Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why oh why no WiFi?- an open letter to hotels across the globe

Cartoon from Rottenwifi is an apparently useful
app I discovered after writing this post.

Dear hoteliers,
I know from my own experience of trying to run an office and home that maintaining a WiFi - or indeed any internet - service that works reliably, consistently and at a good speed isn't easy. And I understand the challenges of offering WiFi to unpredictable and potentially large numbers of people.

I grew up in a hotel and well remember breakfast being the hardest meal of the day to deliver satisfactorily, with lots of grumpy, stressed and possibly hungover people expecting precisely the cooked breakfast they have requested (eggs boiled for 4.5 minutes) to be delivered to their rooms at precisely the same time. But good hoteliers understand the breakfast problem and come pretty close to overcoming it.

The parallel with WiFi is quite close. While some of the people who want to go online are tourists casually wanting to check their Facebook, or to browse the lists of local restaurants to decide where to dine tonight, others - principally but far from exclusively business travellers - will have urgent emails to receive and send, Skype calls to make, boarding cards to download... And there's a high chance that they'll be as stressed and grumpy as the man calling reception from room 207 to complain about his overcooked poached eggs.

Of course, a growing number of business travellers and wealthier and/or more organised tourists now rely on global internet roaming services for their smartphones and tablets, but dear hoteliers, these aren't - yet - the mass of your customers. Some of you charge guests an hourly or daily rate to go online; some offer the service for nothing. In my experience, the old notion of getting what you pay for does not necessarily apply here. I seem to have paid for rotten - often non-existent - WiFi almost as often as I've been given it for nothing. But, and here's my point: some hoteliers do seem to have got their WiFi to work as well as their breakfasts.

Unreliable  WiFi is, to a hotel, not unlike faulty natural corks to a wine producer : something over which one has limited control, but which potentially leaves customers with a memorably unsatisfying experience.

So, dear hoteliers, here's my proposal: test your WiFi on a regular basis and ask your guests how happy they are with the service you provide, and if the response is not what you'd wish, blast your provider and go on blasting them until they get it more or less right.

And, dear winemakers, if you are still using natural corks, for goodness sake, test every single batch you are delivered. You won't spot the ones that will allow your wine to oxidize more quickly than you'd like, but you will find some with noticeable TCA. Revealingly, the producers who maintain that they never have any problems with cork taint tend to be the ones who don't have a rigorous testing regime; what they should be saying is "our customers aren't complaining " which is a very different matter. After all, do you always complain about the annoyingly inefficient WiFi in the hotels where you stay?

Since posting this, and discovering Rotten WiFi, I've coma across this review of the app from earlier this year:

I rather like the idea of naming and shaming places with bad WiFi. But maybe we should launch a RottenWine app too.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

When 15% may not even be enough...

The old vine Mallorcan
wine that helped me
make it through the

What do you do when you are alone in foreign land and you're trying to make sense of the fact that, a few hours earlier, you've watched a coffin containing your mother's body slide into a crematorium furnace?

This, as you may have guessed, isn't a hypothetical question. I'm writing this at 10pm in Palma de Mallorca, the island where  my mother lived for three and a half decades before falling victim to Alzheimer's and a cruelly slow descent into death.

To be honest, my first thought was whisky - good Islay malt most probably - and that's almost certainly what I'd have resorted to if I were at home. But I'm in Mallorca and good malt is less readily available. So, I've walked through the town in search of inspiration and happened upon a cafe-restaurant serving Galician diced beef, pimientos del padron  and a local red - Jose Ferret Veritas Vinyes Velles (old vines) 2010 - that boasts both a Mundus VinI gold medal and 15% alcohol. I was offered the choice of a glass or a bottle. I opted for the latter.

The food is fine - everything you might want from beef and pimientos and when I first tasted it, I could easily see how the wine earned its medal. It's rich, fruity, and nicely supported by oak. Now that I'm three quarters of the way through the bottle, I'm not so sure. There's a sweetness I could do without and the oak is a little showy. But - and this is an important 'but' - the thing I'm really appreciating about this rich, fruity red is the alcohol.

