Friday, 2 April 2010

Kim Jong-Il and Chateau Latour

Are you sitting comfortybold two-square on your botty? Then I'll begin. Decanter's April Fools story backfired massively yesterday when its website was forced to publish a retraction. Yes, (I think we can assume it is unlikely that Decanter planned the retraction as part of its day of fun) it was forced to publish a retraction of a joke.

Just take a minute to think about that.

Right. Let us continue. The original story went something along the lines of Kim Jong-Il buying up the entire 2009 allocation of Château Latour's second wine, Les Forts de Latour, after sending a crack team to Bordeaux to the En Primeur barrel tastings.

He was rumoured, the story went, to be enamoured of reports of the wine's balance and length, and had bought the wines at the same price as last year's first growths (around €100).

Now, it is obvious that someone didn't see the funny side. You could argue, like Tim Atkin did on Twitter, that the whole story wasn't very funny. To be fair to Tim, I can see his point. But it's worth remembering that Atkin won't need two excuses to stick a knife into Decanter's back (even a tiny one) considering they're rivals as far as wine competitions are concerned.

And not everyone laughs at April Fools jokes. Indeed, previous Decanter attempts were not, in themselves, overly amusing (one of the most popular - the naming of a sixth First Growth - is a case in point). Therefore it can't be retracted because it's not funny. So who asked them to pull the story?

Well, it could have been Kim Jong-Il. Assuming he turns a blind eye to his fleet of Mercedes cars, he might have seen an association with a product so deeply decadent and obviously capitalist as a Bordeaux First Growth as an insult. Yes, you might say that shows precious little sense of humour but one can, perhaps, quickly forgive our dear leader for such faults.

Or it could have been Château Latour.

The first possibility is that Latour were genuinely concerned that this 'story' would damage sales of Les Forts de Latour - or Latour itself. You might think this is a bit far-fetched but look at the language of Decanter's retraction: it says little of any offence caused but seeks to reassure people that 'Forts de Latour will be available as normal'.

Now I probably don't need to tell you that if an April Fools story has a First Growth Bordeaux château worried about the impact it might have on sales, Bordeaux is in a great deal more financial trouble than it is letting on. In fact, it's terrifying.

The second possibility is that Latour did not like the association with North Korea. This is, perhaps, fair enough. You certainly wouldn't want your customers (these days they're probably hedge-fund managers or Wall St bankers or Russian oligarchs) to think you'll be doing business with dangerous communists. Nor would they want your average person to think they were associated with such objects of anger/ridicule as the ruling party of North Korea.

But if that's true, we have to forget that Bordeaux has been positively stepping over itself to tell everyone how much interest it gets from that other commmunist power (and North Korean neighbour): China. Indeed, Latour's distant brother Lafite has even invested in that dubious country.

And what about the ethics Latour is trying to protect? If it doesn't want the bankers and the oligarchs to worry about it dealing with someone as unpopular as Kim Jong-Il, why is it not worried about how average people view its wines (as consumed by people as unpopular as bankers and oligarchs)?

In fact, top wine has a long history of pleasing despots (and some producers are even proud of the association): Cristal went to the Czars, Napoleon liked Chambertin and de Gaulle swore by Drappier.

Maybe it was the First Growths acting together to stop the story? But then I doubt that - from everything I hear, Latour doesn't exactly sit well at the table with the other four.

So you have to admit, whether or not the joke is funny, either Kim Jong-Il or Château Latour are pretty insecure to get upset about it. Unfortunately, they're also very damned angry. So from now on, there will be no laughing at North Korea or Frédéric Engerer, they will be taken seriously, there is nothing to laugh about in either of their cases, and no matter how bad the joke, they will not stand for it.

Scared? I'm terrified.

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Monday, 29 March 2010

Does every wine region need a Rene Barbier?

Ryan Opaz was paying more attention than me. As part of our trip to Alimentaria 2010 last week, we went on an organised jaunt around the Empordà region of northern Catalonia. At one of the wineries we visited, the proprietor said something I paid little heed to. It was only when Ryan brought it up again over dinner that its import became clear.

What did they say?

'We need a René Barbier' Ryan quoted.

Now, say what you like about René Barbier (personally, I reckon he's a genial, bearded Frenchman-in-exile [cf. Jean-François Hebrard of one of Toro's top wineries, Quinta Quietud]) or his wine, Clos Mogador (I know it's not cool to like the wines Robert Parker does, but I reckon it's pretty bloody good), the man is the jewel in Priorat's crown. Barbier was the bloke who put Priorat on the map; he stands as the biggest name in the region; ask for a top Priorat, people say 'Clos Mogador'.

