Monday, 7 December 2015

The Demon Marketing

Wine marketers must envy colleagues who work on car campaigns.  A quick-fire round of word association fixes a car brand to any number of prompts: “fast”, “reliable”, “luxury”, “economical”. As I wrote in Meaningless brands from Meaningless Differentiation, consumer car knowledge is almost entirely mediated by brand familiarity.

Tellingly, when the BBC raided Top Gear to find Oz Clarke a co-presenter they chose James May, the nerdy serial-victim of Clarkson’s goading. The producers of Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure obviously felt that May’s geekish tendencies could be made to stretch to the point where Clarke’s own geekery would take over. May bridged the gap between the audience and Oz; a sort of boozy, tri-lingual Vulcan intermediary who could scrutinise his co-host’s Klingonese for sense.

Car production has a brief history when compared to wine, particularly if we include caveman’s fluffed attempts to store grapes through the periglacial winter. On wine’s elongated timeline Henry Ford is one of us, and “Fordism” a thoroughly modern matter. The Model T came with a slogan: ”Any colour you want as long as it’s black”. Mass production and mass marketing interpenetrated one another. Post-war American men, it’s often said, were more familiar with the Ford logo than they were with the clitoris. Advertising understands the value of substitution and the affirmative nature of desire. A Ford, after all, would never say “No!” to a man.

Let me make it clear from the outset: I’m not writing this piece out of some general disillusionment with the digital age and marketing. My position alternates between scepticism and usage, because I market myself, albeit in a fairly impoverished way. My online persona is purged of negativity; and these criticisms are being made from within digital space.

One of the advantages of the digital community, unlike the cemetery, is that it swells without taking up more space. The Côte d’Or is similarly paradoxical. In Cultural Terroir, I analysed the concept of terroir in terms of divisionism. Wine production always has the potential to split - one can become two - and the elements formed through this division are held in a relation of proximity and difference. Accordingly, terroir becomes a network of differences dispersed in space, but always with the potential to split again, adding more folds to an already involuted organisation. Identity is subordinate to difference, and unstable.

Gilles Deleuze writes of classification: “It is always a matter of bringing together things that are apparently very different, and separating the very close.” The terrain of the Côte d’Or is segregated into vineyards, which in turn are classified all the way from generic up to Grand Cru. If the region hadn’t become such a monument to the historical process of division then one could imagine an even more detailed plan; after all, Aubert de Villaine speaks openly of the differences across Romanée-Conti.

However we divide terroir’s antecedents between man and environment “separating the very close” is the creative force active within the concept. Moreover, this splitting has an elevated sensibility at its centre.  Kant writes in Book III of his Critique that aesthetic judgements should be “disinterested”, which in the context of 18th Century rationalism means something like “resulting out of nothing but contemplation of an object”.  Whether the Cistercians were trying to map the workings of God is there for genealogical investigation to decide, but their achievements on the Côte d’Or testify to a regime of hard labour and Kantian-style aesthetic absorption.

Eighteen years ago, Mike Paul told a room full of MW students that Romanée-Conti, Château Latour and Rosemount Chardonnay were all brands.  At the time I remember feeling relieved that Mike had offered a definition of “brand”, albeit via a process of extension and inclusion. In that same lecture we were introduced to Brand Australia and Strategy 2025. The Australian wine business wasn’t shy about its vision for the future.

Strategy 2025 was my first encounter with aggressive wine marketing. For those still drinking mother’s milk back in the 80s, believe me, the hostile strategy was delivered with a smile. Australia was set to distance itself from what it saw as the failed model of European wine production through a process of enlargement and customer-focused brand creation. Brands would be developed specifically with the end consumer in mind, with grape variety taking precedence over geographical origin on wine labels. The paradise of the common man was to become brand utopia. If the UK trade didn’t get on-board its fate was sealed. We were like twitchers talking-up birdwatching in a world whose avian interests only extended as far as chicken McNuggets. How remote from the consumer was it possible to get!   

