Friday, November 29, 2013

Follow up thoughts on wine tv.

I'm a vegetarian. Why aren't there more vegetarian cooking TV programmes for people like me and my fellow vegetarians?

I love ballet. So do lots of my friends. Why don't the TV companies put on more dance programmes for us?

I'm a beer fanatic. I'm sick and tired of the BBC not broadcasting shows about serious ales. My mates at the Dog & Parrot would all tune in.

I'm passionate about wine. I want more wine TV.

Unless he is dealing with an established audience - such as soccer fans or people interested in cooking - the very last people whom any broadcaster needs to listen to when deciding what to commission are the hard-core enthusiasts. Of course they want more TV programming about their favourite subject - for the same reason my kids want more time playing computer games: that's what they like.

The real challenge lies in lining up non vegetarians, non ballet-lovers, non beer-fans and non wine-enthusiasts who are likely to tune in. The genius of Strictly has been to attract the interest of millions of people with no interest in ballroom dancing. And I'd say that a large part of that particular success lies in combining celebrities with the narrative arc of watching people struggle to achieve something difficult.

Afterthought: whether Strictly has actually made many people rush off to join dance classes is another question - as is the number of cookery show viewers who've really cooked more than a handful of the recipes they've seen.

PS I'm not a vegetarian by the way - or a ballet lover. I do love beer and wine but don't expect there to be more TV programmes on either

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why men holding their rods or pulling their corks does not make good television...

Knut Ekval 1843-1912, The Fisherman and The Siren
(The kind of fishing programme that might get an audience)

To the Controller of BBC2.

Dear Sir,
It may have escaped your notice, but fishing has rather a large following in the UK. In fact, it is this country’s most popular participation sport, according to a 2004 report by the Environmental Agency. Apparently, some 3m people do some form of angling and collectively they spend over £3bn per year. Fishing takes place in a wide range of landscapes and the men and women who do it are interesting folk with lots of stories to tell. So, here’s my question: instead of all those cooking and dancing programmes, why don’t we have some more prime time fishing programmes? The only regular fishing programme I know on mainstream channels is Robson’s Extreme Fishing on Channel 5 which involves the presenter going to all sorts of exotic places and often facing ferocious oceans.
I know there would be a huge audience for something less, well, challenging. I asked all my friends down at the fishing club last weekend and they all said they’d tune in. So how about it, Mr Controller?

Your ever Izaac Walton


Dear Mr Walton
Thank you for your note. Unfortunately, while your 3m is an impressive number and certainly larger than the number of wine enthusiasts we have been able to uncover in the UK, I have to offer you the same answer as I gave all those pesky people who keep asking why there aren’t more wine programmes: because fishing and wine make rotten television - for anybody other than keen fishermen and wine buffs. 

You say that the landscapes will be appealing; frankly, that’s what the wine people said, and I took a good look at the available footage. The way I see it, there are three basic vineyard regions: the flat ones - Médoc, Coonawarra etc; the bumpy ones - Chianti and Beaujolais; and the sheer ones - the Rhine, Rhone and Douro. Everything else is a variant on those, and I reckon it’s the same with your rivers, I’m afraid. 

Then there’s the question of what actually happens. In our food programmes, people magically transform stuff into other stuff, often against the clock. In shows like Strictly and X Factor we see them develop their skills. Compared to that, watching people holding their rods and waiting for a fish to bite, or removing the cork from a bottle is simply not very visual. The actual catching of the fish is, I admit, a lot more interesting than watching someone pour and taste a wine, but it’s still not enough. As for your fisherfolk, I concede that they are potentially more interesting than the winemakers and merchants - at least they’re not all involved in the same trade - but frankly I need convincing that they are going to make good television. Why should the fisherfolk or the winemakers be intrinsically more worth watching than, say, a set of customs officers who, after all, have some fascinating experiences catching smugglers to share with us.

Then there’s the history. We TV folk like to work with formats that have worked somewhere. You have an extreme fishing programme that airs on a minority channel: it’s not a great start. The wine people have more of a track record than you. They’ve had lots of shots at it. In the UK, we’ve had Jancis Robinson’s very expensively produced shows, a series by Hugh Johnson, efforts by Malcolm Gluck and Matthew Jukes and lots of sequences by Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden when they were taken out of the Food & Drink studio. And then there was Oz & James  which wasn’t actually wine TV but more like a set of road movies. None of them really captured a sufficiently large audience to make us want to make them a permanent fixture. And believe me Mr Walton, when we find something that works, we milk it to death!

