Thursday, 28 January 2010

Wine is political

Last week I might have angered a few people. Well, maybe about five because that’s how many stopped following me on Twitter. What I did then was to attempt to make parallels between wine and politics, wondering why high-end wines appear to follow the line of right-wing political thought, or at least that of the economic ‘elite’.

And you've guessed it, I’m going to do it again. Because yesterday I read about the movers and shakers in Davos being served Yquem, Cheval Blanc and Krug. Well, the organisers of the tasting realised that it might be a little insensitive to hold it in Davos, so it was held at Zurich airport instead. But once again I have to ask myself what function these wines serve and what LVMH is doing hobnobbing with these people in the first place?

Is great wine – and there is no doubt that we are talking about very good wines – only deserved by the rich, the decision-makers, the ‘ruling class’ if you will?

Read into the tone of these two blogs, one from FT, the other from the New York Times. ‘It’s alright for some’ they seem to say, in that slightly piqued, slightly indignant fashion (although I suspect Gideon from the FT actually quite enjoyed it - who wouldn't).

But you have to wonder. Oh, the frolics, the enjoyment, the luxury that mere plebs cannot understand... Does everyone sit round the fire in the big Davos bunker, have a Cohiba smoke-off while a bevy of eastern European prostitutes occupy themselves on the roulette table?

Has wine become the Nero’s fiddle? Marie-Antoinette’s cake for the masses?

Perhaps you think I’m reading too much into it (and I’m beginning to bore myself, I admit) so let me leave you with Roland Barthes. He might have written it in the 50s but you’ll see my point:
It is true that wine is a good and fine substance, but it is no less true that its production is deeply involved in French capitalism, whether it is that of the private distillers or that of the big settlers in Algeria who impose on the Muslims, on the very land of which they have been dispossessed, a crop of which they have no need, while they lack even bread. There are thus very engaging myths which are however not innocent. And the characteristic of our current alienation is precisely that wine cannot be an unalloyedly blissful substance, except if we wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation.

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Why wine prices must be capped at both ends

To begin with, I was appalled by this interview. Firstly, it tells a readership of students that a great way to do business is to make the world's priciest Champagne (it costs nearly £1,000 a bottle) and flog it with the help of a superstar. Secondly, don't bother getting an expert to taste it guys (Anthony Rose writes for the Indie, at the very least he could have stepped in) or ask if its value-for-money, because that's not interesting is it? Why let the quality of the product get in the way when you can slap a whopping price tag on it and find a celebrity as an ambassador? I've written similar here.

And then a wave of apathy slopped over the bows of HMS Indignant. I admit I have a lot of sympathy with the make-money-from-the-dumb-rich school of thought. If someone somewhere thinks that a Mariah Carey endorsement and a price tag the size of a charity cheque makes a good bottle of bubbly, fair enough. Go for it. Empty your wallet. You certainly won't hear much protest about the pricing coming from Champagne because, let's be honest, our reply is likely to contain the words 'pot', 'kettle' and 'black'. Remember who's Moet & Chandon's 'brand ambassador'?

But then I steadied the tiller, rang the ship's bell, and set a different course.

Now, imagine you're that gifted of breeds: a winemaker. You've made your wine, it's all labelled and ready to go but you can't decide on the price. Filled with a sense of socialist values, you want to make great wine accessible to the masses, so you consider pricing it at about £6 a bottle. But you're also proud of your wine and it becomes clear that at £6 a bottle, no one is going to take you seriously. Sure, someone might give it the 'good value' or 'good QPR' moniker, but you'll never make a name for yourself. You'll never achieve greatness or cult status, even if your production is tiny.

So you price it at £25 a bottle and people will start to take note.

Now I'm prepared to accept that there are some holes in that scenario: it's always possible that a wine critic might see you as a £6 genius, or that your £25 bottle will be forced down by the market. But, be honest, it holds true.

A perceptive comment on my last blog inferred that there are two different markets - the lower echelon (Jacob's Creek, Yellow Tail, etc) and the more serious wines at a more serious price for more serious people. I might make a case for the middle ground (a third way, perhaps) in wine but I'll let it stand.

Both come in for attack. One is the embodiment of wealth, colossal fortunes and wine collection. This is lambasted by many, especially Robert Parker, because wines are not meant to be collected, they're meant to be drunk.

