Friday, May 29, 2009

The Hydra Critics

Over the last few weeks, the vinous chattering classes, or at least some of them, have been obsessing about the fact that Jay Miller and Mark Squires, contributors to Robert Parker's Wine Advocate have both accepted hospitality from organisations representing wine regions and/or wines. The story which was first aired by Dr Vino, aka Tyler Colman has now received much wider airplay with the publication of a piece in the Wall Street Journal, a lengthy and useful contribution by Jancis Robinson and a response to the WSJ by Robert Parker himself. I'll write more about the general business of wine writing ethics in a separate post, but I thought it worth taking this opportunity to ponder an aspect of the story - and of the Parker/Advocate phenomenon that, apart from a good post by winezag is rarely discussed. When Parker started out, he was an individual wine enthusiast (no reference intended) with an unusually fine and above all consistent palate who wanted to share his opinions with others. The same could be said of Jancis Robinson, and of countless wine-focused bloggers who daily offer their opinions to anyone who cares to hear them.

The problem for wine opinions like Parker and Robinson is one of scale. As their success grows, so too will the range of wines they are expected to cover. Every day, a deluge of bottles arrives, as well as a flood of invitations to taste or visit. (I know, because in my previous life as a consumer wine critic I swam in this torrent, though never to the extent of Parker and Robinson).

At some point, the critic has to decide whether he or she is to continue to do everything themselves - and necessarily to place limits on that "everything" - or if they are to admit collaborators or, as Parker calls them "contractors" who can carry some of the additional load.
Parker's growing team is now quite well known, and Jancis Robinson frankly talks about her helpers - full-timer - Julia Harding MW - and occasionals, Richard Hemming, Walter Speller, Michael Schmidt, Mel Jones and Victoria Daskal. I am sure that both Parker and Robinson choose their running mates with care, both with regard to their personality and skills but, and this is my point, none of these people will ever share the famous critics' DNA, tastebuds and still-evolving experience. This is all too clear when Parker and Neal Martin his UK-based contractor disagree over Bordeaux.

These disagreements are fascinating to some but, I suspect, frustrating to a far greater number who are simply looking for a single consistent beacon by which to navigate the vinous ocean. I say this after years at Wine International of including occasional diverse Bordeaux en-primeur opinions from Charles Metcalfe, Derek Smedley and myself. Stated bluntly, no one really wanted to know that we couldn't agree over the long term potential of Chateau This or That. All they desired was a verdict they could use when deciding what to buy.

As Parker and Robinson - and others - evolve from individual human beings into multi-headed brands - as John Platter did a long time ago in South Africa, the consistency of what they offer will inevitably change. Do many of the consumers and retailers who glibly talk about "Parker" recommendations of Burgundies, Australian and German wines actually mind that the great man may never have tasted them? Does it matter?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Giant(s) Exodus from the UK?

Nothing ever stays the same. The wine scene in Britain - and, to a lesser extent the world - was radically altered with the arrival/development of multinational vinous giants like E&J Gallo, Fosters, Pernod Ricard and Constellation. Companies like these, with their portfolios of brands entered into initially happy relationships with the bigger UK retailers who gave them the shelf space they needed to sell their wares. Naturally, those shelves were the setting for a certain amount of robust competition, but essentially, the system worked. It all began to go wrong when, with the encouragement of the supermarkets, the wine companies descended into an orgy of discounting with BOGOFs - Buy One Get One Frees- Three-for-Twos and most recently Three-for-Ten (pound) offers. The blame for these usually goes to the supermarkets who are portrayed as evil torturers squeezing the lifeblood out of their suppliers. Those closer to the picture, however, recall plenty of occasions when the wine companies almost pleaded with the chains to let them offer their wines at rock bottom discounts.

