Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Wine classification: do we really need it?

My initial reaction to reading Matthew Jukes and Tyson Stelzer's (3rd) classification of New Zealand Pinot Noir was akin to that of watching your 15 year-old brother being dragged out of school to go and work in the mills. Why does such an interesting and growing wine country need a classification that only implies stasis?

Well the first answer is probably that the classification is revised yearly, so no stasis is implied. The problem with yearly revisions (similar to St Emilion's abortive attempts at a 10-year classification) merely hints that classification as such is impossible.

As a potential guide to the current darlings of the region, that's fine. But set in stone? I doubt it. It's simply Jukes and Stelzer's 'favourite wines so far'. So why call it a classification?

Wine writing is merely the attempt to make the ephemeral concrete. Just because a critic doesn't smell or write down 'the aroma of camphor' or 'my granddad's aftershave' doesn't mean it isn't there. But that doesn't mean the wine writer won't give it a go. So the same with classifications.

Faced with such a vast array of wines, I believe there is a desire to pin down the best. And to do it in a league table? Perfect: it's like Polo rankings and booze combined. You can talk about it until the cows decide they've had enough wandering in other paddocks and prefer the comforts of the hearth.

I believe that part of the desire to classify wines also serves no other purpose than pure bragging. It is the perpetuation of the notion that the likes of Jukes, or Langton's (which classifies Australian wine), is 'supposed to know' more than the rest of us. If he did not believe he was the authority on New Zealand Pinot Noir, would Jukes say: 'Three years ago I had a bit of a rant and told producers they weren't as good as they thought they were'?

The point, I think, is that wine cannot and should not be classified. The ultimate classification, the 1855 in Bordeaux, is so distanced from reality I believe that its perpetuation is due to the desire to keep five châteaux at the top of the pile with a few other potential investment opportunities below. Imagine a Dow Jones or a FTSE where five companies were always at the top and could be guaranteed as such. Haut-Brion, Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Mouton are those five companies.

Perhaps we should all draw our inspiration from Pomerol and leave aside a classification.

  • Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we should physically force all wine critics nail their flags to the mast and classify each region according to their taste? In fact, I would love to see that.

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  • Monday, 22 February 2010

    Reclaiming wine's middle ground

    I have a friend whose uncle is a pig-farmer in Normandy. The animals live in a big warehouse, where they are penned-in; they walk on grills so the excrement falls through and is easier to clean; and they never see the daylight, or a field.

    Most people who visit ask him why he raises the pigs in such a way - does he not feel sad, as a farmer, to see animals like that?

    His response: 'Of course I feel bad. I would love my pigs to be able to go out in the open and have a better life. But as long as you insist on paying €2 for your bacon, I have no choice.'

    But of course we have a choice, don't we? We don't have to insist on buying supermarket own-brand streaky bacon, we could get a few slices of certified Danish bacon if we felt a little guilty, or take it up to an organic bacon produced by the Prince of Wales if, maybe, friends were coming over for breakfast. We have a choice, don't we?

    Or do we? If, on the back of the Red Bicyclette scandal, where 18 million bottles of Syrah and Merlot were labelled as Pinot Noir and nobody noticed the difference, we can extrapolate that the majority of consumers don't care what their wine is as long is it tastes good, then the only choices they are going to make will be to chose the cheapest wine on offer*.

    And the only people that can provide large volumes at low prices are very very big companies via supermarkets - it's economies of scale (and will lead to much bigger wine corporations - in itself reducing your choice). Not only will this put the screw on small producers, it will likely cause a drop in prices in the mid-range wines because there will be too much of a price gap between the supermarket wine and the €10+ bottle of wine. Either that or they'll be swallowed by the giants, or fall through the grill in the floor.

    Let's also look at the trend at the other end: top wines are becoming a luxury market, out of the reach of most consumers and more readily associated with celebrities (Champagne) and investors (Bordeaux) - more so than in the past. I've written enough about this in previous articles so I won't force the point.

