by Markus Stolz

US
versus Europe

byMarkus Stolz
May 15, 2012, 5 Comments

The US, Germany and the UK are amongst the five largest wine consuming countries and also top the list of the three largest wine importing countries in the world (in reverse order).

Greek wine exports to the US are on the rise and the word about their quality and uniqueness seems to be increasing in tandem. Just last week Eric Asimov published a thoughtful and striking article about New Greek red wines from indigenous grapes that represent “a new wave of Greek wines now available in the United States.”

In stark contrast to the US, there a few signs of a built up of similar interest taking place in Europe. Greek wines have experienced an extremely low penetration rate in the UK market. There have been some promising developments over the last 12 months or so, but these are infant steps. Germany has traditionally been the most important market for Greek wine exports, yet little fresh progress has been made. Sales have only just stabilized after years of decline, and literally no exciting new winery or even new grape variety has been able to break through.

Very little is reported about Greek wines in both countries. The written word is eerily absent, even more so in Germany than in the UK. Given that many more wines from Greece are available in Germany compared to the UK, this begs further investigation.

There are some marked differences between the three markets that might lead to insight as to why Greek wines fare so differently at this point in time. I will summarize them below, keeping in mind that this is no scientifically proven data, but rather my personal observations:

Wine hub: Both the US (New York, San Francisco) and the UK (London) have cities that form the centre for sales and wine related activities. It is here where wine trends are shaped. Competition from other countries is intense, but a meaningful breakthrough will result in success. No such hub exists in Germany, where eighty cities have populations of more than 100000, and only four of them break the one million mark. The cities are spread across the country and vary widely in terms of wine consumption. There are thousands of wine merchants and only a modest number of large players.

Influencers: The US has a high number of influencers, coming from different backgrounds. Wine critics, wine writers (print and online), Sommeliers, even some importers belong to this group. Some of them are particularly influential with the younger generation who have become the strongest growth category for wine consumption. It is no accident that the mostly young Sommeliers are called the rock stars of wine, nor is it that some of the emerging wine writers are only a few years above the legal drinking age.

There are a number of influencers in the UK, but this group is perhaps not quite as versatile as in the US. They are typically respected wine personalities who might as a whole not be quite as accessible when compared to some of their US counterparts. The UK wine market is dominated by supermarkets, whose customers are likely less easily targeted by the influencers. However, the second most important force in the UK wine trade are the wine merchants; and it would be no surprise to me that the influencers do play a key role here.

In Germany, there are only a limited number of wine critics/journalists who might be able to exert some influence. The role of the Sommelier is by far not as evolved as in the US. Given the importance of Germany as a wine consuming and importing country, the size of the active wine community is surprisingly small. The German wine market is fragmented and it will be interesting to see if and what role the Internet might possibly play to bring along changes.

In general, I feel that the influencers in the US are genuinely inquisitive about new emerging trends, whereas in Europe there seems to be more reservation.

Consumer: The US wine consumers, at least the younger ones who reside in one of the wine hubs, are keen on expanding their palate, they are open-minded and love to explore. Tyler Colman aka Dr Vino, one of the leading US wine bloggers, recently wrote an insightful article for The World of Fine Wine, Issue 34, titled “When local becomes global”, where he highlighted the flip side of globalization. He states: “…younger drinkers tend to be more experimental… (They) will try anything once. The Wine Market Council survey had younger respondents praising the joy of discovery.”

European palates also start opening up towards new discoveries, yet this process seems to be lagging behind. So far, I believe only in the US will you find consumers complaining when they can’t get random Assyrtiko or Gruner Veltliner. But Tyler Colman is right when he points out that “The tectonic plates of the wine world have shifted…” See also this post by a 20-something wine geek, which shows how the younger generation approaches wine in the US.

Restaurants and wine bars: When considering Greek cuisine, the US has a huge advantage over Europe. Greek restaurants in the major cities are high class and up market, being perceived as Mediterranean food havens. The impressive wine lists are dominated by, and in some cases limited to Greek wine.

The opposite is true in Europe. Greek restaurants are far too often anglicised or germanised, thereby losing their authenticity, offering cheaply priced, uninspiring food. The wine lists consist mainly of cheap, mass produced wine that match the quality of the food. Those restaurants that do not fit into this category should be actively supported in order to raise awareness.

International (non Greek) restaurants in the US are increasingly turning towards food friendly Greek wines, while this is still the exception in the UK and Germany.

Wine bars in the major American cities are trendy, hip, and crowded by young customers who seek out wines that are off the beaten track. By the glass pours often reflect this.

In London, wine bars are still being perceived as a part of the “old” city/finance culture, where bankers go after work. This is the feedback I received when asking some younger wine consumers in the UK. Looking at Jancis Robinson’s recent listing of some favourite wine bars on her purple pages, the following quote speaks volumes: “Our definition of a wine bar is that it has a decent wine selection and that you are allowed to order no more than a glass of wine, i.e. you are not forced to order food as well.”

As for Germany, there are a few serious wine bars located mainly in Berlin, but this is an emerging niche.

