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Find Wine with Style

findwineAt the recent The Wine Gang Christmas Fair I had the chance to taste lots of wines and meet importers and wineries from around the world. One of the ones that stood out for me was a small online retailer looking to sell wines in a novel way: FindWine.co.uk

Most wines in this country, whether in the supermarkets or independent merchants, are sold mainly by country. They might then be divided by region, price or even style, but the first arrangement is almost ALWAYS by country. Most (surviving) online merchants have therefore taken this format as well, and although you can usually filter by many different criteria, country still dominates the thinking.

The other thing most retailers have in common is that they generally list a larger range of wines that may then be categorised or tagged with tasting or buying information to help consumers decide between them. The thinking is, if you give consumers a broader range of choices, they’ll find something they’ll like … and buy.

The truth is, many consumers are not looking for anything too specific, and in fact are often put off by too much choice. They want a good deal, and a recommendation of a ‘good’ wine, so may well leave without buying anything.

FindWine decided, instead, to create a list with only 54 ‘slots’ that represent 6 different price categories across 9 different ‘styles’, and find just 1 wine that is a good example for each. The prices vary from under £5 to £15+ and the list of categories includes “zippy” whites as well as “soft-isticated” reds, so should appeal to lots of consumers.

I think what these guys are up to is very interesting, especially as their model allows them to buy good quality wines in small parcels so they can keep things fresh and change regularly. All we need now is a bit more interaction and visibility from the faces behind the business to demonstrate their passion for the wines and give us confidence they are choosing interesting wines for these ‘slots’.

On that note, watch this short interview I recorded at the show with John Critchley, one of the guys behind FindWine:

If you have used them, or tried their wines, do let me know what you think of their model and their wines. Is anyone else doing something similar?

(Update: I apologise to Mike Howes as this is in fact John Critchley, Mike’s partner at FindWine who I identified incorrectly in the video)

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The faces behind the labels

Hand Made by McGuiganI am extremely privileged to do the job I do. I work with some great wineries, travel to beautiful places and meet all sorts of interesting wine trade people; winemakers, marketers, writers, travel experts, art aficionados and more. Some of these I meet because of the paid work I do, others I meet for the stuff I do which is not paid for (like this blog). Either way, it makes me want to share the experiences, hopefully in a way that inspires people (rather than in a sort of nah-na-na-NAA-na sort of way!)

I say this because amongst these people are reasonably well-known individuals that many wine drinkers will have heard of and would actually love to meet and get to know. What often amazes me (as I’m quite new to this game, to be honest) is how lovely, genuine and fun they can be, yet how seriously I expected them to be before I met them. Many of these ‘celebrities’ (for the lack of a better term for well-known individuals whose names are recognisable) meet each other for interviews, at tastings and even informally, but the chances for regular wine drinkers to meet them are rare – and usually involve travelling to the winery, expensive wine dinners or really busy wine shows.

Today I met someone who is not only is responsible for much of the Australian wine we buy from supermarkets and specialists such as Majestic, but was also recently voted the 2009 IWC White Winemaker of the Year for some cracking prestige wines too.

Neil McGuiganNeil McGuigan was on hand, along with Peter Hall, to talk about his wines, his philosophy and generally get us excited about the quality of today’s Australian wines – they are no longer just simple, fruity wines (“sunshine in a glass“), but competing at the highest prestige levels as well.

To make his point, a lunch was organised to match Michelin starred FRENCH (!) cuisine from the lovely Roussillon, with the wines of the McGuigan stable. The wine and food were both excellent, and were a surprisingly decent match for each other (the best match being the unusual sesame seed biscuit on the dessert with the Botrytised Semillon). The foodies present will tell you more details about the food (I will include links below as they post), but the wines were very good and very different from the popular image of “Australian” wines (I’ve recorded some brief thoughts below – unusually for this blog, but couldn’t really not include this here). If you haven’t done so recently, check out premium (£15+ per bottle) wines from Australia’s cooler regions and see what you think.

