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Glorified Farming

SpoiledI was reminded of an important lesson in the wine business. Nature is in charge!

My family was given a present of the rental of a cherry tree (through a scheme with an orchard in Kent) where we can come down and pick all the cherries when ripe in exchange for paying for the upkeep of the plant in advance.

Two weeks ago, when a different variety of cherry was ripe and ready to pick, all was well. Unfortunately, a combination of rain and warm weather over the last week has meant that when our tree was due to be picked, mould had set in.

When we finally made it to our tree, for a family picking day with a picnic, I would estimate that 60-70% of the cherries were already affected by over-ripeness, mould or insect spoilage. Not fun. however, the truth is that a well managed cherry tree produces so much fruit that the little we collected was a LOT more than we need, so it was fine.

But, that’s not the end of the story.

We don’t mind. We don’t live off cherries (although my daughter would be happy to try). We only had 1 tree in an orchard of many thousand. But many of them were similarly affected. This farmer had been clever enough to shift the risk on to us by “renting” us the tree, but imagine if he had not. He would have had to sell the cherries themselves, and in that case 70% of his annual income might be lost due to bad weather.

This is the same for grape growers. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what effort, skill or investment you put into your vineyards, Nature is in charge. A single hailstorm, an unseasonal shower or two, or winds at the wrong time of year can ruin the entire crop. You would have nothing to show for your efforts at the end of the year.

As much as we develop the technology in the winery to make clean, reliable and safe wines, we are  TOTALLY dependent on Nature delivering us the grapes to make wine from, and if something goes wrong, there is no Plan B.

I often remind people that wine making is really just glorified farming. Today, I reminded myself too!

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A vintage experience

The recent Oyster & Champagne event at Galvin at Windows was a very interesting experience on several levels (see my previous post)

Firstly, on a personal level, I found the opportunity, and the ‘sense of occasion’, to try my first oysters extremely rewarding. I must say that I still don’t entirely see the attraction of oysters like this. Maybe I need to develop my palate for oysters (for example, one of the most popular was one of my least favourites, one I almost failed to swallow). I guess I have much still to explore. Thank you so much the the lovely people from Wright Brothers who did their best to try and educate me.

Next to the blind tasting of Champagnes, or as it turns out, a range of Sparkling Wines from France, Spain and England. Just in case it needed to be proven again, a blind tasting is a great leveller. Even the “experts” failed to spot that some of the wines were not “champagne”, so much so that these “other” wines will have surprised many of us. In fact, after tasting 8 wines, comparing notes around the tables, and adding all the results together, the top 3 “Champagnes” to match the oysters were:

  1. Gramona Vintage Cava 2000 – Spain
  2. Nyetimber Classic 2001 – England
  3. Galvin House Champagne – France

We didn’t collect the tasting notes, but I know that the Gramona was a pretty clear winner on our table and was mistaken for a top Champagne by a few. It was a nutty, biscuity, crisp and delicious. I must seek it out, but I have the feeling (like many great cavas) it is not available in the UK. Thank you so much to Bruno Murciano, Spanish Sommelier of the Year and now at Bibendum who provided this from his personal cellar I believe.

I think it was a great way to compare different styles of wine. In a way it was great to taste the wines blind so as not to bring in any prejudices (how many would have guessed a Cava would win?) but I also think it was a missed opportunity to talk about these different style to a broad audience. Maybe I’ll do that sometime.

From a Social Media perspective it was interesting to see the convergence of twitter, blogging and live streaming (courtesy of WorldTV on There were a lot of things to learn and share at this event, almost too many. It was hard to move from kearning about oysters, to tasting wines blind and also sharing some of the experience of dining in a great restaurant with wonderful views. In the end we were a little rushed, but it was still a great experience and fun to meet up with lots of friends.

If you want to read more, read some of the twitter archive here, as well as some of these bloggers’ posts (updated as I find more):

Trusted Places
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Enough is Enough: a pricing rant

I was working on how to write this properly, then realised I have yet to try to use video more effectively (and it was faster!), so I recorded some thoughts (woefully unprepared) on Seesmic instead.

Here is the video. I think you need to register to leave a video comment (please do, I’d love to get some) but you can also leave me your written thoughts on this post.

If you want to join the OLN “Enough is Enough” campaign, text ‘Enough’ to 82055 (in the UK)

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Excuse me while I go exploring

So what do a top-class restaurant, a wine bar and a designer/bespoke tailor have in common with wine? Well, for the first two it is obvious, but the answer is not quite that simple.

If you follow me on twitter you will have seen me in conversation with @galvinatwindows, @vinoteca and @simonblaqua a fair bit recently, and you might even be forgiven for assuming I was running their PR in some way. I thought it fair, therefore, in the interests of full disclosure which I am so very keen on, to tell you a little bit more about why.

Having ‘evangelised’ about blogs, facebook and now twitter in the wine trade for several years now, it is very exciting to see so many businesses I deal with in my “day job” really beginning to listen to what Social Media can do for them. Now, instead of blank stares or laughs (or worse) when I mention what I do online, people are starting to ask my advice.