The themes of Strategy 2025 were already familiar to those of us who were working in the trade at that time: terroir was denied; French fruit wasn’t ripe; and all grape varieties had found their ideal habitat beneath the tall Australian sun. At the time this take on the role of environmental influence wasn’t presented as one possibility among others; it was hostile and denying of terroir, dismissing its claims as pernicious “marketing”.  The truth of this encounter is that marketing only tolerates knowledge and expertise that can be used to enhance its own commercial position. So entranced was “Brand Australia” by the idea that marketing was the only genuinely creative means of establishing value and identity within wine that it chucked its own modus operandi back at France as a slight on terroir. The contrast between disinterested aesthetic judgement and the sort of commodified knowledge delivered via brands was stark. One only has to see the level of invective that’s turned on wine education by some of today’s marketers to appreciate how a broad understanding of wine can be anathema to their narrow commercial requirements. “Consumers want wines they can understand” sounds reasonable enough, but when it’s forced into a false opposition with “not education” we begin to see the hostility to what I’ve been calling, after Kant, the “disinterested” perspective. 

I’m thinking of the above struggle in the light of Mallarmé’s assertion that all of life eventually reduces down to aesthetics and economics. I realise that I am consciously trying to draw a line between the two by clinging on to divisionism and contemplation. Capitalism’s innovativeness lies in its ability to identify and exploit value in hitherto unforeseen areas.  We’re familiar with thinking of “coal” and “oil” as commodities, but what of “expertise” and “trust”. What is the PPI scandal other than the exploitation of trust through the creation, development and marketing of financial products? Wine is not unique in fending-off economic encroachment into its own realm of expertise, yet for many of us it’s worth protecting precisely because it provides an area of contemplation – like books, music and film – where one can escape from the economic flows and connectedness of everyday life. Freud, who was himself a hoarder, maintained that millionaires often resort to collecting not to realise the eventual exchange value of their collections, but because possession and contemplation of these aesthetic objects reversed the transient nature of their monetary accumulation.

The fine wine market has joined the mass of other of winner-take-all markets that have come to characterize the early 21st Century. Millionaires have been replaced by billionaires at the gates of DRC. Relatively small differences in the absolute quality of wines are magnified into large differences in price. Such markets are a reflection of the increasing concentration of wealth, and in the case of DRC, this inequity is exacerbated by limited supply. The latest round of wealth consolidation began in the US in the mid-70’s, centuries after the vineyard-by-vineyard division of the Côte d’Or was begun, and together they’ve led to an inflationary storm that’s left wine merchants and drinkers looking elsewhere. Personally, I doubt whether critics or marketers have an adequate response to the forces of economic determinism that have swept through Burgundy and Bordeaux in recent decades, but to blame individuals seems to me to miss the bigger macro-economic picture.

The integrity and independence of critics has never been in greater demand than today, and as far as new wines and regions go we are genuinely living in exciting times. If I can’t afford DRC I won’t be forced to drink Aligoté. Gary Farr is making Pinot in Australia on a calcareous Richebourg-like clay that’s every bit as exciting as the best Burgundy. Because, in truth, the nightmare vision of brand utopia never happened.

Strategy 2025 no doubt still exists in some revised data rich form, but the heartening part of this story that began back in 1996, is that Australia itself became resistant to all the marketing platitudes that were being generated. Farr, Cullen and Grosset drew the line between aesthetics and economics that the plotters behind the plan seemed so keen to erase or re-evaluate. Wine, like novels and string quartets, can be an inclusive point of departure from the tedium and habit of the daily round.

Of those original 80s Australian brands, only a few like Penfolds survived. Grange is still an interregional blend, which offers a point of difference in a fine wine market that craves particularity. It’s ironic that the wine that was supposedly going to blaze a trail for profitable, blended still wine brands now finds itself singled out as the anomaly.

Mallarmé maintained that life separated into aesthetics and economics, but I’d also add sex. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is proof that great art and abundant sex are possible under the most ascetic of economic regimes. Could it be that things were just so much more intense before the intervention of brands, when the Ford badge wasn’t there to distract you?