But, as I say, nothing remains the same. Now that the great British public has become thoroughly used to getting its Lindemans and Hardys wines for unrealistically low prices, the companies that produce these wines have - reportedly - finally become fed up with the game of supplying them. So, the big companies are laying off staff, refusing to agree to the deals the supermarkets are proposing and taking steps to largely withdraw from the UK market. As one exec said to me, Poland may be a much smaller market, but it's actually looking a lot more attractive to us in profit terms at the moment... Some people will be sorry to see them go; others less so. But like the western troops that will one day have moved out of the Gulf, no-one can ever say that the giant wine companies won't have left their mark.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Glass warfare

There are so many differences between the European and the US wine markets, but I'm beginning to think that one of the most significant is the popularity of serving wine by the glass in American cafes and restaurants. Around three quarters of wine drunk outside the home is sold in this way. Now, the figure in the UK is probably pretty high too, but on the east of the Atlantic those glasses are more likely to contain basic sweet pink wine or generic Pinot Gigio, Chardonnay or Merlot and to be consumed in bars as an alternative to Bacardi Breezers or beer. In the US, since the 1980s, the "wine-by-the-glass" programme has enabled countless people in restaurants to explore and discover wines they might never have dared to buy by the bottle. Sadly when they sit down to eat, Europeans remain far too committed to the 75cl bottle...

Wine and movies - and clever ways to sample wine

Lunch with very clever Jonathan Evans who has the tricky task of trying to promote Bordeaux - at every level - in the UK. He's just launched a brilliant scheme with Lovefilm. You buy a bottle of Bordeaux and you get a free Lovefilm movie and introductory membership - and another bottle of the same value Bordeaux. A win-win for everyone involved... I wish others were as clever. Evans also showed me a great idea in the form of 30ml wine tasting sachets. Watch out for their appearance on a bottle neck or being handed out at a railway station somewhere soon. Though probably not containing Bordeaux...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Virtually interesting

Tesco's announcement that its new "Virtual Wine Adviser" was proving an instant success (as reported in Just-Drinks) made me smile. At least six years ago I was invited to give a talk to the wine department of the Spar supermarket chain in Vienna. Visiting one of the chain's bigger stores (an immeasurably smarter effort than its UK counterpart) I was struck by a brilliant gadget in the wine aisle. Essentially it consisted of a bar-code reader and a computer screen. All you had to do was scan the code on any bottle, and up popped a page or two of information about its contents, ranging from where it came from to the dish it would best complement. I haven't seen Tesco's version yet. It may well be a lot more sophisticated than what I saw in Austria, but it probably doesn't need to be. The last tine I was in the Australian wine retailer, Vintage Cellars, it had its own clever low-tech way of providing information about its wines. Between the bottles, there were neatly printed narrow fact sheets to be torn off and carried home. Maybe that idea will be noticed and adopted elsewhere too. As Paul Theroux, the travel writer once wrote, to move between countries is to travel in time...

The Complexity Complex

Mindmesser, Benmummy, Humongosaur, Stinkfly, Toepick, Rubix-Dude... Do any of these ring any bells with you? If not, you obviously haven't spent any time with a child who's been watching the TV series Ben Ten. I owe my knowledge of Ben Ten to my four year old son Noah, who is obsessed by the eponymous hero and the 60 alien forms, such as the ones listed above, into which he can transform himself. At a time when producers of television shows are accused of playing down to the intellectually lowest common denominator, the creators of this show have done the opposite. As you discover when you go digging around on the net for answers to four year old questions such as "What can Stinkfly do?". According to one helpful wikia

"Stinkfly is... a Lepidopterran from the swamp planet Lepidopterra (a play on lepidoptera, the scientific name for butterflies and moths)... [and is] meant to be a combination of various Earth insects (dragonflies, crickets, and praying mantises specifically). His primary ability is flight facilitated by the four thin wings on his back, which grant Stinkfly high mobility and speed. Stinkfly also possesses disproportionate strength, enough to carry people and objects heavier than himself. In "Don't Drink the Water", the child form of Stinkfly (Stinkyfly) was able to unleash a powerful herbicide gas by farting. Stinkfly's four eye stalks give him a wide range of vision from the sky, including the ability to look directly behind himself. Pollen ducts in his eyes and mouth allow Stinkfly to excrete high-pressure streams of liquids. The type of liquid can range from a flammable toxin to an immobilizing jelly. His razor-sharp tail and pincer-like legs can also be used in melee combat. Stinkfly's primary weakness is water, which can negate his flight if it gets on his wings. In addition, while his body is fairly strong, his wings are not. A more minor inconvenience is Stinkfly's intense body odor (hence the name), which is a result of the oils he secretes to keep his joints moving."

