Thursday, August 27, 2009

Feeling low, down under

A piece that appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Once upon a time a little bird with a broken wing became lost in the frozen tundra of Siberia. Cold and hungry, he was close to death. Just then an old peasant came along, took pity on the bird and gave him a few crusts of his bread. But how could he warm up the shivering little creature? He looked around and noticed a steaming yak pat that had just been deposited by one of his herd. After a moment’s hesitation, he picked up the bird and inserted it gently into the pat. The smell was fairly unpleasant of course but, quite soon, the poor creature stopped shivering, began to feel considerably better and fell asleep. Having accomplished this small act of charity, the peasant went on his way, the yak pat began to cool down and as it did so, it became increasingly solid. When the bird woke up, it found that it was trapped and began to call for help. Soon, a fox happened by and heard the frantic cheeps. Almost immediately the fox picked up the yak pat with his mouth and gently tapped it against a rock until it broke and allowed the bird to break free from its prison. Thank you, thank you, thank you said the bird, to which the fox replied "my pleasure" and promptly popped the little creature in his mouth and swallowed it whole. And the moral of the story is: when you’re up to your neck in dung, it isn’t always your enemies who put you there. And it isn’t always your friends you get you out.

This little story sprang to mind when I began to think about the state of the Australian wine industry and its history over the last 25 years. Back in 1985, when I first visited Australia, its wine exports were almost insignificant. In those dim distant days, British wine drinkers were used to a diet of illustrious French classics – if they could afford them – and Liebfraumilch, Muscadet, , Rioja, Chianti, Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon and Hungarian Bulls Blood if they couldn’t. Californian wine was a new arrival on the scene and, then as today, seemed, when viewed on the eastern banks of the Atlantic, to be a musician with a very limited repertoire. There was bargain basement wine in Paul Masson carafes and ultra-ambitious Napa efforts modelled on the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux – in style, quality and price. And not a lot in between. The international head of sales at Mondavi famously never left home without a bottle of Lafite to set against his winery’s Reserve in the smartest possible restaurant. He and his fellow Californians must have imagined that a nation whose wine drinking classes were brought up on Bordelais formality would embrace their own west coast version. But, as they gradually discovered, they could not have got it more wrong.

The British wine buyers, critics and adventurous wine drinkers of the late 1980s and the 1990s sought something very different. What they – or perhaps for the sake of honesty, I should say we - admitted to looking for was unpretentiousness, and wines that combined deliciousness with affordability. We really did not care if the Australian wines did not taste like Bordeaux or Burgundy. Indeed we revelled in their difference. And we positively loved the fact that the winemakers were blokes we could go to the pub with and drink beer and discuss cricket and rugby – subjects on which most Americans have little to offer.

The honeymoon between the Australian producers and the British market lasted for the better part of 20 years during which the Australians saw their slice of the market grow ever larger until it overtook even the previously unassailable champions, the French. But outsiders might have noticed a dangerously incompatible note. Even Australian wine drinkers with moderate incomes aspire to occasional indulgences in the priciest jewels of their country’s vineyards. Well-heeled Brits, by contrast, can never quite keep their eyes off the price tag. When Australian winemakers arrived proudly bearing bottles from the cool climate vineyards they had been encouraged to develop by UK critics, they were politely received – and told that their wines were, like those Napa reds, simply too expensive. Worse still, we proved to be fickle in our affections: we were just as happy to drink a Shiraz from Chile or South Africa. For a while, like a wife wearing ever-more revealing clothes in a desperate attempt to keep her husband’s interest, the Australians indulged in an orgy of discounting before coming to the inevitable conclusion that We-Really-Can’t-Go-On-Like-This.

But what’s the alternative? The obvious answer is the US, still the most profitable major wine market on earth. The trouble is that few Australian winemakers ever learned how to play by American rules. They hadn’t modelled their wineries or their marketing on Medoc and Pomerol chateaux. They never established a globally-acknowledged super-premium category like Italy’s raft of $100+ Barolos and Super-Tuscans and Spain’s Priorats, all of which readily found USbuyers before the crunch. There’s no Australian equivalent of the Napa Valley Auction at which Versace-clad bidders buy bottles for thousands of dollars, and the only Barossa counterparts of Napa efforts like Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle are wines that were made specifically for the US market. And treated with derision for their pretentiousness by Australian and British critics. Most observers of the US wine scene now acknowledge that Australia occupies much the same role there as it does in the UK: as supplier of large amounts of reliable moderately priced wine. Stuff you might drink with a pizza on a Wednesday evening, but not if you want to make any kind of impression. The American fox may not be precisely devouring the little bird, but it’s not doing it much good. And who should we blame for its fate? The fox, the bird, or the well-meaning British peasant ..?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Buy the glass

For reasons that are beyond by comprehension, UK authorities are decidedly hazy about the legality of selling wine in quantities other than 125ml, 175ml and 250ml glasses. Some regions allow it; others forbid it, citing the 1988 Weights and Measures (Intoxicating Liquor) Order. So, in theory at least, British wine drinkers can't experience the delights of exploring ranges of small samples of different wines.

