Home > Winedr Blog

Critics Need Benchmarks

How do we judge wine?

I recall tasting, twenty-five years (or possibly a few more) ago, a South-Eastern Australian Chardonnay from a famous producer. I forget the bin number, and I forget the vintage, but I can still recall the flavour, the tropical-fruit sunshine, the creamy weight of it. I was just getting into wine, and this one tasted fantastic! I wasn’t scoring wine at the time (or even taking notes), but if I had I would have given it a high score.

Today, I would view the wine very differently. It would seem over-ripe, probably acidified, simple, commercial and ultimately rather dull. You might argue that my palate has changed, but something else has changed too. I have a different context for wine today. I have tasted thousands more wines than I had back then, and I have different expectations, based on personal benchmarks, top wines I have tasted and enjoyed over the years.

Benchmarks are essential for judging wine. Forget the commercial wine highlighted above. Let’s take a pricy South African Chardonnay instead. I taste it and really like it, and want to write it up. Do I score it 92 (I’m pretending I use the 100-point system for the moment)? Or should it be a 95? In view of the fact I really, really like it, should it be a 98? As it’s the best South African Chardonnay I have tasted this year, why not 100? The problem is I don’t have any strong benchmarks, South African or even New World, to place the wine and tasting note against. I decide I’m not going to give it a massive score, as it would probably be too high, and look silly. I’m going to end up being cautious, scoring it in the middle. In doing so perhaps I risk scoring it too low, an equally silly outcome, offensive to those that made the wine.

This is a problem you can see running through some wine magazine articles, when they suddenly venture into previously uncharted territory (like the Loire), and I see too many wines rated too low (interpretation: mustn’t give high scores, this isn’t Bordeaux or Burgundy after all) or some wines rated too high (interpretation: I’ve heard of this domaine, so they must be good – not always the case in the Loire, believe me – or I went on a press trip here so I had better say something nice). And I see it in Bordeaux too, when I see an approachable wine given a high score by writers who haven’t visited the region in years, and haven’t tasted what the region is capable of – Latour, Petrus, Le Pin, L’Église-Clinet, Lafite, Tertre-Roteboeuf, Ausone, Margaux, Haut-Brion, I could go on but you get the idea – for years and years, if at all.

I’m sure others see the same problem, but perhaps related to different regions. But for me, I see it in the Loire and Bordeaux. Critics need benchmarks to be credible. Without these benchmarks, it’s another process of random number generation and eye-rolling.

Disclosure in Wine Writing

There’s been an interesting discussion on Twitter and Facebook recently about disclosure in wine writing. Should wine writers have a “conflicts of interest” disclosure page, asked UK writer Jamie Goode.

I believe disclosure to be essential in wine writing (and many other walks of life, I am sure!), at least if that writing is to be of any value. To me, it is an essential part of the context of a report, and an indicator of professionalism and probity. I have been declaring any conflicts of interest for several years now, from the minor (with a hint of tongue-in-cheek, to be honest) to the more significant (support for foreign travel, accommodation, dinners and the like), and here is a link to my 2013 disclosure. I also mention on specific articles when support has been received, e.g. at the end of my profile of Jonathan Maltus, who hosted me for dinner during my visit.

What is the value of disclosure? I was surprised to see some who responded to Jamie’s question suggest that disclosure such as I have written was pompous, or pious, or a sign that I might take myself too seriously. Well, first of all I understand that it isn’t an enthralling read, but that hardly comes as a surprise (although it wasn’t meant to be pious). Rather like the index in a book, or an appendix or table of contents, its primary purpose isn’t to entertain the reader. It is information there, freely available and to be utilised as required, about the support I receive. And I would counter that it isn’t a sign I take myself seriously, but rather a sign I take my readers, some of whom pay an annual subscription to read my reports, seriously. The information given allows a reader to judge my comments on a wine (or wines) in a much more informative context.

