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.