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Reprimandeur Week Approaches

I just wanted to give a quick head’s up to everybody in the wine trade that next week is the Bordeaux reprimandeur week. It’s that time of year (again!) when half the wine writing world disappears to Bordeaux to see what sort of wines the Bordelais have produced during the previous year’s growing season. The other half, meanwhile, stay at home and reprimand their colleagues for even daring to participate in such profane and immoral tasting activity.

I would like to thank all these reprimandeurs for participating in this year’s event – it just wouldn’t be the same without you! And in a spirit of collegiality I wanted to give you a few tips and hints on how you can stir things up this year. We’re counting on you…..

First, price. Remember to criticise anybody attending the primeurs because the wines are too expensive, because the hyperbole of early ‘scoop’ reporting drives up prices, and because Bordeaux no longer functions as wine and is perhaps better considered a luxury product or collector’s item. Don’t let anybody tell you that the alternative, a vacuum of independent opinion, would be worse than useless. Don’t pay any attention to the notion that sensible critics provide guidance to their readers on prices, value and the wisdom (or idiocy) of buying en primeur. And please overlook the hundreds of good-value wines that get reviewed. Just stick your reprimandeur oar in! And don’t let it put you off going to that DRC tasting you have been invited to (again). That’s obviously completely different.

Primeurs Sign

Second, remember to criticise primeur attendees for daring to taste barrel samples. It doesn’t matter that they are finished blends, and that decent critics provide an honest and clear indication that these wines provide a snapshot of what the future wine will be like. It is irrelevant that after attending years and years of primeur tastings, regular attendees worth their salt can see a clear correlation between their own opinions on barrel samples and the same wines when tasted from bottle for any given vintage. And don’t give any time to the thought that regular Bordeaux buyers and primeur-report readers are intelligent people who know about the fallibility of barrel samples. Stick to your reprimandeur guns! Every good reprimandeur knows barrel samples are the devil’s work, sometimes not even made from grapes. And they are largely undrinkable. Like a lot of natural wine, except there you can’t blame it on the barrels.

Finally, remember to criticise those attending the primeurs for using scores. Just because sensible critics use ranged scores to denote the uncertainty of a barrel sample, don’t let that dissuade you from letting people know how wrong this all is. And just because scores for wine weren’t exactly invented yesterday (have you noticed Robert Parker is now retired?) don’t let that kid you that a seasoned Bordeaux buyer might understand that scores are not an intrinsic element of the wine, swimming around among the tannins and acids. All good reprimandeurs know that scores are objective, exact and written in stone for all time, and are harmful to consumers, who must be protected from them at all costs.

Thanks for reading reprimandeurs, and keep up the good work. Bordeaux and all who sail in her ship, the primeur tasters, and the consumers who dare to buy and drink these wines are all counting on you to do your duty! If you are eager to get going, please start reprimanding now. While the official primeurs tastings begin next week, some immoral and frankly vulgar critics are already in the region, daring to taste the wines a week or two early. Your reprimandeur skills are needed!

Arranging a Primeurs Visit

Two different methods of arranging a visit during the primeurs tasting week in Bordeaux.

Method One:

I send an email requesting an appointment at 10 am on Tuesday morning.
I receive a reply confirming my appointment with a cheery “see you soon!”.

Method Two:

I send an email requesting an appointment at 11 am on Tuesday morning.

I receive an email explaining that the programme for the primeurs hasn’t been settled yet. The time will probably be OK, but I must wait until they begin organising the week’s schedule.

A few weeks later I receive an email confirming an appointment at 11 am, but that I should wait for a subsequent email inviting me to participate in the online appointment registration system, otherwise my appointment won’t be included on the schedule.

A further few weeks later I receive a formal email inviting me to click a link to participate in the online appointments system. I follow the link, where I have to fill in an online form, name, address, email, telephone, publications, gender, sexual preferences, etc. (I may have made some of these up). I make it through to a “form submitted” page which informs me that a confirmation email has been sent.

Shortly afterwards I receive a confirmation email, again agreeing the date and time of my appointment, the same date and time as was agreed in the email from the château over a month beforehand. The email informs me I will now receive an official invitation, which I should look out for. Which of course I do.

Several weeks later I receive an official invitation again by email. This document needs to be printed out to be presented at the château. Without presenting the scannable code on the invitation, again I am warned I will not be received.