The other is the exceptionally low-priced wines found in supermarkets. So low that they are the focus of attacks by health groups saying this increases binge drinking. Personally, I never got wasted on cheap wine, but that's another blog.

So my conclusion is thus: wine prices should be capped at both ends. Make a bottle of wine a minimum £10 ($15) spend and make the highest £100 a bottle (perhaps with allowances for experimentation so that if the winemaker can prove he spent, say, £150 per bottle on overheads, he is allowed a decent, but not excessive, profit margin).

Not only do you start to tackle the problem of wine abuse, you tackle the problem of price abuse.

And once you take the motivation of money out of the winemaking equation and out of the satisfaction equation, everyone can get on and enjoy wine for what it is, rather than be concerned about who endorsed it or how many thousands of pounds, dollars or yen it cost.

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Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Wine additives

Back in November, while the wine world was in Rioja talking about the future, I penned a piece on the future of wine writing. In it I said I was worried about the kind of information the consumer would be receiving from new media.

While Twitter and video and blogs are very useful sources of information, I still have enormous worries about the popularity of Randall Grahm and Gary Vaynerchuck. Because one's a winemaker and the other's a wine seller. Whether they like it or not, they have conflicts of interest. And they are the most listened-to people in the wine realm of social media.

So what about this piece (a blog which I got through Twitter...) on additives in wine? A pertinent question. Are we ready to be told how much Tartaric Acid, sugar, Citric Acid, PMS (Potassium Metabisulfite), tannin, etc. has been put into our wine? Personally, I can take it either way. It's like corks. There are better, more scientifically-proven closures out there, but I'm quite happy to be blind to that, just as I am happy to be blind to what goes on in the winery.

Because whether you like it or not, any given winery in the world has a room of test tubes and pipettes. You have the option to see winemaking as scientific food production (which is essentially what it is) or you can shut your eyes and believe it is an esoteric craft, touched by nature. The more we clamour for information, the more we risk losing part of the enjoyment of wine.

But let me return to my original point. Who wrote the blog? Well, CleanSkins Wine Company. They specialise in organic and biodynamic wine. They patently have an interest in promoting wines that have no 'additives'.

many wine lovers would cringe if they knew how many additives are routinely added to commercial wines, even more so if they also understood why the additives were being used

Which is a fair point. But. Point one: PMS is regularly used in making biodynamic wine - because sulphur is a naturally-occurring element. Now, find me a wine additive that isn't naturally-occurring...can't think of one? Thought not. Point two: isn't burying a cow's horn filled with cow dung in the ground an additive? If you believe it has an effect on the wine, then surely it is. Much like irrigation - it's not a naturally-occurring phenomenon and it isn't directly added to the wine, but it does affect it.

These bigger questions go unasked because (a) ClearSkins Wine wisely avoids them and (b) just as the consumer might have limited knowledge of what goes on in the winery laboratory, we have even less understanding of what biodynamics or organics entails.

So in calling for more detailed labelling and at the same time asking for a more natural approach we are, in effect, going from an increased popular understanding towards something more esoteric. Which is much the same as me turning a blind eye to the defects of a cork closure and wishing, with closed eyes and a Romantic mind, that wine was still a natural craft.

  • A final point: Perhaps I'm being unfair to Randall and Gary's audiences by assuming they're not capabale of discerning the messages of their heroes from those of independent wine writers. Perhaps I'm really saying, via my comments on the ClearSkins blog, that those of us on social media should be much much more attentive to the background of what we are watching and reading.
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    Monday, 25 January 2010

    The wine news roundup (25 Jan 2010)

    I was in London last week, tasting Burgundy, Oregon & Washington, anything that looked appealing from Liberty and tea. I can thoroughly recommend the TeaSmith masterclass and Canteen in Spitalfields is now confirmed as my favourite place to eat. Anyway, here's what you might have missed:

  • Maybe it’s to be expected that a financial institution, the FT, publishes a piece on investment in wine. But this time it’s as long as a column by their wine correspondent, Jancis Robinson. Who, one suspects, is likely to be less enamoured of the concept of wine as an investment vehicle.

  • A group of New Zealanders are to use their ‘marketing force’ (ie, wads of cash) to persuade the world that they make ‘fine wine’. Which is great, in and of itself, but what happened to the persuasive art of actually making fine wine? As I keep saying, wine experts will be bypassed in the future, with wineries relying on marketing and new media.