I often wonder why not disclose such information? Why hide this detail from readers? Why not disclose that the wine trade supports writers (with dinners, lunches, travel, accommodation) in this way? Rather than trying to pretend such potential conflicts never arise, or adopting an “I’m too busy and you can trust me” approach, why not treat readers as adults and let them decide? If a writer finds, looking down at the hospitality he/she has received, that he/she would be embarrassed to own up to it, perhaps that says something about the validity of the “support” received?

If a writer travels to a far flung country on someone else’s account that should be disclosed. If a writer receives gifts, whether these be physical (Christmas hampers, wines) or in the shape of hospitality (lunches, dinners) these should be disclosed. If a writer receives tickets to sporting events, tennis at Wimbledon and rugby at Twickenham, or other such benefits, these should be disclosed. The writer doesn’t have to stop doing these things if they are comfortable with each of them. But with this knowledge in the open, the reader can decide how any of these benefits might have influenced a writer’s view of the relevant wines.

Wine Writing: Generalism vs Specialism

Years ago when I started writing Winedoctor I had a very generalist approach; I would write about whatever took my fancy (as long as it was wine!). A Chilean Chardonnay here, an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon there. After a few years of this superficial go-where-I-am-led writing I decided it would be better to focus on one or two areas, and I settled on two regions of France about which I knew most, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. I could direct better which wines I featured, and who I profiled. I could pour my efforts into visiting the regions and enhancing this knowledge, rather than looking for the latest press trip to, well, anywhere. My generalist days were behind me.

I was never really qualified for the job of generalist wine writer anyway. It is a difficult task to undertake and I admire greatly people who write on all walks of wine life with authority and conviction. To glide seamlessly and knowledgeably from the top wines of Burgundy one week, to Georgian Saperavi the next, and back to grower Champagne and new releases from South Africa before the month is out is an impressive feat. And the best do it so well. The advantage of this approach is that there is always something new to entertain the reader, so this style of writing is perfect for a weekly newspaper column or a Sunday supplement, “good gigs to have”, as some might say. After all, most people like variety in their drinking (or in their drinks reading, at least), and so the go-where-my-mood-takes-me approach is a useful one.

But this wasn’t for me, for various reasons, so instead I specialised, and as a result I developed a detailed knowledge of two regions at the expense of my knowledge of others. Today I know I couldn’t write a generalist-style weekly column with any authority; I could write a different Sunday column on the wines of the Loire for a year, such is the rich variety in this region (says I, sipping a glass of Gascon from the Sologne as I type), but I am certain readership figures would decline. I think readers generally look to these Sunday supplements for shopping lists and digestible information, not for in-depth articles (there’s a word limit, after all). But perhaps that is a discussion for another day. Suffice to say my treatise on Loire Valley Gascon is best kept for a book on the Loire, or a detailed profile on the Winedoctor site.

These thoughts came to mind as I read Burgundy expert Bill Nanson’s post describing his frustration at comments about the region which he knows so well made on Twitter. I liked a comment made in response by Victoria Moore, whose columns fit the knowledgeable and seamless description above, that it is best for generalists and specialists to give each other mutual respect. I agree with this process; just as a primary care doctor (GP to the Brits reading) must respect the expertise of a hospital consultant, and the hospital doctor must understand the difficult all-encompassing nature of primary care, so too must generalist and specialist wine writers understand and, ideally, refer to one another.

It doesn’t always work this way though. Recently I was on the end of an aggressive and critical response from a generalist when I pointed out there was another side to a controversial Loire Valley story on which he was writing. Why did this happen? Does a ‘specialist’ come across as ‘know-it-all’ when speaking up? Or are some generalists not as secure with their very broad remit as their peers? These thoughts have made me cautious about wading in when generalists make questionable comments which I view as worthy of further discussion. Recently, I have ignored comments I have read on the “wonderful 2011 vintage in Muscadet”, despite the fact (and it is fact) that the 2011 Muscadet harvest was riddled with grey rot (which comes through to many of the wines), in order to avoid a similar confrontation. Likewise I have avoided commenting on a recommendation of a Vouvray from a big-name large-volume domaine, even though the wines are fairly dreadful examples of the appellation. These are the sorts of comments that, sadly, come from scraping the surface of a region, perhaps via a press trip. Reflecting on my decision not to interject, however, I think it was wrong not to say anything. And so perhaps in future I will offer a contrasting opinion. With respect, hopefully mutual, of course.