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Use of Cosy Tex to accelerate Pinot Noir flowering in a UK vineyard

Champagne and Southern England are climatically distinct. The sea breaches of the English Channel and the North Sea help give us mild winters, but we pay the price with our cool springs and summers. 

Mean monthly temperatures, degrees Celsius. 


















Parity is reached with Champagne in September, but this is a month when both light and temperature become limiting for vines. Frustratingly, acids and sugars become sticky after the autumn equinox, come rain or shine.

The sluggishness of late Spring delays UK vine flowering relative to that of Champagne, and sets veraison back by 2-3 weeks. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs commence ripening in mid-August, whilst in England, the threshold of the autumn equinox foreshortens maturation and turns October into a month of hope rather than realisation.

Two consequences follow from our stalled summers:

Firstly, our climate gives us no wriggle room: days and weeks lost to bad weather in the summer cannot be made-up later in the season because we run out of effective days; and

Secondly, acids tend to be higher for a given level of sugar vis-à-vis Champagne.

Poor weather increases the financial jeopardy of grape production. In the UK, 2012 was a write-off, whereas Champagne was able to regroup and take advantage of late season warmth.

The issue over acids has no definitive answer. Malic acid can be very dominating, even in sparkling wine. It adds flavour and an impression of weight - useful in our fickle climate - but it is very forceful. Personally, I find it has a greater affinity with Chardonnay than Pinot Noir, and I find its character can become too brutal on clay soils, which seem to bolster its effect. Others will disagree.

Forcing vines to flower early therefore has distinct advantages, particularly for still wine production, and in 2014 I experimented with a product called Cosy Tex to see if I could accelerate early season phenology through to floraison.

Cosy Tex is a woven polythene mesh. The product provides 86% light transmission, is 100% permeable, gives 2-3 Celsius of frost protection and, depending on the area covered and irradiance, can elevate day time temperatures by 3-4 Celsius.

Cosy Tex comes in rolls of various lengths and widths, and can be secured to top wires and vineyard posts by the manufacturer’s clips.

We attached the Cosy Tex in late-April, and achieved an accelerated budburst compared to the rows outside. Early in May, we had three nights of frost, which got progressively harder. The vines underneath the Cosy Tex were untouched during the first two events, but we recorded -4C outside on the third night which resulted in a 60% loss of shoots within the Cosy Tex protected environment, and near 95% loss outside. One issue with the product is that it increases humidity, which raises the frost risk for a given negative temperature value, whilst the advancement of the shoots also increases susceptibility.

In the middle of May we were hit by storm force winds, gusting 55mph. Our method of securing the fabric proved inadequate and the Cosy Tex blew off. The winds didn’t abate for three days, and I finally re-secured the cover a week later. With strong winds forecast at the start of June, I removed the fabric from the vineyard altogether.

Overall, the vines benefited from the covers for three weeks, which brought flowering forward by approximately 7 days,  compared to the surviving uncovered shoots. If we had managed to maintain the covers in place to flowering, then the advantage could have been as much as 2 weeks. We were also unable to study the impact on flowering, which may have been beneficial due to micro-climate warming and reduced wind speeds. We will not know whether the reduced light transmission effected bud flower initiation until this spring.

We will repeat the experiment this year. The use of additional wires passed  through the Cosy Tex should enable us to withstand 50mph winds, and we hope to get a better understanding of the fabric’s full potential by summer 2015.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Champagne's Labyrinth (A Simulation)

The way the trade talks about wine usually exceeds most of their customers’ simple quest for pleasure. When I studied for my WSET Higher Certificate I’d hoped Burgundy would offer some relief from red Dalmatian grape varieties, but learning the villages of the Côte d’Or by rote was equally onerous. Visiting the region for the first time in 1994, I realised Wine Regions of The World had spared me the detail, though I ended that week in Beaune believing that the difference between Les Teurons and Grèves was profound, and not just trivial.

In Tokyo, the city blocks are numbered, but the streets have no names. The plan of blocks, roads and intersections is historical. Visitors to the city can’t just bulldoze a route across the city or impose their own schema of street names. Finding your way around Tokyo is more like gaining access to other people’s memories than reading a map; you’re required to wrest the past from the present.

