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Attack of the Wine Events (or “Back To Controversy!”)

Vinted on April 27, 2009 binned in german wine, wine bloggers conference
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With the enormous and successful Twitter Taste Live! / Hospice du Rhone / Wine Riot! combined event behind us, attention can now start to be focused on yet another series of big wine-related events that are entering the Collective Dude-O-Sphere (as I’ve dubbed that pocket of the Universe that contains my ever-decreasing amounts of free time).  These events are “big” either in scope, in the momentum behind them (i.e., brand-new, first-of-their-kind) or in potential to get me in trouble with the would-be wine writing pundits (is there a synonym for pundit that starts with ‘W’?).

Yes, again.

The first of these will have me heading out to Long Island to take part in the first-ever TasteCamp EastTasteCamp is the brainchild of fellow wine blogger Lenn Thompson, who focuses primarily on NY area wine.  Lenn, along with area groups like the Long Island Merlot Alliance, has organized a mini wine blogger assault on the fine wineries of the LI region, consisting mostly of East Coast wine bloggers, that will have us visiting a surprisingly large amount of wineries and winemakers in surprisingly small amount of time (May 1-3).  I’ll be reporting as often as I can during the event, but bear in mind that May 1st is my wedding anniversary and Mrs. Dudette might not be takin’ too kindly to no laptop PCs that day!

The next trip, chronologically, is the juicy, controversial one – so let’s hold off on that one for a few (I know… I’m a jerk)…

July 24-26 will have me back in Napa/Sonoma for the 2nd North American Wine Bloggers Conference, which will be just as big and bold (in terms of participants and sponsors) as last year’s event.  I am stoked to get back out to CA wine country, and to meet up again with the great and colorful cast of the NA wine blogging community.  I’ve got the trip bookended by visits with wine producers whose exciting wines have been featured here in the virtual pages of 1WineDude, and a sojourn north to Washington state – so there will be a sh*tload of wine blog article material coming out of that trip.

Having said that… I’m torn about the topics that will be discussed at the WBC, mostly because I find quite a few of them either not interesting for you (“Wine Blogging Monetization: How-To”), not interesting for me (“Search Engine Optimization, Traffic Building, and blogs”), or so old, tired and over-discussed that they’re now the dusty, mummified remains of what might have once been  viable discussion points (“Panel for Unified Standards for Ethics”… Zzzzzz…).  I probably won’t be reporting on any of that, but will be reporting on the people, wines, and wine producers that we meet there.  The WBC recently came under a bit of misdirected fire from none other than wine uber-critic Robert Parker.  Parker got much of it very, very wrong, but I suspect this was due as much to misunderstanding as anything else.  I’ll let you read the details, but will tell you that I happen to be paying my own way to WBC (and to TasteCamp).

Which brings us to our more, er…, delicate topic of the day.

In mid-May, I’ll be going on a wine junket.  As in, I’m not paying my own way on that one.

There, I said it.  Everyone, take cover!!!  And for god’s sake, PROTECT THE CHILDREN!!!

Wait, the server didn’t crash?  The world is still turning?  Gravity is still functioning, and the atom hasn’t destabilized?

Well, I’ll be!

The topic of wine junkets (which, roughly defined, is an all-expenses-paid trip for press types to a wine region/event/etc. for the purpose of exposing them – and therefore, hopefully, their readers/markets/etc. – to wines that are made by clients of those footing the bill) has taken on a sizzling red-hot temperature recently.  This was due in no small part to the writing of Tyler Colman (a.k.a. Dr. Vino), who recently drew attention to an event that was attended by one of the contributors to Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Jay Miller.  At one point, it was unclear if Mr. Miller paid for his own expenses at the event (which is WA policy, confirmed by Tyler in correspondence with Parker) or if he didn’t (which, theoretically, would violate that policy and possibly tarnish the perception of impartiality that is key to the WA’s success with its readership).  The brouhaha sparked ethics discussions / debates around the web, and precipitated a personal treatise on wine writing ethics by Jancis Robinson.