So why would a winemaker in an interesting, small, up-and-coming region like Empordà be waiting for their very own René Barbier? Well, because once you have a big name with lots of praise/points, the idea is that everyone rides on the back of it.

There is a school of thought (to which I subscribe) that says this is not necessarily a good thing, but it might be germane to examine why, currently, the 'René Barbier phenomenon' exists.

Wines are not as ingrained as they once were. In Europe, previous generations drank wine with every meal. The producer (often a local co-op) was more or less irrelevant, as was the provenance - it was normally the closest wine region to hand.

But consumption has dropped dramatically, co-inciding with increasing awareness of brand, name and reputation, often led, it must be said, by savvy marketing. Therefore, perhaps coming from the consumer's privilege to have an abundance of choice (or from ignorance - it depends on your point of view), we gravitate towards the best-known name or the name with the best reputation or the name we see in advertising. This also applies to producers vying for share in the export market.

Thus the situation I experienced on the Toro stand at Alimentaria last week. Almost all wineries in Toro had a bottle of their wine for punters to taste, yet it was no surprise to see the Numanthia wine (the 'Barbier' of Toro) empty with an hour or so. In fact, despite a tiny number of die-hards tasting as many wines as the tannin and alcohol would allow, the majority of toffs who came to the stand gravitated immediately towards the Numanthia (like a socialite to Louis Vuitton) and proceeded to eulogise loudly to their compatriots.

It is possible that we are coming to a situation whereby in order for one to 'know' Rioja, one must have tasted Muga or Ramirez de Ganuza; Toro, Numanthia or Paciencia; Priorat, Barbier or Palacios; but no more. Because we are playing this game of identifying the greats, of requiring a 'hero' for every region, we might also kill off a more demanding, tougher but more interesting, life of adventure.

It was even true among ourselves - the invitees to Alimentaria - over dinner that evening. We ended up discussing 4Kilos, Mallorca's 'Barbier' wine made famous by top Spanish taster José Peñin. Again, the 'top wine' elected by the 'top' critic.

And so Empordà might spend its days hoping that Jancis or Parker (yes, themselves the cream of the crop) will elect one of their number to the Pantheon of required drinking (i.e. 'oh, if you go to Empordà, you must taste [insert 'Barbier' name here]').

While assured this will indeed promote the level of the region, we might lament the situation that allows the jewel in the crown to become all we see of the regal headgear.

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Saturday, 27 March 2010

Steve Heimoff makes me lose control

Normally, I would have posted a response to Steve Heimoff's awful blog on the non-relationship between film and wine criticism at the bottom of his literary meanderings but I've tried it before (from what I understand, the process involves posting a response and then waiting a few days for it to be approved - while the man himself concocts a dismissive counter-response to be posted alongside). So I'm doing it here.

His kind of blog drives me insane. The more so knowing that Steve Heimoff is clearly aware of what he is doing.

If I had written about wine bloggers the way Armond White wrote about film critics, there would be armed militias of bloggers marching on my house, carrying pitchforks, packing lead, and hoisting “Wanted!” posters showing my face in the crosshairs...

Then Heimoff goes on to say about online wine critics just what White said about film critics. Go read the blog.

To precis his blog it goes like this: 'If I did what White did, I'd anger a lot of people. This is what White did. Imagine applying it to wine. But I'm not applying it to wine. We just need to think about the essence of what White is saying. But what White is talking about is very different to wine. Wine won't be the same as White's subject. But our subject is still inspiriational.'

That's it.

If we read Heimoff's blog as it stands, without accepting that there might be a parti-pris on his part, the above is exactly what he is saying. In other words, he's not saying a lot - essentially, it's sheer provocation.

Another reading is to assume that Heimoff is simply saying that film criticism is a more important domain than that of wine criticism. An argument I'd have some sympathy with.

I presume that was Robert Joseph's reading of it when, on Twitter, he linked to Heimoff's piece saying, 'Thoughtful Steve Heimoff piece about relative importance of film and wine criticism'.

But if this is the simple focus of the piece (that wine will not attain the cultural importance of film), why is there any need to do this:

Now, if you wanted, you could substitute the word “wine” for the word “film” in White’s speech, and what you’d get would be an older wine writer’s blast at a younger generation of wine bloggers whom he deemed totally incompetent. Try it yourself.

This is the most cynical of provocation, especially when he has the gall to say: 'Bloggers! I am not saying these things! So put down your pitchforks and, please, don’t be stalking me'.

