The problem of tasting

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The problem of tasting

Last week, I wrote 465 tasting notes on (mostly) red wines from the 2016 vintage in the southern Rhône. This is less of a boast than a plea for sympathy. At an average of 116 per day, it was an onslaught on the senses, and brought up the perennial problem of how to taste wine in the most efficient yet fair manner.

This applies to any tasting situation, but is especially pertinent for en primeur tasting. With young southern Rhône reds, the volume of alcohol, tannin and fruit quickly becomes problematic. The result is a seriously impeded ability to assess every wine properly. Tannin build-up leaves the mouth parched and astringent, alcohol dumbs cognition, and flavours start becoming samey. And on top of all this, there is the increasing difficulty of writing notes which are concise, informative and avoid excess repetition.

After 50-60 wines the cumulative effect is very challenging. I know - oh, boo-hoo. Professionals should surely be able to get used to it and get the job done. But in my experience, the impact of alcohol and tannin on the senses doesn't lessen with increased exposure. Tasting a large set of reds is always going to present the same problem.

The simplest solution - to taste fewer wines in each session - is not practicable. There is comfortably enough time in the day to take more than 120 tasting notes, so stopping after 60 would mean leaving half a day unused. When you are in a region to taste the new vintage (and already taking two weeks to do so), this would be too inefficient.

I'd like to propose a solution.

But unfortunately, I can't think of one. The current system is how the wine trade has operated for generations - if there was a better way, it would almost certainly have been introduced already. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be discussed and thought about - it will certainly be on my mind when I go back to the Rhône on Monday morning to spend another week tasting 2016s.

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Rhôneward-bound to taste en primeur

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Rhôneward-bound to taste en primeur

Today I'm heading to Châteauneuf-du-Pape to start a fortnight of tasting the 2016 vintage across the entire Rhône Valley. I will be writing tasting notes (approximately 1,000 in total) and reports for JancisRobinson.com - the first time I've covered the region in this way.

I've always loved Northern Rhône Syrah - in fact, this is my default answer to the question 'what's your favourite wine' - but have only come to love the Grenache-based reds of the south more recently. Since Jancis asked me to cover Rhône en primeur for JancisRobinson.com, I've paid much more attention to southern Rhône reds so that I have better understanding of them.

The last time I visited the region was 2014 (I took the above photograph in Cornas) but thankfully I'm travelling with somebody who goes much more frequently. Matt Walls is an experienced Rhône expert, and I've been able to piggyback on the schedule he has put together, based on the programme he has followed for several years now. The basic format is generic tastings every morning, where samples are sent by producers to be tasted en masse, followed by visits to specific producers in the afternoon. We've got some great names lined up: Jamet, Chapoutier, Sorrel, Chave, Guigal, Vernay, Rayas, Clos des Papes and more.

Lots has been written about the benefits and pitfalls of tasting en primeur. Tasting in excess of 100 wines every day is certainly not ideal, but it is something you get used to with practice. Besides, intensive tasting is the best way to get a comprehensive impression of the vintage.

Thankfully, 2016 has produced some great wines in the Rhône, and I'm looking forward to being able to discover them all in greater detail.

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Writing a book part 25 - redrafting

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Writing a book part 25 - redrafting

It's all complete crap, of course. That's what every novelist thinks when reading back their work. Right?

It certainly is in my case, since I've started editing the first draft of my book, which I finished last month, after 21 months of writing. In the process, I found out how much the book will cost: £29.80, the price of printing and binding it at Mail Boxes Etc. Not much room for profit on top of that.

first draft.jpg

And while it's exciting to have something printed, there is still loads to do before it's ready for the next phase - whatever that is. Sending it to agents? Publishers?

Anyway, there's at least entire one chapter that I need to write, because I somehow forgot to write it first time round. And I might completely rewrite chapter one, which I don't think sets the right tone for the book at all, and involves a few characters who don't appear at all in the rest of the novel.

It's also clear that I will need to work on the characterisation to make it more consistent. When Freddie Farnham first appears, he is talkative and slightly arrogant, but by the end he is thoughtful and sensitive. I'd love to say that's a journey that the character goes on, but in reality it's inconsistent characterisation.

I suspect there is much more descriptive work in the early part of the book too. I think I must have used up all my similes and metaphors in the first half, whereas the second half is much more functional and prosaic. Again, I want to be consistent in style. 

So, it's all complete crap - apart from the bits which aren't too bad, and perhaps even a few bits that I think are rather good. It's quite nice to re-read an entire book and come across passages which I don't remember writing at all, and which hold up pretty well.