To be honest, I'm not 100% convinced by the 15% on the label. The actual strength might actually be a tad higher. But, in the mood I'm in tonight, that's not something I'm going to worry about. (Don't forget that this Mallorcan red is performing as understudy for an absent 40% malt whisky).

The point of this post as I'm still unfortunately sufficiently sober to appreciate, is that even those of us who love wine (and whisky) sometimes drink it for reasons that are not directly related to subtlety and complexity. Would I be happier, sitting here  tonight in a Palma restaurant, with a 13% Rioja? I very much doubt it.

To be blunt, whether I knew it or not, what I was looking for when I left my hotel was the slow slide towards oblivion that alcohol can offer more effectively than any other narcotic I've tried. This raises all sorts of questions about alcohol-in-moderation messages that I'm frankly not in the mood to discuss at this precise moment. All I can say, now that the bottle is almost empty and I'm asking for the bill,is that people who cavil at high-strength wine are like the people who cavil at the speeds attainable by Ferarris and Harley Davidson bikes. Sometimes, whether we like to admit it or not, the alcohol is what it's all about.


I did in fact write the above post while sitting at my restaurant table with the bottle in front of me as I drank it. Rereading it now, I think I might change the last line to read "a lot of what it's all about". I do care about what I drink; if alcohol was all I wanted I could simply have lined up and knocked back a few vodkas.I don't actually have a problem with doing that either, but what I appreciated was something that tasted good, and packed the punch I sought. Getting 15% (and stronger) wine right isn't easy, partly because of the apparent sweetness that goes with the territory, but it can be done, and done brilliantly - as the people who dismiss such wines out of hand ignore.. It's worth remembering too that getting lower-strength wine isn't simple either, especially as temperatures rise; I've had plenty of horribly unbalanced 12% wines.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Who really made money out of Rudy Kurniawan's fake wine?

... A key question for many fine wine collectors now is where the rest of Kurniawan's fakes are lurking.
Some information may yet emerge from billionaire collector Bill Koch, who bought many wines off Kurniawan. The Indonesian has agreed to pay Koch $3m in damages and tell 'everything he knows' as part of an out-of-court litigation settlement.
There are fears the pyschological damage caused to fine wine buyers will be difficult to reverse, but many of the major auction houses have cautioned that counterfeiting still represents a small part of the market and stringent checks are in place. 
'People have been robbed of the joy that is old and rare wines,' said Maureen Downey, of Chai Consulting and who has inspected Kurniawan wines for several clients, including Koch. 'They simply do not trust the system. That is the real tragedy of this debacle.' 
Just read this extract from this Decanter news item and pause over the bit that I've highlighted. Wealthy fine wine buyers have, it seems, been "psychologically damaged" by paying hundreds of thousands of whatever currency they favour on wine that evidently tasted fine but turned out to have been blended in an illegal immigrant's kitchen.

Pull the other one.

Wine has probably been faked and adulterated since man first started pressing grapes. According to Pliny the Elder, 2,000 years ago, Roman nobles were being efficiently fooled by fake Falernian wine. The ancient author unfortunately refrains from informing us whether the aristos in question rushed off to seek psychological treatment.

I can readily imagine that the elderly people who were duped into investing their life savings into fraudulent wine investment schemes may genuinely be feeling some justified pain, but the billionaires who flocked around Mr Kurniawan and his friends and associates were no more or less badly treated than all of the people who, over the years, have bought and hung forged paintings on their walls.

The scandal of the Rudy Kurniawan case about which rather less fuss is being made, is that most of the $20-30m of wines he is believed to have produced, passed through other sets of hands on their way to the final buyer. Lots of people have taken a margin on those sales. Where is all that money now? How many of those experts are lining up to return their share of the rotten gains?

Friday, August 08, 2014

Knowing what's good for you

For the better part of 25 years of my professional life, I firmly believed that my notion of a 'good' and a less good wine mattered rather a lot. I was bolstered in this belief by newspaper, magazine and book publishers who payed me to express my views on paper, and by the astonishing success of the International Wine Challenge of which I was co-founder and co-chairman.