Similarly detailed descriptions are provided for all of the aliens in Ben Ten - which will come in handy if you find yourself having a conversation with a five year old fan. Unless of course, the five year old in question has switched his allegiance to fooball. In which case, you might have to remember the names of every member of the Manchester United or Arsenal squads - and the details of every goal, misjudged foul and penalty.

So what's my point? Well, most people who deal with wine on a daily basis have discovered that, as a subject, it is generally thought to be too complicated. It is replete with just too many appellations, designations and grapes. Okay, there are anoraks and buffs who delight in the differences between Chassagne Montrachet and Puligny Montrachet, and between the wines of the domaines of Alain Chavy, Philippe Chavy and Hubert Chavy-Chouet but they are the rare exceptions. And, being a wine buff is somehow more nerdy, less socially acceptable for many, than knowing the arcane details of sport or music.

The great English wine writer Andrew Jefford apparently addressed the issue of getting people to embrace or at least accept complexity. "If you're having difficulty teaching your kid chess, don't simply trade down to draughts. Look instead for a better way to get him excited by chess..."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Luxury of Ignorance?

"Why pay more?" Suddenly, it's nagging at almost all of us: the line used in a million uninspired advertisements for products and services claiming to be as good as the ones carrying a bigger price tag. In straitened times, as money flows more slowly, there's more reason than ever to examine the rationale behind paying more for something than you need to. In this vein, I was interested to read Seth Godin's take on this in his most recent blog (kindly passed on to me by Catherine Monahan, creator of a wine and website called le beast)

Luxury vs Premium
Luxury goods are needlessly expensive. By needlessly, I mean that the price is not related to performance. The price is related to scarcity, brand and storytelling. Luxury goods are organized waste. They say, "I can afford to spend money without regard for intrinsic value."

That doesn't mean they are senseless expenditures. Sending a signal is valuable if that signal is important to you.

Premium goods, on the other hand, are expensive variants of commodity goods. Pay more, get more. Figure skates made from kangaroo hide, for example, are premium. The spectators don't know what they're made out of, but some skaters get better performance. They're happy to pay more because they believe they get more.

A $20,000 gown is not a premium product. It's not better made, it won't hold up longer, it's not waterproof or foldable. It's just artificially scarce. A custom-made suit, on the other hand, might be worth the money, especially if you're Wilt Chamberlain.

Plenty of brands are in trouble right now because they're not sure which one they represent.

When you apply Godin's theory to wine, it's interesting to consider which wines really enjoy premium status, and which are luxuries. Traditional European wines applied the premium system assiduously: you paid more for a Reserva or a Premier Cru, and still more for a Gran Reserva or a Grand Cru. All of these were supposedly from better vineyards and/or more expensively made and aged. Then a pesky little boy called Robert Parker came along and impudently - but accurately - pointed out that some of the emperors were more shabbily dressed than their supposedly humbler subjects. And that some of the smartest players carried no quality credentials at all - apart from the score Parker himself had given them out of 100.

Today, I'd say that top Burgundies and Bordeaux probably fit into Godin's classification of "premium" in much the same way as a custom-made suit. And the same might have been said for Penfolds' tiers of Bin numbers. But what about Cloudy Bay, which is now produced in prodigious quantities but maintains an extraordinary image of rarity. No longer the best wine in its region, it still carries a quality image that presumably satisfies those who pay twice as much for a bottle as they would for something from a neighbouring vineyard.

