"Goodbye… and thanks for all the booze" …Wine writers' ethics

L'Ermita, Priorat June 2009
L'Ermita, Priorat June 2009

I’m having a glass in the garden with a friend of mine who, only having lately come to wine, is now making up for lost time. He picks my scrambled brains every opportunity he gets. Today, he wants the inside track on wine criticism. Over a drop of Laurent Miquel’s rich and quite elegant Nord Sud viognier (widely available in Ireland, around a tenner), Sean asks me “How come you guys never tell us about the crap wines?”.

The question caught me at a loss. My initial reaction was to stammer “Well… we don’t really come across too many.” Which is untrue for there are many unsound wines around ranging from bland to boring to downright crap.

Thinking about it, I suppose the main reason is we want to leave our readers with a message of hope. For my own part, with only 500 or so words to expend on a weekly column (Sunday Independent), I don’t want to write a shopping list (or, worse, a non-shopping list); I think it’s better to use the column to impart some inside track, maybe dish out a few odd wrinkles that will make the reader, hopefully, more aware of wine’s complexity and charm.

Sean was anxious to get me to expound on the ethics of wine writing on which British writers Jamie Goode (www.wineanorak.com) and Tim Atkin (www.timatkin.com) have written in interesting fashion recently. “Should wine writers accept free wine and undertake paid-for trips?”, he demanded.

Aagh, that’s a knotty one. The first generation of wine writers didn’t have this problem, being, largely, well-off young men whose fathers and Oxbridge colleges were blessed with well-stocked cellars. In those days wine meant ‘European wine’ so it was no big deal to make a couple of trips a year to France and Germany. Italy, Barolo and Brunello apart was under-regarded. Chianti was an object of mild derision. Even Rioja was little known until the mid-1970s. Today, with the likes of Uruguay, Georgia, India and more pushing for recognition as serious players, a ‘go it alone’ wine writer would need very deep pockets indeed.

Thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that fraternisation with the trade is a necessary evil. Most present day wine writers, me included, simply wouldn’t be able to do a professional job without tasting samples and visiting wine regions. To travel to, say, the Hunter Valley, the Barossa, McLaren Vale and Margaret River, as I did the other year, would cost zillions and, even if I could afford it, would be impossibly time-consuming to organise. Good to have those nice people from Tasting Australia and The Australian Wine Board to do all the hard work for me.

The ‘trick’ if that’s the word, is to keep your integrity (remember, as Tim Atkin says, the abiding duty is to the consumer) and not produce work tainted by conflict of interest. They say everyone has their price though and my message to other wine scribes is “keep that price high”. Maybe, if we do, one day we’ll all have a Château on the Loire, a Lambo, and a posh yacht. Till then don’t sell your soul for a case of Chilean merlot, a night in the Gatwick TravelLodge and a squint at another feckin’ bottling plant.

Meanwhile, here’s an equation for you. Ace Winemaker + Unfashionable Region = Big Bargain. I’m adding my voice to the chorus of Irish wine writers singing the praises of Protocolo 2006 (O’Brien’s,* €8.99). To say this is Ireland’s best BBQ red would be true but insulting, it’s worth far more serious consideration. Decant and savour.

*Thanks for the Havanas, Kevin (only joking, dear readers)

This is an extended version of an article written for the Sunday Independent ‘Life’ magazine

2 thoughts on “"Goodbye… and thanks for all the booze" …Wine writers' ethics”

  1. Hi Ernie,
    On a slightly different tack, while most writers don’t dwell on crap wines, sometimes I’d be interested to see writers pick out wines that address some of the buzz words that one hears being referenced e.g. ‘Wine x is a definitive FRUIT BOMB’, or ‘wine y and z clearly contrast the modern and classic styles of a given region’

  2. I take the point.
    While I’m on the subject I’d like to see an alternative to the now overworked ‘fruit bomb’, must put some time in. There are many wines that fall into this category though.
    I’ve thought about doing a piece on modern v classical for some time now.

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