The various châteaux of Bordeaux are of course entitled to organise themselves and their primeurs week as they see fit. My only points are as follows. Firstly, I much prefer the first system, for its simplicity. Secondly, the primeurs week now features thirty or forty châteaux appointments alongside the larger tastings, and if I had to jump through all these hoops for all of these appointments it seems inevitable that things would go wrong. I employ an assistant to do administrative work on Winedoctor, but they only do a few hours each week, and together we are grateful that most châteaux follow the first system and not the second!

In the Hot Seat: Julien Miquel of Social Vignerons

I recently had the opportunity to put a few questions to Julien Miquel, of Social Vignerons, which I regard as revenge for Julien having put me through a similar thing not that long ago. Here are the questions I put to Julien, and his answers (obviously – it wouldn’t be very interesting if I just listed the questions now, would it?).

Can you summarize who you are in the world of wine and what your wine blog Social Vignerons does?

I’m a qualified winemaker turned wine writer and blogger from the South of France. I studied winemaking in Bordeaux among some of the top estates there, for example Château Margaux, but I wanted to learn how to make fine wine outside of the French borders. So, I travelled and lived making wines in some fascinating areas such as Toro in Spain, the Tuscan coast, Kangaroo Island in South Australia, Sonoma and a few more. That was before I worked at Wine-Searcher.com’s headquarters in New Zealand for six years, and decided there I wanted to share my passion for wine with the world, via the digital space. Social Vignerons aims at being a platform not only for sharing my passion for wine, but also for wine industry players and aficionados to contribute to the common knowledge.

Julien Miquel

When did you start blogging and why?

I launched Social Vignerons in December 2014. Three years ago, already, it feels like yesterday! I needed an outlet to share my personal views and thoughts about the world of wine. I felt too often when I experienced something, wine-related, a special bottle, a place or something else, memories of that experience were only alive in my mind. Blogging was a way to share the knowledge: was this wine any good, or this winery worth visiting? What I’ve always loved about wine has been the sharing. When I was a winemaker, what I loved was sharing my skills for transforming grapes into a fine wine with the people that tasted my production. Unfortunately, in the digital space, I couldn’t find a job that would let me utilize the full potential of my passion and knowledge of the product, even working for the biggest wine website on Earth. So, I had to create my own outlet.

Why the name ‘Social Vignerons’?

Vignerons, in French, are wine growers that not only crop their own grapes, but turn them into wine under their own label. The term is generally associated with passion, and with brave and hard-working individuals who at some point in time chose to leave the cooperative wineries or the big négociant houses like in Champagne, and come out to the market with their own production. I once wrote an article about the underlying meanings behind it: what’s a vigneron – wine term definition. But I found too many growers were too busy in their vineyards and at their winery to share their stories online. One of Social Vignerons’ goals is to help them share more through the website and my own channels, and to be more ‘social’ in that sense. And I do consult for wineries on how to communicate better via new media.

What topics does your blog cover and what’s the angle to your writing?

Wine is fun, and is for most people a small fraction of their lives. Moments of relaxation, of tasty experiences and sharing. There is so much other serious stuff to worry about, that I find wine should always be kept and presented simply, preferably in an entertaining manner, even when communicating complex knowledge. So, I try to infuse authoritative, verified, and often scientific knowledge (I am a biology scientist by training) into readable and approachable articles that hopefully anyone can learn from without getting a headache. As a couple of examples, I wrote about sulfites in wine or the aromas in Pinot Noir in a way I think anyone can understand, both the scientific truth but also the subjective perceptions behind those topics. Social Vignerons has educative articles about wine, but also interviews of wine personalities, winery profiles, wine reviews and scores, and a few other things. It’s pretty broad, perhaps too much so!?!

Social Vignerons

You live in France, but are you interested in wines from other countries too?

Yes, after Bordeaux I travelled to several countries around the world and made wine there. I wanted to understand, live and feel the passion of wine people in different regions, and in different languages. I worked as a winemaker in Spain, Tuscany, California, Australia and New Zealand. So, I find I can emphasize with the wine culture on different continents. I like to share these views and write about many different wines. The French often tend to forget there are great wines made everywhere. I like to highlight the passion and quality that exists in many areas.

How did you build such a large following on social media?

