Way back in March 2012, I wrote a post called “Last Chance to Save the London International Wine Fair“. It was one of the most widely read and discussed pieces I penned at the time and elicited a wide range of mostly positive responses. Among these, incidentally, was one from Catherine Monahan that questioned why there were not more events at the show, and led directly to the launch of the first WineStars at that year’s LIWF. But that’s beside the point of this post.
The 2012 show was not a vibrant success, and the following year’s event – the last to bear the word ‘International’ in its name – was a sorry affair, but by that time there was already talk of a move back to Olympia, the event’s spiritual home, and a new show director, Ross Carter, who was going to breathe fresh life into it. Looking back, that 2013 LIWF felt rather like an end-of-season match performance by a team that knows it’s on a losing streak and just wants to get through the 90 minutes and back into the changing room.
And so to 2014 at Olympia. Like many others, I flew in from the previous week’s Vinexpo Asia Pacific in Hong Kong – a hugely successful event – and had reasonably fresh memories of a record-breaking Prowein in Dusseldorf. So, the London event had even more ground to make up than one might have imagined at the beginning of the year. And, I’d have to say that Ross Carter and his team did an absolutely brilliant job. Throughout the show, it was clear that Brintex, the LWF owners had been persuaded to do something they had patently avoided doing in the previous years: invest in their product. Money had been spent on eye-catching, quirky signage, on a number of ‘zones’ where well attended presentations were given throughout the three days, and on the creation of Esoterica, a new low-budget area on the balcony overlooking the Grand Hall where exhibitors who would once have had to shell out for a stand showed their wares on trestle tables for which they paid a fraction of the cost.
From the outset, LWF 2014 wore a smile and had a buzz. I’ve never attended a wedding where a couple remarried after a period of estrangement, but that was how it felt. Variations on the line “it’s so good to be back” were uttered so often that I lost count, with one person fairly spitting as she added “and not having to go to that horrible place”.
“That horrible place” is evidently a lot more offensive to wine people than to other mortals. Every year, the purpose-built Excel halls the wine trade were so eager to vacate welcome a mass of international attendees to the World Travel Market, dentists, auditors and brides-to-be looking for wedding dresses.
The world’s biggest travel show – at Excel every year
Professional fashionistas have to travel even further for their annual event: they all trek up to that hub of global glamour, the purpose built shed of the NEC exhibition centre in Birmingham. For the Londoncentric wine fraternity, the very idea of going to Birmingham would be unthinkable, of course. But they’re still happy enough to fly off to Dusseldorf for Prowein.
All of which is to say that, despite all those comments at Olympia, I still don’t believe that the venue was the problem. If lots of business had been done at Excel, I doubt anyone would have dreamed of moving back into the city. But the human brain is a strange muscle. I have a friend who buys a new set of pricy clothes every time she goes job hunting. It makes her feel optimistic and good about herself. And it shows prospective employers that she’s made an effort. The LWF did better than simply buy new clothes: it bought an outfit that happily reminded everybody of one they’d known and loved.
Will the 2014 event mark the beginning of a sustainable return to the Good Old Days of the London Wine Trade? Frankly, I doubt that the remarriage will ever have the passionate excitement of the first one because the world has moved on. We no longer have masses of Australians, Kiwis and Californians desperate to get a foot in this market; they’re all increasingly focusing their attention on places that barely bought a bottle 20 years ago. As one producer said to me, “We’re selling in all the ‘stans’ except Pakistan”.
Back in the old days, London attracted buyers from across the globe; removing the word “International” from the name was like changing one’s Facebook status from “single” to “in a relationship”. It said that the LWF was all about selling wine to Brits. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it will tend to restrict the investment larger companies will put into the event. After all, the selling they do to Brits tends to happen in the offices of the bigger retailers.
As for the people who want to sell to the sommeliers and independents, they delightedly set out their stalls in Esoterica, the part of the show that was busiest and most popular with the opinion formers I met. And, if I hadn’t had WinestarsWorld and a packed programme of meetings, Esoterica is where I’d have been too, glass in hand eager to sample a really impressive and eclectic array of wines.
Esoterica was financially attractive to everybody involved. Exhibitors spent little more to talk to the trade for three days than they do to present to the consumers who attend one-day events like Three Wine Men. And Brintex got a nice chunk of income from balcony space that would never appeal to big exhibitors. I reckon we could see Esoterica spin off as an event in its own right – like Three Wine Men – but I’m not sure that it will ever be as big a pillar of the revived LWF as the opinion formers imagine. Take it away from the show and there’s a lot of Olympia to fill…
LWF 2014 was a tremendous achievement and Ross Carter and his team deserve a huge round of applause. The real test will come with the first and second anniversaries of the remarriage. Will Liberty and Pernod Ricard return to the fray. Will there be a revival of Australian interest in the event? Will the Lebanese, Croatians et all continue to exhibit when they count the numbers of bottles they are selling? We’ll see. But optimists noted that this year’s show coincided with the announcement that Oddbins was expanding and looking to climb back to the numbers of stores it had in the 1990s. For the moment at least, the London wine scene really did seem to have got some of its mojo back.