Monday, 2 December 2013

Critical Thinking - Aspiration and Inspiration

In a recession, your job changes; the first line of your job description now reads, Looking after your Job, which in our business means protecting income and lifestyle. The foreign travel and restaurants are perks that some speedily get accustomed to; in fact, the sense of entitlement can become acute when we start living-off other people’s expense accounts - ask Charles Saatchi. PR agencies are awash with tales of irate wine writers ringing-up in the middle of the night to get their rooms changed because “the view isn’t a view, and the pool's too small to do lengths, if it ever warmed-up here, that is!” When people tell me they want my job what they really want is to sit in l’Arpège and Guy Savoy, though for my part, I’m never at home in these surroundings; there will always be part of me stuck in the Salford fish and chip shop where my family’s culinary roots were first put down.

The wine trade is in a mess. After years of expansion, people are drinking less wine, and once you strip out the Chancellor’s duty accelerator, they aren’t spending much more either. Robert Joseph continues to offer a Gibbon-style analysis of this decline and is fastidious and clear in his warning that if we don’t change our thinking now we won’t even be afforded the luxury of repeating past mistakes.

Everyone has their theory as to what went wrong - over-supply, cosy relationships between press and trade, discounting – but in 30 years of growth, the UK wine trade failed to significantly increase  equity within the category, and most wine drinkers view the different regions of production with a sense of equivalence that’s reinforced by an alternating offer in which the World displays all its diversity at discounted prices.

The situation is no better in the on-trade. “Support” is needed to facilitate many listings, and support has morphed from retros and incentives to upfront payments that have as many noughts as those premium bond cheques whose winners used to be paraded on the ITN news back in the 80s. Sommeliers can seem embarrassed at times, passing on the corporate neediness of an unseen FD - “And this guy” they will tell you, “doesn’t care if your Chablis is bigger than the other guy’s Petit Chablis, he just wants to see the size of your wad.”

What a lot of us are wondering – journalists, buyers, salesmen, managers - is what’s next? Like economists calling the end to the recession, we need to see a couple of quarters of growth and greater spend to confidently announce a recovery, but quite where and how this will come about is not clear. Jamie Goode recently challenged Robert Joseph to offer solutions rather than, as he saw it, challenges. I have some sympathy with Jamie Goode; I once joined a company that had a vortex of MBAs at its centre. Every week they confronted me about wine profitability (not their core business), put hurdles in my way and then forced me to jump over them. I took their questioning in good faith; I believed they were leading me in a particular direction - to an answer - but after 6 months of inquisition, I realised I was just going around the same piece of track, jumping the same hurdles. We were all lost.

On twitter, Tim Atkin MW offered “inspiration” and Robert Joseph “aspiration” as possible remedies for the trade’s current malaise. That day, Tim Atkin was inspiring 3000 people in Manchester with stories and wine, an effort which Robert Joseph likened to a “finger in the dyke”.  Joseph suggested that Parker 100s had created a culture of aspiration in the States, which still persists. Aspiration develops an aura of desirability, whereas inspiration promotes interest and access through improved understanding and education.

As bystanders to the argument, we don’t have to take a side. Both arguments are persuasive, and I think by accepting one you don’t exclude the force of the other. I’d raised “inspiration” in a previous exchange, when I wanted to draw out some similarities between books and wines. I don’t think Robert Joseph took exception to my likening the trade to a community of deluded literary critics who mistakenly thought people read Jackie Collins as a preamble to Dickens. Part of the misguided thinking of the 1990s was a belief that consumers who bought their wine from the supermarket gondola-ends were stepping onto our escalator; all we had to do was wait at the top and skim them off with lists of expensive Claret and Burgundy. It never happened.

The Robert Parker argument proposed by Robert Joseph is intriguing; Parker awarded 100s, but he also slammed underperforming Cru Classés. In a tweet last week, Steve Heimoff said that he could avoid giving low scores to his friends’ wines by writing rather than scoring.  I replied at the time that Heimoff’s attitude illustrated the difference between a fact and telling the truth, and that consumer trust didn’t arise from the facts, but from the truth behind the facts.  Robert Parker gained our trust and encouraged aspiration because he incorporated this distinction into his criticism from the start. The 100 point scores wouldn’t have meant so much if he wasn’t red-inking 50s to the underperformers at the bottom of the class.