And all of a sudden we find ourselves in a head-spinning world wherein Heimoff is saying 'I wrote the message but don't shoot the messenger' while additionally complaining about message-writing nowadays. In fact, the premise of the whole piece makes my brain want to kick itself out of my skull.

I am so so tired of seeing people write blogs that say something controversial or interesting but then finish with the writer distancing him or herself completely from the subject in hand. It has become very fashionable, not least because it generates a big response (which means increased page impressions for your blog) without the blogger having an opinion of their own (thus not alienating a readership).

On the other hand, we might accept that Heimoff has a hatchet to hone. Therefore we assume that he is appropriating White's attack on 'film critics' and applying it to wine; that he believes, as White does, that the internet is nurturing a lot of poor or questionable criticism. If only we knew.

Sorry Steve, but I am going to pick up the pitchfork, I'm going to hound you and I'm going to drag you into the village square and make you tell us what you really think.

  • Film critics wishing to be more popular could do well to look at the model used by Mark Kermode on the BBC. Fully embracing social media his hugely entertaining podcasts alongside Simon Mayo are massively successful, not just in the UK.

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  • Friday, 26 March 2010

    Alimentaria 2010: How to make the best of a wine fair...

    This is the first of my Alimentaria 2010 posts, following on from an excellent trip to Barcelona for this massive food and wine fair. In this short video, I asked three people (a newbie to this kind of fair, an old hand and a someone who had a stand there) to give their advice to anyone wishing to sample the delights of such an event...



  • Disclaimer Believeing as I do in complete transparency, I must add that the majority of my expenses during the fair (including transport) were paid-for by the Catalan Institute for Wine and Life (www.gencat.net/darp/incavi.htm) and Freixenet (www.freixenet.es). I'll leave readers to judge my level of bias.

    I should also add that I probably owe Ryan and Gabriella Opaz of Catavino and Andre Ribeirinho of Adegga several coffees and a breakfast between them.

  • Thursday, 18 March 2010

    Social media and wine

    Many people in the (it must be said) print domain of wine journalism belittle bloggers and website runners who write about wine. Many established bloggers also call into question their counterparts with less pedigree, and in this blog I'd like to tackle some of the issues they address and to explore other avenues or upturn a few more stones.

    The first is the example of Stephen Tanzer, an established wine critic in his own right (ie before the digital revolution), who holds the opinion, like many of his breed, that part-timers do not hold the same value as full-timers ('the 10,000 hour rule' he quotes) for the consumer looking for informed opinions about wine.

    Most bloggers who have day jobs that do not involve wine tasting are simply not in a position to offer this kind of context. They are engaged in another form of wine writing.

    But when Tanzer posits that (a) full-time wine writing/tasting and (b) in-depth knowledge of the wineries and regions is required, half of his argument is off.

    Saying it is paramount that wine writers (to be taken seriously) have 'visited the wineries they are reporting on, often several times, [and] have tasted their wines annually for many years,' leads us to one conclusion: namely that the best people to comment are the winemakers, not the journalists. For it is the winemaker who invariably has a knowledge of older vintages, of the winery, and of the land, that easily surpasses that of almost any experienced journalist or taster. Undoubtedly the winemaker as critic is an unwanted situation but I would treat any journalist who says they are unaffected by a winery tour with a great deal of scepticism.

    I do agree, however, that experience should count for something.

    Nonetheless, having deconstructive sympathies, I am deeply enamoured of the notion that terroir, history, the winery, the label, should all count for nothing. That, essentially, the wine should stand for itself is much as important as its pedigree when assessing it, just as the author of a book should be of no importance to one's interpretation of it.

    (The problem we have is that, in many cases, readers and drinkers do want to know more about a wine they like - and who are we to deny them?)

    It is also important for people worldwide to understand that while great wine critics always tell the truth in their tasting note, they never tell the whole truth (to paraphrase Lacan). Just because Robert Parker does not smell the gentle fragrance of tamarillo and coconut fronds on a wine does not mean it isn't there.

    Thus, I believe, there is no real need of authority, or of any great understanding of the conditions behind the bottle of wine you, I, or Steve Tanzer tastes. It is, in this land of merit, merely the expression of your analysis that counts.

    Attempting to stem this by implying that these blogging upstarts are part-timers would be akin to to telling Robert Parker not to bother with the Wine Advocate in the late 70s. Indeed people will vote on this with the click of their mouse (a reason, perhaps, why many established wine writers are frightened of the internet, for they have not the backing of an editor but rely solely on themselves).