I remember the literary critic, Maud Ellmann, advising in a seminar: that “The only secret of a labyrinth is how you get out”. I wasn’t sure what Maud meant at the time, but I do now. Tokyo stops being a labyrinth when you get in, and acquiesce to its alien configuration of numbered blocks and unnamed streets. The secret of the labyrinth is you get out by getting in.

When I joined Billecart-Salmon, twelve years ago, with my small haul of awards, most friends assumed I’d be making the wine or, at the very least, blending it.  Tasting through vin clair for the first time was unlike any domaine visit I’d ever made before. The wines were unyielding and acidulous; and even though no one asked me for a favourite, I volunteered “Verzenay!” At the time it just seemed the most complete. I probed our Chef de Cave, François Domi, about barrels and malolactic fermentation, but never mentioned blending. It didn’t occur to me that the very particular experience I’d gained in Beaune might not work in Mareuil-sur-Ay as well. My botched attempt to bash a Burgundy-shaped entrance through Champagne’s walls meant the invitation to join in with assemblage never came.

Asking questions about street names and disgorgement dates won’t stop you getting lost in Tokyo or enable you to unpick tirage from all the mutations of methode and add-ons from the past. Neither the people of Tokyo nor our Chef de Cave see themselves as prisoners of tradition. From their perspective we haven’t expended enough time and effort acculturating ourselves to their ways of seeing and doing things.

Using a single grape variety, the Côte de Nuits scales the heights and plumbs the depths. Separating the good from the bad producers in terms of how each talk about their own production is impossible. They all share in the same vernacular: that the quality and personality of their wine is a reflection of environmental factors, and in Terroir and the Côte de Nuits (parts 1 and 2) I tried to describe these site specific differences within a non-esoteric vocabulary. The interaction of soil hydrology, plant water demand and altered gene-expression does, I think, usefully add to the discussion on the link between wine quality and the region’s appellation hierarchy. These differences, far from being petty, became important to the Cistercians, and in Cultural Terroir I argued that their continuing relevance to us is, in part, a further example of secular life being shadowed by its non-secular past.

I used an evolutionary metaphor in Cultural Terroir to describe the way in which wine production divides incessantly. Barrels and the fragmented ownership of land encouraged comparison, and a new realm of environmental influence became visible to producers. Just as Hooke’s microscope illumined a hitherto unseen world of plant cells and compound eyes, so relating one barrel to another revealed a hidden domain of geological and hydrological influences; even though they weren’t referenced as such.

The microscope was revolutionary, whereas Burgundians’ framing of environmental influence only succeeded in strengthening already existing ties to the earth. Those fortunate enough to own a few hundred ares in both les Suchots and  les Malconsorts believe the difference between the two vineyards is ineffable, cast in stone – Bathonian and Bajocian – and when combined with climate, inimitable. Of course, if the differences between wines were only a matter of geology, then everyone’s les Suchots would taste more or less the same, which isn’t the case. Geology is only part of a much bigger picture: one that escapes the tight fit of the frame the Burgundians habitually try and squeeze their wines into. If, as is often suggested, the resemblances between an individual producer’s wines are greater than the similarities between neighbouring wines from the same lieu dit, then we might conclude that extrinsic human interventions are just as important as intrinsic environmental factors in determining wine style. But this is a hard concession for Burgundians to make. The difference between man’s inputs and nature’s inputs is that the former also carry the prospect of duplication.  The more ground we concede to ourselves, the less inimitable wine appears to be. What is produced by our efforts may be reproduced elsewhere.

Champagne has no such problem with reproduction. When a new winemaker joins a House there is normally a period of acquiescence during which past practices are repeated and mastered. The variables in Champagne are so rampant with possibility that you need to immerse yourself in the prevailing orthodoxy before trying to change anything: blending, dosage and in-bottle fermentation pile intervention upon intervention. François Billecart says it takes twenty year for a Chef de Cave to attain the requisite level of competence and trust beyond which she/he can begin evolving blends for posterity.