Mainly through Twitter, and to a lesser extent Instagram. I spent an enormous amount of time on these platforms, sharing and engaging. Initially, I curated and shared popular content that I’d find on the web, often creating or reviving virality from content that had been forgotten or missed. This brought me a lot of attention especially as I was one of the very first to do this at scale on those platforms around the topic of wine. Then as I developed Social Vignerons, I progressively switched to creating and broadcasting my own content. It’s fine to share other people’s creativity, but one also must bring tangible value to the community.

How do you see the future of wine on the internet?

Wine is a market of niches. So social media and the digital space are particularly suited to the industry. The new media allow producers to find and communicate easily with the people their story. It’s no news that social media and new technologies are changing the world. Many wine people don’t see this happening yet in wine. I actually think that the world of wine will benefit from new ways of communicating even more than other more-concentrated industries. Direct-to-consumer, both in terms of communication and in terms of sales, will eventually dramatically change the way we consume wine and content about it. People want to know what’s behind what they swallow. Wine is an easily traceable food product, so the industry will take advantage of the powerful story-telling tools that now offer digital media.

Thanks Julien!

To learn more see Who’s Julien Miquel? Or visit SocialVignerons.com

Winedoctor 2016 Disclosures

November and December have been super-busy, bringing another very active year to an end. I feel like I have been pedalling very hard the past six or seven weeks, and yet barely keeping up with the peloton (a cycling analogy purely for Jim Budd’s pleasure). As I write this it is only a couple of days until Christmas kicks off, but I haven’t had one spare moment to stop and reflect on the year, my favourite bottles, or my favourite tastings or dinners. In addition, I think the best ‘moment’ of the year – relating to a ‘project’ I have been working on in France – is yet to come, hopefully next week. Only after that moment will I really be able to catch my breath and reflect on the past twelve months…..

In the meantime, here are the annual Winedoctor disclosures for 2016. As always I have detailed support received, followed by some details of my own expenses incurred by undertaking various tastings and trips. On the whole this year has been more straightforward than 2015 and 2014. There were no surcharges for going over a mileage allowance hidden in the small print of the hire car contract (hurrah!). There were no speeeding tickets incurred between Paris and Saumur (hurrah!). There were no cancelled trips because of illness (hurrah!). The only hitch was having to live in a Gatwick hotel for two days, thanks to a French air traffic control strike. Interested deities looking for a new model for purgatory should feel free to get in touch for more details on my experiences there.

Here are details of trips when support was accepted:

Salon des Vins de Loire: No formal funding was accepted. I did accept two dinner invitations, one with a trio of Anjou vignerons, these being René Papin (Claude’s son), Vincent Ogereau and Yves Guégniard, and one with Loire courtier Charles Sydney. All other expenses I met myself (see below).
Bordeaux primeurs: My intention was to stay in Bordeaux for nine nights; thanks to a French air traffic control strike I spent the first two incarcerated in a Gatwick airport hotel, banging my head against a wall; I missed a visit I had arrranged to meet Peter Sisseck at Château Rocheyron (annoyed!) and a visit and vertical tasting at Château de Reignac (double annoyed!). I thus spent seven nights in Bordeaux, and I accepted offers of accommodation from Bill Blatch (one night, with barbecue and Sauternes tasting), Château Lagrange (one night, with a vertical tasting and dinner), Château Preuillac (two nights, uncatered) and Château La Dauphine (three nights, uncatered). I also took quick lunches at Château Haut-Bailly and Château Pichon-Baron. Other expenses I met myself (see below). Easyjet put me up in Gatwick and to give them credit this came with three meals a day, and was offered without me even having to ask for it. I was impressed by the actions of this ‘budget’ airline.
Loire Valley, October: I accepted accommodation for three nights (mostly self-catered) at Domaine de la Noblaie. I had dinner with proprietor Jérôme Billard on arrival, and also shared a pre-harvest lunch with his vineyard workers. Eggs from Jérôme’s hens came free of charge (and were delicious). Other expenses I covered myself (see below).
Bordeaux, December: I visited to taste the 2014s. I accepted accommodation in Château Preuillac (two nights, uncatered) and Château La Dauphine (three nights, uncatered). I accepted an invitation to lunch from Vignobles Fayat and Château Cos d’Estournel. Other expenses I met myself (see below).
Gifts received: I received a book as a gift from Hubert de Boüard de Laforest (written by Jane Anson – well done Jane!), as well as a few bottles from La Tour Saint-Martin, a bottle from Matthieu Baudry, a bottle from Benoit Amirault, several bottles from Domaine de la Noblaie. I don’t recall receiving any other gifts.
Samples received: 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.