To be honest, even some of the best shows got the same number of viewers as the gardening show whose slot they took over. And the gardening programme cost pennies to make because we shot it in our backyard while the wine programmme involved taking crews to Austria and Australia. Of course, you’ll say that no one’s done fishing or wine programme’s properly. Nowhere on God’s earth, given the lack of success of wine and fishing TV in other countries. That’s what all you enthusiasts say. And I reply with a challenge. Do what Mrs Bieber did. Go and make some great Youtube clips and show me there’s an audience. It worked for her son Justin. Maybe it will work for you. I’ll be here waiting, but not exactly holding my breath.

Gordon Gogglebox
Controller BBC2 Television

Monday, November 25, 2013

Wine on TV: a challenge

Among the many people who stand in the dock accused of conspiring against wine (alongside doctors, governments, supermarkets etc) there are, of course, the media. Newspaper publishers don't give wine the coverage it deserves; tv cos don't commission wine programmes. Collectively, all these negative forces are, apparently, depriving an eager audience of the wine material it craves. Wine is, after all, fascinating, full of stories and characters and places.

The facts that wine magazines and wine book publishers fail to make money, that newspaper readers complete surveys saying they don't want descriptive wine columns and that no tv wine series has ever attracted large numbers of viewers are usually swatted aside with the statement that no one has "done it properly".

The beauty of living in 2013 is that anyone who really believes that to be the case can affordably put their money where their mouth is. They can launch an online wine magazine (as Tim Atkin is doing) and they can create Youtube video clips. If they can attract a sufficiently large audience, TV companies and traditional publishers will take notice. That, after all, is how we came to get 50 Shades of Grey and Justin Bieber.

Advertisers like Volvo are exploiting Youtube brilliantly. No-one is doing it with wine. Most youtube clips - including Gary Vaynerchuk's - are watched by pitifully small numbers of people. So, here's my challenge to all those who complain about not getting on terrestrial TV: put up or shut up. Show us what you can do online; make a great youtube pilot. Prove there's an audience that extends beyond the small group of people who are already established wine lovers.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

inspiration v aspiration; thoughts on the yawning gap between the US and UK wine markets

"Part of [the] job of [the] critic [is] to inspire people". Tim Atkin's tweeted comment is not one with which most people would disagree.

But the comment begs a little analysis. Does it matter how many or how few people one inspires? Is it enough for a critic to say that he or she has truly inspired a few hundred or even a few thousand people? And what is the quality of the inspiration?

As a former UK wine critic who was most active - in the Sunday Telegraph, through the Good Wine Guide and Wine International magazine between 1985-2005, I think I can fairly claim to have been one of a group who helped to inspire rather a large number of people to experiment with then-unfamiliar wines ranging from South West French whites and Eastern European reds, to Australian Shiraz, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Chilean Cabernet and Argentine Malbec. Collectively, we probably helped to turn millions of British people into wine drinkers.

We encouraged them to find wines that were good enough - and affordable enough to keep them happy. And in this effort, we were aided and abetted by Britain's importers and supermarkets who eventually introduced a discount-driven pricing regime focused on ensuring that there were always bottles on offer that were attractively affordable.

The result of our efforts in 2013, is that, despite Britain's famously high duty rates, fewer than five out of every hundred bottles drunk at home now sells at over £8. This could be compared to 22% in Australia selling at over AU$15 (£8.80). Looked at another way, 95% of the wine sold by UK retailers leaves European cellars at well under €3.50. There's plenty of delicious wine on offer at this price; my own le Grand Noir wines are a pretty good buy at under €2.50 ex-cellars, and they're very attractively labelled, but I'd still hope to be served something a little better at a dinner party. But at the most recent dinner I attended, at which no-one around the table earned less than £100,000, we drank Villa Maria Pinot Grigio (£9.99 down to £7.49 at Ocado); McGuigan Bin 528 Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre (£7.99 down to £4.50 at Sainsbury) and Kumala Zenith Merlot Cabernet Shiraz (£9.99 at Morrisons; £3.99 on promotion at Ocado). When the former BBC economics editor Evan Davis (another person with an income of over £100,000 I'd bet) talked to Tesco wine supremo Dan Jago on the Radio 4 In Business programme, he freely stated that the price he was prepared to pay for a wine on a special occasion, was around £12.

Stated simply, we failed to inspire British consumers to aspire to buy more than fairly basic wine: to taste and drink - and serve their friends - something a little bit better. So why was this? Were we simply not inspirational enough - despite all those prizes we got for the quality of our writing? Were we just too weak to match the strength of the supermarkets that were ranged against us: Davids whose catapulted stones bounced off Goliath's brow? Were we insufficiently ambitious in our aims: happy to bask in the attention of the small coterie of readers of a couple of specialist magazines and a few unloved newspaper columns? Or was it that what we offered was in itself, simply not very inspiring?

