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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Everything I wrote in March

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Everything I wrote in March

Last month saw the birth of the podcast I am producing with Olly Smith called A Glass With. You can listen to the first two episodes on the website (or iTunes, Tunein and most other podcast services). I also published the following pieces:

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Does the wine industry have a drinking problem?

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Does the wine industry have a drinking problem?

Today, Meininger's Wine Business International published this article, which editor-in-chief Felicity Carter described thus:

The piece, by Rebecca Hopkins, confronts the health implications of the elevated alcohol consumption habits (as well as excessive travelling and eating) that accompany the wine industry. The context of her piece was an industry conference for women involved in the industry, but it is an issue that affects everyone. To quote her directly:

How do we teach up-and-coming professionals to know that [...] you can have a successful career in wine and spirits without excess, when some of those in the industry who are considered “successful” also demonstrate existing or developing issues, or unhealthy habits that may cause problems in the future? This is a problem for everybody, not just women in the business.
— Rebecca Hopkins

Indeed, my entire professional experience in the wine industry has been among a culture where alcohol consumption exceeds the norm. If you work with something, you are inevitably going to become over-exposed to it. It's no good trying to be a celibate porn star.

Hopkins identifies problem cases, but it's worth pointing out that plenty of wine professionals are healthy, successful and responsible - despite alcohol (and calorie) consumption levels that are, on paper, way above average. Furthermore, every other work sector includes individuals with alcohol or obesity problems.

To a certain degree, then, it is a problem of individual personality as much as it is shared circumstance. Perhaps the wine industry attracts a higher percentage of the sorts of people who like to drink heavily. Or perhaps the industry encourages excessive consumption. Either way, as Hopkins points out, it's an issue that should not be ignored.

Drinking controls

Some initiatives already exist to encourage responsible drinking - for example, Wine in Moderation, which may have a laudable mission, but which has made no tangible difference to the wine trade culture I am familiar with.

That's not to say it isn't a worthy cause - the question is whether such movements can really tame the pervading culture of hedonism within the wine trade.

I suspect a more subtle change might be more effective.

The soft round

The most sensible drinking culture I experienced was while living in Sydney in 2008/09. I'd go bar-hopping with a group of friends, and we would periodically order soft rounds throughout the evening. This was simply a non-alcoholic interlude, whereby we would all drink a coke or lemonade or whatever, before getting another bottle of wine or round of beers. It was not only a break in alcohol ingestion, but a totally unremarkable routine to ensure our evening would be as long and enjoyable and painless as possible. We weren't trying to be sober; but we were trying not to get wasted.

One of the main things that facilitated this was a local New South Wales regulation (I think I'm remembering this correctly) that required soft drinks to be less expensive than the cheapest alcoholic drink.

This simple rule had a powerful effect. In a British pub, having to pay almost the same price for a pint of coke as you would for a pint of beer creates a strong disinclination to take the soft option. Whereas getting a cheap soft drink round in has a more motivational effect, and in my experience, it really helped moderate consumption.

Realistically, perhaps the chances of such a regulation being introduced in the UK are slim. Limiting prices in on-licensed premises would be a hugely unpopular and logistically nightmarish move. Even if it was to happen, engendering a culture of soft rounds would likely take a generation or more - if it ever got traction at all.

But, as Hopkins says:

We need the courage to step forward and share stories, challenges, ideas, and tools, so we can ask for change that we need and deserve. Not only will we make better bosses, leaders, employees and contributors in the workplace, but also more balanced partners, friends and community members to help support an industry we all love so dearly, and plan to stay in for the long haul, in a manner that is healthy for mind, body and spirit.
— Rebecca Hopkins

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New podcast - launched today!

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New podcast - launched today!

Today is the launch of A Glass With ... the podcast that drinks with the stars! It's a new podcast that I'm producing with Olly Smith, and you can listen to episode one now using the player below.

We've been putting this together since May 2016, but I've been developing the idea for years, after it was suggested to me by a close friend. It's sort of based on Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee - each episode features a celebrity guest chatting to Olly about their love of wine as well as their life and work.

The first series features singer/songwriter P!nk, voice of Come Dine With Me Dave Lamb, England cricketer Stuart Broad, comedian Stephen K Amos, actor/winemaker Sam Neill and Simply Red frontman Mick Hucknall. Celeb-tastic!

