All posts by Joe Wadhams

Wine descriptions, are they a waste of ink?

So let’s just say I’ve got some previous with wine descriptions on lists. Saying that I’ve got beef might be a little strong, but you could definitely conclude that I’ve had a love-hate relationship over the years.

From very early on in my wine career I decided that the generic descriptions made available to sales reps left a lot to be desired. Now this sounds a little arrogant but I remember thinking at the time, they don’t really mean anything, let alone activate sales. Let’s take a look at the following tasting note and see how inspired we all feel:

‘A lovely, refreshing wine with aromas of grapefruit, citrus, stone fruits and delicate notes of fresh acacia flowers on the nose.’

Blah, Blah, Blah! It’s just so boring and are consumers really that interested in this kind of information? Do they even know what acacia flowers smell like? I don’t, and I love a bit of gardening. I’ve always believed that customers would only read one or two generic descriptions before switching off.

Anyway, more on this later, but for now let’s get back to a young Joe Wadhams who thought he was going to reinvent the wine description. So the first problem that I encountered was that writing your own quirky descriptions takes a very long time. You’re constantly trying to not repeat yourself – which when you’ve got a limited Essex vocabulary like me was pretty tough. My theory was simple though: try to describe the wine in a way that consumers could relate to, and try to make them laugh at the same time. Some were definitely more random than others. I once described an Assyrtiko as a ‘volcanic Chablis on steroids’ or I might have even said it was ‘like licking a volcano’ – I was drinking solidly back then so it’s a little hard to recall. So you get the general idea, they were pretty random but strangely consumers were lapping them up. They actually sat at the table and took the time to read them, I was amazed but at the same time I felt vindicated. If you want someone to read something just make it interesting.

Anyway fast forward a few years and I moved onto one of the big boys in our industry. So my less than orthodox talent for writing rubbish and getting people to read it soon got noticed. Before I knew it I was thrust into a huge project with Matthew Jukes to write interesting descriptions for about 100 of our wines. Let’s just say our approaches were a little different, but after a couple of months we’d completed the mission. Matthew’s way of writing is fantastic but his descriptions were incredibly detailed, so I was tasked with giving them a little trim. So you could say that for two months I was Matthew Jukes’ Editor – I like the sound of that.

Moving on a couple of months and I was standing at our portfolio tasting and the company had decided to put some of our wine quotes up on the wall. One of the ones they used from me I’d actually ripped off Olly Smith after I’d seen him on the box. I remember it as if it was yesterday – ‘this wine is like taking a chair lift up the rock face of sheer freshness’. So you can imagine my unease when Olly and I are standing under this quote at our tasting with his eyes moving upwards towards my undoubted plagiarism. He took one look at me and then thankfully we both started laughing!

It’s safe to say that after this period I completely lost the plot. I’d quite simply OD(ed) on writing descriptions so I then took them in a new direction. I decided I no longer wanted to tell the customer anything about the wine, and instead concentrated on writing descriptions that made little sense. Two of my weirdest were as follows:

‘A smoking jacket and beagle are recommended with this Claret’

And my all-time favourite:

‘Anglo French writer Hillaire Belloc once wrote “I forget the name of the place; I forget the name of the girl; but the wine was Chambertin.” 

The crazy thing is customers still loved them. It does make you think that customers just want to read something that’s engaging. This reassured my belief that notes about flavour mean very little to the average consumer.

After this period of tasting note madness I went into retirement and haven’t written a wine description since. I reckon my hiatus has lasted for roughly 8 years now. During this period I played around heavily with style headings. My theory was that many consumers only needed to know what style of wine it was. For example with whites were they Crisp, Aromatic or Rich. This approach might seem incredibly simple, but it seemed to work a treat and did make training staff a whole lot easier. Plus I was no longer sitting up half the night spewing out random quotes from Anglo-French poets!

So as I’ve said, this carried on for some time until the other day when I was hosting a tasting with one of my key accounts. We were tasting a wine from Kefalonia which is aged underwater, and to be honest is a little leftfield but damn good. The common consensus from around the table was, ‘we love it but how are we going to sell it’? I then had some sort of out of body experience and shouted across the table, ‘why don’t we do descriptions’?

