17 Dec 2012

The Natalie Maclean case and ethics in wine writing

Wine site Palate Press says wine writer Natalie Maclean "appears to be building her reputation, and her business, on the work of others". In this latest piece she is accused of reproducing other writers' reviews without properly attributing them. Secondly, commenters below the line also accuse her of charging winemakers a fee if they want her to review their wines.

I'm not commenting on the specifics of the Natalie Maclean case, but in general terms the first point seems pretty clear – it's a given that if you quote from someone else's work, at the very least you properly cite the source. News organisations do this all the time – newspapers report a story or quote that was previously an 'exclusive' in another paper – and they cite (or should do) the original paper somewhere in their article ('…the Sun reported'). So that's it. Attribute sources properly. Even better, make your own content where you can.

But point 2) raises some more interesting stuff, some grey areas. Average readers might rightly be shocked by the thought of a writer asking for a fee to review someone's wine. But how widespread is this? How many other wine writers have taken something in exchange – not necessarily cash, maybe a gift or hospitality or whatever – in return for running a review?

Writing as a profession has to be commercially viable. How you make it so is the challenge.

Well respected wine awards might choose to charge fees for people to submit their wines. Publications (not just wine) might give more editorial space to advertisers. Wine writers might be paid by retailers to write for their magazines or appear in their marketing brochures (incidentally the pressure to do this might grow as writers try to make a living while readers increasingly expect not to pay for content).

Wine writers often have their travel to vineyards paid for by someone. That someone, maybe a winemaker/region/PR, is doing so in the knowledge they'll get much sought-after editorial space in exchange. They're not doing it for the greater good.

Which of the above points are ethically sound or not? And for example with the last point about travel to vineyards etc, what's the best alternative? Writers paying their own way for all their samples and travel? Then who's going to be able to afford to be a wine writer? There's a serious point behind all those red-trouser jokes after all – the wine industry might be more accessible than it once was, but it still comes across as about as diverse as the current cabinet.

This raises the kind of issues freelance journalist George Monbiot talks about here, in his decision to disclose all of his payments throughout the year.

Once criticism gets commercial, what's ethical and what isn't?

12 Sep 2012

A bargain cheap red wine – Aldi Côtes du Rhône 2011 at £3.65

Côtes du Rhône, £3.65 at Aldi
I think this is brilliant value at £3.65. Yes, if you can afford a tenner for your "house wine" then fair enough, but if like many people you don't have loads of cash and you want a decent red wine for glugging on the sofa, I think this is better than many bottles you'd get for five or six quid.

At this price I'd expect a wine to go one of two ways: too sweet and jammy if from the New World, or completely dilute and lacklustre if, as in this case, it came from the Old World. But this manages to avoid both – it's got nice red fruit flavours, it's balanced and it's easy drinking.

At this price it's obviously not going to be amazingly complex, but it's like one of those great value house red wines you'd be served in a carafe at a low-key French bistro. So it works a treat with an easy midweek meal – a ready meal maybe, a pizza, something else that takes minutes to make. It went nicely with pasta and pesto.

Maybe we should be concerned at how anyone can sell a wine this cheap. Who's losing out somewhere along the line? But then again, there are not necessarily any ethical guarantees if you splash out silly money either.

When you think of clothes I do cringe when I see Primark or Asda selling tops for, say, £3 – sweatshops come to mind – but then again expensive high fashion ain't necessarily ethical either. And perhaps there's a lot of corruption in expensive wine too – drinkers of fine wine will have to be sure their own bottles are super ethical before they criticise poorer shoppers who have less choice in what they buy. But you do wonder what the producers get from wine at this price.

Anyway purely from a bargain point of view this is a great buy. It also gets better after it's been open for a bit, so maybe try pouring it into a jug for the full Parisian bistro effect to get a bit of air to it, or just leave it in your glass for 10 minutes or so while your food's cooking.

30 Aug 2012

Freddie King's Ain't No Sunshine and some nice Italian red wine

How good is this; the epitome of cool. Freddie King doing a version of Ain't No Sunshine.

Freddie King tragically died at 42. I love the story on his Wikipedia page saying he would drink bloody marys "in lieu of solid food so as not to waste time when setting up shows".

Copertino 2008

I think this video calls for a bittersweet, dusky, honest Italian red wine. Something that tastes real.

