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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.

Winedoctor 2015 Disclosures

Is there any more eagerly awaited blog post than my annual disclosure statement? Well, to be honest, the answer is probably yes. But I will carry on regardless.

Independence and transparency is important. On independence I maintain my position that wine writers should always avoid conflicts of interest, write for their subscribers or readers and not the producers or winemakers, and avoid being duplicitous or even being ‘economical with the truth’ at all times. I also believe to be credible writers should avoid being sucked into the wine marketing machine, a big risk when the region you are writing about is wealthy and well-positioned to encourage that sort of behaviour through boozy lunches and pouring lots of old vintages.

On these issues, relating to independence, I have not shifted, but where I have shifted is on the issue of transparency. I think today that this is more important than ever. This is because to write about wine in an informative manner it is pointless trying to cut yourself off from the people who make it. Writers have to interact with producers (importantly, in the region the wine is made), and that can incur costs, from travel, accommodation and dining. Not boozy lunches or parties, just the costs of living. Rather than trying to cut this cord, feedback given to me in 2015 is that readers seem to value transparency on such matters more than any attempts to reduce the interaction/dependency to zero. I found that really interesting and something of a surprise.

Will this little nugget encourage others to be more transparent about their wine writing work? Who knows. It is no doubt a daunting thought, to bite the disclosure bullet. While I ponder that, here are the details of my disclosures for 2015:

Salon des Vins de Loire: The Salon has been struggling in recent years, and contemporaneously with this change InterLoire has cut funding for visiting journalists. No formal funding was received. It’s a sign of the times. I did accept two dinner invitations though, one with Loire courtier Charles Sydney, and one from new association Loire Latitude. In the interests of transparency, this latter group includes Pierre Luneau-Papin, Le Rocher des Violettes, Nicolas Grosbois, Henry Pellé and Le Clos des Quarterons. Other expenses I met myself (see below).
Bordeaux primeurs: I stayed in Bordeaux for seven nights, and I accepted accommodation for some of these. I began with one night in Château des Vigiers, and I also had four nights uncatered accommodation in Château Preuillac, courtesy of négociant Yvon Mau. The night at Vigiers (a bit off the beaten track) was to facilitate attendance at a tasting of Château L’Église-Clinet, held at Château Thénac, in Bergerac. I also accepted dinner at Château Thénac, and stopped in at Château Sociando-Mallet to take advantage of their buffet lunch. Other expenses I met myself (see below).
Loire Valley, Saumur & beyond: I covered most costs for my trip to the Loire Valley in June myself (see below), but I did accept two nights accommodation from a generic body, the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins du Centre.
Bordeaux Harvest Visit: I visited in October to taste 2013s, and also to learn about the 2015 vintage. I accepted accommodation in Château Le Pape for three nights, Château Clément-Pichon for one night, and Château La Dauphine for three nights. I accepted three dinner invitations, from Château Haut-Bailly, Vignobles Fayat and Château La Dauphine. I also attended an end-of-harvest lunch with Jonathan Maltus, and on another day had lunch after tasting at Château Le Gay. Other expenses I met myself (see below).
Gifts received: A case of wine from Château Brown was received as a token of gratitude for having organised half of the Oaked Sauvignon Blanc tasting. The highlight of the year, however, was the receipt of my ‘Château Teyssier 2015 Harvest’ t-shirt. In order to confuse my neighbours I wear this when I go out blackberry picking.
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.

This concludes the ‘support received’ section of my 2015 disclosures report. I try to keep support received to a minimum, and where taken I prefer more ‘generic’ support from associations, négociants or regional bodies nevertheless (in Bordeaux in particular) some suport received during 2015, in the form of dinners and accommodation, did relate to individual châteaux. Where appropriate, such as at Château Clément-Pichon, this has also been disclosed on relevant reports and profiles.

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.