Olly and I recorded the episodes over the last six months, and will be releasing one episode every Thursday until 27 April. We are already working on series two, to be released later this year.

Olly and me on the road in California, en route to record P!nk

Olly and me on the road in California, en route to record P!nk

There are plenty of wine podcasts in the world already. Some are better than others, but they pretty much all follow the same format: one wine professional interviewing another. This is pretty niche and it risks becoming quite boring, even to those in the wine industry. We wanted to speak to non-wine people who have an outsider's perspective on wine - as well as an interesting life of their own in a different field. The idea is that it will appeal both to a wine audience and to the guest's own fanbase.

We also decided not to release a new episode every week. Traditionally, podcasts have always adhered to this schedule, but producing 52 episodes a year makes it hard to get a consistent calibre of guests. More recently, podcasts such as Serial and Revisionist History have adopted a season format, which we are replicating.

Another objective was decent production values. Podcasts often have a 'home-made' ethic which can be charming, but too often equates to poor sound quality and excessive length. Each episode of A Glass With is 30 to 40 minutes long, even though that has meant cutting up to 20 minutes of material in some cases. We also invested in professional standard recording equipment and pay a sound designer to master each episode.

To make all this happen required sponsorship, and we've got some lovely companies involved with series one. All of this has been a lot of work, but the results sound great, and we hope they will prove popular - so if you like it, please spread the word!

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What wine retail can learn from Specsavers

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What wine retail can learn from Specsavers

Having never needed to wear glasses, I've recently found my eyesight struggling to focus when reading and typing. This, apparently, is normal for lots of men approaching forty years old.

I'd rather pretend that neither of those things is happening, but decided I should go for an eye test anyway. As somebody with precisely zero prior experience of this sector, I was entirely reliant on other people's knowledge and recommendations to find out what I needed - and as such, it was a similar scenario to that faced by hundreds of people buying wine every day.

It gave me a fresh perspective on how to provide a positive retail experience, which I think might be useful for the wine trade to consider.

  • Firstly, I asked around. My wife had recently gone to Specsavers and recommended them. I was tempted by my local independent opticians, but they were too much of an unknown quantity
  • Secondly, researching online. Specsavers allowed me to book an appointment online, provided store information (opening hours, location, services provided) and furthermore, I was able to find a free eye test voucher within two or three clicks.
  • Thirdly, confirmation. I received an email within 24 hours, although it requested that I call the store, and when I did so on a Tuesday morning at 9 am, I was kept on hold for five minutes before I gave up. I replied to the email (which came from a monitored inbox, as far as I could tell) but got no response. After a good start, this was pretty poor customer service. However, I tried calling again two days later and got through immediately to a very polite and helpful staff member who was able to book me in for the following day.
  • Fourthly, the in-store experience. I was greeted within a minute of entering the branch, and invited to sit down. The staff were busy but attentive and friendly. And I'm sure it is no coincidence that they all wear glasses.
  • Fifthly, service level. My appointment started promptly, everything was explained to me, I was made comfortable and the staff made sure of what I wanted.

From then on - the eye test, the prescription, choosing the frames - the experience starts diverging from wine retail. But the principles that gave me such a positive experience (with the slight blip of the lost email and unanswered first phone call) could be applied to wine retail as they could to anything:

  • Personal recommendations are paramount - turning customers into ambassadors is one of the most powerful ways to grow
  • Good online presence is vital to reassure and inform potential customers
  • Being contactable beyond your website (that is, by email or phone or social media) is your chance to make a good first impression in person
  • Friendly, useful, well-trained staff is of course fundamental to successful retail
  • Delivering on your promise is the final part of the process: ensuring you give the customer what they need, not what you want to sell.

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The International Wine Trade Dinner 2017

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The International Wine Trade Dinner 2017

The British wine trade might get lots of things wrong, but one of the things it does incomparably well is tradition. The biennial International Wine Trade Dinner crams all that ceremony, heritage and history into one oddball, brilliant evening.

