Why public broadcasters shouldn’t recommend only supermarket wine

ID-100133089It was a recommendation that was universally panned by a panel of chefs and celebrities, but was made with the best of intentions. When faced with the challenge of matching a red wine with a venison dish on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen back in November, Tim Atkin MW, the wine expert for the episode, decided on a bottle of Cotes du Rhone.

Good choice. I like Cotes du Rhone and, I suspect, a lot of other people who watch James Martin’s programme like it as well. But there was a catch. This bottle of Cotes du Rhone must be chosen within the confines of a series of counter-intuitive and restrictive BBC rules. Ah yes.

Now, I lack the specific wording of these rules (in other words, I haven’t seen them), but in all the years I have watched Saturday Kitchen, I have a pretty good idea of what they might be. It seems that the wine recommended must cost less than £10 (perhaps even less than this?) and be widely available in the UK supermarkets that have large wine selections (ASDA, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose).

If you’re hoping to see a wine from an independent merchant appear on the show, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

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On this particular episode, Mr Atkin’s wine, Les Dauphins Cotes du Rhone Villages from Waitrose, sank like a lead weight. The panel, which consisted of James Martin, Jun Tanaka, Bill Bailey and, er, somebody else, showed less excitement for it than a teenager would give to a beige minivan.

Having spent £6.49 on this wine that same evening, my opinion of it was no different from James, Jun, Bill and company. After opening the bottle, the reaction was more of an ‘oh’ rather than an ‘ah!’

Sure, it tasted of wine and fruit, and it even had a very small, subtle hint of those spicy, peppery flavours you’d expect from a Cotes due Rhone. But it had a rough and unpleasant side to it as well, like that cheap jug wine you buy at the side of the road in the Languedoc for 10 euros per demijohn.

There wasn’t anything necessarily wrong with it for a cheap Cotes du Rhone. Nothing wrong with it, that is, if you don’t mind red wine that is watery, lacking in any real flavour and encourages you to rinse out your mouth with drain cleaner.

What did we expect when a watery Cotes du Rhone that has all the complexity of distilled water was paired with a rich plate of venison? Words like ‘profound’ and ‘captivating’ were never going to be uttered.

If this wine seems familiar to you, perhaps you have read about it over on the Sediment Blog, where it was described as thus:

It has a blast like a bath cleaning product. That departs to leave a rather acrid yet strangely shallow drink, entirely absent of such declared constituents as fruits,spices or indeed flavours.

This was never Tim Atkin’s fault. He usually recommends good wines and never anything he wouldn’t drink himself. However, given the choice, I don’t doubt he would have selected something a little finer from the Waitrose selection. Or he might have avoided the supermarket altogether and opted for something from an independent merchant.

This final point was brought to the front of my mind this week when I stumbled across two articles on wine selection. First is a piece by Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine critic, who explored the reasons why his readers struggle to find the wines he recommends in his column.

At the same time, I found a piece in Harper’s Wine and Spirits by Joelle Nebbe-Mornod of Aline Wines, who challenged the producers of Saturday Kitchen to recommend wine from independent retailers rather than rely upon supermarkets for all of their recommendations.

Both of these articles outline a major problem – as well as a solution. The problem with wine recommendations on TV or in national newspapers, and Saturday Kitchen in particular, is that they often seem to abide by a BBC rule that demands they choose wine from mass-market retailers, most often the largest supermarkets in the land.

Presumably, this rule exists to ensure the wine recommendations are affordable and easy for any viewer or reader to find. But often this means that the wines selected are underwhelming and boring. And in the case of the BBC’s cookery programme, it seems to break the network’s fundamental opposition to product promotion.

By only recommending wines sold in large supermarkets, it promotes brands and corporations in two ways: the supermarkets that sell the wine and the wines themselves, which are often from large producers.

It seems the BBC believes that, if unique and interesting wines from independent retailers were recommended, the majority of viewers would not be able to buy them. But, as discussed by Asimov and Nebbe-Mornod, the rise of online retailing is increasingly making this less of a problem.

In the UK, online sales made up 12.7% of all retail sales in 2012, statistics from the Centre for Retail Research show. This is not only a larger market share than the rest of Europe and the US, but it is also rising. More people are buying goods online – including wine – and this is only going to accelerate.

We can’t ignore that supermarkets still have the lion’s share of wine sales in the UK and are likely to continue to do so as they drive their sales online, but there is a vibrant and healthy independent sector as well. And this independent sector is selling its wine online as well.

I’m sure if Mr Atkin had been given the chance to recommend a Cotes du Rhone from an independent retailer, his chances of finding a winner would have been a lot better.

