Friday, 27 November 2009

Wine riots and the economy

Margaret Thatcher isn't popular among those of the liberal/left persuasion. In fact, she's pretty unpopular in popular culture generally. Her policies towards the miners in particular have been attacked as heartless and engendering the destruction of a way of life. As a child of the 80s I am ambivalent. I understand that the law of a free economy should be one that does not support unprofitable businesses. Supply should equal demand. Etcetera.

So why do I feel a twinge of sympathy for the Languedoc winegrowers on protest in the south of France? I have little time for their vandalism, but only because it's so pathetic. Others get their nickers in a twist about this. They smashed windows in a supermarket and a bank. Well, anyone who loves food has little sympathy for supermarkets and banks...well, banking isn't the world's favourite profession right now.

A lot of people feel they are wrong to protest about a guaranteed income, much as the miners might have been wrong to strike back in the 80s. On Twitter Jancis Robinson said of the protesters: 'They really do think we all owe them a living'. A comment I admit to also sympathising with. After all, why should EU farmers be subsidised for producing food and drink we don't need? It's the law of liberal or free economies that we should not have to prop them up. We shouldn't be interfering with it by supporting this over-production.

Well, this prompts a few questions. Is not asking people to buy locally-sourced food, in season, not interfering? If we took away all subsidies for EU produce, wouldn't we end up destroying hundreds of thousands of livelihoods across the member states? Do you, for one second, believe the USA (the bastion of liberal and free trade) does not do what it can to protect its own farmers against overseas competition?

And surely, a removal of subsidies should mean increased competition, and thus a better product? Or does increased competition mean a cheaper product, not necessarily a better one? I'd argue for the latter.

It's very easy to dismiss, offhand, protesters and picket lines. Especially when it consists of ten farmers standing 'round a brazier, enjoying a day off. But carrying our love of a free trade market to its logical conclusion, you are forced to pushing a lot of people into misery.

In Europe, it seems, much of my taxes go to being squandered by MEPs in Brussels (I'd love, for example, to see their accounts published in much the same way as MPs' expenses were revealed in the UK). I don't mind some of that keeping a few more grape-growers in business.

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Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Mariah Carey shows me the way

Actually, I've changed heart. I don't blame you anymore. Any of you. If there's a market for a $1,000-a-bottle Champagne to be created from nothing, and people are willing to buy it, then great. Good luck to 'em.

Because Mariah Carey is endorsing a Champagne called 'Angel', it costs $980 a bottle (for the cheapest), the packaging looks suspiciously like Jay-Z's Ace of Spades, and much like Ace of Spades, there is no indication of provenance (other than that it uses Grand Cru vineyards), it seems no-one has tasted it and the only recommendation is that Carey likes it.

She wants the winner to feel extra special and this champagne is certainly one way of making sure that comes true.

Now I'm going to make a prediction here: it's not that good. Now I know I haven't tasted it, so I'm out on a bit of a limb but for the most part I can tell you that no wine that costs $1,000 a bottle is worth $1,000. And, considering it's endorsed by the artistic void that is Mariah Carey, this only reinforces my prejudice.

All it does is open up the whole bloody problem, from Champagne to Bordeaux to Napa to Picpoul de Pinet. Anyone about to attack Angel (and yes, that includes me) has to look at the value of all the wines they pay for. Is Pétrus really worth it?

But there's another, much more worrying trend. You know how annoying it is when your friends ask you 'but how much is it' when you pour them a glass of wine? Well, now you can tell them it's Mariah Carey's favourite Champagne. Or Christian Audigier's wine. Or it was in Jay-Z's video. Your friends will be able to relate.

There is a market opening up for celebrities to get their own wine, or at least to endorse it. Wine experts and their views don't count, but the PR and the marketing does. Experts are annoying, fickle, know what they are talking about, and have tasted a lot of the stuff. Why let the possibility of a dodgy rating get in the way? Get Mariah to tell the press she loves the stuff and it wont matter what some bloke called Bob in Maryland (or some nerdy magazine for old people) thinks, because Mariah's got more of a following than any of them.

You are witnessing the fantasmagorical world of celebrity crowbarring itself into the cosy world of wine. You wait til Sarah Jessica Parker buys a 'castle' in Bordeaux. It will be a very questioning time. For all of us.

