While New Zealand wine has always been innovative, it appears New Zealand consumers are also.
So begged Robert Joseph to wine producers, who are moving down the diversification road with Sauvignon Blanc. The former wine writer, turned wine producer (in France), said diversification is all well and good, but if a consumer doesn't understand what you are doing, the end result could see an alienation for your product.
In an unusual metaphor, he likened wine to pizza margarita. No matter where in the world someone orders such a pizza, they know it will basically be the same. He warned producers to think about that. If you are delivering a different style of Sauvignon Blanc, make sure the consumer knows it is different.
"Don't just say hey let's screw with their head by giving them a funky wine, or a sweet or maybe oaky wine, because the consumer doesn't enjoy that any more than we enjoy finding our pizza margarita has suddenly got pineapple on it."
While he acknowledged that change is good, change for changes sake is not.
He even went so far as to say "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater". Don't let the influencers push you into doing something that they might like, but the consumer may not.
Using the analogy of the Rolling Stones who have been performing to full stadiums for more than 40 years, Joseph said there hasn't been a lot of reinvention going on with them. Why would they? They are successful at what they do, and audiences turn up to hear what they know.
Wine too should be like that.
"I think the danger in wine is the opinion formers get bored. The sommeliers get bored and the winemakers get bored. But actually if you go down to some of the great Chateaux of France they have been making wine for many years and they don't stray very far. They tweak but they don't necessarily radically change. There is a danger in radically changing and expecting the consumer to understand what you are doing."
Joseph backed his statement up with the example of Australian Chardonnay, when producers moved from a big, oaky style to a more lean Chablis style.
"Well the people who didn't like the oaky, fruity Chardonnay aren't going to buy the new stuff, because they don't know it's there. And the people who did like the old stuff are confused by the new stuff and so on."
Remember also that consumers who have been buying Sauvignon Blanc for a number of years are not going to automatically understand a new style, especially if there is no heads-up on the label. Never forget that consumers don't think about wine the way writers or winemakers do.
"Wine is a tiny little corner of their mind. They are thinking about other stuff. When they do think about Sauvignon Blanc, they are not thinking about barrel fermented, minerals and wild yeast. They are thinking about brands and price points."
Given the diversity available to Sauvignon Blanc, he said winemakers need to ensure they make it clear what style the wine is, by defining it on the label.
"Yes please do try and do different things, but signal that to consumers, that this is a new direction. Don't expect them to follow you on your off-piste and know what you are doing."
He warned that too many producers believed because they were hand selling their wine, the necessity for label explanation wasn't important.
"But the thing the wine industry is not very good at understanding is what I call the journey of the bottle. We forget that people take bottles to their friends and then the friend puts it in the rack and takes it sometime later to another friend. Any message that was given to the first person has fallen off. The one opportunity you have is your label, your packaging. So for goodness sake use it. If you have a story to tell, don't presume the consumer is going to come to your website and look it up."
Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc
Joseph was also adamant that New Zealanders are missing a major opportunity by not capitalizing on the growing trend for light sparkling wines – in particular Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc. It frustrates him he said, that people tend to turn their noses up despite the fact that consumers love it.
"At the recent New Zealand tastings in London, consumers were relishing the Sparkling Sauvignon. But the UK wine trade didn't want anything to do with it. And many people pouring the wine also didn't want anything to do with it."
He puts the reticence down to the fact that Sparkling Sauvignon is not seen as a "serious" wine.
"Winemakers and informers, not always but often, stand back from it because it is not a serious wine. It is not aged, it's not mature. But that's a bit like saying; 'I don't want to drive a hatchback or I don't like soap operas.' It's very divisive and it's very commercially dangerous because you are separating yourself from your consumer."
He suggests that wine writers and makers should take a look at local cafes and bars and note what people are drinking.
"Then they need to ask themselves, why don't I want to give them what they want to enjoy. And secondly, why do I give them what they enjoy through gritted teeth?
"Some of the people I know who do not want to offer crowd pleasing wines are very happy to go and watch crowd pleasing movies. They watch crowd pleasing TV series and they read crowd pleasing novels. What's the difference?"