  • Mariah Carey turns bad PR into good by using her embarrassing acceptance speech to promote her Champagne. Good work by the Guardian but (a) no need to be quite so harsh – by all accounts her performance in Precious is very good - and (b) had you been reading my blog, you might have noticed this last year.

  • Bloomberg publishes an embarrassing gush-fest on the late Italian winemaker Edouardo Valentini. The opening gambit alone (‘I’ve been drinking wine with pleasure for a very long time…’) prepared me for the rest in the way saliva and stomach spasms makes me reach for a bucket. From the description of his personality in the piece, I doubt Valentini would have enjoyed it much either.

  • Eric Asimov produces yet another interesting piece for the New York times on affordable Bordeaux, saying that much of the low-end stuff is ignored and publishing the results of a small tasting of wines between $10 and $20. All well and good but when you look at the wines that came top, they’re still the likes of Liversan ’05, Olivier ’06 and de Sales ’06. Six of the top 10 were priced $19-20 and all were above $15. Perhaps not the best illustration of ‘affordable’ Bordeaux.

  • Worst article Goes to the Daily Mail (the paper you love to hate) for its piece on the Marques de Riscal winery which opened four years ago. Not that you could tell from the headline: ‘Guggenheim architect Frank Ghery to create City of Wine complex for Marques de Riscal’ which suggests the future but is in fact talking about a past event. Still, those kind of headlines are great for SEO, right? For a minute I thought the piece might be an examination of how the Marques de Riscal winery has fared since its opening, but it turned out to be yet another puff piece that left me wondering whether writer Graham Keeley had been a guest at de Riscal in the not-too-distant past.

  • Runner up for best article Only for the sake of puerile amusement, this goes to a bunch of lads who decide to microwave a bag-in-box wine. The whole thing explodes in four minutes. Or is it a fake? Either way, you might entertain a few people.

  • Best article Goes, without a doubt, to Mark Schatzker of the Toronto Globe and Mail for investigating the loophole in Canadian legislation that allows shops to sell, tax-free, ‘sacramental wine’. It’s no different from any other wine (albeit much cheaper) but you’ll need a signed letter from your Rabbi, Priest or Vicar to buy it.
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    Friday, 15 January 2010

    Why is there no militancy in wine?

    Loving wine is a hobby of the affluent. The ones that don't love it quite so much buy Jacob's Creek or Yellow Tail. And we're fine with that. But the ones that truly love wine, that buy En Primeur, that sit down at dinner tables and try to catch people out with blind tastings, the ones that will always love Lafite, they're the ones that have the money, that have the power, that represent everything that is so so wrong with this world.

    I am prompted to write this by the reaction of the wine world to the disaster in Haiti. Disaster it undoubtedly is. As I write, everyone who's anyone in that closed little world is on Twitter trying to encourage people to give money or to encourage wineries to donate tasting fees to victims, etc (I might make the snide comment that retweeting something that encourages someone else to help people in misery is morally lazy, but I won't). Still, it won't surprise me if there were some benefit tastings set up so that people can give some money and sip a decent claret while Haitians pile bodies on the roads.

    But my real point is this: what were we doing for Haitians before the earthquake? What were the wine groups in America and France - two countries so complicit in the county's previous misery - doing to help them?

    What is the wine world doing about the human rights abuses in China?

    What did the wine world do about the plight of the Palestinians, about that of the Iraqis, and so on and on and on and on and on?

    What did it do? Not a lot. Because it follows the general direction of right-wing politics because as I said, those that really love wine, probably voted Conservative or Republican. Because wine lovers are happy while the money is coming in and while we can drink our Lafite, the plebs can hoover up the Yellow Tail.

    Why does nobody, and I mean no-one, in the wine world take a stand on some of these issues? Why does Robert Parker pay tribute to the sacrifices of the American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan yet fail to mention the plight of the people of both countries? Why? Because the people that buy good wine will probably walk away from them if they do. An earthquake is different. A natural disaster has no politics.

    Let's go back to China. Not one word of criticism for Lafite buying vineyards in the country? No, because it makes sense. It follows the line of investment, of growth, of exploitation. Perhaps it follows the line of early 20th century liberal economics (trading with 'bad' countries will eventually encourage them to see the wisdom of liberal values), but no one wagged their finger or shook their head did they?

    I'll take another example. The market price of barrels goes down to around €500 in Bordeaux and the south of France. Producers start to moan, and we ignore them - it's the lesson of a free market, it's surplus to requirements so it's natural. The CRAV get active in the south, and we are outraged. Again, they should just get used to the free market.