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Give it to me straight: Why consumers lose when wine critics shy away from negative reviews

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By Renee Vimmerstedt / Contributor

While I tend to poke fun at shy away from the deep, philosophical conversations about wine, there are a few subjects that will draw me in. One topic is “free wine”. By “free wine” I mean wine that is accepted at no cost by wine critics and other wine writers for the purposes of being reviewed. Another is the question as to why so few bad reviews are published.

These are not new topics. In fact, I find they are often connected. But the questions that arise in debates about these topics never seem to get answered.  For this reason alone I think there is merit in revisiting them once in a while.

When it comes to wine reviews, I lump folks into two categories. The first group would be the professional critics who earn a living (even if indirectly) based on their opinions and ratings of wine. The Robert Parkers and Jancis Robinsons of the world are included in this group. The other group is made up of, frankly, everyone else out there who shares an opinion on the subject. This includes enthusiasts, wine trade workers, hobbyists and amateur bloggers (This blog included! – Ed).

My question about free wine is not about the fact that it exists. What wine lover wouldn’t love a free sample? But, should there be some accountability or responsibility that comes with receiving free wine for review purposes? Now, not every reviewer gets free wine. Most are not offered it and many, in fact, refuse it.

Robert Parker, for one, is known for “paying his own way”. But those who do receive free samples tend to wield a certain amount of influence over their followers. Whether the reviewers use social media, print media or a combination, wine producers would not waste their advertising and marketing budget sending free wine to people who do not have a decent, reputable following.

I think it can be safely assumed that when a sample bottle of wine is sent to someone for a review, there is some hope that it will result in a glowing write-up that will then be passed on to consumers and, ultimately, result in sales dollars for the wine producer. But is a sale the only thing they seek? And is a reviewer sampling wine any different from other types of marketing research that involve product trials?

Manufacturers have used product trials for years to determine product quality and consumer appreciation. Of course they want to hear the positive feedback. But anyone who produces a product should be interested in knowing what doesn’t work. This isn’t necessarily possible if no one is willing to write a negative review. While producers are interested in making a sale, they are also without a doubt interested in knowing what is liked and not liked about their wine.

So are wine producers any different from other manufacturers who do product trials? I feel I should inject at this point that no matter how much “love” or “philosophy” goes into the making of wine, make no mistake, a winery is a business. They have accountants and marketing directors, and the owners are quite rightly concerned about making sure the business is profitable.

Many reviewers who receive free wine have a written policy that states they neither guarantee a good review nor (more importantly) any review at all. Is this fair? I would suggest not. Wineries and readers cannot assume that a reviewer didn’t like their wine simply because a review was never written. Who is to say the reviewer simply didn’t get around to it? And who knows, maybe they needed a last-minute gift?

I often hear from wine critics who say they don’t see any point in wasting their time talking about bad wine. But don’t they have a responsibility to the consumers who depend on their recommendations? Let’s face it, wine reviews are not written for the person who reviewed the wine. That’s what tasting notebooks, apps and databases are for. These reviews are being made public as a recommendation to others. So critics don’t mind steering someone towards a wine that in their opinion is worthy of drinking, but do not feel an obligation to steer folks away from a wine they do not feel is up to par?

Here is my big question: Why does anyone tolerate this, whether they are the wineries who make the wine or the consumers who are bombarded with mostly glowing reviews? Some of the question of responsibility needs to be laid at the feet of the wine producers, distributors and others who dole out the wine. If they send free wine to 100 reviewers and three of those reviews were less than favorable, would that not seem to them a fairly good overall result? If 75 of the 100 reviewers give it a bad review, that should speak volumes to the winemakers. They should insist on a review if they are sending out wine for that purpose.

Here are a couple of ideas to think about. It would be good to see the wine critics and amateur reviewers step things up a notch on the accountability side. Publish the good, the bad and the indifferent reviews. As for the wineries, it would help if they were more picky about where they sent their samples. For starters, it would be wise not to send free samples to any reviewer who states they will not guarantee a review. If you send and they fail to review, then that reviewer is removed from future free wine offers.

Now that we’re on the topic of my ideas, how about a really wild one? In product trials, it is common for placebos to be used. They are common in the medical field, but also for foods and beverages. What if wineries threw in the occasional placebo? We all know palates are subjective, but how subjective are they? Could your favourite wine reviewer tell the difference between a winery’s $30 fiano and a $2.99 bottle of pinot grigio? This would not be hard to implement. It would be a simple matter of numbering the bottles and choosing each bottle’s recipient at random. The reviewer would of course have to publish the number of the bottle they reviewed.