There is much more to be done, of course. I was envisaging having a finished second draft by Christmas, but some of the rewriting seems like it might require longer than that. Furthermore, my word count is only 61,000 - 19k short of my initial target, which is very annoying. At my average rate of 300 words per day, reaching that target would take another 12 weeks at least. 

Still, it's taken me two years to get this far, so what's the rush?

 

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Everything I wrote in September

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Everything I wrote in September

Phew, busy month! That's my only excuse for not writing more blogs here, but I'm still just about managing one a week. There's plenty of other stuff going on - including more episodes of A Glass With coming soon.

Oh yes, and I won a Roederer Award this month! You are now reading the words of the Online Wine Communicator of the Year, no less.

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Assuring the Future of Wine: a manifesto

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Assuring the Future of Wine: a manifesto

Explanatory note: this post has been prompted by the current debate between the anti-alcohol lobby and the wine industry. It has been running for several years now, but is becoming increasingly prominent.

I believe it's the most important and potentially damaging long-term issue the industry is facing.

So far, the arguments from both sides have tended to be antagonistic and unconstructive. Such impassioned rhetoric polarises the debate, and makes it much harder to have rational discussion.

My manifesto is intended to be conciliatory, realistic and discursive. It's a way to promote reasonable, respectful and open-minded discussion about a topic which has become increasingly combative. 

It might be naive, but it's worth a shot.

Assuring the Future of Wine: a manifesto

  • We believe that wine is a drink with unique and irreplaceable cultural, social and artistic value, which deserves preservation and protection.
  • We also believe that alcohol in wine can cause serious harm to the health of the individual, and of society as a whole.
  • We make no claims regarding any purported health benefits of wine. This is because studies on the effects of alcohol on health, whether positive or negative, are now so numerous and contradictory that they have become impotent, distracting and counter-productive.
  • We believe that the best way to tackle alcohol abuse is in collaboration. However, the implicit bias of wine industry bodies and religious groups means they should not be given undue prominence in the debate.
  • Our goal is to preserve and protect wine, not just as an invaluable work of human ingenuity, but as an industry that supports many people around the world, especially in rural communities that rely on wine to make a living.
  • We acknowledge that the wine industry has a responsibility to combat the harm that alcohol can cause.
  • Consequently, we are open to all options that aim to help reduce alcohol-related damage, but we oppose any legislation that will unduly compromise or restrict the enjoyment and culture of wine in our society in general.

The wine industry and the anti-alcohol movement often seem to have irreconcilable objectives. This opposition has resulted in significant ill-feeling but little progress, if any.

Both factions need to admit the merits of the other's arguments, and to stop relying on contradictory studies and statistics. If we are to combat the harm caused by alcohol while ensuring the future prosperity of wine, we need to reframe the debate; to extend an olive branch. This manifesto is an attempt to do exactly that.

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Writing a book part 24 - finishing the first draft

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Writing a book part 24 - finishing the first draft

After a summer hiatus, I've started writing the final chapter of my book. The plot is still holding together, I think, and I know exactly what I have to wrap up. I want it to be unambiguous and satisfying, but I also want it to be realistic, and fiction plotting can feel a bit pat when all the loose ends get conveniently tied up together.

As well as resolving the main storyline, I want the love story to come together too. It's a straightforward girl-meets-boy romance, and (spoiler alert) they get together at the end. However, conveying strong emotional feeling is probably the thing I find hardest without resorting to didacticism. 

This isn't helped by being impatient to finish. I'm well aware of how much rewriting is going to be necessary, because I have looked back into various chapters to remind myself of what I had already written, and found plenty of writing that I dislike. In fact, it's very easy to convince yourself that large parts of the book, or perhaps even all of it, is complete rubbish - so I try not to dwell on that too much. 

Either way, by the end of next week, I should have completed the final chapter. I will then combine all the separate chapters into one document, print it out and start editing it - on the printed page at first, rather than on screen. I'd like to have a redrafted version ready by Christmas, at which point I will have to decide what to do next ...

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Why it matters that wine gets you drunk

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Why it matters that wine gets you drunk

Last night, I delivered a short speech at the launch event for the 2018 Masters of Wine Symposium. The idea was for a group of wine trade people to talk about something important and potentially controversial in an irreverent way. Here's a rough transcript of what I said.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a shocking confession to make. As I stand here before you, wobbling somewhat on this precarious soapbox, I am drunk. Perhaps only slightly, but there is no question that I am under the influence of alcohol. Indeed, every person in this room drinking wine right now is drunk, to a greater or lesser extent. 

This is not a subject officially scheduled for discussion at the upcoming Symposium – nor in fact is it much discussed anywhere within the wine trade, yet this is surely wine’s most controversial ingredient: not grape variety or enzymes or cultured yeast or sulphur dioxide or terroir, whatever that is, but alcohol.

