A Wine Expert with a Dionysian Impulse

A Wine Expert with a Dionysian Impulse

​Finding your passion in life is a real treasure. Some people achieve this. They find passion, love and fun even in their business fields or they simply turn their passion into a successful career. I must confess that I secretly envy them. 

I interviewed such a person, Şeyma Baş Kaben who is a successful wine expert, about wine and wine business. Happy reading!

"I am passionate about wine", you wrote in your blog, Dionysian Impulse. Consistently, it seems that you successfully paved the way for a career in wine industry. Could you tell us your story and your future plans? Maybe it can set an example for those who want to build a career around their passions.

We all spend our lives making decisions. However, there are certain moments we do not have to make a decision because we just know the answer. I had such a moment, during my internship in a winery in Bozcaada. When I went to vineyards to measure the sugar level of the grapes for the first time of my life and breathed in the smell of the soil around me, I knew what I was going to do in my life. I didn't need to consider the pearls and the pitfalls.

After my bachelor's, I went to Bordeaux and continued my studies with an MBA degree in Luxury Brand Management, Food and Wine and discovered the vineyards in Bordeaux, Champagne, South of France. Just afterwards, I spent a year in Tuscany, working in the vineyards and in the winery of Cosimo Maria Masini. Since then, I have been working in the trade, focusing on marketing and export. Meanwhile, I have been travelling to London regularly, attending international wine competitions as an associate judge. Moreover, I am about to complete WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) Diploma Level 4. I am currently based in Zurich and in the following years, I am hoping to continue my studies as a Master of Wine Student.

I think the key to success in any field goes through a good combination of practical work and solid educational background. If one wants to work in wine business, there are plenty of fun options. However, if one really wants to be a professional in wine knowledge, I must admit that it requires extreme amount of time and effort. First of all, you need to stay a student regardless of your age. You need to be patient, curious and to be able to develop your own network in time.

How do you recognize a well-quality wine? How do you differentiate a good wine from the bad one and an excellent wine from the good one? Any advice for newbies?

There are certain rules to differentiate a faulty wine from a well-made wine. The wine can always be oxidised, cooked or can have cork or vinegar taint... The wine consumer doesn't necessarily have to define what the problem is. But if one feels that something is wrong with the smell or taste, most probably, there is. However, distinguishing a good wine from an excellent wine is very subjective. I would advise newbies to taste as many wines as they can. Taking short notes would be beneficial. For instance, if you are a Pinot Noir lover, try to discover Pinot Noir's from Oregon, Central Otago, Burgundy... In time, you will discover your own taste, whether you prefer full-bodied young fruity wines or more elegant tastes… The best wine is always the one which remains in our mind.

Wine culture has deep roots in Anatolia, where is homeland of Dionysus, God of the wine and winemaking. But in today's Turkey, it is difficult to say that wine culture is existent. Domestic consumption is very little. Therefore, I always presume that Turkish winemakers are export-oriented companies. You worked in Turkey as export manager in wine industry. Regarding production standards, quality and uniqueness, marketing performance, etc. and when comparing with European counterparts, what do you think about wine industry in Turkey? How could it be better? Maybe you have some suggestions?

The Turkish wine industry has been developing significantly over the last two decades. The rising number of boutique wineries created competition and increased quality. The wineries are designed with modern winemaking equipments including temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, new and old oak barrels, latest technology presses and bottling machines. The majority of the wineries work with foreign consultants mostly from France or Italy. The flying winemakers bring their expertise. The climate and the soil of Turkey is already sufficient to produce amazing wines. For this reason, the quality is pretty high. There are many local grape varitieties waiting for the world to discover. The represantation of international varieties are already winning many awards in the international wine competitions.

The domestic market is very small compared to other wine consuming countries. However, the producers still sell majority of their wine within Turkey. Turkey is still in the beginning of its journey in exporting its wines throughout the world. It is not very simple to expect the world to suddenly embrace Turkish Wines when Turkey itself doesn't consume its own wines.

During my experience as an Export Manager, I was not only selling wine, I was also selling a story related to our country. At the same time, the potential buyer was not only questioning the product, but trying to discover where the wine comes from. At this point, the image of our country becomes very important. We are one of the rarest Muslim wine making countries with hidden gems. Furthermore, we are a wine making country where any kind of marketing for alcohol is forbidden. It is obviously a challenge. However, I am pretty optimistic about the future of Turkish Wines in the long term. The producers have been acting together in different markets, attending international wine fairs and organizing tastings with the opinion leaders. There are similar examples in the world like Chilean Wines. They created a long term strategy and acted as a group to promote their products and today they are one of the leading export countries. There are also several case studies in the world, showing that some individual wineries became successful. The majority of these stories have one thing in common: a great personality behind the brand, an impressive story and strong networking.

