Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The KISS - and why wine people hate it.

Keep It Simple Stupid: the four words that give us the acronym K.I.S.S. that was supposedly coined around 50 years ago by a US aircraft engineer called Kelly Johnson.

Complexity is beloved by fans of poetry and art and by everybody who takes wine seriously. A simple wine is generally unrecommendable, unless it's cheap and appealingly rustic. Complexity is what wins medals in wine competitions like the many International Wine Challenges I have chaired. The more complex the aroma and flavour, the greater the chance of a Gold or Trophy.

I'm not stepping back from that basic tenet, but I am acknowledging that I've often noticed little difference in my friends' and dining companions' reactions to the complex and the simpler wines I put out on the table. Often, in fact, it is the latter whose levels go down the fastest - our £7/$10 le Grand Noir Pinot Noir getting more positive comments than the mature £30/$50 Brunello or Bordeaux. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying for a second that the Pinot is a "better" wine, just that it's a fruitier, easier drink.

But the complexity of the liquid is only part of the picture. Wine people relish all sorts of other layers of complexity. They think that the variation between vintages is one of the most valuably fascinating characteristics of wine. They delight in the fact that regions like Marlborough and Barossa that were once seen as the source of wines with fairly predictable styles and flavours are now breaking down into a mosaic, as producers seek to express the character of their "terroir", or of their own personality.

In the goldfish bowl of wine enthusiasm, these developments are as welcome as the release of fresh interpretations of great operas is to opera buffs. For people outside the bowl - the mass of wine drinkers - they are fundamentally undesirable. If you've discovered that you enjoy Producer X's 2011 Marlborough Sauvignon or Bodega Y's Rioja Crianza, what you essentially want is more of the same. How many non opera-lovers have more than one boxed set of Aida or Traviata? How many more are perfectly happy with Verdi's greatest hits?

As Alan March wrote with refreshing candour in a recent Facebook thread (my highlighting)

I shop in Tesco (I confess) and it genuinely pains me to see bottles of Blossom Hill, cheap Frascati and the like piled high in trolleys and baskets. When I talk to some people [who buy these] (including colleagues from educated backgrounds) they tell me what they want is a wine which will taste the same whenever they drink it. They don't want variation, terroir etc they want their £4.99 to deliver what they expect. They don't read wine journalism, why would they when papers like The Sunday Times deliver such crap in any case. At Christmas I get asked countless times to recommend wines to buy for presents or lunch as long as it is only at a certain price of course.

We who take real interest in wine are a minority and because we mix in wine circles and read the literature etc we form our own communities and, as with other interests such as racing or football in my case, there is a tendency to assume everyone must have similar thoughts and should like what we do. It is simply not the case. As much as I dislike the Blossom Hill, I don't really expect Tesco to offer some 1er Cru Vosne Romanée to allow customers to see the wider picture. I'm delighted that more people like good wine but we remain the minority and such is life

It seems clear to me that there are two separate markets - for complexity, and for simplicity - and the mistake lies in trying to force one onto the other. If you are in the business of supplying wine enthusiasts, by all means pile up the complexity. The more cuvées the better. Why not release individual barrel-bottlings that illustrate the effect of oak from different forests? Or tiny lots that show off the effect of subtly different blends or ages of vines? Even if these flights of my fantasy are a little further than you want to go, you should certainly be sure to pack your website with all sorts of geeky information. 

If, on the other hand, your customer wants simplicity, give it to her or him. Deny yourself the luxury of experimenting with new styles - at least not under existing, successful labels - and if you can't achieve consistency across harvests, 
follow the Champenois model and launch a non-vintage blend.  Avoid the geeky language but focus instead on the part your reliably predictable wine can play in your customer's life.

Anyone who doubts the appeal of the K.I.S.S. principle should take a look at almost anything Apple has ever produced. Steve Jobs ad his team stripped the geekiness out of word processing when they brought us the desktop, wastebin and mouse, and then went on to revolutionise the way many things are designed by eliminating every unnecessary button from the first iPod.

iPods don't appeal to hi fi buffs. But they sell in rather larger numbers than more complex gear.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Confidence Trick... Why people buy Audis...

In all the discussions that have been sparked by my various posts on people's readiness to dig a bit deeper into their pockets when buying wine, there's one word that hasn't been mentioned: confidence.

One of the best illustrations of the value of confidence is the old line that "no office manager ever got fired for buying IBM". There were plenty of cheaper options among computers, many of which actually had better specifications than IBM, but the US giant was the trusted brand.

In cars, there is a parallel situation. Skoda, Volskwagen and Audi, and indeed Bentley, all belong to the same company. Bentleys look, and are, readily identifiable as being different to the other three but you need to look closely to tell the Skoda Octavia Estate from the VW Passat Estate or the Audi Avant A4. In fact, not only do these three look rather alike; they share a lot of the same components. One of the three, however, is the modern incarnation of a Soviet-era automobile joke; one is the poor man's BMW and the other is the Volkswagen.

In fact, as What Car? suggests, the sensible buy for anyone wanting an estate with good fuel efficiency and green credentials at a reasonable price, is the Skoda to which it awarded five stars.