When this great Institute was first founded in the 1950s, wine labels didn’t even need to state alcohol content. Today, not only must abv be stated but the majority of wine labels carry guidelines about safe consumption levels, and warnings about consuming alcohol when pregnant.

For wine professionals such as ourselves, the alcohol level on a label is primarily a useful hint as to the wine’s quality and style – a Syrah at 12.5% will be very different to one at 15%. But we tend to avoid talking about the effect of alcohol on our bodies and minds – the effect that we are all experiencing right now, and which is making me look so particularly attractive to you all.

But consider this: in 1979, the guideline for maximum alcohol consumption was 56 units per week, which was subsequently reduced to 36, then 28 then 21 and now 14. At this rate, within our lifetimes, government guidelines will recommend drinking no alcohol at all.

Of course, that isn’t very likely – but then again, who would have predicted the severe clampdown on tobacco over the last forty years?

Incidentally, alcohol guidelines vary hugely internationally – from 52 units in Fiji to 35 in Spain to 7 in Guyana. So perhaps the answer is that we all move to Fiji, where drinking alcohol is evidently much safer.

So, what’s the right response? For a long time, the wine trade was very keen on presenting the health benefits of wine consumption, but such a tactic seems extremely inadvisable now. The primary argument against alcohol is its cost on our nation’s health, and specifically on the NHS – a sum estimated at £3.5 billion every year. That’s the same price as a case of Petrus 1990.

But we can’t ignore the issue either. Health lobbies are becoming more influential and anti-alcohol rhetoric is growing. For them, all types of alcohol is the same – a harmful drug that should be regulated, restricted – even prohibited. It may be true that lower alcohol wines are becoming more commonplace and trendy these days, but so long as it contains any alcohol at all - and I for one pray it always will - wine will always be a target.

Wine is a drink with unique diversity, and of rich cultural, historical and artistic value. It also gets you drunk, and we must admit that alcohol is an integral part of wine, rather than trying to pretend otherwise. If we are not honest about the role of alcohol in wine, then everything else we value about this precious, fascinating drink is at risk. 

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Everything I wrote in August

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Everything I wrote in August

As usual August was a quiet month for the wine trade, and I was away on holiday for several weeks. I also visited Canada to tour British Columbia (pictured) and deliver a keynote at the British Columbia Pinot Noir Celebration. Here's what I published.

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Meaningful experiences: talking about Pinot Noir

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Meaningful experiences: talking about Pinot Noir

I was invited to give the keynote address at this year's British Columbia Pinot Noir Celebration this week. Here's an approximate transcript of what I said in two parts - the introductory address, and the concluding remarks.

Photo courtesy of Christina Rasmussen

Photo courtesy of Christina Rasmussen

Introductory address

Thank you very much for inviting me here to speak to you today. It's my unfortunate duty to travel the world tasting wine for a living, and it's a burden I do my best to handle with dignity. That duty has brought me here today, and I'm delighted to join you in celebrating Pinot Noir. It seems to me that there are more festivals and tastings dedicated to this particular variety around the world than any other. Why is that? There must be something special about the variety.

One of those things is Pinot Noir's ability to express a sense of place. Other varieties can do this too, but Pinot Noir is particularly adaptive to terroir, and can produce hugely different wines from vineyards that are within a few feet of each other. It is a great example of what makes wine so compelling to taste the variation that Pinot Noir can achieve.

It's also difficult to get right. There are only a few places in the winemaking world where Pinot Noir really excels. It requires specific climatic conditions, it is susceptible to disease, and it only becomes interesting when the conditions suit it perfectly. That challenge is something which increases its appeal, I think.

Another reason Pinot Noir is special is its sheer deliciousness. There is a range of flavour in Pinot Noir that is unlike any other variety, and it can produce wonderful, esoteric, sometimes even quite challenging flavours. Experiencing those flavours and aromas is something that makes Pinot Noir so treasured.

There's also something else which is equally important, I believe: Pinot Noir can provide a meaningful experience; something that triggers an emotional response. Other varieties can do this too, sometimes, but Pinot Noir is particularly adept at it. People often talk of a Pinot Noir epiphany - that pivotal moment when tasting a Pinot Noir that flicks the switch and converts the drinker into a Pinot lover. [I wrote about this in The Pinot Of No Return.] It is an instinctive, gut reaction - and whether you've had one or not, I think it is the possibility of that response, the quest for that kind of feeling that makes Pinot Noir so compelling.

I've heard people describe being brought to tears by Pinot Noir. That's happened to me with really bad Pinot Noir but never with a really, really good one, sadly. But maybe that will change today ... and it's that possibility which makes it an exciting variety.