I suspect it was the latter. If you want to spark a novice's imagination into tennis, football - or jazz, you're better doing it with Nadal, Man U and Miles Davis than with mid-range performers. In the US, writers and critics have always talked about the best, the greatest, the champions: the 100-pointers. In the UK we talk about great value at under £15. What's inspiring about that?

It's far, far too easy to blame the supermarkets for everything we've failed to achieve. Other countries have supermarkets too - with similar power to ours. Supermarkets with pricy bottles on their shelves that are there to be picked up by customers who've been "inspired" to buy them. UK supermarkets are no different. They quietly offer some very smart bottles in branches where they know they'll sell.

Few UK critics ever acknowledge the way we're losing a war, contenting ourselves in pointing at battles we win in the shape of the few tens of thousands of well-heeled enthusiasts who attend the Burgundy en-primeur tastings or show up to Three Wine Men or Wine Gang events. For my part, I'd like to man up and ruefully admit to my share of the responsibility, and for walking away from the fight when I effectively stopped being a wine critic in 2006. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, there was another kind of inspirational programme on offer during the period when I was scribbling away here. With the 100-point system, Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator, in particular, inspired millions of Americans to dig deep into their wallets in the expectation of getting something really special. Typical of the US approach is this comment by 
Stephen Eliot of Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine

So just how do I know that great Cabernet abounds? Because I actually taste them, and, going over the lengthy list of stellar efforts reviewed in CGCW over the past year as Charlie and I compile our annual lists of personal top ten favorites, I am struck by the number of extraordinary examples we have seen from 2009 and 2010. Suffice it to say that it has been a very, very good year.
I only wish that I could afford to drink them more often than I do, but then there are great restaurants I would frequent more regularly, and I would drive a fancier car than I do if I could. Top-shelf Cabernet may be an occasional indulgence, but it is one that I relish, and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon remains for me one of the world’s benchmark wines. (Stephen Eliot, Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine)

Eliot is not alone in his affection for Napa Cabernet. Last year, US consumers bought 568,000 cases of that variety - nearly 7m bottles - directly from the wineries. At an average price of $62.75 (£38.70). The Napa Cabs were only the priciest of the 38,400,000 bottles that were shipped from US wineries to US consumers in 2012 at an average of $38.42 (£23.70). These numbers only apply to the bottles that were bought directly from the producers; anyone who has browsed the shelves of US wine shops will have seen plenty of US and imported reds and whites on offer for $30-100. Bear that in mind when you hear UK importers complaining about how hard Britain's much-vaunted "independents" find it to sell anything at over £20. As Simon McMurtrie of Direct Wines said at the Wine Vision conference last week, "we offer the same wines in the UK and US. We charge more for them in the US but our customers there say how cheap they are". McMurtrie has said separately that his company turns over half as much on the western seaboard of the Atlantic - but generates nearly as much profit.

The US picture is not perfect, however. Where the critics there have failed to inspire large numbers of their compatriots to switch from grain to gape; 20% of Americans are still drinking 80% of the wine. But the US is a vibrant wine market whose younger drinkers - the millennials - are among the readiest to experiment and spend their money on premium wine - not something anyone has ever said of the same generation of Brits. Most observers expect that premium and super-premium wine drinking will become an increasingly popular - and, for producers and distributors, profitable - pursuit.

Meanwhile, as the average price of wine in Britain fails to keep up with rising duty rates and inflation, and as producers steadily walk away from this market, Britain's wine critics seem increasingly like musicians in the Titanic ballroom enjoying the applause of their number of fans and congratulating each other on the skill of their playing.

Friday, November 08, 2013

50 Shades of Prejudice... A tongue-in-cheek response to Tim Atkin's attack of apothicaphobia

There's a very good reason why China is not a democracy, why Putin rules Russia with an iron fist - sorry, "hand" -  and why India still favours arranged marriages. Left to their own devices, people simply get it wrong. They choose the wrong husbands and wives; they read the wrong books; watch the wrong movies and TV shows; drink the wrong wines and eat the wrong foods.

It's simply infuriating to watch them queuing up for their Big Macs, with copies of 50 Shades of Grey (or the Daily Mail) under their arms, chatting to their friends about a crap TV show they enjoyed, about how they're going to vote for the Tea Party, and how much they love drinking Apothic. 