2014 Subscriptions

It has been almost one year now since I changed Winedoctor to a pay-to-view site. On the anniversary of my subscription service’s ‘birth’, which is March 31st, I will be in Bordeaux for the 2013 primeurs. On the day in question I have appointments at Château La Mission Haut-Brion (pictured below), Château Carbonnieux for a tasting of 2013 Pessac-Léognan, Château Climens, Château Raymond-Lafon and one or two other châteaux, and so I think I am going to be rather busy (althought that’s a quiet day, actually). But I can’t let the end of this first year drift by without making any comment. And if I’m going to be too busy next Monday, I will just have to say it now.

First I would like to thank everybody who has subscribed during the past twelve months. For some of you, that was on March 31st 2013 – I hadn’t even finished putting the system fully in place before the first payment came in – for others it was as recently as yesterday. I am grateful for every subscription and hope everybody who shows their support for Winedoctor in this way finds something of use within. I have been deeply humbled by the number of subscriptions received – exactly (on the nose, in fact) twelve times more than my year-one/break-even target. I never dreamed I would have such support. Thank you again!

Château La Mission Haut-Brion, April 2013

Secondly, I would like to announce that there will be no price increase for new or repeat subscriptions during 2014. The fee remains £45 per annum, equivalent to £3.75 per month (see here for what this gets you if you don’t subscribe). In addition, all the discount opportunities for IMW, WSET and AWE students, educators and similar have been reconfirmed. Current subscribers who wish to continue should be able to do this without any problem from within their account, once logged in (you can still log-in to the account page even if the subscription has lapsed). If you have any difficulties, please let me know by email. As those of you who have been in touch with me by email will know, I’m usually fairly quick to respond, but I will be checking emails infrequently during the primeurs, so can’t promise a perfectly timely response during next week.

Lastly, a quick word on next week’s updates. As is usual I don’t make updates to the paywall-protected part of the site during the primeurs week – it’s just too busy to taste all day (I kick off at La Mission Haut-Brion at 8am on Monday) and then write something of the required standard for the site as well. I will try to blog daily though, with lighter commentary, news, pictures and brief impressions from the tastings. It should be an interesting vintage to taste. The word ‘interesting’ can mean very different things at different times, I suppose.

Thanks to all again. Here’s to a great 2014, and a great year full of wine!

2013 Winedoctor Disclosures

For several years now I have made an annual statement of support for Winedoctor; a way of ensuring transparency regarding who in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley (and anywhere else for that matter) helps me out, so that readers can take this into account when I report on the wines. I used to store these disclosure statements in my ‘Features’ section, and although this part of the Winedoctor website is still free to read, outside the paywall, I thought I should bring my disclosure statement out onto the blog lest I be criticised for hiding it in an inaccessible corner of the website.

I would usually publish this review in late December but the past six weeks have been particularly hectic chez Winedoctor, hence the delay.

First of all, as is customary, some details of support and other benefits received during the course of 2013:

InterLoire: Through Sopexa, who currently handle marketing for InterLoire, the generic promotional body for most of the Loire’s appellations, I received support to attend the Salon des Vins de Loire in Angers in February. I was reimbursed the cost of my petrol, airport parking, flights and rail fares in France. InterLoire also paid two nights accommodation directly to my hotel. I paid for the other nights myself. In addition, I also accepted a trip to the Muscadet region in spring, funded by InterLoire and arranged through Sopexa. Costs involved included flights from Edinburgh to Nantes, via London City Airport, accommodation for two nights, transport over three days, and subsistence including lunches and two ‘winemaker dinners’.
Le Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins du Centre: I accepted two nights accommodation in a hotel in Chavignol, the expense met by the BIVC, the regional body for the Central Loire appellations including Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and so on. Other expenses I met myself.
Bouvet-Ladubay: I attended a spectacle, a party in the Bouvet-Ladubay cellars during the 2013 Salon des Vins de Loire. I took advantage of free transport there from Angers and back again at the end of the evening.
Yvon Mau: I was grateful for accommodation provided by the Bordeaux négociant Yvon Mau during the primeurs week. I accepted five nights in a left-bank château, uncatered accommodation and possibly the most spooky stay in Bordeaux I have ever experienced – I was alone in a very big cru bourgeois château, in the wilds of the Médoc. Other aspects of the trip and expenses I met myself (see below).
Gifts received: A Christmas hamper from Sopexa, sent to all journalists who submitted suggestions for the Cracking Wines from France tasting. I received two bottles of wine, from Domaine Luneau-Papin and Les Vignerons du Pallet, during my trip to Muscadet.
Samples received: a small number of wine samples were received, principally from UK merchants such as Cadman Fine Wines and Hyde Park Wines, and where the wines have been written up this has been declared.
Lunching and dining: I accepted dinner on one night paid for by Yvon Mau at Les Sources de Caudalie during the Bordeaux primeurs. I also had lunch at Château Haut-Bailly. I had lunch with Claude Lafond, in Reuilly (pictured below). During the Salon des Vins de Loire I had dinner with Claude Papin, Vincent Ogereau and Yves Guégniard which the three vignerons paid for.

On the whole I think I have managed to cut back further on my dependence/association with the wine trade in 2013. Much of the costs associated with my trips to Bordeaux and the Loire I have met myself, and in each case outside funding has come from négociants or generic bodies rather than individual producers. The only other region I visited during 2013 was Madeira, again I funded this myself. I have not taken any other press trips, single producer or otherwise.

2013 Winedoctor Disclosures

As is customary I also document below the expenses I met myself during the course of 2013:

London, Loire Benchmark: I met the cost of a trip to London for the Loire Benchmark Tasting, principally for the Loire 2012 vintage. Costs included rail fare to London and subsistence.
Angers: Most travel expenses for the Salon des Vins de Loire were met by InterLoire, but I paid for three nights in a hotel and all my subsistence other than my dinner with Claude Papin & co (see above).
Bordeaux, Primeurs: I travelled to Bordeaux for a week and met my travel costs myself; this includes transport to airport, flights to Bordeaux, and hire car for eight days. Other than one meal paid for by Yvon Mau I met all subsistence costs myself. I paid for two nights in a hotel in Libourne to complement my stay in the château on the left bank.
London, RAW and Real Wine Fairs: In 2013 these fairs were at different times (I enjoyed the convenience of ‘competing’ fairs in 2012) and I paid for travel from Edinburgh to both, by train in each case, myself. Extra costs were incurred in each case, (a) by missing my train and having to stay overnight in London for one, and (b) hitting a deer on the way home from the railway station on the other. These were expensive tastings to attend; I probably could have bought all the wines I tasted online and had them shipped to Edinburgh for less than the cost of the repairs to my car. Such is life. Still, I suppose I came off better than the deer.
Madeira: I covered the costs of transfers, flights, hire car and accommodation in Madeira myself. I paid for travel to visit Barbeito and Blandy’s.
London: Costs associated with attendance at four London tastings in March, September, October and November, these being the Union des Grands de Bordeaux, Institute of Masters of Wine, Cru Bourgeois and Bordeaux Index tastings were met by me. In the latter case this was by train; for the other three tastings, the costs included flights from Edinburgh, transfers, parking and so on.
Loire, Harvest Trip: I covered the expenses incurred during this trip, including parking and flights, myself. I did not pay for the two nights in Chavignol (see above). I stayed and travelled with Jim Budd so there were no other accommodation costs, but I contributed towards subsistence.
Bordeaux, Harvest Trip: I covered the cost of this trip myself; this includes flights from London and back to Edinburgh, airport parking, hire car for four days, subsistence and three nights in Bordeaux hotels.