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Friday, 13 November 2009

The future of wine writing (part two)

I've surfaced from the online coverage of winefuture hoping that no-one else has been listening to it. This is because I'm steadily coming to the conclusion that if things continue, wine writers won't matter and the ones that do matter might not be able to get themselves heard.

The main problem: we've all got to be friends.

Many people on Twitter (a self-selecting bunch, I admit) kept banging on about how all these new web tools would bring wine into a glorious new age. Everyone, from writer to marketer kept harping on about it. One person even talked about 'developing the future for the common good'. What does that mean?

Well it means that the all-encompassing power of the internet and its tools, such as the aforementioned Twitter, will be able to bring wine lovers into a great global community.

We'll just have one big chat about wine.

So who's got the most important voice? Well, whoever's got the best statistics. It's all 'hits' and 'unique users', which only shows that some wine websites have good search engine rankings. Although a good search engine ranking means more relevance to the subject in hand, it doesn't mean the writing is (a) any good or (b) objective. Because if wine estates got their websites right, their website should rank top in google when someone types in their name. Relevant? Yes. Friendly? Yes. Impartial? Probably not.

If I wanted to blow the dream that we can all be a happy, sharing community with wine in common, I'd haul up the example of Jancis Robinson. And she might well be more canny than most wine writers. Refusing to put the all-inclusive '#winefuture' sign in front of most of her Twitter posts, she ensured that anyone looking for (her) coverage of winefuture had to go to her Twitter page and did not participate in the general discussion. Assuming she had an audience it bizarrely restores some of my faith in the future of wine writers and their willing readers.

Some people really do have an audience. With producers like Randall Grahm leading the way on Twitter (he has a quarter of a million people following him) the idea that wine writers can use social media to communicate with consumers is, to all intents and purposes, over. If corporately applied, producers using Twitter will be able to jam the airwaves with endless, self-congratulatory dross (imagine it: "Lafite RT @MichelRolland Just put the microx bulb 2cm too deep in the Cabernet tank ROFLOL").

Talking of 'bigging yourself up', another theme was the importance of 'the human story' behind the brand, or the 'personal content' of its website. The subtext here is twofold: the product itself (what's in the bottle) is merely a cipher. What is important is the story that goes with it. If you think some of the dross on back labels is bad, brace yourselves - it's going to get worse. Wine may well be on the brink of entering the vacuous world of the cult of personality.

So if the quality of the product is of less importance, that everyone's voice is getting mixed up, and we're all trying to be friends, where does that leave (a) the future quality of the wines we drink, (b) those whose job it is to assess them and (c) how on earth we communicate about wine?

What's the solution? Well, I have to be honest here - there isn't one. If anything, winefuture perfectly illustrated the future of wine. In a mix of voices, some were good (interesting), some were bad (self-promoting), it was just impossible to tell which was which from the program.

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The future of wine writing (part one)

I'm not even at winefuture in Rioja and I feel I can contribute to the debate. For starters, this is both a good and a bad thing. Good in that it shows the usefulness of social media (two words I hate - it's like calling a text message a conversation), and bad in that, well, I really should be there.

Firstly, Gary Vaynerchuck of winelibrarytv fame had all the bloggers and twitters in raptures. Which is fair enough: he's very good. I'm also sure his contribution to the discussion was the most valuable. But we all seem to suffer collective myopia when it comes to Vaynerchuck because, after all, he's actually a wine merchant.

Odd, then, that he's up there on a podium with a bunch of journos, telling other journos how to communicate on the web. If that's the future (which if more producers and salesmen were more canny, it would be), then I'm sorry folks but objective wine writing has died.

But, I hear everyone cry, his heart's in the right place. And this heralds my second point:

There seems to be this unspoken, collective idea that because we're all on social media (staring blankly into a screen with a glass of wine by the keyboard, blogging, twittering, etc) we are collectively nice with each other. We're facebook friends with PRs; our twitters are re-tweeted by producers; and our blogs are commented on by 'rival' journalists.

How can the volume of information (from all sources, be they PR or journalist) that these social media sites provide make the future of independent, clear-sighted wine writing any more secure?

Because, as Gary Vaynerchuck has shown, the content (or the context) doesn't matter, it's the delivery that counts...

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