On wine writing ethics

Recently there has been a growing debate about the ethics of wine writing in New Zealand, namely whether it is acceptable for a wine writer to accept payment for reviews. 

Before I get into this argument I want to make a few decelarations:

  • I am not a member of the Wine Writers of New Zealand as I narrowly fall short of some of the membership criteria - largely because I also write about beer which has taken up a lot of my time in the last 18 months having had a beer book BREWED, published in September 2015. By and large I think that the work of WWNZ is positive and I hope you will realise from all of the declarations I am making here is that I think ethics in this industry are important.
  • I do not and have never received payments from wineries in exchange for reviews. I have however accepted payment to create content for a certain importer who shall remain nameless as I was never actually paid what I was promised. This was at least 8 years ago when the cache of being a 'wine blogger' was larger than it is now, shiny new media forms being what they are when they are shiny and new.
  • I have worked both directly and indirectly for wineries and other wine businesses - I was sommelier at Craggy Range for 2 years, I worked for Macvine, representing a number of NZ wine brands for another two, and have occasionally helped out in other wine businesses with social media coaching, filling in at a tasting room when people had staff down, pouring wine at events. I am also now the co-owner and sommelier of Hillside Kitchen and a co-owner of The Ramen Shop which both derive a substantial amount of income from the sales of wine. I am also looking at establishing a wine business in the near future which will necessitate an even deeper commercial relationship with individual producers if it is to succeed. 
  • While working in these businesses I NEVER wrote about the wines of the wineries I worked for UNLESS I was commissioned to write a specific article and not including the producer or wine was untenable (example: I was commissioned to write an article on low alcohol wine and mentioned a Forrest wine while I also made a living selling other wines from the range. When I did this I made a statement in the body of the article about my relationship with Forrest). I waited at least a year after leaving Craggy before I wrote about any of their wines and still made a statement about my previous employment with them.
  • I want to stress that I greatly respect all of the writers involved on each side of the debate. I'm throwing in my two cents because I have heard from a number of winery principals who have come to me with concerns about both sides of the argument. I think I have something meaningful to say, having had to be more aware of this problem than many others for years due to the nature of my work. 
  • I have lots of friends who work in and own wineries and those who are also reviewers. I have great respect for all of the professionals I write about in this article and if I come across as being personal I apologise profoundly. I have tried to take a similar tone to the rest of the debate.  
  • Finally, I want to state categorically that I am not a wine reviewer. I write about wine critically and honestly about wine and do provide tasting notes, usually of wines I think are worthy of such, not necessarily because I like them. I both write about and sell lots of wines I don't like because I can draw a line between my personal preferences and objective quality. More on this later. I have been a 'wine reviewer' and I don't think I was ever that good at it. 

Why all of this detail? Because I am trying to be transparent. Because I think wine writer (and beer writer) ethics are important.

This debate has been rekindled by WWNZ and the release of their extended Code of Ethics, which expands on their 2011 Declaration of Ethics, which they claim "all wine writers in the country were invited to sign". I have an issue with this; I was writing professionally about wine for a number of outlets (both regularly and on a ad-hoc freelance basis) in the two years leading up to the release of this declaration in print and digital media, both in NZ and internationally and was never asked to sign it. I am sure there are others who fall into the same boat as me. But that, frankly, is by the by.

In her Viva article on the subject, Jo Burzynska (a member of WWNZ) argues that due to the decline of traditional print media and the ethical standards that came with it (let's not open that can of worms) and the rise of online media especially of bloggers whose ethics, inarguably, can be highly dubious. I don't have such an issue with this statement.  However, my bias toward free-speech/free-market ideology and over 10 years' experience in the wine blogosphere have shown me that the good bloggers find a market, find a model, to survive, to make it work financially.  This could be having a high paying job to fund the habit, advertising, accepting contributions from readers or many other methods or a combination of them to make it work. Bad and unethical ones don't. There are exceptions to every rule. 

Burzysnka interviews two writers who use the pay-to-play model although does not acknowledge who they are and the article is not clear on whether this is at their request. I'm sure there are others but the two most notable writers using this business model (and both of which I greatly respect) are Raymond Chan and Sam Kim. I am not aware of others using this model although would not be surprised by it. For the record, both charge about $33 + GST to review a wine and mention this on their website. They do both, however, use the word "independent" heavily in their articles. They put up four arguments, which I think have merit:

  • they are providing a service to wineries and to the public;
  • charging per review creates a level playing field;
  • all of us have some bias;
  • and, wine shows and magazine panel tastings have entry fees, how is this any different?

She then has some pretty awesome quotes from non-wine industry people about how abhorrent the practice is and finally chastises the wineries themselves for not conveying the fact they have in effect paid for these reviews. This is the one part of the argument I don't buy - I just don't think that there is any practical way this could work without completely undermining the point of having a review next to a stack of bottles or a shiny gold sticker on a bottle. The way I see this is different - to me, the wineries are not buying the reviews but the reviewer's credibility. It is the on the reviewer to protect and uphold this. 