    And this is where we meet two distinct branches in social media (which are often combined). The first is to be informative - namely to publish something useful for whoever is reading you. Robert Parker is a relatively good example of this, often only publishing recommendations and tasting notes on Twitter.

    The second branch within social media will be, I think, it's biggest problem and it's biggest draw. That is the notion that social media should entertain, or at least engage, its readership.

    This takes several forms, including 'what I'm doing' updates. Much of it, I believe, runs the line between entertainment and supreme bragging. For instance, is Neal Martin telling me that he is comparing Petrus and Le Pin over lunch entertaining or is he showing off?

    Another aspect of this (which Martin's comment might well fall into) is to create discussion as part of the entertainment. The wonderful thing about discussion for those who engender it, is that it creates noise around your brand - the same is true of print journalism (why should newspapers have a letters page?). Discussion on your domain pulls people in (and online this increases your advertising revenue). However many would argue that discussion is the essence of social media.

    But in many cases it seems discussion is created by an authority that is unwilling to take a side themselves. This is either cowardice or arrogance, but I believe many people who respond to them are still naive to the ruse.

    Let me quote two examples of this starting a discussion without entering it oneself (the second is a reaction):

    James Suckling: 'Is the world as excited as some say over 2009 Bordeaux? I think I will sleep on this question. Thoughts?'

    Daniel Posner: 'Why does Robert Parker ask questions here and never respond to anyone? It cracks me up! "Talk amongst yourselves while I go take a crap!"'

    In cases like this, we should always ask ourselves which way is the conversation going. Personally, I'm sceptical of the underlying tenets and connotations of 'social media' but I may yet be proved wrong. Indeed, open and frank discussions about wines on the internet is perhaps something to be wished. Just mind who hosts those discussions.

    Moving on, the notion that blogging does not have to be of any practical use to a potential consumer - that it should only entertain - is also dangerous. If bloggers react to criticism by saying 'well, I'm just living my passion' they should perhaps not get so upset when the wine authorities belittle their cause.

    But, I believe, entertainment may well be one half of the key. Tanzer is partly correct when he says online wine writing 'will succeed or fail on the quality of its content', but he should add 'and entertainment' after the word quality. The issue, as I'm sure most people are well aware of, is that wine writing as it was does not communicate as well as it should to the general public. Tanzer's own sign-off 'Wino-in-Chief' is tacit admission of this (namely that there are two levels of discourse among wine lovers - see, for instance, many of the sign-offs at the bottom of posters' thoughts on wine bulletin boards: "Rien ne me semble délectable que le vin que je trouve à table...", "Buon Vino, Buon Cibo, Buoni Amici", "Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more" - all unconcerned with the minuitae of their posts yet eager to show they stand on common ground).

    But the moment print journalists and wine authorities bemoan the internet as a wine publishing platform because it is amateur, is the moment they have lost because:

    Firstly, if they cared that much, they would meet the enemy on the ground of the debate - online - and proceed to better him/her.

    Secondly, why did a magazine or a publication give them their job in the first place? Surely, when they started out, there were thousands of people the world over with the same credentials as them. Wine blogging is simply new wine writing starting out. Where it differs is that no one needs to worm their way into print and while there are strong arguments to say that that is a good thing, I would be happy to debate the point.

    Thirdly, and the biggest problem, is that, as many wine writers well know, while they might be able to taste very well, their communication can be lacking.

    While paper publications will, I believe, remain - albeit with a much more well-off and 'hardcore' audience, it is becoming increasingly clear that the internet will be the place where everyone else goes to get their information on wine. We might all have to take it that bit more seriously.

  • If you've got this far, well done and I'm sorry. I admit this post breaks my self-imposed rule that blogs should be of a digestible size and I am willing to concede the final line is a bit wet. Hopefully the journey up to the front gate was more enjoyable than the tea and biscuits waiting in the kitchen.

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  • Wednesday, 17 March 2010

    The rise of the traditional wine

    "The only shocking stance now is to be traditional," said UK writer Alain de Botton on Twitter the other week.

    And oh so applicable to the wine world, is it not?

    I believe it probably started with the release of Mondovino back in 2004 (Jonathan Nossiter's interesting but overly long and indulgent wine film which was the very embodiment of de Botton's statement). Nossiter's film, while exposing many important issues in the wine world today - which includes exposing the Antinoris as fascist sympathisers - had as its conclusion this idea that the 'traditional' was to be defended.

    [Nossiter may well disagree with my interpretation: after the film's release, he had the ultimate intellectual arrogance to not state his position. This was a commendable stance only in the sense of letting the film speak for itself.]