Really enjoyed this Copertino 2008 Masseria Monaci the other night, which I bought for a bargain £6.39 a bottle (when buying two Italian wines) at Majestic. Was perfect with a mushroom, lemon and thyme risotto topped with a bit of creamy, earthy cheese.

I find it's the amazing savoury aromas draw you in with many good Italian reds, an earthiness; olives, herbs. I think I once saw these kinds of wines described as walking through an olive grove in and out of dusky shadows.

On first opening, this wine smelt of history, of old antique furniture, which seemed to mellow and give way to other things.

29 Aug 2012

Virtual winetasting: Palataia Pinot Noir 2011

Palataia Pinot Noir 2011
I took part in a virtual tasting of this German pinot noir with @JacquiWine on Twitter, which was great. We simultaneously tasted the wine and tweeted our thoughts, comparing notes.

I really enjoyed the wine, although Jacqui felt it had just something on the finish she wasn't 100% keen on. Perhaps a gamey or meaty note.

And as she pointed out it has a slightly spicy edge to it, which I definitely picked up on in the aroma: a curryish smell almost, like cinnamon. Though with another glass I decided it was the smell of a bonfire.

Quite a savoury wine we both agreed, and I thought it was a bit irony, with some strawberry fruit flavours and, daft as it might sound, the smell of a damp forest. Lots of different smells and flavours to pick up on. I liked it.

As Tim Atkin pointed out, it's very good value at £8.99 from M&S.

18 Aug 2012

Gallo Barefoot Shiraz in the Guardian… should wine critics recommend big-brand wines?

Wine critic Fiona Beckett mentioned a big-brand wine, Gallo Barefoot Shiraz, in her Guardian column today. For some people in the wine trade she might as well have suggested we all try mixing our Grand Cru burgundy with a splash of Fanta. To put it mildly, some people weren't impressed.

Why do people feel so strongly about wine writers recommending big-brand wines? I noticed two main reasons – distinct but linked – being raised and mixed together on Twitter.

Firstly, people said there are lots of smaller, worthy winemakers who care about their land and product and who are loads more in need of a mention in a national paper than a multimillion-dollar brand. Fair point.

Secondly, people said the same kind of thing but about independent wine shops – in other words they said a national newspaper wine critic should be focusing on indie retailers who care about wine, rather than faceless multinationals. Why does this factor come into it, you might think – we're just talking about an individual wine here aren't we, not where to buy the stuff? Well, because as a general rule specialist wine shops prefer to stock interesting wines from the smaller producers who care about where they grow the grapes, rather than huge mass-produced ones. Again fair point.

But my instinct is Fiona Beckett and others are right to recommend wines from all kinds of shops, from all types of producers, big and small – as long as they are good enough.

I've noticed this kind of thing causes people to heat up in the wine world much more than in any other industry I can think of. When someone like Jay Rayner reviews a well-known chain restaurant, which he does occasionally, you do get some comments from Observer readers saying why couldn't he find somewhere more independent/interesting to review that needs the help, but I don't think there's quite the same strength of feeling. I suspect most readers are interested to hear whether or not whatever ubiquitous chain he's reviewing is actually any good or not. And that's with food, where provenance is just as important as in wine.

Film critics review Hollywood blockbuster films all the time, films that are often fairly unoriginal and formulaic. They sometimes give them four or five stars. Does Hollywood need the help of critics? Or should critics only be reviewing small-budget films, or films from indie producers? How do we decide which ones are allowed in?

Music writers review loads of albums that, irrespective of their review, sell in their millions in supermarkets (as well as independent record stores), with huge marketing budgets behind them. Should music writers be handing out four and five-star reviews to Kylie's or Cheryl Cole's or Elbow's new record? Or should it be their job to solely spend their weeks trailing around small but authentic music venues – the natural vineyards of the music world – promoting the as-yet unheard talents that no doubt toil on without public acclaim? Clearly that should be part of their job, but should it be only that? Similarly, should independent record shops be selling mass-produced pop that has no soul, no sense of place? Or, frankly, is there nothing wrong with liking a bit of Kylie when you're in one mood and liking a bit of Bach when you're in another?

Independent wine shops, places I love to spend my (limited) money. They sometimes stock expensive wines made by super-wealthy producers in Bordeaux, Tuscany, California. A lot of people who end up drinking them won't really appreciate the nuances of the wine: they're buying it as a status thing. What are the mark-ups on those wines? Are all of those wines great? No, I'm sure they're not – some of them will be more about marketing than quality or authenticity – but that doesn't mean the whole category should be out of bounds.