Wine in general, and Pinot Noir in particular, offers a tangible expression of something in an increasingly virtual world. We spend much of our time online, interacting with screens rather than people, so this gathering is a great example of why Pinot Noir enthrals us - it represents a snapshot of a time and a place that can be hugely different around the world. 

I've been asked to talk about my experience of Pinot Noir. I've been lucky enough to taste fantastic examples from California, Australia, Oregon, Chile, South Africa - even the UK, and Canada of course. There's also a place called Burgundy which makes some quite good examples. All of them are very different, and not always necessarily better or worse than one another. Burgundy does not have the monopoly on quality - yes, some of the best Pinot Noir comes from there, of course, but that doesn't mean other regions are not capable of equalling that quality.

Which brings me on to British Columbia. I've had the opportunity to tour the region this week and taste lots of different varieties. It is clearly a very diverse region, and also a relatively young one in terms of wine production. It is capable of greatness in many styles, and there is no doubt of the ambition and potential of the winemakers here. Can BC Pinot Noir stand alongside the best in the world? Well, that's something we are going to find out today - there is a great selection of Pinot Noir to taste, and I'm sure we will all have our own favourites. I'll talk more about the wines at the end of the event.

So, when you are tasting the wines today, remember that the ones which give you that emotional response are the ones that make Pinot Noir so great - regardless of price or label. I'd be delighted if you came and told me about your experiences throughout the day. So with that, I will wish you a fantastic afternoon of tasting Pinot Noir and I look forward to talking to you again later.

BC PN agenda.JPG

Concluding remarks

Thanks again, everyone, it has been a fantastic day of tasting and it has been a pleasure to meet so many people and experience so many Pinot Noirs. I wanted to give you my impression of British Columbia Pinot Noir, so here goes.

Firstly, it can't grow everywhere here, and I think people need to be honest about that. This region can be very warm and Pinot Noir is at its best from cooler sites. There is still a lot of discovery happening in BC, and producers need to be brave in making changes if they've got Pinot Noir in areas that are too warm. Figuring out terroir is a long-term process - perhaps a never-ending one - and it can be very challenging (and expensive) to find the optimal sites. 

Another point worth making sounds quite mundane, but it's actually really important: the technical standard of the wines today is really high. Making Pinot Noir that has no faults, has good balance of acid, alcohol and tannin and gives an authentic reflection of the characteristics of the variety is no mean feat, and there is clearly a great deal of expertise among the winemakers of this region. 

More generally, I would advise everyone not to worry about the perceived fashion for particular styles of Pinot Noir. There are lots of different ways to make great Pinot, and no doubt each of us have our own favourites. For winemakers, those will undoubtedly be an influence on the style produced - but I would urge them to let the terroir do the talking, and to make the Pinot Noir that comes naturally from the grapes, not to try and manipulate the result into something because it is a popular style from California or Burgundy or wherever.

Also, don't be fooled by high prices or flashy marketing. The most expensive Pinot Noirs in the world are not always the best.

British Columbia is rightly proud of itself, it seems to me. You have great natural beauty here - both in the landscape and in the people, you are all terrifyingly good-looking - a friendly spirit and a great sense of co-operation and open-mindedness. Expressing those qualities through Pinot Noir is the ultimate goal, because wine isn't just a reflection of soil and climate, it's also a reflection of personality.

So, is there a typical attribute common to all Pinot Noir from British Columbia? Well, they tend to have ripe fruit, often with reasonably high tannin. They also have high acid, although that's more of a feature of Pinot Noir in general. Some people have mentioned a character of sage brush, the local woody herb that grows wild throughout the region - but I suspect that is slightly fanciful. As far as I can tell, there is no unique quality that British Columbia Pinot Noir exhibits - but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

There was a recent BBC article entitled What is Canada really good at? which celebrated Canada's achievements on the 150th anniversary of confederation. For British people the BBC is pretty much a bible, so this is what we all think about you. First on the list was entertainment - specifically singers and comedians. Next was inventions - apparently IMAX cinema was invented here and for all you DIY fans, the Robertson pattern screwhead also came from Canada. 

Medicine was on the list - both insulin and stem cells were discovered and pioneered by Canadians. Space exploration was on the list - most notably Chris Hadfield, the astronaut who recently broadcast from the International Space Station and sang Space Oddity.

Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to say that BC Pinot Noir was not on the list of things that the Canada is really good at. In fact, wine didn't make the list at all. 

And that's exactly why events such as this one are so important. British Columbia is still a young wine region, but the results are already fantastic, and showing huge potential. Spreading the word about Pinot Noir and coming together to taste and discuss the wine is exactly what is needed to help evolve the winemaking culture here, in the quest for crafting Pinot Noir that gives us meaningful experiences. And when those experiences are shared in an atmosphere such as this, there couldn't be anything better.