Of course, this brings another question. What happens if a bunk review is published? It will be up to the wineries and merchants to decide how they react to the criticism. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I am certain I have not even raised all the right questions. What I am certain of is that it is a disservice to wine consumers if they have only the positive information on wine and none of the negative.

For some critics, having to publish reviews on every wine they receive, whether good or bad, will take the fun out of the job for them. Call me a killjoy, but I am happy with that if it means I am getting better, more complete information. I am also certain that no harm has ever come from expecting integrity and accountability of those who review products.

Renee Vimmerstedt is a US-based wine enthusiast

Why we should probably just ignore wine scores and focus on drinking the stuff

Wine scores. Both loved and loathed by everyone in the wine profession, they have become a necessary evil as consumers seek out scores as guidance when deciding on what to drink.

After several years of trying to develop my own way of accurately scoring the wines I consume, I’ve come to the conclusion I am as flummoxed by the process as I ever have been. And therein lies my problem. If I can’t get it right, how can the casual wine enthusiast?

It seems many people in the wine world are embroiled in a debate about the way people review and rate wines. And it also seems people spend more time obsessing about wine scores than actually drinking the stuff.

Me, I find it all a bit too confusing than it’s worth. Some people advocate the 100-point system because it provides precision or – shudder – ‘granularity’. Others, meanwhile, prefer the 20-point system, which does the same with decimals, and then there are those who say ratings are really just pointless (I am aware of the pun).

Where wine scores have gone wrong is when they shift from being an innocent way of grading a wine to what can only be described as a critic’s grandiose display of machismo.

This was a great value Bourgogne for the money but if I had to give you a score I’d be at a loss to tell you.

Look no further than American critic James Suckling and the videos where he is seen shouting out scores as he whips through a series of wines, offering up numbers so quickly it makes me wonder if he’s simply pulling them out of the air.

“I’m 98-plus on that!” he said about one wine, then boldly exclaimed, “100 points. Perfect wine,” about another.

A perfect wine? Really?

If Dirk Niepoort, winemaker at Niepoort in Portugal, has anything to say about the topic, he thinks the notion of a perfect wine can be a bad thing. Why? Because it will cause prices to skyrocket and make the wines unattainable for many customers.

My gut tells me the process of rating a wine out of 100 is more arbitrary than its proponents want us to believe. Do I need to know something is an 88 as opposed to an 87? Of course not.

I can also assure you, if you asked me to tell you if the Montagne-St-Emilion I bought from The Winemaker was an 84 or an 87, I would fail.

When it comes down to it, the best way to recommend wine is to talk about it and share what is being experienced rather than apply a score to it that comes with little explanation. If only everyone else would agree.

What I’ve been drinking lately:

A South African Bordeaux-style blend…

In a tenuous link to wine scores and reviews, I came up against this quandary the other day when I had been asked to review a bottle of wine for Wines of South Africa through Twitter.

The bottle in question was a Vilafonté Series M 2009, a red Bordeaux-style blend containing a surprising 46% malbec.

Here were my [edited yet still incredibly stuffy] tweets about the wine:

“Vilafonté Series M 2009. Deep ruby, vanilla on the nose, baked dark fruits, spice.

“In mouth, more vanilla, dark fruits, higher alcohol, medium acidity, nice gripping tannins.

“I’m getting tobacco/cigar box, some leather. A touch more oak than I would prefer. Love the cepages.”

Nowhere in there could I come up with a score for this wine. Was it an 86? A 90? Maybe a 95? I have no idea.

It was a great wine, but I also thought it was too oaky and, if anyone has read my work on 12×75, you’ll know I’m not the biggest fan of over-oaked wines.

You can find this wine and previous vintages at Winedirect for £27.49.

And some great English rosé…

This past weekend I decided to make the most of the sunshine and do something I just don’t do often enough: drink more rosé.

The bottle in question was Hush Heath’s Nannette’s English Rosé 2010, a bottle that came from the Wine Pantry in Borough Market as a gift from my friend Geoff.

Made from the three most commonly used grapes in Champagne – pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay – it is the same wine used in the firm’s English sparkling rosé, but the still version comes from the ‘taille’ from the pressing.

When making sparkling wine in the Champagne style, a ‘cuvee’ comes from the first 2,050 litres of wine pressed from 4,000 kg of grapes, while the ‘taille’ is the final 500 litres.

This is a refreshing, subtle and dry rosé with a dose of strawberries and fruit as well as a mineral element to make it a refreshing choice on a hot day. Buy it at the Wine Pantry for £16.