Dinner suit duly donned, I went along not knowing quite what to expect. It took place at Vintner's Hall, the spiritual home of the London wine trade. Around the three long tables sat nearly 150 wine trade supremos - winemakers, journalists, buyers, MWs - with a top table that included royalty in the form of HRH the Duchess of Gloucester.

I was seated about as far from her as possible.

Table plan for the International Wine Trade Dinner - click to expand

As you might expect the wine was very impressive - and very traditional:

  • Pol Roger, Brut 2002 champagne
  • von Schubert, Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg Alte Reben Riesling trocken 1997 Ruwer
  • Ch Léoville-Barton 2000 St-Julien
  • Ch Rauzan-Ségla 2000 Margaux
  • Royal Tokaji Mézes Mály Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2003 Tokaj
  • Graham's 1997 port

And we finished with a 1976 Hine cognac that was landed in London in barrel and bottled in 1993. They were all delicious, but the Rauzan-Ségla probably stole the show. 

The whole event was a celebration of the wine trade, and inevitably involved a fair amount of back-slappery, but the spirit of the evening was a forceful reminder of what makes the wine trade great - conviviality and communion. 

Plus it featured a host of eccentric conventions throughout the evening - military drumming from the Honourable Artillery Company, singing the national anthem, a succession of formal toasts and a ceremony known as The Loving Cup, which involved passing a goblet of wine around the room and bowing to your neighbour as everyone takes a sip in turn.

I've probably broken some ancient code of silence by writing this, and might end up locked in their cellar for all eternity. Without a corkscrew.

The table set at the beginning of the evening

The table set at the beginning of the evening

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Writing a book part 20: traveling through space and time

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Writing a book part 20: traveling through space and time

Having visited Jerez last month, I am now writing the parts of the book set in that region, which means going back to earlier chapters. It also means going back in time, since the story tracks a sherry producer from the 1930s to the 2000s. Getting the historical details right is not easy, which generally means I am omitting anything about which I'm uncertain. 

This feels sort of lazy, because it means I'm not doing the extra research required to provide the sort of detail that can really make a difference in the best novels. I don't want my settings to appear superficial - but then again, I don't want to spend any more time researching at the moment; I would rather get a complete first draft finished before the end of this year, and then add further details in a second draft, if necessary.

Even so, it has been slow progress recently. I had a week off writing while abroad and it has taken a few days to get back into the swing of things. Also, I entered a competition with an adapted version of the novel's first chapter, which didn't get shortlisted - perhaps inevitable among 1,000 entries, but still a bit of a blow. You can read my entry here.

It's also surprisingly easy to veer off the timeline and story development I have set myself. There are a few moments when I've confused the time of year by citing incongruous weather or the like - daffodils blooming in June, that sort of thing. This should be easily avoided, because everything is mapped out logically in my wall of Post-it notes, so it's worrying that it happens at all.

Novelists often talk about being immersed in their world, of intimately knowing their characters, locations and timings. I feel like I am still getting to know what happens in my book as I write it. 

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Everything I wrote in February

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Everything I wrote in February

February involved a visit to Jerez to research my novel, as well as plenty of preparation for the launch of A Glass With on 23 March. I also wrote the following articles:

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The last vineyard in Carcavelos

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The last vineyard in Carcavelos

The following is a short story I submitted to the Mogford Food & Drink Short story Prize. The shortlist has just been announced and my entry didn't make it, so I'm reproducing it here. It's adapted from the first chapter of my book, although the storyline in this version is quite different.

 

The last vineyard in Carcavelos

‘Now, this next group of lots requires some explanation,’ said the auctioneer. He surveyed the packed room from his podium, allowing a few moments to let the murmurs subside. ‘The story begins in a vineyard just a few miles west of Lisbon.’

 

The vineyard owner looked at this woman in her burgundy suit with the wide lapels and padded shoulders. Last week, he’d seen that new television show everyone was talking about. It was playing on the portable set that hung in a cradle in the local taverna. It was the only source of sound in that dark wooden room, and its black and white flicker was pretty much the only source of light. Dallas. That was the name of the show. She reminded him of those women in Dallas.

‘Progress. You can’t resist it,’ she said, pulling a cigarette case from the inside pocket of her jacket and allowing her cleavage to push against her blouse as she did so. These old guys are all the same, she thought. Titillation and tobacco, works every time. And money.

