Archive - Comment RSS Feed

As my Riesling gently weeps

Wine glass and guitar

Ready for musical accompaniment

Riesling. It’s like the wine world in microcosm.

Wine experts love it but cannot understand why consumers don’t go gaga over it, but ultimately this is our fault.

Consumers have heard about it, and when it is poured in their glasses really do enjoy it, but feel confused by its many styles, provenances and the ways it is presented. However, it ends up with a depressingly familiar tale, with an elegantly circular argument:

1. Wine experts wax lyrical over the amazing complexities and variety (of Riesling) …

2. Consumers hear too many conflicting messages, get confused about the overall concept and cannot internalise the information, so ignore it …

3. Wine experts decide that their favourite grape is underappreciated and decide to promote it, so … [Go To 1.]

The BIG problem is that saying “Riesling is great” is that it is a bit like saying “Guitar music is great”. Of course there is great guitar music, no-one would disagree, but if I pick some at random am I going to get Rock, Classical, Jazz, Blues, Rock & Roll, Folk, Heavy Metal, …

When complexity in wine is bad

The wine industry ignores this complication because they have lived in the world of wine for so long that they (we) see the myriad of styles as a positive feature, but for regular consumers it is a complication, a confusion, and ultimately a negative feature.

It means that the wine world sees the success of Australian Rieslings as a sign that consumers are rediscovering the grape, but they are left wondering why Germany and Alsace are still not benefitting.

The point is that the buyers of “Rock Guitar” Aussie, lime-citrus, steely, dry, crisp Riesling are not at all interested in the “Jazz Guitar” Alsatian honey-and-nuts Riesling, nor the “Classical Guitar” of German floral, citrus, mineral and high acid Riesling.

They buy Australian Riesling because Australia Rocks! and “Australia” in many cases trumps “Riesling”.

I obviously exaggerate and oversimplify, there are many styles of wine in each of these regions, but consumers don’t know this detail, so most work from limited experience and “common knowledge” models.

Common knowledge tells you that Riesling is sweet, cloying and stuff that is best left to the 1970′s.

Common knowledge may very well be wrong.

Common knowledge is VERY hard to change.

Let’s face it, for Riesling (and Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and many more, if not most, varieties) “varietal labelling” is a misleading simplification anyway. It doesn’t say anything really useful, or relevant, about what the consumer will experience from this bottle.

You cannot convince an audience that is not listening. Until the message we send resonates with the ultimate consumer, it will continue to be ignored. Wine writers need to find a way to write about Jazz Guitar for Jazz lovers, not sell the instrument to all. It means we have to understand the consumer much better, and speak to them directly, not shout and hope to be heard.

Some varieties are guitars, let’s play accordingly.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Art & Craft of Natural Wine

“… if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing: and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out comes all his roughness, all dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure; pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only when we see the clouds settling upon him. And whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.”

- John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice 1851

I’ve been trying to get my head around Natural Wine for a while. It’s not so as to understand the wines or what certain winemakers are trying to do, but why it creates such animosity and argument. If you will indulge me a moment, I’d like to put forward a way of looking at this which involves a sci-fi film, 19th century wallpaper designs and the Dynasties of Port wine which I look forward to discussing with producers and consumers at both upcoming ‘natural’ fairs – RAW (The Artisan Wine Fair) and The Real Wine Fair.

Jasmine block-printed wallpaper designed by Wi...

Jasmine block-printed wallpaper designed by William Morris. (Details from Linda Parry, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement: A Sourcebook, 1989.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do not want to be drawn into the debate over the term “Natural” to describe this end of the wine spectrum. I feel it is as good a title as any, and in any case, I believe this term will soon/eventually disappear. This style of wine will survive, we will just think of it differently. I am not arguing for one side or another, but I do think we should support a range of viewpoints.

Like most wine discussions, arguments about Natural Wine mainly revolve around the liquid in the bottle – how it gets there, what it tastes like, and what it should be called. This seems logical, after all, we are interested in wine, right?

In fact, I would argue that it is not.

Taste IS a personal thing, and one can like or hate individual bottles, but this is not the same thing as appreciating the motivation behind how they were made. I personally don’t like (any) cheese, but I do appreciate the craft of cheese-making.