    But when this happens in the Mosel, suddenly we're facing a catastrophe. All of a sudden everyone (who's got the money) has to spend it on Riesling. We have to try to buck the trend, there has to be a solution, this is a cultural disaster.

    Only the unwashed and uneducated drink Bordeaux Supérieur or a Languedoc Merlot. Mosel Riesling is a nobler product, worth saving.

    And as you watch the prices of top Bordeaux get higher and higher while the supermarket shelves bulge with ever more reductions, perhaps you can draw the parallels between our economic system and our total lack of moral integrity.

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    Tuesday, 12 January 2010

    Robert Parker, Tyler Coleman, Atto and tomorrow

    In the Ridley Scott film Black Hawk Down, General Garrison interrogates a captured Somali arms supplier, Atto. In the dialogue, Atto talks about the 'civil war', America's attempts bring peace, and says this:

    I do know something about history. You see all this? It's simply shaping tomorrow. A tomorrow without a lot of Arkansas white boy's ideas in it.

    That's the line I think of every time I read a Tyler Coleman (Dr Vino) blog on Robert Parker (not that Parker's from Arkansas, of course).

    Coleman has obviously set his sights on Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate. For which I don't blame him - if you're a journalist, it is your job to monitor the centres of power (as Amira Hass or Robert Fisk might say). And Robert Parker is undoubtedly the centre of power in the wine world.

    The latest Coleman attack questions how much Robert Parker spends on his wine samples. Coleman says that, from statements and an extrapolation of wine prices in one Wine Advocate issue, Parker must spend $700,000 on wine samples per year, a figure he goes on to query.

    This piece follows the Jay Miller/Mark Squires exposé of last year, in which it was revealed that both men (contributors to Parker's Wine Advocate) had taken trips as guests of wine countries/regional wine bodies - strictly at odds with Parker's credo.

    So what will happen now? Well, Parker and his followers will have already guessed that Coleman has his sights on the man in Maryland. Whether this item makes it to discussion on the Parker bulletin board is unlikely, especially given the latest lets-just-all-be-friends drive on the site. But Parker's manifesto, printed at the front of every issue of the Wine Advocate, will continue to haunt him, as will Coleman.

    Because, you see, what you are witnessing is the fight for tomorrow. No matter how much Parker pads out his team with international names, he is still the only person who really counts. Who will be there when Parker is no more? Well, some of the ones with the most profile in the wine world will be the ones who have kicked up the most stink.

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    Monday, 11 January 2010

    The wine news roundup

    Sometimes, there's a run on wine stories. When this coincides with a lack of mental energy on my part, this is what you get. I cobble together a blog of wine articles and passing comments. It's quite simple, and I can do it while the kettle boils. Some Mondays are better than others.

    So here are some of the articles you might have missed in the last few days:

  • Paul Hodgins (gosh, that’s the picture of a man to be taken seriously) of the Napa Valley Register bases a whole article on a visit to a wine shop (looks like he did the same last week). Good work, if you can get it.

  • The Times says the Majestic (UK wine retailer) chief exec is an adventurous rogue for having a zip-wire in his own railway cutting. So he owns a railway cutting and looks like a German student duellist of the 19th century. Fair enough.

  • Mrs. Robinson gushes over Spain, and name-drops El Bulli. Luckily, she’s still alive after eating some sausages with a glass of Spanish Riesling – which is only available in Spain, Germany and Holland. NB Jancis: your average CityWire reader will not know what to do with Total Acidity and pH readings.

  • Penfolds get a massive plug in the Irish Times at the weekend (‘being big is not always a bad thing’). Not only that, the Australian wine company sweeps the board in the newspaper’s Bottles of the week section. Well done there.

  • While I’m not wholly enamoured of her above article, Mrs. Robinson produces the only other contender for Best article with her excellent piece in the FT on Spanish whites, Viura and Macabeo.

  • But Best article goes to last week’s Richmond Times Dispatch [sic] for its piece on the cold snap being positive for Virginia winemakers while the state’s poultry farmers suffer in the chill. Genius.

  • Worst article is handed to SFGate. While the content is relatively interesting (despite echoing many points heard in the host of ‘wine world prediction’ articles we’ve been getting lately), the author gets a sharp smack on the wrist for attempting to get the word ‘Teens’ (to describe the new decade) into usage. The term ‘naughties’ for the last decade was stupid enough, but I will begin to make threats of physical violence if ‘the teens’ starts to find its way into journalism.