    So what of the middle ground? With French vineyards told to embrace the Jacob's Creek model, while Australia tries to tackle 'oversupply and low commodity prices', and we all go looking for the 'broad appeal' of wine - all while European MPs guzzle endless Champagne on expenses, perhaps we should wonder if the pull at both ends of the wine world will be enough for the bottom to drop out of our beloved middle ground.

    Sometimes, the massive choice of wines, all at different prices, isn't all it's cracked up to be.

    * Incidentally, it's interesting to understand how supermarkets view the concept of choice. I once (a long time ago) complained to a Waitrose manager that the supermarket was selling green beans from Zimbabwe. 'But the consumer can still chose, can't they?' he said. 'What choice do they have?' I replied. 'They don't have to buy it.'

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    Friday, 19 February 2010

    Online wine writing and ethics

    'It's easy to have ethics when you've got lots of money,' was the oft-quoted, ironic call of the Wine Writers' Symposium session on wine writing and ethics. At least it was on Twitter. It's an ironic comment aimed, more likely than not, at the likes of Robert Parker who can afford to buy-in thousands of bottles a year and taste them while keeping to his high ethical standards.

    These very standards were questioned after it emerged that two of his writers at the Wine Advocate had taken trips as guests of affiliations that might have an interest in promoting their own region. Hence the ironic nature of the quote.

    The line also blatantly states that those without the means (ie many bloggers and independent wine writers) don't have the levels of cash that allow them to pay for weeks in New Zealand or South Africa or Chile as research trips. There's a hint of envy in there, but it's essentially saying 'most of us can't afford to be distanced from gifts and press trips because otherwise our coverage would be severely limited'.

    And yet it also seems that a lot of vitriol is poured by bloggers on magazines for what is seen as dubious practice: they take advertisements, thus they are compromised. In fact, most magazines run with ad departments in separate rooms to the editorial staff to avoid just such issues. I'm not saying the issues don't occur, but there is a gulf between the two.

    Contrast that to a blogger, often self-employed, who will take advertising directly to her or his telephone, and possibly while writing a blog, and you find potentially more conflicts of interest than at a magazine.

    It doesn't stop there. Online advertising revenue (in a similar fashion to print) depends on hits or unique users. Thus if you wish to keep writing and make money from your passion, you are almost compelled to please the widest possible audience (or at least the reader demographic you have established) and keep them coming back for more. This in itself raises ethical questions - why should writers be forced to please their readership? It is a form of censorship. And until the Revolution comes, sometimes even I will find myself doing it.

    As this debate was going on, a lot of people linked to a blog by Tina Caputo on just this subject. The blog concluded thus:

    Larry Walker sums up the ethics debate with this amusing anecdote. “In the 1960s there was a Speaker of the House in Sacramento, Jesse Unruh, who was well known for taking every perk offered by lobbyists - then voting however he wanted,” he relates. “When asked how he could do that, he said: ‘If you can’t drink their whiskey, eat their dinners and screw their women, and still vote for the best interest of your constituents, you don’t belong in the California legislature.”

    And to that, I raise a glass of (sample) wine and say: Here’s to those who can partake of the occasional job-related perk and still take the high road.

    In short (leaving Unruh's own very dubious ethics aside): 'yes, there are ethical issues, I am part of the problem, but you can trust me to stay above it all'. This seems to be the trouble with the debate at the moment in that, after 1,400 words of saying that the 'wine industry is full of ethical ambiguities', the only conclusion we get is that it will remain that way and we just have to trust the writer.

    And I can't find any evidence to the contrary. Jamie Goode also brought up this bizarre situation on his blog recently by posting about a press trip and at the same time raising this issue - with predictably inconclusive results.

    [Interestingly, Jamie Goode also once made the excellent point to me that trips and perks take away from a blogger's daily work, and remember, time is money. It might sound a bit haughty and let-them-eat-cake, but it rings true. If you view blogging as a business, it makes no sense to be out of the office for a week swanning around New Zealand if there's nothing to show for it at the end. You might as well be taking a holiday - which is just poor business sense.]