The VW, whose price starts at some £5,000 more, uses more fuel (and is a little less green) and only gets four stars.

But that car gets a much higher rating than the three-star rated Audi.

These ratings seem to have done little to dent Audi's image, however. The brand has enjoyed another record year, with sales growing globally by 6.8%.

My point: ask a BMW driver if he or she would switch to a Ford, however fine it was proven to be and he'll say no. Ask an Apple iPad user to swap to a cheaper brand and most will give you the same response. Then try telling someone who's about to buy an Audi estate that he'd be better off saving £9,000 or so and buying a Skoda. He might just listen to you, but my bet is that he's mentally seen himself as an Audi driver, he has confidence in the brand, and there's no way that he's going to switch to the joke brand of the 1980s.

And that kind of - possibly misplaced - brand loyalty is just as prevalent in the world of drink. The Cloudy Bay or Pouilly Fumé drinker might well be the Audi driver in this scenario while the Oyster Bay buyer might be the equivalent of the VW owner. However good your inexpensive Slovenian Sauvignon, it's unlikely to have an easy time climbing out of the Skoda category as far as most of the consumers of those other labels are concerned.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why the wine industry is stupid - down-to-earth thinking about the way we package wine

A brief slideshow

My perceptive friend, Damien Wilson (@WineBusProf) of the Burgundy School of Business, responded to this slideshow with the following piece on forbes.com, the link to which was posted on Twitter by Johan Burger @johanhburger.

I agree with Damien that there are lessons to be learned here by the industry.


Monday, December 23, 2013

What are you worth?

Ilon Specht, the woman who

raised the self-worth of

millions of women.

"How can any bottle of wine be worth $200?" (Or whatever figure you choose to name).

It's a question I've been asked countless times and, to be honest, I've always had a hard time dealing with it. Responding, as I have, with my own questions about the relative value for money of pricy designer clothes, sports cars or seats at sporting or entertainment events, has never really seemed to be a satisfactory answer to the question. Either the wine is worth its price tag or it isn't.

But, of course, I've been missing the point. It's not the bottle that's worth the $200; it's the belief by the person who's buying it that they warrant the expenditure. In the words of the famous l'Oreal advertisement, Because I'm worth it.

In 1999, Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point and Blink wrote about meeting Ilon Specht, the woman who came up with that slogan four decades ago. Specht, recalled working against the clock in an office full of Mad Men-type males, on a slogan for a hair dye. She remembers feeling increasingly frustrated with her colleagues' approach.

“I was a twenty-three-year-old girl - a woman,” she said. “What would my state of mind have been? I could just see that they had this traditional view of women, and my feeling was that I’m not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me that they were doing. I just thought, Fuck you. I sat down and did it, in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it.

Specht sat stock still and lowered her voice: “I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference, by L’Oreal. It’s not that I care about money. It’s that I care about my hair. It’s not just the color. I expect great color. What’s worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don’t mind spending more for L’Oreal. Because I’m” - and here Specht took her fist and struck her chest - ”worth it.”
The feeling of spending one's own money on something for oneself is one of the most important - and often most overlooked of sensations. Writing this, I think of my then-seven-year-old son adamantly insisting on spending his pocket money on a particularly unimpressive plastic toy. The more I tried to argue him out of it, he more he wanted to hand over his five-pound-note to the shopkeeper; the transaction made him feel grown up. And I think of a seminal moment on one of my first trips to Hong Kong when a friend who lives there pointed at a couple waiting for a taxi and said "Those two illustrate something you should know about China."
As I looked across at the object of his attention, he explained, "It's obviously a western boss and his secretary. He's wearing a fake Rolex and is very pleased with himself - at having only paid $100 for something that looks as though it cost thousands. She's his secretary; over her arm, there's a genuine Chanel bag. She's just as pleased with herself at having been able to buy it for herself - with a few weeks' wages of her own money." And then I recall another advertisement that was used by BMW in France in the early 1980s and went something like "What better way to celebrate your 40th birthday?". And finally I remember a friend who always bought expensive new clothes to wear at job interviews - even when she could not remotely afford them: they made her feel worth employing.
Is any of this 100% rational? Of course it isn't. And does that matter? Not a jot. Did most of us choose our home entirely rationally? Or our pet? Or our partner?
The concept of "because you're worth it" certainly applies to Champagne, whether it's a celebratory bottle bought for oneself, or cases of the stuff to serve at a wedding, but far less frequently with other wines in cost-conscious markets like the UK. And I think that's probably because too many wine drinkers actually think to themselves "I'm not worth" the premium bottle because "my palate isn't fine enough to appreciate it".
And this is where rationality has just walked into the room. Saying that I'll never be a skilful enough driver to warrant owning a Ferrari would be a pretty valid reason for not shelling out hundreds of thousands on parking a red stallion in your driveway, but it's not one you often hear. The point is that most potential owners of fast cars imagine themselves to be capable of handling them - because it's an acquirable skill. Wine is more like hi-fi; people imagine that they may genetically lack what what it takes to appreciate the finer qualities that come with spending more money.