That concludes my disclosure statement for 2013. As indicated above, I have added disclosures to wine sample reviews where appropriate, so I hope transparency is adequate. As for the year ahead I will, as I stated in my recent report on the Gitton Père et Fils Sancerre X-elis, be focusing on Sancerre and other Central Loire appellations (as I have neglected them for so long, and my enthusiasm has been reignited by my recent trip to the Loire), reporting on Loire 2013, and expanding my coverage throughout. For Bordeaux, I will have my usual cycle of Bordeaux reports (expect detail on the 2013, 2012, 2010 and 2004 vintages, as well as from-my-cellar reports on 2001 and 1999), more Bordeaux profiles for smaller estates (smaller in ambition, and in price too) from left and right banks, and the completion of my Bordeaux guide (at which point I move onto the Loire, a daunting prospect indeed). Santé!

Wine: Not the same as Fishing

I came home later than expected one evening this week and slumped down on the sofa, exhausted. Two of my three teenage children had occupied the room before my arrival, and had therefore staked a claim on the television. Their choice of viewing? Extreme Fishing with actor and UK television sleb’, Robson Greene.

To me, fishing seems like the antithesis of what might make good television. Sitting on a riverbank waiting for the bite that might never come is, to my mind, a fine way to ruin an otherwise potentially enjoyable day. The idea of watching somebody else do this is surely the televisual equivalent of me drilling holes in my head. But the programme works; having sat through nearly 60 minutes of it perhaps I now understand why. And why, conversely, wine on TV doesn’t work.

1. The presenter; Robson Greene is expert (a keen fisherman) and novice (he travels the world to take up new fishing challenges) combined. He has a down-to-earth approach, and never talks down to the audience. Perhaps this is why the UK television audience find him so endearing? How could you do this with wine? Finding a novice and expert in one would be difficult; wine drinking isn’t a sport that requires some knowledge such as fishing, and somebody who merely drinks wine – that’s most people – rather than obsessing over variety, terroir and closures doesn’t count. This is perhaps why two of the most successful ‘light entertainment’ wine programmes I can think of featured “novice-expert” pairings (Oz Clarke and James May, Jonathan Pedley MW and Keith Floyd). Is there a TV sleb’ in existence who could fill the novice-expert role? Wine also suffers from having an instant snob-feel to it. It’s easy to be “down to earth” with fishing – it’s easy to avoid too much detail, for fear of coming across as a snob, with wine.

2. The action; extreme fishing doesn’t mean sitting on a riverbank. It means diving in cages for abalone in shark infested waters, trying to catch crabs with huge pincers with just a stick and your bare hands, deep-sea fishing for octopus which must be beheaded by the presenter as soon as the cage comes on board, fishing for shark which attack as soon as they hit the boat deck, you get the idea. Suddenly, fishing isn’t so boring. How do you replicate this with wine? The excitement of the wind rustling through the leaves in the vineyard? The thrill of a vertical press in action? Worse still, watching people taste wine?

3. Comedy; there is plenty of opportunity. Those octopus cages are on a line and are arriving at the rate of 10 per minute, so mishaps and the ultimate failure of the presenter after “having a go” provides a laugh. The octopus, prior to decapitation, quite sensibly went on the offensive – “it’s grabbed me knackers“, as Robson put it. This is clearly why my teenagers watch a programme which, superficially, I thought was going to be aimed at middle-aged men who spend a lot of time thinking about rods and bait. And then there’s the eating – of octopus (raw), abalone (raw and cooked), gummy shark (cooked). Not only is the transition from just-landed fish to cooked meal interesting to watch (part of why cooking works on TV, and wine doesn’t) there is plenty of opportunity for disgusted face-pulling and near-retching. How could you do any of this with wine? Bottling line mishaps? They aren’t going to be funny. And which producer will stand by while wine’s Robson-equivalent tastes his Shiraz, retches, spits it out and exclaims “and people pay to drink this“?

4. Travel; exotic locations count for a lot here, as Robson travels the world to fish. This is one where wine does at least stand a chance – but it certainly pushes the budget up.

There may be other facets, but these are the big four I think – affable presenter with right level of knowledge + comedy + action + travel = appealing light entertainment show from which viewers will, without realising it, perhaps learn something about the subject matter. In fact this is perhaps the basic premise for many successful television shows – Michael Palin’s travelogues seem to fit a similar scheme. With wine, it doesn’t seem likely to work. How do you make wine work on television?