Angers, Salon: All travel and accommodation expenses for the Salon des Vins de Loire were met by me; this included flights, rail fare in France, six nights accommodation in Angers and subsistence on all nights but two.
Loire Valley, Saumur & beyond: In June I spent three days visiting in Savennières, Saumur and Sancerre, checking out Clos Rougeard and other top domaines. I covered most of the costs myself; this included flights to Paris, car hire, accommodation in Saumur and all subsistence costs, not to mention the fine from the car hire company for exceeding the agreed mileage on a short rental. That’s the last time I forget to read the Europcar small print.
Loire Valley, More Saumur: In July I returned to the Loire for the third time in 2015. I spent a week based in Parnay. I covered all costs, including flights to Paris, car hire, accommodation in Saumur and all subsistence costs myself. No excess-mileage fine this time, but a speeding ticket instead, plus the car hire firm’s ‘handling fee’ for shopping me to the French traffic FBI. I really am going off Europcar now.
Portugal: My only non-Loire-non-Bordeaux trip of the year, I spent the best part of two weeks checking out Portuguese wine. There is a single-variety revolution in Vinho Verde that is very exciting, with some delicious wines – almost as good as Muscadet in some cases. I covered all costs, including flights, accommodation, car hire and subsistence myself.
Bordeaux, Primeurs: I met my travel costs myself; this includes transport to airport, flights to Bordeaux, and hire car for eight days. I paid for two nights in a budget hotel in Libourne, previously endorsed by Neal Martin. I paid for all my own subsistence except for the lunches and dinner described above.
Bordeaux Harvest Visit: For this eight-day trip to Bordeux I met my travel costs myself; this included transport to airport, flights to Bordeaux, and hire car for eight days. I accepted assistance with accommodation. I was hosted at dinner three times, but paid for the remainder of my subsistence myself.
London, Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting: I was already in London judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards, and took a day out of my judging schedule to attend this. I thus covered all my own travel costs. I also had dinner at Terroirs with Daniel Primack, UK Zalto rep. We split the bill, but I did come away from the evening one Zalto wine glass better off, which if you believe in karma at least makes up for that speeding ticket earlier in the year.
Other London tastings: These were numerous, and included the Bordeaux Index 2005 tasting, the Loire Benchmark tasting, the Real Wine Fair, the Union des Grands Crus tasting of the 2013 vintage at Covent Garden, the Oaked Sauvignon Blanc tasting (where I was both organiser and taster) and the IMW Bordeaux tasting of the 2011 vintage. In each case I paid for my entry fee where applicable, and flights and transfers. On most occasions I also benefited from a free lunch (which I guess disproves the relevant adage). The one exception was the IMW tasting where lunch is not provided, so I scoffed a cheese sandwich I had cunningly secreted in my rucksack; it went surprisingly well with 2011 Lafite-Rothschild.
Chester, High Time with Haut Brion: I covered my own costs for this Friday-evening tasting of wines from Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, including parking, entry fee, rail fares and the cost of an over-priced hotel room in Chester city centre. I was back in Edinburgh the next morning before any thought of a free lunch even entered my head.

That’s all for now. I am anticipating many more great tastings in 2016, as the 2015 vintage holds much promise in both Bordeaux (pictured above – 2015 budbreak in April) and the Loire Valley. Thanks to all my subscribers for making all of the above possible.

Say Goodbye to the Ads

Good news today for those that loathe the little animated, flashing and constantly-cycled banner adverts that pop up on wine websites the world over (and indeed on just about any other website or blog in existence). From today, September 15th 2015, thanks to the support of my subscribers, Winedoctor goes ad-free.

It is now a little over two years since I implemented the subscription system and paywall. It was something of a ‘sink or swim’ moment, as I had no idea how many readers of the ‘free’ Winedoctor would remain interested when payment was required. Happily I swam; in fact the support was overwhelming, and I hit my one-year target for subscriber numbers – really a ‘break-even’ target – after just ten days. After that, I knew Winedoctor was here to stay.

Subscriber numbers have continued to climb, and so it now seems appropriate for me to look at the income streams that were associated with the old ‘free’ Winedoctor, most notably those flashing, flickering advertising banners. They are, I decided earlier this year, no longer necessary. Subscriber numbers are so good that I would rather focus on optimising the experience for my readers, and so from today I have called a halt to the presence of advertising banners on Winedoctor. Aside from links to Wine-Searcher (the little magnifying glass after each tasting note), Winedoctor is now funded solely by subscribers.

