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Bordeaux: Psychohistorian Required

There are various moments throughout Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series – by which I mean the original trilogy of novels with which I am most familiar, not so much all the other novels that grew up around these stories – when the hero of the tale, psychohistorian Hari Seldon, appears in order to save the titular Foundation from impending doom. This is something of a challenge for a human of standard lifespan, because the Foundation’s purpose was intended to play out over a thousand years. Seldon only appears ‘in the flesh’ in the first chapter, and subsequent Foundation crises usually result in him popping up in the form of a pre-recorded hologram. Disaster is, thankfully, usually averted.

Seldon is perhaps Science Fiction’s best example of a character playing the ‘long game’. He could have done something else to achieve quicker fame and reputation, but he chose to play out a much grander plan, one where the prize was ultimately greater. Playing the long game is always the difficult option; it can be demoralising, time consuming and expensive (after all, future-proofed holo-projectors surely don’t come cheap).

Playing the long game is a concept I have already alluded to – without using that exact term – in Primeur Picks, the concluding article in my 2014 Bordeaux coverage [both articles subscribers only]. Bordeaux has something very precious, which countless other vignerons across the world of wine would happily sell their grandmothers for, and that is en primeur. Or wine futures, if you prefer. Whatever we call it, it is the concept of selling wine two years before it is really ready, generating lots of lovely cash flow for the châteaux, and giving consumers a good deal. It also provides the region with a massive amount of publicity every year, through a concerted marketing push from châteaux and merchants alike, and these days a surge in social media chatter too.

Bordeaux Primeurs sign

At least that is how it should work. But a more short-term approach seems to have taken over Bordeaux in recent years, with profit now being the over-riding concern. There is a reluctance to step back from the release prices of the 2013 vintage, which were largely too high. And so we can expect (although the campaign has yet to start really, so we shall see, we shall see…..) that the 2014s will be released at similar prices. If so, it will be a mistake built upon a mistake. The ultimate result if this continues over many years will surely be the decline of the en primeur system for selling wine. It will be a curious outcome when we consider that the wines of Bordeaux today seem better than ever.

Wine critics can also be guilty of failing to play the long game. It is tempting, I suppose. Short term gains can easily be found in Bordeaux; you could tell a little white lie about your significance in the world of wine in order to gain instant, unfettered access to the top châteaux; you can then live it up with fine dinners lubricated by older vintages; you can publish high scores, to ensure merchants quote you, and to create excitement, and of course to ensure that you are invited back next year (not just for a tasting, but for a lovely dinner too, no?). But made public all of these acivities, while making for a great trip to Bordeaux, have the ability to ultimately damage your reputation. It’s far from playing the long game, and surely that is how a critic should build a reputation and a readership?

In twenty years time, where will these critics be? Indeed, in twenty years time, where will en primeur be?

We perhaps don’t really need the services of a psychohistorian to predict the answers to these two questions.

The Sabre Rattling of the Wine Judges

There is a shifting seasonality to the wine world. I’m not referring to the idea that we should all drink Pitt & Jolie’s rosé in the summer, and 17% Châteauneuf du Pape in the winter, more the fact that as the year progresses certain wine events come around as reliably as Wimbledon, The Masters or The World Cup (I think that might be every four years, but you get the idea). January? Then it’s the Burgundy tastings in London. February? Off to the Salon des Vins de Loire (high on my agenda, but not for almost every other writer it seems). The last week in March? Time for the Bordeaux primeurs then (don’t pretend you hadn’t noticed). And so on. Now in April it’s judging time. A couple of weeks ago the South African Top 100 was being judged, this week it is the International Wine Challenge in London. In a couple of weeks the Decanter World Wine Awards, also in London. I’m sure there are others that don’t immediately spring to mind.

Judging season has, in years gone by, tended to bring out a little of the partisan spirit in some corners of the UK wine writing world, each competition having its very vocal proponents. I always found that a little tiresome to be honest, as it implies that there is some sort of ‘gold standard’ methodology in wine judging that should be adhered to. The International Wine Challenge, for example, has a multi-layer system whereby wines are tasted for inclusion or rejection, and if included they are retasted to see which medal the wine should get. That’s a good system, because it means that each wine is tasted more than once, and no doubt probably a third time if the wine is slated for a top award. In this respect, the International Wine Challenge is perhaps superior to other wine competitions (I don’t know every wine competition going, far from it, so perhaps some others do this also).

