Lockdown – The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful

Why Beautiful, not Ugly? There is no getting away from the fact that Coronavirus has been terrible. Remember early this year, Christmas holidays over, looking forward to 2020. Within a few months the lives of many were completely shattered whilst for pretty much all of us they changed dramatically. The wine trade saw some very big changes. Whilst tens of thousands succumbed to Covid-19, the people I know, people I count as colleagues, had their own struggles. Thankfully not so much with their health, though I do know three or four who have been very ill, but struggles to keep their wine businesses alive or their careers on track.

What has this year been like in the wine trade? Taking a look at everyone from winemakers, to importers, retailers, restaurants and sommeliers, every single person I have spoken to has been affected significantly, and usually in a negative way. So businesses have needed to innovate to merely survive. I thought I’d take a look at what has changed. I asked a lot of people what it has been like. Some were happy to be quoted, and some were happy to comment so long as I didn’t name them. Before that I gave some thought to my own circumstances.

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As a writer attempting to publish one, sometimes two, articles a week, things couldn’t have changed more. What did I write about before Lockdown? Wine tastings, mostly in London, loads of them. Visits to producers mostly overseas, meals at restaurants…well none of those were happening. Instead I’ve tried to focus a little on writing broader articles on wine regions. Aveyron, Alsace, Switzerland, these have been very successful and are the kind of things I rarely had time for in the past.

Again I know, I’m lucky you tell me. Some writers have worked extremely hard to keep their profile up, and all have had to do without the globetrotting press trips for which the wine world is famous (some admit they usually spend almost as long in the air, flying, as they do with their feet on terra firma), but one admitted online last week that he had lost 90% of his income over the past three months, something I couldn’t contemplate, and feel lucky for my own mix of diversity and good fortune.

I’ve also been drinking more at home, so my monthly “Recent Wines” articles have become a two-parter. The rate at which I’m getting through my cellar is being matched, bottle for bottle and more, by the amount of wine I have been buying. I know I’m lucky to have disposable income for wine (for now at least, and a lot less than three or four months ago, sadly), but I have received some genuinely heartfelt thanks for my orders. This was actually brought home yesterday by the coffee roaster I use, who expressed gratitude for our monthly order and explained just how difficult it has been to keep going without their wholesale trade.

This is key…that every case of wine we buy from a retailer is a gift to the whole supply chain. A hundred pounds spent here and there several times a month will not keep any business afloat, but as we shall see in due course, when lots of us are spending small amounts they add up into a lifeline. So far I do not know of any wine business which has had to close. I’m less optimistic about restaurants. Whilst we still have an unrivalled choice of wines to buy in the UK we should take advantage. Down the line, with recession, a potential no deal Brexit and so on, we may not be so lucky. For those of us who are still lucky enough to be able to spend, now is probably a good time.

 

Tim Phillips is a winemaker who appears with a degree of regularity on this site. Not that regular, but only because his production is so tiny. I do occasionally get to visit him at his vineyard and winery near Lymington in Hampshire. He’s one of the most thoughtful winemakers I know and his views on how Lockdown changed him is interesting. For a winemaker the vines still grow and the grapes will still need harvesting. So the pandemic has brought other perhaps more metaphysical considerations to the fore. He says:

“COVID19 has certainly had a rapid impact around the world, with all man made operations affected. The rest of nature has to some extent benefited from reduced human activity (improved air quality etc) and working with nature in the vineyards has really emphasised this. Within the walls of the vineyard there has been no effect whatsoever from COVID19 (I have fortunately not become ill which, as a one man band, could have had a serious implication for the vines) and this has brought into sharp relief how removed from nature so many people are. Working with nature is an unpredictable undertaking – close observation reveals that huge diversity is the coping mechanism it uses to foster resilience. Much in the same way that monoculture farmers find themselves exposed to a lack of diversity, so do most humans in their livelyhoods, which has hit many very hard. The robin who follows me at work, hoping for bugs, and the great tits nesting in the old apple tree have no idea about COVID19 and it has not affected them.

So, the good? Life for a vigneron working with nature was completely unaffected by the outbreak. The bad? The affect on others has been devastating and the human cost, especially to those let down by others is incredibly sad. The Beautiful? The realisation of man’s calamity and its making vs nature’s resilience has taken me deeper into the landscape and I am focusing more on diversity – you are as likely to see me working in the woodlands and managing the pond and its environs as you are to find me working in the vines. And playing with my daughter who has had not school for 4 months, but is a dab hand at bottling now!”