The ‘features’ of the Natural Wine movement include: a focus on sourcing organically grown materials, minimising the human inputs and interactions with these materials in the winery, and attempting to bottle a liquid that expresses a unique character associated with the grape and the place it comes from. These are all laudable aims, but they are also open to measurement and criticism, which is what occurs.

We’ve come to accept organic viticulture as rational, but there are always choices to be made on details, such as ripeness for picking. Then, what counts as “intervention”, when in fact, as even Doug Wregg has pointed out, there’s no such thing as natural wine, only natural vinegar? And finally, when the resulting wine smells unlike any other wine on the market, is this to be interpreted as a fault, as a character of the terroir usually filtered out by technology, or simply a winemaker’s preference?

The two sides of the debate will argue these points interminably, but because they are seeing the argument from different perspectives, they will never agree. I believe that a little reframing of the discussion, might, if you will excuse the pun, bear more fruit.

“… we now have discrimination down to a science.” – Gattaca (1997)

In the general market, we have come to accept the role of technology [in its broadest sense - as the application of scientific knowledge] to allow us to consume with consistency, quality and reliability. This is true not just in wine, but across the board. Wineries proudly announce the technical qualifications of their wine-making staff and their latest investments in machinery.  They adopt ever more clever, innovative and ‘scientific’ practices to remove variability caused by nature and human error when making their wines in order to achieve these perceived values for the consumer. When they do come across issues, even ones such as environmental responsibility, they ‘fix’ them with more technology – lighter bottles, recyclable plastic, alternative energy and so on. Science begets more science.

This is the underpinning to quality marks such as “Parker Points”, Gold Medals and sweetness scales; it is taken for granted that we are all consuming the same product so we can measure these wines and judge them. If it ticks the boxes, it is good. If it strays from the accepted scales, it is bad.

From this perspective, Natural Wine is at fault. Like a brilliant child who has grown up wild without attending school, he fails the standardised test. In the great terms of reference of the film Gattaca, he’s an (in)valid. As the ambitious Vincent Freeman, conceived ‘naturally’ by parents who could have had him ‘specified’ from the lab, but who still wants to head into space, says:

“I’ll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God’s hands, rather than her local geneticist.”

Do we want wine lists made up from ‘perfected’ interpretations of wines, or do we want them to be varied and evolving, capable not only of fault, but of greatness?

Truth to Material

As I was vividly reminded when watching Zev Robinson’s latest wine documentary, “Life on the Douro” recently, making wine is just as much to do with the interaction of people and places as it is about the liquid that ends up in the bottle. Natural Wine should not argue over levels of sulphur, tannin or VA or whether a wine is ‘better’ because it was made in a clay pot. It seems to me that instead it is driven by a rejection of these technological terms of reference.

Arts and Crafts Armchair

Arts & Crafts Armchair at V&A Museum

The Natural Wine movement is not the first to take this approach, and looking at other experiences might be able to teach us lessons. The Arts & Crafts movement famously did much the same for design and architecture in the late 19th Century. John Ruskin and William Morris may not be names you are familiar with, but they too were reacting to a society falling for technology (the Industrial Revolution) and argued that the division of labour and reliance on machinery was damaging society. They argued for design to be “true to its materials” and avoid unnecessary ornamentation or fakery, for the designer-craftsman to be involved in the product at all stages (hand-making everything), and for a return to ‘craft’ production instead of machine precision. It is really not hard to see the parallels with wine.

Let’s compare an IKEA chair with a craft-made kitchen chair. Both are used for sitting on, but they are different, not because of exactly how they were made, but because of what they mean to us. One is a disposable, mass-produced consumer good to be replaced when it inevitably falls apart (it must, they need us to buy again); the other is an heirloom, a piece of furniture and art to be treasured, and one whose minor flaws are integral to its story.

Even if this is true, there is always a time and place for both approaches, and no reason for being absolutist. There’s space in our life for IKEA kitchens and 3L bag-in-box wine as well as Morris & Co Wallpapers and Qvevri wines.

Arts & Crafts did not survive for long, but it did matter. It failed in large part because although craft production is attractive, it is not commercial – it doesn’t scale. There are only so many tables & chairs you can make each year if you have to do every stage yourself, and they become expensive. Natural Wine faces the same issue. But the ideas behind Arts & Crafts did inspire others to change, to make more honest products, to think of the people and societies who made and consumed the products they were creating. This movement inspired designers like Charles Rennie Mackintosh and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bauhaus movement and still influences thinking today.

