As editor-in-chief of Meininger’s WBI, she’s usually on the other side of an interview so catching up with her was a real treat. Felicity Carter had great advice for anyone starting out in the wine industry and took us through some of the biggest challenges wine is facing right now, including climate change, the health lobby and financial struggles.
Felicity has been a guest speaker at all three editions of MUST – Fermenting Ideas so we couldn’t think of anyone better to kick off this interview series.
What’s your favourite place in the entire world to enjoy a glass of wine?
Felicity Carter: Some of the best wine experiences I’ve ever had are sitting with my partner in a café in Paris, facing the road, watching the passing parade. It’s very civilized, sitting there sipping wine, and the Parisians are always worth watching, especially the ones walking their dogs.
If you were to mentor someone just starting out in the industry, what piece of advice would you give them?
FC: My biggest piece of advice would be to gain a skill besides wine tasting. An in-depth wine knowledge is, of course, important, but I worry that people spend their entire time learning about wine, and ignoring other key skills. Those would include things like spreadsheets, basic accounting and marketing strategy. Wine only works as a career if the numbers add up.
What do you believe to be some of the most pressing challenges in the industry’s near future? How could we go about solving them?
FC: The absolute number one would be climate change and the environment. Reading about the collapse of species and the number of extreme weather events is no longer simply concerning, but frightening. I’m looking closely at what I can change in my own life to reduce the amount of carbon I use – including taking long distance trains instead of flying, wherever possible – though I also think that the real change has to be driven at a governmental level.
There are some significant challenges that are creeping up on the wine industry, almost without comment. One is the health lobby, including the World Health Organisation, which has alcohol firmly in its sights. There are signs their message is having an effect; I am noticing more media chatter about people giving up alcohol altogether, and more and more people are signing up for Dry January and such events. We also know that younger people (Gen Z) are drinking far, far less than previous generations, mostly for health reasons. So far the wine trade has tended to shrug this off, on the basis that moderate consumption of wine is good for you, but I think we have to make a stronger argument. One is cultural – it would be a catastrophe for many villages and regions in Europe if they weren’t able to grow vines.
One thing I would like to see less of is irresponsible reporting of wine and health – every time a study is done that shows some purported health benefit, a media beat up ensues. This is often a problem of tabloid news reporting rather than the wine media, but when wine is reported as having magical properties, it actually makes it harder to have a realistic discussion about the true benefits and harms.
The third threat is financial. Too many wine businesses, particularly in Europe and South Africa, are not profitable. I would like to see more emphasis placed on business and finance, particularly when wine is taught at a tertiary level. To be clear, I am not suggesting that wineries suddenly start making cookie cutter commercial wines in the reckless pursuit of profit – what I mean is, the best way to preserve the diversity and beauty of what we have, is to make it financially sustainable.
And which trends are here to stay?
FC: The drive to improve quality keeps on, which is wonderful. I’ve been judging for 12 years now, and when I first started, it was common to reject wines as being faulty, or not meeting a baseline for quality. Today, quality is the price of entry. It’s just a given.
Premiumisation is happening apace. It’s interesting to see that even the big companies are getting out of the bottom rungs.
Finally, the natural wine movement has had a big impact on winemaking. Winemakers who would not consider themselves natural winemakers, or interested in natural wine, have nevertheless reduced their sulphur use and are experimenting more. That’s been a great thing.
What do you work towards in your free time?
FC: I write! I can’t tell you what, though, as that would jinx it. I also edit books.
How did you first fall in love with wine?
FC: It’s more that I fell in love with wine people, to be honest. I had a job writing brochures for a wine direct mail company called Cellarmasters in Sydney, which in those days used to employ a lot of actors and creative people (the founder thought that actors were natural sales people). So I went to work every day with amazing, funny, creative people. There was a very good in-house wine training program and they encouraged us to try all the wines. I’d go out to lunch with these people and have a great time and I loved it. Our wine pairings were hair raising – Australian Shiraz and salt-and-pepper squid – but that’s how I got here.
If wine wasn’t your career of choice, what would you be doing?
FC: Well, I’m primarily a journalist so I’d be doing that still. Being able to ring up interesting people and convince them to talk to you is fantastic.
Which fellow speaker are you looking forward to hearing from the most at MUST 2019?
FC: Now, that’s an unfair question, because I know many of the speakers and know how good they are. I met Rodrigo Sepulveda Schulz at Fine Minds 4 Fine Wine last year, and he had many thought-provoking things to say, so I think his talk will be one that introduces a lot of new ideas.
We hope you’ll join Felicity Carter and a carefully curated list of speakers at the third edition of MUST – Fermenting Ideas, happening June 26th-28th in Cascais, Portugal.