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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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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