Loire reds for judging, Decanter World Wine Awards

The Decanter World Wine Awards, meanwhile, has a one-taste process for most wines, but like the International Wine Challenge wines up for a top gong get retasted. Here, however, the wine is tasted by a hand-picked panel with experience in the region being assessed. This is a significant advantage over many other wine competitions (but again, not all, I am sure) where the panel are a randomly thrown-together group of merchants, sommeliers, journalists and the like. I became even more convinced of the importance of panel selection a few years ago on a press trip to Muscadet accompanying a group of other journalists; none had a particular interest in the Loire Valley, and indeed most were visiting the region for the first time. In two days I heard criticism levied against aged Muscadet for being ‘atypical’ (I would have thought this difficult to judge if you’ve never tasted ten-year old Muscadet before) and the group’s favourite wine of the entire trip was part-fermented in oak and had undergone malolactic fermentation, a soft generic crowd-pleaser but hardly a grand vin of the Muscadet appellation (and we visited some top names, and tasted some wonderful, strikingly mineral Muscadet). Being unfamiliar with a region can, I realised, produce some rather spurious tasting results, so selecting a panel of ‘experts’ could be seen as a vital part of ensuring reliability of the competition. In this respect, the Decanter World Wine Awards competition is perhaps superior to other competitions.

My point is this. Every wine competition has its strong points, but every competition will also have its flaws. Proponents who speak of one methodology as being unquestionaly superior to another are, I have realised, almost always speaking from a point of bias. This is very human behaviour. It’s natural to believe that processes or institutions we are involved with are the ‘best’, it is a hangover of the tribal mentality that has been so evolutionarily useful for the past few million years, but which today in many situations we would often be better off without. It would be much better to channel these energies into excluding bias in the competition; ensure rigorous blind tasting, develop a favourable tasting environment, grow a robust system of recording results, and so on. This would perhaps serve those consumers who use the results of these competitions to inform their purchasing decisions better than the wine-fuelled sabre rattling of the wine judges.

Critics: The Primeurs Marketing Machine?

The world’s wine eyes are beginning to turn towards Bordeaux now, as en primeur season looms. Well, that opening statement might have been true a few weeks ago. Now it would be more accurate to say that the en primeur season is already underway; the early-bird critics are in Bordeaux, and making sure their presence is felt through social media.

Critical opinion is important because, as noted last week, there is a very good association between perceived quality of the latest vintage and prices, on the upward trend at least. This is very relevant to 2014, because while the last three vintages have been equivocal in terms of quality, or obviously poor as was the case in 2013, the 2014 vintage looks as though it might be a step up in quality. After all, following 2013, it can hardly be worse. If this were so we would have heard about it, as it would have involved tornadoes, earth-shattering hailstorms (more extensive and more severe than Bordeaux has already seen in recent vintages), rampant mildew, apocalyptic earthquakes, tsunamis washing over Bordeaux, that sort of thing. It is going to be a better vintage this year.

Nevertheless, the Bordelais are only human, and they (I realise I shouldn’t lump such a diverse group of winemakers together – they are all individuals – so forgive me for that) naturally look for external reinforcement of their own perception of the wines. And although only Parker has enough power to drive prices up or down, the Bordelais have always been willing to listen to other opinions (and indeed they only have other opinions now he has retired). They like to hear positive comments of course, and negative opinions are perhaps rather less welcome. I would be lying if I said I have never heard proprietors express frustration at critics who don’t “get behind a vintage”, and if I hadn’t been on the receiving end of emails along the lines of “how can we expect to sell our wines, when you score them so low?” (both comments made in the context of the 2013 vintage).

I don’t mind this. It is the right of the Bordelais to be positive about their new wines, if they so wish; it is a business after all, and the wines have to be sold, true of the 2013 vintage just as much as 2010, 2009 or 2005. Who wouldn’t put a positive spin on their product? It’s called salesmanship. And I’m confident enough in the honesty and fairness of my opinions to publish them, even when they aren’t so positive, or are plainly (although always politely) negative. Nevertheless, it is clear that proprietors who make statements like those above have misunderstood the very raison d’être of critics, who are there to provide independent opinion on the wines, for their readers. They are not part of the Bordeaux marketing machine, and I feel uncomfortable with any activity that exists on the borderline between independent reporting and marketing. It is a grey area though, so here’s my take on how I will report on the latest Bordeaux vintage.

● I won’t visit the region before the official en primeur week kicks off, and won’t make any comment on the wines at all before then. The need to have a ‘scoop’ on the wines only drives vintage hyperbole, and prices follow hyperbole.

