Matt Kramer is always right

Matt Kramer’s recent piece (‘Get Over It’) covers two points. The first is that wine lovers shouldn’t complain about the high prices paid at auction.

You don’t like the prices? Let me tell you what it is that you really don’t like: You don’t like that you can’t afford them.

The second point is old hat in the world of wine (not that a lot isn’t old hat in this smallest of small worlds): there is an issue with the subjectivity of wine tasting. Essentially, Kramer’s point is to say that on a subjective level individual taste is valid (in other words, what I taste is valid to me) but that experience – what Kramer tries to call ‘insight’ – is more valuable to others.

On a very very very basic level, these points are irrefutable. But let’s delve a little deeper:

Kramer is correct: I think Napa Wine Auction prizes are crazy. I think top Bordeaux prices are crazy. He’s also absolutely correct to say that I don’t like the prices because I can’t afford them. I’m jealous and I’m angry that money is the deciding factor in who gets the best wines. What is wrong with that? Why should I get over it?

It saddens me to think that Kramer reckons its okay that good wine is becoming elitist. Let them eat cake, he says. Is he not worried that good wine is increasingly becoming seen as a rich man’s drink (for these very reasons)? Is he not worried about the future readership of his magazine if middle America decides to abandon the world of good wine because it clearly can’t afford it, because it is being petulant and jealous and it should ‘get over it’?

Let’s move on and look at the second point: everyone’s opinion is equally valid. This is uncontroversial in the extreme.

What I do take exception with is the implied qualification that, because of years of experience and knowledge, Kramer’s opinion (his ‘insight’) is worth more than some first-time wine blogger in Nebraska.

This is false. Let me give two examples. The first is Robert Parker. When he started out, he was that first-time blogger in Nebraska (well, Maryland). Compared to the experiential weight (should I say ‘insight’?) of the British and continental wine trade, he was a joke. By Kramer’s reckoning, his opinion was of little to no value. His triumph (from 1982 onwards) was to prove Kramer’s original point: that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. In this case, the newbie’s was more valid than the ‘insightful’.

The second point is to look at the evolution of wine production in recent years. Experience (what generations of winemakers did until now) has almost lost out to new and ‘better’ winemaking techniques (what their children do now). As one producer in Spain once told me: just because it’s always been done one way doesn’t mean it’s always been done the right way.

Progress seems to occur because we listen to new ideas that don’t, if ever, come from the establishment (it is perhaps in the nature of the establishment not to want change).
The subtext of Kramer’s ‘insight’ paves the way for further elitism. It shows no mercy to minorities and dismisses all views that are not established or grounded in some learning or understanding.

But it’s also wonderfully vague. It may be interesting (not least for all the respondents to Kramer’s piece) to ask at what point Kramer will actually listen to your point of view (do you need to have spent six or twelve years in wine?), and indeed whether he has enough ‘insight’ of loving wine but living on a budget that he is able to tell the rest of us to ‘get over it’?

Posted in Wine | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Will Bordeaux ever change?

Irrespective of your views on Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden, you presumably have to admit that their actions are symptomatic of wider politcal issues that should concern us (Is killing innocent people in the name of Freedom aways okay? Is it okay for the country of Liberty spy on its own people?).

I want to labour the point with something as trival (in the grand scheme of things) as wine, and I see recent statements by people within the Bordeaux wine industry that are, one might conclude, symptomatic of the wider issues.

Take the case of Stephane Derenoncourt, who recently told Le Monde that he ‘prepares‘ samples for the wine tasters at En Primeur (the annual Spring barrel tastings). ‘Prepares’ in this case means ‘put[ing] them through a special process to speed up the elevage’. There is not a lot surprising in this – just look at the reaction of the wine press and our wine journalists: a shrug of the shoulders.

A further, more comprehensive, article on yielded more revelations that, in some cases, could only be called logically dubious at best:

‘You must show the wines at their best possible quality – but at En Primeur you must show the wines that will be bottled. The blend is the blend. It’s the birth of the vintage.’

Timid, it was, on the whistleblowing front, but significant nonetheless. More, though, was to follow with Jean-Michel Laporte, director of Chateau La Conseillante, telling Drinks Business that:

There are winemakers who are real liars in the region that haven’t been outed or caught because a culture of omertà still exists in Bordeaux … Producers live and work by a code of silence. When you scratch below the surface, Bordeaux is a very unprofessional region in the way it does business.

And what of this? Well, not a lot. Not really mentioned by any of our hallowed wine writers and journalists unless it is to do the intellectual cop-out de nos jours and retweet a link to the article. Most genuine attempts at discussing this always fizzle out.

As far as I can tell, the issue is that these Bordelais (I really wish American writers wouldn’t call them ‘Bordelaise’, are they so culturally dyslexic they can’t tell the difference between a region and a sauce?) are actually doing a Manning or a Snowden – highlighting to the public (or at least the wine world) that what is going on in the region is questionable – and while some people draw attention to it, the ultimate response is of acquiesence.