When she struck a match, the flare was invisible in the bright white sunlight of the morning. The woman cupped it to her cigarette, shielding it from the saline breeze that hushed from the ocean behind him. The smoke smelt acrid and sulphurous and tempting. She cocked her weight to one side, and placed her spare hand on her hip.

Behind her stood the symbols of progress. Totemic apartment blocks, many still clad in scaffolding. Perhaps they did have a beauty to them, these concrete piles that punched their way into the horizon. Perhaps she was right.

Perhaps he would have a cigarette.

Then his gaze travelled down the storeys to the foreground. The vines all around them were starting to bud, little green explosions caught in freeze frame. But the oldest plants were diseased and unproductive now, their thick arms showing no signs of life.

‘They were planted by my grandfather one hundred years ago,’ he would have told her, if she had asked. The younger vines were his own progeny. His only progeny. They kept the vineyard fertile. Just.

What would his grandfather think of this new backdrop to his beloved vineyard? Progress? For his generation, Lisbon had been a far-off thing, somewhere to be visited with trepidation once or twice a year. But now the city had come to visit the vineyards, crawling out from its choked centre towards sea. Reaching ever higher, providing the new commuter generation with ocean-view balconies and convenient basement parking.

His son would probably have been one of them, these ambitious young businessmen who fly in jumbo jets and drink champagne and have fax machines in their cars. But he had no son. He stood alone, the sole heir to Quinta da Bela Vista, the last vineyard in Carcavelos. In his lifetime, he had seen the world transform. He had already lived longer than either of his parents or grandparents. Doctors told him smoking was bad for you.

He took a cigarette from the case she was holding towards him.

 

The capacity crowd was enrapt. The auctioneer saw a few of them lick their lips in anticipation. He put down his gavel and took a few steps away from the podium, towards the centre of the stage.

‘Most people have never heard of Carcavelos – present company excepted, of course. As you know, it is a fortified wine similar to port, but made from white grapes. But did you also know that it was once highly prized? In 1752, the king of Portugal gave it to the court of Beijing as a gift. Seventeen years later, it appeared in the first ever wine auction right here in London, alongside Burgundy and Malaga ... and Hock.’ He stopped pacing the stage at this point and shot a wry glance at the audience, who laughed obligingly. They were in his palm. ‘But fashions and fortunes change.’

 

The old barn was cluttered up with wine-making equipment. Just like always, he left the door open to allow the setting sunlight to brighten its gloomy insides, and so that he could hear the sea. He walked past the ancient oak casks that reached to the ceiling. As a child they towered above him and he would crane his neck upwards and his mouth would droop open. His grandfather would hold his hand to stop him from tripping over the hoses and buckets that littered the floor.

The previous month, his merchant had visited and talked about stainless steel tanks. Everyone was using them now, he said. You can control the temperature of fermentation in them, and clean them really easily. They would make the wine better. More fruit flavour. It’s what people want these days. We’re not in the sixties any more, this is the eighties, it’s the modern world.

He placed his palms on the old wood and felt its coolness. His grandfather had scorned the modern world. For him, even having electricity had been an indulgence. The wires had been strung up from the rafters, naked bulbs hanging down from them like a frozen luminous drip. A plastic light-switch was nailed to the inside frame of the barn door. It had looked like space-age technology, all shiny and white. Now it was caked in dust and dirt, as if history had claimed it, a fungus slowly eating its victim alive.

Perhaps stainless steel tanks were as inevitable now as electric light bulbs had been back then. Well, it was moot. He barely had enough money to buy corks for each vintage. Investing was out of the question. Go to the bank, his merchant had pleaded. Not a chance. They were already sending him letters in red writing.

He considered what the woman was offering. ‘You have the very best views in Carcavelos,’ she’d said, looking out over the shimmering, blissful blue Atlantic. ‘And we’re willing to pay the premium.’ Well, he made the very best wine too. But now, sea views were apparently more valuable. A lot more. He could retire, live comfortably. Travel, see the world.

He walked through the partition to where his bottled wine was stored. A few pallets were stacked with boxes, waiting for customers that didn’t exist. The rest of the floor was strewn with loose bottles, some labelled, some naked, some full, some empty. Intricate weaves of cobweb anchored them.

