Sonoma charms the buyers

Vinexpo has developed a way to create a community of buyers. Robert Joseph went on tour with them.

Farm-to-table dinner in Somona
Farm-to-table dinner in Somona; Photos: Scott Hampton

These are increasingly competitive and challenging times for organisers of even the largest, most established wine fairs. New events are being launched across the globe at a bewildering rate. Those interested in buying or selling bulk wine, for example, now have to consider adding London and San Francisco to itineraries that might once have been limited to Amsterdam. Would-be exporters to China have at least a dozen fairs to choose from, including the China Food & Drinks Fair in Chengdu, ProWine in Shanghai, and the Vinexpo and HKTDC shows in Hong Kong. ProWein has recently expanded its reach to include Singapore, while Vinexpo has added Tokyo and New York shows to its portfolio and Vinitaly’s range of fairs includes both Moscow and St Petersburg.

In 2016, while the management team at Vinexpo considered where they might launch new exhibitions, Guillaume Deglise, the then CEO, came up with another idea. After decades of running the Bordeaux and Hong Kong events, the company clearly had what he called a “community of exhibitors”. What it lacked was a community of buyers. What if it were to create a number of such groups with clearly defined needs, and take them to regions that offer the kinds of wines they are looking to buy?

The new concept, which was branded Vinexpo Explorer, was launched in September 2017 when 90 professionals from 31 countries visited Vienna. This year, for the second event, it was Sonoma’s turn. 

Local knowledge

The choice of this Californian region owed much to the personal efforts of two senior people at Jackson Family Wines, one of the most successful wine producers in the US. It may not be entirely coincidental that Rick Tigner, the company CEO, is on the board of Vinexpo, while Caroline Shaw combines her role as Jackson Family Wines’ executive vice-president and chief marketing officer with those of president of the Sonoma County Vintners association and chair of WineAmerica, the national association of American wineries.

Shaw’s impressive CV includes handling communications for former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the Salt Lake City Olympics and the Utah Jazz basketball team, so she was quick to see the benefits of welcoming the Vinexpo Explorer group. “People across the world see TV reports and news stories about the devastation caused by the fires here last year, but few of them knew almost anything about our wines,” she said. Shaw attended the Austrian event and was impressed by the knowledge the visitors picked up of that country’s wines in a short visit and, more importantly, the number of deals that were done. “Trade fairs can be great, but this is so targeted,” she said. “We’re showcasing our region and our wines to people who are hungry to discover it.”

Another godparent of the Sonoma Explorer was Jean-Charles Boisset, whose collection of wine estates on both sides of the Atlantic includes DeLoach and Buena Vista in Sonoma, as well as Bouchard Aîné & Fils and Domaine de la Vougeraie in Burgundy. It was Boisset who welcomed the group to Buena Vista at the end of the first day, showing off the way he has transformed California’s oldest commercial winery into a compelling modern tourist destination, complete with a well-informed actor incarnating Count Agoston Haraszthy, its original founder, and a highly sophisticated interactive museum. “Yes, we want to sell wine, obviously,” he explained, “but we also want ambassadors.” Or, as Tigner put it: “We need storytellers; we need people to take our story back to their neighbourhoods.”

To convert almost six dozen independently minded wine buyers from 27 countries into storytelling ambassadors over the course of a couple of days took a lot of planning and organisation. Essentially, the aim was to combine education – in the form of sessions at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Sonoma and at the Wine Spectator Learning Centre at Sonoma State University – with extensive tastings at the hotel and a number of wineries. There was also a deal-making session where buyers could discuss business with producers and a couple of sumptuous dinners.

As Rodger Craig of Inflight Initiatives, a specialist wine supplier to airlines, said: “It’s remarkably full-on. There isn’t a minute when we’re not doing something, but it’s much more value than an exhibition, more controlled and with better use of time. There’s more interaction with people and a perfect environment to conduct business, which I am sure will happen.”