So, in conclusion, I wish to propose a toast to one of the things that makes Canada great. Please raise your glasses for the Robertson pattern screwhead. And Pinot Noir!

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Discovering British Columbia

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Discovering British Columbia

I'm in Canada this week, getting to know the wine regions of British Columbia around Okanagan Lake. It's my first time here, and we have a busy schedule of tastings and vineyard visits.

British Columbia's wine regions are relatively young, commercially speaking - in 1990 there were fewer than 20 wineries, now there are over 275.

That tends to mean that, unlike many long-established European wine regions,  most producers here have a keen understanding of the business side of the wine trade. They are active on social media, have good websites, operate cellar doors with restaurants and tasting rooms, and have strong technical grounding in viticulture and vinification.

However, the sense of tradition and heritage is far less powerful in new regions than it would be in Chianti or Chablis, for instance. While that might be advantageous in that it allows producers to establish their own traditions and doesn't impose any restrictions on their winemaking, it means they have a harder task to establish their region's identity.

One of the questions often asked about wine is: what are the unique characteristics of this grape in this region? Finding a trait that is unique and universal to a set of wines is a handy way of summarising them - as in Mosel Riesling and slate, Coonawarra Cabernet and eucalyptus, Loire Chenin Blanc and wax, and so on.

Such shortcuts might be useful when first teaching people about wine, but they are generally a gross oversimplification. Plus, with the variation of soil and climate in a relatively large region such as the Okanagan Valley, as well as differences in winemaking philosophy, there are bound to be very different styles being made from the same varieties.

But without a simple summary, the problem for emerging wine regions is how to sell themselves. Should they specialise in particular varieties, or focus on specific types of soil, or aspire to premium quality, or champion organic viticulture? There is no straightforward answer to this, but having some kind of simple story makes it far easier for the outside world to understand a region.

Over the next five days, I'll be trying to find one for #bcwine. (At the very least, they've got their own hashtag.)

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Everything I wrote in July

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Everything I wrote in July

I was on holiday in the US for much of July - hence the reduced blogging, and hence also the picture of a Hummingbird, taken in Asheville, North Carolina. Anyway, there was still plenty of wine writing going on, as follows:

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A new approach to combatting trunk disease?

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A new approach to combatting trunk disease?

This vine in Sancerre is suffering from esca, a type of trunk disease.

Sancerre July 2017-021.JPG

It's a fungal infection that grows inside the trunk of grapevines, eventually killing the plant. It is more common in older vines, and can spread through a vineyard rapidly. Other than removing infected material and replanting, there is no widely accepted solution for this modern scourge.

However, help may be at hand.

Jonathan Pabiot's hand, in fact. This biodynamic winemaker in Sancerre heard about an entirely natural approach to defeating esca which is remarkably simple - and seemingly very effective. As shown above, the technique involves sawing into the trunk of the plant and opening up the cut. This reveals the fungal infection and by exposing it to the open air, dries it out. Within a year, Pabiot reports that the plant is back to full health.

Incidentally, he believes that the increase in esca has been caused by the use of omega-type grafting which became popular in the last few decades. He believes this method might allow infection to happen at the moment of grafting, but that it takes several years after planting for the effects to be seen.

Pabiot has repeated his solution countless times across his estate and it works every time. He has now started cutting trunks where infection is not yet apparent in the leaves, but which reveals the fungus in the wood, thereby preventing it from spreading at an earlier stage.

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Can great wine be premeditated?

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Can great wine be premeditated?

A recent BBC story about Californian Pinot Noir producer Clos de la Tech reported that the billionaire producer TJ Rodgers has a mission statement to make the best Pinot Noir in the New World.' On Twitter, Neal Martin responded to me with this insight:

In April last year, I wrote about whether money was the only thing necessary to establish top quality wine. This story begs the same question. 

The most prestigious wines in the world tend to have a long track record, often with a historical connection to a particular piece of proven terroir. The story about Clos de la Tech emphasises the ambition of the owner, the use of bespoke technology and the enormous sums of money involved - the premeditation which Neal mentions. 

As the BBC piece asks, 

Are ventures like his little more than the wine-making equivalent of vanity publishing?
— bbc.co.uk

However, the Clos de la Tech vineyard is in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which is in fact home to proven terroir with a long track record in the shape of Ridge. Furthermore, Rodgers apparently employed Ted Lemon of Littorai (another highly respected Californian producer) to consult on the viticulture.