This concludes the ‘support received’ section of my 2016 disclosures report. I try to keep support received to a minimum, but more important is to be transparent about exactly what support has been received, and the details presented above meet that requirement. In addition, where new articles have been published after support was received, this has been disclosed.

Winedoctor 2015 Disclosures

As is customary, I also like to balance this information with a report on which tastings and trips have been funded by me, or to be more precise by my subscribers.

Salon des Vins de Loire: All travel and accommodation expenses for the Salon des Vins de Loire were met by me; this included travel in the UK, flights, return rail fare in France, five nights accommodation in Angers and subsistence on all days but two.
Bordeaux primeurs: I met my travel costs myself; this includes travel in the UK, flights to Bordeaux via Gatwick, and hire car for nine days even if I only managed to use it for seven. I covered all my own subsistence expenses except for the lunches and dinners described above.
Loire Valley, July: I spent three weeks touring and tasting in the Loire Valley. I covered all costs, including driving to the Loire Valley, ferry tickets, accommodation in Chinon and Sancerre, and all subsistence expenses, myself. I rented dirt-cheap accommodation near Chinon, and super-expensive accommodation near Sancerre. The house near Chinon was better. How does that happen?
Loire Valley, October: Back to Chinon in late-September for a pre-harvest visit. I flew there via Poitiers, the smallest airport I have passed through in a long time (i.e. you queue up for the flight in the main hall, and then pass through security in a single lane, to a waiting room; airport shopping consists of a drinks vending machine – I liked it and will be going back!). After the disclosures above, I met my own costs, including travel in the UK, flights, hire car and most subsistence.
Bordeaux, December Visit: For this five-day trip to Bordeux I met my travel costs myself; this included transport in the UK, flights to Bordeaux, and hire car for five days. I accepted assistance with accommodation (as noted above). Other than one lunch, I paid for all my subsistence myself.
London, Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting: As was the case last year, I was already in London judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards when this tasting was scheduled, and I took a day out of my judging schedule to attend this. I thus covered all my own travel costs.
Other London tastings: As always these were numerous, and included the Bordeaux Index 2006 tasting, the Loire Benchmark tasting, the Real Wine Fair, the Union des Grands Crus tasting of the 2014 vintage, the St Emilion Grand Cru Classé tasting at the Leadenhall Building (a great venue), the annual Cru Bourgeois tasting, the IMW Bordeaux tasting of the 2012 vintage and the RAW Wine Fair. In each case I paid for my entry fee where applicable (this only applies to the IMW tasting), travel inluding flights and airport transfers, and subsistence. Some tastings came with a free lunch (insert your own joke here).

This concludes my disclosures statement for 2016. Next week I may sit down for long enough to have some reflections on the year, and will (hopefully) be able to write about my biggest ‘moment’ of 2016.

Robert Parker Had It Right

Robert Parker’s reputation relied almost exclusively on three regions. There was Bordeaux, there was the Rhône Valley there was the Napa Valley. His ability to call wines as he saw them, to consistently remain true to his palate, and to enthuse about those wines he liked, from these three regions at least, resulted in a loyal band of readers and subscribers who knew they could follow his recommendations.

I know Robert Parker wrote extensively on other regions, but I am not sure how much weight these reviews carried (although I would wager it was probably more than you might think). And I know things didn’t go well in Burgundy. But that is all pretty much irrelevant. You didn’t take out a subscription for the Wine Advocate to read about the latest releases from Georgia, from the upper reaches of the Mosel, or from Burgundy or the Loire. It was when he wrote on his trio of ‘expert regions’ that you placed your trust in him. He had decades of expertise. He had a track record. And if you didn’t agree with his opinion on certain styles, he was consistent enough to still be of use as a critic. You knew where he was coming from. You knew what to buy or, alternatively, what to avoid.

I think paying consistent attention to a small number of regions, for many years, is valuable experience for a critic. You get to know which winemakers to watch, who is making waves, who has suddenly improved, whose wines are going downhill, and you get to review your assessments – and learn from your mistakes – by returning to the wines as they age. I wonder how newcomer critics parachuted into unfamiliar regions – by the journal or magazine they write for, perhaps – cope with this. When you encounter unfamilar wines, from unfamiliar styles, how do you rate them? Where is the context?

