The People’s Choice Drinks Awards prides itself on thinking and acting differently. Particularly in how it uses every day drinkers, alongside professional industry judges to help pick out the winning brands. Helena Nicklin is one of those trade judges who is uniquely positioned in that she is writing about wines and spirits predominantly for consumers through her Three Drinkers collaboration on Amazon Prime and regular newspaper columns. Here she explains why she thinks the awards stand out and tells us about her own background in the drinks industry.
The People’s Choice Wine Awards is now going into its fourth year and is branching out with the first dedicated awards for spirits. The competition is counting down with entries open, for both wine and spirits, until October 31. It also includes bursaries for those wanting to enter the Bag in Box category. Here Helena Nicklin, who with The Three Drinkers, is involved in the judging and sponsorship of the Out of the Ordinary spirits category, explains why she is so keen to be involved in the overall People’s Choice Drinks Awards.
Why are you taking part and also sponsoring the People’s Choice Drinks Awards?
When I started out in the wine trade 16 years ago, I realised something was missing in terms of communication between the ‘experts’ with their often intimidating, technical publications and normal people that love wine and spirits and who would just like to know a bit more about them to make better choices. The People’s Choice Drinks Awards speaks to me because it’s about empowering the real wine and spirits drinkers of the country and actually asking them what they want and what they like.
It’s so easy to lose sight of this as trade professionals who have learned to love geeking out on small production, skin contact, orange wine from obscure places.
What makes the awards stand out as an event?
The PCDA stands out for its genuinely unpretentious and inclusive nature. From the lack of black tie at the awards events to the very fact that non professionals are invited to judge drinks that are in the market today. The awards break down the barriers that make people feel they can’t ask questions and positively encourages the exploration of wine and spirit styles that might be new to some.
What do you look for in quality when it comes to wine and spirits?
With all drinks, the main thing I look for is whether something is a delicious drink or not. If it is a delicious drink, the reason is usually because every element – alcohol, tannin, fruit, sugar – is in perfect balance. It should either be a fantastic example of its type or an intriguing new take for the price that is being charged. Good balance is key.
What wine and spirits trends stand out for you this year?
Lots. For wine, bag-in-box has been an out and out winner, thanks to a combination of lockdown habits changing and much better technology.
Premium rosé went through the roof this summer as people treated themselves to something more pricey when they couldn’t go out. Orange wine sales have boomed amongst a younger generation and I’m seeing less obvious grape varieties (usually white) such as Furmint and Fiano.
Other drinks-wise, non alcoholic spirits, drier dark rums and luxury tequila is on the rise. Also, a ton of bottled cocktail companies have sprung up. The home bar is a reality now.
Can you tell us your background and how you got into drinks writing?
I lived in Rome during the third year of my languages degree and discovered proper enotecas back before they existed in London. I had always loved the allure of the wine world but never knew where to start with it. Suddenly, here was a place offering wine flights simply by grape variety, which gave me the hook.
A few years later, while working in the buying team for a well known merchant, I found myself drawing pictures and telling stories to help me remember key facts about wine regions during my WSET diploma revision. At around the same time, I was asked to write a quick wine programme from scratch for the non winos in the office, which got me really thinking about how to communicate simply with those who wanted to learn, but did not necessarily need all the geeky details at first, like malolactic fermentation.
The positive feedback I got was overwhelming, so I left and set up my own wine tasting business while I taught myself how to write.
You are now one of The Three Drinkers – can you explain the concept behind that and how you came together?
The Three Drinkers was born from a frustration that most things we saw on TV around wine and spirits felt too niche, too serious or always had the drinks playing second fiddle to food. Our concept for the TV show was to bring new people into drink through travel, food and entertainment. We liked the fact that each of us would appeal to a slightly different audience: Aidy the curious, millennial and LGBTQ crowd; me for women in a male dominated space and Colin for the more traditional audience.
Aidy and I had been introduced to each other by Colin a couple of years before as we had similar, accessible ways of talking to normal consumers about wine. The three of us then became good friends.
Colin knew of my frustrations trying to get meetings with terrestrial TV so had the thought about branded content – and the contacts. We sat down over a dram or six in Milroys and decided to see if we were onto something with a show we made ourselves. Just nine months later, we had our own global TV series in 167 countries and 39 languages that we’d co-produced and raised all the funds for ourselves without having to give away any of the IP.
What is your approach to content and telling stories about drinks?
I start with paying close attention to who my audience is and how much they might know already so I can tailor content to them. It really changes a lot; sometimes it’s all about the best vintages in Bordeaux and other times, it’s a much broader, more light-hearted approach. I will often write for both The Sun and Luxurious Magazine on the same day, for example.
I try to tell a story with a theme that most humans will understand, then pepper it with analogies and strong, visual references that paint vivid and memorable pictures, rather than regurgitating dry facts. Even the more geeky stuff needs to have a light touch.
You are now on Amazon Prime – how does that work in terms of planning the shows and the content?
Aidy, Colin and I are involved from day one for our Amazon shows. We decide where we think we should go next and research the bejesus out of it to put a pitch together. Then we raise the funds, which is exhausting and time consuming, before sitting down with our director and producer to create the itinerary and find the story.
How can people watch the shows and do you have a new series coming up?
Parts one and two of our Scotland series ‘The Three Drinkers do Scotch Whisky’ are live on Amazon Prime, but we will soon also have some news about where else you can watch them. Series 1 of our Bring a Bottle Podcast is available on most podcast platforms with series two on its way too. With regards to a second Amazon series, we are deep in pre-production and will be able to spill the beans very soon.
How have you had to adapt during Covid-19 in terms of writing, filming, finding stories?
Like many others, we had to tweak our offering away from big plans that involve travel, to smaller things that can be created at home. It was a huge help that everyone was in the same boat, so we’ve been inundated with stories and offers of interesting new products to try. So, we wrote and wrote and created, keeping our names out there. We started a newsletter, did Instagram lives, threw our energies at the podcast and generally, made a huge effort to put out a load of editorial content that we hoped would lead to some more official paid work. Thankfully, the efforts are starting to pay off.
Where are you most looking forward to going to on a drinks trip when you can…and why?
I wrote a piece for Luxurious Magazine about the French concept of l’art-de vivre and it made me yearn for a certain place in Provence that feels like the antidote to all the anxieties surrounding Covid, Brexit, Trump and, of course, bullying in my own industry. Calming colours, incredible aromas, exciting French cuisine, fabulous wine, infinity pools… I want the lot.
- You can enter your wines and spirits into the People’s Choice Drinks Awards up to October 31. Here are the links and details for wine and spirits. The entry fee is £80 per product. Bursaries are still available for the Bag in Box category that reduces the price to £40. For more information contact competition founder Janet Harrison at firstname.lastname@example.org.