Britain is blessed with an incredible number of wine importers, agents, distributors, whatever you want to call them. They range from tiny one person operations which might specialise in one region or country, up to the large generalists, with every shade in between. Very many of these businesses have needed to find new ways to survive. Many rely mostly on sales to restaurants and retail shops, and with a big part of that business taken away the only way open for survival has been to sell directly to the public.

This is not without controversy, of course. Retailers have been expressing worries that the importers will continue this direct relationship after Lockdown is over, and will undercut them. But many of the wholesalers have always sold to the public. I used to buy directly from Liberty Wines in the 1990s, despite the manager from a major wine chain virtually telling me I was lying when I told them where I’d been purchasing a particular producer’s wines. Les Caves, Newcomer, Berry Bros, Dynamic Vines and many more have shops open to the public. The key is that, except at Berry Bros “factory outlet” where the focus is on bin ends, they all sell directly at “retail” prices. You won’t get your Ganevat any cheaper at Pew Corner than your local indie, though it may well be cheaper than the grey market, as I recently explored (15 June, Fifty Shades of Unicorn), in what may be my most read article of the year so far.

I’m not going to lie though, this innovation of direct sales has provided some great opportunities for me personally. Being able to order directly from an importer, such as Indigo Wines who have not previously sold direct to the public, has meant being able to order wines which would be unlikely to all get stocked at the same retailer from source.

Some of the problems resulting from Lockdown have been particularly weighty for the smaller specialist importers who supply wines perhaps at the outer edges of the wine universe. As you may know, I’m a fan of the mainly Czech portfolio of Basket Press Wines and it’s worth me reproducing in full the response they sent.

The lockdown for a company of our size was a major hit, it not only meant loss of business in one big blow but also the uncertainty if restaurants could pay our outstanding invoices and where this would be headed in the long term. The uncertainty still lurks there, but after the initial shock, we started already thinking quickly. What can we do to keep the business afloat, pay bills and, at the same time, move forward, and keep the company growing. We had to make our website live, that became the number one priority for us. We worked on it tirelessly. It also meant we had to do it ourselves to control costs.

We missed seeing our customers and the interaction with floor staff, holding wine training sessions for them. So we thought of starting a series of Live Instagram chats with hospitality folks, and our winemakers – this was a great way to keep that conversation going, and bridging that gap of social distancing and reaching out to each other in the industry. It also brought us closer to the end consumer, the private customer, with whom we held many direct group Zoom wine tastings.

We also started a really fun project with leading sustainable, organic grocery provider, Farmdrop, to launch cookalongs with top chefs in the country. Two dishes provided by the chef, pairing with our wines, chosen by the restaurant’s sommelier. This is receiving such great feedback, and participants love that restaurant level cookery with the chef guiding them through it and cooking along with them, with top produce and wines in the comfort of their own home.”

All the importers have faced real challenges through a lack of hospitality industry custom and they share with the retailers a relief that mail order and online sales have kept their businesses ticking over.

The retailers and importers share one significant worry. Not simply that restaurants will close, but that they will not be able to pay outstanding bills. For a very small importer or an independent retailer if a restaurant goes under owing, say, £2,000 that could end the wine business. Some restaurants have even higher credit with wine vendors, and let’s face it, many (not all) restaurants are very slow at paying the bills. I have come across at least two wholesalers who have announced that they will not, for the time being, offer extended credit to restaurants. It seems harsh but perhaps sensible.

Chatting to people I know around the trade it could be argued that it is the retailers, especially the indie wine shops, who are among those working the hardest. With premises closed but still draining funds into the pockets of their landlords, and no restaurant sales, they have had to fall back on online sales and local deliveries. Another source of income and promotion lost would be the number of events they habitually organise or attend, whether local festivals or wine dinners/tastings “at the shop”. All these income streams are choked, and summer vies with Christmas for securing turnover to keep afloat for another year.

Every retailer I spoke to felt overwhelmed by the local support that in some cases has them preparing orders for half the day and delivering them for the other half. By being creative, putting out offers and mixed cases, most have also increased online sales. This is all survival tactics. But in the retail sector there have been upsides for many whom I’ve spoken to, though equally, everyone is keen to stress they are working physically much harder.

