Because Some Of You Still Read, Right? (November 2016 Wine Products Roundup)

I’ve been inundated with wine book samples this month (which I’ll not is November 2016, for posterity’s sake, and for those of you still sobering up from Thanksgiving), both the electronic and the good, old-fashioned dead-tree varieties. And so, I’m going to use this edition of the wine product roundup to give you a little taste of the current wine book scene (all prices noted are for hardcover editions). Hugh Johnson Pocket Wine Guide 2017Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine 2017: 40th Anniversary by Hugh Johnson ($16.99, Mitchell Beazley) Bottom line: highly recommended. Every year for the last several years, I’ve received a sample of the latest edition in this series. Every year for the last several years, I think that this insanely useful little gem cannot possibly get any more insanely useful. Every year for the last several years, I have been wrong, and 2016 continues the trend. The high bar that’s been set for ...
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How to Drink Like a Billionaire
I Taste Red

Why journos SHOULD accept freebies

There has been much chatter, and Twitter, about the payment and potential corruption of critical journalism recently. George Monbiot on 29 Sept 2011, performed an ethical striptease that has shaken the journo tree to its roots, and I can assure you he did not leave his hat on. Hacks’ public reputations as bad as derivatives traders, or even MPs?

Tim Atkin and Jamie Goode have led reasoned arguments on behalf of wine writers, whilst Jim Budd is ethically fuming, if not yet fully unclothed.

I don’t consider myself a journalist since my bills are paid courtesy of a “day” job in software, but I do post my views on a public website and pass comment on wine, food and the like. So I thought I better put my size tens into the debate and share my thoughts.

Firstly in the interests of my own personal disclosure, this is dead simple. I make no money out of Confessions of a Wino. I accept no advertising. Running the site costs me less than £100 per year. I do get sent wine samples and invited to wine tastings although it is clear from my posts where this is the case. I would estimate that I buy over 90% of the wine I review, and I have paid for my meal in every restaurant I have ever written about.

But enough about me. Wider and more professional journalism is really what is on trial. The relationship between reader and writer has changed since the internet became ubiquitous. Nobody wants to pay for content any more. Once it was possible to find information about, say, fine wines, only by paying an expensive subscription to some glossy magazine or other. Nowadays, you can follow the winemaker on Twitter, and read about his wines from every Tom, Dick and Alastair online, and for free.

Where does this leave the poor journo who cannot afford to write about an expensive subject like wine, because their customer, the media, cannot afford to pay their expenses?

Advertising and independent journalism have always been uncomfortable bedfellows, and since Moses was a lad, there has been the suspicion (and indeed evidence) of backhanders, bribes and other means of influencing the opinion whose readers believed was uncompromised. But, whilst the internet has made it harder to make money out of “straight” journalism, equally it has made it more difficult to hide illicit practices. If Wikileaks doesn’t get you, The Daily Mail will.

So, if the internet has spannered traditional media, where does journalism go from here? As a reader, I still value expert opinion and good writing. Equally I do not have unlimited resources so I need to choose wisely where I spend my money and time, so I am happy to receive advice.

The idea of free samples is age old, not just for the press, but for the general public. Getting people to try your product is a fundamental principle of business – ask any marketing director. It is not bribery. You put your samples out and if the product is good, and people perceive it as fairly priced, you have a recipe for success. As if proof were needed of the importance of this, a subset of marketing, the PR industry, has made a fortune out of enhancing the chances of Joe Public trying products by enticing mainstream or specialist thought leaders to give them oxygen. Imagine how many BMWs Jeremy Clarkson has driven. Does this really influence him to write more positively about the brand? I am sure he has driven as many Vauxhalls by way of free samples, and look at his views on them. It is hard to imagine that a wine journalist can possibly have their opinion “bought” with a glass, or even a bottle of wine.

Problems arise when payments are made, or excessive gifts or hospitality are offered that are not clearly disclosed. In wine terms, reviewing a bottle of Tesco’s latest Pinot Grigio that was received as a sample, or tasted at a press event, is not worth disclosing in my opinion. Attending a gala dinner hosted by a leading wine merchant with vertical tastings of Château Latour going back to 1855 warrants a mention. But I still want the journalists that I read to attend such an event so I can enjoy it vicariously. Providing I know who paid.

You do not have to look very far to find blogs that are merely records of freebies that the author has solicited to fulfil their lifestyle aspiration. I don’t object to that as long as I know. Clearly any opinion in the article has to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the experience can nonetheless be described by the writer and appreciated by the reader.

