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?