One’s individual reaction to this probably ranges anywhere from deep-seated, intense passion, to a long, subdued yawn – depending on how involved you are with matters concerning the wine press (not a wine press… ah, you get the idea).  As one particularly witty member of the wine blogging community, Terence Hughes, put it via twitter:

“junkets, mountain, molehill.”

In general, I’m inclined to agree with Terence, but I suppose it can’t hurt too badly to have the topic of sticking to your own code of ethics discussed in yet another wine blog post, right?

[ On second thought, don’t answer that.  I’m just glad there’s a wine blogging world controversy that doesn’t somehow involve impugning my personal character – this time, I’m the one munching on the popcorn (for once)! ]

Anyway, Tyler’s post is timely for me, because I’ve decided to finally accept a wine junket invitation, in part because I want to know what all the hubbub is about, and in part because it will get me back over to Germany wine country without having to foot the bill myself or depleting my cache of BA miles.

I haven’t decided if I’ll write about it, or if I do what angle I’ll take, but I can tell you that whatever I write is going to be objective. I’ll let you decide whether or not this violates anything in my code of ethics, which I’ve updated to include junkets even though it probably didn’t need it.

And before the would-be wine writing W-pundits start talking about how the traveling, wining and dining will manipulate my poor, naive blogger countenance and influence me to wax poetic about the wines I’ll be served: you need to know that this will be my 5th trip to German wine country, and that I could afford stays at any of the hotels we’d visit, or meals at any of the restaurants, etc.  Will the freebies influence my opinion of the wines poured on the junket?  Probably, but I’m fairly confident that it won’t matter that much, since the primary focus of 1WineDude.com is not to be an advocacy group for wine collectors – the blog is NOT primarily about rating wines – it’s an education vehicle about wine for the intermediate wine lover. I’m also fairly confident that the winemakers I talk to on this trip won’t be a bunch of liars (one would hope, right?).

Anyway – Just be aware that it will be the German Wine Institute and the European Union that will be footing the bill on this one, not me, and make your own judgments.

It will also be my 10th trip in 11 consecutive weeks – so there’s no way I’d be going unless I thought I and 1WineDude.com readers might get serious value out of it.  Because as much as I dislike changing diapers, I dislike not seeing wife and baby daughter even more!

Cheers!

Weekly Twitter Wine Mini-Reviews Round-up for 2009-04-25

Vinted on April 25, 2009 binned in twitter, wine mini-reviews
  • M’Hudi Pinotage (South Africa): This is like the entire pig, skin and all, hanging out in a mulberry bush, ready to jump you. #
  • 06 Four Vines “The Peasant” (Paso Robles): Hefty S. Rhone style blend from CA. Very blackberry, very dark, very heavy, & very tasty. #
  • 07 Bonny Doon Le Vol Des Anges (CA): Late harvest Roussanne. Honeysuckles galore. Once you pop, you will NOT be able to stop… #
  • 06 Rutherglen “The Alliance” (Rutherglen): Viognier/Marsanne that isn’t as floral or as fat as you might expect, with good acidity balance. #
  • 04 Fireblock Grenache (Clare Valley): Remember that Van Halen song “I’m On Fire!”? It’s like that, but in your mouth, & with black peppers. #
  • 04 Robert Weil Kiedricher-Grafenberg Riesling Spatlese (Rheingau): Stone fruit & rose petal; sweetness & acidity will integrate – eventually #
  • 06 Napa Cellars Napa Valley Syrah: Blackberries, vanilla, blackberries, cedar, blackberries, vanilla, blackberries, & some blackberries. #
  • 06 Mapema Malbec (Mendoza): More proof that the Argentinians have perfected the Steakhouse wine. As if we needed any more proof, that is. #

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My Apology to Wine Spectator (or “Has Hell Frozen Over?!??”)

Vinted on April 23, 2009 binned in commentary

Here’s something that you don’t see every day.

I’m about to give props to Wine Spectator.

And I’m going to apologize to their Forum members.

I will wait a moment to let the air of collective “WTF?!???” clear the room.

Ok… also, please pick your jaws up from the floor.