It struck me what a fun, relaxed, knowledgable and entertaining guy Neil was, and it seems a shame that he does not have a way (at the moment) of sharing his views and personality directly with consumers. As I said after meeting Rod Eastman, winemaker at Craggy Range, at a similar event, these are guys that could teach us so much and I’d love to learn more about their wines, their country and their philosophy DIRECTLY from them, via social media if necessary, as I’m sure would many others.

I seem to be a stuck record on this, but it is becoming my “mission” to get winemakers and wine writers to embrace social media channels and give a boost to the range of voices and content about wine outside of the US. I remain hopeful! Look out for McGuigan TV coming soon (I hope)

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McGuigan Roussillon MenuOther posts about the lunch:

Mathildecuisine’s photos

Mathilde Cuisine post – France – Australia: A well-balanced match
Laissez Fare post – McGuigan goes Walkabout to Roussillon
The Wine Sleuth post: Neil McGuigan and his Handmade Shiraz at Roussillon
Spiltwine post: Find your perfect match without online dating

The stars were the wines we had with the food, namely:

  • Earth’s Portrait Eden Valley Riesling 2004: an evolved, kerosene nose and elegant Riesling, great body and honey edge too; worthy multiple-award winner
  • Bin 9000 Semillon 2003: crisp, fresh and zesty style, despite some age. Great food wine!
  • The Shortlist Coonawara Cabernet Sauvignon 2008: a touch herbal (leafy, sage) on the nose now, but still very young. Elegant tannins, very good
  • Handmade Langhorne Creek Shiraz 2008: amazingly soft, luscious forest fruit and balanced oak ageing – still a baby, but great wine
  • Personal Reserves Botrytis Semillon 2005: nice to taste a quality botrytis wine from Australia, made only in a few ‘lucky’ years. I love dessert/sweet wines and need to learn more about Australian offerings
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Would you like a dash of natamycin with that?

Chemicals
Image by stepbar via Flickr

“There could be a hint of natamycin in your wine.” Should you jump for joy, or jump away from the glass?

What if I told you there may be a trace of resveratrol? Drink up or Throw up?

What about knowing that isinglass, bentonite and copper sulphate had possibly been used in the making of your wine? Would that make you think: “Ooh! The wine maker cares that I get a fresh, clean and clear bottle every time, I’ll buy it!” or “Cripes! This wine is adulterated and manipulated. I couldn’t possibly drink this“?

There is a bit of a story brewing concerning the first item – Natamycin. This is a “fungicide and anti-microbial agent” that is allowed in some food stuffs in the EU, so at low doses is deemed to be fine for your health. Except, it is not listed as an allowable ingredient of wine, and therefore by (EU) definition is “banned”. It now appears that new testing methods, developed in Germany, are able to detect it, and they’ve identified it in several wines from Argentina, so the law says they cannot be sold.

[Poor Argentineans! Every time we think we might see more of their wines on sale, something happens to dash their hopes (I for one will continue to buy and drink Argentinean wines).]

So where does it come from and what does it mean? Who knows!?! (the source of this may be the real story)

I (personally) am going to operate on the assumption the ban is a mainly bureaucratic issue, that the substance is safe (at low levels) and that the issue will be more about wine making processes (and who might be cutting corners) rather than any real health scare.

But what about the bigger picture?

The bigger issue relates to those other items I mentioned. Which of these are good, and which are bad? Is the average consumer going to know? Or care?

There is a movement in the wine business that says that all wines should carry ingredient labelling (see what Bonny Doon are doing) just as most other food & drink products do. The question will be, will any consumer understand those ingredients, what they mean, and what the effects are? Are we defending the consumer, or simply confusing them “for their/our own good”?

Wine is a strange beast. In principle it is simple.

