Friday, May 29, 2009
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
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
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
"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
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
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
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
THE BOISSET 70% RULE
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!”
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Saturday, May 09, 2009
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.
Saturday, May 02, 2009
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...
Friday, May 01, 2009
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.