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Can VinExpo Keep Pace?
By Jim Clarke
Jul 7, 2015
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What wine fan wouldn’t want to visit Bordeaux?  But would you go there to taste wines from Georgia?  Or Napa?  Or (perhaps strangest of all) Burgundy?  But that’s exactly what happens at VinExpo, the world’s longest running international wine trade fair, attended this year by almost 50,000 people.  Taking place in Bordeaux every two years in June (and alternate years in Hong Kong), this year’s expo was the first under a new management team.  For a little inside baseball, here’s a look at what the show--and the show’s attendees--seemed to think was important this year.

America!  For the first time, VinExpo featured a guest region, and the good ol’ USA was the lucky benefactor, in principle, at least.  However, while a few producers did seem to enjoy some special attention--in particular those under the Napa Valley Vinters group, who had a strong presence--it was really more about focusing on the U.S. as a market, not as a wine producer.

The fact that as of 2013 we became the world’s largest total consumer of wine, despite a low per-capita rate of consumption that promises room for plenty of growth, means the eyes of the world are upon us.  And really, if you’re going to pick a major wine-producing country to export to, the U.S. would be the one.  In Bordeaux and many other wine-producing areas you’re lucky to find wines from other parts of France in a local shop, never mind wines from abroad, but American retailers and restaurants are notably broad-minded in this regard.  While the majority of wine consumed in the U.S. is domestic, 30-35% of our consumption is imports (compared to single-digit numbers most everywhere else).

A seminar on the U.S. market was well-attended, as was another projecting the U.S.  and Chinese markets against each other into 2025.  The former was notable for what it didn’t talk about:  Wine styles, varieties, or really, quality.  Rightly or wrongly, quality was taken for granted, an assumption belied by some of the tasting I did at the stands of would be emerging nations in, for example, South America.  So much of the talk was about packaging and marketing; more could be made of benchmarking one’s wines against similar wines sold at the price point one expects to compete at, a problem I’ve seen with many would-be imports (and even domestic wines from lesser-known regions).

Quality, packaging, marketing--these are fairly universal concerns.  The fundamental challenge and difference for the U.S. market was addressed (or glossed over?) in the seminar via a fast-paced animated video.  The U.S. functions as 50 different markets--the legacy of Prohibition; that division and its effects are what producers eager to sell wine in the U.S. need to understand.  The message of the video: “It’s complicated.”

The seminar also revealed something about who comes to VinExpo:  Big companies.  The panelists themselves represented major players--importers, distributors, retail chains, and a restaurant chain.  If their audience were producers of the same sort, it was probably a good match.  Given the expense involved in attending VinExpo, perhaps they were, but there were many exhibitors, typically at stands funded by regional generic groups (“Wines of [your country here]”), from smaller, more boutique companies.  While I’ve seen firsthand that many producers do suffer by signing on with under-capitalized, poorly connected importers, I’ve also seen what a small or medium-sized producer can do in partnership with likeminded, similarly-sized companies.  It would be a shame if some smaller, quality producers from France, Austria, or anywhere weren’t reaching the U.S. because they were holding out for one of the big boys to take them on.

Another surprise, until one considers the costs of exhibiting at VinExpo, is the large presence of spirits companies--30% of the stands were promoting distillates rather than “Vin.”  This represents the fact that spirits companies almost always operate with bigger margins than wineries, so they have commensurately bigger marketing budgets.  What was exciting to see was that just as regions banded together to give space to small producers, DISCUS (the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.) did the same for our booming crop of craft distillers, and similar opportunities to check out the craft spirits from Britain, France and elsewhere existed.  A bar area called “Spiritual” also tipped a hat to the cocktail scene by hosting mixologists working with the various spirits that were on display at the event.

If giving cocktails a place to play isn’t a big enough sign of change in a country with such a charged wine culture, how about a food truck?  While much of the evening activity at VinExpo is focused on events at Bordeaux’s many Chateaux, food at the event itself has often been considered a bit lacking in the past.  In an attempt to break free of the rather staid Bordeaux image, VinExpo not only gave cuisines from around the world a chance to strut their stuff; it also allowed visitors to sample French food truck culture (yes, there is such a thing), ordering oysters or even a burger (with foie gras, if you like).  The former were delicious; the latter shouldn’t get Danny Meyer and his Shake Shack investors too worried.

Many of these changes may seem somewhat superficial; the question is how much business is really being done.  Industry consensus seems to have been favoring Prowein, a trade fair held in Düsseldorf each year, as the place to get things done.  VinExpo Bordeaux is one thing, and the Hong Kong event seems to tap different markets and be much more regional rather than worldwide in its reach.  Despite the changes, the question remains:  Can this effectively biannual fair keep up with the pace of change in today’s wine industry?