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.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

More about Robert Joseph than you want or need to know

When I was in Hong Kong for Vinexpo, I was asked if I would mind being interviewed by a delightful local journalist called Robby Nimmo. It's always interesting to see what other people do with your words - especially when you've interviewed as many people as I have.
Here, for what it's worth and for anyone who is interested, is what I appear to have said.

My life: Robert Joseph
The British winemaker talks to Robby Nimmo
about fakes, grapes, writing and wrath

CELLARS MARKET My parents owned a hotel in Sussex
(in southern England) and I started my career there. I was not
a great chef: I got bored cooking the same thing twice, and I
was a clumsy and forgetful waiter and barman. I got interested
in the cellar at a time when Britain was going into the
common market, and having to introduce European labelling
rules. Before that, the mid-1970s in the UK was the "Wild
West". You still had people taking wine from the same vat and
selling it as Nuits-Saint-Georges, Beaujolais and Chateauneuf-
du-Pape. Then, suddenly, Beaujolais had to come from
Beaujolais and taste like Beaujolais.
SOLVING BURGUNDY After we sold the family hotel, I ran
away to Burgundy with the then love of my life - she was a fair
few years older than me and, in France, that kind of romantic
liaison is more common. I chose this region because it seemed
the most complicated. There were plenty of books about
Bordeaux but none about Burgundy. I just wanted to solve the
puzzle. That's been my theme ever since. I starved and taught
English. It was a good place to starve, and my six-month stint
turned into six years. I then met a man at a cellar door event
who asked me if I wanted to edit his new wine magazine in
London. I 
could barely afford the petrol to drive home.
NEVER MIND THE BOTTLES We wanted to be the Top
 of wine magazines. We put Gorbachev, Reagan and
Thatcher's Spitting Image puppets on the cover holding
glasses of wine. We were trying to be punk in our own way.
Part of our 
punkiness was to not focus on France. We were
poster children for Australian, New Zealand
and Chilean wine, 
as well as the lesser regions of Europe. I 
wrote about wine for The Daily Telegraph (newspaper) for 
14 years, and I wrote a couple of dozen books. The first was 
a quirky book called The Wine Lists, which was published by 
the Guinness Book of Records. It was well-timed, in 1985, 
when people wanted to discover wine. It covered things like
"What's the furthest that you could fire a champagne cork?" 
and the first nude wine tasting.
magazine held a tasting of English wines against those from 
the rest of the world, and it somehow became the world's 
biggest wine competition, with over 10,000 entries. The first 
offshore International Wine Challenge (IWC) in Hong Kong 
was at Vinexpo, in 1996. I ran several here, and then in China. 
Later, I  took it to Japan, Russia, Poland, Thailand, Vietnam 
and  Singapore. I would probably qualify for the Guinness 
Book of  Records for having run the most competitions, over 
50 of them.
FIRST SIGN OF MADNESS I woke up one day and found I
was talking to myself. Professionally, at least. I'd just been to
fourth or fifth dinner party where the person beside me,
was richer, better educated and more sophisticated than
I was,  
revealed he didn't know a Chablis was made from the
chardonnay grape. I realised all this stuff I'd been writing for 
all these years wasn't being read by a wide audience. That 
growing feeling coincided with two things: the sale of the 
magazine and the birth of my first child, in 2005. I have no 
regrets that I stopped being a consumer wine writer. It was 
also timely due to the wonderful free wine writing appearing 
COUNTING SHEEP When I - with two partners - decided I
wanted to make wine, I didn't want to make the greatest wine
in the world; I wanted to make affordable, approachable wine 
that people could drink both on a Wednesday with pizza and at 
dinner party. So here we are - three Brits making a wine in
southern France called Le Grand Noir, with a black sheep on 
the label.
DIVORCED FROM REALITY If the wine industry and the
consumer were in a relationship, the consumer would have
walked out - a long time ago. Because what the wine industry
says is, "You don't 
understand me, you've got to learn how to
understand me, and you've 
got to learn how to understand my
"You've got to understand my moods" (that's a good vintage
and a bad vintage). "You've got to understand my demands"
(prices go 
up and down; only they don't go down very often).
"You don't 
understand what I'm saying, because I don't tell
you what I am 
saying. But I want you to understand" (the label
usually doesn't 
tell you anything). "I use language you don't
understand. You 
need to understand me. You need help."
SEALING THE DEAL Australia and New Zealand were
early adopters of the screw cap, largely because they're small
countries. The screw cap hasn't worked in America, which is a
fragmented market where 
each state has different liquor laws.
Most of Europe has been resistant, 
and French-led China still
prefers cork. I believe in the screw cap, and I 
like good
synthetic corks. Corks are bad news. If condoms or tyres had 

the same unreliability factor as corks, we wouldn't accept it.
People are 
still selling wine for thousands of dollars that's
sealed with a 
closure that is acknowledged to be faulty. I also
understand why, in 2014, wine is still sold in the
bottle size. The reason why the bottle is 75cl is 
because that was the lung capacity of a French glass blower in
the 17th 
century. My business partner has launched a square
bottle in the US. It's the same height as regular wine
but easier to ship. But why's that such an innovation?
SUMMER OF WINE Wine consulting brings me to events
like Hong Kong's recent Vinexpo. When I first came here, in
the 1980s, there were a handful of people working in wine. It
was all  about the big French names and one or two New World
efforts.  Today, Hong Kong is spoiled for choice. Living in
London, I wish  we had the wine shops you have here. But,
given the fact that  there has been no duty in Hong Kong (since
2008), I am surprised  how expensive wine is here.

I was lucky enough to live  through what I call "the summer of
love of wine", watching wine love develop here and in other
parts of the world in the period  between 1985 and 1995. The
pomposity came out of it during  that time. I'm enjoying
watching China go through the same  summer of love. A good
wine is a wine that you love.