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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Thursday, 28 January 2010

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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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, 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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    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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    Wednesday, 9 September 2009

    Even more Champagne disgrace

    Have I made my point yet? Katie Price drinks Champagne after divorce

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    Wednesday, 2 September 2009

    More Champagne disgrace

    Regarding my previous post on Champagne: Mel B enjoys Champagne-fuelled holiday says it all, really.

    I'm so depressed by this I wish the Communist International had a frigate.

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    Monday, 31 August 2009

    Who let Champagne get away with it?

    It's all your fault. You buy the bloody stuff, get royally (and enjoyably) trashed on it at special occasions, yet you never asked any questions of it, did you? It didn't matter, as long as you could buy a brand.

    And so what situation do we have now in the light of the economic crisis? Well, simple: Champagne houses have to cut down yields.

    'But,' I hear you say, 'that's just supply and demand. It's the way things are.'

    But you haven't read the article properly. Because it's bloody obvious where the problem is.

    the region's winegrowers, who last year managed to produce 13,000kg a hectare

    Yes, that. Thirteen tons a hectare. Stop and think about what you've done. Champagne is supposed to be a great wine, right? Well, not at 13 tons a hectare it's not. And that's all because you don't mind what happened behind the label or the brand, you're just interested in bubbly. So you don't care about harvest levels or quality.

    And Champagne didn't care. It just went on and on, milking the vines for everything they could produce. At 13 tons a hectare (yes, I'll keep repeating it) I wouldn't be surprised if they were harvesting the second fruit set.

    To paraphrase Nietzsche, I can forgive Champagne for what it did to me, but I can't forgive it for what it did to itself. All because you couldn't stop drinking it.

    When I told a friend they were proposing to drop yields to 7,500kg a hectare, the flippant response was: 'you mean, what they should have always been'. Indeed.

    There can be real craft in making Champagne, but why is that what it's least about?

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    Friday, 28 August 2009

    What your wine choice says about you

    August is a traditionally quiet time for the wine industry. Everyone, from chateau owner to lowly grape-picker is off on holiday. And wine news is no different.

    Bearing this in mind, thus comes the wine report of the month, courtesy of Food Quality and Preference, in which a bunch of scientists say that "drinkers who preferred a sweet taste in wine were more likely to be impulsive". Your wine choice reveals your personality, it said. And after they had tested 45 people, they reckon that those who chose dry wines were more 'open'.

    Which is useful if you're going on a date.

    Using 45 people to base a report on is perhaps a little tenuous but the researchers may have latched onto something.

    Therefore, in the spirit of the thing, I thought I'd add my observations and suggestions:

  • Choosing Sauvignon Blanc shows you are independent. It's passé but what the hell. Invite Sauvignon drinkers to your party, but serve them something else.

  • Drinking Australian Shiraz has similar connotations. Being given a bottle at a barbeque, however, could also indicate an ingrained desire to go for what's safe and/or uphold the status quo.

  • The novice wine drinker who choses South African Chenin Blanc likes adventure, but not too much, and does so because it's the only rival to Pinot Grigio at the cheaper end of the drinks list.

  • A penchant for Gewurtztraminer shows a hankering for the 1970s, or in younger drinkers a love of all that is frivolous. Might also reveal high levels of overindulgence on sugary snacks at a younger age.

  • The lover of Riesling is truly great and should be your friend.

  • The lover of Madeira is always right but is likely to have better after-dinner stories than you.

  • A desire to drink Cabernet Sauvignon shows an adherence to the old order of things and is likely to tease out hidden, right-wing beliefs.

  • The Pinot Noir drinker should be avoided at all costs - they have nothing good to say and are rarely useful in company.

  • Beware also the fan of Pinotage - he or she is likely to cause embarrassment and will argue with your guests. Ensure a taxi is ordered.

  • A lover of red Rhône is midway between a religious hermit and a fork-wielding peasant. May be useful in company, but only as a conversation-starter.

  • Merlot is not bad. Its aficionados are likely to favour potato-based dishes.

  • The Champagne drinker is a good, genial person who doesn't let details get in the way of a good time. If they hand you a glass, however, beware. They are trying to get into your pants.

  • People drink Cava to keep Champagne drinkers from handing them a glass.

  • Chardonnay fans should only ever pick top Burgundy. If they do not, ensure you are well-stocked on tissues.

  • Barolo is the stock in trade of the gentle uncle. Drinking it shows an addiction to guilty pleasures and confused feelings at prep school.

  • Lovers of Tuscan wines are dreamers. Similar to the Champagne drinker, they are little concerned with what is in their glass, and are pleasant enough company. They are apt to be a little touchy. It is not advisable to talk about relationships in their vicinity.

  • Rioja drinkers buy portraits of old men and hang them in the toilet. They are sociable enough but don't press them too hard on any subject.

  • Lovers of Sauternes are notoriously fickle. They will either arrive very early or very late. They will have owned a Sade album.

  • The Port drinker is a great asset to any dinner party but will physically hurt you if given the chance.

  • Remember this is only a guide. Do not let your friends know you have read this.

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    Wednesday, 12 August 2009

    Climate change and wine

    There's a problem with affluent men above the age of 35. They don't believe in climate change. Utter the words 'climate change', 'global warming', 'total destruction' to them and they plug their fingers in their ears and start humming the tune to the Dambusters.

    It's odd, isn't it, that such conservative views (right-wing, king-of-industry, protect my right to pollute) should have absolutely nothing to do with the conservation of their world. Or the wines they love. Perhaps, of the hippy generation, they only care about the now, about themselves, about the wines they love to drink now. They love their world so much, they are intent on destroying it. Blindly.

    I was a climate change sceptic until I phoned the Met Office in the UK a couple of years ago - the place that looked after our weather reports (not that that lends them any basis in fact, but they know more about the weather than most of us). I asked. They replied. It's quite simple people: climate change is a fact. No matter how much you trot out your dodgy arguments, or say 'we'll it's been colder than usual this year', the people that look at the weather are agreed.

    Now, just how dangerous we are making our planet for ourselves I guess is up for discussion. But can we please get to this stage and start talking about what the hell we are going to do about it.

    Because otherwise, my fat, rich, Merc-driving friends, Burgundy, Napa, Bordeaux, Barolo, Rioja, the Mosel and Champagne will not be making the wines you so love to gobble up.

    Not that you have will have to drink the soupy Shiraz that Bordeaux will be making in 100 years' time. You couldn't care less about your sons and daughters right?

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