    But ethics issues don't stop with wine. Do we not think PR agencies are at work in other fields? The fashion and automotive press have similar, if not more dubious ethics, and yet there is a massive market for their magazines.

    Perhaps the answer lies in stopping this navel-gazing on the part of us wine writers and get on with trying to make wine writing popular again.

    But how do we stop obviously poor ethical practises? We can't wholly do so, but I would suggest trial by peer: it's up to us to call a writer out (not strictly to duel, although it could be a step on the way to making wine writing more appealing to a broader audience) when something they've written has all the hallmarks of a kick-back.

    And that's where the blogging community has a problem: sometimes we're all a bit too chummy to each other to be critical.

    As Oscar Wilde said: 'true friends stab you in the front'. Knives out, people.

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    Wednesday, 17 February 2010

    Gallo, Red Bicyclette, Pinot Noir and reality

    A wine label is a world of signs. All words and images upon it confer a meaning that is beyond what is in the bottle. 'E&J Gallo', for instance, indicates the security and confidence of a brand (more significant that the 'E &J' implies a family business); 'Red Bicyclette' singifies a pastoral French lifestyle, a better world, without cars, where Bernadette can prop her bike up against a tree and run down to Gérard on the riverbank; and 'Pinot Noir' is the fashionable grape of finesse, of the cinema, of the moment, and it seems no-one at Gallo - or any one of the thousands of people who bought their bottles - know what it tastes like.

    Because at all levels of wine I would posit that none of us actually take it for what it is. We all, to greater or lesser extents, rely on the complex formulae of signs on the label. What we taste is not wine but the accumulation of previous understanding. I would also add that we are complicit in this obfuscation of the grape. We require a label, a form, something other than pure wine.

    Why? Because we buy it. There is, again, a parallel in literature. It is no coincidence that, as the renaissance took hold of Europe, as the mercantile class emerged, so the importance of who wrote the book became paramount. Previously, authors were relatively unimportant because they did not rely on the sale of their work.

    So the same is true of the wine and its label. It performs that amazing function that, in forcing us to provide a mythical space around the wine, we both identify with it and forgive its faults.

    I'm not saying we should return to the age of the Medicis but I am saying that within this 'Red bicyclette' scandal, there are no innocent parties (including us).

    [Although I do feel sorry for the actual grapes which, were I given to anthropomorphism, I would say have been treated like an ugly rent boy forced to wear a George Clooney mask. And no-one spotted his duplicity until someone checked the pimp's accounts...]

    But it doesn't just stop there. As I've pointed out, the semiotics (signs) of a wine label evoke just about everything but the wine. They are, if I want to be controversial, the very definition of 'Terroir'.

    'Château Latour, Grand Cru Classé, Pauillac, Bordeaux' evokes feudal splendour, heritage, the earth, the region, the pedigree of the estate - even the symbolic nature of Bordeaux as a region - and everything (even the understanding of the grapes that are part of this 'terroir') is swallowed by our minds before we taste the wine.

    This notion even stretches to having an all-natural wine or a Demeter stamp somewhere on the label.

    Now I'm not making an argument for clearskin bottles, all I am saying is that our desire to evoke this quasi-mystical space around the wine has to be treated and analysed in a similar fashion to the wine itself.

  • NB: It is perhaps interesting that Masters of Wine tasting exams and many blind tastings are the reverse of this process. For instance, in the MW tasting candidates have to show their method of deduction to reach the conclusion that identifies the wine. Thus one takes the pure wine and tries to reconstruct the appropriate mythology. According to the Institute, one must 'Identify the most relevant criteria, and provide a concise summary of the evidence' [emphasis is mine].

