Innovation in the Wine Industry - WiW LDN's first event

The first official Women in Wine London event kicked off at The Winemakers Club in Holborn last week, and combined a social event with panel discussion on ‘Innovation in the Wine Industry’. The evening started with 30 attendees catching up, meeting new people and trying several types of wine from the intriguing list on offer. Sula Richardson and Regine Lee, co-founders of the group, hosted the event and were pleased to have three accomplished women who are innovative in their own right as panellists: Lulie Halstead (CEO of Wine Intelligence), Sunaina Sethi (Operations Director and Wine Buyer for JKS Restaurant Group), and Ruth Spivey (founder of Wine Car Boot Sale and Street Vin). They brought a wide range of experiences and provided several different perspectives to the debate. See their biographies for more information below.

The animated discussion centred on whether the wine industry is innovative and what it can do to stay relevant. Drawing on her experience of international consumer research, Halstead kicked off the discussion by focusing on the need to better understand the typical wine drinker who constitutes the majority of wine sales. Wine producers, sellers and marketers who only push what’s in the bottle while failing to connect with consumers are not developing the category in the right direction. The panellists then discussed the extent to which the wine trade can educate consumers, or whether changing consumer behaviour is in fact possible, given their price sensitivity and conservatism when it comes to purchasing choice.

Speaking about the quality-focused on-trade sector, Sethi emphasised the need to build trust with their customers. This entails gaining knowledge and confidence as a sommelier, but also really listening to customers and not veering them away from what they want for the wrong reasons. Upselling to reluctant or resistant customers causes mistrust with sommeliers and a further hesitancy to try new things. At their restaurants Trishna and Gymkhana, innovation lay in building a wine list to satisfy customers who want familiar styles, but also showing them that wine can actually pair well with Indian food and particularly their innovative food offerings. Also, it is important to know the limits. Putting obscure wines on a list in the top end price bracket makes them less accessible to consumers. Refusing them a Bucks Fizz made out of grower Champagne (as is the wont of some who eat at Bubbledogs) achieves nothing and results in dissatisfied customers. However, you can stick to your principles, and put the orange juice on the side! There are several ways to get customers engaged in wine, like having a strong wine pairing emphasis on the menu, and a well-priced and diverse set of wines by the glass. Sethi summarised it beautifully herself: “It’s about gaining trust, being confident and believing in what you’re doing. Then consumers will take the risk.”

Whether the wine industry is too fragmented and lacks strong, innovative companies to lead the charge in innovation was also discussed. The group then compared the wine industry to the spirits industry, where clear branding signals can signpost consumers to trade upward and/or across from Smirnoff vodka to Sipsmith gin for example. The very things wine industry professionals love about wine – its seemingly infinite complexity and diversity – is what makes it difficult to sell as a category. The wine industry also lacks a mobilised, omniscient half-selling half-educating force like Starbucks is to the coffee industry. Through sheer force of commercial power and spot-on branding, they got wide swathes of the public talking about single origin beans and ordering cappuccinos when they previously reached for Nescafe freeze dried coffee from a tin. Starbucks has been effective in getting people further interested in coffee, pushing them further to try new styles (cold brewed, flat whites, etc.) and paving the way for independent hipster cafes who arguably have taken coffee up the quality ladder rung in London. Who does that for the wine industry?

Communication is key, and understanding how to successful do so in the right context is a part of innovation. As Spivey noted, she started Wine Car Boot sale as an idea that she thought was fun herself and believed other people would too. She observed that the recent trends in making food fun and accessible (e.g., the popularity of Jamie Oliver, the street food scene and it now being cool to be a foodie) has translated into people becoming more receptive to learning about wine without feeling like they have to be a geek to like it. As Spivey said eloquently, “Quality is at the heart of it - giving people a better experience with better wine”.

Halstead then made a fascinating observation gleaned from her experience in international markets. Filling a niche in the wine industry for consumer insight data and trade consulting services, Wine Intelligence has discovered over the years that although what is on the market and available to consumers may differ across countries, all consumers have the same motivations: they mostly want something they can rely on, that tastes like they expect it to, and won’t be embarrassed to serve to their friends. This is powerful information, which the big branded wine producers take seriously. They innovate within the context of consumer taste, looking to make low alcohol wines, flavoured ‘fusion’ wines etc. but also looking at how to make it more fun and appealing to customers. Perhaps widening our own (wine trade) perspective on what makes wine fun is the key. Assuming a holier than thou attitude towards consumers and the big branded wines they gravitate to will have a negative impact on the category as a whole.

While we only had about an hour to hash out the complex, multifaceted theme of innovation, the panel and the audience touched on several important considerations we must tackle if we want wine to stay relevant to consumers, especially in the face of decreasing consumption. If there was topic that incurred no debate whatsoever, it was that all our amazing panellists have been and will continue to be innovative in their own careers, and forge new paths for the wine industry.


Panellist biographies:

Lulie Halstead - Co-founder and CEO of Wine Intelligence and regarded as a leading thinker in the world of wine business strategy. Prior to co-founding Wine Intelligence, she developed expertise in the wine industry, with hands-on roles in importing, marketing & retailing.

Sunaina Sethi - Operations Director and Wine Buyer for JKS Restaurants, which includes Michelin-starred Trishna and Gymkhana. She also was recently named Imbibe's 2016 Restaurant Personality of the Year. Sunaina is working towards her Master Sommelier Diploma

Ruth Spivey - Owner of Wine Car Boot, the hugely successful car boot sale that showcases wonderful wine shops all over London. Having been a wine consultant for many years, Ruth is currently working for the very chic Craft London restaurant. Ruth holds the WSET Diploma and has been featured on BBC Food.

We also wanted to express our thanks to The Winemakers Club for hosting the event and staying open late to do so. We appreciate your support and very much enjoyed the lovely wine!