The cult California Cabernets and Australian Shirazes can at least usually stake a claim to genuine rarity and to - relatively - higher cost production, but are they premium or luxury products. Or are they uncomfortable mixtures of both? Premium in the extra perceived quality they deliver but luxury in the distance between their astronomic price and the price at which they could be profitably sold.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Languedoc Pinot Noir - the silent scandal

If two out of every three cartons of Tropicana Orange Juice were made from something other than oranges, I guess there would be some kind of fuss made about it. When the same kind of thing appears to apply to wine, the noise seems to be far more subdued. In February of this year, the regional Les Depeches newspaper revealed that French authorities were investigating a major fraud. Or, to be precise, the gap between the 167m bottles of Pinot Noir the Aude Region exported every year between 2005-2008 and the 60m bottles that were actually produced by the entire Languedoc region, of which the Aude is a part. 100m bottles of fake Pinot is a sizeable number and the story was picked up by Decanter, Wine Spectator and winecurmudgeon among others. It also featured on the inner pages of US newspapers such as the New York Times. Since then, the silence has been deafening.

Now, I can understand the average US Pinot Noir buyer not having been affected by, or even noticing, this story, but I'd have imagined that a few wine store managers and a few wine enthusiasts might have been aware of it. I was personally rather more than curious about the impact of the fraud because - to declare an interest - I helped to create and have a third share of a French Pinot Noir - Le Grand Noir - that is on sale in the US. Its sales are brisk, and I wondered how much this success might owe to the fact that it's genuinely made from Pinot Noir. But apparently not. It seems that the booming US market for French Pinot Noir has not even been slightly bruised by the news that most of it is not what it claims to be.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Back from the front #2 turn(ing down of) the screw

More rumours. While most people seem to believe that the US is finally following the UK in embracing screwcaps, Tesco's US operation Fresh n'Easy is reported to be switching back to Diam technical corks.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Back from the front #1

Gossip at the London wine fair suggests that insurance giant AXA may finally had enough of its wine investments and is seeking to be rid of them. If this were true, the list of estates on offer would include Quinta da Noval, Château Pichon-Longueville, Château Pibran, Château Petit-Village, Château Suduiraut, Domaine de l’Arlot in Burgundy, Disznóko in Tokaj and Mas Belles Eaux in Languedoc-Roussillon. Also rumoured is the sale of Michel Laroche in Chablis...

70:70 vision from Jean-Charles Boisset

I spent a fascinating few hours chatting to Jean-Charles Boisset, yesterday for an interview to appear in Meininger's Wine Business International. Among the many subjects on which the man the man behind some 35 wine brands such as Bouchard Ainé, Boisset, Domaine de Vougeraie ad De Loach in California was eloquent was his take on wine packaging. He calls this his 70% rule, and I thought it reprinting it here:

More than 31.2 billion bottles of wine are consumed on earth each year. 70% of that wine retails for less than $10 per bottle. Within that 70%, at least 70% is consumed between 28 minutes and 3 hours of purchase. 70% of the cost of that wine is the packaging (bottles, corks, capsules, and all other dry goods), shipping, and other related supply chain costs. The vast majority of the environmental impact of wine comes from the production and disposal of the packaging and from shipping the heavy merchandise around the world. We know that wine meant to be enjoyed young can be kept fresh and flavorful in a variety of packaging formats. Why then not offer this wine in lighter, more environmentally-friendly packaging that will reduce its carbon footprint and cost less to ship, yet still provide the high quality that customers demand? By lightening the packaging and reducing its carbon footprint, the wine world can make a dramatic difference in the health of our environment…and invest in better quality wines!”
Jean-Charles Boisset

To which I would add a question of my own. Could someone please tell me why rosé, any rosé, is ever put into a glass bottle with a cork?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