The role of a critic is, of course, to try to halt this tide. To cry out with a lonely voice: "you stupid idiots, can't you see how you're wasting your potential. If only you'd listen to me, your lives could be so much finer. A bit of Proust here; a couple of hours of subtitled Ingmar Bergman there; a glass of Old Vine Carignan from Corbières... With just a bit of effort, you could improve yourself, and almost become a really fine human being... like me.

"What do you mean, you can't hear what I'm saying, you stupid savages? I'm speaking very slowly and clearly from my room here on the top floor of my Ivory Tower of Excellence. You're simply choosing not to listen to me. It's almost as though you feel insulted by my saying that you have crap tastes. YOU MUST NOT LIKE Coca Cola, McDonalds, Apothic - or Pinot Grigio, now I come to think of it.

"DON'T WALK AWAY WHEN I'M TALKING TO YOU!... I only want the best for you... Oh, the hell with it, I'm moving to China..."

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Wine truisms - or are they?

A collection of "wine truisms" from 'Natural" wine specialists, les Caves de Pyrene...
And my answers.

Click here or on the image above to go to the original - and the comments with which I agreed...

 Robert Joseph November 1, 2013 at 1:58 pm
A few hastily penned responses… Everything else I agree with 100%
-The overuse of technology in winemaking has resulted the exaltation of clinical mediocrity
And the demise of much filthy, vinegary wine that was widely produced in Europe in the 1980s – and gave rise to the use of “flying winemakers”
-Wine journalism tends to focus on the product at the expense of the vineyard or the vigneron except in the cases of those winemakers who are adept at hyping themselves and then it focuses on how good the quality of the marketing is.
Wine journalism focuses on the tastiness of the stuff in the glass – which is what interests most - though not all – consumers
-The vast majority of wine in the world is made in factories dedicated to denaturing wine.
50% of French wine is – and has long been – produced by cooperatives which frequently historically "denatured" wine by allowing it to become spoiled by bacteria or oxidation
-The power of brands is the result of the human desire to conform and is the ultimate manifestation of our insecurity about wine.
the power of wine brands – like clothes and all sorts of other brands – reflects a normal human need for reassurance
-The average consumer is both a straw man and a caricature for much of the wine trade.
the consumer is someone in whom most wine producers have little or no interest
-The wine trade has managed to concoct a critical mumbo-jumbo which debases the language featuring buzz-words-and-phrases such as gatekeeper, path to market, SKUs, revenue channels, inventory management, UPCs, EANs…Zzzs
The traditional wine trade has created a mumbo jumbo made up of meaningless appellations and tasting terms such as “elegant” and “austere”
-Some critics seem philosophically incapable of understanding the difference between faults and flaws. Flaws are imperfections, the deviations from the norm, the rough surfaces that give individuality to the wines. Flaws are what give us our personalities. Most critics view flaws as faults and thus wine is invariably construed as the sum total of its faults.
Some “natural” wine fans imagine that flaws are innately desirable. Most people are as keen on spending their hard earned money on flawed wine as on being served tough steak in a restaurant.
-Wine judging more often than not rewards the lesser of two evils – bland correctness triumphing over problematic interest.
And it helps to raise average standards. Bland correctness may actually be more pleasing than dirty faultiness/flaws – see above
-Heavy bottles=small man syndrome
Heavy bottles =welcome gift to non wine-enthusiast
-Expensive barrels= *see above
are probably better than cheap ones – but possibly no more useful than well used oak chips, which are almost certainly excoriated by the author of this blog because of the agreeable flavour they might add to wine
-Expensive consultant=*see above
Might conceivably be a welcome arrival at a winery that’s making substandard wine
-Wine shows are more for the industry to pat each other on the backs than to truly try and determine the best wine (what IS best anyway?!). The biggest penis always wins.
Like other agricultural shows, they exist to improve overall standards. And they do. And the biggest DON’T always win
-Australians have bret-a-phobia, are obsessed with judging wine, revere the winemaker (the viticulturist is still for the most part a separate entity and a lesser being), still deep down want their wines like their morning jam-on-toast, and take wine far more seriously than their laid back personas portray
They don’t like wine that smells and tastes of stable floors. How strange of them!
-The Margaret River is overrated (gasp shock horror!)
So is Bordeaux. So what?
-An astonishing number of wines are returned in restaurants and returned from restaurants to suppliers as “corked.” When they are out of condition, they are often oxidised, sulphurous or sporting a variety of faults – but not corked.
No, they’re not faulty. They’re fascinatingly “flawed”. See above