The repetition of procedures; the recombination of villages according to historical protocol; together these actions engender a sense of reality and permanence in a realm of chaotic possibility and limitless choice. Reproduction yields the grounding and the conditions from which the Chef de Cave can affect change; it can provide both a destination and a point of departure. The labyrinth only gives up its secret to those who enter and stay.

During my induction at Billecart-Salmon I’d wanted François Domi to offer-up answers that would dissipate ambiguity, and cut through the crap of globally disseminated terms and anachronisms.  But immersion historicises both actions and descriptions. Causality becomes compromised, and effects emerge at the end of weakly conjugated chains of events. Lineages, like that of Jean-François Coche, have added a very human structure of assembly and amplification to the differences they detected between their wines. Hooke’s microscope enhanced specific images by magnification, but we can’t make similar claims about the empirical efficiency of barrels and bottles; it’s all too messy. Dividing production into small units encourages comparison, but the characters that appear in the wine are, in part - through the effects and interactions of reduction, oxidation and suspended solids – generated by the barrel. A good microscope improves image resolution, where a new François Frères barrel adds to opacity. I just don’t think that we can say with confidence which aspects of Coche-Dury’s Meursault are given and which are reified by past generations of Coches trafficking the passageways of the labyrinth in the same direction. Fetishism isolates and augments a part of the body and then symbolically substitutes this fragment for the whole in which it is constituent. Saying that Jean-François’ “mineral-style” shows “typicité” is like recognizing a Meursault family’s fetish, and then pursuing it as your own. Other villagers and drinkers will be turned-on by different obsessions.  We’re not troubled by the thought of a Chef de Cave purposely subduing and exaggerating different characteristics of a blend, because assemblage is continuous in Champagne; but similarly decisive interventions become visible in Corton Charlemagne  too, if we care to take a long enough view of production.

In the 1980s, a young Gary Farr left Australia to work at Dujac. The transmission of knowledge at Dujac (and Billecart) requires that you listen to what’s said, and follow what’s shown. Gary did ten vintages at Dujac, and still makes “pilgrimages” to Morey St Denis; as does his son, Nick.  

Back in Geelong, the Dujac influence is clear in the perfume and colour of the Farrside Pinot Noir. Last week, I placed the Farrside 2009 in a line-up of Morey St Denis 2009s to prove to myself that the family resemblance between Gary’s wine and Dujac’s Morey, and Dujac’s Morey and the other village wines, was commensurate; which it was.

I’ve drunk old Geelong Pinots, but like many New World wines they want for that rapturous second coming. Twice this year, I’ve tasted Farrside 2011, which meant the 2009 was all the more intriguing for me. I remember hosting an “Old-New-World Pinot Noir Tasting” and being shocked to discover how fixed and frozen in time the wines seemed, as if the insertion of the cork had stopped the clock.

Ageing is the pathway that turns wine towards its other destination in the future. The Jesuits said: “Give me the boy, and I will return you the man.” Actions performed early on in a process have transformative effects that only become visible later in life.

If the Jesuits gave us "the man" in the past, then Blade Runner gives us a woman in the future. The Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s film is a paradox: unrecognisable but derivative. Genetically modified slave replicants live in and for the moment; their journeys beginning and ending in the same place, just like the “Old” New World Pinots at the tasting. Early in the film we’re introduced to Rachel, a replicant woman, and the perfect humanoid copy. Rachel’s identity, based on implanted memories, is delusional. Gary’s and Rachel’s stories overlap because the veracity of their respective pasts guarantees their futures. If the Farrside 2009 was a perfect simulation, then it should have tracked the Moreys, and started to transcend the continuous present tense of replicant existence towards a future.

If I struggled to separate the Farrside 2009 from the Moreys - the copy from the real – it may have been because the generous climatic conditions in Burgundy that year were just too Geelong-like, or vice versa. Was the Farr wine really on a sweetly lubricated slide towards a finale? Or was it simply the case that the Burgundy had become stuck along the way? I couldn’t tell. Those who’ve seen Blade Runner will recall that the main symptom of Rachel’s “more human than human” simulation is self-doubt.