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  • Monday, 15 February 2010

    Wine and health

    More than ever, we live in a world of symbols. In a strange form of metonymy, our interpretation of what goes on around us often takes the radical part to symbolise the whole. Artists are a crazy bunch of pig-tattoists, Muslims are all potential terrorists, and all wine drinkers are alcoholics.

    Alcohol abuse now has to stand for everything, from a few beers down the pub, to a Valentine's day bottle of fizz, to dropping neat vodka into your eyeballs. Soon, all bottles of wine will carry health warnings - along with anything else that contains alcohol. Like the whole school being kept in an assembly until someone owns up to breaking a window, it has become not only academic to group all alcohol together in one massive social problem, it has become imperative to punish everyone for it.

    Health warnings are an unusual thing in that, because they feature on a product one takes home, they represent an attempt to regulate our private lives. For health warnings not to be so duplicitous, they would have to be inscribed in wine glasses in bars and restaurants.

    In a bizarre compromise to the foundation of our society (business), health warnings do not prohibit one from buying such a dangerous product, they merely invest us with a feeling of guilt once we have done so.

    And here we enter into Slavoj Zizek territority. The Slovenijan cultural critic claims that the freer we are, the more we want to censure our freedom.

    From whence we get butter without fat, laxative chocolate, virtual sex, and, yes, you guessed it: low-alcohol wine.

    Here another aspect comes into play: the need in our society to be seen to be doing the 'right' thing. Low-alcohol wine is the talk of wine journalism at the moment because it combines the enjoyment of wine without the guilt of alcohol. That would be great if we were all going out to buy German Riesling, but we're not. Big producers are getting the Reverse Osmosis machines out, and while we try to do better by ourselves we de-naturalise the very thing we love.

    Unnaturally low-alcohol wine is a horrible con, perpetuated by our desire to be seen to be 'doing something'.

    And who are we doing it for? Denis Saverot, editor of the French wine magazine La Revue de Vin de France' argues in his book In Vino Satanas that the health lobbies and scientists, responsible for making clear the dangers of wine, are mostly funded by large pharmeceutical groups. It is no coincidence, says Saverot, that wine consumption in France has declined, while the taking of pills and drugs (a massive phenomenon in France) has increased. Essentially, he says, its drugs versus drink.

    Saverot might be overstating the case, but it is worth remembering that much scientific (health) research is paid for, often indirectly, by pharmaceutical companies. I doubt I need to make a case against these massive businesses, but it is worth remembering that while the likes of Alice Feiring may despair at the state of the wine world today, she has no compunction about divulging which pills she drops to get through a long-haul flight.

    So, as we watch our pleasures getting driven indoors by the health police, it might be time to wonder if we really should be listening to those who tell us they know best. It might be worth bearing this in mind:

    "The state is based on this contradiction. It is based on the contradiction between public and private life, between universal and particular interests. For this reason, the state must confine itself to formal, negative activities."

    Karl Marx

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    Thursday, 11 February 2010

    The consumer must not become a wine critic

    The title pretty much explains where I'm going. It follows Beverley Blanning MW's reappraisal of Tim Hanni MW's comments on her blog.

    Now I will make a concrete case against the consumers becoming their own critics.

    1 - I used to hate leeks as a kid, now I love them - I even grow them. This can be the same as wine. Let me illustrate: has anyone seen the film Big Night Out? No, well it's about two competing Italian restaurants in an American town. One gives the diners what they want: meatballs in tomato sauce, lasagne, etc. and is wildly popular and successful; the other cooks beautiful, traditional Italian cuisine with a hugely talented cook, but is failing because no one understands it. It feels like a terrible shame.

    Now, I'm not saying that a wine bottle in the hand of shopper is like an iPhone in the hand of a chimp, I'm simply saying that critics can lead us to a better understanding of wine (like a bone in the hand of a chimp - with the 2001:A Space Odyssey music to boot).

    Put simply, if we let the consumer decide what's what, the already fragile bottom of the Fino Sherry market will drop out comprehensively. Seriously, find me a wine lover who loved Fino at the first taste (I thought I was going to throw up, but now I love the stuff).