But will it age well?

You can convince someone to want to taste a bottle of Port by telling them a story about carving vineyards out of steep rocky valleys, shipping wines up and down treacherous rivers and across dangerous seas, and the huge wealth and desperate ruin that families experienced as a result, without once having to mention what the wine tastes like.

Taste is only a part of the consumer experience, but the process can be important if it is part of the context and the experience.

If we accept this, then it won’t matter how it is made on either end of the spectrum, and we can get on with focusing on the people and the story, and the impact, of the wine.

I honestly believe that the term “Natural Wine” will eventually disappear because once this extreme of the wine world is accepted and less radical, once its principles have been more widely adopted and reinterpreted, it will be meaningless as a differentiator. I look forward to new terms and movements emerging, and the wine trade should support this, not fight it.

It will have been a success because a small group of people encouraged us to see the world of wine differently and reach for the clouds.

[Disclosure: Vrazon has agreed to attend the RAW Fair to run the "Access Zone Unfiltered" social media space during the event in 2012, and we look forward to listening and learning about different views on these wines, and tasting wines. This post is not meant as promotion for one event or another however]

Enhanced by Zemanta

A re-telling of a wine fairytale

This story has been put together in a sustainable way from recycled & organic tales collected from around the world, and  its morals are entirely a product of indigenous references. Consume in moderation

Illustration from The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Illustration from The Pied Piper of Hamelin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time, there was an old man who had been a respected winemaker, but his intended bride had pricked her finger on a screwcap in her youth and fallen into a long, deep sleep. In his depression, the man had fallen on hard times. Few liked any of his wines any more and he was down to his last basket of grapes. All seemed doomed.

He went to bed that night, dejected. Unbelievably, he awoke the next day to discover that a magic elf flown in, and had been toiling all night and transformed his grapes into delicious wines using a “micro-oxygenation” spell. The man was overjoyed and with the money made selling that wine, he bought more grapes which the elf would transform, … and business boomed.

In time, the old man became so successful that he built the most fantastic winery, designed along Feng Shui principles with fermentation tanks fashioned after Dragon’s Eggs. His winery kept attracting more and more elves to make, design and package his wines, and the wines became hugely attractive, sought-after and collectable.

This posed a problem for the old man. All the wines being made now were  fantastically bejewelled, exotically styled and devilishly expensive. His regular customers could no longer afford to shop from him, so he turned to others for help.

The old man was canny. He decided to engage the services of wine merchants Rump & Stiltskin to sell the wines with the slogan “we turn your wine investments into gold”. He also hired Fay Reega, of the PR firm “Mother”, to invite the right sorts of people to a lavish annual Ball that was to be decorated and stage-managed by a couple of weavers whose incredible new material only fools could not see.

Success was guaranteed … as long as people would come.

Fortunately for them, a young piper from the Land of Mary came passing through town. He not only had a magical tasting instrument, but was also well versed in numerology. His magical instrument could turn the merest sip of wine into a charming song, and anyone who heard his number chanting would follow him wherever he went.

And so it was to pass. The date of the Ball was set for early April. The stage was (apparently) decorated. Other musicians and entertainers from all over the world came to lead the procession behind the Piper, and the old man and representatives of Rump & Stiltskin awaited, haggling over the future spoils, in their castles by the river.

The procession wound its way slowly around the castles of the region, picking up more and more of the rich and powerful as it went, heading towards the main event, whilst spectators, too poor to afford the gowns and the wines, and not in possession of the golden tickets, watched on, bemused from the sidelines.

At the stroke of 12, more specifically 2012, things started to go wrong.

The famous Piper decided he’d had enough and threatened to stop and rest. The other musicians from around the world tried to keep the procession moving, but it had only been the Piper’s magic number chant that had enthralled the crowds. The stage, it turned out, had not been decorated after all, Fay Reega’s magic golden tickets changed back into mere RyanAir vouchers, and people woke up and starting demanding the names behind Rump & Stiltskin in order to get their money back.

The fantastically expensive wines were locked in a vault, untouched, undrunk, unloved.

And while everyone was distracted, a handsome young writer appeared from behind a computer and kissed the sleeping beauty, who awoke from her long slumber and decided that she too wanted to make great wines, … but this time, with no elves.

