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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Everything I wrote in May

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Everything I wrote in May

May was a busy month for writing and tasting, as well as for the podcast. Here's everything I released onto the unsuspecting internet ...

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Badness in wine - who decides?

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Badness in wine - who decides?

This weekend, I watched the film Eat, Pray, Love and found it self-regarding, superficial, privileged, conceited and abominably written. Generally speaking, it was badly received by film critics too. Yet it grossed $205 million on a budget of $60 million - so plenty of people enjoyed it.

Recently, there has been some argument among wine critics about 'bad wine' and whether it should be promoted, condemned or ignored - for example, this Eric Asimov piece in the New York Times, which includes links to various other threads in the argument from other writers. But rather than stoking that fire, what interests me is how badness is defined in the first place.

I could comfortably argue why Eat, Pray, Love is a bad film, but some of the people I watched it with enjoyed it. They didn't even necessarily disagree that it was bad, but were able to find enough merit to make it a worthwhile experience - Julia Roberts acts well, some of the cinematography is quite pretty. Is it valid to enjoy the film on those grounds and ignore its bad points?

For wine, as for any matter of opinion, herein lies the quandary: experts have the knowledge, position and authority to make pronouncements on quality - yet calling something 'bad' is bound to alienate lots of people, especially if that thing is unashamedly populist.

On the one hand, any critic who only writes positive reviews and never says what they dislike (and why) comes across as toothless.; on the other hand, if it's only a matter of opinion, perhaps negativity is uncalled for - especially in the wine industry, where the relationship between producers and writers can be very close. What if I say that Petrus is bad wine? Okay, perhaps the consensus of opinion is enough to prove me wrong - but what if I say that a certain natural wine is bad? Suddenly, this is much more inflammatory.

What makes me uneasy is any sort of proclamation from the wine world which makes people feel stupid or wrong for enjoying what they drink. It is this exact feeling which I think leaves so many casual wine drinkers distrustful of the wine world, in fact. 

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A strange future for English wine

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A strange future for English wine

Why is Reichensteiner and Ortega better quality than top English fizz? Read on.

Over the last month, I've tasted over 200 English wines in competition conditions: judging them as part of a panel. While personal preferences vary, there is a general consensus among wine professionals as to what constitutes quality in English wine at the moment, and those which are most highly prized tend to be traditional method sparkling wines made from the Champagne varieties, plus an occasional still Chardonnay, Bacchus and Pinot Noir.

(The image shows Riesling being planted at Rathfinny Estate in 2012, but I believe this has since been replaced by a different variety.)

There are lots of other grape varieties planted in England, however. According to English Wine Producers, just under 50% of the acreage is planted to non-noble varieties such as Reichensteiner, Seyval Blanc, Ortega, Regent and other even more obscure varieties. They are all selected for their ability to ripen in cool climates, but they are almost never considered 'good quality' in terms of flavour profile. Having tasted plenty of examples recently, I can attest to this.

As the popularity (and profitability) of traditional method sparkling continues, plantings of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in England will grow, at the expense of the obscure varieties.

But what if, in years to come, these old varieties are reassessed? Tastes change, and it's entirely plausible that the very same flavours that we consider poor quality today might be valued differently in future. Winemaking evolves too, and the English climate is warming up. It's entirely conceivable that the English wine of the future will look back at our generation and despair at the disrespect we showed to England's heritage varieties.

This exact scenario has recently played out in South Africa and Chile, where previously disregarded old vines have been reclaimed by a new young vanguard (or rather vinguard, arf arf) of winemakers. In South Africa, Chenin Blanc and Rhône blends from the Swartland region have revolutionised our perception of that country's wines. In Chile, old vine País, Cinsault and Carignan that were virtually abandoned are currently being revived, and are already getting an enthusiastic reception (read more about that here).

Until recently, these very same vines were being largely ignored, and their fruit was going into cheap blends at best. It may sound strange to us, but there's a distinct possibility that the same thing could happen in England. When the next generation of English wine producers emerges, and seeks to make their own mark - which usually involves rebelling against the beliefs of their forebears - who's to say we couldn't see premium Reichensteiner and Ortega being highly prized by wine professionals?

Postscript: this article was prompted by a discussion with Christine Parkinson, who came up with the suggestion that England's heritage varieties could have value in future. Thanks Christine!

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Time consuming: why buying a wristwatch is like buying fine wine

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Time consuming: why buying a wristwatch is like buying fine wine

Buying a good wristwatch is a lot like buying fine wine, it turns out: highly confusing. This is perhaps an inevitable result of dealing with any complex luxury product, but it provides a great insight into how so many people first experience wine.