On a long table, the manual bottling machine lay paused. A roll of Bela Vista labels was loaded into the cartridge, and he turned the old crank handle, watching the cogs and rollers move obediently. As a child, he had sat on the three-legged stool and wiped each newly labelled bottle before placing it carefully in a wooden case. Make sure all the labels are facing the right way in the box, his grandfather had told him. Nobody else will know, but we will know.

To his right lay a set of footprints in the dust. Every day he walked the same patrol. Now he stopped in his tracks and looked around. Old mallets leaning against half-fixed barrels, their heads criss-crossed with scars. Black mould along the edges of the high ceiling like a permanent thundercloud. Everything layered with dust.

He took her business card from his shirt pocket and looked at it. He’d told her he needed time to consider. That he would call her the next morning. Along the opposite wall stood an enormous iron wine rack. He crouched onto his haunches and ran his fingers over the oldest bottles. These were the liquid legacy of his family. Priceless, yet worthless. Maybe they would help.

 

‘Seeking answers from the bottom of a bottle – we’ve all done it,’ said the auctioneer. He stood at the podium like an evangelist in the pulpit, gripping it with both hands, his long arms locked straight, his loud tenor commanding the room. Reverently, his flock awaited. ‘The oldest vintages of Carcavelos are long gone now, of course. We can only dream of how they tasted.’

 

The next morning, he could still taste it when he awoke on the floor, face down. Bottles and corks were scattered around him, with wine spilling out on to the floor, turning the dust into sticky black gum. He opened his eyes and groaned, and pulled himself up, clutching his head.

On his knees, he crawled through the dirt to the old brass tap on the wall. The water was cold and spluttered out of the nozzle like a backfiring engine. He winced as he twisted his neck around and opened his mouth. With each gulp he could feel his stomach rehydrate.

Slumped against the wall, the tap still coughing next to him, he tried to focus on his wristwatch. Nine o’clock? About that. He could remember it being nearly midnight. He counted the open bottles. Six?

Well, who cared? If he didn’t, nobody did. It was going to waste one way or another. He got up unsteadily, unzipped and relieved himself where he stood, splashing onto his old boots. It snaked through the dry floor.

‘All those years in the bottle, and this is how it goes,’ he said out loud. ‘Down the drain.’ He remembered the vintages he had opened. The 1904, the 1932. The sweet, honeyed fragrance framed by a musty, dank aroma of old age, decaying yet vivid. Exquisite dried citrus fruits, tangy and sour and shocking. The glutinous, glissading texture as you swallowed, warm with alcohol. His most precious Carcavelos, sat in the old iron rack for decades, waiting for their moment. For someone to show an interest, anyone. Earth to earth, dust to dust, wine to piss.

Outside, the sun was already glaring down, and his face scrunched against the light. He stood still and took some breaths with his eyes closed, that familiar saline air swelling his lungs. Did the commuters living in the luxury apartments appreciate that air? Did they open their balconies and watch the ocean? Did they know the contours of the coast, the movements of the tide? Did they even see his tiny vineyard there? Did they realise the foundations of their buildings were the roots of ancient vines, entombed by concrete?

He scanned the horizon and steeled himself. The business card was still in the top pocket of his shirt. He had decided. He went to the taverna and asked to use their telephone.

 

‘Ladies and gentlemen, he sold that vineyard. And within a year the developers had starting building the most luxurious apartment buildings ever seen in the region, occupying the most prime real estate in Carcavelos – indeed, some would say in the whole of Portugal. And the views, of course, are simply without equal.’

The crowd was absolutely silent, holding their numbered paddles, ready.

The auctioneer cleared his throat. ‘We can now commence the bidding. Lot number 71 is the first of four stunningly beautiful penthouse apartments in the Bela Vista building. Who will start me at one million?’

Dozens of hands shot up.

 

Afterword

In 1983, there were only ten hectares of vineyard left in Carcavelos; the rest of it had succumbed to Lisbon’s encroaching conurbation. This last patch was saved by the Portuguese Ministry of Agriculture, who subsequently established a new brand of Carcavelos. Today, it is still being produced, allowing Carcavelos to live on. Just.

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