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Originally published in London Wine Fair's Grapevine: 050919

By Richard Siddle

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Forget natural or low intervention wines, what people want is 'cool booze'

Hang on, it sounds like you've been having far too good a summer. What do you mean?

Don't worry this is not a rant about legalising cannabis and opening up new pot bars everywhere. It's about how can wine become part of every day people's lives by being, well, “cooler” and certainly more fun (in a Portman Group-approving way). In the same way craft beer has taken over the “fun” part of going out for a beer with mates. With all its off-beat names, wacky designs, and cans that make you look so much “cooler” just by holding them. Wine by contrast, once it is in the glass, all looks just the same.

What do you want, more different colours of wine?

No, we're fine with white, red, rosé and fizzy. It's how relevant those different styles of wine are to people that really counts. What can we do to make them as cool as craft beer, or a super-stylish cocktail? For some, wine is already well on the road to discovery. All the coolest wine bars and restaurants are all focused on one thing. Low intervention wines. Be they natural, sulphur-free or biodynamic. They are just different. Wines with a purpose, a meaning, a reason to buy. But does it mean the people buying them are suddenly interested in how they are made? Did they want to know why the American Red IPA they have just finished tastes the way it does? Or did it just make them feel good, and look cool drinking it?

But surely people who buy natural wines are more interested in wine than those who just buy supermarket own label?

Let's ask Tim Wildman MW who first started making pet nat wines in Australia five years ago, when a bet ended up with him changing careers to be a full time winemaker. He's not on any road to wine Damascus, but wanted to make a style of wine he loves and get as many people as he can loving it too. He says the natural wine bar scene in Australia, particularly in parts of Melbourne and Sydney, has exploded not because there are thousands of wine geeks wanting to worship the lack of sulphur. They just want to hang out in hip and happening places and, as he says, “drink cool booze”.

That does sound like fun. So how's he doing?

Well, he can claim to be the UK's biggest importer of Australian pet nat wines and was one of the first producers in Australia. Where he has really cut through is with the names of his wines. Astro Bunny and Heavy Pétting. Wines that sound more like craft beers than craft wine. “I wanted names that you don't need to know about wine to enjoy, that sum up what it's like to taste them,” he says. “All it says on the label is Astro Bunny and pet nat. Most wine names are all looking backwards to how the wine was made and where it comes from. Look at craft beer with all its sour beers and harsher flavours. It's great for people who want to enjoy themselves when they are out and that's where I come from.”

How can the mainstream wine market become “cool booze”?

If you spend too much time on Twitter then chances are you will come across the regular debates that US wine digital expert, Paul Mabray (@pmabray), of Emetry is having. He's usually trying to convince those from the more purist side of the wine trade to wake up to the power of online, digital and appealing direct to consumers. The conversation normally falls at the first hurdle when “wine twitter” believes the key to winning over new consumers is all about telling the story of wine, about how, where and why a particular wine has been made. Mabray disagrees. Everyday, non-engaged wine drinkers are not interested in any of that. They just “don't care as much as we want them to,” he says. Instead we need to invest our time and imagination into making wine content and marketing that is relevant, personal and yes, “cool”, to the people we want to buy it. “We live in the experience economy,” adds Mabray. “We all love experiences. They are our ‘like' dollars.”

Yes, but we are not selling the latest hip line of trainers here. This is wine. It needs to be shown some respect?

It does, but it also most definitely doesn't if we want to get more young people into drinking wine. We have all seen the demographics that show those who are just coming into drinking age, don't see wine as cool. Older millennials are not making the switch to wine either, lured over to more premium, exotic spirits, cocktails and, yes, craft beers. We can't just rely on the 40 year+ age groups to keep the wine market going. For even the middle-aged want to be seen as cool, too.

Speak for yourself. But how does all this talk turn wine into “cool booze”?

It's already happening. It just depends on your definition of “cool”. It does not need to be all about natural wines starting at £10 a glass. Look at Treasury Wine Estates' 19 Crimes. It's not about the wine. It's about the label, the experience of seeing it come alive on your smartphone. Californian winemaker, Orin Swift, might make very good quality wines, but the reason E&J Gallo spent millions of dollars acquiring his brands is they have cult, almost Tarantino-esque appeal. Wines that are more about what they look like, the iconographic labels and how it makes people feel buying them. It's just the same for those who only drink fine Bordeaux clarets. Do they know or care how the wine was made? It's the name on the label that makes them feel good. Just like those in a nightclub splashing out on Armand de Brignac, or staying at home with friends enjoying Whispering Angel, or an episode of Killing Eve with I Heart Prosecco. When it comes to “cool booze” it's all about finding the drink that makes you happy, makes you feel comfortable and relaxed. A drink you can have some fun with too. Simple as that.