All the Fun of the Fair... And more about Three Dollar Bill

The first day of the London International Wine Trade Fair was horribly revealing of the state of the wine world in Britain. The exhibition hall was smaller than in previous years, and there were convenient seating areas where exhibitors had pulled out at the last minute. Despite the more limited space, however, numbers of visitors felt decidedly light. Even so, the fair remains a good place to pick up gossip. Among the stories that were going around was the news that New Zealand has once again had a bumper harvest (though not quite as excessive as last year) so cheap Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc will make another appearance in UK supermarkets. (Readers may recall that Tesco recentky sold 1.8 million bottles at under £3.50 within the space of a week. A well-informed Australian also explained how Fred Franzia, inventor of Two Buck Chuck Californian wine is going to be able to sell Australian wine in the US at $3. Apparently Franzia will buy the wine in bulk from bankrupt companies and bottle it in America. For those - like me - who admire well-constructed machines, it is hard not to admire the devilishly clever mechanism that lies behind Franzia's scheme. Wine producers go bust because their wine is to expensive for the US market. Franzia buys their wine from the liquidators at fire sale prices. The arrival of Franzia's cheap Aussie wine (which I've nicknamed Three Dollar Bill) drives the perception of Australia down still further, and helps to drive more Aussie producers out of business. Which will, of course, serve to ensure that Franzia has another flood of give-away wine. Repeat ad-infinitum. Or until sufficient bankruptcies have taken place for no wine to be left...

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Clever Ideas #2: keeping wine fresh

As an alternative to the squeezing-a-plastic-bottle method (see below), I can offer another efficient way to keep wine fresh once it has been opened. All you have to do is keep a bag full of marbles in your kitchen and add them to the bottle of half-full wine until the surface level rises to meet the screwcap or synthetic cork. Ironically, this tip came from Jim Ledwith who makes part of his living selling equipment to achieve this objective

Going Down: Welcoming the arrival of Three Dollar Bill

First it was New Zealand. With a lake of excess 2008 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on their hands, producers decided to dump a lot of it in Britain, the country where they had cleverly built a market for their unusually - for the Brits - highly priced wine. Last year, the going rate for this style was £6-8 nearly twice the national average price for white wine. The picture for 2009 will almost certainly look rather different

The Tesco customers who reportedly bought nearly 2,000,000 bottles at 3-for-£10 over the space of a few weeks may wonder why they should shell out £6 for what they might perceive to be the same stuff. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Fred Franzia of Bronco Wine Co, has announced that he is about to launch a $3 Australian range (which, in his shoes, I might well call Three-Dollar-Bill) to sell at half the price of the US's biggest-selling import, Yellow Tail.

Franzia. it should be remembered, is the the man who invented "Two Buck Chuck" and, until he was legally prevented from doing so, sold vast quantities of cheap Central Valley wine as Napa Ridge. Tesco has been criticised for the damage it has done to the image of New Zealand and Franzia will face a similar charge. Especially given the difficukties Australia has had in building a premium image for its wines in the US. But, as Dan Jago of Tesco frankly says, "we were offered the wine. If we hadn't taken it, one of our competitors surely would have done. ". Franzia takes a similar line: "Bronco fishes where the fish are!". If the Kiwis and Aussies don't want to be seen as purveyors of bargain basement wine, maybe they should stop selling large quantities of bargain basement wine. As a major UK retailer wrily said, if they'd had any sense, the Kiwis would have poured every drop of their excess down the drain...

My bet is that the New Zealanders may just get this message. Their surplus in 2009 was apparently far smaller than in 2008, and if they have any sense, they'll dump it in China out of sight of their regular customers. The picture for Australia is more worrying. Mr Franzia plays a longer game than many people expect. When he launched Charles Shaw - aka Two Buck Chuck - most observers thought it a clever short-term way to help dispose of a temporary Californian glut. But the brand is now seven years old and still going strong. Three Dollar Bill is likely to be here to stay too. And, if I were a winemaker trying to make a living in the Barossa Valley, that would hardly be good news.

