Sunday, November 09, 2014

Raise a glass to the outsiders who've shaken up the wine world

Greg Lambrecht

What does Greg Lambrecht have in common with Herbert Allen, Dennis L Burns and Elon Musk? 

He's used his experience in one industry to start a revolution in another. 

Musk, for those who haven't come across him made a fortune by co-founding PayPal before risking a lot of it on Tesla, the first serious electric automobile manufacturer. Traditional car companies had universally shown little-to-no interest in ditching fossil fuels, and had even destroyed vehicles they had built that offered proof of the electric car concept. Since the arrival of the Tesla, they are tumbling over each other to get their versions on the road. It took an outsider...

Dennis Burns' background had more to do with silicone than Silicon Valley. At the beginning of the 1990s he was making hockey helmets and sunglasses when, on a visit to a wine cellar, he noticed the synthetic bungs in some of the barrels and wondered why similar closures could not be used for wine. Supreme Corq, the business he launched in 1994 has since been supplanted by Nomacorc (for which, to declare an interest, I do some consultancy) but it is acknowledged as having been the first to open the door for synthetic closures. Herbert Allen, inventor of the Screwpull, was a drilling engineer who understood that coating the screw with Teflon would alter and improve the experience of cork removal.

The revolution Greg Lambrecht has started is with the Coravin which allows users to drink as much or as little wine as they like from a bottle without ever actually removing the cork. Ingeniously, the wine is drawn out through a fine needle which effectively replaces it with an inert gas. I haven't tried one yet, but I trust the people who have sufficiently to buy one.

The point of this post, however is not just to point out that revolutions are rarely fomented by insiders, nor to plug Mr Lambrecht's invention. It is to pick up on something he said in the keynote he gave at the Digital Wine Communicators Conference (DWCC). Understanding and satisfying a need is not enough. You have to understand the ecosystem in which the need exists

There are countless inventions and great ideas that have failed because the soil in which they were planted was insufficiently fertile. Siting them elsewhere (like screwcaps in Australia and New Zealand rather than California) or adding some fertiliser to encourage the growth (as the screwcap-loving supermarkets did by supporting those closures in the UK) may sometimes be the only solution. What doesn't work is simply expecting people whom you know ought to buy into your argument, actually to do so because it's the right thing to do.

Ironically, Lambrecht's invention does not work on synthetic closures, nor for obvious reasons is it applicable to wines sealed with screwcaps or glass Vinoloks. So, its arrival on the scene actually makes the ecosystem even harder for anyone trying to promote those reliable closures, and easier for the undeniably inconsistent natural kind.

Learning from Majestic - A request for cash

I need a new battery for my MacBook Air laptop. Please would you send me a pound* to help to pay for it. I understand that the previous basis of our relationship was that I supply you with these words for free, but this is a one-off payment. Really. Honestly. And those of you who choose not to contribute won't be treated any differently from the ones who do. Any suggestion that non-contributors will be denied access to these posts is wholly unfounded.

Of course there is no absolute parallel between the paragraph above and Majestic Wine Warehouse's 'request' for a rebate of 4p from suppliers for every bottle they supply until April next year in order to help the chain to pay for a new warehouse. You, after all, dear reader, are not my supplier. You're my - albeit non-paying - customer. You can always find another - free - source of the kind of information I offer. Or you can choose to do without it altogether. As a supplier to a major UK retailer, you have less breadth of choice. 

The Tesco saga has lifted the lid on the routine way that businesses that one might have expected to be focused on buying and selling stuff profitably have now transmogrified into a very different kind of animal. If Majestic had said that, for a mandatory extra four or even five pence per bottle they would, for example, tweet about a supplier's wine x times per day, or feature it on digital signboards in their stores, there would be less argument. Despite the unwelcome nature of any retroactive request for cash, that, after all, might serve to boost sales and awareness of the brand.

Asking for cash to pay for the warehouse, however much it might help to improve the company's logistics, is a very different matter. As is the supposedly 'voluntary' nature of the contribution. If you were wearing the shoes of a supplier looking for a long term relationship with the chain, how long would you really spend considering a refusal of the request?

*I have discovered over the years that some of what I write is taken more seriously than I intend. So please note that I am not actually asking for financial contributions. But I wasn't lying when I said that my battery was dyi