    2 - As I've said before, who gains? Yes, we all love a bit of power to the people (not least me - but we wont get into my voting preferences here), but in this guise of returning wine to the people, who is going to influence the consumer if no wine writers can? I'll tell you: people like wine merchants (ask yourself who Hanni has developed his personal tasting gizmo with), wine marketeers, supermarkets and the writers of the back label.

    Why are wine companies now offering so many win-a-week's-winemaking-and-blog-for-us competitions? Because it does just this: it takes the power away from the wine writer (the 'subject supposed to know' if you like Lacan) and more or less ensures a malleable voice that will promote the winery in an entirely positive light.

    3 - THE MOST DANGEROUS ASPECT: the argument doesn't make sense. The fundamental mistake that we are making here is to equate personal enjoyment with personal choice.

    Hanni is telling us to be our own critic, assuming this means we can choose our own wines. Herein lies the problem. Imagine a film critic saying: 'you be the judge, and then go and see the film'...how can you judge it without seeing it? You'd have watch every single film available (or made) - by which time, I'd probably rate you quite highly as a film critic.

    The same is true of wine. Unless, of course, the consumer is allowed to try any wine before they buy it - something I am entirely in favour of. But you see the issue, right? It doesn't make sense. By the time you've bought it to assess it, the cash register has already sounded, and everyone (bar the wine writer and possibly the consumer) is happy.

    So there you go. Sure, the consumer can become a wine critic, but let's do a test - let's allow him or her to taste any bottle on the shelf before they buy it...

    Then they'd be a real critic. Until then, we must not allow the marketeers and wine merchants to take over the realm of recommending wines.

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    Wednesday, 10 February 2010

    Why Malcolm Gluck is wrong

    When he wrote for wine trade mag Harpers many moons ago, Malcolm Gluck was one of those people I loved to hate. Harpers probably realised that there were many people like me who used to tear open the plastic around the magazine, plop it open, flick past the news, the serious columns and read Malcolm's, expecting, nay knowing, I would find something to be annoyed about. It was like purposefully going out to buy the Daily Mail in order to read Amanda Platell's column, purely for the purpose of working oneself up into a fury. Funnily enough, Malcolm has got himself into the Mail too.

    He has joined the Hanni crowd, saying, among other things, that wine critics talk rubbish. I can understand this but I have my reservations too. Like I said in yesterday's news blog, the wine talk is the mystique is the 'crap' is the enjoyment of reading about wine. What role would Malcom have critics take? Just publish a list of scores like Robert Parker's latest Wine Guide? What would that reduce critics to?

    And why the bloody hell is it that Hanni and Gluck, two people so immersed in the wine trade, feel they represent and understand the perception of the general public? Of course some wine writing is going to represent gobbledy-gook to some people - so would a Brian Sewell column. And Sewell gets on TV.

    And of all the quotes Gluck uses to criticise critics, we get this: 'strange hermaphrodite sherry' for Palo Cortado. Which is exactly what it is - a Fino with the added organs of an Oloroso. I admit this needs explanation, but it makes sense.

    But then to quote himself saying a wine is 'reminiscent of a sumo-wrestler's jockstrap' and say that he was merely illustrating that it wasn't worth drinking destroys his argument. It shows that being frivolous in a tasting note is what it's all about. How can Gluck not see this?

    And then we get onto the additives question. As I have said before, there are issues here, but I think we're trying too hard to find many of them.

    As part of this he mentions Bentonite, and makes the link with cat litter.

    Malcolm, FFS. Bentonite is a fining agent used in wine. I've used it in my wine. It's clay. White wine that hasn't been Bentonite-filtered looks more like the actual product of a cat than bentonite looks like kitty litter. The most galling thing is that you know this, Malcolm.