You take some grapes. You crush them. You let the yeast turn the sugar into alcohol. You filter the resulting alcoholic liquid and put it into bottles. You drink it.

Except the modern consumer demands certain reliable, high quality, clean wines, clear and without funny ‘floaty bits’, harmless or otherwise. Unfortunately, to achieve that, most wines go through a few processes that may leave mere ‘traces’, for which we need to invent new tests just to know they are there, of certain substances. Does the wine drinker need to know that? I’m not sure. As long as it is safe and fair (all wineries do more or less the same), is it necessary to know as long as it isn’t actually hidden?

I’m all for educating and informing consumers that want to know more, and 110% behind the idea of analysis to ensure what they drink is safe, but after that … ?

When the EU law changed and wines had to say “contains sulphites” I personally received several calls and emails from concerned consumers that their favourite tipple was now adulterated and “gave them headaches” when in fact nothing had changed, just the label.

In the near future, wine bottles will be “encouraged” (though I don’t think forced) to carry the pregnant-women-should-not-drink-alcohol symbol, a “responsible drinking” reminder, the usual legal source and content information, and the reminder that “this wine contains sulphites/sulfites”. I wonder how much further this will go, and whether, in a few years’ time, there will be any space left for the name of the wine maker and the name of the winery?

I hope that the reaction to this particular ‘event’ is not too bad for the Argentinean wine industry, and I also hope that common sense prevails. The rules in force are strong, the tests are in place and consumers are protected – let’s also hope that bureaucracy, even if well-intentioned, does not damage the wine industry for no particular gain.

What do you think? Would you like to see ALL ingredients listed on a wine label, or are you happy as things are? Do you trust the tests to keep you safe? What would you do with the information if it was provided? I look forward to hearing what you think of this issue

<end rant>

For the record:

  • resveratrol is, in theory, good – it is associated with positive effects on the heart … but there is the rest of the body to consider!
  • isinglass is used (by some) to get “bits” out of your wine, and all of it falls out of the wine (actually called ‘fining’) or is filtered out
  • bentonite is a clay that is a good filter for wine, nothing stays in the wine
  • copper sulphate is a bad substance on its own, but in tiny quantities can remove “off odours” (stinky, bad egg) from wines and is itself them removed too
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The value of a tasting note

Copyright symbol
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time, I even drafted a post, but recent events have prompted me to complete it.

What is a single tasting note worth?

Ryan Opaz of Catavino recently asked this question on twitter after a discussion we had, and it still has me thinking.

I suppose one could argue that tasting notes are worth exactly what you pay for them. In most cases, such as blogs, wine social networks and twitter, the answer is NOTHING. They are free! They are given away as they are shared by those tasting wines mainly for their own enjoyment.

But this is only part of the story. There are those sites that do charge to give you access to information such as tasting notes. In addition, even if consumers are not paying for tasting notes, that is not to say they are not “worth” something to someone.

Subscription Sites

There are sites where some of the key ‘value’ are the tasting notes on offer – not because they are tasting notes as such, but because they are buying advice (e.g. The Wine Gang) or “insider information” on the potential future value of premium wines (e.g. JancisRobinson.com on En Primeur)

There will always be a small number of people willing to pay for these sites to get this information rather than searching through multiple sites or waiting to personally taste wines they mean to buy – which may not even be possible. The question is whether there are enough of them to make a site profitable.

Social Networks

On the other hand, there are many social networks out there (e.g. Snooth, Adegga, etc.) where the tasting notes themselves are free content. They still represent value for people, but this is exchanged for attracting more friends & followers or becoming known as a reliable expert. The value is in social recognition, something some might call Whuffie or ‘Social Capital

And then there is the law …

What prompted me to write this today was the Decanter story that a journalist, Martin Isark, is suing Majestic for using his tasting note to promote a wine called “Cuvée de Richard Vin de Pays de l’Aude”. He wrote a note which apparently included the words “incredible value” in a newspaper in 2001 – and apparently Majestic have been using those words, attached to his name, ever since to promote subsequent vintages. So now, he is claiming £50,000 in damages for “‘false endorsements’ and ‘infringement of copyright’” to get them to stop according to the story (NB. I’m no lawyer, I’m only reporting information available on other sites).