● I won’t publish tweets on every château I have visited, or fleeting off-the-cuff impressions of the wines, because these are undeniably skewed towards the positive (can you imagine a visitor tweeting “I just visited Château [insert name here] and the wine was dreadful”? – no of course not – but of course there are plenty of “Château [insert name here] rocks!” tweets). Barrel samples need more careful consideration than this, and multiple tastings helps.

● I won’t use obvious expressions of hyperbole – “this is the best wine since the 1945″ and the like – especially not on social media. This also drives hyperbole.

● I will visit the region during the primeurs week, and I will publish free-to-read blog posts about the regions of Bordeaux I have covered each day, so readers can track my progress, but this will involve overall impressions only, and as in previous years, and won’t include comments on specific wines tasted, for the same reasons as above.

● I will publish a report, for subscribers, after synthesising the tastings of the week, after my return, which will be crammed with factual information and wall-to-wall honest opinion, but no hyperbole and no marketing spiel.

I would be very interested to read feedback on this approach, especially any comments on how I can use the primeurs season as it stands (accepting flaws inherent in the system, such as the vagaries of barrel samples and the fact the wines are very young) for the benefit of my readers but without being part of the marketing machine.

The Salons of Angers

There’s a change to the usual programme of updates on Winedoctor this week, as last Friday evening I arrived in Angers for the annual Salon des Vins de Loire. There is little if any time to make the usual additions to the site, and so instead I will provide some brief reports on what I have been up to here in the Loire Valley.

Most of the weekend has been taken up with the Renaissance tasting, although there are many other salons; the choice of tastings has snowballed over the past few years and there are now far too many to cover in just two days. Renaissance is the brainchild of Nicolas Joly (pictured below), although Lalou Bize-Leroy has long been associated with the group and she was present at the tasting over the two days (you can imagine the crowds around the Domaine Leroy stand – four deep at the best of times). Renaissance was also, as far as Angers is concerned, the original ‘off’-salon, although La Dive Bouteille was actually established first. The problem with La Dive is that it is held in Château de Brézé, near Saumur, which means it is a pain to get there if you don’t have convenient transport, and a waste of good tasting time even if you do.

Nicolas Joly

In Angers, however, there were this weekend also the Pénitentes tasting (Thierry Puzelat, René Mosse and friends), Les Anonymes (Jean-Christophe Garnier, Jérôme Saurigny and pals), a Demeter tasting and probably others I was unaware of. I say this because, other than the Renaissance event, which was the only tasting I received notification of (by email, from four or five different vignerons), none of these salons seem to have been very well advertised. If you want journalists to come to your salon, it might be an idea to shout about it a bit. With so many to choose from this salon business is getting competitive, and a simple Facebook page or static blog page doesn’t cut it, as how do I know where to look? Maybe salon organisers should build a mailing list, and fire out some invitations? Maybe they should get Charlotte Carsin (of Clos de l’Èlu) on the case; taking down my email address today, she added me to her mailing list to advertise La Paulée de l’Anjou Noir, another relatively new event (in its fourth year I think) planned for later this year. She just increased the likelihood of me attending one-hundred-fold.

Anyway, the weekend has been filled with the likes of Richard Leroy, Domaine de Bellivière, Mark Angeli, Clos de l’Èlu, Philippe Delesvaux, Patrick Baudouin, Philippe Gilbert, Jo Landron, Domaine de l’Ecu, Château de Coulaine, Sébastien David, Coulée de Serrant, Domaine des Huards, Domaine Mélaric and more than a few others. I also popped over to the Bordeaux stands to take a look at Château Falfas, Clos Puy Arnaud and Château Gombaude-Guillot, three domanes worth knowing about. I don’t think I could have done better than that no matter how many other salons I managed to fit in.

