It’s quite an achievement to get a handful of buyers to give up their time to go on a two or three day wine trip, never mind bring close to 100 from all over the world to Vienna during the first couple of weeks in September when the world wakes up from its August holidays. Richard Siddle was on hand to experience the first Vinexpo Explorer which put Austria centre stage and brought producers and buyers together to taste, but most of all do business.
Austria was the host country for the inaugural Vinexpo Explorer event, designed to give busy international wine buyers the chance to discover what are still emerging global wine markets. With a mix of tastings, seminars, masterclasses, but most of all face to face, one to one business meetings to get Austrian wines on more lists around the world.
We are well versed in travelling around the world to attend international wine fairs. Events where they will proudly tell you how many of your international colleagues made the same trip and from how many countries. Usually totting up to a number to rival the United Nations.
Yet, other than the producers and buyers you have meetings with at the show, how often do you actually speak or spend time with any of your peers from another country? Particularly those from the other side of the world.
Well, things were very different at Vinexpo’s first Explorer event held this week in Vienna, Austria, in conjunction with Austrian Wine.
This was an event designed to get you out of your comfort zone.
For a start the whole premise of the Vinexpo Explorer concept is not to present a traditional wine fair, but to take top wine buyers to countries they are less likely to be familiar with. Not necessarily a new, emerging region – Austria after all has been making wine long before the Romans turned up – but to countries that have many stories to tell, but not always the opportunity to tell them.
The format for the new Explorer initiative also forces – in the nicest possible way – buyers to talk to and listen to local producers keen to show them their wines.
For Vinexpo’s chief executive, Guillaume Deglise, it is also about creating a new buyer “community”. One that hopefully can grow as buyers meet up again in different markets over a number of years. Sitting down to lunch or dinner was like being at the wine equivalent of the Olympics with an Icelandic buyer to one side of you and an Indian or Korean buyer to your right.
“Creating a community is a very important element of Vinexpo Explorer,” said Deglise. “We want to be able to come together to share experiences, create new contacts amongst buyers.” Who knows it might even lead to new job opportunities for the buyers present.
The buyers at the first event in Vienna included buyers from 31 countries including 46 from the Asian Pacific, 28 from Europe, 14 from North America and one from South America. It was not just buyers present either with some 22 company chief executives or presidents. All channels of the trade were represented with the bulk, 57 coming from importers or distributors, five sommeliers, seven specific retail buyers, and 10 across ecommerce channels.
As well as a standard tasting where the buyers get the chance to road test, if you like, the producers different wines, buyers can then set up private follow up meetings to talk to the wineries in more detail about the wines they have already tasted.
A bit like going out on a second date where you at least know there is a mutual interest in each other. Whether that blows up in to a full blown affair or productive partnership is another matter.
Vinexpo helps pull all the matchmaking together based on a questionnaire sent to buyers beforehand asking them what expectations and needs they have from the event.
As Guillaume Deglise, chief executive of Vinexpo, explained it is an opportunity for the buyers to set out what sort of price points they are looking for, the amount of volume they need to source and what sort of styles of wine they would like to buy. Vinexpo could then work with Austrian Wine to put the most likely producers and buyers together.
It meant that buyers and producers were guaranteed a minimum six standalone private meetings during the One2One session of the Explorer event, with some looking to have eight or more.
For the producers it provides a pretty unique concept, where not only do you have the top buyers from your target export countries coming to visit you in your own country, you can request a one to one sales meeting with them.
It was particularly refreshing to go to an event that puts commercial business first. Yes, buyers want the freedom to be able to taste on their own, with no external pressures, but they have also travelled from the other side of the world with a purpose. The desire to find out about different wines, with surely an intention to buy and source some for their lists back home.
Interestingly over a third of the buyers said they did not list any Austrian wines at all prior to making the trip. Hence a very clear reason for attending.
With the pressure on buyers increasing by the month, and with more channels, markets and ultimately consumers to feed, it is essential that businesses like Vinexpo find better, more effective ways to bring buyers, sellers and producers together.
For Deglise the Explorer concept is another example of how it wants to be seen as a “true partner” to the global wine industry and not just a wine exhibition organiser.
From where I was standing, tasting, talking and tweeting this week, the first event in Austria appeared to achieve all that it set out to do.
It first of all brought some 90 buyers from 30 countries to spend two to three days in Vienna exploring Austrian wine. “I would definitely do it again,” stressed Willi Klinger, managing director of Austrian Wine.
And, no doubt, would the 93 Austrian producers who had the chance to show previously elusive buyers their wines, Better still they had the opportunity to then sit down and understand how their wines might perform more profitably in markets as far afield as Brazil, San Francisco, Russian, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Korea and Japan.
Wines that potentially offer the winning combination of great quality and fine wines, but at very good value. Wines that Klinger at Austrian Wine, said offer “excellent” value at €3 to €5, “top quality” wines from €10 to €20 and “world class” wines above €30.
It was fascinating to listen to the debate between the buyers and producers about their respective expectations, depending on the needs of the market or channel they are buying for.
With an average bottle price of €3 Austria offers for some buyers outstanding value for money at around €2.50 upwards. Whilst others were looking for value at much lower than that.
What some Austrian producers saw as entry level, some buyers would regard as mid-priced.
There was also an interesting debate around screw cap and natural cork. Austrian producers were interested to know at which price points different buyers would want to see screw cap over natural wine. And vice versa.
Such was the multitude of answers it was clear to succeed in export you have to be as flexible and open minded as possible. Deliver what individual markets want, not what you want to do was a key message for the Austrian producers.
Only by having those nitty, gritty conversations can real business be done.
Line in the sand
Vinexpo Explorer certainly succeeded in drawing a new line in the sand. In just two days it brought a new, much needed concept to international wine buying.
As the dust settles on the inaugural event in Vienna, the attention now switches to Sonoma California and the host of next year’s Vinexpo Explorer, Sonoma County Vintners.
If you were not able to make it to Austria this week, then the lure of San Francisco, the Russian River and the Sonoma Coast is there to pull you to California in 2018.
Delgise said it was important for the ambition of the project to take it outside of Europe. “It is a way for us to show to the buyers that this is a serious thing, it is not a European initiative, it is a worldwide one – Vinexpo Explorer can go almost anywhere.”
For Sonoma the potential is clear. Rather than being just part of a large Californian stand at a global fair, Vinexpo Explorer literally brings powerful international buyers literally to your door. Who would not want to be part of that.
It is clearly early days for the Vinexpo Explorer initiative, and the real impact of the event will be seen in how many listings and sales Austrian wine can now get in new markets around the world. But you can see the bidding and the tendering for future Vinexpo Explorer events to become pretty intense and highly important for the countries involved. Standing out on the world stage is hard for any wine country to do, even the classic Old World regions, so initiatives like this that make the lives of buyers’ so much easier has to be applauded.
For, after all, the reason so many people find it so hard to leave the wine industry is that it is based on bringing producers and buyers together. To taste, discover, to do business, build relationships, friendships even. Vinexpo Explorer managed to achieve all that, and more, in 48 hours.