As wine commentators, is cynicism about a project such as Clos de la Tech justified? Or is it unfair to assume that something premeditated can't achieve genuine quality?

Answering those questions isn't straightforward because it involves two fundamental variables in wine: personal opinion, and emotional connection.

You could argue that so long as the person drinking Clos de la Tech likes the taste and loves the brand then whether it has been premeditated is irrelevant. Yet authenticity is a hugely important part of how people appreciate wine too - especially fine wine, which has to have the same credentials as any other luxury product.

For wine professionals, Clos de la Tech's marketing seems somewhat phoney. Yet what if critical opinion agreed it was great quality? Would that validate the wine, irrespective of its story? This may be a moot point, as it happens, since the wine seems to have minimal coverage in the main wine outlets - especially in Britain. Indeed, until this BBC article, I'd never heard of Clos de la Tech.

Perhaps their marketing strategy is focused on mainstream media such as the BBC rather than traditional wine writing platforms - although that wouldn't exactly chime with their ambition to become the best Pinot Noir in the New World - surely they would seek validation from the biggest critical names in the business.

It's hard to not pre-judge in these sorts of scenarios. Until I taste the wine myself, l'd like to think I'd be open-minded. But surely making the best Pinot Noir in the world isn't just a matter of money.

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Writing a book part 23 - ploughing on

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Writing a book part 23 - ploughing on

As with last month, I feel like what I'm writing for the book at the moment is more functional than it is good quality, as I try to stick to my self-imposed deadlines and get the first draft finished. It's pretty horrible forcing out words when you're convinced they're mostly rubbish, but I'm convincing myself that it's better to get something on the page than nothing at all. 

Having said that, my target of 300 words per day has been slipping, and I've also gone back to write more of chapter 24, despite having supposed to have finished it. My initial target of finishing chapter 25 by July 14th seems very unlikely now, and because of the summer break there is going to be a two-month hiatus before I start writing again. 

However, I will still finish the first draft in autumn, and will start rewriting immediately. Quite how that will work, or how will it will take, I have no idea.

Something I've found interesting about the writing process is how it can be affected by what I'm reading. I didn't especially enjoy the last few books I've read (Mister Pip and How Proust Can Change Your Life) and suspect it may have been demotivating. Whereas now that I am re-reading a novel by one of my favourite authors (Ali Smith's The Accidental), I feel more inspired and enthused. Smith's writing is far more brilliant, self-assured and sophisticated than mine will ever be - but it's nice just to feel that something is so good might be having an influence.

I guess I will find out whether that actually makes my writing any better when the rewrite begins.

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Secret treasure trove wine shops

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Secret treasure trove wine shops

Surely the most thrilling discovery in the world of wine shops is the unexpected treasure trove. These tend to be long-established independent shops in relatively obscure locations. That combination results in the perfect conditions to make a treasure trove: not enough local wine nerd customers yet low enough overheads to stay in business, resulting in a steady build-up of old vintages that don't sell, gathering dust until they are discovered by the likes of us at prices that seem too good to be true.

It's a bit like the scene in High Fidelity in which Rob gets the chance to buy invaluable old records at a bargain price. The movie version is slightly different, and was cut from the final film, but gives you the idea.

Occasionally I've come across bargains in unsuspecting off-licences and corner shops - old vintages of Guigal Crozes-Hermitage for £10, Pol Roger NV champagne with bottle age - but these tend to be one-offs. The true treasure trove is a whole shop-full of goodies, lovingly hoarded by the owner and just waiting to be discovered.

The gamble is that provenance of such bottles is far from guaranteed. Most of these bottles live in non-air-conditioned stores for years on end - but some wine can be surprisingly resilient, in my experience. And besides, the prices are often low enough to warrant the risk. Here are three examples of wine treasure troves that I've happened on, purely by chance.

There's very little information about them elsewhere online - this is another factor that keeps them undiscovered. 

The Walled Garden, Uckfield

 

This is the ultimate treasure trove. I discovered it by chance last weekend and was absolutely amazed. It's in the grounds of a National Trust property called Sheffield Park, which is also well worth a visit. As you drive up the road, there's a sign pointing left that says Vineyard Nursery Brewery

The wine shop is in a small tin-roofed shed amid a sprawling selection of plants and junkyard scrap. You can see from this photo that it is stuffed full of wine of all shapes and sizes. In one corner is a rack of sweet Riesling in half-bottles, stretching back to the 1970s. I saw a case of mid-90s dry white Bordeaux for around £15 per bottle. There are old vintages of new world wines too - O Fournier reds from 1998, d'Arenberg Ironstone Pressings from 1994, Sauternes from the 1980s. Many of the bottles are evidently long-standing residents, caked in dust and grime.