What ever happened to the crusading wine writers? Robert Parker’s hero, Ralph Nader, would surely be appalled at the suggestion that the consumers’ champions (our wine writers, ladies and gentlemen) are taking part in promoting something clearly removed from the product to be sold to us. Questions have always lurked about the ethics of tasting at En Primeur (not least because of the age of the wines) and yet nothing has been done about it. Parker used to poke fun at the English wine journalists that would turn up to Chateaux in the bad old days and leave the boot of their car open before they went in to taste the wines. But who’s in cahoots now? Jamie Goode is (at the last time of checking) one of the few UK wine writers who doesn’t attend En Primeur on principle. But this is rare.

The problem is – as I have stated in previous blogs – that our wine writers have got sucked into the Bordeaux circus and now exist, symbiotically, as part of the machine. Being the first to taste confers its own status on wine writers; being brought wine samples to your hotel room confers more status. But if you’re left out of this, who are you? Well, you’re clearly someone of little importance in the wine world. It would take someone like Parker or Jancis Robinson MW to boycott En Primeur on the grounds that the consumer is not being served by the tastings in order to change the way the circus operates.

To her immense credit, Robinson has openly aired the questionable nature of En Primeur – but nothing has come of it, not least because (if you read the piece fully) it seems clear that journalists are more united in the self importance of being able to publish wine scores straight away than of serving the consumer by even taking the very very mild step of withholding publishing scores until the prices of the wines are released (the first thing Nader would scratch his head at – Parker take note).

So will anything change? I think not. If anything, Bordeaux is calcifying. It is currently attempting to get the 1855 classification World Heritage status – and why not: the same chateaux basically get the same scores every year; might as well seal the whole thing up.

Posted in Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why we need more luxury wines

Strange how I often hear about wineries, and people who work in the wine industry, saying they want to find opportunities to increase their turnover. Shorthand: they want to make more money. With financial gloom still casting its grey shadow over people’s wallets, wine margins are going down and how much people spend on wines has gone down too.

The problem is that they are looking at the wrong sector. It is undoubtedly true that the majority of people are feeling the pinch. But not all. Profits on Wall Street are higher than they were before the crash, China has umpteen millionaires and while the wives of rich American businessmen no longer have parties in swanky jewellers, they are inviting the jewellers to their homes and having the parties there (it’s less ostentatious, you see).

From what I hear, though, most wineries are trying to cut their margins, help distributors to drop prices and generally try court the middle-income earners. Complete mistake.

Surely the path to beat is that which leads to the high earners? Okay, the best way to start that is to own a classified Chateau in Bordeaux, but if your funds don’t stretch that far, your average winery owner can, at the very least, start producing more luxury cuvees; use more expensive oak and hand pick everything; use more expensive, heavy bottles; more hand destemming; more labour-intensive practises; more gimmicks like planting Cabernet Sauvignon on a ridiculous slope; more pushes to create ever-more esoteric and tiny appellations which no-one, bar no-one can recreate; more expensive yet useless websites (or no website at all); more hair gel and tailored suits for the General Manager; more cellar doors with admission by appointment only; more, more, more.

Then market these wines to all the hedge fund managers, CEOs, Wall Street gurus, Chinese millionaires and their spouses. Maybe chuck in a few dictators and despots while you’re there.

For my money, the wine world is being far too tame and unambitious at the moment. They’re targeting the wrong people…Come on, follow the cash, we need more Screagles, not less.

Posted in Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Has the wine world left us behind?

Normally we choose wines that we feel represent us, we buy in to the marketing of a Natural wine, or a wine made at a place we like to go on holiday; in short, a wine we might have a connection with (whether true or imagined). I wonder, though, if it works in the opposite direction – if wine actually choses us.

What I mean is that, with the increased prices being paid for top wines (by top earners), is the consumption of wine merely going to become another social indicator: ‘I own a Purdey side-by-side and drink Chateau Margaux’.

I am quite worried that the people we turn to for our wine reviews (Parker, Suckling, etc.) are living a life no longer aspirational but far out of touch and beyond the comprehension of too many people.

Now all I see are lots of wine writers and journalists blogging, tweeting, etc. from top restaurants, staying in top hotels, drinking top wines, posing for a pic with a flush-faced winemaker in front of massive fireplace, etc. and it’s becoming more and more like my nose is getting rubbed in it. ‘It’ being whatever you wish.

Ten years ago I could buy bottles of Pichon-Lalande at Tesco’s in Leytonstone. I have a feeling (although it’s hard to verify from the other side of the world) that this is probably not the case any more.

You see, the world of envy and desire that social media creates (one of its less likeable social facets) means that certain members of the wine trade don’t mind telling others how the foie gras at the French Laundry is sublime. I’m sure it is. But it seems more and more as if this kind of thing doesn’t concern the majority of the wine drinking public out there.

The crusade against fraudulent wines has a similar effect on me. Other than affecting a ridiculously wealthy section of society, I find myself unable to invest in any feelings whatsoever about very rich men like the Kochs getting tricked out of a few thousand dollars. In fact, I almost applaud it. At the very least it pokes little holes into the snobbery of collecting and drinking rare wines that are not destined for the tables of mere mortals.

