As Wines of Chile celebrates a 10 year anniversary for their European office, they also celebrate 10 years with Michael Cox leading the team. Amanda Barnes interviews him.
As one of the longest serving employees of Wines of Chile, this British born wine enthusiast has been a chief international ambassador to Chilean wine for a decade. Since opening the first international WOC office in London in 2003, Michael has seen his fair share of changes in the industry and organization: from the unification of Wines of Chile and Vinos de Chile in 2007; the development of the annual WOC Awards (also 10 years old); a doubling of Chile’s market share; and an upsurge in Chile’s international wine reputation.
Chilean wine may have changed dramatically over the last decade, but Michael was no stranger to the nectar of the Gods when he started with Wines of Chile. Born into the sixth generation of a family wine business, he says he was practically born with wine ‘in the blood’. His grandfather sent him to Burgundy aged 19 to pick grapes with the great masters of the Old World and by his early 20s he was importing wine from the New World for the family wine merchant business.
After an illustrious 13 years working with wineries in Australia launching some of the most successful brands into the European market, he was already earmarked for the job at Wines of Chile by Richard Letelier who was the Managing Director of Wines of Chile at the time. “The mission was clear, and the first market to attack: the UK,” says Ricardo looking back. “Michael stood out for his great knowledge of the industry, strategic clarity, communication skills and leadership. After all the interviews, with very good candidates, I wasn’t left with any doubt that Michael was the person for it.”
Michael was given the job of starting the European office and the task of bolstering the image of Chilean wine worldwide. “The impression was that the wines had potential but it was really unrealized potential…” Michael explains about the perception at the time. “The image was sound but not very exciting.” He knew that his main task was to convey a more dynamic message for Chile while focusing on a three-pronged attack, which WOC Europe continue to use today: convince the trade that Chile needs to be looked at in a new light; persuade the press to extol the virtues; and make the consumer aware. “All this is very well,” he says, “provided that the wines are getting better.”
Fortunately the turn of the millennium was accompanied by a boost in quality and forward thinking from within Chile and so Michael and his long-serving colleagues Anita Jackson and Karen Sutton had a good message to share. “The one dimensional wine attitudes started to disappear,” he explains. “The carbon copy approach was starting to be challenged and there were more and more wineries with especially young winemakers and viticulturists that were starting to break the mold. I think Chile started to get an identity and character all of its own and stopped copying other people’s wines. It has been inexorable ever since.”
Over the following 10 years he endeavored to illuminate the exciting creativity of Chilean wines and boost wineries’ image and confidence. “For the last ten years he has changed the face of Chile, especially in the UK,” colleague Anita Jackson pays tribute. Although Michael’s response is more humble: “I think I’ve tried to give them the confidence to stand taller and be more aggressive sometimes in telling the world how good they are. I’ve held their hand.”
Handholding is an understatement of his dedication, and his work for Wines of Chile and the industry has been recognized within and outside of Chile. In 2010 President Piñera made Michael a Commander of the Order of Merit of Chile, the highest honour that can be given to a non-Chilean.
Michael describes this as one of the highlights of his career but explains that it was a ‘magical moment’ mostly because “I felt that I was accepting it on behalf of the Chilean wine trade for all the work that they had done. I can’t do my work without the tools they have provided me. I can’t spin something unless it is good.”
His consistent message and personal approach to marketing has earned him friends and accolades throughout the industry including most recently a Lifetime Achievement Award with the Drinks Business magazine. All these awards he says though are icing on the cake, for what was already a very rewarding career: “There has not been one day out of the 43 years that I have not enjoyed working in the wine business,” he says. “I can safely and honestly say that these last 10 years [with WOC] have been the most rewarding and enjoyable.”
What does he predict for the next 10 years in the Chilean wine trade? He admits that there are challenges, especially in terms of increasing costs and prices, but believes this is short term and that Chile needs to keep confident that their wines warrant the higher prices. Chile “needs to completely forget the bargain basement area,” he says. “We might end up selling less liquid but we should sell higher value wines. I see 10 years of growth and progress in selling better quality wine. But [Chile] needs significant commitment [to the cause].”
Another message he believes Chile shouldn’t dilute is its complexity. “Sometimes people say you can’t go on telling people about lots of different wine regions when they get confused,” he says. “I don’t agree. I think the more complicated the wine map of Chile becomes, the better the image. It hasn’t done France any harm! So I think the complexity of the wine map is an important part of Chile’s progress and it has variety and diversity in spades.” This diversity and nuance he says is what gives Chile some of the best wine in the world. “I know I’m biased… but I genuinely believe that Chile still represents one of the most exciting, if not the most exciting, region in the world.”
Another reason for his enjoyment over the last decade, aside from the great wine, has been working with Chileans. “It’s great, I love it,” he says. “I especially like Chileans because they are extraordinarily friendly, honest and supportive.” He also says that regularly traveling to Chile has been a highlight over the years. “I love going there, I think it’s a beautiful country. I want more people to realize it is the jewel in South America’s crown.”
On his frequent trips and through networking Michael has earned a reputation for showing others a good time, and as the Drinks Business magazine said, he is “a member of the wine trade with immense dedication, always a warm smile, a firm handshake and helpful comments to make – as well as hips to shake…” in tribute to his professionalism combined with a fun-loving attitude. “I love dancing,” explains Michael. “I love manic dancing… Ask any Chilean on the wine scene and they’ll know I like the dance floor.” What’s his dancing style? “It’s not a style so much… It’s maverick!”
This maverick on the dance floor hasn’t just shone under the disco lights, but over the last 10 years he has been a beacon for Chilean wine.