The wine world has, if anything, fostered this notion by banging on about the need for education. (If I'm not vinously educated, obviously there's no point in splashing out). And it's done itself no favours by presenting wine experts as people who are not as other mortals. Some of those same experts lived up to this image when they discussed the recent BBC 
12 Drinks of Christmas programme and focused on the fact that the presenters - an actor/comedian and a restaurant critic - weren't sufficiently qualified fir the task, and got a few things wrong. But the more I think back about the programme the more I reckon that this was part of its appeal: two middle class everymen who told each other - and the audience - that even though they hadn't been to wine school, they were still worth the splashing out of £30 or so on a bottle of red to drink with their Christmas lunch, and a further handful of cash on the vintage port to follow.

If I'm right, maybe the best way to get middle class Brits to dig deeper into their pockets when buying a bottle of wine is to demonstrate that someone like them thinks it's worth doing.

In response to Caroline Gilby's very relevant comment below, I'd add this:
Little does more to foster the feelings of unworthiness among non wine people than the professionals' use of terms like "connoisseur", the French "amateur" and "consommateur averti", and even perhaps "wine enthusiast" - a term I often use myself. It's a little like being introduced to a group of self-termed "opera buffs" and wondering how to join their conversation.

I've actually seen proof of the deterrent effect of wine enthusiasm. Until around 10 years ago, I used to work every year at the BBC Good Food Show, a leviathan pre-Christmas event at the Birmingham NEC where tens of thousands of people flocked to see Jamie, Gordon and Rick et al, and do their Christmas shopping. I was based in the Wine Theatre in the wine section, at one end of one of the halls. It was an area where samples were poured generously so one might reasonably have expected it to have been packed with attendees on the quest for free booze. Surprisingly, however, it was always the least crowded part of the show. I remember thinking there seemed to be an invisible beam that kept people out, because they thought it was "not for them". These same people were very evidently wine drinkers - as the Australians proved on their stand on the other side of the line. Surrounded by food, they were overrun by visitors...

Friday, December 20, 2013

Wine marketing is all about storytelling. Or is it? A debate between Felicity Carter and myself

The  following debate appears in the December 2013 issue of
 Meininger's Wine Business International 


What’s a wine story worth to a brand? Two perspectives.
 By Felicity Carter and Robert Joseph

One of the stories that the wine trade tells itself is that it needs to engage consumers by sharing its stories with them. But what does this actually mean? Can a good story help build a brand and connect consumers?

It seems a universal law of wine that at some point during a wine conference, at least one speaker will tell the wine trade to “tell its stories”.

Certainly storytelling is taken seriously outside the wine trade. Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz is often cited by business journals as the perfect example of someone who has used the power of story to build a brand. And because storytelling is recognised as powerful, a new breed of marketing company is popping up, offering services like ‘brand-building storytelling’ and ‘polyamorous marketing’, designed to build emotional relationships between consumers and brands through the medium of storytelling. To see this in action, look no further than the mini-Christmas movie that British department store John Lewis develops each year, developed around a memorable story that has almost nothing to do with the store itself. After this year’s Disney-like tug on the heartstrings began running, John Lewis immediately saw sales soar by 7.1%.

The value of stories
In a paper from Wine Economics and Policy, researchers Pierre Mora and Florine Livat looked at the question of whether storytelling as part of corporate communications added financial value to fine Bordeaux wines. They went through the annual guidebook of the Union des Grands Crus and analysed the way each chateau and region presented itself. They discovered that the wineries discuss 13 themes: family, history, appellation, grape assemblage, wine techniques, financial partners, geography and geology, description of wines, wine ageing, art and culture, organic certification, customers and technical investments.

Their conclusion was that three narrative styles are used: descriptive, immersive and technical, and – after controlling for other elements – that these did indeed have an effect on the wine’s value, though I am unsure from reading the study how they distinguished between correlation and causation. Descriptive narratives were better for French visitors, immersive for foreign visitors, and technical information for wine experts. Talking about geography seemed to have a negative effect on the wine’s final price.

While this is interesting and possibly useful, it’s unfortunate that some of what the researchers are calling ‘storytelling’ is merely corporate communications: information presented in a self-flattering way.

What’s a story?
Early in the twentieth century, a Soviet scholar called Vladimir Propp analysed Russian folk tales, seeking to understand how stories work. Others followed, and an agreement emerged that human narratives, across cultures, are created from a limited number of building blocks and organised in fairly typical ways. (George Lucas used this information when he wrote Star Wars.)

At its simplest, a ‘story’ has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a central conflict. (In this sense, ‘conflict’ just 
means the main character has to overcome something.) ‘Man against the elements’ – a winemaker racing against a hailstorm – is a classic conflict. The point being, without these elements, there is no story. So any discussion on whether storytelling can play a role in the wine industry has to start by recognising that a lot of what the trade calls ‘storytelling’ isn’t storytelling at all. It’s listing information that the trade thinks consumers should know, such as when the winery was founded, and how passionate the winemakers are about their craft.