Old baggage: By this I simply mean the overall quality of the imported wines that consumers have been exposed to in the past. I think it is fair to say that Germany has seen dull quality for many years. Not only, but mainly. It requires more effort to change the image of Greek wine in this country. The US has had a larger share of good quality wine, and it is easier to build on this momentum. In the UK, some exciting wines are also now making an appearance. Given how little Greek wine has been imported in the past, the notion of baggage does not really apply.

Promotional and educational activities: Over the last few years, the focus from the Greek wine industry and the official bodies has been heavily on the US market. Very few activities have taken place in the UK or in Germany.

All of these factors feed on one another in a continuous manner. Some are static, others keep evolving. Some can be influenced directly – promotional and educational activities would be an obvious example. Others need a much more concentrated effort. Looking at the above observations, it becomes more obvious why Greek wines are making headway in the US right now: They are extremely well positioned given the prevailing circumstances. The UK market is less ready, but might well surprise on the upside if the right efforts are made (UK wine merchants, I’d love to hear from you :) Greek wineries often cite Germany as the market with the highest untapped potential. The predominant circumstances do not support these expectations, and might help to explain why this potential has not yet been unleashed.

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  1. thomasroccoMay 17, 2012, 5:17 am

    to Markus Stolz, thank you for your comment; I greatly appreciate it; i could not know whether it was a worthy outcome as a poem, but i have been sure that it expresses some of what i feel deeply about having lived in Athens for more than three years. Given the painful problems in Greece now, i hope that successful marketing will help to some degree by showing the world that Greeks can do some things exceedingly well and making wine is one of them. Now, they have to figure out how to ship it and sell it.

    tom rocco

  2. Kostas KatsoulierisMay 20, 2012, 10:41 pm

    Markus,
    A thoughtful article that raises some important issues and questions. I suppose the big difference between the US and Europe might be that of history. The US is still a relatively young country and hence does not have the history and tradition of winemaking and consuming that Europe does. Being a young country could explain why they are more open to ideas and experimentation (both in producing wine but also the type of wine being consumed) which would lead to them (them being US consumers, sommeliers & merchants) “having the jump” on Greek wines compared to the UK and the rest of Europe.

    The UK is a strange beast since although until quite recently it didn’t produce any wine (or any of note) it was a very important centre for both the trade and consumption of wine. Again history has a role here. England’s love affair with wine goes back from when the Normans invaded England back in 1066, through the rule of parts of present day France (the area around Calais and more importantly Aquitaine which included Bordeaux – which explains the special love the UK has for Bordeaux wines) by various English kings. England’s alliance with Portugal during various wars with Spain and France explains the love affair with port – indeed many say that port was created so that wine would survive the longer sea voyage from Portugal as a result of the blockading of Bordeaux/Aquitaine by the French during the aforementioned wars. I should also mention the role that a new form of English occupation on the continent has played in why certain wines are popular in the UK. Brits have had a love affair the last few decades with holiday homes in France (Provence and the Dordogne), Italy (Tuscany or “Chiantishire”), Portugal (Algarve) and Spain. Unfortunately those that have homes in Greece have not had similar consistency from the local wines until recently.

    The range of wines in UK supermarkets has improved tenfold in the last decade – they even have a Decanter Award for supermarket of the year. There are more wines than ever before. Whilst I once saw a Samos Nectar at a Waitrose three years ago, I didn’t see any during my last visit a month ago. Marks and Spencer once had an own brand Nemea but that is no more. You will remember Steve Daniels’ role in bringing a range of wines to Oddbins back in the 1990s. I don’t know where the blame for the present state of affairs lies, whether it is a lack of coordinated marketing by Greek wine organisations to UK supermarkets or whether the wine buyers had problems in the past (either lack of consistency, bad stock or plain old chauvinism). I am sure price has a role in all of this (I know I focus on this issue a lot but it IS important and we must be aware of this) as the UK consumer is very price conscious. If a good Greek wine has a price at a UK supermarket of say UK£15-20 it is unlikely most Brits would take a chance and try it out – they would either go for a known cheaper wine or a known wine in the same price range. They might be willing to take a chance if those Greek bottles have a good RP/WA score or a Decanter Wine Award sticker otherwise it is very difficult. When I was in the Netherlands recently, a wine store owner in Breda told me that whilst he loves Alpha Estate wines he has tried to promote and sell them but most of his customers go for Italian, French and Spanish wines as they are known quantities – so he gave up on trying to sell Greek wines. I heard similar stories in stores in Amsterdam and in Den Bosch.

