Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Guy Woodward: Back in the drinks world

Published:  02 April, 2020

With perfect timing, I start a new job this week. Yep – all the boxes are ticked: world in lockdown, nose-diving economy, stalled investments, uncertain future.

The good news – or at least I hope you’ll think so – is that I’m moving back into the world of wine and spirits. I’m leaving Harrods to join the IWSC, and its media start-up Club Oenologique, as content director. But why, I hear you ask, abandon the security of a globally recognised, broadly spread market leader for the vagaries of a small, privately owned player in a niche sector?

Well, it’s true that Harrods, where I’ve spent the past six years editing across its various media arms, is a jaw-dropping place. There is imagination and expertise within the most celebrated brands of certain sectors that is truly mind-blowing. But when you find yourself massaging copy to promote a £30,000 Swarovski-encrusted children’s car, you know it’s time to have a word with yourself.

Harrods’ biggest driver is fashion, which, in its self-absorption and fantasy, is everything you’d expect. There are some hugely talented people in the industry (most notably in marketing, where brands exude a confidence from which the wine and spirits world could benefit). But for a field that trumpets its free-spirit, it’s all so uptight.

Try getting an interview with the creative director of one of the big houses. If they deign to talk, it will likely be via email, with questions vetted, answers manipulated and copy approval demanded, all for some inane blather about muses, how they’ve been inspired by their grandmother, and why purple is going to be really big this season (but, of course, will be totally de trop six months later). Provenance, craftsmanship, rarity, longevity? Forget it.

No faking

Now compare that to wine and spirits. You can’t fake it in this world. Man is obliged to work in harmony with what nature gives him; witness the patience, time and skill of whisky’s master distillers; the high-wire act involved in the production of, say, Sauternes. And then think about the openness of the people behind such creations.

Not long ago, I visited the LVMH-owned, premier cru supérieur Château d’Yquem to interview its chief executive Pierre Lurton. Did I have to submit my questions in advance, or avoid certain topics? No, I simply turned up and we chatted about production, prices and his new Brazilian girlfriend.

There is plenty our trade could learn from fashion, not least in terms of consumer accessibility and aspiration. But not at the expense of authenticity, integrity and the pure joy of sharing a bottle.

Like many of us, I’ve spent the last few days topping up my wine collection for the weeks – and let’s hope it is only weeks – of confinement ahead. The wealth of choice at the £12-£20 level (my sweet spot for everyday bottles) is matched only by the commitment of resourceful merchants to serve the growing demand with speed and efficiency, but in a responsible, compassionate way.

Or sometimes not to serve it. As I write, The Wine Society has just announced that in order to safeguard its staff it won’t be fulfilling the huge demand, putting its employees before profit. Above this notification in my inbox is an email from Vivienne Westwood touting its spring/summer corset collection.

At times like this, it’s heartening to work in an industry that exudes such humanity – and that can share that same quality with consumers.

It is not for nothing that merchants are experiencing unprecedented demand. In hard times, there is something unifying about sharing a bottle with those you love.

Alongside such conviviality and warmth, there is a truth and a purity to our world that is hard to find in other fields. We’re going to need that spirit more than ever in the months ahead. But do you know what? It feels great to be back.