Yet almost all of the great successes in wine have great stories attached to them: those Californian wineries who participated in the Judgement of Paris tasting have made that story part of their identity. The tale of how Max Schubert developed Grange in secret is an integral part of that wine’s appeal. The ubiquitous tale of Dom Perignon is proudly passed on by people who otherwise know nothing about Champagne. Good stories stick in the mind. Good stories connect people emotionally to one another. And stories don’t have to be big and dramatic. A good storyteller, given the elements of beginning, middle, end and conflict, can make even the smallest drama memorable and entertaining.

So yes, stories are important. The issue in wine is when and how to tell those stories, and this is the sticking point. Inert objects – like wine – tend not to generate good stories. A bottle of wine can’t generally take action, or overcome odds. So wine storytelling, with rare exceptions, has to focus on the people behind the wine, and the battles they fight to produce it, for a story to exist at all. But serious wine lovers don’t want this – they want technical information. Consumers just want to know if they will like the taste.

Having said that, there is one instance where a good story can work in a producer’s favour. Speaking as an editor, I’d love to get more genuine stories through my email, rather than boring press releases announcing the latest haul of medals. A story about a last-minute triumph over disaster would certainly get my attention – and the attention of other editors. If you’ve got a good story, don’t be afraid to tell it. A good, strong story can generate general interest, which is the first step in the consumer relationship.

But it must have a beginning, middle and end, and a central conflict to be overcome. Otherwise it’s not a story.


It is a widely touted truism that “all marketing is storytelling”, and nowhere is that more true than in the wine industry.  Producers and distributors alike lament the prevalence of ‘shopping list’ journalism in which readers are simply offered lists of wines worth buying, along with descriptions and scores. Consumers don’t want this kind of thing, the
would-be vinous storytellers say. They want to learn about the people who made the wine and the place where it was produced.

As the weekly columnist for London’s Sunday Telegraph, I used to share this view, especially when I got to collect the occasional award for the way in which I described my experiences with vineyards and winemakers. The problem I had was with my editor who repeatedly said that while he liked the pictures I painted, what he and the readers really wanted from a wine column was advice on what to buy. When I disagreed, he showed me the evidence in the shape of the reader surveys the publishers regularly conducted. The majority of people really interested in knowing that an Australian winemaker used to be a doctor or a banker tended to be the wine enthusiasts who might also be found engrossed in a specialist consumer wine magazine.

What does a brand need?
When I began to think about the reality of this wine-needs-story mantra, I increasingly began to see my editor’s point. There are plenty of products on sale in the supermarket where I buy my wine that seem to do rather well, thank you, without any kind of story at all. How many of the people who splash out on a tub of Häagen-Daz have any knowledge of its background? How many wonder how the ice cream came by its odd Scandinavian-sounding name?

Most wine is bought like beer – as a drink. Shoppers fill their trolley with Carlsberg or Heineken, depending on this week’s promotional offer, before reaching for the Pinot Grigio or Merlot. According to Wine Intelligence research, many UK drinkers of Gallo wines had no idea that they were from California. Other research found that UK beer-drinkers still often think of Kronenbourg as German – despite the efforts of the brand owner to establish its French origins.

At the other end of the scale – though not necessarily much higher in cost terms, there are the bottles that are bought as luxuries, either by consumers who want to treat themselves or to give pleasure to others. Some of these wines do rely on stories. Dom Perignon most obviously relies on the story of the abbot who supposedly “invented” Champagne, but do the people who buy Dom Ruinart know and care that it was named after another similarly illustrious Champagne cleric?

The trouble with this argument is that we do like being told stories, and many of us relish recounting them. Especially when they are about ourselves and what we do. In this, we are aided and abetted by journalists whose income is paid by the word. The lengthier the description, the easier their financial circumstances.

An overrated ideal
Of course I’m not saying that stories are completely worthless; merely that they are often overrated and, more dangerously, that relying on them can provide far too easy an excuse for lazy brand-building. Let’s just pause for a moment to compare the still wine market
with the market for spirits. Despite the efforts of countless wine producers across the globe to tell all sorts of stories, it is hard to name even a dozen really strong international wine brands. (By strong, I mean brands that loyal consumers go out of their way to find). Spirits, however, are overtly all about brands. Throughout the world, people in bars are asking for Hendrick’s rather than a Bombay Sapphire or a Gordon’s. Just as they might prefer Absolut to Russian Standard or Smirnoff – or vice versa. But how many of these customers could tell you anything about the background to any of these drinks? How many buyers of $10,000 Louis Vuitton or Hermés handbags can answer simple questions about those brands.

Greece, Turkey and Georgia all have – and try to exploit – apparently invaluable stories in the shape of their ancient wine histories. But have these helped to drive sales? To my mind, there are many and various reasons for buying anything, but quality, style, price and the impression one might make on one’s friends all come higher on most people’s lists than any kind of story. And, I’d go further to say that when there is a story it is usually most effective when it clearly relates to the stuff in the bottle and the character of the brand. Good examples of how this can work are Mondavi’s use of Robert Mondavi and Krug’s clever recent exploitation of the founder’s cellar book. But Krug flourished before the discovery of that book and the Mondavi story was not sufficient to protect that company from losing its independence.

Get all the other aspects of your brand right, and support it with a story, certainly. But never forget that the story is the cart, not the horse.

Apothic - the shape of the future?