Someone, somewhere, lived happily ever after.

The End?

Enhanced by Zemanta

The tools for wine tasting success

Circuit board of a computerIn a MASSIVE oversimplification, animated largely by its dichotomous elegance, I suggest that there are two different approaches to wine tasting & sharing the experience.

It isn’t really about palate as I believe that pretty much anyone can taste wines. It isn’t background and upbringing, although experience over time does help. In fact, I believe that there is a difference in how people’s brains work that affects how they approach wine tasting.

First, there are the those who remember things. They catalogue, analyse, store, compare, measure and digest. I like to think of this group as the “Hard Disks” of the wine trade. If you’ve been to wine events you will know the type. They taste a wine, analyse it, then are able to compare it to previous vintages (at several stages of their development), tell you how that particular year’s weather may have affected the taste profile, or how a change in the winery’s staff or processes since then might have changed the wine.

These are the type of people who believe they can objectively assess a wine on a rating scale, be it 5, 10, 20 or 100 points.

The other approach, in my black & white universe, are the “Processors“. These people do not store much information, but learn how things work, they look for connections, patterns and relationships. These people are, frankly, fairly useless when it comes to wine recommendations, assessing wine qualities and generally doing the stuff wine people do. This group are more easily swayed by interesting stories, new trends, personal interests and “entertainment”.

The wine business was built by the Hard Disks. Knowing the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of all  the wines that mattered was not only important, but possible.

However, the massive recent rise in quality of production and international trade has made the all-knowing expert a rarity indeed. The fact that “good” wines can now come from anywhere, and that more consumers are determining what they consider “good”, means that what differentiates wines is not so much the composition of their patch of dirt, but the story around it.

What might make someone a successful wine taster today is not the ability to rate and compare a wine, but to communicate a uniqueness in a wine in a way that matters to a group of consumers. Social Media is all about that communication and interaction, and a place where “Processors” might be at an advantage.

Of course, life is not beautifully, elegantly black & white, but a swirling maelstrom of patterned greyness, where no-one is really one or the other exclusively and we all need a bit of both. I suspect that even those who reached the pinnacle of wine trade achievement, as a Master of Wine, are not one or other (but they are not necessarily both). There are not too many social goldfish or data-crunching automatons walking the aisles of wine fairs, but hopefully you will recognise a grain of truth in these caricatures.

I am definitely a Processor, in fact I suspect my own Hard Disk may actually be faulty. I fail miserably if anyone asks me for a specific wine recommendation, but I LOVE to sit with them to explore what they like, where they shop and what excites them about wine in order to give them some general buying tips that will help them in the longer run. As the old saying (sort of) goes:

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will sit in a boat and drink (wine) all day.

Which are you, Hard Disk or Processor? If you are a wine business, what are you doing to make the  most of this change? Is your communication all about the “what”, or is it about the WHYconsumers should care?

Enhanced by Zemanta

Bordeaux: the biggest joke in the wine world?

Norman Wisdom Laughing

Image via Wikipedia

Something about the 2011 campaign told me that the Mea Culpas would come out this year – and I have a feeling I might be right. ‘We were arrogant,’ says Chateau Lafite MD Christophe Salin of last year’s wine pricing (and ‘timing’ – for which read ‘handling’).

And I think we can expect more of this in the run-up to the 2011 barrel tastings. Lots of hand-wringing and apologies and staunch, almost stoic, approaches to the current release. Yes, we behaved like greedy pigs, we’re sorry, we were shown the errors of our ways, now we can all look at the 2011 vintage with clean, clear, tear-dried eyes and tell the world that it needs to buy it. Fine, life as usual – only a little bit cheaper and with a bit more sober reflection.

But to those Chinese (I keep being told it was them that snapped up all the Bordeaux over the last few years but I’ll happily accept they weren’t the only dupes) and let’s also include all those billionaires, bankers and moneyed social pariahs from all continents, will you indulge me while I stick your noses in the H-word and rub you around in it?