As for the Salon proper, this will be a very different proposition this year. A number of big producers, some of whom have been asking for change at the salon for some years, have eventually pulled out. Champalou (Vouvray) pulled out years ago, last year and this year there was no Château de Tracy (Pouilly-Fumé), and this year they will be joined by Henri Bourgeois (Sancerre) and Domaine Huet (Vouvray). The salon is very expensive to participate in, and it isn’t surprising that producers should pull out if they feel they aren’t getting good value for their money. Even the absorption of another ‘off’-salon, La Levée de la Loire, into the Salon proper doesn’t seem to have eased the financial pressure that seems to result from the salon’s gradual contraction. InterLoire and their PR agency Clair de Lune have cut back support for journalists to attend the Salon this year. This rather reminds me of a short story I once read, perhaps by Stephen King (although I could be mistaken) about a surgeon castaway on a desert island who is so hungry he amputates a foot, and then eats it. And then the other foot, and then so on, to the inevitable end. There are some things in life you shouldn’t do, and cutting off vital parts is one of them. There are few enough journalists interested in the Loire Valley as it is, cutting them loose in terms of support seems like a worrying sign of the state of the Salon to me.
There is a lot of salon competition out there now (I spoke to one blogger today who says he comes only for the ‘off’ events, and doesn’t even go to the Salon), and they will be only to happy to take more visitors away from the Salon if they can. All they have to do is get their marketing right.

2014 Winedoctor Disclosures

Here comes my annual statement of support received by me in the work I do running and writing Winedoctor, a little later than planned (I have been rushed off my feet). Having said that, looking back to my 2013 disclosures, I see I published in late January and made the same excuse last year, so perhaps this is now the norm.

During the past twelve months there has been a little social media chatter concerning transparency and disclosure in wine writing, and I half-expected that by the start of 2015 I would not be alone (am I alone in this? – tell me if I have this wrong) in ensuring total transparency with regard to support received. It seems, however, that this is not the case. There was debate and discussion, a moment of flurry on Facebook and Twitter, but ultimately nothing changed – except for a few Klout scores, perhaps. That is a great shame. These days, when I encounter a report from a far-flung wine country such as New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa or even somewhere closer to home (insert wine region of your choice here), and when I read of all the “amazing” (this surely counts as the most cringe-worthy adjective in wine writing, although “mind-blowing” and “awe-inspiring” come close) wines encountered, I feel distinctly uncomfortable. Why are all the wines tasted so superb? After all, I never find this to be the case on my self-funded trips to the Loire Valley or Bordeaux. Who paid for the flights and accommodation on this wine trip of a lifetime? A producer, a generic body, or the writer? The people making the “amazing” wine, perchance? Yes or no, this is valuable information for the reader.

Last year I brought my annual disclosure out onto the blog to ensure it could be read by all, not just subscribers. I read one comment (I don’t recall where) that this was still ‘cheating’ as although accessible the disclosure is divorced from the original article, and this is a far point (although harshly put). So in the past twelve months I have been assiduous in tagging on (where relevant, i.e. where there is something to disclose) a disclosure at the end of every new article published, including a number of Bordeaux profiles, Loire visits, and a couple of my Bordeaux 2013 primeurs reports.

Sorry if the information below is a little dry. For the other writers who have complained about how dull and overly-detailed this annual post is, I look forward to reading your more entertaining versions in the future.

First of all, as is customary, details of support and other benefits received during the course of 2014:

Salon des Vins de Loire: I received much less support during 2014. Through the PR agency Clair de Lune InterLoire paid for only two nights accommodation in Angers during the Salon. During the Salon des Vins de Loire I had dinner at a restaurant courtesy of Charles Sydney, a Loire courtier, and his many dozens of growers. I covered all other costs myself (see below).
Loire hospitality: During my self-funded trip to Vouvray in July I visited Peter Hahn of Clos de la Meslerie during the evening for drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and visited Vincent Carême at a later date for a tasting followed by a barbecue to which we all contributed (I brought the desserts – if you ever find yourself in Vernou-sur-Brenne you have to go to Huvet, the boulanger-pátissier on the main street – they make great desserts, including killer chocolate eclairs). During the same trip I had a picnic in the vineyards with Jo and Wendy Paillé, of Pithon-Paillé. All other expenses I met myself (see below).
Grands Chais de France: I participated in a press trip to Bordeaux to see the work Grands Chais are doing. This included flights, transport, accommodation and two dinners. I have made declarations on all associated profiles (as I have for the Vouvray growers mentioned above).
Bordeaux primeurs: I stayed in Château Preuillac, courtesy of Yvon Mau, during the primeurs week. I accepted three nights uncatered accommodation. Other aspects of the trip and expenses I met myself (see below). I had dinner with Jonathan Maltus of Château Teyssier one evening. I had a quick lunch at Château Pichon-Baron. I have made declarations in my primeurs reports.
Gifts received: A Christmas hamper from Sopexa, sent to all journalists who submitted suggestions for the Cracking Wines from France tasting. Two bottles of wine from Château Brown were also received.
Samples received: Only a small number of wine samples were received, where the wines have been written up this has been declared. Most wines written up on Winedoctor are encountered at open tastings, or purchased.

