Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why are serious wine journalism and "natural" wines so incompatible?

My piece on the RAW Wine Fair has aroused a lot of interest and some good, thoughtful responses. Some of those responses have also illustrated the gulf that lies between what I think of as "journalism" - an attempt to cover the facts of a story - and the way of thinking of some "natural" wine fans. To put the story in a nutshell, I wrote that I had found the fair interesting and worth attending, that I had tasted some very good wines, and had found some that were - in my opinion, and that of others who were there - horribly faulty.

Several respondents objected to my focusing on the faulty wines rather than the good ones, preferring Simon Woolf's approach - on - which was to talk almost exclusively about the wines he enjoyed 

Woolf admits to having "skipped most of France" at RAW despite - or perhaps because of - having  "tasted more French "natural" wines that I have intensely disliked, than in most other countries"
This meant that Woolf sidestepped over 50 of the 180 producers present at RAW, but even so, he he still encountered some questionable bottles:

Inevitably, with so much diversity and experimentation not everything was successful. There were wines being shown that I found challenging, if not downright faulty. But they were in the minority"

But that was as much of a mention as the "challenging" wines received. Applause for this strategy came from the US blogger - and "natural-wine" fan, Arnold Waldstein:

-Focusing on the positive and what you found interesting is so much more interesting and valuable than being polarizing, which while it affords the great writer the opportunity to exercise word smarts is really boring as it accentuates the negative. Who cares about people [sic] don't like really."

Unlike Mr Waldstein, I for one, certainly care about what critics - restaurant, movie, theatre, literary and wine critics - don't like. I find little interest in a critical column that simply includes recommendations without any context.

Would Mr Waldstein apply the same logic to literary and movie criticism? If there was a movie that included some very good parts as well as some horribly unpleasant scenes of gratuitous violence, would a critic be wrong in drawing attention to the latter as well as the former? Should a restaurant critic skim over the badly cooked vegetables and stale prawns in a review of a restaurant that serves great steak?

If Simon Woolf as a fan of "natural-wine" found some wines "challenging, if not downright faulty", doesn't he have a responsibility to offer some kind of warning about these to his readers, many of whom might be less prepared for the "challenges" they are going to encounter?

Like Woolf, I applaud any wine producer who wants to try to do something different, but unlike him, I see no reason to turn a blind eye to the experimenter's failures - especially when I find them, in Woolf's own words, "intensely dislikable".

Monday, May 20, 2013

Double-Faults: How the RAW Wine Fair took me back in time.

It's not often that you get the chance to travel backwards or forward in time, so I'm still in a state of some shock at the 30-year leap into the past that I took on the first of the two days of the third RAW wine fair, London's annual gathering of "natural", low- and non-sulphored and low-intervention wines. Back in the 1980s, most wine tastings I attended were minefields in which a line-up of bottles would usually include some that were delicious and several that were more or less disgusting. When Charles Metcalfe and I ran the earliest International Wine Challenges (IWC), we came up with shorthand terms for these efforts. These included NTBTI - Not To Be Taken Internally - and DNPIM - Do Not Put In Mouth and my favourite: AE - Auto Eject - which referred to wines that were so horrendous that they were automatically rejected by the human body.

Some of these unpalatable efforts were searingly acidic - brimming with acetic acid - while others smelled of rotten meat or horse manure. They were mostly the result of poor winemaking that had allowed the wine to be affected by some kind of bacteria.

By the mid 1990s, the cleanliness-conscious model set by New World wines and the efforts across the globe of young Australian and New Zealand "flying winemakers" had more or less relegated those faults to the past. Even the least successful wines in the IWC tended to taste dull rather than actively nasty.

The ascendency of "natural" wines - produced with as little human intervention as possible, and little or no sulphor dioxide, has, however, taken us back to the days of actively faulty wines, in much the same way that the decision by a generation of British mothers not to give their children MMR immunisation jabs has recently led to over 1200 cases of measles.

What's that got to do with the price of eggs?

A piece that first appeared on
Once upon a time, in the little village of Arse-Ende-of-Knowhere, in the county of Generallydullbutlovelyinpartshire, there was an elderly farmer called McDonald whose hens laid unusually tasty eggs. These eggs were so good, in fact, that local well-informed chefs and gourmets sought them out. No-one could say precisely why Old McDonald’s eggs were so good. Some suggested that it was because of the cool weather in his bit of the valley. Others credited his particular breed of hens or the quality of his corn. And then there were those who said that it was simply to do with the loving care McDonald devoted to his flock, especially after the departure of Mrs McDonald with a handsome Japanese chicken sexer.
Whatever the explanation, it did not take long before McDonald’s neighbours - some of whose eggs were nearlyas good as McDonald’s - decided that they wanted a slice of the action. So, one day, a meeting was convened in the village hall and it was decided by common assent that Old McDonald’s and all of the other farms in the commune would all sell their eggs under the collective but slightly abbreviated “basket” name of Arse-Ende. Very soon, Farmers McDonald, McSporrin, McHaggis, MrTartan and McKilt were all offering eggs that bore the distinctive Arse-Ende logo over whose use they now had the monopoly.
Within a short while, however, they and a growing number of other Arse-Endeans realised that the world was still overly focused on McDonald’s eggs, so they decided to employ a specialist public relations professional called Al Bumin who was tasked with promoting the Arse-Ende basket generically and putting all the farms of Arse-Ende on the map and differentiating their eggs from ones produced elsewhere.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

10 Times Table - and why Wigan Athletic is like an M&S suit and a £10 Aussie Cabernet

Wigan Athletic's players who beat Manchester City yesterday to win this year's FA Cup, are apparently "worth" a total of £36m in the transfer market. The "value" of the defeated team is  £380m.

