When you get overexposed to a smell, you no longer notice it. Anyone who’s taken wine exams is familiar with the creeping dread of repeatedly nosing an unidentified wine as the aromas only become more and more elusive. Similarly, it’s easy to become accustomed to the quirks of the wine trade as a whole. It is riddled with absurdity, yet that soon becomes normalised when you immerse yourself in the culture and language of wine. So much so that it takes an outsider to point out its bizarreness – that there’s a funny smell in the room, but you can’t detect it.
When I was the manager of a wine store, I hosted a weekly tasting based on a theme. At the end, I would gather up the tasting sheets to see what people really said in their notes.
I appreciate that in the age of a man-child US President, suicidal UK Brexiteers, tinderbox Middle Eastern politics and impending nuclear Armageddon in Asia there are more important things to lose sleep over, but I am quite worried about gin.
Of all the months of the year, January has the best intentions. It reminds me of Eddie in Ab Fab, late for work, horribly hungover, coming down the stairs in oversized sunglasses to frumpy Saffy sitting at the kitchen table. “Health, health, health, darling!” she sings. But the illusion doesn't last for long.
Of all the topics this column has returned to, I wish that anti-alcohol rhetoric wasn’t the most frequent. But it remains one of the most threatening issues the wine trade is facing, and the one which our industry seems to find most challenging to counter effectively.
I were to sum up alcohol sales over Christmas 2017 in one word, it would be “gin”. At Nielsen, we define the Christmas period as the 12 weeks to December 30 and in that time gin sales were £199.4 million, which means they increased by £55.4 million compared with Christmas 2016. There’s no sign the bubble is about to burst either. Growth at Christmas 2016 was £22.4 million, so gin has increased its value growth nearly two-and-a-half times in a year. The spirit added more value to total alcohol sales than any other category, with its contribution dwarfing that of the next biggest grower, wine, which increased sales by £23.8 million. Among our team of alcohol analysts, no one can remember such an impressive performance for a single-category spirit during the Christmas period, and if current growth rates continue, gin looks likely to overtake blended whisky by next Christmas.
The campaign name There’s A Beer For That may have got cynics like me trying to think of things there wasn’t a beer for, but broadly speaking it was a force for good.
Disagreeing about wine is a fact of wine-trade life, like drugs in sport or corruption in politics. Because taste is entirely subjective, debates about our personal preferences are as inevitable as they are interminable. Indeed, these long-winded, wine-fuelled arguments are precisely what make our jobs so much fun.
At this time of year, the activity of an independent wine merchant has the quality of a time lapse in a David Attenborough documentary.
The judges met last week to sort out the winners in the independent categories of our 2018 Drinks Retailing Awards. The results are top secret until the awards dinner on February 6 but it’s giving nothing away to report that the overall standard of those that will be revealed in the shortlist of finalists in the January issue of DRN is higher than it’s ever been.
In the not-too-distant future, when all humans are born with inbuilt VR headsets and Trump is Supreme Commander of the Known Universe, how will students of wine look back on the present era of retail in the UK? And, in such a dystopian world, why would anyone care?
An enthusiastic wine drinker finding themselves a fly on the wall at a trade-only tasting would undoubtedly be surprised by how serious everyone looks. Within the trade, we regularly hear from customers how nice it must be to spend at least part of the working day tasting wine. Although it’s hard to put it on the same level as moving furniture or reconciling accounts, tasting is nonetheless work that requires stamina, discipline and concentration, hence the scribbling and frowns.
I am fed-up with politicians and academics with an agenda endlessly repeating the same old anti-alcohol tropes – usually without having the faintest idea about where they came from or whether they are true. I recently heard a minister (who must remain nameless because the meeting at which he spoke was under Chatham House rules) repeat that old canard that “minimum pricing is justified because alcohol is being sold at pocket money prices, often cheaper than water”. Now, maybe Tesco’s cheapest “everyday lager” has been sold for less than the most expensive bottle of Perrier, but the idea that supermarket shelves are stacked with booze that is cheaper than water is just nonsense. I asked the minister could he give us even one example of this and he couldn’t. What is true is that certain brands of bottled water are outrageously expensive. Just saying!
