Opinion: Et tu, Bouzy?

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

18 August 2016

Could we be witnessing the end of the British Wine Empire?

There have been two eyebrow-raising items of news from the wine trade in the space of a couple of days. Taken in isolation they mean a little. But taken together they might mean rather more.

First, that the Champagne Bureau is not running its generic tasting in London next year for the first time since 1994; second, that the Wine Institute of California is due to close its UK doors at the end of September.

Of these two stories, the latter is the more surprising to me.

I've argued for a long time that there are simply too many tastings in the UK – particularly in London. And champagne, in particular, seemed one of the a) less interesting and b) less essential ones.

The end of the California Wine Institute, however, is rather more surprising.

I don't know many sommeliers, for instance, who used the event rigorously to search for new names for their list, though there seemed to be no shortage of people who appeared out of the woodwork to get gently sozzled on glasses of 'poo.

It's not unreasonable to ask whether, if the tasting were biennial, and more focused on emerging trends, features and education, it would be both more stimulating and more useful.

That said, such musings are academic at the moment.

Thus far, while adamant that the tasting has been 'postponed' not 'cancelled', the Champagne Bureau has been coy about what it is planning to replace it with, which is somewhat surprising. To me, it would have made more sense to have a sexy alternative event or programme lined up before announcing the postponement of the usual strategy.

In any case, while there has been a certain amount of harrumphing in the trade, the end of a rather tired-looking tasting is not necessarily something to get over-exercised about, beyond the usual suspicion of change.

The end of the California Wine Institute, however, is rather more surprising. California, after all, has been doing pretty well here over the last few years. I was on a trip with John McLaren, the Institute's affable head, just over a year ago, and, in his quiet way, he was clearly hugely proud of what was being achieved in the UK market.

His official line was that it was 'better placed here than it has ever been before, and we expect further growth in 2016 and beyond'.

This is no mere marketing flim-flam either. There seems to have been a sea-change in the attitude of the restaurant trade, too. Even five years ago, 'expensive California' was (largely) big-fruited, high-pointed wines that were stocked through gritted teeth for the benefit of fat-walleted tourists.

But recently there's been a genuine appreciation of some of the more artistic wines coming out of the Golden State. It was backed up in this year's Sommelier Wine Awards, which saw a lot of good medals and (perhaps as significantly) a lot of positive feedback for California's wines as a whole.

The Sanford Pinot Noir, a £30 bottle of luscious yet poised Santa Rita Hills loveliness, even took one of the competition's top awards – Fine Red Wine of the Year  – which shows that the region is on the right track. An increased focus on restaurants and independent retailers saw sales by value up 28% last year.

Twenty years ago, every wine region wanted to have a generic office and an annual tasting in the UK.

Which is precisely why it's odd to pull the plug now. Indies and the on-trade are famously needy and demanding, and it will, needless to say, be harder to offer meaningful trade support without a central UK-based contact point.

Since overall exports of Californian wine hit an all-time record ($1.6bn) last year, we can assume that it's not purely a budgetary issue. Maybe it's a shifting of emphasis away from the UK and towards, say, continental Europe or the Far East.

Either way, it's discouraging.

Twenty years ago, every wine region wanted to have a generic office and an annual tasting in the UK. The disappearance of a heavyweight in each area in the space of a week contributes to a growing feeling that we may now be witnessing the early days of the decline of the British Wine Empire.

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