While exports of Greek wines have increased significantly, especially to the US, sales to the traditionally most important market, Germany, have suddenly dropped heavily. Mario Scheuermann, the well known wine journalist, critic and author, reported on Saturday that the third quarter exports of Greek wines to Germany this year have seen a decrease of 42% in volume and a fall of 48% in value.
The official source of these figures is the German Federal Statistical Office. Herr Scheuermann was kind enough to provide me with data for the last twelve years, which I include below. Using the first nine months of 2012 as a base, the estimated export figures for this year would result in a setback to 2008 levels.
In his article, he cites the frustration of the Germans with the ongoing financial crisis in Greece as the likely reason for this development. I interviewed Herr Scheuermann, as I believe it is very important to gain an insight view of a German wine professional in regards to the current environment the Greek wine industry is facing in Germany. His views might not please everyone, but from my experience they do mirror the general consensus. He strives to add context by recounting the role Greek wines have played in Germany since the 1960ies. Herr Scheuermann studied the ancient Greek language (Graecum) and has occupied himself intensively for decades with Greek history and philosophy.
Q: The once warm and friendly relationship between the German and Greek people has been badly affected as a result of the financial crisis. In your article, you state that the loyalty of the German consumer towards Greek winemakers has likely ended. You seem to blame the Greek side for this (Nazi comparisons for the German chancellor Angela Merkel, anti-German media campaigns, and angry protests from parts of the Greek population). Are things really so bad that Greek products start to suffer in the German market?
A: This is only a guess, yet it might not be far from the truth. The coverage of the Greek and German media includes images of burning flags, swastikas, angry faces and anti-German slogans in the streets of Athens. These images are aired at prime time, and it is getting harder and harder for the Germans to stomach these quarrels, given the billions of Euros for which they act as guarantors. For a time, the compassion for the suffering population outweighed concerns. This seems to be over now.
Q: You use strong words to describe the sudden collapse of Greek wine exports into Germany. I quote from one of your Facebook comments: “This is the beginning of a disaster (for the Greek wine industry).” This indicates that you do not see this as a one off dip in demand. Can you elaborate on this?
A: Unless something happens quickly, it might turn into a permanent trend. A quarterly slump of 42% in quantity and 48% in value is not trivial by any means. This is almost a drop by half. Indeed, I call this dramatic.
Q: Germany has traditionally been the most important country for Greek wine exports, both in terms of quantity and turnover. How would you describe the efforts of the Greek wine industry to build upon the existing sales potential?
A: In order to answer this question, I have to go further back in time:
For a long time, there existed a sentimental relationship between Greece and Germany. This is now followed by bitter disillusionment. “Iphigenia in Tauris” is a reworking by Goethe of an ancient Greek tragedy. It includes the famous quote “Seeking with the soul the land of the Greeks.” This notion has characterized the relationship between the two countries for the educated middle class since romantic times. This was however based on a big misunderstanding. The idealized ancient Greece, as taught at the humanist schools, had long disappeared. Greece was ruled for centuries by the Ottoman Empire, as was a large part of the Balkans. Over the last decades, a few families dominated the political system. Other individuals control large parts of the economy. Greece fell back to an almost archaic state of civilization, and never really arrived in the modern era. The people in Europe slowly and gradually became aware of this.
A second formative phase was the years of the German economic miracle after the Second World War. Many Greeks came as guest workers into the country, and remained as proud owners of taverns. These were very popular among numerous German consumers of the lower classes, especially the so-called generation of 68. In the 1970s, these establishments almost reached an iconic status without however ever being part of the culture of wine. A pseudo-revolutionary Ouzo & Retsina life style commenced, with Sirtaki and Zorbas. This was yet another (social)-romantic exaggeration. But all of this resulted in steady import figures for Greek wine. The other two major Mediterranean countries Italy and Spain also benefitted from this trend. The respective ethnic cuisines lend comprehensive support for wine exports from these countries.
This development lasted until the 1990s, when wines from the new world were established successfully in the German market. The Mediterranean lifestyle gave way to a new, exotic culture: Suddenly sushi and curry dishes were trendy. At the same time, the Greek wine industry launched a very expensive and misplaced marketing campaign, which remained without effect. For years, funds were wasted by placing advertisements in a limited number of selected magazines that were not really relevant. In 2006, imports of Greek wines reached an all time low. During the same time, Italy and Spain benefited from the booming city tourism and established their wine regions as premium wine suppliers. Only in Greece, everything remained the same. Who wanted to visit Athens back then? Traffic congestions, decaying temples, polluted air – those were the only news that reached us at that time. The Greek wine industry had no strategy for this situation. They thought that images of sun, beach and sea would still be enough. But the German tourists had long ago started their vacation in the Caribbean, Seychelles, Thailand or South Africa.
The reason that the export figures slowly recovered during the following years, was the more efficient work of a new agency. Sadly this project ended at the end of 2008. I am sure that Greek wines benefitted from a solidarity and compassion effect due to the financial crisis during 2010 and 2011. I know many people who said: “Come on, let’s drink a bottle of Retsina and buy Greek olives. This will help the Greek producers at least a little bit.” Yet again, this way of thinking was very romantic. But this is how we Germans are.
Q: Greek wine has received a lot of positive press, especially in the US market. Wine critics like Mark Squires, Eric Asimov, or Jon Bonné have all been supportive of Greek wines, especially when made from indigenous grape varieties. These wines are being perceived as serious, exciting, and trendy. Is the German palate so different?
A: I do not think so. There have been very positive reactions in Germany with regards to the modern Greek wines. My colleague Eckhard Supp, myself, and others have published supportive articles. But this was and is not enough. It is of course problematic that these wines are hardly available in the market. The few wine merchants, who do stock them, do little to get the word out. Of all the Greek wineries, only Kir Yanni and Kokkalis have managed to achieve a certain cult status in connoisseur circles. There is a lot of catching up to do. But as long as the key German wine influencers receive samples only every three or four years, and are never invited into the country, nothing will happen. At a bare minimum, we need to be able to taste the most important wines regularly. I am convinced that the majority of the German wine critics are very open minded towards the wines from Greece and would report on them, if only they would be kept properly informed on an ongoing basis. Why are so few initiatives taking place? Why are Greek winemakers not visiting Germany more often and reach out to us? If things remain as they are, I see a bleak future for Greek wines in Germany.
Q: None of the important German wine merchants/distributors have shown serious interest for wines from Greece, even before the crisis. Why do you think this is the case?
A: Importers, retailers and discounters traditionally focus heavily on mainstream wines from Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Wines from Greece and Portugal have suffered due to the success of new world wines, especially from South Africa, who is currently the fourth most imported wine country in Germany. Of all the large players, only Lidl has remained loyal to wines from Greece.