2014 Winedoctor disclosures

During 2014 the support received by Winedoctor has been reduced again, thanks to my subscribers for facilitating this. As is customary I also document below the expenses I met myself during the course of 2014:

Loire Valley: I covered the costs of travelling to and around Vouvray (pictured above, the Clos du Bourg) and all my accommodation myself. Other than the meals described above I received no support. I stayed in accommodation owned by Peter Hahn next to Le Clos de la Meslerie; I paid full price for this.
Angers, Salon: Most travel expenses for the Salon des Vins de Loire were met by me; this included flights, rail fare in France, three nights accommodation in Angers and subsistence on all nights but one.
Bordeaux, Primeurs: I met most costs myself; this includes transport to airport, flights to Bordeaux, and hire car for eight days. Other than one meal at the home of Jonathan Maltus with another journalist I met all subsistence costs myself. I paid for two nights in a hotel in Libourne and two nights in a hotel in Bordeaux city to complement my three nights in Château Preuillac.
London, RAW and Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tastings: In 2014 these fairs were on consecutive days. I paid for train fares, one night in hotel, and subsistence.
Three other London tastings: These were one-day affairs, including a Bordeaux Index tasting, the Loire Benchmark tasting and the Real Wine Fair. I paid for my own parking, flights and transfers in each case.

The list of trips is slightly shorter than usual as an illness in late 2014 meant I had to cancel two trips to London tastings and a planned trip to Sancerre. Gutted? Yes!

This concludes my disclosure statement for 2014. During the year ahead I will be focusing on Anjou in the Loire Valley, updating and expanding all my profiles, and getting to grips with some of the less-commonly sighted sweet wine domaines in the Coteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. In Bordeaux I will be mixing it up with some new St Emilion profiles and updates, as well as filling in gaps on the left bank, in St Julien and Pessac-Léognan, and I am looking forward to devoting some time to ‘little’ names in the Haut-Médoc and Médoc appellations, who don’t get the same coverage as the grand cru classé domaines.

Of course, there is also my 2014 Bordeaux primeurs report, a 2014 Loire Valley report, a 2005 Bordeaux retrospective, 2002 revisited in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley with a couple of dozen wines from my cellar. I will also get started on a new appellation-by-appellation guide to the Loire Valley, ensuring complete coverage, from the Fiefs-Vendéens all the way up to the Côte Roannaise. I may (not yet firmed up) be visiting Jerez this year – although not a region I ‘specialise’ in the wines fascinate me and I don’t mind broadening my horizons now and then, as I have done in the past with trips (self-funded) to Madeira and Tuscany. That should keep me busy. Santé!

A New Year Wish

The year 2014 has flown by, especially the last four months, and so here is a moment or two of reflection. Winedoctor has grown nicely, both with regard to Bordeaux and the Loire. My march through Bordeaux, adding new profiles and updating old ones, having done Sauternes (from early 2012 onwards), followed by St Estèphe and Pauillac (during 2013) reached Pomerol in 2014. Back in January I was on Château Le Bon Pasteur (updated January 2nd 2014), and having progressed alphabetically I will finish with Vieux Château Certan in the next few weeks (today’s update, Le Pin, was slightly delayed). Alongside I also added my usual vintage updates, including an especially detailed look at the 2013 vintage, and there are other vintage-based tasting reports coming up. As for the Loire, I published dozens of new and updated profiles, with a leaning towards small, new, young and up-and-coming domaines. I could go back and count all these updates, but I think I would rather go and open something good to drink this New Year’s Eve, so I hope you will forgive me if I don’t.

Without a shadow of a doubt the highlight of 2014 for me was a chance to return to Vouvray, not merely for a fleeting visit but to linger a while, for several weeks in fact. I rented a cottage among the vineyards above Vernou-sur-Brenne, and passed the time visiting domaines in the morning, and chilling out at the poolside (weather permitting) in the afternoon. I popped in on some familiar favourites, as well as calling in on some domaines quite new to me, either young start-ups with only a vintage or maybe two under their belts, or domaines that I simply never got around to visiting before. It was a great trip, as everywhere I went the welcome was warm; I adore wine in all its forms, but nothing serves to heighten the experience like meeting the people behind the wines you drink. In Vouvray’s case they are charming and genuinely warm people, the seniors led by the gentleman ambassador Bernard Fouquet (pictured below), the delightful Catherine and Didier Champalou and the king of Vouvray Philippe Foreau, while new generation leaders are Vincent and Tania Carême, who march with Peter Hahn and a gang of Carême acolytes.