But there are new wines too - a good selection of classics from Chablis, Sancerre, Champagne and so on - some familiar names (but no big brands) and several producers they import themselves.

Between £10 and £30, there was a huge choice of wonderfully random wines, and you could quite easily create a varied cellar from scratch by buying only from them. The catch is that they only accept cash and cheque, so I couldn't buy a single thing!

Incidentally, there is a vineyard there too - just five or six rows of straggly-looking vines, in keeping with the chaotic nature of the place. Apparently, they produce a small amount of sparkling wine - though I couldn't actually see any of this on sale.

Eagle's Wines, Battersea

 

This is quite a rarity - a London wine shop that seems to be mostly undiscovered. It doesn't look much from the outside, nestled between a sandwich bar and a laundrette, and with old wooden signage above the door - this isn't the moneyed sort of neighbourhood in which independent merchants usually thrive.

Most of the shop range is pretty standard - that's not a criticism, it's just the same sort of wine (and beer, and snacks) you can find quite easily elsewhere. But their Australian selection is particularly good, including some old vintages of reds that are at peak maturity. I've bought some Wolf Blass from the late 1990s from Eagle's for under £20, and it was in very good nick. They also have an early vintage of Luke Lambert's Syrah as well - you can even see it on the shelf using this Google Maps 3D image!

Blas ar Fwyd

 

This shop in Llanwrst in north Wales is a hidden gem despite it having a very modern website, from which you can even buy online. What this doesn't reveal is that the store itself is full of strange bin ends - I picked up a 1998 Trinity Hill Syrah for £15, a 2008 German Kerner for £8, and a Cave de Tain 2008 Syrah from the Rhodaniennes - all of which were really interesting. They also have a decent selection of red bordeaux and some particularly good buys in the port section too.

Happy hunting!

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Everything I wrote in June

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Everything I wrote in June

Two nice things in June: I made the shortlist for the Louis Roederer International Wine Writer Awards in the online communicator category, and I was published in Italian for the first time, in Civiltà del Bere magazine. In addition, there was plenty of writing going on ...

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A new watch; parallels with wine

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A new watch; parallels with wine

As I mentioned last month, I've been looking for a new watch recently, and I finally settled in a Stowa Flieger Klassik 40 Ikarus. It's a beautiful object, and I love it. The brand was recommended to me by Olly Smith when we were recently on the road for our podcast

Whereas previously I had tried to find a watch primarily by looking on retailer websites, having a personal recommendation from a friend had a much stronger resonance. In fact, Olly recommended a few other brands, all of which I looked into. 

However, once I'd narrowed down by options according to affordability (my budget is still in the lower end of the spectrum for watches), I then read up on the heritage and values of the company.

I found out that the company made watches for German fighter pilots. I read about the action that they use in various different models - some made in-house, others are from the ubiquitous ETA. I learned about the details of the watch - why there is a triangle with two dots in place of the 12 (to help pilots orient themselves when flying at night!), about the type of luminous paint they used, about the different straps - I became fixated.

This is the all-important story - the thing that is so vital to making an emotional connection and converting a browser into a buyer. It's something that wine trade does with mixed results. A company like Penfolds are masters of disseminating their story, as our the big champagne houses. For some producers (such as DRC), the legends are created around them, rather than directly by them.

There are many ways in which watches and wine aren't a great comparison - but there's no question that marketing is something that can really makes a difference, and shouldn't be automatically disparaged as somehow dishonest or distasteful. The wine industry needs to be proactive about seeking and persuading new drinkers to fall in love with this wonderful drink - and learning lessons from other industries is a good way to do that.

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Does the wine trade exist in its own alternative reality?

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Does the wine trade exist in its own alternative reality?

People outside the wine trade routinely accuse it of being old-fashioned and inward-looking. We are viewed as being bad at communicating with the general public, unnecessarily convoluted and averse to dynamic change.

To a certain extent this is true, although there are some valid explanations. One is that wine is by its very nature a complicated and fragmented product which can't be simplified easily. Another more cynical reason might be that there's a vested interest in keeping fine wine elitist in order to uphold high prices.

Regardless, the point remains that outsiders who want to enter the wine trade are often confounded by our apparent inability to modernise and be open-minded - especially where technology is involved.

Over the last few years, I've spoken to several app / website developers who love wine, have an idea for an app but have little or no experience in the wine industry. Most recently, this resulted in a conversation which emphasised how awkward the wine trade can appear to be. The 'outsiders' had made some assumptions about the size of their potential audience, and the willingness of producers to get involved, which appeared unrealistic to me as a wine insider.