  • And lastly the Foster’s Daily Democrat proves that, while laudable, the eco-friendly drive verges on the surreal. Jackson Family Wines will be recycling the water it uses to clean out its barrels and tanks (if anyone has any suggestions as to what they might do with that water, please let me, and the rest of the world, know), while Cade winery’s insulation is made from old jeans and its tasting table from the hull of a submarine. Indeed.
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    Friday, 8 January 2010

    French Kiwi labels, or how to debase what's in the bottle

    It's as ironic as The Times says it is: a French Sauvignon Blanc called 'Kiwi Cuvée'. Imagine if a New Zealand winemaker tried to market 'Loire Cuvée'. The INAO (France's appellations body) would be all over it in the courts, just as they were with imitation Champagnes, imitation Chablis and so on. But no, New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc is fair game.

    Let us put the irony (and the sheer cheek of it) to one side for a moment and look at it from another angle.

    Who will buy this wine? Well, two kinds of people. The first will be fooled, believing they've bought a New Zealand wine, only to discover that it's French. The second will realise the brazen trick and be impelled to buy it out of curiousity.

    In the first instance the label is an insult to consumers' intelligence and in the second it's a gimmick. I have no idea what the wine tastes like (it's probably pretty good), but if a wine's label is that cynical, you have to wonder how much more you can debase what's inside the bottle.

    You could have the text in Comic Sans perhaps?

    Have a good weekend.

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    Wednesday, 6 January 2010

    Wine writing vs wine advertising

    Christmas 2005? Remember it? Probably not. But the people at French regional paper Le Parisien do because an article of theirs on Champagne that came out at the time was later considered as advertising by a court. The paper was fined and told that any similar articles would have to carry health warnings.

    At the time, (wine) journalists were up in arms. We knew the Evin Law (that regulates tobacco and wine advertising in France) was draconian, but we didn't know it would go that far. It was an insult to free speech, we said, to journalism as a trade, we added. The French health lobbies were flexing their muscles but we never thought this kind of thing would happen. It was all so absurd.

    Or was it? If you can read French, take a look at this: Le coffret Clos des Mouches. If you can't, let me summarise: it's basically 150 words of advertising for a boxed set of two bottles from Burgundy's Clos des Mouches. 'The mysterious name', 'the great wine of Burgundy' and 'for decades Joseph Drouhin has devoted all of its passion and know-how to assure the staying power of this wine'.

    Now, I admit Le Figaro's wine coverage is better than almost all of the other major French newspapers, and I'll also admit that this piece is obviously straight from Figaro magazine - not the main paper; and I don't particularly mind gushing wine reviews. But honestly. There are winery bosses out there who would sell their kidneys for that kind of exposure. Maybe the law in France has changed, but I'm surprised that piece hasn't got a health warning under it.

    And whether or not this is a copy-and-paste job from a magazine, it hardly bodes well for the future of wine writing on the internet does it? I mean, if we're going to get flooded by this kind of stuff from every publication, there'll be a lot of google-wading to do. This is just another example.

    You begin to wonder if the case against Le Parisien wasn't the wake-up call some of us needed.

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    Monday, 4 January 2010

    Can we put an end to 'hedonism'?

    As a new decade pops over before we've had time to usher the last one out of the door, perhaps we can also take the oppotunity to say goodbye to a few words. Like that abberation designed to denote those last ten years: 'the naughties'. Sounding like a cross between an age of vacuous indolence and a 70s soft porn film, hopefully it will be chucked into the word incinerator.

    And the use of the word 'hedonistic' (if it is even a word?) in tasting notes. Using it to describe a wine is hyperbole at its best. Additionally, I hate it because I think the person writing is attempting in some way to imply that they might be a hedonist. Like a stamp collector trying to join the gang. A wine is not 'hedonistic', just as someone who drinks it is not a hedonist.

    Hedonism is watching 15 naked prostitutes eat nuts off the floor while snorting two lines of coke drawn on a glass-covered Mona Lisa as Mozart plays in the background. It is not a bloke, with a thin beard, lingering on the aftertaste of a Cab-Merlot blend.

    And yes, I know Robert Parker publishes 'The Hedonists Gazette' on his website. Robert, happy new year and all that, but can you please put an end to this?

    Happy new year to you all.

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