Bernard Fouquet

Of course there were less fun moments during 2014 as well. I enjoyed trips to the Loire in February as well as in July, and I was in Bordeaux in April and in June, but I had to cancel return trips to both regions later in the year due to ill health, a very depressing feature of 2014. This is one reason I will be glad to see the back of 2014. There was also the issue of Domaine Huet in February, when after my criticism of the 2012 vintage Sarah Hwang decided to ban me from tasting the Huet wines, either at the Salon des Vins de Loire or even if visiting the domaine (the 2013s I reported on earlier this year I purchased at the tasting room). This was also the year another wine writer accosted me at the Salon des Vins de Loire and referred to a review I had written as “nasty”. It certainly was an eventful Salon for me this year, one that opened my eyes to how adversely some people react to criticism, even when carefully judged and considered. I stand by every word I have ever written, because nothing on Winedoctor is off-the-cuff, jingoistic or gonzo in style. Nevertheless, here’s hoping for a more peaceful Salon in 2015! Sadly I believe Domaine Huet won’t even be attending, but I hope to be able to taste their wines at some point, sometime, somewhere. I still rate the domaine very highly, and I think their 2013s were some of the best in that very difficult vintage.

And so what of 2015? April will see me come to the end of another year as a subscription site, and subscriptions are already up 9.5% this year, so by the end of the year hopefully this will be more like 15%. I don’t worry about page views, Google rank or Klout scores any more; these are either irrelevant to pay sites, or what I call “vanity” metrics. Winedoctor is generally regarded as a “blog” I think, but I prefer to view it as a continually evolving electronic book or journal (hmmm…, if only I had called it “Wine Journal” before Neal Martin chose that name!), full of information-rich profiles, and what matters to me is whether the quality of this information is worthy of the subscriptions people pay, so that is where I focus my attention. Hopefully, climbing subscription numbers mean I am getting it right, but I am always grateful for feedback in this regard. During 2015 I will be moving on to updating and expanding my coverage of St Emilion, and as this is a huge undertaking I will alternate with some left-bank profiles and updates as well, especially looking at some ‘lesser’ regions such as Moulis, Listrac and the Haut-Médoc. There will be the 2014 primeurs, and a look back to 2005 Bordeaux too. And much more. In the Loire, I aim to add plenty more profiles, a 2014 vintage report, update and add new Anjou profiles, and also start work on a huge Loire guide which will touch on every appellation going, from the Côte Roannaise down to the Fiefs-Vendéens. That should keep me busy through 2015 (and 2016, and 2017…).

Best wishes to all, good health and good drinking in 2015. And thank you for reading.

Critics Need Benchmarks

How do we judge wine?

I recall tasting, twenty-five years (or possibly a few more) ago, a South-Eastern Australian Chardonnay from a famous producer. I forget the bin number, and I forget the vintage, but I can still recall the flavour, the tropical-fruit sunshine, the creamy weight of it. I was just getting into wine, and this one tasted fantastic! I wasn’t scoring wine at the time (or even taking notes), but if I had I would have given it a high score.

Today, I would view the wine very differently. It would seem over-ripe, probably acidified, simple, commercial and ultimately rather dull. You might argue that my palate has changed, but something else has changed too. I have a different context for wine today. I have tasted thousands more wines than I had back then, and I have different expectations, based on personal benchmarks, top wines I have tasted and enjoyed over the years.

Benchmarks are essential for judging wine. Forget the commercial wine highlighted above. Let’s take a pricy South African Chardonnay instead. I taste it and really like it, and want to write it up. Do I score it 92 (I’m pretending I use the 100-point system for the moment)? Or should it be a 95? In view of the fact I really, really like it, should it be a 98? As it’s the best South African Chardonnay I have tasted this year, why not 100? The problem is I don’t have any strong benchmarks, South African or even New World, to place the wine and tasting note against. I decide I’m not going to give it a massive score, as it would probably be too high, and look silly. I’m going to end up being cautious, scoring it in the middle. In doing so perhaps I risk scoring it too low, an equally silly outcome, offensive to those that made the wine.