First, let’s provide a bit of background: A recent post on Tyler Coleman’s blog (Dr. Vino) explored a controversy on the eRobertParker.com forums, and in a comment on Tyler’s post I chimed in with the following extremely unhelpful comment (reproduced here because the post has about 1 billion comments now and I don’t want you to have to page through them to find it… I hope Tyler doesn’t mind!):

On April 16th, 2009 at 5:59 am ,1WineDude wrote:

The Wine Spectator forum is far, *far* worse. I’ve watched their moderators join in on discussions that clearly violate the forum’s participation policies…

Afterward, I was contacted by Tom Matthews, the Executive Editor of Wine Spectator.  He wanted more information on my criticism, and I advised him that the thread I was primarily referencing no longer existed on the forum (apparently having been removed sometime last year), but that there were other examples of what I considered overly-aggressive treatment of me and other bloggers on the WS forums.

In exchanging e-mails with Tom, I was impressed that he cared enough about this to follow it up seriously.  I also realized during our echange that my comment on Tyler’s post just sounds like a nasty, snide, negative attack.  It’s got no background or context, tells no story, doesn’t explain how it relates the eBob forum controversy… it’s just totally and completely unhelpful. It’s useless.

So, I apologized to Tom, and I offered an apology on the WS forum (that one is probably turning some heads), and I’ve apologized on Tyler’s post via a follow-up comment – though again it might be tough to find it in the thread of gazillion comments, so here it is below:

On April 19th, 2009 at 3:36 pm ,1WineDude wrote:

Hi all – I’ve been corresponding with Tom Matthews regarding my previous comment in this post about the Wine Spectator forums.

I’ve subsequently apologized in the forum and to Tom, because by not providing the background of *why* I think the WS forums are worse, my comment simply comes off as a snide attack.

I am sorry about that. If anyone wants to know why I don’t like the WS forums and called them a snake pit on my blog, you can check out the threads available here and see for yourself how I was treated:

http://forums.winespectator.com/eve/forums?a=search&reqWords=1winedude&use_forum_scope=on&forum_scope=6826053161

I don’t respect the forums any more than I did previously, but thanks to Tom reaching out to me I can understand fully why my comment could be perceived as a snide attack, so I’m officially saying that I’m sorry for that. I may really dislike some of the WS forum members, but I still believe that everyone, including those that treated me badly, deserve more respect than what I showed here via my comment.

I’ve not changed my view of the Wine Spectator forums – I still think discussions there sometimes devolve into a snake-pit of acrimony, mostly due to the input of a few very rotten apples spoiling the bunch, and a lack of sufficient moderation.

But I also truly believe what I wrote above – everyone deserves a basic level of respect, not snide hit-and-run sideswipe comments without context.  Even the folks who might not think that I deserve respect.

I’d happily debate any WS forum member on the relative value of blogs vs. wine mags, on how differently I think that they should treat new forum members, or on how different and positive discourse is on alternative sites like the Open Wine Consortium.  But I shouldn’t have blasted the WS forum in a public setting without providing the proper context to back it up, and I’m deeply grateful to Tom for reaching out to me and with meaningful, civil discourse pointing out the un-helpfulness of my comment.

I should also add, for the benefit of my harshest critics on the WS forum: Tom mentioned to me that he’s a follower of the 1WineDude.com blog.  I’ve got your chin band-aids here, folks – I’m sure many of you will be needing them after that.

Anyway – Mad props to Tom, and apologies to the WS forum members.

Now, if any WS forum members would like to apologize to me and my fellow wine bloggers for any past disrespectful transgressions from civil discourse on their part… I’m sure we’re all ears…!

Cheers!

The Punking of Wine’s High Priests

Vinted on April 22, 2009 binned in commentary, wine appreciation

Before I get into the topic of today’s post (which, I’ll tell you now for future reference is “why and how even preeminent wine authorities can be duped”), I first need to give you some background on the world of wine fraud.

A few years ago I was on a business trip to Russia (before the Caucasus conflict last year), and some of my co-workers were getting together one evening during my visit to share a meal at the rented house of one of the local IT managers, an expatriated British friend of mine.  Being the only person in the group with a wine certification, my task was to obtain some wine for the meal.