I tried to catch the words but it was too late, I’d said it. So it looks like I’ve now gone completely full circle and I’m back where I started. What style am I going to go for? I think they will definitely be more grown up but I’m hoping they will still be interesting. My boss sent me an email the other day about a new Mencia we’ve brought in from Ribera Sacra. He said: ‘A sort of mid-way point between Pinot Noir and Syrah, but with high acidity’. I thought to myself, if I can combine information like this with a touch of light humour the balance would be perfect. So wish me luck.

The reality is descriptions can work but let’s make them count, and try to engage and relate to the customer. If we don’t that really would be a waste of ink.

Has COVID-19 caused lasting damage to the Restaurant Sector and will it ever truly recover?

The short answer is yes, it will recover, and it will do so in a way that will bring pride to the entire nation. This might seem a little unwarranted, but I do need to point out at this early stage that I am an eternal optimist. What makes me so confident, put simply: I believe in the people involved. Our industry is built around the people that work within it; whether it be the visionary owners, the tireless managers or the charismatic front of house team that make our frequent visits so memorable. It’s the People that give me Hope.

I am writing this article a couple of days after the second lockdown to our industry was announced. Like thousands of operators around the country this came as a crushing blow. I woke up the following Monday morning, took the kids to school and my journey home took me past the large stainless steel vats of the Wiston winery on the A24. Let’s just say that the wines are far better than the location! For some reason I made a quick decision to pull off and see if the head winemaker, and my good friend, Dermot Sugrue was around. Not only is Dermot one of the country’s leading winemakers, he’s also a force of nature. Spending time with him is like getting a shot of adrenaline, and it just so turns out that on this morning he was just the tonic I needed.

Over the next 30 minutes he danced around the various vats and barrels extracting base samples from a tap or, in some cases, a large syringe. He was not worried about our current plight, he was excited about the eventual bounce back and what the customers would make of his new vintage – ‘The Trouble with Dreams’ 2015. For the time I was with him I completely forgot about COVID. It was a brilliant impromptu Monday morning and without me sounding too corny, my wee Irish friend gave me hope.

I then got home and started to think about our industry and what else should give us optimism for the future. One important fact to remember is there are huge swathes of the population who can’t cook restaurant quality food at home (and long may this continue)! Restaurants, when allowed to open, will always be busy because guests crave that unique experience, don’t they?

Another reason for optimism is seeing how the trade has adapted during the pandemic. During the first lockdown some of our customers turned their restaurants into wine shops and started peddling wine across their local community. We have one such customer from Winchester who ended up doing up to 20 deliveries a day out of the back of his estate car. Absolute madness, but utterly inspiring!

The ‘finish at home’ concept was also born, which enabled customers to create restaurant quality dishes in the comfort of their own kitchen. Even Michelin starred chefs such Michael O’Hare got in on the act – I am sure that some menus were easier to finish than others! Sunday Roasts also got the delivery treatment. I mean, come on, what is wrong with people…? They must really hate doing the washing up.

Zoom was also being beamed straight into customers’ homes in the form of online tastings and live cookery classes. The ability to diversify was inspiring, but was any of it profitable? Absolutely not, but it really wasn’t about that. The aim was to keep their brands alive and stay within the head space of their customer base.

Seeing this unfold gave me immense hope, so when the trade reopened on the 4th July I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. And the bounce back didn’t disappoint – it was huge. Central London aside, the population of this country turned up in their droves to support their local pubs and restaurants. I think we were all proud to be a part of our fantastic industry.

Then the tier system crept in and literally took the wind out of people’s sales! Tier 2: welcome to no man’s land – you’re open but who’s coming in? You’re hoping for a Valentine’s Day style service every night of the week and then good old family time at weekends. It’s just never going to happen, so maybe the second lockdown, with furlough support, is the lesser of two evils?

How much more can the hospitality industry take and has permanent damage been caused? You have to say for those unfortunate operators that haven’t survived, absolutely, but for those who have it’s probably made them stronger. Operators have had to really look at every facet of their business and how different aspects can be streamlined, therefore making them more efficient. Longevity has to be the common goal.

One thing is for sure. When this has all been put to bed, the hospitality industry will enter a boom period like no other. A period that is prolonged steady growth, rather than the boom and bust cycle we often see. In my opinion this industry is just too dynamic to be held down. The general public’s love affair with the restaurant sector appears to have been galvanised, which I hope will continue for a long time to come.

Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder

– Joe Wadhams,
Business Development Director