I don’t “consult” professionally about these things (although you never know what tomorrow brings) so generally speaking I’m happy to sit down with them and share my thoughts on what they could do. In most cases it is a bit of harmless chat, but in some cases these new friends jump headlong into social media and start to do really exciting things.

@galvinatwindows is the GM of a great restaurant, chic, well regarded and frequented by all sorts of celebrities, rich hotel guests and adventurous London foodies with a head for heights. He doesn’t “need” social media to make a splash, but he has embraced it wholeheartedly and is organising special tours, dinners, cocktail competitions, tastings and menus and promoting them through twitter in particular. Wow!

@vinoteca was recently voted “Wine Bar of the Year 2009″ – they too don’t need more publicity as such, but they too are embracing social media as a way to have better conversations with the kind of people who love their wine concept – which includes me.

@simonblaqua is a clothing designer who works with performers like Alabama 3 and has also designed things for rock royalty (I’m sworn to secrecy, so you’ll have to ask him). I was simply a customer, until I used his bespoke tailoring skills to create my Moocket shirt. Now he too is excited about starting a bespoke tailoring conversation with customers and those with interests in bespoke design. I will be supporting this by helping to host an evening of wine & design on 13 March (more soon) – but mainly because I’m getting excited about the idea as a consumer, not for “business” reasons.

There is a blurred line here, I admit. Some of these people I meet because I work in the wine business, and they might even be current or future customers, but I write about them now because I think that what they are doing is very brave, very exciting, and hopefully interesting – and tangentially related to wine culture for a variety of reasons specific to each one.

I hope to keep bringing you stories like these as I explore what is happening with the people and businesses I come across, and I trust you’ll find these interesting enough to bear with me here and on twitter.

If you have any interesting stories of bars, restaurants or designers using social media (bonus points for making it relevant to wine culture), please leave me a comment.

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Open minds for troubled times

Come on in for an interview!
Image by tommy forbes via Flickr

I’ve reported, commented and complained before on this blog about how the UK government treats consumers and business when it comes to alcohol.

My position has usually been one of incredulity, cynicism and anger at the decisions being taken by politicians, in particular when it comes to taxation of alcohol.

I’d like to extend an offer to a politician or civil servant to explain to me, in person, what this country’s government is doing, and why.

I was prompted to write this post by the announcement that a UK parliamentary committee was to be set up to examine:

… alcohol-related health problems and the consequences of these for the NHS, plus the role of the alcohol industry, police and government departments in addressing alcohol-related harm. [as well as] … examine “whether the drinking culture in England should change, and, if so, how”. (from just-drinks)

Just my sort of question!

Governments and politicians like to be SEEN to be doing something, no matter how ineffective in practice. In general, I do believe that politicians are scared of talking sense about alcohol (or many matters of real personal choice for that matter) and governments are quite happy to continue to be able raise lots of money from a ‘sin tax‘.

The problem is that the government has become dependent on the money raised from Duty on alcohol. They couch their revenue generation as a “strategy” to combat alcohol abuse whilst damaging businesses that could help to change people’s attitudes to alcohol and still, in my opinion, not doing nearly enough to address the underlying causes of that abusive behaviour.

I think many in the wine business in particular would probably agree.

HOWEVER, I will also admit that my experience is limited. I work with great wines, wines made by people who care about their product and which is sold mainly to those who appreciate them. I don’t have much day to day experience of the front line of a binge-drinking culture that I admit does exist in places in this country.

So I’d like to extend an offer to a politician or civil servant to explain to me, in person, what this country’s government is doing, and why. I don’t want a press release, I want a discussion. I’m prepared to post the results on here, either as a new post or in the comments. I would even consider filming a meeting and putting it on the blog for others to view.

Is that you? Or maybe, you know someone who could come along to chat? Let them know!

I am not a campaigner with an agenda as such. I’m not promising those who agree with me to be the best prepared, most vocal champion of the alcohol business (there are people like the WSTA for that). I am not a politician, nor expert debater. However, the government needs to convince me, and people like me, if we are to support their current approach, and if they can’t, then listen to us about finding another way forward.

I’ll even give you an idea of the questions:

  1. What evidence is there that high duty rates stop young people from drinking too much?
  2. What meaningful dialogue can you point to that shows you admit that alcohol consumption is a perfectly acceptable part of our society & culture in moderation? Have  you ever done anything other than preach?
  3. By focusing on the price/cost mechanic, are you not damaging small, independent importers/retailers who might engender a respect/appreciation for alcohol, and instead driven people to the multiple grocers, with their massive purchasing power to offset that duty cost, where no such education takes place?
  4. Is the excess consumption of alcohol not more closely related to opportunity IN GENERAL, rather than opportunity to buy alcohol? Would fewer kids get blind drunk if you inspired them with alternatives for their time & effort, rather than chastising them?
  5. What about the law-abiding middle classes of moderate consumers who are being criticised for their alcohol consumption? Where is the data to back your 21 units safe limit campaign?

These are just some of the questions off the top of my head. If you have any others you’d like to ask, let me know.

So, then, who’s willing to try and convince me? There’s a chair waiting!

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