I accompanied one of the local guys on our team to “downtown” Stupino, which is basically a town square with some shops strewn about, to seek out the wine.  He acted as my translator since I spoke a paltry amount of Russian.  Being relatively close to Georgia, I told him that I’d love to seek out some Georgian wine for our meal that evening.

That’s when he face took on a grim countenance and he was visibly torn between wanting to please the boss (me) and not wanting to embark on a torturous sideshow of navigating what was then a very ripe market of fake Georgian wine.

The issue was that each year far, far more “Georgian” wine made its way into the Russian market than could ever possibly be produced by Georgian winemakers.  Most of these were faked – some could even be poisonous, according to my Russian co-workers.  I was insistent, seriously underrating the amount of effort it was going to take to find a genuine Georgian bottling at the local market.  I think we examined about a dozen bottles, during which I had no idea what I was looking for in terms of validating the provenance of the bottles in front of  us, and a line of increasingly solemn and angry Russian shoppers began to form behind us at the shop counter.  All the while, my co-worker was repeating “Нет, не это” (“no – not this one”) to the shopkeeper, while loosely explaining to me in English why we shouldn’t accept the last bottle as the shopkeeper reached for the next alternative.

“This can’t be Georgia wine,” he said, “the shape of bottle is all wrong.”

We did eventually succeed in purchasing a genuine bottle of actual Georgian wine, and enjoyed its ripe, peppery red fruit with dinner.  I think we also succeeded in pissing off a good number of the local shoppers in Stupino (though they are Russian, so they should be used to standing in lines, right?).

The bottom line is that fake wine is very, very real and endemic problem in some markets, like Georgian wine and really, really old French bottlings from top Chateau.  Most of you reading this aren’t ever likely to encounter a fake, but if you ever want to splurge on one of the big boys, you should at the very least inquire to the shopkeeper about the history of the bottle.

Even though we’re about 600 words into this post, I’ve only just gotten started – and we’re not going to talk about fakes.  We’re going to talk about why smart, talented people get duped by fakes.  Sort of like MTV’s Punk’d, but for wine, and on a massive, multi-millions dollar scale.

People like Robert Parker (the world’s most influential wine critic), Jancis Robinson (one of the wine world’s top writers), and Serena Sutcliffe and Michael Broadbent (who headed the international wine departments of auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, respectively).

The names above constitute a large part of what could well be considered the High Priests of wine (more on the religious overtones – which are fundamental to the issue of being duped – in a moment or two).  And all of them were duped by a man named Meinhard Görke, better known as Hardy Rodenstock, widely considered to be the perpetrator of the most expensive wine frauds in history – a story told with expert prose and excellent research in Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar.

How were these people duped?  I don’t think it was by Rodenstock.  From where I’m standing, these wine gurus duped themselves – whether it was from hubris, greed, or simply being starstruck (more on all that in another moment or two).

I won’t spoil the details of The Billionaire’s Vinegar – you really need to read this cover-to-cover and detailing too much of it would dilute a good deal of the pleasure you’ll derive from it – but in summary, Rodenstock’s fake wines seem to have been expertly executed, culminating in an over-the-top, several-day-affair 1998 tasting of 125 vintages of Château d’Yquem.

The tasting notes and auction logs of Sutcliffe and Broadbent came to rely more and more on wines poured at Rodenstock’s opulent tasting events, which were also attended by Robinson and Parker, with Parker famously giving some of the likely fake wines 100 point (‘”Perfect”) scores.