Perpetual motion machines are scientifically impossible, but that doesn’t stop people believing in them. As usual, the internet provides a happy home for such nut-jobs, for whom scientific impossibility is just another government conspiracy, man. Hence the abundance of blogs purporting to prove that perpetual motion machines are, like, totally real, and that the Large Hadron Collider is actually a stargate to a new cosmic wormhole. I’m not making this up, by the way.
Some drinks have such immaculate branding behind them that it's hard not to believe there's some mastermind behind it, a strategic genius of such infinite subtlety that their work is apparent everywhere and yet utterly untraceable.
The arrival of October means that we’re now officially in Nielsen’s Christmas trading period. Manufacturers and retailers alike have until December 30 to optimise their sales plans and activate them in-store in order to win at Christmas.
When Bordeaux was in fashion, it seemed almost logical that we should fetishise winemakers. Here were people responsible for brilliant acts of blending, across large estates and multiple grape varieties, including superstars such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot. These days, fashion has moved on and pinot noir is ascendant. As a result, the star of the winemaker has fallen and we find ourselves following a new star in the sky: terroir.
One of the most fascinating stories in wine, fit to stand alongside the Judgement of Paris, is that of Rudy Kurniawan, a man who managed to fool friends, auction houses and experts into believing they were drinking some of the world’s most expensive wines.
Last week columnist Guy Woodward launched a quite extraordinary rant in our sister title, Harpers, in which he railed against the Scotch Whisky Association and argued in favour of minimum unit pricing. He called the SWA “shabby” for fighting MUP and threw his weight behind the anti-alcohol lobby. The basis for his argument was a press release put out by the neo-prohibitionist brigade and he bought its claims hook, line and sinker, without holding them up to the scrutiny they deserve.
Discovering this new interest has reminded me of what I first found fascinating about wine. The longer we spend in the industry, the more jaded we can become. What often starts out as an enthusiastic passion decays into cynicism brought on by the daily drag of a professional life.
“Would you pay £4 million for this crap?” That was the question posed by the front over of the NME in February 1986, a reference to the over-hyped electro sci-fi punk band Sigue Sigue Sputnik and the fee allegedly paid by record company EMI for their services.
I would like to think my outlook on things is generally optimistic. Perhaps that’s a natural consequence of working with something designed to give pleasure. But recently it has become increasingly difficult to ignore a creeping sense of negativity pervading the British wine trade.
One of my earliest memories of drinking proper wine was with a university friend who liked to get out of Oxford on Friday afternoons and spend the weekend in London. There, we were able to prise open cases of her dad’s wine – Médoc something, I vaguely recall – stored in the garden shed and often more shed-cold than cellar-cool when we opened it.
Back in 2005 (how’s that for a topical intro, folks?), we were on the panel of judges at the International Beer Challenge which awarded the Supreme Champion gong to Rogue Mocha Porter.
Picture the scene. You put your key in the keyhole, shove the door with your shoulder, drop your bags and look down. There, beaming up at you, is some relative or friend’s smug postcard with sandy beaches, Piña Coladas and palm trees (or, these days, an in nity pool and a detox smoothie) with a literal or metaphorical “wish you were here” written large.
Where I live, you can buy McDonald’s milkshakes 24 hours a day if you so desire. Yet both local wine merchants (one independent, one national chain) had locked their doors at just after 7pm when I was trying to buy a few bottles recently. For a neighbourhood drinks retailer to close so relatively early seems like wilful mismanagement to me.
Few things can bring communal pleasure so intimately as wine. Apart from a hot tub, perhaps. Sport can trigger mass jubilation, film gives us shared empathy, but wine has a nigh-unique ability to bestow conviviality among us through a shared bottle – which makes it especially galling that we spend so much time divided over it.
In my first wine shop job I was astonished by a colleague’s ability to remember the personality of particular regions’ vintages and to casually observe, while stacking shelves, that the labels of a given wine had moved on from one vintage to another. Never blessed with a prodigious memory, this seemed to me as breathtaking as a circus trapeze act.
Whyte & Mackay has launched a Scotch in honour of legendary arctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton – a replica of the whisky he took with him to the bottom of the world, and famously left there for 100 years.
I was asked recently what I thought the biggest change had been in wine fashion in the past five years. My answer was unequivocal: sales of pink wines. From being a niche that expanded and contracted with the sunshine, rosé has subtly but steadily become a stalwart of many merchants’ ranges, with Provence firmly at the top and asked for by name.
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