My inkling is that most of the people criticising the column are people who work within the wine industry, rather than general consumers. And obviously we should listen to them as they have incisive things to say – people who work in the industry know what they're talking about. And they care.

But inevitably they also see things from the perspective of selling wine as well as buying it. Which changes their slant on things quite a bit (as an aside this is also a big danger for wine critics, I think – becoming part of the industry rather than sitting alongside it – as I notice some writers seem to come as much from an industry as from a consumer perspective at times, but it's a tricky balancing act).

Understandably, if you work in the trade it's painful to see people thoughtlessly chucking homogenous big-brand wines into their trolleys when you're spending your days passionately preaching about real wine, because you absolutely love the stuff and care about it. But for the general reader of the newspaper column – the kind of person for whom wine is a small, passing, enjoyable part of their lives (and a good escape from the recession) but nowhere near an obsession – perhaps they can be drawn in by mentions of the familiar brand and, if they find they enjoy the recommendation, they might just try one of the more interesting recommendations from the column next time round. I think the most successful wine critics of all, people like Oz Clarke and Robert Parker, have done so well partly because they've connected with general consumers rather than just wine geeks.

One other quick thought about how being passionate about wine changes your perspective so much. You might hate the idea of buying a cheap big-brand wine, or buying any wine from a supermarket. But do you live by that philosophy in every other part of your life? Do you only wear 100% ethically sourced, independent, artisan-produced clothes? Are they Fairtrade or made by a local tailor with non-sweatshop fabric? Was your kitchen put in by a local joiner using responsibly sourced wood? Do you have solar panels? Do you own an Apple product? Is your milk and butter organic and sourced from farmers who got paid properly for it? Is your fruit and veg all local? If so, shouldn't you be helping farmers in the developing world? What's the carbon footprint on our wine habits as individuals? Those questions are a bit facetious, but my point is I suspect most people try to do their best with most things but it's impossible to always support the ethical or worthy option in everything you do.

Apologies for the lengthy post – these thoughts have just come to me as I've been writing, as you can probably tell. Which I've done while drinking a glass of Ribera del Duero – which I impulse-bought a bottle of for £5.50 today just after I'd called into a national DIY chain, B&Q.

I bought the wine in a shop packed full of oddities. Aldi. That's pretty much an independent isn't it? Either way, it's not too bad for a fiver.

16 Mar 2012

The problem with expensive wine

Wine writers would love it if the general public spent just a little bit more on wine. The average retail price of a bottle in the UK at the moment is around £5. As wine writers regularly tell us, more than £2.50 of that fiver goes on tax. So on a £5 bottle of wine, less than £2.50 covers everything else – the packaging, the label, the marketing, the transportation and - last and almost least - some pennies on the wine itself. So it's all about mass-production and churning out a reliable, consistent product (gluggable wine) year in year out, with little variation.

But wine lovers like to think of the stuff as noble fruit of the land. They love the fact that the same variety of grape produces such amazingly different liquid when grown in different places; the fact that a wine's flavours can interweave with your memory and take you to another place. And the bonus is while trading up you're supporting an artisan winemaker who cares about what he or she is making and the land they're making it from.

But I think there's a bit of a problem for your average consumer when it comes to spending more on wine. I bet most people only tend to treat themselves a few times a year; at Christmas and on special occasions. And the problem is that when they do, they might be underwhelmed.

Why? Because I reckon when casual drinkers treat themselves to a fancy wine, what they expect to get is an increasingly smooth and fruity version of what they usually drink. Something that instantly makes them go wow, that's smooth, it's beautiful, like nectar. But really a lot of better wines are an acquired taste. For example the texture might actually be more chewy, it might feel gravelly almost, compared to your £5 bottle. And the flavours might be savoury, or just downright strange, rather than fruity and easy-drinking. Or your fancy wine might seem watery somehow, just lacking in some oomph, a bit like eating a pale Golden Delicious instead of your usual bright Pink Lady.

It's like the first time in your life you tried dark chocolate, or an olive, or your dad gave you a taster of his whisky - just so completely different from what you were used to. Snobs pretend they came out of the womb drinking obscure natural Beaujolais or West Coast IPA or listening to whatever the trendy band of the moment is, but they didn't. Most of us grew up on Phil Collins and Blue Nun; Queen and Hofmeister. Our tastes, and fashions, change over time.