Clever idea #1 (how to keep wine fresh)

Great simple ideas are all too rare, but they're always the best. Tonight, an Italian winemaker friend called Luigi Mancini just gave me a great way to keep wine fresh for a few days after opening. All you have to do is pour the wine into a plastic water bottle (probably 50cl or smaller) and then squeeze until all the air has been expelled. Luigi, who makes a great white Pinot Noir says he even does this before dinner on occasions when he knows he wants to serve several wines but knows that the bottles won't all be emptied. That way, he says, the wine in the plastic bottle keeps even better because it has had so little exposure to air.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Squealing eagle?

Interestingly thoughtful comment by Morton Leslie in response to a blog posting by Steve Heimoff about recent happenings at Screaming Eagle. Heimoff's point is that the sale of his shares by one co-owner of the cult winery to the other, because the former is "no longer needed", supports a view that Screaming Eagle's price is not sustainable.

For Heimoff "The wine biz today is more like show biz than a consumable industry... But in this troubled world of wine, the narrative is shifting away from exclusivity and exorbitant prices and more toward pleasure and affordability, which is where the narrative should be". Leslie responds that:

"[Screaming Eagle] is all about its customer. The wine itself has no intrinsic value above any other good tasting wine except that the buyer has evidence that many people are dying to have it, and only certain special people are able to buy it, and that owning the wine says something special about the customer and their status. The wine's value is in what it does for the ego of the SE customer.

Now, what happens when you tamper with that perceived ego-enhancing value?…a different winemaker…customer sees evidence that the wine’s price is arbitrarily set …perhaps by a greedy owner unrelated to actual demand…owners publicly split…America (and the world) has had its fill of greedy self-indulgent people…

What if instead of making you look special, buying the wine makes you look like a fool? I’d say that it isn’t that there is evidence there is trouble, there is trouble because there is evidence."

I agree with both Heimoff and Leslie, and reckon that Warren Buffett's much quoted assertion that it's when the sea goes out that you see who's not wearing a swimming costume could be applied to wine. Over the next few years we may well see which currently astronomically-priced bottles manage to maintain their prices...

Wine bottle sizes: a 400 year old hangover

Further to my last posting, this is just a thought about the unquestioned ubiquitousness of the 75cl bottle. Loaves of bread vary in size, as do books of poetry and bottles of beer, and indeed wine glasses. Wine of any quality however comes in 75cl - or very rarely 37.5, 150 or rarest of all 50cl bottles. No-one ever asks why? The reason, for anybody who cares, is that 70-75cl was the lung capacity of a French glass blower in the 17th century. When molds were introduced, they naturally followed the size of the hand-blown efforts and 350 or so years later we're still still stuck with the 1600s model. Which is even more ridiculous when one considers that the 17th century wine would probably have had a strength of 10% or so while its modern equivalent might weigh in at 14.5%

Friday, May 01, 2009

Glasses half full... or half empty?

According to a report in yesterday's Guardian, a study by Dr Marinette Streppel of the Division of Human Nutrition at Wageningen University, suggests that moderate wine drinkers live significantly longer than teetotalers. Hardly surprisingly, a UK Wine and Spirit Trade Association spokesman greeted the news with glee: "This study reinforces the view taken by a government committee some years ago that moderate consumption of alcohol can have a positive impact on people's health, particularly in relation to heart disease". Reading the report in greater detail, however, raises some issues with which the Association and its members might be rather less happy. Moderate drinkers who consumed less than 20 grams of wine per day may have lived for two extra years but it was their super-moderate contemporaries - the ones who called a halt after just half a glass - who got to remain on this mortal coil for nearly five years longer. Now 20 grams equates to around half a bottle between two, provided both drinkers are male (the study only involved men). Were one of the pair female, the amount would presumably be smaller. I suppose that some wine professionals might concede that, for a couple to take 48 hours to get through a bottle of wine might amount to moderate consumption, but I don't know many who'd limit their own intake to this level. And I certainly know of almost no-one who would be happy to drink just half a glass per day.

If the Wine & Spirit Association really wants to become involved with findings like these, and to embrace the notion of wine as an aid to longevity, it has one logical route to take: a call for a reduction in the size of wine bottles.