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' 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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