The risk is that you might rate wines too high, entranced by unfamilar flavours and different textures and structures. Or perhaps too low, being unwittingly mean as you just didn’t get the style. And there is a risk that, not tasting blind, you subconsciously award high scores to famous labels. After all, they’re wines from domaines you’ve heard of, so these must be the benchmarks, right? How easy it is, I think, to get that wrong.

Robert Parker definitely had it right. To be credible, critics should write about what they know (and love).

The Three Ages of The Bordeaux Drinker

I think I may have entered my third age as a Bordeaux drinker.

If you’re not familiar with the three ages of the Bordeaux drinker, don’t worry, neither is anyone else. This is because I just invented it earlier today, in a moment when my mind was wandering more than it should have been.

The defining moment that separates the first and second ages of a Bordeaux drinker comes when he or she encounters and becomes interested in the wines for the very first time. At that point there is an ‘entry vintage’ at which one dives into the region. It doesn’t have to be a massive en primeur purchase of thirty cases, a few bottles will do. It just has to be enough to connect you with the vintage, so that you experience the wines in their youth, before – provided you bought more than one bottle – you can then come back to the vintage again (and again) in the future.

This vintage draws a line in the sands of time (no-one can ever accuse me if not mixing my metaphors). Wines that were made before the ‘entry vintage’ are only ever experienced as they head towards maturity, without any understanding of how they tasted when young. These vintages belong to your more educated peers, but this is your ‘first age’, wines which you can only experience in retrospect, each one that comes along a little glimpse into this walled-off era. After the ‘entry vintage’, however, these vintages are yours. This is your second age, an era of vintages and wines you know much better. You meet them in their youth (and your youth!), and follow them through the years, as they mature.

Bordeaux

There comes a moment when the second age transitions into the third. This moment is, I think, more difficult to pin down, because we all jump in at different levels when we start, and we all have differing volumes of mature wine in our cellar. The third age begins with the realisation that our entry vintage, the vintage that we once aspired to, is now the vintage that we should drink. I don’t think there is one exact moment this happens, it is perhaps more of a gradual realisation, and I suppose it depends on when you consider a wine ‘mature’. For some it might be ten years. I think Bordeaux of decent quality develops well over a much longer time span than that, at least fifteen or twenty years, and in some cases of course much more. Regardless of how we define it, by now I am certainly securely into my third age. I have watched the young vintages that drew me into Bordeaux develop from embryonic, tannic young wines into mature wines that demand drinking.

The third age should be the era in which we can buy with the greatest confidence, as having had this experience surely brings a deeper knowledge of the region, a greater level of trust in our own palates, and perhaps the confidence to buy based as much on our own beliefs and palate self-awareness as much as the vintage reports, tasting notes and scores coming out of Bordeaux. Sadly, I am not sure my own third age is progressing as I once imagined it would. The problem is, with Bordeaux pricing as sky-high as it is, I think this confidence and self-awareness is now more often directed more towards finding good-value alternatives to Bordeaux, rather than the best the famous (and expensive) châteaux of Bordeaux can give us. But that is a story for another time, I think.

Being Organic gives no Score Advantage

A recently published UCLA study of eco-certified wine quality has generated a bit of discussion this week, with both positive and negative reactions. Jamie Goode describes the paper and some of its flaws well here, while Blake Gray’s article focuses on score inflation and, to me, feels much less rational. Indeed, the opening line of Blake’s article seems to purposefully conflate the notions of statistical mean and a wine being “average”, and I have to ask myself, to what purporse?

The study purports to show that eco-certified wines obtain higher scores in three influential wine publications (Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast). It’s a really jumbled up paper; there are results described in the methods, the authors enter into discussion when describing their results, tables are poorly described, important results are squirrelled away in an appendix, and so on. Apologies to the authors for expressing this opinion (which is based on first-hand experience writing and reviewing scientific papers, by the way), but The Journal of Wine Economics really needs to go back and see who reviewed this paper prior to publication. And then consider whether or not they were doing their job properly. It’s an interesting paper, but it needs further editorial review and a bit of a rewrite.