From Praxis PR

I have seen the future, and its name is Apothic. Or Menage a Trois. Or 14 Hands. If you’re a wine professional and you haven’t tasted any of these North American wines, or Extravaganza, from Trapiche in Argentina, I’d recommend that you do so; they herald a seismic change in the wine world.

Thirty years ago, few mainland Europeans acknowledged the notion that varietal wines would ever be anything more than a sideline. The supremacy of regional designations was part of vinous holy writ; why would anyone other than a complete novice or barbarian choose to buy a wine that was simply labelled “Chardonnay” or “Merlot” when they could have one whose terroir was advertised in the form of an AOC, DO or DOC?

That was then; this is now. Even in France, supermarket shoppers are now voting with their wallets as growing numbers load varietal IGP and Vin de France bottles and bag-in-boxes into their trolleys.But just as a new generation of the French belatedly begins to climb onto the varietal train that first began to roll in the California of the 1970s, the Americans have moved on, to embrace another trend that threatens both regional and varietal labelling. Even five years ago, most US professionals would have questioned the suggestion that one could build a substantial market for premium-price wines simply labeled as “Winemaker’s Blend” or “Red Blend”. Where, in a US market where wines are ranged by their grape variety, would any such bottles sit on the shelf? And how would consumers know what to expect when making their their first purchase?

The answer lies in powerful branding and muscular distribution. Apothic is made by Gallo; Cupcake and Extravaganza are distributed by the Wine Group; 14 Hands is a Chateau Ste Michelle brand while Menage a Trois comes from Trinchero.

These wines are all among the fastest growing brands in the US; they declare no grape variety on their main label, they are crowd-pleasingly mellow, with residual sugar levels of up to 16g/litre. And they are sufficiently luxuriously packaged to warrant prices that are higher than many of the same companies’ Chardonnays and Merlots. It is no accident that everything about them has more in common with a box of chocolates than with a traditional wine. They are bottles that many non wine-enthusiasts will feel happy about taking to a friend’s dinner party.

Until now most of the established wine opinion-formers have made little or no mention of the new arrivals. Indeed, it is far easier to find lengthy articles on “natural” wines produced in tiny quantities and of little general commercial relevance than to  see any reference to wines that are now selling by the million. When they do address the issue, they make no secret of their abhorrence for the very idea of what they see as “cynical”, “tricked up” wines. Tim Atkin MW, a leading UK critic probably spoke for many of his peers when he described Apothic as “vile” and the “Coca Cola of wine” in a recent exchange of views on Twitter.

In this last comment, Atkin was unconsciously making a more valid point than he perhaps imagined. While he and his fellow critics find fascination in the subtle or marked variation between vintages and cuvées, most consumers see wine in much the same way that they see gin and beer and Coca Cola, all of which offer consistency of style and flavour.

Like Coke and gin, the new wave of blends are carefully assembled so as to please as many consumers and to be as replicable as possible. And, like Coke, they cleverly exploit the satisfying effect that can be achieved by balancing significant levels of sugar and acidity.

So far, the blend-trend has been more or less limited to producers in North and South America. Australian, New Zealand and South African winemakers, like their European counterparts are surprisingly frightened of making “commercial” (aka sweet) wines. In Australia, Yellow Tail, is still more derided than praised for taking the Californians on and beating them on their own turf with sales that are still over 8m cases and growing.

The reasons I believe these wines to be game-changers is firstly their premium pricing - which allow sufficient margin to permit serious brand-building of the kind associated with beers and spirits - and second, the fact that they could be practicably produced in a wide range of countries. Just as Guinness and Stella Artois are brewed across the globe, it would be quite credible for the sweet blends to be replicated using grapes grown in Spain, Italy, France or Eastern Europe.

Apart from Gallo, which only uses US grapes for its US brands, almost all of the bigger Californian producers already unashamedly source fruit globally. There’s no reason to suppose that they would not do so for the blends - especially if it would enable them to make the first non-sparkling wines that really justify being described as high volume global brands.

Seasons Greetings!

Fools and their money - thoughts on wine fakery & the Rudy Kurniawan case

Would you like to buy a Picasso that used to belong to Hemingway? I have a few of them I bought from a guy I met in the pub who discovered them in a walled-up cellar in Madrid. It's an amazing story; he's an amazing guy. Austrian or German - shares his name with  a very famous brand of spectacles. Not his name of course; he adopted it. Very amusing! 

Naturally, he can't tell me the precise location of that cellar - or why Hemingway never mentioned buying them - but a man from the auction house says the paintings are real and that's good enough for me. 

Not interested? How about one of my Renoirs? I've got quite a lot of them too. They came from another guy I met in the same pub. Comes from somewhere in Asia. Young, dynamic and mega-rich and splashing money around like it was confetti. And the thing about him is that he's an illegal immigrant! Isn't that cool? I really like dealing with wealthy, edgy people. And the amazing thing is that he manages to get all these truly amazing paintings from nowhere - at least nowhere he can actually name and he also kind of connects to a parallel universe. So he's got paintings Renoir painted before he was born! How cool is that?

