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Forbes' focus

Published:  23 July, 2008

Until recently it was almost impossible to have a trade discussion about Argentinian wine without the subject of a generic office - or, more precisely, the lack of one - being mentioned.

The murmurs of discontent among those who imported and sold Argentinian wine in the UK about the absence of a proper generic presence (a PR campaign and yearly tasting don't really count) became a lot louder following Chile's highly visible success under Michael Cox.

Last year it was confirmed that a dedicated UK office would be opened in 2006, and this summer the announcement was made that James Forbes, a senior buyer at Oddbins, would head it up from a base at the Argentinian embassy.

Unfortunately, the man who appointed Forbes, Fernando Farr, former perfume marketer and the head of Wines of Argentina, announced his resignation while Forbes was travelling around Argentina, the week before he officially took up his post. According to Forbes, Farr's decision to resign - despite long-standing rumours of rows and disagreements among Wines of Argentina board members - was simply based on family life. 'As I understand it, it was a case of Farr having a young family based in Buenos Aires, where they were settled, and a wife who didn't want move to Mendoza. When he took up the position it was on the understanding that he moved to Mendoza, where Wines of Argentina and most of Argentina's wine companies are based. He gave his resignation when he realised that this was not going to be possible.'

Apparently, 'a decision on his replacement hasn't been made', says Forbes. 'I think the Wines of Argentina board will be having a meeting in the next week or so to decide what to do, and if a direct replacement is needed or if the new person should have slightly different role.'

Forbes adds that the lack of a director of Wines of Argentina 'won't have an effect on my activities in the UK; I have my agreed budget and I'm getting on with putting together a programme to take Argentinian wine forward in the UK'.

Interestingly, Forbes' entry to the wine trade was relatively circuitous. His earlier careers include time spent as a trainee quantity surveyor and a rather glamorous stint as professional bridge player (and yes, he did play with Omar Sharif). 'I used to play in tournaments and also taught students advanced bridge playing, it had always been something that I enjoyed and was good at, so I thought I would give it a go.' So why did he swap a deck of cards for a career with the grape? 'I realised I wasn't going to be world champion and, to be honest, its a pretty anti-social existence, either playing bridge or travelling to play bridge. I gave it up to become a manager at Oddbins, that was about 11 years ago.'

Although Forbes' entrance to the wine trade was relatively recent, his love of wine is rather more long-standing. 'I got into wine when I was at university in Edinburgh, in my late teens. I used to follow Hugh Johnson's recommendations particularly.' Oddbins had always been one of his favourite shops and when he eventually decided to join the trade it seemed the logical choice. From store manager he became a sales manager, which led to a buying position three and half years ago. Argentina became part of his portfolio around a year and a half ago.

The budget Forbes has to play with is around half what Wines of Chile had in its first year, but it is still a substantial amount and probably more than Argentina's closest rival in terms of case sales - New Zealand - has to spend on its generic promotions. In any case, it is far more than has ever been spent on the promotion of Argentinian wine in the UK.

The sad truth, however, is that the Argentina category needs it. It hasn't commanded a volume share of the UK wine market of more than 2% for years (its share has fluctuated between 1.6 and 1.8% for the past two years) and there is no tangible sense of momentum behind the category. Forbes has given himself a simple - although not easily achievable - goal: 'I'm willing to put it on record that I am aiming to double the market share of Argentinian wines in the UK within three years. Argentina can, and should, have a share of around 3%.'

So what does Forbes feel are Argentina's strengths? 'We have great breadth of varieties, with Italian and Spanish varieties present as well as the ubiquitous French varieties. Argentinian wines can offer individuality as well as consistency and they are rightly seen as offering good value. But there is also a lot more for the trade to discover. Areas such as Patagonia and Salta barely register in the UK and we need to show that the country is about more than just Malbec, as good as it is.'

How then, do its wines compare to those of its Andean neighbour, Chile? 'Chile has moved on in leaps and bounds in the past couple of years, both wine-wise and promotionally. I feel our wine is just as good, but the challenge is to narrow the sales gap. It isn't a competition though, I feel that what is good for South America should be good for Argentina.'

Initially, Forbes' campaign will be trade focused: 'We need to build a proper database of influencers and buyers. We've got to get the wines and the message in front of the right people on a consistent basis, which is something that Argentina hasn't been doing the main challenge is to get more listings. We have to convince buyers that there is value in listing more Argentinian wines. It's an education process.'

Forbes also isn't scared to say that he will be following the example set by Wines of Chile. 'They have done a lot of good stuff - especially in getting buyers to list premium Chilean wines - and if I feel there is something there worth copying, I will copy it. The Wines of Chile Awards have been very successful, for example, and when I was a buyer I backed them. I will probably run an event along similar lines for Argentina,' he says.

The first major event for Wines of Argentina is the annual generic tasting at Lord's Cricket Ground on 19 September. The Argentina generic tasting has a rather chequered history. In 2001, it took place on 11 September (and, understandably, tasters' minds were on something other than wine that day), while in 2004 the event - this time held at the Banqueting House in Whitehall - proved to be rather shambolic, with the tasting booklet hopelessly wrong (large amendments were handed to attendees on arrival) and the venue unsuitable for a tasting of this size. Last year, ber wine event organisers Hunt & Coady (who also do the Chile tasting, among others) were handed the task, to general satisfaction.

Let's hope that this year's event proves to be a fitting debut for Argentina's new generic office.