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.
I drink every day. Almost without exception.
It is part of my daily ritual... in some ways part of my identity. And it brings me great pleasure.
At the end of the day, when I close my laptop, I love to open a bottle of something white and crisp. I turn on music, cook dinner, watch my kids play (or fight), and take in the life I have built. Sometimes these reflections are joyful. Sometimes they are frustrated and tired. Either way, I view this moment in my day as a great one.
When I serve dinner, I tend to pour myself and my husband something red. I often sip this throughout the night, sometimes even taking the last few mouthfuls to bed with me as I watch a favorite show or finish up work or mindlessly scroll through my phone, enjoying those few moments to myself.
A lunch or dinner among friends without wine seems like a missed opportunity to me. Not to catch a buzz, but to go back in time, connect with the land, and experience multi-sensory pleasure. Wine is a fantastic accompaniment to food, a wonderful social lubricant, and a small mechanism for making an ordinary moment feel extraordinary. Is it the only way? Of course not. But it's a nice way, an age-old way, and that way is currently taking a beating.
And, for the first time, writing this down suddenly feels like a guilty confession. I am actually bracing for an onslaught of negative commentary after hitting "publish" on this one.
As the ubiquitous and well-intended "Dry January" -- something in which I have never participated -- comes to a close, and I take stock of all the pro/con articles about it out there, as well as the informal documentation on social media from those on the wagon for the past near 31 days, I find myself feeling protective of my beloved drink. My wine. My industry.
I find myself asking... when did this happen? When did everything change? When did behaviors on the extreme ends of consumption start to determine the go-forward plan for everyone?
“We’re putting an ingredients label on our packaging,” the full-page ad in a Sunday edition of the LA Times reads. “Because it’s the right thing to do. Because you deserve to know your beer’s ingredients.”
It’s an ad for Bud Light. Not a small-production craft beer, which one might expect to tout this sort of credential. But for “America’s favorite light lager,” the stuff of college parties and tailgating. The beer giant also put out a press release announcing the move. In the months following, a heated debate about what should and shouldn't be included in the labels of our favorite adult beverages has been brewing (pardon the pun).
Ingredients labeling has become the norm in the food industry because it’s required by the FDA. However, to date, the adult beverage industry does not require ingredients to be listed or nutritional information outlined on labels unless a specific health claim is being made such as “low carb” or “low calorie.” In fact, current law allows for a laundry list of additives -- some of which sound, well, distinctly chemical, that can be used but don't need to be included on the label. While we are seeing the occasional brand volunteer these details, there are no current regulations requiring alcohol brands to go beyond the basics on their labels.
This includes the wine industry.
It’s one thing to list “water, barley, rice, hops,” on your packaging in the name of transparency, as Bud Light has now promised to do. But what if your ingredients include things that are barely pronounceable, even if they are essential parts of the winemaking process and totally natural? As consumers increasingly demand not only transparency, but food made from ingredients that don’t look like they belong in a lab, how does the wine industry stand to fare?
The issue is clearly a sensitive one.
My Top 1 Takeaway from This Year's Unified Wine & Grape Symposium... Because There Only is 1 and it's BIG
Another Unified Wine & Grape Symposium under the belt. The conference -- which attracts 14,000 attendees each year making it among the largest trade shows in North America -- had a different feel to it this year. It wasn't that the programming varied much. The sessions on winemaking and business and marketing were all there, as were the giant expo and the keynote addresses. But, I'd be lying if I said there wasn't an ominous element of -- dare I say it? -- foreboding that served as a backdrop for what normally feels like an upbeat gathering?
Around this time, I usually try to do a round-up of key trends and interesting insights that cropped up throughout the three-day event. In fact, this article actually started out as a Top 5 Takeaway piece. But this year, so much of it felt like noise distracting me from the one point that rang through like a gunshot in a crowded space.
Adapt or die.
That’s it, folks. And here’s why:
Attention to detail. As a business owner — especially in the hospitality space — this should be a huge priority. How many of you can truly say you’re paying attention?
There are nearly 10,000 wineries in the United States, most of which have tasting rooms or offer some sort of consumer experience. In an industry that can at times feel constrained by tradition and etiquette and a constant undercurrent of judgement, it may seem hard for a winery to break out of the mold and explore new ways to engage with their customers. What does it take to stand out? I visit countless tasting rooms a year. Here are some interesting moves I’ve come across in my travels that have made my visit truly memorable.
I’m about to say something that could make me very unpopular among my colleagues.
Do we really need to drink so much in this drinks business?
Hear me out. Ask anyone who knows me how I feel about the consumption of alcohol — specifically wine — and they will likely describe me as an enthusiastic imbiber. No matter the time of day, I rarely turn down a tipple. In fact, I often can’t remember the last time I literally had ZERO alcohol in my day. My evenings and sometimes days include wine, as I do firmly believe in wine’s rightful place during a meal…and while preparing said meal… and of course while patting one’s full belly while reclining on the couch after said meal…and…and…
But, the more I have been thinking about the balance between the industry I am so passionate about — wine — and my other area of interest — wellness — I find myself wondering what responsibility we have as wine (or beer, or spirits) professionals to drink better.
What do I mean by this?
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.