This makes it difficult to read; all the same, I spent an hour or two trying to pick it apart this morning. The paper has been reported as producing a 4-point rise in scores of eco-certified wine. As Jamie pointed out, this isn’t true because of the score conversion the authors undertook in order to line up the three publications, which had different score distributions. The true result is actually buried in an appendix, which is that the regression method suggested being eco-certified gave wines a 0.46-point advantage. Just less than half a point, in other words, for all that hard, organic, biodynamic work.

That isn’t the end of it though. This half-point result was arrived at through a statistical method known as regression, in which the authors attempted to develop a model which explained the scores of the wines. Regression (of any sort) is a statistical method which should be viewed with a very wary eye. While being eco-certified conferred an advantage when analysed in this manner so did other factors, while other factors had a negative effect on score, some of which can be interpreted in really interesting ways but which I don’t want to digress on here.

These negative factors may be very important. Why do I say that? Here’s why; despite the way in which the results have been presented by the authors, and by the press who have seized upon the eco-favourable result – eco-certified wines actually scored lower in the three publications. Eco-certified wines scored 47.8% (on the author’s scaled system) whereas conventional wines scored 50%. And this didn’t appear to be statistically significant, (or at least the authors didn’t state one way or the other), and to me it seems this is the most reliable aspect of the paper. But writing “eco-certified wine scores no different to conventional wine scores” isn’t much of a headline, is it?

Don`t be a Woolworths

Many years ago I had a Saturday- and holiday-job in Woolworths. I worked there on-and-off from the age of 15, right through my years at high school and for quite a few years when I was at university too. I finally left when I was perhaps 21 or 22 years old; I can’t be sure, because in the end it sort of fizzled out, as I didn’t have enough time left to fit any hours in. Something to do with studying medicine, I think.

For those unfamiliar with Woolworths (which is not the same as the Australian retail chain of the same name), it was a stalwart of the British high street for decades. Having started out as a grocers, by the end of the 20th century it was a jack of all trades. You went to Woolworths if you were shopping for childrens’ toys, women’s clothing, confectionery – the pick’n’mix was legendary – or music, in the days of vinyl. You could also find gardening equipment and plants, electrical goods, hardware and seasonal wares. On occasion you would find motoring accessories, which would disappear as soon as they were added to the range. It didn’t sell groceries any more, but weirdly there was a delicatessen. It was a one-stop shop, handy if you were popping out for a rake, 30-denier hosiery and some sliced ham.

To say the store lacked focus would be an understatement. Everything in Woolworths was sold by other retailers, usually more specialised retailers that offered greater choice and better prices. These other retailers had in-store expertise, and if you were looking for advice on the hedge trimmer you were considering buying you would probably believe what these specialists told you much more what the Saturday boy (i.e. me) in Woolworths told you. Ultimately Woolworths went bankrupt, an inevitable demise hurried along by the arrival of the internet and more efficient online retailers.

So what?

Well all this came to mind recently when, in discussion, the topic of converting wine words into pennies, in other words how to turn wine writing into a viable money-making exercise, came up. The conversation was prompted by this piece, by Richard Hemming (who writes very well), but to be fair it is an old topic with no great answers. Wine writers and wine bloggers have been chewing it over for years at one conference or another.

I don’t recall ever being asked for advice on this matter, despite having run Winedoctor for 16 years, with a good level of advertising revenue for much of that time, but more significantly having converted to a subscription model for the last three of those years. And so I am apprehensive about the notion of throwing any advice out there; it is almost certain to be flawed, and it will inevitably be limited in scope, applying well to me and my circumstances, my dreams and aspirations, but not necessarily to anyone else and their hopes and plans. There are many behaviours and decisions that engender success in any business or profession, from medicine to law, from plumbing to political reporting, but to keep this simple here is one key piece of advice.

Don’t be a Woolworths.

The problem is, I think, is that many (perhaps all?) wine writers are curious and open-minded folk. They enjoy the diversity of wine, and drift easily from one concept, style or wine region to the next. One week it is all Burgundy and Barossa, the next spice-infused Barolo Chinato and quevri-fermented Saperavi. Writing about all these subjects is a little like Woolworths trying to sell gardening equipment and women’s hosiery and the Top 40 and Christmas decorations and chocolate all in one shop, and somehow expecting to become a ‘go to’ retailer, as if it were Amazon selling books, or Apple selling phones and music, or Tesco selling crap food. Whether a writer who does this adopts an authoritative tone (old school writing), or that of the exploratory traveller taking a reader on a journey (the chummy blogger), the reader can ultimately probably get the same information (or better) elsewhere, on other blogs, social media or even from their mates down the pub (provided it is a pub that sells Barolo Chinato). Unless there is an inherent draw to your writing regardless of the subject matter (i.e. you are Hugh Johnson or Andrew Jefford) readers aren’t being given a reason to come back to you.