Simon Smith, co-owner of The Solent Cellar in Lymington had a number of positives to draw. This is a fairly typical indie wine shop in that their business was a mix of wholesale and retail plus a few online orders before the pandemic. After Lockdown all of the wholesale business pretty much vanished overnight. Survival, and to an extent thriving, has depended on changing the model and thankfully they have achieved that.

About a third of Simon’s turnover previously came via wholesale and all that was left of that were people like the farm shops which had remained open. What changed was local deliveries and internet orders. The latter has showed an increase of around sevenfold over the same April to July quarter last year, assisted by some well put together offers. The downside has been getting into work for 7am each day to box up orders for afternoon delivery or courier collection, but the upside has been an increase in turnover over the previous year despite the pandemic. People have found their desire to drink during Lockdown undiminished, and it seems that some have looked at how much they have been saving by not going out and have been drinking better. Several retailers I spoke to said how much hard physical work they’d put in, but no one else actually said they’d increased turnover.

The positive about retail sales over wholesale is that the margin is bigger, it’s less “risky” and you don’t need to spend hours at the end of the month chasing payment. With average retail spend increasing quite significantly as well, this has been a real bonus for the business. Simon did say that their systems were severely tested and at one stage they had to close and not answer the phones for two days just to catch up on orders. That might sound great but he did point out that at least with Christmas you work your socks off but you know that come Christmas Eve you can sink into a chair and rest for a few days. With the Lockdown it was so much tougher with no light at the end of the tunnel. I think most people probably don’t realise how much hard work it is in retail generally, not just wine.

It has been really tough for the restaurants, of course. With most reopening this week or last they still can’t get to the kind of capacity which would allow their slender margins to feel secure. But I do know that they are all opening with a feeling of both excitement and relief. A restaurant takes a lot of investment to set up and getting a living return is hard work for most. In fact a few of them agreed to send me some reflections but after their reopening they were just too knackered to contribute anything, perhaps just relieved to be back in the game.

A good restaurant with a brilliant wine list has to face the unpleasant reality, exacerbated by high rents, that they can’t charge the customer what the food is worth (cost price, plus prep time and a share of overheads, plus profit) because the customer (in most cases) won’t pay what the food is really worth. But at the same time the customer invariably gets upset at the margins on the wine, admittedly eye-wateringly high in most cases, but wine doesn’t do much more than save the day for the restaurant’s accountant. So the restaurateur can’t win, and often doesn’t if the number of closures are anything to go by. Only the best survive yet poor quality isn’t always a cause of failure.

The real test for the restaurants will be any forthcoming recession, and the same goes for their staff. Most restaurants don’t pay well, let’s face it, and staff have traditionally relied on tips. Most restaurants have a wine manager or sommelier, unless they are lucky enough to have a wine-savvy owner. The role of the sommelier is quite often misunderstood, but so is their remuneration. I laugh when I read stuff coming out of the USA about superstar wine waiters. The Guild of Sommeliers conducted a poll there in 2014 which listed the average salary for a Master Sommelier as $150,000 pa.

In the UK, by way of contrast, the average annual salary for a qualified sommelier was, according to a poll conducted this year, £25, 189 (another poll from May 2020 on payscale.com suggested the average was £24,779, so close). When you realise the hours they put in, especially after service is over and the punters have gone home, you realise how little that is (sommeliers are like teachers – the perception is that they only work during service, but of course their role encompasses so much more than just pouring the wine).

That might sound okay for some young people, though it does show the perceived differences between qualified wine staff in the USA and their value here in the UK. The salaries are worth noting because most of the sommeliers I know were furloughed, and with them receiving just 80% of a low salary and usually paying high rents, life became suddenly pretty hard for many. One sommelier told me that their money didn’t actually come through until after two months. Their stress levels have been heightened further because many have not known when, or even whether, their workplaces would reopen.

In fact when speaking to sommeliers the theme seems to be one of reassessment of their lives. Living in a big city, high rents, atrociously long hours, poor pay, all for the love of wine? Some have said they would be questioning their future. The role of sommelier is often a stepping stone to a wider career in wine. Some have become really successful consultants, earning more money and with greater autonomy. Others go to work for importers. One or two even go off and make wine. But it seems sad that there’s more despondency in this role than I perceived from many others in the trade.