So you're not tempted to let me have a few hundred thousand dollars for my paintings? Well, that's just too bad because I have lots of mega-wealthy people who are biting my hands off to get them. And they don't ask tricky questions about where I got them... They're just like some of the rich guys who bought all those fake bottles of wine we keep reading about.


I never met Rudy Kurniawan, the man who was found guilty this week for faking much of the $35m - yes, that's $35,000,000 - worth of "fine" wine he sold at auction. But in the 1980s I did meet Hardy Rodenstock, the man accused of faking the "Jefferson" 1787 Lafite. At the time, I did not know that Rodenstock was not his real name (he was born Meinhard Görke) but when I mentioned his family relationship to the German spectacle firm of Rodenstock he did nothing to correct me. Far more significantly, I also asked him the obvious question of how he came to have amassed such an extraordinary collection of great old bottles, including huge numbers of rare magnums and imperials.

Hardy Rodenstock, the source of wine that supposedly belonged to
Thomas Jefferson

At first, he simply said that he had a fine nose and an unusually good network. When I persisted and suggested that he might not be unique in either respect, he looked at me directly and said "many of them come from South America". Hearing those words - the kind of Rodenstock "cryptic comment" referred to by Benjamin Wallace in his book The Billionaire's Vinegar - spoken in a Germanic accent sent a shiver down my spine. We both knew that there would only have been one way for large amounts of pre-war wine to have got to that part of the world. And that would have been as part of the looted treasure shipped there by Nazis fleeing Germany at the end of the war. For me at least, the notion that the rightful owner of one's glassful of sublime 1921 Petrus might have ended his days in Dachau somehow reduced its appeal. Others may have had fewer scruples.

In fact, however, despite my memories of movies like the Odessa File and the Boys from Brazil, I did not actually believe Görke/Rodenstock's explanation, because I'd already heard enough stories of Bordeaux chateau-owners quietly questioning among themselves the authenticity of the bottles of their wines he'd presented at his famous tastings. It seemed to me to be far more likely to be a case of confessing to a smaller sin in order to deflect attention from a larger one. 

That conspiracy of silence among producers about the faking of their wines was maintained for decades. It was only broken in April 25 2008 when, at a New York auction, the Burgundian Laurent Ponsot bravely stood up and said "those aren't our wines" to John Kapon of Acker Merrall and effectively forced him to withdraw them from the sale. Kapon's memorable reaction at the time was to say "shit happens". 

John Kapon had to remove fake Ponsot Burgundies from his auction at
the last minute after pressure from Laurent Ponsot. But, as he says, "shit happens"

The seriousness with which the head of that US auction house took the suggestion that he was selling fake Burgundy was illustrated by the fact that, despite talking to Ponsot over the phone about the producer's concerns before the sale, it required a transatlantic flight by the Frenchman for them not to go under the hammer. If Ponsot had not got on that plane, there is every reason to believe that a wealthy wine lover or "collector" (or both) would have paid serious money for wine that the auctioneer had ample reason to believe was fake. 

The wine that bothered Ponsot was consigned to Acker Merrall by Rudy Kurniawan who claimed (but only after pressure from Ponsot) to have bought it from an untraceable "Mr Hendra" in Indonesia. If it had not been for the separate efforts of Ponsot and a legal suit from billionaire Bill Koch in September 2009 claiming that Kurniawan had sold him fake wine - through the same auctioneers - in 2005 and 2006, it is questionable whether any alarm bells would have rung.
Billionaire collector Bill Koch tells court that 1% of 43,000 bottle cellar
are fakes - but that these represent 25% of the value

Bill Koch who is worth $3.8bn and stands at number 329 on the Forbes Rich List has expensively gone to court claiming to have been tricked out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by both Rodenstock and Kurniawan. This does rather put me in mind of Lady Bracknell. "To buy crazily overpriced wine from one faker may be regarded as a misfortune; to buy crazily overpriced wine from two fakers looks like carelessness". 

Which brings me to the nub of the matter. While westerners condescendingly talk of the crisis of fake wine in China and of the stupidity of the wealthy Chinese who fall for the bogus bottles, little has been made of the gullibility of the people on this side of the world who have parted with tens of millions of dollars on wines with no proven provenance. The auction houses too, are a little like the banks in the way that they seem to have escaped much of the opprobrium they deserve for their lack of professionalism.

Stated bluntly, "Rodenstock" and "Kurniawan" arrived out of the blue, splashed around money, frequented the rich, famous and wine-fixated, and remarkably quickly transformed themselves into geese - miraculous fowl that reliably laid large numbers of golden eggs in the form of great old bottles of wine. If they had suddenly begun to offer Picassos or Renoirs like my imaginary friend in the pub, I think someone might have cried fowl. But in the wine world, we prefer wilful ignorance.

Establishing the provenance of a bottle of Bordeaux is supposedly tougher than that of a painting. Artworks are all identifiably unique, as are watches (which carry serial numbers). Un-numbered bottles of wine are not - which raises the question of why the labels of all fine wines aren't numbered as a matter of course. Especially now that they often cost more than the timepieces.