Which makes things tricky for critics and indie wine shops, who want people to enjoy the good stuff. It's better, and it's made with care. But although it's a total passion of mine, I understand people who'd rather stick to their cheaper, reliable bottle. Getting into wine can be a slow-burner and needs time and money.

Understandably, loads of people just want to get a bit pissed on the cheap, and if it's a tasty wine then it's a bonus.

15 Mar 2012

My interview with Corinne Bailey Rae: 'Fame is like being bullied'

Photo: Tierney Gearon

I interviewed Corinne Bailey Rae and the piece has now been published in A Style Guide to Leeds: Live It Love It 2012. It's an annual guide put together by Marketing Leeds, which goes out to places like high-end hotels and airlines to promote the city and its culture. It's a really nice looking publication.

I met Corinne at a record shop in Leeds called Jumbo Records, a great independent that's been going strong for over 40 years. It was really striking when I spoke to Corinne's manager Mark DiDia at the store how much he liked Jumbo; he mentioned that so much music is now bought online or in big supermarkets rather than in specialist stores. (And I guess in that last sentence you could replace the word music for wine, or meat, or cheese, or books, or pretty much anything else.)

You can read my interview with Corinne Bailey Rae here.

And here's Corinne with a great performance of I'd Do It All Again, from a 2009 episode of the BBC's Later With Jools Holland.

14 Mar 2012

Wine scores: for consumers or for critics?

A lot of wine critics rate all of the wines they taste out of 100.

This is obviously a bit daft. Rating them out of 10 or 20, maybe - or it could be useful when tasting a lot of wines at once - but being able to taste one wine in isolation and scoring it out of 100? Nah, it's daft.

If you're lucky enough to have an incredible wine experience - the kind of thing where the world around you lights up as you take a sip, the perfume and texture of the wine being absorbed into your every sinew, a feeling of poignancy emerging up your body as the wine slides down - this kind of experience is beyond the realms of a number. It'd be disrespectful to assign it a rating. It'd be like rating your friends or loved ones. Or your favourite places in the world, or your most memorable life experiences. The most powerful things in life, the most moving, the most unique to you, the most sacred. Can you rate them out of 100?

Robert Parker and the anti-flavor elite

American critic Robert Parker is the most successful at rating wines out of 100. His scores can dictate the selling price of fancy wines. But a lot of British writers in particular don't seem to be his biggest fans. They criticise him for liking a style of wine they don't like (he favours rich, full wines with relatively sweet fruit; they don't). While he amusingly refers to them as "the anti-flavor wine elites".

Wine scores: for consumers, or for critics themselves?

I may be wrong but I get the impression with some British wine writers their heart isn't in it when they award 100-point scores, but they do it anyway. Because to not award scores would be to miss out on the opportunity to share in Parker's success. Critics rightly make a big play of having the consumer's welfare at heart, but really - understandably - they're out for themselves too. They're not one-person charities who've decided to give up their lives and livelihoods to help consumers find good wines like vinous Mother Teresas. They're earning a living. (Evidence of this can be seen in the countless articles and debates about the decline of wine columns and wine writers' salaries.) They're trying to help consumers find good wines, which is great, while also trying to make a good living out of it themselves. Where that balance of priorities lies will of course be different for all critics. But if I was reluctantly rating wines out of 100 because I felt like it was the done thing, but had little confidence it made sufficient sense for consumers, I'd stop doing it.

Can the consumer who's mildly interested in wine reliably compare the ratings of different critics? And can they multiply by five a critic's rating out of 20 to create an equivalent 100-point score? No, and no.

Sine Qua Non wine: very poor or perfect?

Sunday Express wine writer Jamie Goode has written an interesting blogpost about a wine called Sine Qua Non Shot in the Dark, which he believes is 86% good, whereas Parker thinks it's a 100% perfect wine.

Now if you're an average consumer with no more than a passing interest in wine, you might reasonably assume 86 means it's still a pretty good buy, even if it's not perfect (a score of 70 at a British university is typically a first class honours). But in his post, Jamie says "this is actually a poor wine". So 86 means poor - yet I know that wines scoring 89 and upwards are very good. So a lot of ground must be covered in 87 and 88.

Jamie Goode's post raises some good questions about objectivity and subjectivity. And it got me thinking: what proportion of a critic's 100-point score relates to the objective quality of the wine, and what proportion is about how much the critic enjoyed the wine?

Because you might accept Shakespeare was a genius, but hate his plays. In which case, what score for Romeo & Juliet?