I would suggest if a writer wants to improve their earning capacity, one way (note – it is not necessarily the only way – I wouldn’t dare suggest that) is to specialise. Be focused, and become known for a certain region, or a certain wine theme which runs through these regions. Become a recognised voice on Bordeaux, or Georgia, or Oregon. Develop a reputation for knowing everything there is to know about natural wine, biodynamics, wine science or grape varieties. Explore every detail, and do so with passion.

This is what I have tried to do with Winedoctor, although looking back I let my heart rule my head and decided to specialise in two regions, Bordeaux and the Loire. On reflection, I should perhaps have been even more hard-headed, and decided on just one or the other. I enjoyed the contrasts between the two regions, and also the comparisons (there are more similarities than you might at first imagine), perhaps too much to let go of one or the other. Nevertheless, I know some subscribers feel reluctant when they only want Bordeaux scores, or Loire profiles, and feel they are paying for something they won’t use. On the other hand, I have had feedback from Bordeaux-interested readers who have been grateful for finding some Loire values, so perhaps this glitch in my plan (as if I had much of a plan!) wasn’t such a bad thing after all. And the fact that I have managed to successfully sell my words to paying subscribers, with still climbing subscriber numbers I might add, suggests to me that the course of specialisation I have followed is one that is valid.

Winedoctor Philosophies, Year 4

In the past week Winedoctor passed an important landmark. It is not a true birthday – this site first appeared in May 2000, so it will hit its 16th birthday in about seven weeks time – nevertheless it is now three completed years since I moved away from the business model of advertiser dependence, to a subscription-based model. So at about this time of year, as well as pondering the forthcoming Bordeaux primeurs, I always take a look back at the past twelve months, and ponder the year ahead. The fact that I am holed up in an airport hotel en route to Bordeaux with little else to do might also have something to do with it.

My philosophy when it comes to wine writing online has developed as Winedoctor has grown. I came to realise that if I was to write something with real depth that would inform readers, I should probably focus on one or two regions, and then dig as deep as I could, year after year. Naturally I settled for the two regions I knew and loved most, the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. This meant I could ditch the dependence on press trips; having done press trips both to the Loire Valley and Bordeaux in the past, but having also explored both regions much more extensively alone, it is clear to me what a blinkered, tunnel-vision view of a region press trips give, even those arranged by regional bodies rather than single producers. I have read too many vacuous press trip reports filled with pretty pictures of beaming faces, lush lunches and boozy dinners, as well as fleeting impressions of wines, but seemingly devoid of substance.

Happily, having a subscription-based income isolates me from this endless marathon of stuffed-cheek blogging, because thankfully I now write for graciously paying subscribers, and thus I don’t see an endless stream of freebies as my imbursement. I have a week in Bordeaux just kicking off now, and shall be busy maintaining my distance from the besuited Bordelais, not because I don’t like them (I do!) but because that’s a professional, non-freebie-dependent approach. I see serious reporting on wine, reporting that readers are actually prepared to make buying decisions on, as a business rather than a lifestyle, and I feel happiest doing it while standing some distance from the trough. During the forthcoming week in Bordeaux I have only one dinner scheduled; I generally allow myself one per primeurs trip, and this year Château Lagrange tempted me in with the promise of a vertical tasting first. As always I will declare this support on relevant articles, and in my annual support disclosure. It would be a very professional approach for freebie-chasers to do the same, but it won’t happen, for obvious reasons.

Detailed reports and a willingness to describe wines both good and bad in an honest, open and transparent fashion has long seemed, to me, to be the right way to go with Winedoctor. This applies both in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. After my Bordeaux 2013 reports were published I had several emails from Bordeaux complaining I had scored the wines too low. It struck me that this was great feedback, implying I was doing something right. No wine writer should ever find only positive things to say, it isn’t realistic. The word ‘critic’ does carry some meaning, after all, unless you are happy being part of the marketing machine that says only positive things (I can feel myself returning to press trips here). The same applies in the Loire Valley, where I get the feeling some writers, merchants, bloggers and sommeliers coo too much over wines based on the naturalista-style viticultural and winemaking dogma involved, rather than the finished result. I have had too many oxidised, refermenting, Brett-laden, rotten and botrytis-laden wines to follow this mantra. The latest report from the Loire Valley, published this week for subscribers, hopefully makes that clear.