Shortlisted for the Roederers

I’m a little over a week late with this news to the blog, but as access to the internet was so sparse during my time in Madeira (mainly the effect of prohibitive data costs to be honest with you, and having just received my monthly phone bill I’m glad I managed to keep it down to the level I did) I hope you will forgive my tardiness.

RoedererI’m delighted to reveal that for the third year running I have been shortlisted for a Roederer wine writing award. Being shortlisted really is an honour; according to the chairman of the judges Charles Metcalfe, the number of entries this year reached a record high, and so coming out in the top handful gives me a real boost.

The more astute readers (or those who look at the home page, anyway) may well have noticed the banner, reproduced right, which the lucky shortlistees (is that a word?) can display.

The category I’m shortlisted in is the Best International Wine Website of the Year (sponsored by Domaines Ott), and I’m up against some fairly stiff competition. The six sites shortlisted are as follows:

Tim Atkin M.W. | www.timatkin.com

Tom Cannavan | www.wine-pages.com

Rebecca Gibb | www.wine-searcher.com

Jamie Goode | www.wineanorak.com

David Honig | www.palatepress.com

Chris Kissack | www.thewinedoctor.com

With such a strong line-up I’m not going to hold my breath; I have a feeling my role might be once again to be the bridesmaid, and not the bride! Jamie Goode must stand a very good chance, and he has already picked up several awards for his online work in the past twelve months. Best of luck to all those shortlisted (in this and all the other categories).

For a full list of those shortlisted in all categories, see the Roederer Awards site.

Winedoctor, Past and Future

Twelve years and ten months ago (to be honest the exact date is lost to memory – but it was one day in May, 2000) I added a few ‘Winedoctor’ pages to the internet for the first time. Little did I realise at that time, even though I had a deep love of wine and an urgent desire to explore and discover all its forms, just how big a part of my life this site would become.

Much has changed since then. Bordeaux prices have exploded, and the region is on the receiving end of equal measures of love and disdain, depending on who you’re talking to. Classifications have collapsed, been reborn, and some St Emilion châteaux elevated to a level we would never have predicted twenty years ago. Muscadet is also enjoying a rebirth, the increasingly well defined crus communaux one of the many reviving stimuli. Vouvray is more exciting than ever, while Montlouis has risen from the ashes in a style that can only be described as phoenix-like. We have ‘natural’ and ‘orange’ wines, both unheard of ten years ago, and we have a much greater understanding of grape varieties, including their genetic relationships to one another and their origins. I’ve tasted wines from Belgium, Slovenia, China and one or two other countries which I never even realised made wine. I think it’s safe to say that, since Winedoctor was born, the world of wine has changed greatly.

And on the internet things have moved along a little too. Since Winedoctor was first published online established wine writers, most notably and successfully Jancis Robinson (and team) and Robert Parker (and team), joined in the fray, setting up their websites, bringing their expertise previously only expressed in print, and on television in the case of Jancis, to the world wide web. In fact, Robert Parker was one of my earliest advertisers, as his web-team rented a little advertising space on Winedoctor to alert surfers to his new online presence, sometime back in 2001 I think.

Bordeaux and The Loire

Perhaps more relevant to this post though, over the last twelve years I have changed too. Winedoctor has grown, and I have become – recognising the need to match the expertise held by many Winedoctor readers, and meet the standards demanded by many of my visitors – more focused on two regions, Bordeaux and the Loire. It has been a journey without much of a plan, until recently at least. Recognising increasing pressures on my time, I realised that the only way Winedoctor could survive – by which I mean the only way I could continue to dedicate the huge amount of time to it that I have been doing over the last few years – was if I asked for payment from readers. I wrote about this change here, a couple of months ago, and here, a week ago. And today, March 30th, marks the day that the paywall went up.