This is a problem you can see running through some wine magazine articles, when they suddenly venture into previously uncharted territory (like the Loire), and I see too many wines rated too low (interpretation: mustn’t give high scores, this isn’t Bordeaux or Burgundy after all) or some wines rated too high (interpretation: I’ve heard of this domaine, so they must be good – not always the case in the Loire, believe me – or I went on a press trip here so I had better say something nice). And I see it in Bordeaux too, when I see an approachable wine given a high score by writers who haven’t visited the region in years, and haven’t tasted what the region is capable of – Latour, Petrus, Le Pin, L’Église-Clinet, Lafite, Tertre-Roteboeuf, Ausone, Margaux, Haut-Brion, I could go on but you get the idea – for years and years, if at all.

I’m sure others see the same problem, but perhaps related to different regions. But for me, I see it in the Loire and Bordeaux. Critics need benchmarks to be credible. Without these benchmarks, it’s another process of random number generation and eye-rolling.

Disclosure in Wine Writing

There’s been an interesting discussion on Twitter and Facebook recently about disclosure in wine writing. Should wine writers have a “conflicts of interest” disclosure page, asked UK writer Jamie Goode.

I believe disclosure to be essential in wine writing (and many other walks of life, I am sure!), at least if that writing is to be of any value. To me, it is an essential part of the context of a report, and an indicator of professionalism and probity. I have been declaring any conflicts of interest for several years now, from the minor (with a hint of tongue-in-cheek, to be honest) to the more significant (support for foreign travel, accommodation, dinners and the like), and here is a link to my 2013 disclosure. I also mention on specific articles when support has been received, e.g. at the end of my profile of Jonathan Maltus, who hosted me for dinner during my visit.

What is the value of disclosure? I was surprised to see some who responded to Jamie’s question suggest that disclosure such as I have written was pompous, or pious, or a sign that I might take myself too seriously. Well, first of all I understand that it isn’t an enthralling read, but that hardly comes as a surprise (although it wasn’t meant to be pious). Rather like the index in a book, or an appendix or table of contents, its primary purpose isn’t to entertain the reader. It is information there, freely available and to be utilised as required, about the support I receive. And I would counter that it isn’t a sign I take myself seriously, but rather a sign I take my readers, some of whom pay an annual subscription to read my reports, seriously. The information given allows a reader to judge my comments on a wine (or wines) in a much more informative context.

I often wonder why not disclose such information? Why hide this detail from readers? Why not disclose that the wine trade supports writers (with dinners, lunches, travel, accommodation) in this way? Rather than trying to pretend such potential conflicts never arise, or adopting an “I’m too busy and you can trust me” approach, why not treat readers as adults and let them decide? If a writer finds, looking down at the hospitality he/she has received, that he/she would be embarrassed to own up to it, perhaps that says something about the validity of the “support” received?

If a writer travels to a far flung country on someone else’s account that should be disclosed. If a writer receives gifts, whether these be physical (Christmas hampers, wines) or in the shape of hospitality (lunches, dinners) these should be disclosed. If a writer receives tickets to sporting events, tennis at Wimbledon and rugby at Twickenham, or other such benefits, these should be disclosed. The writer doesn’t have to stop doing these things if they are comfortable with each of them. But with this knowledge in the open, the reader can decide how any of these benefits might have influenced a writer’s view of the relevant wines.

Wine Writing: Generalism vs Specialism

Years ago when I started writing Winedoctor I had a very generalist approach; I would write about whatever took my fancy (as long as it was wine!). A Chilean Chardonnay here, an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon there. After a few years of this superficial go-where-I-am-led writing I decided it would be better to focus on one or two areas, and I settled on two regions of France about which I knew most, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. I could direct better which wines I featured, and who I profiled. I could pour my efforts into visiting the regions and enhancing this knowledge, rather than looking for the latest press trip to, well, anywhere. My generalist days were behind me.

I was never really qualified for the job of generalist wine writer anyway. It is a difficult task to undertake and I admire greatly people who write on all walks of wine life with authority and conviction. To glide seamlessly and knowledgeably from the top wines of Burgundy one week, to Georgian Saperavi the next, and back to grower Champagne and new releases from South Africa before the month is out is an impressive feat. And the best do it so well. The advantage of this approach is that there is always something new to entertain the reader, so this style of writing is perfect for a weekly newspaper column or a Sunday supplement, “good gigs to have”, as some might say. After all, most people like variety in their drinking (or in their drinks reading, at least), and so the go-where-my-mood-takes-me approach is a useful one.