Admittedly my notion of 'good' did not always coincide with other critics' but that's the nature of criticism after all. The arbiters of taste who failed to share my enthusiasm - or lack of it - for a particular wine were quite simply wrong. As of course were the consumers who were sufficiently deluded to follow their advice. As a Brit, I naturally particularly equated this wrongness with some of the top US critics. How could they possibly like the over-alcoholic, over-oaked, over-priced red  monstrosities to which they regularly awarded points in the high 90s?

Today, my views have changed pretty radically. I still am clear in my mind about a good and a bad wine but I'm far readier to try to understand why others think differently. It's rather like no longer saying about apparently mismatched couples that "I can't imagine what he/she sees in her/him", but trying to understand the attraction. I personally don't choose to spend my money on Starbucks coffee or Big Macs or Krispy Kreme donuts but I can see why so many people do so - in preference to what I might have chosen.

Sometimes it is simply a matter of what they are used to, culturally or socially; we all inherit and adopt tastes. Sometimes the appeal lies in something other than the flavour. I'm writing this in rural France where non-Frenchmen and women who regularly holiday and quite possibly have houses here, attune themselves to happily consume rustic wine they'd complain about if it were offered to them in their own countries. People wanting to embrace 'natural' wine also recalibrate their palates to accept smells and tastes they would previously have rejected. When in Rome...

The brain can also find a reward in consuming something that is said to be 'good' or 'expensive'. I'll bet that many of the less well-off people who apparently relish the occasional opportunity to eat Foie Gras or caviar would not choose to make either a regular part of their diet if they won the lottery. I know of plenty who'll drink Champagne when offered it, but actually prefer Prosecco and, to return to my point about Starbucks, there are those who unashamedly admit to liking Nescafé more than a freshly brewed 'real' coffee.

To the critics, it's all a matter of education. Of teaching the misguided and unsophisticated what they should appreciate. That principle can work very well, of course. Even today, I'm occasionally surprised and heartened by someone saying that their journey into the higher levels of wine enthusiasm was helped at an early stage by something I may have written or said 20 years ago. And those moments reassure me that I wasn't wasting my time - and that the critics writing today aren't wasting theirs either. But I've shifted my perspective.

I still use my knowledge and experience - and personal opinion - of what's good and bad when judging at competitions like the IWC or Mundus Vini, when working with consultancy clients or when benchmarking our Le Grand Noir wines against competitors'. But I'm increasingly intolerant of intolerant critics. I know when I'm right, but I'm far less confident of saying that others are wrong. After all, those Big Californian wines I thought so little of are still selling well at the prices I laughed at, and the critics who praised them still have their audiences. And the art critics who mocked their colleagues for supporting - what they thought to be - meretricious artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are still waiting for time to prove them right.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The N Word

I love words and the way they can behave differently depending on the context in which they are used. So, if a middle-aged white TV presenter recites an old nursery rhyme that used to contain the N-word, he has to 'beg forgiveness', while a black musician who calls himself 'Handsome Ass Nigga' has attracted over a million followers without creating even a ripple of controversy. 

There's another N-word with a divisive quality of its own. People who make, sell and like to drink wine fermented with wild yeasts and produced with little or no SO2 happily describe it as 'natural' and can see no reason why anyone should object to them doing so. As someone who has been drinking wine for rather a long time and feel as strongly about it as I do about language, I however take offence at the suggestion that the Burgundies, Rhônes, Mosels, Barolos and Aussie Shirazes that I've enjoyed over the years are all, by implication unnatural. 

On the other hand, I relish the way that those who favour the use of 'natural' with reference to wine are so ready to align themselves with some of the cleverest flavour chemists and industrial food manufacturers on the planet. 

When I teasingly raise this issue, some N-word fans happily propose 'authentic' as an alternative. But that doesn't work for me either, because, as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing inauthentic about any of my favourite wines.

The people who choose to use these terms clearly care about language too. None of them have embraced my proposal that a wine made without any additives be called 'primitive'. Apparently, they find the term distasteful and 'negative'. So I'm relieved that they know how I feel.