For Winedoctor readers it’s a big change, and I really appreciate the positive words of encouragement I have received. I also acknowledge that some people weren’t happy with the development, disappointed at the change, hoping for a lower price. I hope I can publish enough articles in the coming months to persuade you that having access to the site is worth the fee (which is £45, equivalent to £3.75 per month, more details here). Naturally much of April will be – once I return from the primeurs week – taken up with Bordeaux 2012. Last year’s report stretched over 35 pages, and don’t expect anything less detailed this year! Other articles planned for the next few months, squeezed in before and after the primeurs report, include:

  A Bordeaux 2003 report, with more than 60 wines tasted at ten years of age, taking in all the firsts (reds only – no Yquem, sorry) including Petrus and Ausone.

  A vertical tasting of the wines of Richard Leroy, both Clos des Rouliers and Noëls de Montbenault, from the 2004 vintage through to 2009.

  A Bordeaux 2000 report. A little more brief and down-to-earth than my 2003 report, with more than twenty wines tasted, featuring value wines such as Château de Fonbel, Château La Vieille Cure and more.

  A tasting of wines from Clos du Clocher, with a new profile of this estate.

  A new profile of François Chidaine, complete with vineyard maps and new opinion.

  A vertical tasting of wines from Philippe Foreau, of Domaine du Clos Naudin, taking in a selected range of his cuvées from 2009 back to 2002.

  An update on Gombaude-Guillot, Pomerol’s only biodynamic domaine.

  All my updates from the Loire Salon, with many new profiles too.

  And don’t forget the completion of my new, 35+ page Bordeaux guide, to be rolled out every (well, almost every) Sunday.

I hope this will keep Winedoctor subscribers entertained. I see, by the time I have finished writing this post, seven readers have signed up already. Thank you! For those yet to be convinced, my ‘Weekend Wine’ reports every Monday remain free to view, as will all my blog posts, restaurant reviews, book reviews and a selection of other pages.

For more on me, click here, and to sign up, click here.

Paywall News

It seems appropriate, as it is now nearly eight weeks since I first published details of my plans to convert Winedoctor to a pay-to-view site (in Important News for Winedoctor Readers), to update those readers who might be interested on how this plan is progressing. It seems only right to me that I make this change in an open and transparent manner, with plenty of warning, the real point of these posts. If you missed the first post, you might like to go back and read it; it explains my reasoning and the need to make this change to pay-to-view if Winedoctor is to survive.

The process of shifting an established free-to-access website to a pay-to-view model is not entirely straightforward. It reminds me of the tale of the holidaymakers who stop to ask for directions; the old yokel they have accosted fixes them with a beady-eye, his face expressing all that needs to be said on the folly of their quest, and replies “well, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you“. Like the hapless holidaymakers, I can’t choose where I start from, having uploaded my first Winedoctor pages to the internet more than twelve years ago now. This was an era when content management systems such as WordPress, which comes with dozens of easy plug-ins to manage subscriptions, paywalls, credit-card payments and so on, were nothing more than a twinkle in a programmer’s eye.

Nevertheless, somewhat to my surprise (I’m always surprised when things progress more easily than expected…..usually very surprised) the process of development and integration seems to have gone more smoothly than I had anticipated. The paywall software is in place, and I can see only one final glitch that needs ironing out. The credit card payment system is in place, and has been tested multiple times. I won’t bore you with any more gory details than that, but suffice to say that although I will continue to test the systems I have in place, the paywall is essentially ready to go. The time has come, therefore, to set a date.

I stated in my original post that I was aiming to institute the paywall in March. I am going to come good on that plan – just – as the paywall will go up over the weekend of March 30th and 31st. These things are always subject to change, but barring any personal catastrophe this is the plan. The timing really relates to when I can guarantee being available to sort out any teething problems that might occur, but setting myself this deadline also means I should have this done and dusted before I leave for the Bordeaux primeurs the following week. Preparations for this trip are almost complete (you can see some of my timetable below – I just wish I could raise a response from Ducru-Beaucaillou) and it is going to be the busiest yet, with seven solid days of tasting planned. I will thus have more writing-up to do on my return than ever, so really need to have the paywall integration done before I get bogged down with that. The 30th and 31st is also a good choice for me as website usage tends to be lighter than during the week. With typically 27,000 page views per day from Monday to Friday, that seems like a valid consideration!