How Wigan's squad comes to be worth £36m

And the breakdown of Man City's £380m team.

You could buy ten of these rather smart BMWs for the price of one of the Ferraris below.

And more or less the same calculation could be used for the M&S and Emporio Armani suits

As well as for these two Australian Cabernet Sauvignons.

Is the Armani suit better than the M&S suit?
Is the Ferrari better than the BMW?
Is the Bin 707 better than the Kangarilla Road

And - notwithstanding its defeat yesterday, is Man City a better team than Wigan?

The simple answer to all these questions is Yes!

Are any of them ten times better? No!

Does that matter one iota? No!

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Personal Values

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

A good Guardian piece reveals that a house has just gone on sale in London for £250m. Another British house can be bought for £1. (Yes, you didn't misread either of those figures).

Image from Yahoo Cars

This ultimate Ferrari (it goes from 0-60mph in 3 seconds) is expected to find buyers at £1m - twice as much as its slightly less testosterone-powered stablemate.

Penfolds Ampoule of 2004 Block 42 is on sale for £120,000 at Hedonism in London.

All of these high prices strike most people as ridiculous. And of course, compared with the money most of us have to spend and the way we choose to spend it, that is precisely what they are. 

It would be hard to fit any of them into any terrestrial concept of value for money. 

But what about a small Starbucks cappuccino for £1.15 ($1.75)? At around 1/3 less than the usual UK price, that sounds like a bargain, doesn't it?

Photo from Tripadvisor

Until you put in the context of Mumbai, where it translates into 95 rupees: the price middle class Indian inhabitants of that city are queuing up to pay for their daily fix

On their way in or out of the store, those Indians will inevitably pass some of their 6m (yes, it's worth pausing over that figure too: 6...0...0...0...0...0...0) fellow slum-dwelling citizens who rely on $2 per day  simply for their survival  

Presumably, to one of those ragpickers, the notion of spending their entire daily budget minus 25c on a cup of hot liquid is also... ridiculous. But not quite as ridiculous, presumably as the Indian launch in 2009 by Mont Blanc of 3000 rollerball Mahatma Ghandi pens, priced at $3,000. (There was also an even more limited edition gold-and-silver effort priced at $25,000)

Both pens were withdrawn from sale after action by the Indian government, but anyone who really wants one can apparently bid for it on eBay. 

Whatever price that pen fetches - however ridiculous it might seem to the Mumbai beggar, or to you or me - will be its value at the time and to the person who decides to buy it. As will the final sale price of the London house.

And that's my point. I keep hearing people say that this or that price for a Pauillac, a Napa Cabernet or a Provence rosé is "silly", and that the wine in question is not "worth" that price. I used to be part of that chorus, but then I grew up and learned the basic rules of capitalism.

1) The value of anything is what someone is prepared to pay for it. There may only be one potential buyer who's ready to pay £250m for that house. Indeed there may not be any takers for it at all at that price. Perhaps the current owner will end up accepting £225m or £200m, or maybe even £150m, if he's feeling a bit strapped for cash. But whichever of these figures he pays will be the value of that house on that day.

2) The value of anything depends on two factors
  • The seller's need to sell
  • The buyer's desire to buy
3) The price the buyer - assuming he has the desire - will pay depends, in its turn on 
  • The place (a glass of Coke costs more at in a seafront cafe in St Tropez than in a London pub; prices fetched at auctions may be higher or lower than for the same items elsewhere)
  • The time (hotels have high and low seasons; umbrella salesmen can raise prices in a rainstorm)
  • The buyer's means (Lionel Messi earns over £2m per month; the extravagant purchase of the Penfolds Ampoule would be paid for in a couple of days.)
Now obviously everyone is different. There are poor people who spend foolishly and billionaires who are "careful" with every penny they spend. And everything is relative. Once a middle class indian is prepared to spend 61 rupees for a coffee - the going rate for the local CCD brand - maybe finding the extra 34 isn't too big a stretch.

My point, and one I'll address in greater detail separately, is that the one factor that is totally irrelevant to this scenario is an outsider's opinion of the "value" of whatever it is that is being bought.

You may earnestly believe that Grange or Lafite, or whatever, is not "worth" - cannot possibly be worth - the price people are paying for it. Sorry guys, that's just your opinion. Even if almost the entire world agrees with you, to the person who has decided, for his own reasons, to make the purchase, your views... are of absolutely no value at all. 

Friday, May 03, 2013

The emperor's new clothes revisited...

Her Imperial Highness at the Mayday Procession

An eight-year-old boy called Otto Schulz died yesterday at the Mayday Parade. Precise details of how the tragedy occurred have yet to emerge but initial reports suggest that Schulz, who was watching the parade with his parents, was heard to make a number of comments to his mother about the Emperor's and Empress's new processional robes. Other spectators apparently took exception to what the child had said and some kind of altercation ensued which then developed into a full-scale riot. Schulz was, it seems, crushed in the stampede.

A spokesman said that while the Great Leader was naturally saddened by the child's death, he was gratified by the support people had shown for his and his wife's decision to visibly stand behind the national textile industry and its revolutionary new Invisiblon fabric.