    But now it seems the 'traditional' is gaining over the 'modern'. In fact, there is less and less talk of new oak, extraction times, micro-oxygenation, 'Parkerised', and more of 'hand-harvested', 'manual', biodynamics (the ultimate in traditional), 'organic', and so on.

    From this we might tackle a few things.

    Firstly, it is becoming increasingly clear that Robert Parker (an unwitting advocate of the 'modern') is being overtaken by the times. I think his influence, especially in Bordeaux, will continue for a good while. But, whether it is through his support of a 'modern' style or through the simple fact that internet wine writers will become the new Robert Parker (history is repeating itself) or both, I think change is in the air.

    Secondly, what does this tell us about progress in the wine industry? For instance, is it possible to get any more new oak into a wine? Is it possible to make anything more labour-intensive than hand-harvesting and manual destemming? Can we find a wine that has more alcohol/extraction than went before? No. In a certain sense we've reached the boundaries of 'innovative' winemaking (progress if you wish) and thus, perhaps, we are seeing a return to craftsmanship.

    As a sub-clause, this stance enables us to question what 'progress' really is. For instance, when we say so-and-so have 'made progress' in the last few years, what exactly are we talking about?

    Thirdly, the economy may well have something to do with it. Remember, overheads drop considerably when one does not vinify Cabernet in 200% new oak. It makes business sense to be 'traditional'.

    Lastly, wine is a traditional beverage in itself. How many people worry about traditional winemaking becoming a thing of the past in Barolo? OK, maybe not a lot - Italy seems to have a healthy quota of opinionated winemakers - but you see my point?

    But, if we are, in essence, re-acquainting ourselves with the traditional, what of 'progress' in the wine world? Should we perhaps not be a little beware of this 'traditional' trend?

    Perhaps we should. While I wholly embrace a multitude of wine styles, some of which many people might find appalling, we have to remember that whatever his faults, Robert Parker did start out with one criteria: the wine had to be good.

    Personally, I don't think wine has to be 'good', but in the last 30 years, the wine industry has grown hugely and as we start to immerse ourselves in the traditional, perhaps we should not forget our 30 years of 'progress'.

  • The start of the return to the 'traditional' could go back to Bordeaux's 2003 vintage. In itself a polarising vintage, but it was the Parker and Robinson spat over Chateau Pavie that could been seen as the high-tide mark of the 'modern'. Who wrote that article, I wonder...

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  • Tuesday, 16 March 2010

    Wine and its metaphors

    Whenever I attempt to make a point about something wine-related, I tend to roll out my favourite wine metaphor: books. It's easy to equate wine with books: we have our favourite authors and some of their books are better than others; sometimes we just feel like a straightforward thriller, sometimes we prefer something a little more intellectually stimulating. Although I won't go into literary deconstruction theory and its application to wine here (that's another blog post, coming shortly), it is a parallel that has served me well.

    Other people like to use works of art as a parallel to wine. Some use other objects of desire or enjoyment or status including diamonds or designer bags.

    But the massive problem with all these metaphors for wine is that they don't function unless you assume that you can only enjoy a book for an evening, a diamond for a day or a bag for an hour. Because essentially, wine self-destructs.

    Other metaphors some (in fact there are more than 'some', I have met quite a lot) people like to use is that of a woman or a woman's body - you know: 'a woman is like a fine wine' or 'a New World wine is like a woman with fake breasts'. While I can understand the aesthetic rationale (wine/women as objects of desire and pleasure) behind this parallel, it often seems to me to say more about the person saying it than it does about the wine.

    Think I'm being over-sensitive on this issue? Well, a woman last night told me a winemaker once said to her, 'a vine is like a woman: the more it suffers the better the outcome'.

    Indeed.

    As I was writing this I thought I might have hit on the perfect metaphor in applying the 'wine is a woman' metaphor globally, removing the implied desire and 'saying wine is a human being'. Indeed, we are the product of the vine (nature) and the winemaker (upbringing), we are geographically similar, and we age similar to fine wine.

    But the aptitude of this depends on your vision of the human being. If, like so many people, you believe that human beings are essentially the same the world over, then the metaphor is holed below the water line.

    You'd also have to say that you only get 12 chances (a case of wine) to see an old friend you met once when s/he was a child.

    Yet again, it's a good metaphor but perfect it ain't.

    I was going to end with one of those lovely and typical blog endings: 'do you have a perfect metaphor for wine?' but I don't want to be disingenuous. Unlike 'all the world's a stage', I don't think any metaphors for wine are capable of being extended.

    Well that's a whole morning wasted.

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