Either as a group or as a single winery, it is important to be out there and to keep on telling your story to the world. Chateau Musar is a great example with its French style wines, telling the world 'Make Wine not War' from Lebanon. I think this is a great success story, and yet today the winery is famous and available all around the world.

This however is a long-term project and meanwhile the wineries definitely need to maintain their cash flow. I think this is the biggest challenge for Turkish Wineries at the moment. The producers need a stable domestic market but the business highly depends on the political situation in the country. I hope the producers will have the energy to survive in this period.

I consider Turkish people as tax victims and Turkey as a kind of semi-closed market surrounded by walls of high tax rates and analysis fees to quality import goods. Eventually, people are forced to accept a few poor local options. Those competition-killing policies are generally disguised as a protector of domestic production. You also know European market. When you want to export or import wine, tax rate is one of the first things to check. So, what you can say about tax policies on wine in Europe or around the world? In this respect, maybe you could say that some markets are good export markets for wine and some are not?

Well, the situation is slightly more different that it seems in Turkey. First of all, I don't think that the local options are poor. There are many high quality boutique wineries. However, the key big producers dominate the market with mutual restaurant or retail store agreements. This system does not allow many small wineries to be discovered by regular consumer. The taxes of the imported wines are indeed higher. However, these wines also find a place for themselves because the price points are already set high.

During my position as an Export Manager, the first three things I checked were: -The taxes rates / import procedures –The potential of the market – How price sensitive the market is.

The tax rates are similar in Europe, differing from 17-21% VAT with certain amount of excise duties. In USA it depends on the state. It is hard to define the best markets because it mainly depends on what you want to sell. For instance, China is one of the fastest growing wine consuming countries of the world. However, it is very important to understand the dynamics of these potential areas. Chinese consumer still prefers to buy French or Italian wines. They started discovering new world wines but only very recently. For this reason, I personally did not spend much effort on selling Turkish Wines in this region. However, I kept my eyes on the market because the changes occur much quicker than we think. The key point is to catch the right moment for the right products.

I personally focused on areas like USA and used our subsidiary in Germany as a hub to sell around countries like Belgium, Netherlands that are open to discover new things.

What do you think: Small winemakers have also chance in global wine market, even without spending much money on branding and marketing?

Indeed, the dynamics of wine marketing is very different than any other field. The market is highly segmented and it is not possible for majority of the producers to spend money on marketing. Differentiating mostly depends on the uniqueness of the product and story telling. Networking is very important as well. I think if you are a small winery you definitely need to analyze the market to see where you can fit in the best and take action with the most feasible possibilities.

What do you think about wine contests? Are they really worth attending for winemakers?

I personally enjoy judging the wines at International Wine Challenge :) On the other hand, I used to send the wines I sell to many contests as well. Honestly, I don't think each result definitely defines the quality of your product. However, if a single wine keeps on winning awards from different contests tasted by different professionals around the world, it definitely means something.I find it as a nice way to receive feedback and it can be a beneficial marketing tool especially in retails stores. However, it does not necessarily tag your wine as 'good' or 'bad'...

Thank you very much for sharing your opinions with us.

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Comments (7)

  1. Deidre Seda Comas

Very interesting reading for those like me that love wine and enjoy learning about this amazing industry.

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  1. Zafer Yilmaz    Deidre Seda Comas

Thank you for your kind comment, Deidre. I am glad that you enjoyed the interview.

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  1. Deidre Seda Comas

Zafer, the wine industry is fascinating. Is there a way to get involved in your industry even when you are not experienced in wines?

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  1. Zafer Yilmaz    Deidre Seda Comas

Let's see what Seyma Bas Kaben will say on this

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  1. Seyma Bas Kaben    Deidre Seda Comas

Sure, many jobs in the field do not require wine knowledge. For example, if you work in marketing or sales, you can always step in. Each market has its own dynamics and you learn in time. Well, the only difference is; discovering your product is...

Sure, many jobs in the field do not require wine knowledge. For example, if you work in marketing or sales, you can always step in. Each market has its own dynamics and you learn in time. Well, the only difference is; discovering your product is pretty fun:-) Apart from a career, there are wine clubs, wine lover groups all around the world. Also check #winelover (http://www.winelover.co/) great community with almost 20 000 members :-)

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  1. OKTAY TOPUZ

a very successful interview, we will have a lot of information about wine. Thank you

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  1. Zafer Yilmaz    OKTAY TOPUZ

Thanks for your kind comment, Oktay.

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