Sunday, August 6, 2017

Volcanic Interview #3: John Szabo MS

John Szabo is the first Canadian Master Sommelier and an international expert on volcanic wines. His book "Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power" is the winner of the Andre Simon award in the drinks category.

I met him during the Soave Preview 2017, where he held a seminar on volcanic wines along with Etna's winemaker Salvo Foti and Italian wine journalist Alessandro Brizi. I interviewed John for my MBA thesis on the marketing and export of volcanic wines, which will be discussed in September. 



John Szabo in Lanzarote, Canary Islands


When did you first become interested in volcanic wines ?

In 2009 I wrote an article for a Canadian magazine called Wine Access, linking several wines I had recently discovered and found intriguing through their volcanic origins. This included wines from Santorini, Etna and northern Hungary, among others. This article eventually led to my book.

What differences and similarities did you find between the volcanic wine regions of Etna and the Canary Islands?

That’s an easy question with a complicated answer. The Canaries are highly varied, with soils ranging from a couple hundred years old to 20 million, so extremely diverse. The climate also varies significantly from island to island and from north to south (Tenerife especially), and over 80 varieties are grown, so generalizations regarding wine styles are of limited utility. Etna is a little more homogenous, with just a couple of main varieties, though there too, soil composition and age varies, and altitude plays a big role in wine style. All this said, I’d say the commonalities revolve around bright acids, fresh, crunchy-tart fruit, and a distinct saltiness.

During your volcanic wine seminars, what are considered the most popular volcanic wine regions and why?

Etna seems to have captured the imagination of wine professionals around the world, and increasingly, consumers also. But it’s also one of the most obviously volcanic wine regions, with regular reports of eruptions that re-focus attention and generate interest. Santorini is also firmly on the map - they have been trumpeting their volcanic origins for many years now, and are benefiting from the increased interest in volcanic wines in general. The Azores, and Pico in particular, as well as Lanzarote also seems to fascinate tasters, given their utterly unique vineyard landscapes. Other regions like Soave, Napa and Sonoma, and Tokaj are less readily associated with volcanism as it has long been extinct in those areas, but the trade has been keen to learn about their contributions to the world of volcanic wines. 

Do you see a growing interest in volcanic wines in North America?

Absolutely. From zero awareness just 4-5 years ago to regular mentions in articles, trade circles, back labels, restaurants, marketing material, etc., volcanic wines are a bonafide subject. I’m planning the world’s first volcanic wine conference in New York next year at the end of March, and possibly a volcanic wine awards competition, and the interest so far is great.

Do you foresee a volcanic wine section category in wine shops? If so, who would be the target consumers?

Already I’ve seen several restaurants/wine bars with volcanic wine sections on the the list, and I imagine that some avant-garde shop owners may put together a volcanic wine section, but I think it will remain a fairly niche category overall. Even within the category, wine styles vary significantly, so as a sales tool so it's not an easy-to-grasp marketing concept. But the image of volcanoes remains very powerful. I think the ideal target consumer would be in the 20-40 year old range, highly engaged and interested in discovering new wines, both trend followers and trend setters.

John Szabo signing his book "Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power"

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