Anyway, this post is merely to say that I not only vow to continue not to use the N-word that got Mr Clarkson into such trouble; I'm also giving up on the other N-word that - rationally or irrationally - offends me when applied to wine. From now on, I'll happily talk about zero-SO2 and low-SO2 wines, whenever it's appropriate. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

2014 Roederer Awards Short List

Congratulations to all of the 2014 Roederer Awards shortlisted wine writers and photographers from across the world. Choosing them with the other judges yesterday was a very tough but amicable process, rounded off by a great lunch at Chez Bruce, my favourite London restaurant

Jacques Lardière by Matt Wilson

Tasca d'Almerita vineyards by Andrew Barrow

Labours au Clos Vougeot by Thierry Gaudillière

Guill and Katherine by Adrian Lander

John Kongsgaard by Clay McLachlan

-          Andrew Barrow
-          Thierry Gaudillère
-          Adrian Lander
-          Clay McLachlan
-          Matt Wilson

-          Evan Dawson
-          Emma Harrison
-          Lucy Shaw

-          Tim Atkin
-          Christy Canterbury MW
-          Michael Fridjhon
-          Julia Harding
-          Victoria Moore

-          The Champagne Guide 2014-2015 – Tyson Stelzer
-          Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and sparkling wine – Tom Stevenson & Essi Avellan MW
-          Jura Wine­ – Wink Lorch
-          The New California Wine – Jon Bonné
-          The World Atlas of Wine 7th Edition – Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson OBE MW

-          Tim Atkin
-          Michael Edwards
-          Richard Mayson
-          Anthony Rose
-          Gabriel Savage

-          Tim Atkin
-          Nina Caplan
-          Richard Hemming
-          Will Lyons
-          Francis Percival

-          Susy Atkins
-          Tom Bruce-Gardyne
-          Michael Fridjhon
-          Joanne Gibson

Clever wine marketing from Vilafonte in S Africa

There are no tasting notes or reviews on this blog. Never have been. Never will be. Some people like writing them and, I guess, some like reading them. Chacun à son goût. So, I’m not going to tell you how impressed I was by the first 10 vintages of Vilafonte wine Mike Ratcliffe, Zelma Long and Phil Friese, the three partners behind this South African estate, showed in London today. What I am going to talk about briefly is the skilful way that Ratcliffe, who also heads up his family’s Warwick Estate winery, has combined great wine with great strategic thinking and marketing. 

First, there’s the fact that 50% of the wine is sold every year to Vilafonte Wine Club members  who get a six-pack of one of the estate's two wines in the first half of the year, and a second six-pack of the other style, a few months later. Everyone who has joined the club - there are around 800 - received a personal call from Ratcliffe, and gets a regular newsletter. Twenty-two top restaurants in S Africa are lucky enough to be able to buy and list the wine. Others have to wait their turn - just like anybody who now wants to join the Wine Club.

In the US, this kind of subscription wine club is commonplace; in South Africa it’s rare and in Europe almost unheard of. But there are some other little things that set Vilafonte apart. For people who lack a cellar or wine fridge, the winery offers perfect storage conditions to ensure that the bottles they have bought survive into maturity. 

For those who enjoy mature wine but haven’t already bought and kept any of their own, Vilafonte recently released limited numbers of cases of its 2004. Next year, the offer will be of the 2005. Whenever I suggest that wineries run this kind of classic release programme, people condescendingly accuse me of lacking business sense, pointing out that it’s not practicable because no-one can afford to hold the inventory. Ratcliffe disproves that theory by charging five times as much for the older wines - and selling every bottle. 

The highly-priced classic release bottles are also beginning to form part of a - for Vilafonte - virtuous circle, in the shape of a growing secondary market for its current and older wines. Anyone buying a Vilafonte bottle now has a credible reason to believe that its value will rise - unlike customers of some other wineries that sell their old wines far too cheaply.

I could also mention the emotional quality of the photography on the website and at the tasting, and the cleverly textured labels that are intended to reflect the texture of the soil. And then I could go on to talk about that soil, the winemaking and the particular brilliance of the 2007 and 2011 vintages. But, as I say, I don’t do tasting reviews and wine descriptions, though I’m sure you’ll find plenty of great ones online from other people who were there. Chacun à son boulot

Monday, July 14, 2014

No brands please, we're wine lovers. Why the Chinese are cleverer than us. Part 4

Putting your name above the title

Where's the brand?