Los Angeles 2019 is cluttered with good and bad copies. Rachel’s identity becomes problematic when she discovers the photo she believed was of her and her mother together is actually of Dr Tyrell’s niece. This realisation defines Rachel’s identity negatively: it is the place previously occupied by the photo, experienced as loss and absence; but it becomes, through the rest of the film, the lacuna within which her new identity takes hold. In a moment of reversal, Rachel rejects the identity she was given by Tyrell, and then she gives herself to Deckard, the Blade Runner.

Rachel can change because she’s such a good copy. As I suggested, the young François Domi and Jean-François Coche proved themselves very adept at reproduction. Billecart’s NV blends twenty-seven villages and takes ten years to make, if you measure the time between disgorgement and the age of the oldest reserve wines. You need to prove yourself well-practiced in rebuilding the edifice created by past generations before you’re trusted to make any revisions to its structure; otherwise you’re just groping in the dark. Perfect simulation can be the starting point for change, whether you’re a replicant or a Chef de Cave.

The principle of reflexivity, as proposed by the sociologist William Thomas, is: that “the situations that men define as true, become true for them”. Burgundians believe environmental causes beyond the winery are the main source of variation in their wines, and these variations provide the proof of this connection. It’s a seductive but circular argument. It holds out the barely resistible prospect for some of our lying side-by-side with nature; and there being wines which are better and closer depictions of the world of rocks and rain beyond the cellar. But in all of this talk of encounters we need to keep reminding ourselves that wine is the murky point of contact with that which lies outside itself.  I used the analogy of a microscope to make a point about how changes in the scale of production can make visible an already existent world. But winemaking throws us a kaleidoscope rather than a lens to buff. The “luminance of the outside”, to use Foucault’s phrase, which comes with these new exposures is reflected, coloured and captured in patterns that we either like or don’t like. I just happen to be partial to Coche’s intricate ordering and staining of the crystals - spur pruned massale chardonnay, an old press, heavy lees, new oak, and long elevage – but I accept that others might find his style too stark. We can disagree about preferences, but I don’t think there is a further argument to be settled by invoking prejudicial terms like typicité. Tabula rasae don’t usually take the form of messy, drawn-out production processes. 

If we amalgamate causes we can avoid some of the difficulties associated with exclusion and prioritisation. Difficult concepts like “mineral” might prove easier to handle if we think of them as multifactorial, and see its presence in a wine as an indication that various causes have been bundled together in sophisticated and studied ways. Winemaking begins to look far less passive when we consider its innovations and reproductions though time. I don’t believe all those centuries spent in the vineyard and cave were really about removing all the incriminating evidence of human involvement, like a gang of thieves covering its tracks. We adopted a particular way of talking about wine and we’re still adapting the proofs to fit the terminology.

There is nothing pernicious in the Burgundian’s prioritising of environmental causes. In Cultural Terroir I claimed that the Cistercian’s pursuit of universal cause reinforced the power of the “outside” so forcefully that it’s stuck with us through to this day. Human influence is, as discussed, imitable, where God and natures work isn’t. But duplication can be an immensely useful tool. Simulation creates its own labyrinthine realties through repetition; it brings intelligibility and order, and thus provides a stable medium from which the distinctive and generative differences that separate Lafon and Coche Dury can begin to coalesce.  

Much of this essay has been about the difficulties of travel: from Burgundy to Champagne; across the labyrinth; or the philosophical difficulty of moving from the “inside” to the “outside”. John Updike said the problem with travel is: “It’s always you that unpacks the suitcase”. Nothing I have written here changes anything: the differences between Coche Dury and Lafon remain the same. Twenty-five years ago Gary Farr left Australia, and when he repeats that same journey today it’s a different man that unpacks the shirts and boots onto the bed. The story of Farrside is about rocks and sunshine, immersion and repetition; but it’s also a tale of individual self-fulfilment. The Old World is particularly good at giving us accounts about the former, where the New World inspires us with the latter. If I feel a solidarity with Gary that allows me to run our two stories together, it’s because we both found ourselves, as Deleuze would have it, somewhere in the middle of things.