I just got back from this year's Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, North America's largest industry expo and trade show. I have been going for a few years now, and I always come home feeling energized and excited about the industry I have been a part of for nearly twenty years.
However, this year, I left feeling a little bit, well, sad.
It may have been the fact that the temporary relocation of the event to Cal Expo -- presumably an amazing place during the California State Fair, for which the venue is intended, but not ideal for this particular event -- made this year's Symposium feel disjointed and cold (literally and figuratively). Sessions were sparsely attended and, at least for me, the magical sense of community I normally feel at this event just wasn't there. This was perhaps a result of the sheer magnitude of Cal Expo -- walking between sessions felt like trekking across a massive college campus to your next class. But I'm worried it was also because of something else... something that I'm hoping to put into words here...
I left last year's Symposium worried for our industry, but also excited about the opportunities ahead. I reported on my key learning (singular) last year with a simple warning: Adapt or die.
There felt like the beginnings of some momentum. Many nodded their virtual heads in agreement. The mirror was held up to us during the many 2019 breakout sessions and keynote addresses. We observed, took note, welcomed advice. We had our marching orders and were sent away to execute.
And yet we didn't.
This year, more than once, I found myself swearing I had seen that exact same presentation slide last year. The one about millennials being important, and the wine industry needing to figure out how to communicate with and to them. The one about alcoholic beverages moving into new occasions and how we need to meet consumers where they are -- movie theaters, axe throwing, the beach... The one about new packaging. The one about how important experiences are. The one about the next creeping competitor -- last year it was cannabis; this year it was White Claw. We heard again this year about transparency and authenticity and labeling. About how critical it is that we figure out how to deliver better, faster and more engaging direct-to-consumer capabilities. It's not that we aren't doing any of it. It's that this should all by now be automatic to us as an industry keeping up, not revelations worth re-reporting.
While I was delighted that a few speakers dug deeper on themes of health and wellness, and urged our industry to take wine back as the original natural beverage -- a brilliant take on and response to the unnerving sober curious movement -- and an emphasis on using the data that is already there for us to do better, smarter, more consumer-focused business, there was little else that felt new. Perhaps I was being naive, but I truly believed after last year's wake-up call that we would have all been spending this Symposium celebrating the incredible moves we had made in 2019. How we had started to take some steps to move back into a leadership position in the world of alcoholic beverages. Created our own White Claw juggernaut.
Instead, it always feels like we are playing catch-up. Defense. Reacting to the industry and competitive sectors, but no longer setting the standard ourselves. Since we grabbed onto the French Paradox all those years ago and ran with it, we have languished. And that paradox can no longer carry us alone.
I don't blame any of the speakers or panelists. The sessions I sat in on were polished, well-presented and engaging, and I left with plenty of ideas and inspiration. I blame us collectively -- myself included -- for going home last year and falling back into the predictability of business as usual, and for maybe being tempted to do so again this year. There are some out there setting the pace and pushing the boundaries of what this industry is capable of. But there are too many of us waiting for others to take the lead, hoping we can get on the bandwagon when the time feels safer to do so.
As a PR professional, a marketer, and a writer in this industry, I pitch and engage with hundreds of stakeholders at various levels all year. I had the immense joy of creating a few "transformational" proposals for new business to potential clients this past year -- clients who were specifically looking for something out of the box -- all of which were, sadly, turned down. "We're just not ready... maybe in 2021," I heard. Perhaps I'm not the one to execute on these wild concepts. But it seems like no one else is either. Instead, the majority of us stay where we are comfortable -- with our vineyard shots, and our yawn-inducing tasting notes, and our walk-around wine events. Again, we are talking to one another, instead of the world of consumers out there that we need to either win over, or keep in our corner.
And so I am putting this out there to all of you wine misfits and visionaries: If you want to do something different, let's talk. This isn't a business pitch; it's a plea to collectively think outside the box. Get uncomfortable. Take some risks. Solve some problems. No one individual or brand can do it alone, but I suspect a few of us can make a dent. Let's sit with a glass of wine and figure out how we can spend next year's Symposium celebrating the great comeback story of the wine industry.
Devin Parr writes about wine -- drinking it, making it, life with it, traveling for it and the business of it. She also dabbles a bit in careers and parenting.