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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?

I’m Not On a Press Trip to Saumur

Ahhh, the romance of wine writing. As I sit here, a mere stone’s throw from Saumur, the view from my window a vibrant pink-and-blue melange of a sunset, bird song in the distance, slowly giving way to the chirrupping of nocturnal insects, all that is missing to complete the picture is a glass of the good stuff itself. A little Saumur-Champigny, or Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame perhaps, would do the trick.

Unfortunately the above words constitute something of a fabrication. It’s all true, it’s just not the whole truth; it’s what I have left out that tells the real story. I’m in a budget hotel, and in France these seem to be either (a) on the side of an autoroute or (b) in the middle of a zone industrielle, in my case the latter. The view from my window comprises a Carrefour filling station, three grey-box-warehouse outlets selling incomprehensible services, a white van that seems to be kerb crawling and a car park. There is a sunset though.

I’m here to make a few flying visits, to catch up with a few vignerons I know, to visit others for the first time. In Saumur I will visit tomorrow (Thursday) Domaine Guiberteau, Clos Rougeard and Château du Hureau. On Friday I’m off to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé to see Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau (pictured below the last time we met, in 2013), Pierre Morin, Domaine Thomas-Labaille and Anne Vatan. Yes, Anne Vatan, as in the daughter of Edmond Vatan. She is not always easy to get hold of, so I’m really looking forward to that one.

Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau, October 2013

As you might imagine from the quality and stature of the growers on my list this is no carelessly thrown together schedule, so my thanks to Matt Wilkin of H2Vin and also Benoit Roumet, directeur of the BIVC who both helped. Matt opened some very big doors, and Benoit was ruthlessly efficient in his arrangements (my first email to Benoit was at 7pm on a Sunday evening – I had a reply eight minutes later….impressive, very impressive).

You can deduce from the above that this obviously isn’t a press trip either. InterLoire, the generic body covering PR for the Loire Valley (except for those appellations who have left, e.g. Montlouis, Bourgueil) do fly out a number of journalists to the Loire Valley every June, but those trips have been and gone. These trips naturally tend to focus on vignerons who are (a) good communicators, which may go hand-in-hand with them being (b) English speakers (not necessarily though), a good ‘press trip’ vigneron should also be (c) amenable and (d) accessible. It helps, no doubt, if they put on a good spread too. Two days in the company of such individuals no doubt makes for a fun trip and a few lovely blog posts (maybe even a newspaper column), but my problem with such short visits to see such a highly selected group of vignerons is that it surely presents a rather narrow view of a wine region. All you have seen is one side of wine scene that probably has many diffeent facets.

I guess press trips are fine if you just want an easily accessible snippet on Savennières or some nice pictures for a forthcoming column or feature, but if you want to get under the skin of the Loire Valley (and no doubt any other region) you have to dig a bit deeper. I think this means spending time tracking down some less easily accessible individuals, perhaps some of the less talkative vignerons, those growers who don’t readily engage. Because sometimes these individuals can make the best wines of all, the appellation-defining wines that we all obsess over from time to time. To truly understand one region, to develop a real depth of knowledge and to communicate using the confidence and experience that brings, you have to go beyond the press trips.

The gendarmes are now questioning the driver of the white van. I would continue to watch, but it is time for some kip prior to my first appointment at 8:30am tomorrow.

Criticism: How the Big Boys deal with it

It’s not fair to have a go at Bordeaux all the time is it? I wonder if some of my previous posts and comments on the quality of its wines, the ‘ambitious’ pricing strategy followed by some proprietors (which we see yet again in the 2014 vintage, although to be fair the prices of some releases have been more sensible, and well received by the trade), and as I wrote last week a reluctance to declassify even in a wash-out vintage perhaps make me seem bitterly obsessed with the region. Obsessed, yes. But bitter? No. I love the wines of Bordeaux. It’s just that I don’t allow that love to translate into an unending stream of platitudes, instead it comes out as hopefully fair and considered criticism as well as praise. It’s a big, grown-up wine region. It can take the criticism and the love side by side.