Furthermore, whilst it is possible for a critic to evaluate the taste, quality, style, beauty, ambience, service and report the cost of something, I believe that it is wrong of reviewers and writers to comment on value unless they have felt the pain in their personal wallets. This includes restaurant critics who expense their meals to their employers.

The internet has offered us aggregated opinion. Reading more than one report of an event, a wine, a play, a restaurant is so easy my dead gran (RIP) could do it. This offers us a defence against undue influence. Easily spotted are those who regularly post sunny sentiment against the tide.

I think a bigger threat to ethics in the media is presented by the owners and how they are influenced, notably by advertisers and by politicians (where troublesome influence flows in both directions), and how this turns into editorial guidance, or the power to simply close a title down to protect the rest of the empire. But these are large, juicy worms that will not be escaping from today’s can.

At journalist level, if we want our press to remain free, in all senses of the word, the new model has to be based on a new level of trust. As long as we know how our media content is influenced and paid for, as a reader I feel mature enough and intelligent enough to make a judgement on whether I trust the opinions offered. The unpalatable alternative is that average people will be priced out of reading as the “broadsheet” media retreats to an elite, albeit more independent, niche where quality journos go largely unread.

London International Wine Fair 2011

 
session 261x174
 

The 2011 London International Wine Fair was fabulous, an extremely well-orchestrated event with many simultaneous tastings, presentations, and lectures that took place in theaters, 'Access Points,' and even 'freestyle' in high-topped chairs within the display of a geographic region or winery.

Masterclasses

Arriving on Tuesday, I started off with the Circle of Wine Writers looking at a series of vertical tastings of Roederer properties including Pichon Lalande. Sylvie Cazes (recently appointed Managing Director of all Louis Roederer properties in Bordeaux) and Mark Bingley MW (Director of MMD) who I met at the Master of Wine "Forging Links" conference in June of last year gave an excellent presentation. Very energetic presentation with some real vintage gems.

Later, I attended the Masterclass called "Chenin & Pinotage—stars of past, present and future"

Johan de Villiers, Senior Winemaker for Stellenbosch winery Spier, took us through mini verticals of top selection Chenin Blanc and Pinotage from their super premium Private Collection range. The seminar revealed many 'winemaker secrets' Master of Wine students crave, and focused on how the quality came to be in the glass. 

John Radford, who is a fabulous Decanter magazine writer, gave an illuminating Masterclass  presentation on Rioja Alavesa & Txakoli wines, and the day finished off with yet another Masterclass presentation on Yarra Valley & Mornington Peninsula wines from Australia, comparing the differences.

This is really the only seminar where people hoping for an open spot on the waiting list  appeared overtly anxious to get in. And in tasting the wines, one could see the excitement in both the winemakers present, and the crowd who clearly was eager to learn more. Why? As Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula pinot vines reach their 3rd and 4th decades, the wineshave lost their puppy fat and have emerged with greater elegance, structure, power and length than ever before. Tannins are firm yet fine and the fruit profiles include berry and cherry fruit with savoury earthy complexity. Watch for these wines in the months and years to come.

More Excitement ...

Richard Bampfield, MW, led some fabulous tutored tastings, including Chateau Sociando-Mallet concentrating on the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages, the three which are currently of the greatest commercial importance.(yet with many library gems included).

Respected wine writers Stephen Brook, Anthony Rose, Beverly Blanning MW, and others led a series of seminars on the wines of  Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy’s premium white wine producing region.

The "Access Zone"

Brintex teamed up with the recently established Vrazon, brainchild of social media aficionados Rob McIntosh, Gabriella and Ryan Opaz, to manage The Access Zone this year, which was sponsored by leading UK independent wine importer, Thierry's.

Now this was real fun -- the zone was absolutely packed with people waiting to hear the latest on social media from the Opaz's, Jamie Goode, and other key players on the social media scene. The Zone also had short sessions on how winemakers can make better web sites, more youth-friendly labels, and even 10-minute "speed" advice from the experts.

Just Walking the Floor ...

Every inch of the fair was fun ... look to the left, and there is an MW giving an impassioned talk on Gamay from Beaujolais, with servers handing out each glass in a flight. Or an MW giving a talk on wine from the Loire valley. These scheduled, yet very casual, tastings are welcome because it was not particularly necessary to sign up (one must for a Masterclass) or even schedule it into one's day.

While I'm fortunate to live in Manhattan and have the wine world come visit on a regular basis, it is interesting to spend three days at a wine fair to see the pulse of the international wine world. Until 2012!
 


 

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