Are wine critics blurring ethical boundaries?

ASK ANYONE WHO is trained as a journalist about professional ethics and you will almost certainly find yourself in a lengthy conversation on the topic. In my experience this is particularly the case if the journalist comes from North America, where ethical guidelines are beaten into budding reporters the moment they first set foot in journalism school.

It is for this reason the recent focus on some wine critics’ activities surrounding tasting events gives me cause for concern. This week James Suckling has been scrutinised for possibly taking payment to taste wines for the Quebec wine board, Société des alcools du Québec. And in late 2011 the wine press was stirred into a frenzy over allegations involving Pancho Campo MW charging Spanish wineries for access to The Wine Advocate’s review Jay Miller, among other things.

Whether or not any genuinely unethical behaviour took place is still to be determined. It might not have happened at all, it could all have been an honest misunderstanding or perhaps the ethical boundaries were so blurred no one thought twice about it. Or, perhaps, it was indeed unethical and those involved thought they could get away with it. It is not for me to draw conclusions without knowing all of the facts.

Nevertheless, this is an issue that clearly needs to be discussed in the wine trade. From a journalist’s point of view, editorial independence is the bedrock of the profession. Without it, we have no credibility.

Being paid to do a job, such as writing reviews for a magazine, is one thing, but to be paid to review wine for an organisation that either produces the wine or sells it is another matter altogether. Such a relationship could lead to biased reviews and, given the value of the wine market, any bouts of impropriety would be damaging to those working in wine journalism.

It is one thing to receive samples from wineries, distributors and retailers for the purpose of reviewing (as is the case for music and film reviewers), but it is another thing to be given freebies and kickbacks that could sway a critic’s opinion.

If the allegations are true, it is a sign the wine press needs to take a long look at itself and consider developing a code of ethics for writers to abide by. This would be no small feat. But if achieved, it would go a long way to setting standards for everyone to follow.

Photo: Patou

Most of what critics say will be lost on you

This is not a statement of snobbery. This is not an argument that wine should be saved only for those who can appreciate it. Nor is this an argument that people who aren’t all that fussed about the nuanced flavours in wine are somehow ignorant.

No.

The fact is that some people can taste all those things and some can’t. And it’s not necessarily something we can control, either.

Okay, so we’ve all heard that a bunch of academics recently reported on this notion of some people being “supertasters” who can detect more flavours with their tongues than those airport X-ray machines can illicit liquids and objects. That these are people with a genetic gift who, by virtue of their abilities, for some reason also gravitate toward the wine profession.

Apparently this is a fact. Fine. I had initially tried to deny it, believing instead that wine enthusiasts develop this trait over time and after countless hangovers and hundreds of dollars/pounds of teeth-whitening treatments. But as one critic writes in the Globe and Mail, the genetic argument may in fact convince me.

But all this academic mumbo -jumbo is not the only reason why what wine critics say will be lost on people. There is a much more straightforward reason, and that is because wine critics write for people who are a lot like them, not the average person on the street who probably just wants to be swayed to something other than Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc for a change.

Some people just want to be directed to something that won’t disappoint them, rather than be told that they should be able to pick out flavours of cedar, violet and that aromatic dry grass you get on rocky hillsides in August.

Most people justHokey pokey ice cream want to know why a certain wine is worth looking at, what it might taste like in terms that they understand (does graphite or forest floor really matter to the average person?) and whether it is drier than a scorpion’s armpit in Death Valley or more saccharine than a politician kissing a baby.

Take the ice cream cone to the left. I bought it when I was in New Zealand in February. It’s called hokey pokey, which is apparently a distinctly Kiwi flavour. If you were asking me to tell you what it tastes like and whether I’d recommend it, I’d say it’s a vanilla ice cream with lumps of honeycomb toffee mixed through. Would I recommend it? Yes – if you like vanilla ice cream with chunks in it.

I wouldn’t get bogged down by the intricate flavours in the ice cream (although I imagine aficionados might) or discuss whether the vanilla is strong or weak enough to stand up to the texture and sweetness of the toffee. Actually, if I wanted, I probably could, but most people I know don’t want that much information. Is it good? Yes or no.

I could, of course, be completely misinterpreting all of this, but I think sometimes people just want an honest opinion without all the ponce. This doesn’t change the fact that, if you’re writing for a publication like Decanter or Wine Spectator, the readers want all those details. I read them and I enjoy it. But if your audience isn’t so precise, perhaps people just want you to cut the theatrics and get on with it?