    There are greater debates, such as the notion of Terroir that Malcolm also looks at - and rightly so. I am also more than prepared to admit that there is huge snobbery and obfuscation and fraud and backhanders in the wine world - there is a lot that needs to be changed.

    I am not arguing that this should be witheld from wine's wider audience - it's important that much of this is addressed.

    But, like I said, I think that when wine professionals criticise wine writing, they are fundamentally (or deliberately - ask yourself why Hanni is promoting the 'listen to your own taste' line...something to do with his 'budometer', perhaps?) being short-sighted. Would anyone read a film critic who simply said: 'go and see this film, it's very good'? Of course not, as a reader we are implicitly demanding to be entertained.

    There are many 'unpalatable' things in the wine world, and I'm sure Gluck's book will expose many of them. But deliberately using short-sighted, shock doctrine to sell a wine book is also one of them.

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    Tuesday, 9 February 2010

    Do wine critics really talk bunk?

    Not much by way of preamble: if you haven't seen this or this where have you been?

    The only point that everyone seems to have missed in the discussion about the need (or not) for wine critics is this:

    If you pick up a bottle and, after scanning the front label, immediately check to see what’s on the back label, you have, in that easy gesture, proved the need for wine critics and wine writers.

    Because the back label can, in almost every circumstance, stand for wine writing. It tells us how the wine was made and what to expect. It fulfils a desire to know more. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to have a bad word to say about the wine in the bottle. Which is why, perhaps more than ever, wine writers and critics should be asserting themselves.

    It’s also worth asking who gains from the demise of the wine writer. Well, without the independent critic, you’re left with getting your information from those in marketing and promotion. Retail outlets that sell bad wine (not simply a synonym for supermarkets) also have no reason to worry.

    Another point scored for the humble and down-at-heel wine writer.

    Now that we’ve concluded that the wine writer is indeed an indispensable part of the wine world, let’s look at another of the criticisms raised by Hanni and the Guardian – that wine writing is bunk, aimed at fellow wine writers and initiates.

    Well, let’s look at the reasons one might have to read tasting notes:

    Firstly, there’s the recommendation part – people get wine recommendations for the simple reason that they are looking for something good to buy for dinner this evening. Here, you have to admit that, barring a few helpful terms like ‘fresh’ or ‘big’ or maybe ‘fruity’, most floral wine writing is redundant.

    Secondly, we are looking at a rarefied world where wine critics are merely talking to each other in a sort of code, an esoteric mumbo-jumbo that only they and a few initiates can understand. Wine buying on the back of En Primeur comes to mind. Here, indeed, wine writing does not speak to the average man or woman.

    But thirdly, we have to admit that some people read wine writing to be entertained. This is the field of wine writing that will become the most important over the next few years. If it has not already done so. It's also the field where points one and two cross over. Some people are already very good at this (and they are mainly online). However, they are in a minority and, more often than not, they are perhaps less independent than they ought to be.

    Nonetheless, the future is there. Wine writing can indeed be a snobbish craft – but then so can film and book reviewing. Critics must listen to their readers and try to hit the right note, but in a world which is obsessed with 'cutting the crap', sometimes it's worth remembering that the 'crap' is the entertainment.

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    Monday, 8 February 2010

    Bordeaux 2009 (Part 1)

    About this time last year I was at a Sauternes tasting in London and a very cross Christian Seely pulled me to one side to give me a good dressing-down. Over the past couple of months I'd been writing news reports on the possible state of the 2008 harvest. It was wasn't flattering, I'll be honest, but it was what was circulating at the time. I had quoted much of the French press who were playing it down, saying how bad the weather was before the harvest, etc. etc.

    Seely had taken umbrage. Essentially, he said: 'how can you make judgements on the wines before anyone's tasted them yet'. Believe me, he's not the first person in Bordeaux to have said similar things.

    So let's admit he had a point.