But this wasn’t for me, for various reasons, so instead I specialised, and as a result I developed a detailed knowledge of two regions at the expense of my knowledge of others. Today I know I couldn’t write a generalist-style weekly column with any authority; I could write a different Sunday column on the wines of the Loire for a year, such is the rich variety in this region (says I, sipping a glass of Gascon from the Sologne as I type), but I am certain readership figures would decline. I think readers generally look to these Sunday supplements for shopping lists and digestible information, not for in-depth articles (there’s a word limit, after all). But perhaps that is a discussion for another day. Suffice to say my treatise on Loire Valley Gascon is best kept for a book on the Loire, or a detailed profile on the Winedoctor site.

These thoughts came to mind as I read Burgundy expert Bill Nanson’s post describing his frustration at comments about the region which he knows so well made on Twitter. I liked a comment made in response by Victoria Moore, whose columns fit the knowledgeable and seamless description above, that it is best for generalists and specialists to give each other mutual respect. I agree with this process; just as a primary care doctor (GP to the Brits reading) must respect the expertise of a hospital consultant, and the hospital doctor must understand the difficult all-encompassing nature of primary care, so too must generalist and specialist wine writers understand and, ideally, refer to one another.

It doesn’t always work this way though. Recently I was on the end of an aggressive and critical response from a generalist when I pointed out there was another side to a controversial Loire Valley story on which he was writing. Why did this happen? Does a ‘specialist’ come across as ‘know-it-all’ when speaking up? Or are some generalists not as secure with their very broad remit as their peers? These thoughts have made me cautious about wading in when generalists make questionable comments which I view as worthy of further discussion. Recently, I have ignored comments I have read on the “wonderful 2011 vintage in Muscadet”, despite the fact (and it is fact) that the 2011 Muscadet harvest was riddled with grey rot (which comes through to many of the wines), in order to avoid a similar confrontation. Likewise I have avoided commenting on a recommendation of a Vouvray from a big-name large-volume domaine, even though the wines are fairly dreadful examples of the appellation. These are the sorts of comments that, sadly, come from scraping the surface of a region, perhaps via a press trip. Reflecting on my decision not to interject, however, I think it was wrong not to say anything. And so perhaps in future I will offer a contrasting opinion. With respect, hopefully mutual, of course.

2014 Subscriptions

It has been almost one year now since I changed Winedoctor to a pay-to-view site. On the anniversary of my subscription service’s ‘birth’, which is March 31st, I will be in Bordeaux for the 2013 primeurs. On the day in question I have appointments at Château La Mission Haut-Brion (pictured below), Château Carbonnieux for a tasting of 2013 Pessac-Léognan, Château Climens, Château Raymond-Lafon and one or two other châteaux, and so I think I am going to be rather busy (althought that’s a quiet day, actually). But I can’t let the end of this first year drift by without making any comment. And if I’m going to be too busy next Monday, I will just have to say it now.

First I would like to thank everybody who has subscribed during the past twelve months. For some of you, that was on March 31st 2013 – I hadn’t even finished putting the system fully in place before the first payment came in – for others it was as recently as yesterday. I am grateful for every subscription and hope everybody who shows their support for Winedoctor in this way finds something of use within. I have been deeply humbled by the number of subscriptions received – exactly (on the nose, in fact) twelve times more than my year-one/break-even target. I never dreamed I would have such support. Thank you again!

Château La Mission Haut-Brion, April 2013

Secondly, I would like to announce that there will be no price increase for new or repeat subscriptions during 2014. The fee remains £45 per annum, equivalent to £3.75 per month (see here for what this gets you if you don’t subscribe). In addition, all the discount opportunities for IMW, WSET and AWE students, educators and similar have been reconfirmed. Current subscribers who wish to continue should be able to do this without any problem from within their account, once logged in (you can still log-in to the account page even if the subscription has lapsed). If you have any difficulties, please let me know by email. As those of you who have been in touch with me by email will know, I’m usually fairly quick to respond, but I will be checking emails infrequently during the primeurs, so can’t promise a perfectly timely response during next week.

Lastly, a quick word on next week’s updates. As is usual I don’t make updates to the paywall-protected part of the site during the primeurs week – it’s just too busy to taste all day (I kick off at La Mission Haut-Brion at 8am on Monday) and then write something of the required standard for the site as well. I will try to blog daily though, with lighter commentary, news, pictures and brief impressions from the tastings. It should be an interesting vintage to taste. The word ‘interesting’ can mean very different things at different times, I suppose.

Thanks to all again. Here’s to a great 2014, and a great year full of wine!