Say Goodbye to the Ads

I would like to pay homage to the advertisers who have had a presence on Winedoctor at one point or another during the last fifteen years. Winedoctor wouldn’t be what it is today without their support. The roll call of advertisers has, over the years, including some of the most prestigious names in wine and wine retailing. Indeed, one early supporter was none other than Robert Parker, who ran an advert for erobertparker.com in the early days of his new website – the old banner ad (above) appeared on Winedoctor circa 2001/2002. Others over the years have included Albany Vintners, Millésima, Bancroft Wine, Cadman Fine Wines, SmoothRed, Slurp, Spiral Cellars, Yapp, Four Walls Wine and more than one or two others (apologies if I omitted your business). Thank you all.

But most of all, thank you to all those who now subscribe to Winedoctor, as together you have ensured Winedoctor’s ongoing existence, and encouraged me to write more detailed updates and profiles, and to post more frequently (in other words, no more weekends off for me!). I am humbled by, and deeply grateful for, your support.

The Wine and Health Tedium: A Self-Help Programme

This week has seen yet another round of wine and health stories hit the press. No surprise there, as it seems no week goes by without another puffed-up piece getting the health journalists scribbling in a frenzy. Fear not. Here is my two-point guide to how to handle the onslaught of wine and health stories.

1. Ask yourself – why do you drink wine?

Did you take up drinking wine because you saw it as a medicine, to be adminstered daily, a decision taken after doing a careful analysis of all the possible health benefits (lower incidence of heart disease, for example) set against all the possible disease consequences (the fear-inducing consequences traditionally trotted out are accidents, liver disease and cancer), in the process working out correct dosage, time of administration and so on?

No, I thought not. Me neither.

I fell into wine (not literally) because it fascinated me. The most frequent way I feed my fascination is by putting the stuff in my mouth, sometimes swallowed, sometimes spat out. It’s not just about the taste of it though. It’s also about understanding the varieties, the geology of vineyards, the story of the great châteaux of Bordeaux and other regions. It is about culture and art and how they interdigitate with wine (if you don’t agree that wine is culture, is art, that is). It’s about the people and personalities involved, and their beliefs (sometimes entertainingly loopy). It’s about the larger-than-life characters who import, market and sell the stuff. It’s about the critics and their foibles, and the occasional controversy that swirls around them. Not for one second, when tasting or drinking wine, do I think about the health benefits or risks associated with a daily glass. It’s not why I drink wine.

2. Ask yourself – do the media always get health stories right?

The sad answer to this is no. Medical studies published in even very reputable journals tend to be selling you a message, and it is this ‘message’ this generates the story that follows. A sensible journalist might also speak to the source to follow up on this. In both cases (whether reading or speaking), however, the journalist is still relying solely on the opinion of the authors, which is a little like getting a wine critic to rate his own palate (“it’s the best there is, mate”). It lacks a certain independence.

You need a more critical stance when interpreting medical studies. You need an understanding of statistics, and rather than relying on the words of the authors (which, being frank, not infrequently overstate the findings of the research, and which – perish the thought – sometimes reflect their personal bias concerning the matter at hand) you have to interpret what the study really means. This is where journalists seem to fall down, I suspect because they don’t largely have a clue about statistics. For example, in this study on light-to-moderate drinking which hit the news this week it was reported here, in the Guardian, that “US study finds light drinking linked only to minimal increase in risk of all cancers” which is lifted straight from the paper. And yet, if you look at the statistics, it is clear that no such association was demonstrated. No such association was proven. There was no increase in risk. We’ve fallen at the first hurdle. That’s before we even get into a discussion about the difference between association and causation, and all the other problems you find with epidemiological research such as this.

So I guess the next question will be “Chris, please debunk more of this wine and health nonsense”, but I’m sorry, this is a two-part self help programme, and we have reached the end. There is no third step. For a response to this third question, may I please direct you to step one as described above.

