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Jefford on Monday: Greening the Wasteland

I have mixed feelings about social media. I remember watching a young Asian couple, out to dinner together in a top London restaurant a month or two ago. Except they weren’t together: they photographed the dishes and the wine bottle on their phones, and then spent the rest of the evening tweeting, texting and posting, with barely a word exchanged.

Two or three times in the last month or two, I’ve sat in meetings with four or five other people and felt aimlessly alone, as the others all tapped away. During the Decanter World Wine Awards, I watched the standard of tasters’ work visibly decline in direct proportion to the amount of time they spent on Blackberries and iPhones, and am actively campaigning for the installation of ‘device bins’ for future years into which all devices have to be deposited for the duration of each session. This stuff is addictive. Addicts wander off into a wasteland of entropy. In a quest to be present everywhere, they end in permanent exile — from their own lives.

It’s all a bit like wine. Excess is catastrophic…but, yes, moderate consumption is evidently beneficial. I spent a device-free evening in Melbourne recently with a Yarra Valley winemaker called Caroline Mooney, who told me (among other things) about her own experience of the UK retailer Naked Wines. It cast a new light on how social media is changing trade, and probably for the better.

It all began with a tweet (social media greatly magnifies the role of chance in life). The tweeter was Tim Atkin MW, who tried one of Caroline’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ wines after judging at the Melbourne show, liked it, and wondered why he couldn’t buy it in the UK. Naked Wines’ Rowan Gormley then contacted Caroline with requests to ship some of her wines, and offers to help invest in her production. It sounded distant and dodgy, and she wasn’t keen. “I think there were about eight in-depth emails and two phone calls before I shrugged my shoulders and said ‘OK, I’ll give it a go.’” Her Marsanne, Chardonnay and Syrah headed north.

Once a winemaker appears on the Naked Wines website as a ‘profile’, customers start to contact him or her directly and comment about the wines in that uniquely uninhibited way which clattering a keyboard (or sitting in a car) seems to encourage. “Very very disappointing,” wrote John about Caroline’s 2010 Marsanne (he’d bought two bottles). “For the money I was hoping for a wow (even a small wow) but this is just a nothing-special wine … bollocks, looks like £44 wasted!” Derek tersely declared it “faulty”. Happily, their opinions weren’t universal. “Stunning,” said Andrew (no relation, though for what it’s worth I think that this is one of the best Marsanne wines in Australia). And almost everything in between: anyone who thinks that taste can ever be universal need only spend a little time looking at Naked Wines feedback lists to behold the error in their assumption.

The feedback, says Caroline, “was a bit of a shock, but a good one. There’s little point in being involved in this kind of business model unless you’re going to throw yourself into the communication side of things.” She replied to the comments; she came to the UK; she even tutored tastings in customers’ homes. (You don’t get this from Tesco or Asda.) In return, they stumped up for her wines in advance, enabling her to buy not that bag she had always wanted, but that bag press (a Puleo HL36, to be exact). “I love the feedback from customers. I like them to feel as if they have had a part to play in the steady growth of the business – because they have.”

One of the reasons she was reluctant to get involved initially with a mail-order retailer 17,000 km north in Norwich, Norfolk was that she believes in local sourcing and strong links between producers and suppliers. To her surprise, though, this exercise seemed to translate ‘local’ to ‘global’. “It’s so easy to be disconnected from the source of our food and the people who grow or make it. This thing at least gives us direct access to our customers so we can openly talk about winemaking, the seasons and how things are going, and they in turn get an idea of how being a farmer or winemaker works.”

The involvement and intimacy of the Naked Wines shopping experience won’t be for everyone, of course, and the level of discount on offer to regular buyers (those ‘angels’ agreeing to spend £20 a month) suggests that the company’s basic mark-ups are as adventurous as the business model itself. All that emphasis on winemakers tends to underplay the role of terroir and place (about which Caroline, Yarra-born and bred, cares a lot). I still think it’s an exciting initiative, though. I just hope that the customers whose homes Caroline visited to give her tastings didn’t spend the whole evening tweeting, texting and posting.               


Written by Andrew Jefford

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