    Now lets also take a minute and think about how much hype has been generated within Bordeaux for the 2009 vintage. There have been endless reports on how great the vintage is. Just recently, Bill Blatch has written a huge report on, yes, the weather on Jancis Robinson MW's site. Has Christian Seely given Bill a call and told him off for talking about the weather and the wines before En Primeur? It's probably safe to assume he hasn't.

    So the first conclusion we can make is that when you hear nothing from Bordeaux it's likely to be a mediocre to poor vintage.

    And let's think about the weather for a second. A while ago I made the point that most winemakers from Bordeaux will tell you not to talk about the weather and wait until you've tasted the wines at En Primeur, after that they say you have to wait until they're bottled; once they're bottled, you have to wait for them to get a bit of age before they're ready, and then, in 20-30 years time, you open the bottle and all anyone in the room can talk about is what the weather was like during the vintage.

    Let me make a second point - about winemaking. Any winemaker who knows what s/he's doing - and there are a few in Bordeaux - will know pretty much straight away how good the wine is going to be. S/he also knows how good/bad it is compared to other years. You don't need to wait for En Primeur for that. So once again, you can assume that if all is quiet in Bordeaux, it's a mediocre year.

    But why stop the press from reporting this? Well, simply because it makes business sense. After all, last year the UGC 'pleaded' with the press to help make consumers love their wines.

    So what can we conclude? Well, if everyone was honest, we'd be able to get a general idea of the vintage from the winemakers themselves in September, six months before En Primeur. And with all the hype this year about a great vintage, how long can Bordeaux go on complaining about the bad press in the not-so-good vintages?

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    Wine on YouTube - a roundup

    This is a slight departure from the usual wine news roundup. Not a great deal has been happening below the headlines and even I'm getting bored from being serious all the time. So:

  • A very English bloke, in a very English kitchen, makes wine from Coca-Cola. One might assume that Coke, having sugar levels at about eiswein level, would probably not need chaptalisation. Wrong. After rectifying the acid levels and fermenting it with bread yeast - yes, bread yeast - there comes the tasting. Discussions about stuck ferments below the video might have missed the point...

  • A classic from Fry and Laurie. Do not watch if you are a wine merchant.

  • Hmmmm, Sparkling Shiraz...

  • The Beatles visit a French winery and Ringo almost ruins the harvest (which is not saved by an Indian summer, but by Paul MacCartney's vocals). Very instructive.

  • One from AbFab. Not overly amusing until Eddy says 'someone's stolen the steering wheel'.

  • Warning: not for the easily-offended Borat attends a wine tasting in the USA.
  • Labels:

    Thursday, 4 February 2010

    The Elite drinking, not binge drinking, is the problem

    The rich and powerful constitute the biggest threat to the wine world, not the nebulous attack on society's binge drinking.

    Health lobbies and scientists in the western world are currently spending much of their time telling us about the dangers of drink. In the UK, binge drinking has been a cultural phenomenon for years. Judging by my friends from there, it has been much that way in France too. Although in France it seems to occur behind closed doors, not spilling out from the pub.

    Wine is one of the major targets for the health lobby at the moment. The first attack is that wine is too cheap - it's simply too easy to buy too much, and therefore drink too much. This was addressed, pathetically, by Decanter editor Guy Woodward in his latest editorial.

    'The real problem,' Woodward writes in the March issue of Decanter, 'lies with supermarkets who use wine as a loss-leader, slashing margins, bullying suppliers and dragging down prices in order to attract customers...Selling wine at a loss helps neither consumers nor the trade.'

    Blaming the supermarkets has become the easy way out of any consumerist issue. They're bad, they're cheap, it's their fault. However, it does not address the fact that their power stems from our patronage. If anything, the supermarket phenomenon is merely an expression of our economic system.

    In any case, you can still find stupidly cheap bottles of wine from any handful of high street wine shops. The problem is our economic outlook itself, especially when a packet of paracetamol costs the same price as a bottle of Muscadet.