Obviously, numbering current vintages doesn't solve the problems of the older bottles at the heart of the recent scandals. For those, anyone wanting to be sure of not being taken for a fool needs to be able to trace the progress of the bottle from the original cellar to the person who is offering it for sale. Where that's not possible - as in the case of a vendor who refuses to say precisely where and how he obtained the wine, a very big health warning should hang over the transaction. And over the auction house or merchant brokering the deal.

But maybe none of this really matters. Maybe the auctioneers, merchants and producers who have cashed in on the recent stratospheric rise in the price of fine wine all owe Rudy Kurniawan a debt of thanks. Until of course confidence is sufficiently battered for the house of cards to come tumbling down. It may never happen, of course, but you never know: in the words of John Kapon, "shit happens".

A better shot at wine on tv

Comedian Alexander Armstrong and food writer Giles Coren offer
their 12 Drinks of Christmas for BBC.

After my comments about wine on television, I happened upon a novel effort last night by the BBC that brought together the Times restaurant critic Giles Coren and his brother-in-law, Alexander Armstrong, presenter of Pointless and half of the TV comedy sketch duo, Armstrong & Miller.

The conceit of the 12 Drinks of Christmas was that two men who would be spending a family Christmas together anyway would try to assemble a list of 12 ideal drinks to keep them going over the festivities. Inevitably, the programme was a curate's egg whose best parts benefited from the basic likeability of two presenters who knew each other well and genuinely love good food and wine, and whose worst suffered from the focus on a pair of chums pretending to have fun for the camera.

What struck me as unusual for UK television, however, was the unashamed poshness of the duo and their readiness to acknowledge that Christmas might be a time to indulge in bottles of Bollinger or £25 Gusbourne English fizz rather than Cava, and vintage port rather than LBV. At times it felt remarkably like Top Gear in the sense that the presenters don't have to pretend that a Ford is as good as a Ferrari.

The other resemblance to the motoring show lay in the fun the two men had in doing stuff. So while there was a brief bit of wine tasting - in which neither a £20 Sociando Mallet 2011 nor a far pricier old Musar were thought to be good buys - there were also plenty of activities including the production by the presenters of cider, mulled wine, sloe gin, egg nog and bloody mary. This all had the watchability of good food programs, but so did a brief sequence in which Armstrong and Coren worked their way through a set of liqueurs before deciding that the best to drink was the Baileys.

Armstrong has talked of buying too much wine at auction - and of forebears who included the founders of the firm that imports Bollinger (see above). It will be interesting to see whether any producers are tempted to further exploit his vinous talents - possibly in tandem with Coren's culinary skills.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Bull Schist and WTF. Everything you need to know about minerality in wine.

A whimsical piece written for and published on the timatkin.com website where a follow-up piece can now be found.
"I go with the flow." Lubricated by six serious Mojitos - his favourite drink - Danny Makeabiggabuck is surprisingly loquacious about the approach he takes to the wine business. The cigar-chomping, New York-born founder of Fruity-Chardonnays-R-Us, What’s the Point? Wines, and the Oaky-Doaky Wine Co was in London to talk about his three latest ventures, The Mineral Wine Company, Intensely-Stoned-Wines and WTF. “I have to admit that I never realised how profita… Sorry, I meant to say, how tasty, some of them minerals and stones can be.
"When people wanted fruit, I gave ‘em fruit. I listed the wines by the particular fruit flavour they were supposed to have. Then it was oak: same deal. American, French, Allier, Tronçais, Limousin, all that bullshit. Then it was points - I listed all my wines by the numbers. Now, it’s stones: chalk, granite, schist…
"My peeps are out there scouting out the next big trend”, he continues, grabbing a large fistful of peanuts from the bowl on the table, and taking a gulp of his cocktail, “But I’m doing really well with the PG2 - Please-God-Pinot-Grigio - especially with evangelicals, or what I call evangrigicals", he laughs. “And my Micky Moscato is taking off pretty well, too.”
But the stones and minerals are what seems to be getting most of Makeabiggabuck’s attention today. “The Mineral Wine Company, Intensely-Stoned-Wines and WTF essentially sell the same juice”, he admits, “but to different people”. There’s one group of wine freaks, anoraks, nerds, geeks - call ‘em what you will. They just get off on any reference to ‘minerality’. Obviously, it’s complete bullshit. Any scientist will tell you that there’s no granite or chalk in that wine, but what the hell. With the Chardonnays we’d print a picture of a pineapple on the label and people thought it tasted of pineapple. We print a picture of a bit of rock on the label and a note by some wine writer who says he thinks it’s there and the wine flies out the door. Actually it’s all the same stuff with different labels, but if they think they can taste the schist or the clay, I’m not gonna argue with ‘em. Last week, we had some well-known limey guy goin’ all lyrical about the uniquely recogniseable character of our Kryptonite Chardonnay. I had a hard time keepin’ from wettin' my pants!“
Makeabiggabuck is even more delighted by the savings he makes on these wines. “I don’t have to pay for no expensive barrels”, he says, rubbing his hands, “and I don’t need no low yields. ‘Delicate and mineral’ is what they say they want and watery is what I give ‘em and they seem to be delighted.” The only problem, Makeabiggabuck admits, is that it’s a limited market. “You ask a hundred people whether they want a mineral wine and there’s probably only two or three who’ve any idea what you’re talkin’ about.” Which is why he launched the other two companies. “Intensely-Stoned appeals to a different demo”, he explains. “Demo?” I ask politely “Demo…Graphic” he explains patiently. They’re younger, cooler… and they apparently like the idea of wines with names like Holy Schist! and Make My Clay.
And what about WTF? "That’s my new brainwave", Makeabiggabuck says with a smile befitting a proud father. “It actually stands for Where’s The Flavour? But we don’t actually spell that out.” He goes on to say that this could be the cleverest idea he’s ever had. “I started out by looking at what else people were buying and drinking”, he says. Two products apparently stood out. “On the one hand, there was beer. Lots of it. Brands like Budweiser, Coors, Carling, Asahi… alcoholic liquid with almost no taste. And on the other…There was…” At this point Makeabiggabuck pauses for dramatic effect. "Water”. “It’s freakin’ amazing how much people spend on water!”, he says. “Almost as much as some of ‘em spend on cheap wine. And it don’t even need to be no spring water! Coke sells filtered tap water for Chrissakes!. So Makeabiggabuck simply set out to find wines that came as close to tasting like water as possible. So, we sell the same Pinot Grigio as Pizza Pits to WTF customers, as Castello dei Schisti to the Mineralistas and our Stoners get...”. And here Makeabiggabuck pauses for a lengthy moment before uttering the name of his newest, most popular and most profitable product: “Bull schist”.
Photo © Tim Atkin MW