Drink the Wines you Care About

When I first started getting into wine I looked for guidance; don’t we all? Someone to lead us by the hand, tell us what we should be drinking. I think it is traditional at this point to say I turned to a big name critic such as Parker, but in fact in those very early days it was more likely UK columnists or annual UK guides that I would use. It wasn’t long before I realised my little wine collection was very narrow in style though (I had lots of mid-priced Australian Cabernet and Shiraz, and not much else) although looking back that wasn’t the main problem. The biggest problem was that I had a collection of wine that was driven entirely by somebody else’s palate. Each individual wine was reliable, but overall it was a dull collection. It lacked variety. It lacked adventure.

These days, I don’t follow anyone else’s palate but my own. “That’s easy for you”, you might say, “you travel and taste a lot, but the rest of us don’t have that advantage”. OK, that’s a fair point. I’ve visited the Loire Valley three times this year, and Bordeaux once (and I expect to be back to both before the year is out), so I do taste a lot of young wines and can therefore act as my own guide for my buying decisions.

I have a counter-argument though; the thing is, I don’t just buy wines which I have tasted and dutifully scribbled down notes and scores for. Some wines from the Loire and Bordeaux I buy blind, simply because I care about these two regions. I care particularly about the Loire Valley, its wines and its vignerons – you probably have to, in order to want to write comprehensively and consistently about it, as it is a huge and sprawling region. I also care about Bordeaux, although I really think I should be caring more about the litle appellations and domaines these days, and less about the big boys and girls of the cru classé châteaux. But that’s a topic for a different day.

Damien Laureau

As a consequence of this deep interest in these two regions I often buy wines blind, with absolutely no knowledge of the domaine, having never tasted the wines in question. For example, sticking with the Loire Valley, in June I drove past a domaine in Savennieres I was unfamiliar with. I was on a busy (self-imposed!) schedule and so didn’t stop, but I have since bought a bottle to taste. I have no idea what to expect when I pull the cork. And in Sancerre, which I also visited in June, I was reminded of a domaine I briefly visited in 2013 but never wrote up (it was a flying, rather informal visit). Seeing these wines in the UK recently, I also bought some of those to see what they’re like, again completely blind.

Now these wines might not be the best wines in the respective appellations, but to me that’s not important. Maybe on pulling the corks I will find they are actually quite bad, but honestly that’s not important either. I could, I suppose, restrict myself to drinking only the best; I could pore over my notes and exclusively buy only Damien Laureau (pictured above) and Claude Papin in Savennières, from François Cotat and Gérard Boulay in Sancerre. And then I could pore over someone else’s notes and buy only the best from Piedmont, or from California, or from Australia. But the problem with this latter approach, as I realised many years ago, is that you end up drinking to the preferences of someone else’s palate.

Rigorously following notes and scores (mine or anyone else’s!) removes a sense of adventure from wine drinking. Among all the safe bets and sure things, if there is a region you care about, it is good to sometimes open a bottle with absolutely no idea what the wine will be like. Good or bad, every bottle counts, because if you care about the region in question, the bottle will enhance your understanding of it. It will become part of your wine journey. And while I still buy wines based on my own tastings, in the Loire and in Bordeaux, ultimately I have realised exploring my favourite wine regions this way – with a mix of the known and the unknown – thereby developing a deeper and broader understanding of Savennières, Sancerre and so on, is much more fun than slavishly following a palate or guide in the hope of always having a minimum-90-point experience.