So let’s turn to the Loire instead. Now, if you think a few critical blog posts levied against Bordeaux makes me look bad, criticising the wines of the Loire Valley probably makes me look like the wine world’s version of the playground bully. I am now the junior psychopath who pulls wings from insects, or who tortures ants with a magnifying glass. Or that kid who lived next-door to Andy in Toy Story maybe. Too many people have had a tough time in the Loire Valley, you might think, for criticism. Frost and decimation in Muscadet (2008). Rampant grey rot in Muscadet, plus a little in Anjou too (2011). Floods and hail damage (pictured below) in Vouvray (2012 and 2013). A wash-out along the length of the Layon (2012). Low yields for already cash-strapped vignerons in many regions (several recent vintages). And no really ‘great’ across-the-board vintage since, errr, maybe 2009 or 2010? Who would want to criticise a region that has been through so much?

Hail damage in Vouvray, June 2013

Perhaps that is a view some people take. Indeed, this a region that has more than its fair share of ardent supporters, the Muscadet- and Savennières-obsessed (who often seem to be sommeliers, or have I just overlooked all the other fanatics?) who, like an overbearing mother-figure set about smothering the region with their love, promulgating the wines at every opportunity on social media. They probably enjoy what they do, and perhaps feel they are giving the region the support it really needs, but ultimately this approach is pointless. Why? Because when you write only the positive – these wines rock!Domaine [insert your favourite here] in Muscadet does it again!these wines are awesome, mindblowing Chenin-tastic! – and so on, eventually these very words become meaningless. It might make the vignerons happy, for a moment, but it’s a yawn-inducing experience for everybody else, and so it will never translate into anything useful for the vignerons in question. The words carry no weight, and so they won’t translate into sales. They won’t inspire interested merchants to visit and maybe ultimately import the wines, because the same comments are applied to every wine. They don’t inspire holidaymakers in the region to visit, taste, buy and spread the word, again because every wine is praised, so there is no differentiation. Every comment is just more of the same positive slush.

I’ve long thought that what the Loire Valley really deserved was not never-ending praise, but considered criticism too, although first we need to develop a true understanding of its wines. Instead of carrying on being the region perceived as a source of cheap-‘n’-cheerful white apéro wines, and “lighter reds for summer drinking” as one mainstream UK publication put it a few years ago, maybe it is time for a reappraisal. Maybe the Loire should shake off the idea many seem to hold that it only makes simple summer-afternoon sippers and not ‘proper’, ageworthy wines. Such a shift in opinion would surely require us all to look at the wines in the same way we regard Bordeaux and Burgundy, or indeed Napa, Rioja, Alsace, Coonawarra and all the other ‘serious’ wine regions. And to do so would be appropriate, because the Loire isn’t a region full of mere simple summer sippers, there are also plenty of ageworthy wines here. Wines that go the distance, ten, fifteen, twenty years or more, in white and red, and they develop beautifully complex character as they age (watch out for a new feature, my forthcoming ten-years-on Loire report, starting with 2005, if you have doubts).

But if that’s what the region should be aiming for – to be seen as a source of great wines for the cellar as much (if not more than) a source of daily drinkers – then there’s a need for considered critical opinion. Serious wines – top Chinon, top Bourgueil, top Savennières, top Vouvray and so on – need serious review. Some wines will merit praise, but some will – if the reviews are to be taken seriously – come in for appropriate criticism. Some wines will get great scores, and with a background of real criticism (not universal never-ending praise) those scores will actually mean something. The words of a critic who praises and criticises in balanced measures should have a positive effect, even if it is only a small one, upon the vigneron’s reputation and sales. There is the downside though; what if your wine is on the receiving end of a critical note from me, or from someone else? Mostly I have found vignerons in the Loire can take this on the chin, only reinforcing my belief in (and love for) the region, and that it has every right to be considered alongside all the ‘big name’ wine regions mentioned above. These are dedicated, hard-working vignerons who believe in their wines, and know that serious critics who can actually influence sales need to critique as well as praise, and while one particular wine might not strike a chord with one particular critic, there’s always another vintage (or indeed another critic) coming up. This is, I think, how the big boys deal with it.

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.