Among the discoveries Craig and the other visitors made, thanks to a presentation by Karissa Kruse of Sonoma County Winegrowers, was the speed at which the Sonoma producers have embraced sustainable viticulture. They were also struck by the variety and evolution of the region’s styles. For example, attendees who had dinner at Kosta Browne – a new Duckhorn acquisition – had the chance to taste how recent vintages of that winery’s Pinot Noirs are becoming less opulent in style. 

“Less opulent” is a relative term in California, however, as some of the group discovered during the big, four-hour, walk-around tasting, at which representatives of 60 wineries of various sizes and styles poured their wines. With few reds or whites weighing in at under 14%, visitors who tried to sample wines from every table admitted that, even with the most assiduous spitting, the accumulation of alcohol was a challenge.

Organisation on both sides

More organised buyers had evidently done their homework beforehand, deciding which producers would be most relevant to their needs, and heading directly towards them. Sarah Knowles MW, of the member-owned The Wine Society in the UK, knew she wanted to spend time discovering the Rhône-style, ultra-sustainable wines of Cline Cellars. “I’ve known them in the past,” she said, “and this is ideal timing to take a good look at what they’re doing now.”

Working in the price-conscious UK, where California wines have often been criticised for being too expensive, Knowles acknowledged that US buyers seem to be much readier to spend $30.00 or $40.00 or more on a bottle than their British counterparts. “Some of these wines would certainly be a hard sell by the time we’d get them into the UK, but our members trust us, and they will spend a little more for something interesting and different,” she said.

Spanish-born David Pedrol of the Chinese online distributor Winetobe was similarly confident of being able to find a home for some of the Sonoma Wines, as were Kevin Whelehan for Pieroth in Japan and Aishwarya Nair of Leela Hotels in India. “I’ve made lots of discoveries here,” she said, “and I can see a place for them on my lists.”

This clarity of approach was seen as an advantage of the event; there were no time wasters. “The buyers here have a pretty clear idea of the kinds of prices these wines cost before they left home,” said Vivien Gay, director of international sales at Silver Oak Cellars. “If they didn’t believe they can sell them in their markets, they wouldn’t have made the journey.”

The seriousness with which the producers took this encounter was clear from the number of winery owners who were there in the flesh to pour their wines during the harvest. Indeed, some European visitors expressed surprise that the Californians had even considered hosting this kind of event while grapes were being picked. “That would never happen in France,” one said. But the Sonoma producers exploited the positive aspects of the timing, inviting their guests to clip a few bunches during one vineyard visit, and encouraging them to help with the punching down of a vat of fermenting Pinot Noir.

Apart from activities like these, the visits were orchestrated to provide a variety of experiences, from hilltop views of Kunde vineyards to the rustic character of the Gallo-owned MacMurray Ranch and the Hollywood glitz of Coppola, where wine tourists can gawk at props from the owner’s movies before spending an hour or so beside the swimming pool. 

Over drinks at the end of the day, visitors from different countries compared what they had seen and tasted, sharing their very evident enthusiasm. 

Will it work elsewhere?

The final event brought together guests and winemakers at a long table set in the elegant kitchen garden of Kendall-Jackson estates, hosted by Barbara Banke, chairman of the company. The tone was perfect, combining some of the region’s top wines, including examples of Vérité in the presence of its French winemaker, Pierre Seillan, with a simple but delicious meal that was largely grown within a few metres of the table. A high standard was set in the hospitality the Californians showed their guests and the professionalism with which the event was run by Vinexpo’s sales and communications directors, Mathieu Vanhalst and Anne Cusson, and their team. Matching that standard will be a challenge for the next Explorer region which, it was announced, will be Beaujolais – a very different place to its predecessors but one that arguably is in the greatest need of ambassadors.

When he first met the visitors, Boisset told them: “We need purchase orders to survive, but also your enthusiasm and expertise.” Time will tell how many of those orders he and his neighbours will have received, and more importantly, how many long-lasting new relationships will have been formed. But listening to the attendees as they prepared to head back to their countries, there was absolutely no questioning their enthusiasm.

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