    What would help Greek wines in both Germany and the UK apart from keener pricing I believe is firstly persuading Greek restaurants there to improve their stock and storage of wines. Secondly mark ups should be reduced at those restaurants as we all know how food friendly Greek wines are but large mark ups will simply perpetuate the view that Greek wines are expensive. Thirdly and most importantly (as I have stated in previous posts) there are synergies with tourism. Apart from the Greek diaspora returning for a Summer holiday, Germany is an important supplier of tourists to Greece and UK visitors form the largest nationality of tourists to Greece annually. For the synergy to be properly realised, there has to be proper education of restaurants and staff (on storage and service of wine) as well as keener pricing as wine mark ups have become ridiculous in many restaurants. Why should I pay Euros55 for Sigalas vareli when it is retail at say E15??? Whilst I love Alpha Estate Red I rarely order it – even at a 100% mark up it is say E45-50 a bottle. More places should follow La Pasteria’s lead – they charge E27 for Alpha Estate Red. At this point I will make it clear that I have no shares in that restaurant, none of my family work at any of these restaurants and I do not know Mr Bottrini! The Wine Roads Of Northern Greece is a good example of how things can be organised but the rest of the country is streets behind. A good private initiative I saw recently was Brintziki Estate opening a stand at Katakolo port greeting cruise ship passengers with a tasting of their wines. By giving tourists great impressions of Greek wines when they visit they will be more likely to seek out Greek wines on their return – if they cannot find any and there are enough enquiries, wine stores and merchants may start ordering more. Could wineries speak with the Piraeus Port Authority to see about opening a stand at the Piraeus cruise terminal?

    Tied up with tourism is the subject of a rebranding of Greece which Peter Economides very skilfully projected recently. We also have to get rid of the Retsina / oxidated barrelled wine hangover the same way the Germany improved the image of its wine from Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun, the Portuguese overcame the stereotypes created by Mateus and Spanish wine no longer being referred to as “cheap plonk”. I haven’t seen any Greek wines advertised on foreign TV ever yet I have seen the wines of FYROM advertised – where is the Greek pride and creativity in this regard?

    On a final note and again with an emphasis on the UK, although Greece has its own section in the Decanter World Wine Awards, until recently only Gerovassiliou / Biblia Chora and Alpha Estate would appear at the Decanter Fine Wine Weekends in London in November. I would like to see more producers appearing annually there. Indeed I believe it is high time we thought about a Greek Fine Wine Encounter. Even more galling is the fact that I cannot remember the last time Greece had a special supplement in Decanter – I think the last Greek tasting in that magazine was back in 2008. Talking of the press when was the last time Wine Spectator had an article on Greek wines?

    Anyway I have gone on long enough and must apologise to your readers. Keep up the good work!

  3. Paul DonkinMay 21, 2012, 1:06 am

    Another excellent article Markus and likewise the response from Kostas. The UK market is indeed a strange beast and one I fear won’t change any time soon. Apart from the Oddbins ‘heyday’ when they stocked 30+ greek wines I’ve sadly witnessed only the occasional dabble by supermarkets. If memory serves Marks & Spencer stocked a Gerovassiliou and Biblia Chora and a northern chain of stores called Booths once stocked a handful including a Vassiliou (once again if my memory is correct). Tesco did sell Boutari Santorini a few years ago but then reverted back to the predictable staples of Retsina and/or Mavrodaphne. Waitrose currently sell the wonderful Hatzidakis Santorini in some stores but then, disappointingly in my humble opinion, only offer a Retsina and Tsantali Cab Sav on their website. Sainsburys once held a Vilana produced by Creta Olympias, once again hardly a range worth getting too excited about.

    It is the simple things that both you and Kostas allude to; lack of any real publicity or interest in certain areas. I recall going into a greek restaurants here in the UK and be provided with a wine list that is full of Italian/Spanish/wherever wine – the response when asked why no greek wine was listed was underwhelming to say the least. I think that price is probably the most influential factor, whilst browsing in a good merchant in Yorkshire I found a bottle of Gaia Thalassitis which had a price tag of £19. Now whilst I would gladly pay that I suspect that a lot of people would not, more than likely because of the lack of awareness. The supplement in Decanter that seemed to be produced bi yearly ground to a halt as Kostas mentions and the tastings are a rare thing, anyone would think that wine was only produced in France!

    I guess that no one is prepared to go beyond what they think the masses want, oceans of mediocre chardonnay, gallons of insipid rosé etc. Interestingly a couple of supermarkets have recently started to sell Mythos beer, which I don’t think is actually in greek ownnership, but why not introduce a couple of wines at the same time?

    Anyway what do I know, I’m just a simple consumer!

  4. Kostas KatsoulierisMay 24, 2012, 8:26 am

    As a nice post-script to the article as well as the comments from Paul & myself I attach the following link from Yiannis Karakasis on Marks & Spencer’s renewed interest in Eatsern Mediterranean wines: http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2012/05/ms-in-eastern-med-wine-push/ . In addition I hope that with Gaia receiving three medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards, they will also appear at the fine wine encounter in November.

  5. Dan MarshallMay 24, 2012, 9:37 pm

    Markus, Good observations, although, barely a mention of Greek wine retail sales in the United States, very odd. Where do the consumers go to buy Greek wines? Does the wine retailer not influence and play a major role in putting Greek wines in the hands of the consumer? I believe they do! As a retailer of fine Greek wines myself, I believe that wine retailers are equally as responsible as the sommeliers in promoting and taking Greek wines to the next level. The media is certainly important, but they don’t actually buy and sell wine. The wine importers can bring in all the Greek wines that they like and promote until they are blue in the face, but if the sommeliers and retailers (the soldiers on the front lines) don’t buy them, then it’s a lost cause.
    Dan Marshall – Du Vin Fine Wines.