    If you have been following some of my blogs, you'll know that I am all for capping wine pricing, but as long as we cap prices at a maximum as well. I agree that wine cannot be allowed to slip away from its cultural significance by becoming a loss leader, or a quick-and-easy way to get drunk. But by the same token, it must not be allowed to slip from our grasp.

    Let me illustrate this.

    If you can read French, have a look at this news report about a Bordeaux wine festival. If you're not a francophone, it basically says that the Bordeaux regional council will not help subsidise the Bordeaux wine festival - it will be holding on to its €80,000.

    And then look at this (also in French): a Bordeaux and charcuterie evening for the country's deputies held in an 'open bar' at the French National Assembly. Reading about French politicians drinking and shouting away while regional funds are withheld from a wine tasting for the people they represent really sticks in my throat.

    A tipsy Deputy comes up to me. "Say, miss, which newspaper do you work for? You look like a lefty. Libération? No? Jolly good, or we would have been forced to undress you and hang you from the window, haha." Haha.

    We live in a world where those at Davos are served 1959 Yquem and French Deputies get drunk on Côtes de Castillon. All while we are bombarded with the dangers of drink and funds are stopped for public wine events (ref. even the New York Wine & Grape Foundation).

    The greatest danger the wine world faces today is in not that the general public will turn its back on the bottle for health reasons, but that it will turn its back on it because it feels that wine does not represent them.

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    Monday, 1 February 2010

    How we have already failed the Mosel

    This is going to be unpopular but I feel compelled to do it. I’m going to take issue with Hugh Johnson’s recent Decanter piece decrying the plans for the Mosel Bridge which many others, including Jancis Robinson MW, have also argued against.

    First of all, make no mistake: if I was Ernie Loosen or any other winemaker in the area, I’d be stockpiling dynamite. No matter how annoying it is, I empathise with the NIMBY (not in my back yard) factor here. And I’d be furious.

    Next, what is going to be the actual damage? Well, from the artist’s impressions, we’re looking at around five big holes – one in the Würzgarten and four in the (now ironically-named) Himmelreich vineyards – to support the bridge pillars. These holes have to include some land around it, as the shadows cast by the pillars will undoubtedly render some of it barren.

    The only other physical issue will be that of drainage along the top of the Sonnenuhr and Domprobst Grosses Gewachs. This, potentially, could be very destructive. It also might not. Why gamble, asks Johnson, and I have to admit, I agree with him.

    But if Johnson raises the spectre of ecology and the potential destruction of great wines, there are other, wider, issues that must be faced.

    Without doubt the biggest is that of comparative importance. Imagine, for a second, that Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson win their campaign. What happens if they say nothing about the LGV train line planned to cut through the Graves in Bordeaux? Imagine, in ten years time, if someone wants to stick a bridge through the Languedoc and they don’t mobilise public support when that occurs.

    If we oppose the Mosel bridge but fail to actively oppose every other pulic works scheme in another vineyard, we are implicitly saying to those other winemakers and growers that their wines aren’t important. They aren’t in the big league.

    And if we assume that that is indeed the case – that some vineyards are worth having a cultural protection stamp – who draws up the list? Imagine Hugh and Jancis putting that together. What vineyards would they leave out?

    Unfortunately Hugh Johnson’s parallel with the Côte d’Or is false. The Côte d’Or is protected by the huge value of the vineyards within it. The Mosel would love to have some of the auction speculation that Romanée-Conti gets, would love to be as deified. But it isn’t. And in a world where money is everything, the Mosel cannot compete.

    And if you accept that an economic system whereby the most expensive wines are the best indicator of greatness, then you have to say that we have already, collectively, failed the Mosel.

    Perhaps the greatest tragedy within Johnson's argument is that he has to use a higher-profile region in higher-profile country to try to make his point.

    So what is there left to do for the Mosel? Well, if you really don’t want the bridge, I suggest direct action: a few well-placed sticks of dynamite might work, or perhaps bribe some local archaeologists to ‘find’ a Bronze Age settlement on the Zeltinger Berg.

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