The H-word is, of course, History. It’s out of fashion these days – and vastly underrated – but think about some of what the past now tells us:

1 - All this talk about Bordeaux En Primeur pricing reflecting the market is nonsense. If this year’s En Primeur campaign has already started with apologies, it isn’t because the Bordelais think that people will be less willing to part with stupid money for a bottle of wine, it’s because previous pricing has got them into a sticky and delayed situation. If – as lots of people used to claim – Bordeaux pricing (through the tranche system, etc.) simply adjusted to the market at the time of release, no one would be apologising and so publically self-flagellating in Bordeaux right now (see also John Kolasa’s bizarre ‘I have to follow the line’ statement – was that really passed by his bosses or was this a cry from the depths of the Bordeaux beast’s bowels?). No, this is happening because something from the past (ie. pricing policy) has come back to haunt them. Bordeaux pricing bears no reality to the real world – otherwise how could they be ‘arrogant’? And even if, in your tiny little mind, you think Bordeaux pricing reflects the market and is a perfect system, you surely must admit it’s quite clearly a very delayed system.

2 - Also think back to this time (and quite before) last year. Remember the Bordelais were already talking up the 2010 vintage. Not so this year. If one was exceptionally cynical, one might draw the conclusion that perhaps all this talk of past arrogance and inflated prices is only a ruse to sell a less-than-stellar vintage to an already bored/saturated market. But who would be so ungracious as to believe that?

3 - But it’s not just those in Bordeaux whose history we shouldn’t ignore. Look at the journalists and wine writers. They too are likely to re-hash a lot of this château-owner apologise-to-sell stuff. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of stringent opinions about past Bordeaux pricing policy come out of the woodwork over the next few weeks (to be fair to some writers, concerns were already being voiced last year). At this rate, my past writings and rants on wine-life.co.uk will soon take on what can only be called the blandness of the self-evident. But attacking Bordeaux pricing policy a few years ago felt like the occupation of a lonely and disenfranchised minority. Sure, a lot of wine writers weren’t happy with the prices many châteaux were charging, but they weren’t doing anything about it. Some were even encouraging you to buy this over-priced plonk. If these Mea Culpas from the châteaux continue, expect it to sound like wine critics were on the side of the consumer all along – that they always thought Bordeaux pricing was greedy and were doing everything in their power to tell the consumer, to let him or her know, and to fight the good fight. As I have illustrated many times on my blog before, they weren’t – and if they start to make such pronouncements, they should be held to account. At the very least, many were complicit in their silence. And if, on the back of their previous huge points and ravings, you bought several cases of greedily over-priced claret from them, pray ask yourself what you think their job is and whether you should be following them.

I don’t think we should forget this notion of using the past to inform the present (and even the future) – and I’m not talking about this kind of glossy “we were greedy last year but let’s move on and try the sensibly priced 2011″. I’m talking about actually taking some lessons from it.

Paul Pontallier said Margaux 2011 was ‘excellent’. Which is fine – he can say that and mean it at the time – (so can journalists…Parker can distribute 100 points to wines a case of which is more than many peoples’ salaries and then later – or in some cases even at the same time – tell people it’s overpriced).

But if, say, these qualifications somehow change over time, you then have to ask how much importance is to be attributed to their words in the future. I, for instance, doubt Pontallier means 2011 is ‘excellent’ like 2010 was ‘excellent’ but that’s not really the point; the point is that while we would probably forgive him if he changed his mind over the next few months, we have to then ask why we are giving his pronouncements (if they turn out to be untrue) any credence now and in the future.

Bordeaux is now basically a joke – not funny ha-ha – but a travesty of the wine world. It’s a joke that everyone bar the person who buys the wine is in on. And all it takes to realise this is a half-decent memory, a questioning nature and a look at the facts. In fact, a longer-term memory tells you that this kind of thing happens in Bordeaux in almost perfect 10 year cycles. Some more regular cycles have taken on the regularity of tradition, namely that of wine merchants ask for a reduction in Bordeaux prices in the run up to En Primeur. Strangely, though, they still put the stuff up for sale.

A final point: I can be attacked (quite fairly and justly) along the lines of not understanding that in today’s ‘western’ society what something is worth is up to the consumer (a sort of ‘if they’re rich enough and stupid enough to buy it, let them’). I have a great deal of sympathy for this line of thought. However, if you want to stop speculation (as, apparently, lots of wine lovers do) you don’t do it by thinking (or even saying) these wines are too expensive while at the same time adding to their cachet by covering them in drooling press, gushing video interviews and slapping a huge score on them. No one has the excuse to be so short-sighted anymore.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Page 2 of 2«12