One person I know who is always amazingly positive is Ania Smelskaya, of Silo Restaurant in East London. She threw herself into other projects during Lockdown – she’s a pro-standard photographer who has already done some wine photography (Pipette Magazine etc). She’s also set up a consultancy with Honey Spencer (Spencer & Smelskaya). But she’s also been in demand for a variety of online activities on Insta Live, Zoom etc. She expressed the view that it was really helpful to have other projects to throw herself into, but she also added how relaxed she felt being able to spend more time in nature, or going for a run by the sea.

The online explosion has been phenomenal. Every importer and wine personality has been battling to occupy cyber-space with broadcasts, and I’ve seen almost everything going. The worst, for the broadcaster that is, was where I joined an Insta Live event as only the second person watching. Then the other person dropped out, leaving me alone in a virtual room with the speaker. I just couldn’t bring myself to do the same. Yet equally some of these online broadcasts have been fabulous, whether on Zoom, Crowdcast, or Instagram…and that’s even accounting for the almost inevitable technical hitches (horrible at the time but most of us have been there). These are perhaps most embarrassing when one of the participants (once, the only participant) can’t log in. Those best at improvisation win the day.

The key to the online broadcasts’ success has been showcasing interesting people with a story to tell (and perhaps not being too camera-shy) and a host who speaks in more than a monotone, and who had actually slept the night before (the yawn is not a good look for “tv”). What I’ve not seen yet, perhaps surprisingly given that few go on without a glass in hand, is anyone seriously drunk, although one or two have been a little tipsy (you probably know who you are).

My only issue has been online overload. Having overdosed in the first month my head can hardly take them any more. I think at one point I did three in one day and it finished me. I should apologise here to all those I have stopped watching, or have turned down invitations from. It’s not you, it’s me, I promise.

Staying online, the company web site has proved so important. We’ve had a couple of mentions for web sites, obliquely, above, whether this being building one (or adding an online shop), or their resilience to increased orders. I must say that the importers and retailers with good web sites which are easy to use and have good functionality have been a joy to purchase from. The other side of the coin is that some people still seem to be existing with something put together by a mate in the 1990s. I’m not asking for feature films and fireworks, but when you can’t find a Beaujolais because it’s under Alsace, or when you click a link to merely find a message “page not found” it takes patience to keep shopping.

Some had to build a web site from scratch, and well done to those who succeeded (several people I’ve bought from had online shops up and running in a few weeks). But well done too to those whose web site may be simple, even a little dull, but nevertheless works, and allowed me to buy a mixed case of wine with minimum effort. One web site which is frankly pretty amazing was released right as the pandemic took off in the UK, Littlewine. Doing so was astonishing and I wish them every success for their brilliant educational content on low intervention wines and winemaking, and a well formed (little) online wine shop. It’s one of the real wine success stories to come out of this crisis.

Christina Rasmussen, one of Littlewine’s founding partners, says:

“Launching LITTLEWINE amidst a global pandemic was unexpected to say the least. The strangest part was not being able to sit next to my business partner, Daniela, to tackle late night upon late night together. WhatsApp and video calls are not the same, but we’re fortunate that technology made it possible for us to launch regardless. We’re ever so grateful for all of our early supporters and are over the moon to have been able to build a fledgling community. To speak to our customers digitally, and to hear about their love for the stories and wines on the site, is heartwarming and keeps pushing us forward on our mission: to introduce wine lovers around the world to the people behind the bottle.”

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As I write at my keyboard our world is changing. Restaurants reopened last week and it does look as if those who feel they are ready to go out have embraced the thrill of it. With reduced capacity I hope that makes up for the fact that many are still cautious. I did note on Twitter that one famous chef apparently had twenty-seven “no-shows” without cancellation at the weekend. This is often the real nail in the coffin for restaurant owners and I wonder whether we should be made to treat restaurants the same as we treat theatres or football matches…you pay up front and if you don’t go you take the hit yourself?

Hopefully with all the restaurants opening, that adds in another income stream for everyone up the chain. With summer here, it might spell a mini boom for the hospitality industry. The real tests may be yet to come. But in the meantime I know very well that there’s a large sigh of relief all round among everyone connected to the wine trade.

Time was/time is…and who knows what may be…

 

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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