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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.

The Sabre Rattling of the Wine Judges

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

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

Loire reds for judging, Decanter World Wine Awards

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

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

Critics: The Primeurs Marketing Machine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Salons of Angers

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

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

Nicolas Joly

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

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

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