Whilst I agree that the note is [arguably] false endorsement if they do not clearly show it was for a (much) older vintage, it makes you wonder how much Martin Isark thinks that endorsement is worth if the “damage” is £50,000 (as far as I know the UK law does not allow for punitive damages). I’m sure that Majestic will have sold some additional bottles of the back of the note, but that would be a LOT of bottles. And what about the benefits to Mr Isark (who, I must admit, I had not heard of before this incident)? He has had his name promoted to thousands of Majestic customers over the years – could he not have made something positive of this, offering to review (accurately and honestly) future vintages or more wines?

So, the question remains, how much is a tasting note worth?

Like any content, tasting notes have value and with the right ‘context’ there are ways to make them generate money for someone – let’s just hope it isn’t all for the lawyers, but for wine writers and drinkers instead!

[full disclosure: I am married to a lawyer, and benefit greatly from the good work that lawyers do :) ]

[UPDATE 20/11/09 14:23: On closer examination, Martin Isark answers the question on his website. The answer, at least for Martin Isark is: £15,000 PLUS 2% of sales as a royalty payment. This is astronomically high, and also makes one wonder about the potential ethical issues of journalists receiving royalties on related sales. Of course, he can name whatever price he wants, but I wonder whether anyone would really accept this value as realistic? If so, I need to start writing more tasting notes ;) ]

[UPDATE 20/11/09 14:27: inserted the word "arguably" in para 9 erroneously missed off original post!]

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The future of wine writing

Blogs and the future of wine writing

Blogs and the future of wine writing

I want to get a post up about my experiences of the Wine Future conference, but before I do that, I want to address something that has bothered me since the final session.

In that final session, Jancis Robinson said, in answer to a question about the future influence of blogs:

“… (there is a) huge generation of people … who are dying to communicate about wine and are very frustrated that dinosaurs like me, and my colleagues who write columns in the National Press, in Britain anyway, refuse to move out of our ‘slots’ and make room for them, so this is a natural place for a new wave of wine enthusiasm to communicate itself.” – Jancis Robinson, Wine Future 2009 (see mins 3:09 – 3:38 on the Vinus.tv video)

Someone else said pretty much the same thing to me at the EWBC.

I’d like to dispel that myth.

The vast majority of wine bloggers are not writing blogs because they are waiting, biding their time until they are “called” to take on the mantle of Wine Writer at the FT, Guardian, Sunday Times, etc.

There is a generation of wine lovers who are using the power of social media, through blogs, twitter, facebook, youtube, etc. to communicate their love of wine and their personal take on it. Some content is definitely better than others, and a very small percentage may be doing this with the goal of taking their place in the Circle of Wine Writers (as it exists today), but that is not what frustrates most of us.

I would argue that the frustration comes from the fact that we realise that there are lots of wine stories out there, whether from a consumer, producer or trade point of view, that the traditional media (mainly in printed formats) is incapable, or unwilling, to share. Instead of helping the wine industry, those respected, established writers who continue to make ‘old media’ their main/key/only platform, ensure that wineries and brands who might get involved with more creative, and arguably more effective, channels, are instead still wasting their money and effort on dead-end advertising.

Jancis, for the record, no-one I know thinks you are a dinosaur – quite the contrary! You are showing how it is possible for a wine writer to use the internet to VASTLY increase the number of wines and wineries you cover, whilst also building a business and a brand you can benefit from financially. We’d be ecstatic if more of your colleagues did the same, increasing the quality of online content, and giving consumers a greater chance to learn to love wine and wine culture.

We don’t want your job, we want you to want OUR jobs!

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