The Rise of the Wine Lifestyle Blogger

Look back over the last thirty years of wine writing and I would say that, in the early years at least, the field was led by a small number of big-name writers. I recall reading – although I honestly can’t remember where, or who the author was – of how some writers enjoyed the benefits of their trade. There was a story of one who would leave the boot (trunk if you’re North American) of his hire car unlocked during visits to châteaux so that a case of wine could be deposited there while he tasted (or lunched, maybe). Who knows how common such behaviour was? It was allegations (whether true or not – I would like to think the latter) such as these, reflecting overly-cosy relationships between the wine press and the châteaux, and a seeming inability of these critics to be critical of the wines they tasted (no surprises there), that set the scene for Robert Parker’s rise to fame. He aspired to be the ‘Ralph Nader’ of wine. If like me you’re unsure of Ralph Nader’s raison d’être, I will save you the bother of the research; he is an American political activist who came to prominence for taking the US motor industry to task over safety. In other words, he was untouchable, unassailable, unstained by dodgy relationships with the industry. It is now, I feel, the only valid model for a modern-day wine critic to work to; independence is key to the validity of individual ‘expert’ opinion. Although some have said that the days for independent critics are numbered, still-rising body of subscribers to this site tells me otherwise. If a consumer is content with the independence of a critic, and values the information provided, then it seems to me following that critic remains today a valid stream of information on wine.

These days, however, we are sometimes told that it is a new information stream that guides consumers, as social media, or crowd-sourced opinion such as can be found in the notes on Eric LeVine’s CellarTracker software, or within online forums, takes the place of big-name critics. This whole concept to me seems very valid. After all, if you have fifty notes on a wine from fifty consumers, even with some noise in there from those less interested or less able to communicate their thoughts on the wine, or perhaps from bottles that were faulty but weren’t recognised to be so, you should still end up with enough data to give the overall opinion and score validity. The same goes for online forums, where over time a regular contributor can gain recognition for the strength of their palate, so that users of the forum will often ask there for advice on what to buy rather than yielding to the opinions of, as some would describe them (us?), ‘self-important’ critics. Another aspect of crowd-sourced opinion that gives it value is that by and large the consumers that generate it are independent. They don’t depend on press trips, freebies and visits to the châteaux to generate their tasting notes, and indeed most – probably all – have shelled out hard-earned cash for the bottles on which they report. To me it means, despite the presence of some noise, these opinions really count. They are self-funded, honest and inherently independent. This seems to me to be another valid model for gaining valuable wine advice, and it is an advantage of living in the internet age.

The social media of the 21st century has spawned a third information stream though, and that is the ‘wine lifestyle’ blogger. At this point I have to confess that although I like this term very much, it isn’t an original one – another wine writer used it to describe the phenomenon in a conversation we shared earlier this year. The ‘wine lifestyle’ blogger behaves like the independent critic, visiting wine regions to taste. But rather than focus on independence as a strength, and remaining distant from the châteaux, he goes to the other extreme, as the focus is the trip itself, the experience, and the always-high quality of the wines involved. Bordeaux is a popular destination – the dinners during primeurs and VinExpo are not to be missed. A typical day – reported live on Facebook and Twitter – will be a visit to one château, but then lunch (a boozy one too) at another (pictures of each dish, full glasses and empty bottles are mandatory), then perhaps another visit with twenty vintages tasted, but then cocktails at château number four, and finishing up with a long dinner (black tie, preferably) lubricated with ancient vintages back to the early decades of the 20th century at château number five (and don’t forget the firework display at the end). It makes for fun reading, after all, who wouldn’t enjoy such a day? I have nothing against a blogger who follows this model. They are only taking advantage of what is offered to them, and readers clearly lap it up. What I wonder, though, is how the posts are ultimately interpreted. Every time I see a ‘wine lifestyle’ blogger post, their reports always prompt me to ask myself two questions.

First, how credible is the ‘wine lifestyle’ blogger, who may well go on to post notes and scores on the wines, as a critic? Which of the above three models is more (or less) useful to the consumer looking for guidance to buy? Is it the report from the old-school critic who strives for independence from the châteaux, whose credibility rests on being able to offer critical comments as well as praise? Or is it the collection of notes, the crowd-sourced opinion from social media, from folk who pay for their bottles and who aren’t afraid to say what they really think about a wine they shelled out for? Or is it the lifestyle blogger who, while writing glorious reports, and posting prolifically on social media, must bear in mind with the comments they make that next year’s dinner invitation hangs in the balance?

And second, can the wine trade tell the difference between the critic and the ‘wine lifestyle’ blogger? Or, when it comes to choosing where they source their opinion, is it just a question of highest score wins?