The scenario is that I have been gifted up to £1,000 to buy a watch - I only mention the exact sum because it's pertinent to this story. That's a lot of money to me (and most people) and is certainly more than I would ever spend on such a thing. However, as an object which will have strong sentimental value, should last for decades and also represents great craftsmanship, it feels a worthwhile purchase.

The problem is that I know nothing about watches, nor do I have any attachment whatsoever to any brands. This must be a familiar feeling to many inexperienced people looking to buy fine wine: especially spending a lump sum on bottles that will have strong sentimental value, should last for decades and also represent great craftsmanship.

If I had to spend £1,000 on a case of wine for myself, I would know instantly what to buy: 2013 port, 2015 Côte-Rôtie, or 2015 German Riesling, most probably. Easy when you know how. But how do I go about deciding which watch to buy?

I began with two pieces of knowledge: firstly, I heard somewhere that quality watches are made by specialists - in other words, avoid any brand which is not a dedicated watchmaker. Secondly, a friend recommended a particular website called Hodinkee as a good resource. 

With these scraps of info, I start researching. I find a good introduction to watches and learn about the differences between quartz and mechanical movements. I learn about the most important watch in the world (video below). I start browsing a retailer website.

After an hour or so of confusing but enjoyable research, it turns out that £1,000 is the bottom end of the kind of watch I want, and nowhere near enough for the top brands. But I do find one that I like: Larsson & Jennings Saxon 39 mm in black stainless steel. It's in budget (just), it's a recently released model, it has a mechanical movement, it's a modern brand that is half-British and - well, I like the look of it.

But despite the fact that I like it, I'm not confident it's the right choice. So I seek a second opinion. On the pages of Hodinkee, I find an article about the brand. It's a positive write-up. But then I read the comments section.

Coming to a department store near you. Uninspired designs and overpriced. I mean I could go on, but in short I can’t say I’m a fan of these. I wish them the best of luck because I think they’ll need it: there are countless other brands that occupy this sub $2000 space, and many are a lot better than what L&R are offering here.
— nickalew
I feel like I have seen these in Sunglass Hut.
— multanemo
Nice try, but one could buy a Nomos or a Longines for the same price which doesn’t look like a department store fashion watch. They should have fitted a cheap Japanese mechanical movement in these things to keep the price realistic.
— SohnofaLange
I think the readership would probably appreciate if Hodinkee cast a slightly more skeptical eye on these kinds of interchangeable, glorified kickstarter brands—especially when the asking price for these models is so high.
— rsg

Of 38 comments, the vast majority are incredibly negative. So now I feel like a sucker and an idiot. Perhaps it shouldn't matter what other people think, but it does: I can't buy something which I know people would be scornful of. 

It is this same insecurity which can make wine so inaccessible. The lack of knowledge most people have means that they feel unable to buy and enjoy the really good stuff, as they see it. Being a newcomer is intimidating and not having confidence in such a big purchase is strongly off-putting.

Overcoming these sorts of negative reactions is no easy proposition. In the wine trade, we often talk about how to attract newcomers; about democratising and demystifying wine. Trying to buy a good watch has given me first-hand experience of that newcomer. Quite what I will do next, I'm not sure. But all suggestions are welcome.

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Reconsidering typicality in wine

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Reconsidering typicality in wine

Typicality in wine is never more important than for tasting exams, and the sourcing process for the Master of Wine programme has to be highly meticulous. It's a misconception that MW exams are full of obscure varieties from unknown regions - in fact, the vast majority of wines are intended to be as representative as possible, giving students the maximum chance of identifying the wine correctly. 

The question is, what constitutes typicality and who determines this? It's an issue that is especially pertinent in the era of natural/orange wines, which can bear little resemblance to the what are perceived to be the 'conventional' wines of their origin. That isn't to criticise them, but to emphasise how extremely dissimilar two wines made from the same raw material can be.

But who's to say which version is the most authentic? If we look at wine style over time, there can be huge changes in what is considered typical of a region or variety. Ten years ago, many South African wines were characterised by a burnt rubber aroma that was variously attributed to viral infection in the vineyard or reductive handling in the winery. Whatever the cause, that has now been largely eradicated, and modern South African reds, especially top-quality Rhône blends from regions such as Swartland, are demonstrating a new typicality.

Similarly, weedy English whites from the 1970s and 1980s bear little resemblance to the award-wnning bottle-fermented English sparkling wines of today. Whereas red bordeaux from the first half of the 20th century was much lighter in alcohol, body and flavour than most of today's examples. 

