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Wine writers in the UK

The UK market is the most sophisticated in the world, in my humble opinion. There are more true connoisseurs of fine wine in the UK than anywhere else.

England has a long history of wine education. It is the headquarters for the Institute of Masters of Wine and also for the WSET. There are literally hundreds of WSET schools there and these are the breeding grounds for a nation of wine lovers.

One of the reasons for the relatively high general knowledge of wine stems from the proliferation of exceptional wine writers. Not only the likes of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson but dozens of others who are frighteningly well informed about the world of wine, and highly opinionated. This is something I like.

The UK writers tends to be very competitive with eachother and occasionally there is no love lost. Public spats break out in Decanter and on social media. There are Open letters that go back and forth, and the wording is so nasty, yet put in such a politely British way, that it makes for a soap opera.

One of the key issues amongst wine writers is their independence, and here in Napa Valley on July 4th, there is no better topic. Some of the spats amongst the UK writers have centered around their independence, or sometimes lack thereof.

One writer cracks; “Was it my poor eyesight or do I recall seeing you jumping out of a helicopter at X Champagne House after a vineyard tour. I hope the bed at their chateau was as comfortable as the Business class seat, and I must say that bright scarf looks most dashing on you, and many congratulations for being named as a judge at their Sommelier of the Year awards – well worth the 96 points you gave their top cuvee I’d say”.

Love it. Straight for the jugular. And why? Because it keeps writers on their toes, and, hopefully, it keeps them honest, especially at the top very level.

In some other markets I have not witnessed the same independence amongst the top wine writers, shall we say. I find it hard to stomach how a writer can actually be paid by a winery for; their assistance in making the final blend, speaking at a winemakers dinner on their behalf, writing a tech sheet or a back label, consulting on the portfolio at large, or perhaps working as an ambassador for an organization like Wines of Chile. Mmmmm, how do you spell conflict of interest?

One of the issues is where to draw the line. I think it is totally fine to accept samples as that is part of the job, and surely a free fancy dinner won’t get a winery a nice rating from a critic worth his salt. Free flights are OK in my book if they are paid for by a generic body like Wines of Chile, but they are not OK if paid for by one single winery, like a Champagne House. Actually receiving a cheque from a winery for some other type of service like those mentioned above is definitely out.

It can get even more complicated. In my situation one of our businesses is to produce wine. We’ve been working on it for 4+ years. I’m the GM and basically in charge of everything, and I’ll be responsible for the sales too. I’m not a professional wine writer or a critic, and I don’t have a column. I suppose there are many other MW winemakers in the world who promote their own products, but it does seem to be an uncomfortably grey area.

Anyway, the UK wine writers are certainly to thank in part for creating a nation of relatively well informed wine lovers. Many years ago I jumped into a taxi in London bound for one of our major clients. I was, as usual, fully loaded with samples. This sparked a conversation with the cabbie.

“So you work in wine hey?” he said.

“Yes, I’m the Export Director for a Bordeaux House” I replied, fluffing my feathers.

“So go on then, tell me the difference between a Barsac and a Sauternes?” he went on.

At this point I had no idea if it was a test, or whether he wanted to know the actual difference. But either way, I was stumped.

After a moment’s silence on my part he laid out the facts. “Barsac can use the appellation Sauternes but not the other way round, and Barsac tends to be slightly drier, not so rich and honeyed ya know guv, and frankly I prefer them. The ’83 Chateau Coutet is to die for”.

He’d certainly put me in my place. I doubted that cabbies in Jakarta were quite so knowledgeable.