It is as if we have gone back in time to the old British wine merchants and writers, content to live in a rarefied world where the plebs drink Liebfraumilch and the true wine lover wants to know about spectacular lunch put on by a cru classé while it tries to ply its wares at En Primeur – Left Bank cru classé, of course. At least back then the crusty Old Boys weren’t tweeting it about the place.

Perhaps it was always this way, but I grew up understanding that the journalist and writer’s role was to represent – and wave the flag for – the common man. The more I see of the wine trade, the more I wonder if the wine writer and journalist has any concept of what the common man is.

Posted in Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is all investment good?

I read this morning (admittedly I’m late to the news here) that Chinese investors have gobbled up over 300ha of vineyards in the Awatere Valley (the old Otuwhero Estate Wines). Although I’m sure there will be a little soul-searching over here as to what that means, the last say on the matter went to those in charge of overseeing the sale:

Jarrold told the Marlborough Express that the acquisition was ‘a good thing’ for the land and for local jobs.

Before I begin launching into this I have to make it quite clear (not least after my previous post) that there is no xenophobic level to this post, I only want to question why we see investment and acquisition as a good thing.

My point is that praising investment is all too easy in business-speak and it’s a business-speak that rarely gets too much attention. After all, investment must be good right? Essentially it comes from the notion that money in our society is distributed to the people from the top down. It implies that investment in a region means that the money from that investment will eventually dribble down to the vineyard workers, the bottling lines and the peripheral businesses of winemaking.

For starters, its a nasty notion. It effectively condones the lifting of skirts for any amount of cash you care to name.

I remember reading an outraged post by someone on facebook recently who pointed to the fact that women beggars in London were hoooked on alcohol and drugs, giving the cash from their begging to their ‘landlords’ (organised crime bosses) and distributing the small children with which they went begging on the Underground between each other. The reason these children were always asleep during the day was because they’d been kept up all night by their ‘mothers’ drinking. Finally, the post urged people not to give their spare change to such beggars because the children saw nothing of it and it was all handed over to organised crime.

I couldn’t help thinking that in our current adoration of top-down wealth distribution, precisely the opposite should be demanded: that we give more money to the beggars so that it had more chance of filtering down to the children.

So we should ask ourselves, every time we hear that investment will be good for a region, what exactly that investment entails. As an extreme (and unfair) example, we could wonder whether the Chinese investors in Marlborough will try to maintain their country’s working hours and wages in the region. Were this the case, would the people who have to work in these vineyards be better off?

A lot of commentators will say that such an investment is better than people being redundant – an argument I understand but one I have very great misgivings about. For two reasons. One is the rhetoric: a job is better than no job – accept this and you open the gates to exploitation (and, incidentally, you break the absurd Free Market mantra that people are always free to leave their jobs). The second is Oscar Wilde’s point:

Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.

In doing good, we bring investment to a region. In itself, it’s not a bad thing, but all investment must be regarded with open eyes and an understanding of what it might represent to the people that it affects. Something we seem ill-equipped to do.

The next time you hear someone praising investment in a region (by insiders or outsiders), just take some time to wonder who is getting the most out of that investment. After all, I remember conversations with close friends telling me that the British invested heavily in the likes of India and Kenya when they were part of the empire.

Posted in Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Is the New Zealand wine world essentially racist?

In closing the essay ‘Le Vin et le Lait’ (from the classic book Mythologies), Roland Barthes agrees that while wine is ‘a beautiful and good substance…its production makes a large contribution to French capitalism, whether it is the maker of a Grand Cru or one of those big Algerian colonialists who impose on the muslims a culture they have nothing to do with while at the same time they lack bread’.

Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of wine is that it is hard to find examples of its international propagation that are not related to conquest and colonisation. Imagine the smallholder sitting with his rye and chickens on a small hill in Pauillac when along comes a Roman legion… Then a few villas pop up and before our peasant knows it, a local equite comes along and asks him to plant grapes. What on earth does a peasant, who has done just fine without grapes for the last thousand years, want to plant grapes for? You get my point. It’s the same as Barthes’.

New Zealand is no exception. The first white colonies settled around the Bay of Islands; guess where the first grapes were planted…

But lets not make an issue of it. Fast forward to now and it seems clear from my own experience (I must emphasise that this is personal experience here, not fact, and I would be gracious and happy to be told I was totally wrong) that cellars are the domain of middle class white boys and girls. Rarely, and I mean really rarely, have I met someone of Maori or Pacific Island origin in a wine cellar.

Now you could say that it is a cultural thing but I’d point to the observation (again, I underline ‘observation’ – if anyone has any facts on this, I’d love to hear and publish them – even if I’m wrong) that there are clearly lots of Maoris, Pacific Islanders and immigrants working in the vineyards. Why is it that only the white kids can touch the wine?

It would, of course, be ridiculous to single out New Zealand here. The same observations hold just as well in France or the United States where immigrants (eastern europeans and hispanics) work in the vineyard but the white boys and girls run the cellar. Although I admit that when I worked in Burgundy, one of the few permanent guys in the cellar was Muslim.

So there are clearly exceptions. And before people reading this shrug their shoulders a say ‘well, that’s just the way it is’, it might be worth remembering that that attitude did not get women the vote.

Posted in Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment