Friday, 2 April 2010

Kim Jong-Il and Chateau Latour

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

Just take a minute to think about that.

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

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

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

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

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

Or it could have been Château Latour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scared? I'm terrified.

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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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