"Where are the brands?" I was walking an Australian around Vinexpo. He had just got the job as CEO of a big wine business after experience in other fields, and wanted to get a quick fix on the industry in which he was about to immerse himself. We were walking past the umpteenth stand packed with interchangeably labelled Sancerre or Côtes du Rhône, or Rioja or Soave and he was shaking his head in confusion. Why, he wanted to know, were all the producers of these wines so happy to hide their identity behind a regional brand or grape variety over which they have no ownership or control? Even where the producers had taken the trouble to do more than print their names in small print at the foot of the label, there was little effective effort to behave like a brand: to burn their identity into the psyche of the potential or actual consumer. Over the last few weeks, I'll bet that, unless you don't do much wine drinking outside your home, or you're unusually observant or assiduous, you've consumed several wines whose producers you can't recall. If we were talking about beers or spirits, the proportion would be smaller. Over the same period, you've consciously or unconsciously noticed that people around you use a Samsung rather than an iPhone or drive an Audi rather than a VW.

But we're used to wine - apart from sparkling or fortified wine and efforts from a score or so big companies - being relatively lightly branded, and we don't see anything wrong with that. The Chinese, however, are coming fresh to the subject. They like - really like - brands and understand their value. A few years ago, even the most unobservant visitor to Beijing or Shanghai will have been struck by the volume of western big-brand advertising. Today, there are even more posters and electronic billboards; the only difference is the unfamiliarity of many of the brands. Like the Japanese four decades ago, China is creating its own brands. And it's doing so very, very quickly.

One of China's successful new fashion brands

The problem for westerners trying to sell anything there is that this passion for brands affects them too. Castel, the most dynamic French exporter to China, is embroiled in a very expensive trademark dispute with a man called Li Daozhi who registered the Chinese version of its name, sued Castel for trademark infringement, and won - 33.73m RMB, or around £3m. According to the Australian Financial Review, Mr Daozhi - a 'notorious trademark squatter' who also goes by the name of Daniel Li, has also registered three versions of a brand called Ben Fu, along with an associate called Li Shen. In the west, this name would have no value; in China, it not only means “dashing towards wealth”, but more importantly it sounds like Penfolds. So, now Treasury Wine Estates, is having to fight a battle of its own to protect its brand. Under a Chinese law - amended in May 2014 - the first person or company to file a brand name has the right to use and protect it, possibly using the word 'protection' in ways that would not be unfamiliar to certain Italian family organisations. In 2012 it is said to have cost Apple $60m to retrieve the Chinese name for iPad.

If your reaction to the preceding paragraph is simply to resolve not to do business in China, maybe you should think again. The trademark squatters are obviously bad guys, but they're usefully exposing weaknesses that shouldn't be there - like a personal trainer revealing your underused muscles. For every ten ripped-off Apples, Castels and Penfolds, there is a clever big brand owner that has taken the trouble to protect itself, just as LVMH protects Veuve Clicquot against anyone who has the temerity to use its particular shade of yellow. Even if you don't have any interest in selling your wine outside your own country and have little fear of anybody squatting on your trademark - because you haven't really got one - maybe you should still think about protecting your brand. Against apathy. Against consumers mindlessly picking up another producer's Sancerre, Côtes du Rhône, Rioja or Soave rather than yours, simply because it's cheaper, or closer to hand.

I write this with a certain measure of personal knowledge. A decade ago, we launched a Languedoc wine called Mouton Noir, with a black sheep on its label. After receiving a note from a particular chateau in Pauillac, we renamed the brand le Grand Noir, but managed to retain the sheep. More recently, we discovered that our importer in China had registered the Chinese version of the wine's name. Subsequent discussions have resolved the issue amicably, but we've learned our lesson. In this respect at least, the Chinese behave rather like German holidaymakers: they understand that the only way to be sure of getting a good bit of the beach is to get up early and spread your towel. The choice is clear: either you need to get up even earlier than them and take an even bigger towel, or accept that you're always going to stand a high risk of being stuck on the pebbles next to the latrines.