Thursday, April 30, 2009

Don't call us...

Have you ever wondered why wine producers are so keen to avoid contact with their customers - the people who actually drink the stuff they make? Look at almost any European wine and you'll be very lucky to find any means of getting in touch with them beyond an impenetrable postcode number. The New World is a little better. Nowadays, if you look very closely, you'll find a website address - usually printed in a font the size favoured by insurance companies when listing the exclusions to the cover for which you are about to sign up. And even when you do get onto the site, there is rarely much in the way of an invitation to enter into any kind of dialogue. Compare and contrast with what McDonalds is now doing. Wine is one of the most complex and to many people, downright frightening, products anyone buys on a regular basis. Sometimes it seems to me as though its producers want to keep it that way. And, before anybody points a finger in my direction, I'll freely admit to having been guilty of these crimes in the way we've labeled and websited our Hugh, Kevin & Robert wines. But we're now working to get it right...

Sunday, April 26, 2009


If it has one undeniable skill, the wine fraternity is extraordinarily good at the obsessive and microscopic examination of its navel. But you can't blame the professional wine writers from wondering whether they are to be supplanted by bloggers. Newspaper and magazine columns have shrunk inexorably over the last decade, a trend which is now being further exacerbated by the disappearance of the publications themselves. In the UK, Wine Magazine (with which, to declare an interest, I was involved throughout its 22 years' lifespan) no longer exists; nor does Wine & Spirit International its sister title, which is now part of Harpers, a once-weekly UK trade magazine whose frequency has recently halved. The crunch has also affected publications in developing markets: in Russia, for example, Magnum, an impressive, glossy young title has also closed its doors. Meanwhile, in the US, publishers of major newspapers are openly questioning their ability to survive the current crisis.

And then there are blogs. Derided by those who haven't ventured beyond the tedious "what-I-had-for-breakfast-and-watched-last-night-on-tv" efforts as entirely self-centered, not to say downright onanistic, these have grown at a rate that defies belief. According to a 2008 Technorati report, featured in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, there were already over 22 million bloggers in 2007; 184 million people have started a blog; 77% of active Internet users read blogs and in the summer of 2008, four of the top entertainment sites (including numbers one and two) were blogs. A Guardian article earlier this month seriously floated the notion that the Huffington Post, which has just "invested" $1.2m into investigative journalism, might actually replace the New York Times. Anyone who dismisses the idea that a blog could ever supplant one of the world's great newspapers should pause to consider the fact that the former has raised $25m with apparent ease while the latter is, in the Guardian's words. "a life-or-death struggle to pay its debts".

The most thoughtful piece I've seen on wine blogging is by the Boston-based blogger Thor Iverson on Oenologic. In it, he points out that "blogging remains primarily a hobbyist’s pursuit… which, incidentally, is exactly the situation print wine writing has found itself in for some time. Only a tiny, tiny number of bloggers and print wine writers can actually support themselves by writing about wine." Iverson believes that, ultimately, the vinous blogosphere will reflect the traditional print world: writers/publishers with genuinely authoritative voices will increasingly dominate the market. In many cases, given the difficulties inherent in trying to have something valuable to say on every aspect of wine, the winners will be specialists like Peter Liem on Champagne and Allen Meadows on Burgundy who seek to share their obsessive interest, experience and expertise of a particular style or region. Access to sites like these comes at a price - of $79 and $125 respectively in the case of and - which shouldn't deter anyone who really wants high quality information on either style of wine. Many general wine fans will similarly find it easy to justify the £69/$99 it costs to subscribe to Jancis Robinson and/or Robert Parker. But, again as Iverson points out, blog-reading time is a finite resource. While you are perusing these words, Iverson's or Robinson's, you can't be reading anybody else's. Unless you are a very unfortunate in your personality or circumstances, you will also need to venture out into the real world and focus your brain on - and hopefully indulge in and relish - other aspects of the human condition.

And that's ultimately what I like best about blogging on wine - or on any other subject: the purity of the myriad relationships between reader and writer. This is the real world where millions of individuals pass each other by without noticing, indulge in brief conversations (fact-chasing via google), one-night-stands (deriving satisfaction from a single blog post without ever needing returning to it) and enduring marriages (aka subscriptions).

The way we were

Underage drinking and drug abuse and adult binge drinking are a terrible worry. Life used to be so very much better in the days when we used to resort to respectible pharmaceutical products like these...

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Caveat-vendor: beware of Chinese scamsters

Put yourselves in the shoes of a producer with plenty of wine to sell. You receive an email or letter from a Chinese "Buying Center" interested in placing a test order worth $250,000 or more for one of its clients . There is no haggling over price, and an undertaking to wire payment for the wine before it leaves your winery. To make the deal, you are invited (at your own cost) to visit Guilin where the buyers are based. Once there, you are welcomed and entertained lavishly and taken on city tours. Next, comes a visit to an art gallery, where it is explained that you should honour local tradition by buying a gift for the head of the company that is actually purchasing your wine. You will carry the artwork home with you to hand over to the buyer when he visits your winery and signs the final contract. The art on show is fairly pricy, and you are warned off spending too much. Nothing more than $25-30,000. You make the purchase and head home with it, full of happy memories and pleasure at the thought of the Chinese money that is about to flow in your direction. But that, unfortunately is the end of the story. The buyer never actually appears at your door and efforts to contact him or the Buying Center are fruitless. You are left with your wine, an almot certainly heavily overpriced painting and credit card bills for an expensive trip to China.
I was told about this scam by one of its victims, Graeme Avery, owner of Sileni one of the biggest wineries in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Avery, a pharmaceutical scientist and former owner of medical publishing company, is no-one's idea of a sucker, but he says that he was completely taken in by the sophistication of the fraud. As, it seems, were at least two other New Zealand wineries, and almost certainly many elsewhere, as well as manufacturers of every other kind of product. Type "guilin scam" into Google and you'll find nearly 300 sites. Apparently, Guilin has developed a Lagos-like reputation for this kind of behaviour, thanks allegedly to the involvement of local authorities, but I'd be surprised if similar fraudsters were not at work elsewhere in China, not to mention other developing countries.
You have been warned...