One possible (but unlikely) explanation for why four of the most preeminent wine authorities came to be so duped by what were likely fraudulent wines constructed by one man (who never charged them directly for the ancient vintages of wines he poured them at his garish tasting events) is greed and hubris (or is that technically two explanations?).  Even though it’s not a likely explanation given the body of work of those wine personalities, it’s worth exploring.  Their livelihoods, at the time, all centered around the marketing of exceptional wines as rare and expensive commodities, and probably depended at least somewhat on that view.  No one wanted to question the illusion, or even whether or not they should have been at the tasting events in the first place – too much was at stake for them:

  1. Parker’s reviews drove wine prices globally;
  2. Robinson’s reputation and book sales relied on the bedrock of her authority on all things wine-related, which could be questioned if she was suddenly tasting fewer rare vintages of famous French producers than rich collectors who weren’t officially in the wine business;
  3. Sutcliffe and Broadbent had made millions for their auction houses over the years selling wine, and both pawned off extremely expensive likely Rodenstock fakes.
  4. We can throw in famous Bordeaux Chateau like Y’quem, Mouton, and Lafite as well, who for years did little to nothing to combat fraud while they enjoyed skyrocketing prices for their wines brought on by the publicity of the tastings and the subsequent tasting notes of the wine elite, whose words the affluent wine-collecting public followed blindly in lemming-like droves.

In other words, even if they suspected something was amiss, they were all in too deep.  Interestingly, their responses (especially those of Parker and Robinson), centered around the fact that they were duped, but duped by excellent wines.  Robinson offered this in one of her on-line reactions to the “Rodenstock Affair”:

“As the auction and other secondary markets’ greed and status values continue to nurture conditions for forgery, which feeds on skyrocketing prices, in the future many more high- and-low rollers will depart salesrooms wondering if a not-rigorous-enough front office is taking them to the cleaners.”

This could be considered an exercise in ass-covering, because it’s kind of embarrassing that these wine High Priests should ever have been at the opulent Rodenstock tastings in the first place.  Why do I say this?  Because wines from Lafite, Mouton, Petrus, Y’qem – we could go on and on listing the most famous Bordeaux houses – are kind of like works of art.  Yes, they are meant to be consumed, some several decades after release.  But a wine that is hundreds of years old from these producers?  That is a piece of history, not a prop for a select and affluent few. Like paintings from famous and loved artists, or the manuscripts of history-making political figures, don’t these items take on something more than just a collector’s fancy?  Aren’t they artifacts that somehow belong to the collective history of wine?

In my view, attending a tasting of 125 vintages of Chateau Y’qem is almost obnoxious.  You might as well pair the wines with braised cuts of meat from endangered species. Robinson, Parker, Sutcliffe, and Broadbent are amazing talents and great writers – but did they also, even if only subconsciously, “rape & plunder” wine history?

[ This begs the question of course, when and how should an historic or rare wine be consumed, if at all?  I don’t know the answer, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.  I’m pretty sure it’s not during an elitist affair held by possibly the biggest fraud in the history of wine. ]

Consumers tend to take the word of these High Priests on total faith, and like many religious-like followings those words can blindly guide the spending choices of millions and millions of dollars.  Also not unlike many major religions, the power in this Religion of Wine sits in the hands of a few people who have access to a rare commodity and, in part, build their financial power and prestige based on talent, but also based on ensuring (whether consciously or not) that the commodity of some fine wine is available only to those who can afford their own tropical islands.

Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that maybe they had a vested interest in keeping those rare wines, well, rare.

Another explanation, and one that is probably much more plausible given the significant contributions that Parker, Robinson, Sutcliffe and Broadbent have made to the wine world, is that even talented and intelligent High Priests of wine can be starstruck at the idea of being included among the chosen few who would sample ultra-rare, ultra-expensive specimens of wine high art. Who wouldn’t be at least tempted and intrigued by the offer to sample wine from the 1700s and 1800s, to partake in an ephemeral bit of history?

Don’t act like you wouldn’t at least consider it.

Hell, I would, at least for a moment or two – and that’s even after my self-righteous diatribe about the raping and pillaging of wine’s history.  Things probably look very different when you have the opportunity to see them from the viewpoint of the pillagers…

I suppose the moral of the story, if there is one, is that even the best in any field are only human.  As a wine consumer, there is much you can learn from the likes of Robinson, Parker, Sutcliffe, ad Broadbent.  But infallible gods they are not.  The best thing you can do is to use there work as Parker himself recommends – as guideposts for your own journey into wine.

Cheers!

(images: amazon.com, stern.de, slideworld.com, crimogenic.blogspot.com)

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