The relationship between the press and producers is complicated. As Chris Kissack reminded me the other day, the critic must always be on the side of the consumer, never the producer. Chris is very principled and, as far as I’m aware, funds his own trips, but his expertise resides in the Loire and Bordeaux, short-haul destinations. Funding your own trips to Australia, South Africa and New Zealand is beyond the means of flying journalists, so inevitably there is a conflict of interest if they accept the hospitality of trade bodies or producers. I am not sure if this can be resolved other than by charging for content. I am with Tim Atkin and Chris Kissack on this inasmuch as you forfeit your right to criticise them if you are not prepared to pay for their content. We must recognise our part in this economy of trust; we shouldn’t expect their output to be free, and if we do, we have no grounds to doubt their integrity. I would go further: I would argue that paying for content builds trust, and is part of the solution to our current woes. Aspiration needs to be grounded in trust.

Just as a neglected truth is required for the establishment of trust, so, I believe, there is a forgotten but shared truth anchoring our interest in wine.  Wine has a primal scene: it is the unbroken process of production - viticulture and enology - achieved and guided by human force and sensibility. Proximity and human agency, the coalescence of viticulture and religious devotion delivered us Burgundy, but these artisanal attributes became repressed through wine’s industrial evolution. The expansion of the wine business in the 80s and 90s exaggerated an already established trend for discontinuity within production. Mechanisation, contract growing and increased scale dehumanized the conception of wine, and caused us to forget the deeply personalised origins of our trade. Inevitably for some industrialisation is a heresy, but I am sure Damien Wilson is correct when he says that wine has to expand in order to protect itself; I think it is enough that we should remember and respect what came before, and thus resist the temptation to believe that there is an easy equivalence between the artisanal and the industrial. If we can hold onto this distinction and keep it separate from complicated considerations of terroir and appellation (the meaningless and the failed, from my point of view), we might nurture the same kind of interest and care for production that has helped develop value in categories like bread, whisky and beer. Returning to my analogy of hapless literary critics, the trade developed a delusion of uniformity: we started talking about the cheap stuff as though it had all the intrinsic values of the expensive stuff; it was as if we believed we could flog extra copies of Bleak House by calling Lucky a novel and declaring Jackie Collins the rightful heir to Cervantes.

Interestingly, the Californian wine Industry has a long history of bulk manufacture, but it is the recent increase in artisan and small scale production that has helped drive values up. As Jamie Goode consistently proves with his well-informed coverage of wineries and regions, we can desire both a product and the production of that product. How things are made really matters to some of us. There is a lot of new and untainted wine out there and we have some excellent people covering this emergence of talent; I just happen to believe if we paid them it would be even better.

California is blessed with a great climate and an industry that’s well disposed to developing its customers’ experience with wine. Up to this point, UK wine drinkers have been largely denied this sort of familiarity with production, but now, with the growth in domestic estates, vineyard access has never been easier, and a combination of cellar-door sales and chauvinism might help us to deepen consumer interest in the product. The UK industry is young and premium-priced, it just has to be very watchful about how it goes about nurturing its reputation; you are not going to maintain people’s trust for long by calling 2012 a good vintage.

 In my blog on the 1855 Classification, I warned about the dangers of rationalising wine into groupings and hierarchies. The 1855 classification is hyperbolic; it created its own reality of division by restraining opportunity for the majority of estates. From the Jura to Muscadet, individual producers were branded with an appellation name the value of which was determined by the worst offerings of the region. There was no escape, no consideration, and no incentive to change; the fate of individual growers was bound to the laziest and least sanitary domaines within the appellation’s boundaries. Now, with the advent of social-media, we are witnessing the democratisation of opportunity, and the concomitant weakening of the INAO’s authority. Regions long repressed by AOC law are beginning to flourish; their estates are profiled; the previously anonymous detail is being brought into the light. The hegemony of Burgundy and Bordeaux is loosening. There has never been a better time to be a wine drinker, if you have money and an open-mind.

The UK wine trade is in a period of decline and change. Last time I saw him, John Hoskins MW astutely remarked, “That perhaps the old stuff needs to die-off so that the new stuff can come through.” It’s not just the wine market that’s altering, production is too; among the vines there is a churn of birth, reinvention and mortality. Wine's New Testament march around the Globe has slowed, though the personnel that brought that burgeoning offer to the UK are still largely in control of it. At the time, I thought John was referring to Australia – he was backed against a fantastic wall of antipodean bottles - but reflecting on what he said now, I’m not so sure he wasn’t just talking about me.


No comments:

Post a Comment