In his article Time for a Change, Doctor? Anthony Rose puts forward his argument against several aspects of the way Bordeaux is sold, and why he has been arguing against “the system”. It is a multifaceted argument that stems from objections to the hype generated by the primeurs tastings we have had this week, the way the press assist pawn-like the Bordelais in generating that hype, and how prices are as a consequence elevated. It’s a complex, long-ingrained “system”, and a big piece of Bordeaux to bite off. I admire Anthony for taking a stand against it; sticking to your beliefs, especially when swimming against the tide, is a fine quality.
Anthony picks up on some things that are wrong with the primeurs. The quote in his article Bordeaux 2011 – The Rite of Spring from one journalist who responded to Anthony’s question on Bordeaux 2011 with “As a journalist I’ve been going for 16 years but I never write about Bordeaux en primeur. I’m going for the parties” was hopefully tongue-in-cheek, but part of me does wonder whether this perhaps telling comment reflects a serious misalignment in the system. After all, there are an awful lot of journalists circling round Bordeaux in early April. Having said that, I’ve never met one who writes absolutely nothing; if it’s not a report on the vintage (the path I follow) then it’s a news article or two, either related to the vintage, or perhaps some other parallel Bordeaux story; with so many château-owners on hand and accessible it’s a good time to button-hole them for a story on, say, the forthcoming St Emilion reclassification, the stylistic differences within St Emilion, biodynamics in Bordeaux (not just Pontet-Canet, you know…) and so on. I’ve heard all discussed in the past five days, and many more aspects of Bordeaux. Bordeaux is, after all, a very interesting and significant wine region. It is worth writing about!
Despite Anthony’s assertion that “no-one actually claimed they were going because they thought their readers or customers might be interested in buying Bordeaux 2011 en primeur” many people are interested in knowing whether the wines are worth buying. Anthony just hasn’t asked the right people, as the number of journalists who actually write notes and scores for the wines that guide people to purchase is perhaps a fairly limited field. Nevertheless they are there; Neal Martin, Robert Parker, James Suckling (these latter two tend to avoid the primeurs anyway, coming early, for very different reasons I think), Jancis Robinson (unable to attend this year but Julia Harding will do the same exemplary job I am sure). And these are just a handful of top-drawer English-language writers, there were many other Europeans too, including Michel Bettane – spotted at Pichon-Baron – despite his promise to stay away this year. And there are probably dozens more. Did Anthony ask them?
Homing in on the issue of hype that is generated by the primeurs, this is I feel a very valid point. But this is an issue that stems not so much from the existence of primeurs, or of any early tasting of Bordeaux, but from journalistic detachment and style. I would agree with anyone who says it is essential for journalists to maintain a balance between treating the châteaux fairly, because they have wine to sell, and the consumers who will be reading the reports and who look for buying guidance. To cut either off by not reporting achieves nothing, and harms both.
On the latter of these two issues, talking to consumers, I see it as my role to taste the wines, give notes based on the samples I taste, report on my experiences, and give an informed, dispassionate view. If the wines are good, I will say so, and if the wines are poor, again I will say so. Both are true of this “good in parts” vintage. This helps any consumer who wants to pay attention to my notes (and I am aware that I have a tiny following in this respect, but the blog comments tell me there are a few out there who read) to resist being caught up in the frenzy of enthusiasm, either the sales talk from Bordeaux, or those who look to report early, “scoop” everybody and big up the vintage in an act that sells themselves as much as the wine. What I do might empower some consumers, and shows the validity of reporting on weaker vintages, contrary to Anthony’s opinion that “I do think that even with its imperfections Bordeaux en primeur is valid in a really good or great year when prices are such that they give some benefit to consumers. I doubted that that would be the case with 2011 and still do.” I find this a very unusual stance as it implies tasters (including Anthony) should know how the wines will taste and what they will cost in advance of (a) tasting the wines and (b) the prices being released.
I take the exact opposite view to Anthony; in a vintage like 2011, a ‘lesser’ rather than great vintage, which is set for an early release at lower prices, it is more essential than ever that we have early comments on the barrel samples. There may be buying opportunities here (as there were in 2008), and people need guidance. How did I receive this news about an early release? By being in Bordeaux, reporting on the vintage, hearing comments from the horse’s mouth, from Christophe Salin (commercial director, Lafite) and a number of others. Staying away means journalists don’t get this information. The news surprised me (as an aside, I have already written that I thought after being burnt by good scores after low release prices in the 2008 vintage the Bordelais would wait for Parker’s scores) but I learnt in Bordeaux that they seem more aware of Parker’s negative comments on Twitter (open, accessible, known by many in Bordeaux I spoke to), and much less aware of his more recent positive comments on his bulletin board (hidden, behind a paywall, not widely known). In a quick campaign with price reductions where would the consumer be without comments from primeur tastings, enabling them to pick the good from the rough (both exist in 2011 – regardless of generalisations on the vintage)? Would Anthony prefer the consumers to buy blind? In this vintage that would lead to potential disaster – this is a vintage where second and third growths have outperformed firsts, where châteaux I would normally ignore have made good wines, where usually reliable names disappoint with lesser wines, sometimes green, sometimes over-extracted, sometimes just not worth the inevitable first-growth price. Would Anthony prefer primeur sales to not happen at all? Unfortunately the primeur sales do not depend on journalistic reporting, it is the way the business wheels of Bordeaux turn. Revenue must be generated, no matter how rich a small section of Bordeaux has become on the back of the last two vintages.
To boycott the primeurs as a response to recent hype and wealth-generation would, in my opinion, be inappropriate for me. I agree that I would like to see lower prices, perhaps as a result of less breathless reporting, less rampant tweeting of how the barrel samples (not wines….barrel samples….we must keep reminding ourselves of this) taste from one château to the next, and less writers and critics putting themselves on a pedestal (not a comment written with Anthony in mind, as it happens, although he took it as such) and judging the palates of their peers through Twitter. As an aside, it all smells a little of writers talking to (or snipping at) other writers, and not to the public, nevertheless the public pick up the vibes. The problem is that to try and kill the hype-inducing side of the primeurs by killing the primeurs altogether is akin to liberally spraying vineyards with glycophosphate; you might knock off a few unsightly weeds, but you would lose so much more in the process. And although this might (although I’m not convinced it would) bring down prices for the big names (I think confidence may be riding too high for this) what other effects would it also have? Look beyond Ducru, Pontet-Canet, Cos d’Estournel and the like. What about all the little châteaux who need scores to sell their wine; Poujeaux, Gloria, Beaumont, Brown, Rivière, Fourcas-Hosten, Sénéjac, and so on. Do these châteaux deserve a boycott? I think not.
Ultimately, to boycott the primeurs serves nobody. Yes, there are changes that if made would benefit the consumer. Yes, the reporting could be more measured. But in my opinion the best way to influence the system, and induce such change, would be to work within the system. The only way to score a goal is to be on the team. Otherwise you’re just shouting from the sidelines.
My Bordeaux reports, deficient of breathlessness, begin on Tuesday next week.