The Moodie Davitt Report brings you the latest instalment in our popular series Ten Easy Pieces*, in which we get up close and personal with leading travel retail personalities via ten snapshot questions.
In this edition we meet Otis McAllister Wine Division Sales Manager Irina Wiedemann. Irina is also the enthusiastic Project Manager for Crusoe Treasure, a project that involves aging wine at the bottom of the sea in the world’s first underwater cellar. It’s an extraordinary concept, spearheaded in travel retail by an extraordinary young woman.
1. Tell us about Irina Wiedemann: where were you born and raised?
I was born in Kazakhstan to a German family, the last of four children. My school education was in the Russian language; home education was in German, both the language and values. My parents made it clear to me that we were there by ‘mistake’ and that our real home was Germany. I was also raised in a very anti-communist way and my very strict grandmother made sure that I understood that hard work always pays off!
But I have to say, I had a very happy and multicultural childhood. As children we lived in harmony and I believe that it why it is very difficult for me to define who I really am, where I really come from, and what nationality I have. I guess you could say I’ve never actually understood that question because I’ve always considered myself at home everywhere and nowhere.
After many years of trying to leave the Soviet Union my family was finally allowed to return to Germany in 1988. I was 16 years old and, as soon as I graduated from high school in 1989, we went ‘home’.
A completely new era started for me.
Deep sea diving for some of the world’s great wines
2. You studied Hospitality Management in Germany and then moved to Switzerland. What career plans did you have in mind and where did they lead you?
When I first moved to Germany, I remember everyone asking me about what I was planning to study. To be honest, I was totally overwhelmed and needed some time to think what my professional future should be. I just knew that I wanted to travel and explore the world. That’s something I had dreamt about all my childhood; growing up in the ex-Soviet Union the idea of being able to travel to foreign countries was an absolute utopia.
I started to study Hospitality Management knowing that I could combine travel with work experiences. When I graduated in Bremen I went to Bern and St. Moritz in Switzerland for two years, and then continued my studies in Heidelberg.
At some point I realised that, whilst I was thoroughly enjoying the hotel ‘world’ – especially the sales and marketing aspects – it just wasn’t what I wanted.
In fact I didn’t have a very clear idea of what I wanted so I just decided to take some time out… and that was the perfect timing to start flying. I joined DLH (Lufthansa) as a flight attendant.
3. Three years in the air and selling duty free products. Were you an avid shopper as well?
I must say, I was a very faithful duty free customer! I used to spend a lot of time and money in airport stores. My favourite buy? Cosmetics, chocolates and wine. And, of course, I was also selling duty free products onboard. I remember in some destinations we managed to sell all the carried stock.
It was definitely a very interesting stage of my life. I travelled often, learned a lot from many different cultures, and had the opportunity to discover and use more languages. Being a flight attendant, at least back then and at DLH, I had a lot of time to travel, not just for work, but also for pleasure.
They were very happy times with many funny stories, which include, of course, the ‘classic’ of crazy passengers trying to open doors in the air. It’s impossible by the way but there were always those passengers determined to give it a go!
Flying was a great experience but I always knew that something ‘real’ would come when I was ready.
4. What sparked your interest in the wine industry?
One part of my career was the study of the High End Cuisine and Wine Science and I was very lucky to get very good training in dealing with different wines. One of my wine teachers was really into Spanish wines and he offered me my first taste of Rioja. I will never forget it. That was it: Love at first taste!
I was 19 and I fell in love with Spanish wines; so far I haven’t changed my mind. Spain feels very much like my country and, for me anyway, definitely a country with the most immersive wines. It seems that first tasting was a sign!
Of course, then wine was a hobby, an interest. Now with my work with Crusoe Treasure, it’s like a dream come true.
5. Tell us about Crusoe Treasure. How did you get involved with underwater wines? Your title is Project Manager and Sales Manager but there is far more to it than that, right?
My husband Pedro and I moved to San Sebastian in Spain in 2004. My first job there was in a language academy, teaching English, German and Russian. And then I worked for a film production company as a Sales Manager. In 2012 I joined Otis McAllister Europe, a fusion of Otis McAllister USA and Eva Group Spain. Both companies are family- owned businesses, both with over 100 years of history, and known for their collaborations and ‘non-traditional’ projects.
Royce Nicolaisen and Iñaki Soroa are great friends and partners who have honoured me with leading their extraordinary underwater wine project. (Full details of Crusoe Treasure can be found here in an earlier The Moodie Davitt Report feature).
I am truly proud to be part of this family, where entrepreneurs are given a chance. I feel very fortunate to be able combine work and passion and to follow this project every step of the way. Yes, I am spearheading sales but I am also on a fascinating learning curve which, is not only extending my knowledge of wines, but is opening so many other doors.
It’s been amazing, seeing my life, and the lives of all involved in the project, enriched every day. We are not only producing incredible wines; we are also ‘listening’ to what nature is telling us. Our Bodega, for example, which is maturing in an installation at a depth of 20m, has led to the creation of new species of marine life.
I am very fortunate. There can’t be many jobs where you can be dealing with divers and new marine species one week and tasting the world’s best wines with Richard Branson the next!
It’s a unique project and offers unique marketing possibilities. As probably in all disruptive and innovative projects there was no ‘script’ on how to approach the market. One thing we did understand very early on was that we had to prove to the ‘wine world’ that our project was not just about marketing. I think we have proved that underwater aging makes the wine evolve in a very different and better way compared to traditional aging. It’s like the ocean brings out the most precious values, the youth and the maturity, to offer a perfect balance.
In all the blind tastings we have done, the underwater wines were preferred to the ‘terrestrial’ ones.
6. How do you see Crusoe’s development in travel retail?
To consider the project’s future I think we need to consider its progress to date. When Crusoe Treasure Project was first introduced at ASUTIL in Panama in 2015, I honestly did not expect such acceptance and excitement. I was told so many times that it was regarded as the show’s ‘star’ project.
From the first moment I started to work with Crusoe Treasure I was convinced that travel retail would be the most important channel, but, of course, I had to do lots of ‘homework’ first. It was important to be accepted and recognised by the traditional distribution channels. When Michelin-starred restaurants included us in their exclusive wine lists, I knew we were heading in the right direction.
Now I believe more than ever that Crusoe Treasure is one of the most unique products available in travel retail. There are three keys to the success of such an innovative wine project. First is the backing of a passionate team; we have that. Second is to be able to convince the ‘world’ that our story is a real one; another yes. And the third key is the right timing. Just like the perfectly balanced wine needs its perfect moment to be truly enjoyed, so any new project needs its moment.
Operators and retailers in travel retail are getting to know us; they are talking about us. We are leaving our footprint in travel retail. I think we are in a good place.
7. In your life and travels is there one person who has inspired you?
My older sister Natalia inspired me to travel when I was very young, probably only about five years old. When she was 17 she chose to study at a university over 2,000km away from our home. I promised myself that I would follow in her footsteps.
I was 17 as well when I left home.
8. You are fluent in four languages and are still studying. What is your latest project?
To truly enjoy your work, whatever you are doing, I think it’s very important to keep up to date with trends. It’s also very important to adapt to meet the demands of the future and those of new generations.
I’d realised that I needed new ideas, inspirations and new strategies so started to study again and last November finished a Master’s degree in Marketing and Digital Marketing.
I absolutely loved doing it. Although it wasn’t easy to combine work, family and studying, I would definitely recommend this type of study to anyone in marketing and promotion. The best part for me, of course, is applying my new knowledge to my work.
9. You have travelled and lived all over the world. What’s your favourite destination and why?
Travelling around the world, I have come to the conclusion that I really enjoy learning about different cultures and have no problems adapting to my surroundings. Maybe this has something to do with my multicultural upbringing.
I don’t think I can list a favourite destination. There are so many beautiful places in the world that I have had the pleasure to visit and to get to know; any list would be endless.
I can, however, say that what I experienced during my very first moments in San Sebastian was different. I felt like I wanted to be a part of the place.
It seems like I have found my home. I have been in Spain for 12 years and, apart from those childhood years, have never lived in one place for so long!
San Sebastian and the Basque Country are like a hidden treasure. I feel I have found my balance here but I guess that is not surprising when you consider that San Sebastian is considered as the gourmet capital of the world. It is, in my opinion, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, thanks to the azure-coloured Cantabrian Sea, its golden beaches, and the green peaks of the surrounding mountains. It’s special.
And still, I don’t dare to say that my journey has finished here.
10. And, to finish, tell us about your family, your interests, your treasures. What do you do to relax?
From any early age I have enjoyed my independence but I am very close to my wonderful family who all live in Germany. I am especially close to my mother; we speak every day.
The most important treasure for me, and for my Venezuela-born husband Pedro (we met in Bali but that is another story!), is our ten-year-old daughter Sofia. And recently my family in San Sebastian gained its fourth member: an adorable puppy called Wally who has brought lots of fun into our lives.
Believe it or not, Sofia has already read her first book on wine. It’s written for children of course but I think it is important to know about the wine culture, especially when you live in Spain.
We’re a sporty family. Sofia’s favourites at the moment are horse riding and skateboarding. My husband is a surfer, I love to run – I used to do half-marathons but don’t have the time to train now – and Wally loves the beach; so we spend a lot of time by the ocean.
And, besides wine, I have another passion which actually goes perfectly with wine and makes me relax and disconnect. I love to cook. When I am not travelling I cook every day. My favourite is Asian but Basque food is unbelievable with so much fish, meat and wonderful fresh vegetables. I love daily dinners with my family and on weekends with our friends. I believe this is the reason why I have so many friends!
My grandmother always said ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’. Ha, I think that applies to everyone, men, women and children!
*PREVIOUSLY FEATURED IN TEN EASY PIECES