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Jerry Lockspieser: looking in the rear view mirror at 30 years in wine (part 1)

Published:  30 June, 2020

In part one of Jerry Lockspieser’s latest two-part column, our ever-insightful columnist looks at how the ‘world outside wine’ has changed and the ramifications this has had over time on the business of wine.

As countries across the western world declare their Covid peak has passed, lockdown measures ease and thoughts turn to what happens next. Fears of a second wave are tempered by a desire to kick start businesses. Despite the lifting of restrictions, anxiety about possible infection will deter some from returning to restaurants, pubs, cinemas, and gyms. All commentators see dire economic times ahead.

The broad economic debate is around two themes. How to minimise the scale of the fall, and within it how to mitigate the potential collapse of entire sectors, including our own concern for hospitality. And in contrast, the opportunity the crisis has thrown up to do things differently, to build a new economic and social future. If the walls have been torn down, the visionaries say, we do not have to build them back in the same way. Indeed, it may not be possible to do so. The World Economic Forum recently wrote:

“Now and in the future, successful businesses will be those that meet the needs of as many people as possible, utilize as few resources as possible and engage and are responsive to as many stakeholders as possible. This is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do. Business simply cannot thrive in a world of poverty, inequality, unrest and environmental stress.”

As we look forward to the kind of future we will choose, and what it may mean for our wine businesses, I have an urge to look back. The future is forever fashioned by the past, and while Covid has introduced a seismic shock to almost every aspect of life, it has not obliterated it, nor removed its history.

2020 marks 30 years since I launched Bottle Green, a UK-based wine importer focused primarily on the multiple sector. We began life by supplying a wide range of European organic wines, alongside a batch of competitively priced Hungarians made by a young Australian winemaker. It was not by chance that organics and new wave Hungary were mainstays of our business in the early 1990s. History created the context that gave us the opportunity. I wondered, just how much has changed since those days?

The World Outside Wine

These are some of the key societal factors that have most impacted my business world over the last 30 years: 

Communications Technology

Only a few years before launching Bottle Green in 1990 we bought a fax machine for our wholesaling business, Vinceremos Wines. This was a major event, not only because it cost a staggering £1,500 (about £3,400 today), but because it meant we could send orders to Zimbabwe without having to cycle down the road to the Travel Agent and pay them a quid to send a telex. Only to ride back again when they phoned to tell us a reply had arrived.

Fax began to wane with the mass use of email in the latter part of the 1990s, quickly followed by a huge rise in mobile phone ownership around the turn of the millennium, with the era-defining launch of the iPhone in 2007 and the widespread use of smart phones from around 2012.

That is a lot of communications change in a very short period, change that had a profound effect on how business was done. The internet and smart devices are now so much part of our daily life it feels almost quaint to recall a pre-digital era. For younger people, there has never been one. Now we have Zoom too. The speed, frequency, reach, convenience, and depth of knowledge enabled by the communications revolution would leave the 1990 wine trader gasping.

Air Travel

A Covid casualty whose future remains in the balance, favourable changes in the cost, frequency and speed of air travel transformed business rhythms in this period. In the early 1990s I visited suppliers in the south of France for stints of two to three weeks at a time, never mind extended trips to Australia. By the turn of the millennium I took a supermarket buyer to Australia for a single three-hour meeting on the Murray River then flew straight back to the UK.


Today everyone speaks English. Barriers have been removed for us Brits, simultaneously reinforcing our linguistic de-skilling. Back in the day I was forced to learn French on my extended trips to visit organic wine suppliers, or face starvation. In the early 1990s a young trainee buyer at Sainsbury’s told me he was put into the wine buying department because he was a language graduate.


I got on my bike to Telex orders to Zimbabwe during the boycott of South African wines under Apartheid. Zimbabwe was considered a place of hope at the time. We did a steady trade in bartering containers of wine against higher value containers of whisky while their better-known neighbours were out of bounds.

The collapse of Eastern European Communism between 1989-1991, the ending of Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile in 1990, and the eventual fall of Apartheid in 1994 all had a major effect on opening crucial wine supply bases previously beyond the pale. The Hungarian wines on which I built my new business were a direct result. Economics soon followed. Capitalism now rules the world, albeit in different hues. In 2013 China passed the US to become the world’s largest trading nation, a sure signpost to the future.

And now Brexit. Almost forgotten under the maelstrom of Covid news, this most fundamental expression of the national will means the next 30 years will start on a totally different trading platform to the last.

Next week in the second part of his column Jerry Lockspieser looks at the far-reaching changes in the ‘world within wine’ over the past 30 years.

Jerry Lockspeiser donates his fee for this column to ActionAid, an international charity that works with women and girls living in poverty around the world.