Every wine region evolves, which makes any declaration about typicality potentially risky. (The picture shows a white Chilean wine made from wild-grown País grapes that didn't go through veraison. Hardly typical of anything!)

Another more nuanced example can be found in Burgundy. Generally speaking, we are taught things such as Gevrey-Chambertin being more dark fruited than Vosne-Romanée, which is more elegant than Pommard. Not only are those huge generalisations with loosely defined adjectives, but as winemaking has evolved, it becomes much less feasible to be definitive about such divisions.

One development of this argument could be that origin and variety are no longer as important as they once were. As climate continues to change around the world, and winemaking skills and techniques develop, perhaps the influence of terroir is less relevant, and it is more apposite to talk about styles of wine, regardless of their origin and ingredients.

Such a scenario seems unthinkable (even if it would make the MW exam a whole lot easier). Wine is, famously, 'geography in a bottle' and this sense of place is fundamental to its appeal, and to how we understand wine. Indeed, many would argue that wine has a duty to reflect the typical expectations of its variety and origin - otherwise it is somehow at fault.

Yet typicality in wine is a not a fixed concept. So we are left with a dichotomy between being open-minded to ensure that innovation still occurs, while wanting to preserve the typical qualities that make appellations unique.

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Writing a book part 21 - entering the home stretch?

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Writing a book part 21 - entering the home stretch?

After a slow month for the book last month (mostly due to Easter holidays) in which I just managed to finish chapter 20, I have now started chapter 21, which is the beginning of the denouement. Set mostly in Lisbon, it plays out the plot twist that is revealed at the part one, and also involves the main two characters establishing a relationship. This makes it quite complicated both in terms of plot and tone, and getting that right is quite tricky.

One of my main objectives is to 'show don't tell'. This is classic fiction-writing advice, whereby you reveal the story via actions and narrative rather than simply telling the reader what's happening. However, the difficulty can be to ensure that a reasonably nuanced plot remains comprehensible when trying to avoid explicit narrative.

I've been reading two books recently that demonstrate both ends of the spectrum. One was a popular but trashy cop thriller full of clunky dialogue in which characters explained the plot to each other, and where there is absolutely no subtlety or intrigue (telling); and another much more literary novel which requires much more attention and concentration because nothing is explained outright (showing). It can be hard to follow, but the second book is a much more satisfying read.

I also need to re-work the final five chapters because they contain details that don't quite fit with the rest of the book as it now stands. I need to decide what to do about a particular sub-plot and also change the way the main story in Lisbon pans out. I'm impatient to finish, but need to get this part right, so have got plenty to keep me occupied! I plan to finish up to chapter 25 by the time my summer break starts in July, then finish the final chapter in September.

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Everything I wrote in April

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Everything I wrote in April

April was shamefully quiet on the blog here - I was away over Easter and busy with the new podcast so wasn't able to post as much as I wanted. However, I did produce the following elsewhere (and also had a photoshoot to get a new headshot, including the photo above, taken at 67 Pall Mall) ...

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Do we need a Wine Merchant Day?

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Do we need a Wine Merchant Day?

The default solution to draw attention to any worthy cause is to devote a day to it. There are days for everything: Breast Cancer Awareness Day, Malbec World Day, Wine Writer Donation Day - it's a situation that has long been parodied, as witness Matt Walls' 2012 Grape Day Calendar, and The Simpsons back in 1998.

This Saturday heralds the tenth annual Record Store Day, which champions independent music shops across the country. Limited edition vinyl is released, in-store gigs are arranged, there are celebrity endorsements and strong media support from DJs and specialist music channels - most significantly, BBC 6music. It's a concerted effort to boost a retail sector that often struggles to stay afloat, yet which is a crucial part of maintaining the diversity and vivacity of the industry.

Sound familiar? The Record Store Day format is one that independent wine merchants could easily adopt. Wine lovers might be a much smaller subset than music lovers - there's no BBC 7wine on the airwaves - but there are enough similarities between the two to suggest it could work.

By staging special tastings, hosting winemakers, involving celebrities, re-releasing old vintages or large formats and most importantly, making as much noise as possible, Wine Merchant Day would offer a great opportunity to focus attention on a sector that everyone in the trade agrees is the worthiest of causes.

There are already groups within the industry such as The Bunch, which set a good precedent for cooperation - although Wine Merchant Day would need to be on a national scale to be really effective. Funding the project would require some careful planning - it would almost certainly require some kind of buy-in from merchants - though I would like to think that it could be staged for minimal profit, for the good of the sector.

Such a big project isn't to be taken lightly - and it's easy to be enthusiastic about something when you're not faced with the hassle of actually doing it - but I would love to see the trade make something like this happen. One day, maybe.

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