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A crack in the Bordeaux wall - as a top chateau cuts out the middle man

There is a saying you often hear in France: "Ca se fait pas" - literally "that does not do itself or, in English, "that isn't the done thing".

One of the things that isn't done in France is purchasing Bordeaux directly from a top chateau. Would-be buyers have to place their orders through a négociant - merchant - who, in turn, will have made their purchase through a courtier - broker.

There are, it seems, a few exceptions to this rule. Chinese buyers who resent having to include middle-men in their transactions have reportedly managed to sidestep it (sometimes with the help of "tame" negociants who have been persuaded to take less than their usual margin).

More recently, however, at least one 2nd growth has, it seems, decided to break the convention completely.

Chateau Lascombes, a second growth Margaux, has sent out the following letter to a number of French people inviting them to place orders for some of its 2012 wine. 

The letter contains a description of the background to the vintage, references to quotes by French critics - and the suggestion that "this great wine asks nothing more than to mature in your cellar". The price the great wine is asking is almost identical the the one quoted for Millésima on Wine-Searcher, and there's no suggestion that stocks are limited, but perhaps some people will be tempted by the appeal of buying directly from the chateau.

For my part, I have a few questions:

  • Is this a one-off operation by Chateau Lascombes?
  • Or could I look forward to ordering my 2013 from them during the April en primeur tastings?
  • Are any other estates making similar offers?
  • Is this crack in the wall of the way things are done in Bordeaux going to have wider implications?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Why is nobody but God allowed to give Europe's best vines a drink when they're thirsty?

Jonathan Hesford, of Domaine Treloar in Roussillon recently posted a Facebook comment on a Roussillon Chambre d'Agriculture paper which he described as "scary" because, among other things, it had the temerity to suggest that introducing irrigation might be a valid option for his region. He went on to say that if he thought that "by introducing irrigation they would be able to produce really popular wine to beat competition from the New World in Anglo-Saxon markets" he'd agree with its use, But he feared that " it will just be to produce more 
boring wine".

Irrigation is forbidden in almost all of France's appellation regions

Would someone who thinks this makes sense please answer the following questions

  • Why is irrigation wrong per se? (I'm assuming availability of water, from one's own dam for example).

  • Why is God/nature the only being allowed to decide when a vineyard can get a drink?

  • Why is making a vine suffer through a drought - and most probably stop growing - a good thing for wine quality?

  • Why is delaying the harvest (by stopping the vine from growing during the middle of the season) until the time of greater risk of mid-vintage rains (which will dilute the wine) a good thing for wine quality?

  • Why is it assumed that New World producers with access to water cannot and do not make great wine?

  • Why is it presumed that French (and other European winemakers in AOC areas) cannot be trusted to use small amounts of water judiciously to go for quality rather than quantity?

  • Why do we have imposed yield limits, if we're also banning irrigation?

  • Why are those yield limits fixed per hectare rather than per vine (thus ludicrously allowing the same yield to a producer with 5k vines in his ha and one with 10k?)

  • And finally, precisely how much good have existing AOC rules done for the quality and marketability of basic Bordeaux Rouge and Minervois, both of which are available on the bulk market for under €1.50/litre?

Just asking....

What is wine communication?

On October 13 2013, I gave a presentation to 300 or so "wine communicators" at the 2013 Direct Wine Communicators Conference (previously known as the European Wine Bloggers Conference) on my personal thoughts on wine and wine communication in 2013. The video of that presentation (as well as excellent presentations by Dr Vino, Paul Mabray, Justin Howard Sneyd and Per Karlson can be seen below.

 Robert Joseph at DWCC

And here's the powerpoint of my presentation

 The DWCC presentation on Slideshare

Please do argue with me or at least share your views. 
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