Twenty Years of Winedoctor
I am sitting at my kitchen table having just logged out of a Zoom videoconference with Bruno Borie of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, who was accompanied by his new head of research and development, Cécile Dupuis. This is the new normal at the moment; samples of 2019 Bordeaux arrive, each day, the speed at which they reach my home in Scotland in some cases remarkable (you only have to look at the dates on the samples below for proof). I pull the corks and at the designated moment I sign in to taste and talk about the vintage and the wines with the winemaker or proprietor. Slowly but surely I am working my way around Bordeaux (well, much of it; not everybody wants to send samples), gradually building up a view of the 2019 vintage and its wines.
It is a long way from where I was twenty years ago. I had a passion for wine which had been developing for close to a decade, one which had led me to join a local tasting group and build up a small cellar (in reality a few bottles of Chateau Musar, Penfolds Bin 707 and some rather less well-chosen examples of supermarket Vouvray). At the time I had only visited the Loire Valley once, and I had never been to Bordeaux, but I was getting to know many other French regions, having recently visited both the northern and southern vineyards of the Rhône Valley, and worked my way through every corner of Burgundy, from Beaujolais through the Côte Chalonnaise and the Côte d’Or and on up to Chablis. Having recently discovered the internet, I wondered if it would be fun to publish some of my thoughts and tasting notes online. Sometime in May 2000, after cobbling together a very homespun website I tentatively hit return, and Winedoctor was born.
To be frank I am not sure of the date I did that, but I have settled on May 20th, 2000. The oldest dated articles still online were published May 21st, 2000, including a set of tasting notes from a Château Talbot vertical that eventually grew into my profile of that estate, and some notes from mini-horizontal tastings of the 1988 and 1989 vintages in Bordeaux. In truth I started writing Winedoctor sometime before May 21st, 2000, but not all of the very earliest pages have been preserved. Eventually I settled on May 20th as my ‘anniversary’ date; May 21st was my late mother’s birthday, so I think I will leave that day for her.
During the years that followed Winedoctor’s rather shaky first appearance, the internet grew and seemed eminently suited to wine. Discussion forums appeared and big-name wine writers, omnipotent through their newspaper columns, books or posted-out monthly journals, eventually joined the fray. It amuses me now to think back to the time Robert Parker took out advertising space on Winedoctor to publicise the launch of erobertparker.com. Online commerce was another exciting new development; it seems entirely normal to buy wine online today, but there was a time when the ability to peruse the wine lists of distant merchants, and to order a bottle or a case for home delivery with just a few clicks was exciting and novel. It was also dangerous; I recall waking up one Saturday morning after my regular Friday-night tasting group to find some very large receipts had been emailed to my inbox. Having arrived home glowing with the after-effects of a glorious Rhône tasting I had promptly gone online to order a case of 1998 Château de Beaucastel and a case of mid-1990s Jaboulet La Chapelle. It was all well beyond my self-imposed monthly wine budget.
Winedoctor grew in popularity and was soon taking millions of page views per day; free to view, it paid its way through advertising. Some in the wine world seemed to like it too. Very early on, in three years out of four it was shortlisted either for ‘best website’ or ‘best online communicator’ in the annual Lanson and then Roederer Wine Writing Awards (I confess I forget which at the time) but I never took home the gong. Then Roederer ditched the ‘best website’ category, and that was the end of that.
By the end of the decade I was a regular visitor to Bordeaux and the Loire Valley and I remain so to this day. I won’t chart every detail of the evolution of this site, but with the passing of time I decided it would be better to have some focus, and Winedoctor grew into a more specialist site, featuring the wines of the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. I admit it is an unusal combination, but it reflects the site’s organic growth. Would I combine these two regions if I were launching a pay-to-view site today? No, of course not, I would choose one or the other. But that’s not how Winedoctor came into being and I have no intention of dropping either region now. Having spent the weekend drinking both 2005 single-vineyard cuvées from Richard Leroy, followed by the 2000 vintage from both Château Talbot (a nod to that very early article I guess) and Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, I am pretty content to carry on in this vein.
Perhaps the biggest development in Winedoctor’s twenty years (aside from the recent total site redeisgn) was the switch from free to pay-to-view. This came in 2013, and so it has now been the norm for one-third of Winedoctor’s history. Some in the wine world were skeptical, as they are wedded to providing free content, and they remain so today. But I believe if your work is of any value then people will be prepared to pay for it, and I have been proven right. I was never sure how many people would subscribe, but there was a time I was forced to estimate it; in order to secure a contract with Sagepay (who handle the card payments) I had to draw up a business plan with projections, and with no real conviction I predicted fifty subscribers in year one. Yes, fifty. When I told Jonathan Maltus that a year-or-so later he replied (in good humour I should say) “you must have had a shit business plan”. After the behind-paywall site launched I had fifty subscribers within the first week, and the numbers kept clicking upwards throughout the year. I knew I was home and dry.
Today Winedoctor continues as a pay-to-view site, and its existence is as much down to my subscribers as it is my efforts. The income provided by my subscribers allows me to write independently, without fear of upsetting benefactors, proprietors, winemakers or the like. The income has also freed me from taking press trips for many years now; I prefer to go where my passions take me, rather than being herded around by whoever has the largest PR and advertising budget. And the income allows me to write researched articles which provide genuine detail and fact to my readers, features which I believe sets Winedoctor apart, to some extent at least. With that thought I wish to thank all my subscribers for the last seven years – and here’s to the next seven, and indeed the next twenty!
Now I must go – the doorbell has just gone, and another delivery of 2019 Bordeaux samples has arrived (as well as a few bottles of 2016 and 2017 Chinon bought from Lay & Wheeler, hurrah!). It’s nose-to-the-glass time once again.