Hopefully Winedoctor subscribers agree with these philosophies, and they seem to be spreading the word. Subscriber numbers grew again in year three, by just under 14%, and I would like to thank all those who renewed their subscriptions, and welcome all those who signed up for the first time. Looking at the year ahead, building on this success I will for year four hold the subscription price down to just £45 per annum, the same price I launched at three years ago. As far as I am aware the number of months in the year hasn’t changed, so this is still the equivalent of £3.75 per month for almost continuous daily updates (I do have a summer holiday, and I still take Christmas Day off!). There is a trial period open to those who haven’t subscribed before, and that remains £15 for a month’s access (you can top up the remaining eleven months for £30). I intend to leave this trial offer available during the entire year, including during the publication of my primeur reports. If you’re wondering what my themes for the year ahead are, as well as my usual vintage reports (2015, 2012 and 2006 Bordeaux to come, also 2014 but I might carry that over into 2017 after another visit to the region, in the Loire just 2006 to come) I will be continuing the expansion of my coverage of both St Emilion and St Julien, and in the Loire I will home in on some of the red wine appellations, with tastings and reports of the successful 2014 and 2015 vintages from visits lined up for July. Complete with first tastings from barrel of the latter, I hope.

To the Salon! (2016 Edition)

The coldest place in the world is commonly (or should I say probably) thought to be somewhere in Antarctica, a windswept white desert of sub-zero temperatures. Those who pass through Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport en route to the annual Salon des Vins de Loire each year, however, know different. The coldest place in the world is actually near the end of platform 6 in the TGV railway station buried deep in the bowels of Terminal 2D. I know. I hung around there for two and a half hours yesterday waiting for my train down to Angers.

Yes, it’s time for the first of this year’s trips to the Loire Valley to get to grips with the latest vintage, taste all (well, some) of the newest releases, and to chew the cud with more Ligérian vignerons than you could shake an icicle at. Today (Saturday) I will be off to the Renaissance tasting to see Nicolas Joly’s and Mark Angeli’s jolly band of organic, biodynamic and full-blown ‘natural’ adherents. I will taste as widely as I can, but high points of the tasting are often Richard Leroy (pictured) and Eric Nicolas (I get in here early before the crowds arrive), although there are always dozens of other notable domaines. Then I will follow this up with a trip out to see Claude Papin, Yves Guégniard and Vincent Ogereau this evening, for a tasting and maybe a bite to eat.

Richard Leroy

On Sunday there is the option of other tastings besides the Renaissance, and then from Monday I will be attending the Salon proper. I know many visitors to the region at this time of year, both journalists and buyers, now avoid the Salon altogether and restrict themselves just to the parallel tastings (Renaissance in Angers, Dive Bouteille in Saumur, Thierry Puzelat’s Les Pénitents and so on) but I prefer to taste and report as widely as possible. I want to keep a foot in the main flow of the Loire as well as its very dynamic organic and biodynamic tributaries. Besides, the Salon des Vins de Loire now incorporates the Levée de la Loire group, and a Demeter tasting too, so there is plenty there that appeals. I also don’t believe in choosing wines to taste or drink according to winemaking dogma; you cut yourself off from experiencing a lot of super wines doing that. There are great wines in both camps (and there is rubbish in both as well).

Anyway, before I get started with a rambling rant on this issue, back to the intended point of this post, which is to make subscribers aware that I am currently in the Loire Valley, and there will be no behind-paywall updates until I return to the UK later in the week. There simply isn’t time, when tasting all day until 7pm, then following up with other tastings or dinners in the evenings, to be writing daily updates as well. I will, however, post brief daily reports from the Salon just so that everybody can be sure I am working hard. And there is no need for concern over potential frostbite resulting from the very low temperatures endured on platform 6; this is my ninth year at the Salon des Vins de Loire (I’m expecting the organisers to throw a party next year), and I learnt long ago to always pack an extra sweater and a woolly hat.