For example, where they imagined a majority audience of people who are interested in wine, I was more pessimistic about how many wine drinkers are actually prepared to do anything about what may just be a passing interest. Loads of people say they are interested in wine; but it is such a complicated subject that very few actually pursue that interest.

Or at least, that's the widely held belief of many of us within the trade. However, is that really correct - or have we become blind to the possibility of any alternative?

What can't we see?

In the above podcast, documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis discusses the phenomenon of 'what we can't see' - whereby groups of like-minded people become oblivious to any view which opposes their own. This is exacerbated by social media, in which we all tend to follow the sort of content that we already agree with - known as 'positive reinforcement'. Not only does this result in such groups having diminished understanding of any alternative to their own realities, it also increases the polarisation between opposing views.

Curtis cites Brexit and Trump as two good examples of how liberal, left-wing people have scant understanding of how things appear to anyone who would have voted in favour of those two options. The disbelief and dismay they feel shows how they were unable to see an alternative reality right before their eyes.

In which case, perhaps there is an alternative reality for the wine trade, one in which we are more open-minded and progressive about reaching an audience we otherwise assume is not that interested. Or are the differences between the outsiders and insiders of wine now so entrenched that it is impossible for us to ever see any alternative?

I'd like to think the wine trade is open-minded but realistic about its audience - but questioning those assumptions might just open up the sorts of new realities we need.

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Single voice v multi-voice: what next for online wine criticism?

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Single voice v multi-voice: what next for online wine criticism?

Last month, it was announced that Jeb Dunnuck was leaving the Wine Advocate to start his own subscription-based wine review website (see this San Francisco Chronicle article). Since 2013, he had written for the Advocate as part of a team of writers under the leadership of its founder Robert Parker.

The Chronicle article quotes Dunnuck as saying:

The single-voice model that was so dominant in the past in wine criticism has faded. Everything has moved toward a brand-driven, team-based approach.
— Jeb Dunnuck

As someone who writes as part of a brand-driven, team-based approach (on JancisRobinson.com), this is obviously of interest to me - indeed, it should be of interest to anyone writing about wine professionally. In the internet's short life so far, it's certainly true that many wine writing websites have evolved from single-voice blogs in the earliest days into fully-fledged publishing platforms today. 

This is certainly the case for the Wine Advocate, which is now no longer under primary editorial control of Robert Parker, and which also has significant interest from outside investors - according to Parker himself

It’s two young guys who love wine and are in total agreement to not taking wine advertising.
— Robert Parker

This brings up a key question: what is the future for wine writing websites, and what is the revenue model? Jeb Dunnuck's pre-Advocate website apparently had 1,000 subscribers, and his new site will charge $100 a year. Putting it that way, it sounds easy to generate sales of $100k.

However, the subscription price is the same  as RobertParker.com, and only slightly less than JancisRobinson.com (approx $110) and Antonio Galloni's Vinous ($120). It seems unlikely that even the most devoted wine lover would subscribe to more than one site, and certainly no more than two. Furthermore, there are very few wine writers who have sufficient reputation and following to attract enough subscribers to generate good profit - and if they all went solo, there might not be enough subscribers to go round anyway.

The same applies to wine tasting events, which writers and websites are increasingly reliant upon to generate income. As they proliferate, it becomes harder to sell tickets (a similar thing has been happening to music festivals).

Furthermore, there's a question of value: multi-voice sites inevitably offer a much greater volume of content, and different perspectives from different writers. This is not to criticise Jeb Dunnuck's move, by any means. Internet wine writing is still only in its first generation, and there's no certainty about what might happen next - or how it will be paid for.

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Writing a book part 22

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Writing a book part 22

So far, I have stuck to my schedule for finishing the final chapters of my book - writing 300 words every weekday means finishing a chapter every two weeks, which will mean it's mostly finished by the end of July when I will stop for the summer break. I'm currently a third of the way through chapter 23.

With the finish line in sight, it feels like I'm rushing slightly, and that what I'm writing isn't especially good. I made the mistake of glancing back to an earlier chapter to remind myself of something and realised that one of my characters has a totally different style of speaking at the beginning of the book to how I am writing him now. This is perhaps one of the pitfalls of writing over a long period of time (two years, in my case) - it's easier to become inconsistent.

However, my intention is to continue writing, even if I don't think it's great material, so that I have a completed first draft on schedule. Then, the rewriting can begin. Quite how long that will take, I don't know, but from this perspective I am looking forward to the satisfaction of resolving all the weak passages and inconsistencies currently litter the book.

I saw a great quote recently:

Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat
— Dorothy Parker

This makes sense to me, because the biggest obstacle to writing is simply sitting down and getting the words on the page.  If I can get the entire book written, then any rewriting tasks should be easy by comparison.

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