Despite this madness, brave places like The Sampler, Selfridges Wonder Bar and now the Kensington Wine Rooms are braving the ire of the bureaucrats by utilising clever Enomatic machines to offer 40-80 wines in measures as small as 25ml. At a time when binge drinking (quite possibly involving Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio) is an undeniable problem, what could make more sense than a setting like the Kensington Wine Rooms where customers compare small servings of Chablis and Meursault; New Zealand Sauvignon and Sancerre and enjoy them to the accompaniment of a plate of good Spanish ham and/or English cheese and/or stuffed peppers? The Sampler is set to spawn a series of new outlets and the Kensington Wine Rooms was set up by the founder of a successful set of Paris pubs called Le Frog & Rosbif, so it's reasonable to expect it to multiply as well.

According to officials last week, the law is set to be liberalised, opening the way to tasting-flights of wines in wine bars across the nation. But don't hold your breath...

Two cheers for the revolution

So, European winemakers have now - since August 1st - been freed to print on their labels the names of the grape varieties from which their wines are produced. My first curmudgeonly reaction to this particular bit of Euro wine reform was to greet it with a yawn.

Let's be clear. All that's happening is a long-overdue tidying-up of an untidy mess. Prior to the new rules, producers in some regions happily declared their varieties with impunity (think of all that Sauvignon Blanc de Bordeaux) while their neighbours down the road were banned from doing so. Worse still, winemakers who steadfastly supported the law in Europe, hypocritically ignored it completely when they came to sell their wine in countries where European laws did not apply. So American wine drinkers were offered Mouton Cadet Bordeaux Merlot, but their UK counterparts were not.

The one valuable aspect of this part of the reform is that it serves as a reminder to producers that their customers are people with whom it is sometimes worth communicating. No one is forcing anyone to change a single label. All that is happening is that a winemaker is now free to help a wine buyer make a more informed choice.

Which, now I come to think of it, is worth rather more than a yawn. Actually a small glass of Champagne (with a small label reference to the fact that it's a Blanc de Noirs, Pinot Noir perhaps), might be more appropriate.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Pornagraphic wine labels (at least that's what they think in Alabama)

Only in America...
The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC) has
confirmed in a letter to restaurants and shops that Cycles Gladiator, a Californian wine from Hahn Family Wines may not legally be sold in Alabama. At least not if the bottle bears its label which depicts an 1895 French poster for the Gladiator bicycle brand. According to Bob Martin, attorney for the ABC Board, who presumably makes these kinds of statements with a straight face, the label contravened laws against the depiction of "a person posed in an immoral or sensuous manner."

The ban will not have caused much loss of sleep at Hahn Family Wines. Sales in Alabama were apparently around 500 cases per year and this figure is being easily made up - and exceeded - by Californians and others who are flocking to get their hands on bottles that are "Banned in Bama."
(For other labels that have upset the Alabama censors, and an interesting insight into Alabama official thinking. take a look at this site)

While Alabama protects its citizens from the shocking sight of a 19th century nude, it fortunately takes a relatively liberal attitude towards gun-ownership. Anyone over 18 may buy and own a rifle, shotgun, or handgun without the need for any kind of permit or registration (the minimum age at which one can legally drink alcohol is 21, as elsewhere in the US). The only official permit that is required is for the carrying of a concealed weapon. According to an informative site, I had not previously visited called, a recent survey reveals that two thirds of Alabama's residents own guns and half have permits to carry concealed weapons. proudly states that "This is one of the highest gun ownership and concealed carry permits in the country and corresponds with a relatively low crime rate."

Hmmmm, In 2006, 412 people were apparently murdered in Alabama, compared with 759 in the UK where gun ownership is effectively outlawed. Alabama has a population of 4,627,851. The UK has nearly 15 times as many people: 60,975,000.

Alabama has 7.4 murders per 100,000 people; the 6th highest rate in the US for murder.

Alabama legislators have a fine record of drawing up unusual laws - as you can find on the Dumblaws site. Here are just a few prime examples.

  • Bear wrestling matches are prohibited.

  • Incestuous marriages are legal.

  • It is illegal to impersonate a person of the clergy.

  • You may not drive barefooted.

  • It is considered an offense to open an umbrella on a street, for fear of spooking horses.

  • Dominoes may not be played on Sunday.

  • It is illegal to wear a fake moustache that causes laughter in church.

  • Putting salt on a railroad track may be punishable by death.

  • You may not have an ice cream cone in your back pocket at any time.

  • It is illegal for a driver to be blindfolded while operating a vehicle.

City Laws in Alabama

  • You may not wear blue jeans down Noble Street.

  • Men who deflower virgins, regardless of age or marital status, may face up to five years in jail.

  • If an animal control officer is in uniform, it signifies to the public that he is an animal control officer.

    Lee County
  • It is illegal to sell peanuts in Lee County after sundown on Wednesday.

  • No person within the city may possess confetti.

  • It is unlawful to wear women’s pumps with sharp, high heels.

  • Montgomery
    It is considered an offense to open an umbrella on a street, for fear of spooking horses.