Bordeaux Primeurs 2013 Timetable

And as for the price, as previously stated, the access fee will be a one-off payment of £45 per annum. This can be made using most Mastercard and Visa (debit and credit cards) through a reputable online payment gateway, Sagepay. Students and staff of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, staff and students of The Institute of Masters of Wine and members of the Association of Wine Educators should ensure they contact their respective organisations in order to obtain relevant discount codes prior to payment. The first two should be set up and ready to go when the paywall goes up; I have certainly provided the WSET and IMW with all the information they need. As for the AWE, you may need to shake your committee along a bit, as I have certainly made the offer. Please note, all three organisations have the same offer, and only one code can be applied, so if you are eligible via the IMW or WSET code there is no need to look for an AWE offer to materialise.

Some people have asked for fuller details of what and will be behind the paywall. I’m not going to map out every page here, but in essence the wine guides, domaine profiles, domaine updates and detailed tasting reports including my Bordeaux primeur reports and mature Bordeaux and Loire vintage assessments will be pay-to-view. As for what remains free, this will include my basic wine education pages, wine book reviews, restaurant reviews as well as all my Monday ‘Weekend Wine’ reports and all my blog posts. This adds up to a serious chunk of the content on Winedoctor, and so there should still be plenty of content – old and new – for those who do not wish to subscribe.

As with my previous post, please feel free to post any questions below, and I will do my best to answer them as soon as possible.

Antonio Galloni resigns from The Wine Advocate

Back in December, news broke that Parker 2012 had sold a stake in The Wine Advocate. Several months on full details of the sale remain surprisingly sketchy, although the stake sold is rumoured to have changed hands for $15 million. The new investors are Singaporeans, at least one of whom still has close ties to the wine business, through his family’s ownership of a major wine importer, but the identity of the others remains – to my knowledge, do fill me in if you have seen it reported somewhere – a mystery.

Galloni leaves The Wine AdvocateOne key point that was clear, however, was that The Wine Advocate would be changing from using the services of independent contractors to employees, in other words a renegotiation of working relationships. Some have, I believe, signed up (at least they haven’t denied it) but one who had no such intention was Antonio Galloni. Having had a high-flying career in finance he gave it all up to write for Parker, and having been anointed as a potential successor by Parker himself in the past the news must have been galling. On the day the news broke Antonio wrote on the Parker forum:

It’s business as usual for me. I am 100% committed to providing readers with the best commentary and service possible for the regions I cover. My tasting and travelling schedule remains unchanged. I have never been more energized about the future than I am right now.

….which struck me at the time as saying nothing about intending to carry on working as a Wine Advocate employee rather than as an individual. Yesterday evening the New York Times Diners’ Journal ran an article which revealed Galloni was indeed going it alone. With a new website in development, www.antoniogalloni.com, he is set to establish himself as an independent rival to The Wine Advocate.

I understand that Galloni owns all the work he produced during his time under Parker, and so there is nothing to prevent him using this as the base for his new online journal, and he has established a very strong following, so I am sure he will be successful. Nevertheless such a move is a brave one (any such business/career development imbues a sense of nervousness). It comes, says Galloni, not purely as a result of the sale of The Wine Advocate (although this was a deciding factor he says) but of a desire to communicate to a younger audience, having seen too many young diners swilling beer instead of wine. The project was clearly well underway when The Wine Advocate was sold; no wonder Galloni had “never been more energized about the future“!

Sadly for Parker subscribers, most of this information came their way from the New York Times, and not from the publication to which they open their wallets. With Galloni’s departure, and little sign of the new developments – either in terms of technology, or of the hiring of new talent – that was promised with the arrival of the new Wine Advocate “investors”, I would think some of those wallets will be closing upon learning this news. Which, by the way, is not conjecture; I am merely looking at the tone of the first few responses on the Parker forum, when the news was brought there by a Parker subscriber.

I wish Antonio all the best in his new venture. He is clearly excited by it, and as I indicated above I am confident he will succeed.