin currency, blockchain is a digital ledger of transactions that is distributed across thousands of computers around the world and is visible to everyone. As explained by the BBC, “these digital records are lumped together into “blocks” then bound together cryptographically and chronologically into a “chain” using complex mathematical algorithms. Once updated, the ledger cannot be altered or tampered with, only added to, and it is updated for everyone in the network at the same time,” making it very difficult to hack, and keeping data secure and private.

So what’s the connection with wine you may ask? Recently, a new start-up Everlegder has come into the news, that uses the blockchain as a permanent ledger for diamond certification and related transaction history, allowing it to act as verification for insurance companies, owners and law enforcement. The motivation behind Everledger was to solve the provenance issue for jewelry owners and insurers alike when beloved heirlooms go missing. As per its founder Leanne Kemp, “When you solve provenance, you know the item has certification, you can prove it came from a certain exact location, see what processes it has been through over time. Once you’ve got that [on the blockchain] then you’ve got the ability to introduce smart layers of commerce – smart contracts.”

Everledger’s next level is to access this smart contract functionality i.e. computer programs that can automatically execute the terms of a contract and, by using the blockchain as a ledger, these smart contracts can be tracked and used to verify business relationships and agreements.

Clearly the business case for a blockchain ledger can apply to any high worth luxury good that requires protection from fraud and theft, such as art or fine wine. The idea of bitcoin and wine is not new, but current ideas focus on the exchange of an actual bitcoin with the wine, which many persons (including law enforcing officials) will shy from, given bitcoin’s notorious reputation and extreme volatility.

Rather, the real future is in leveraging blockchain technology in combination with current proprietary authentication technologies for wine – i.e. once a wine is identified by a particular authentication technology, that result can be uploaded into a public blockchain ledger for verification by all, and not just the users of the proprietary system, effectively creating interoperability between authentication systems.




The Silver Lining of Global Warming


Although the crux of this blog is to focus on wine and technology, all innovation in wine peaks my interest, whether its using RFID labels to authentic wine bottles or new packing concepts (single serve wine cans any one?), as well as wines being grown in new terroirs. So when I was recently in the South Downs in the UK, I had to try out the new sparkling (and award winning) English wines.

Fresh on the heels of press reports that Taittinger has invested in an English vineyard in Kent (better join them if you can’t beat them!), I visited the well known Three Choirs vineyard in Wickham. After a quick tour of vineyard (the rain ensured it was quick), I participated in a wine and cheese tasting, focusing on their white wines. Intrigued by the grape varieties – almost all German ones, such as Siegerrebe, Reichensteiner  and Huxelrebe – many of the still whites had a greenness that hinted at unripe fruit and were a bit harsh. Thus I was pleasantly surprised by their sparkling cuvée, which had a youthful freshness yet good balance of acidity to make it definitely moreish. At £15 a bottle, frankly it could compete with many classic brut Champagnes from the smaller vineyards of Epernay, which are at similar price points (such as one of my favorites, Pierre Moncuit). Recent blind tastings by Noble Rot of sparkling wines seem to support my observations.

And as the warm December air reminded me when I stepped out of the Wickham tasting room, this is the fruit of global warming – growing season temperatures have increased for most of the world’s high quality wine regions over the last 50 years, by an average of 2 ºC.  As temperatures have risen, so has the quality of vintages improved, both in the high quality regions, as well as in  such”new frontiers” as  Gloucestershire. Gregory Jones from Southern Oregon University states it succinctly -“It would appear that the currently cool climate regions would benefit the most (from global warming). If the climate warms as the models predict, then these regions will be better able to ripen the fruit and may even be able to consider other varieties that could not ripen there today.” So the Champagne producers not only have to worry about the dilution of their terror through planting (merci Bruxelles), they now have the English on their heels, literally. Sacré bleu.

Has the death of the wine critic been greatly exaggerated?

parkerJancis Robinson wrote a very perceptive article recently in the FT, looking at how social media, and a consumer’s ability to rate wines (as well as provide flowery tasting notes) via mobile applications such as Vivino was challenging the legitimacy of wine journalists and critics. She concluded that the wine commentary scene has indeed become crowded, and that for her and other professionals to stay in the game, they need to “embrace the new landscape… by working hard and accurately enough to earn” the trust of the consumers.

As an avid user myself of apps such as Vivino and Delectable, I have seen firsthand what most wine drinkers post on the net  – usually its just a bunch of stars for a rating, or very simple descriptions such “fruity” or “well-rounded”. Very few attempt to write a tasting note and if they do, they usually don’t follow the structure or the rigor that is a prerequisite of those with a WSET qualification. So do these mass-derived inputs truly compete with the wine critics and journalists?

By rating and commenting on wine in social media, consumers have become more confident in expressing themselves, which has to a certain extent diminished the pretentiousness of wine. The axiom that good wine is the wine you enjoy drinking is now, more than ever, the leitmotif of consumers, even if they don’t know their Mouton-Rothschild from their Chasse Spleen. And I don’t think this embrace of the subjectivity of wine is a bad thing. It means more engagement, passion and curiosity, and ultimately more knowledgeable drinkers that the wine industry can cater to.

On the other hand, this social media engagement can’t replace the raison d’être of wine professionals. Wine is complex and complicated, as Felicity Carter highlighted in her recent blog: “even well-informed enthusiasm will never replace the in-depth expertise that comes from years of professional immersion in a subject.”

Not everyone will be interested in what a wine critic has to say, and for some a 3.5 star rating on Vivino will be sufficient, but as consumers become more engaged in liked-minded social media communities, they too will slowly come to the realization that wine is hard, and that professionals, who have gone through a couple of hoops, may just know a thing or two…

When RFID and wine meet…


Tucked in a far corner of the CARTES trade fair this week in Paris, I found WID, a company that manufactures combined RFID and NFC labels that are placed under wine labels to allow wine producers, as well as intermediaries and final consumers, to track the whereabouts of a particular bottle,  as well as to provide information on the wine and the vineyard via a mobile scan.

The main purpose is to prevent counterfeits, though it could also be used to ensure wine destined for a particular market actually gets there (and doesn’t get waylaid into the “grey market”), and to help customs ensure that the right tax/duty is paid. This technology is not new – it was first introduced by Thinfilm in 2013 in its NFC OpenSense tags – but what distinguishes WID’s product is the ability to read the labels through a wine case, allowing for a much quicker verification process.

This technology, however, does not come cheap – at about 2.50 euros per bottle for small quantities, clearly it is only relevant for premium wines, and quite a lot of marketing needs to be undertaken to get both distributors and final customers interested in using this product. Main targets are obviously the Chateau Petruses and Yquems of this world who have serious counterfeit issues in countries such as China, but beyond them, I’m not sure how big of a potential market there is out there. And as everyone knows, the key to mobile technologies is mass adoption.

On the other hand, had the tags been able to ensure that the bottles have been kept at the right temperature and  humidity levels, thereby instilling confidence in purchasers of investment wine, then we would be talking another story, but the technology for such tags is unfortunately not sufficiently developed today (the tag would be pretty big and clunky, putting off both vineyards and consumers a like). That said, these tags could be an element of a wine storage certification program, and there is some interesting brainstorming underway on this topic by Jiri Tillman in regards to the potential establishment of an independent body that would certify wine storage conditions.

RFID/NFC tags for wine has some great potential for creating customer trust and confidence (which is a key trait of at least the European consumer), but my own feeling is that until the pricing of these tags becomes almost negligible, so as to be a very small part of the overall costs of bottling a wine, this will be a luxury product that will need to have a much stronger champion then just the proprietors of the top vineyards. Whether such champion exists is another question.