There are other models - Bob Campbell MW does not charge for reviews but has created the #realreviews alliance with Aussie writer Huon Hooke where they charge producers and retailers a fee to access and use their reviews. Some of the content is also behind a consumer paywall. I would like to see them c&d a retailer who uses their content without permission as its not cheap and many retailers will be hesitant to start paying for something that they had previously got, more or less, for free. 

Enter Belinda Jackson - consultant to the wine industry and organiser of a number of wine shows. She rebutted Burzynska by arguing about what independence in relation to wine means and does make good points - some I agree with, others I don't. She states, "Their issue is that those who charge to review a wine are naturally duty-bound to write nice things about it which prevents it from being independent and therefore misleads the public." This will be important later. While she claims to be unbiased (as she does not review wine anymore) a more thorough reading of the article makes me question this as she goes on at length about the validity of blind tasting and the wine show system as well as wine writers' acceptance of gifts from wineries and, most importantly, producers misleading consumers by putting medal-like things on their bottles to help sell wine. I don't disagree this is disingenuous, however Jackson has a strong incentive for making these arguments. What I am trying to point out becomes more obvious - no one is innocent. We all have biases. 

Enter Emma Jenkins, one of the new MW's on the block (kudos to her - it is an amazingly tough program which by accounts gets harder year on year) who shares a blog with Jane Skilton, also an MW. She takes issue with the comment made by Jackson about being "duty-bound to write nice things" as misunderstanding "the aspects that concern us." She states that the argument to allow pay-to-play writers centres around "strawman arguments or plain flawed thinking... (e.g. everyone has a right to earn a living.) ...often as not, the obtuse arguments and woeful ignorance simply reflect poorly on the writer’s ability to actually understand the topic on which they choose to comment. For some reason this is a popular position."

Jenkins then brings up the point about these reviewers styling themselves as both consultants to the industry and "independent reviewers" and states quite simply: "You can't be both." She criticises the defence that these reviewers disclose the fact they charge for reviews. "They may indeed, but (as has been said many times before…) this is emphatically not where the majority of consumers would ever read this. The shiny gold stickers on the bottles, or producer and retailer websites using the scores/reviews to sell wine, make no such mention of the fact."

So far I have spent 550+ words on my own disclosures and twice that again summing up the various sides of the argument.  If you have got this far, hurrah! I guess the point of the length of this post is that the arguments on all sides are getting tiresome. 

I personally feel that both sides of the debate make good points but I don't think that any of them present them in full context. This is where my two cents come in and hopefully it will help you to make up your own mind. One more disclosure here - I don't know Sam Kim that well but I've read his tasting notes and he is a talented and astute taster. I do know Raymond well and he has a palate that I don't always agree with but respect. I think he acts ethically, however, the business model he uses does admittedly leave a lot of room for abuse. From here on in I am talking about the model - not the people. Where I stand on the issue changes day by day. 

Here goes:

New Zealand is a small country and has an even smaller wine industry.  This is especially so in relation to "serious wine" which, to be a competent commentator on wine generally, one needs to have an excellent understanding of. It is virtually impossible therefore (unless one is independently wealthy) to be able to amass enough wine knowledge and experience to be a competent writer without doing time in the trenches. This may have been the case 20+ years ago when there was much higher demand for paid writers across the board and the cost of "serious wine" was seriously less, but let's face it, today good wine is expensive and content is cheap. Emerging wine writers and reviewers will necessarily have had to worked in the industry AND have created relationships with producers, suppliers and others.

As I have mentioned earlier, the nature of media has changed. There is simply less work out there for professional wine writers but I think we can all agree that having professional wine writers is a good thing for the industry. So we have to adapt. Some have managed to hold onto traditional paid print and digital work, some have pursued the pay-to-play model, some have attempted to create their own personal media brands that can guarantee them an income and others still have chosen to take advantage of the new opportunities we have at our disposal such as crowd funding. The sane person with long-term goals might take aspects from all of these.

Take BREWED, my beer book, which was crowd funded. To an extent this was pay-to-play.  If I didn't get enough breweries on side, both financially and as advocates, the project would have never got off the ground. I could have approached producers and asked for a set fee to have a certain amount of content - this is certainly how a number of magazines and books are funded these days but I chose to take another route: pledge as much as you think you can afford/what it's worth to you. This said, I was direct and transparent with breweries. Regardless of whether you pledged or how much you pledged I will write about your brewery no more or less favourably that I would have otherwise. You probably think I'm being blind, and maybe I am. However, I am happy with both my transparency (Kickstarter was mentioned in almost every bit of publicity the book received and is mentioned numerous time throughout the book and a full list of the backers is at the end of it) and my independence (I was highly critical of those I needed to be including Moa who was a backer), honest in weighing up the good and bad of the big breweries (none of which contributed) even though there would probably be a significant number of readers who would have liked to read me pillory Lion and DB.  Finally, there are numerous breweries including some of the largest entries that I wax lyrical about and did not give me a cent. I think those results speak for themselves. I hope to publish a wine book in the near future using the same model; it has worked for me and I believe it is also the most transparent and most financially viable method of getting the best possible product in front of a consumer. 

Ultimately the arguments on both sides of this debate come down to one word: bias.

What is bias? Certainly financial bias is obvious but there are so many other forms of bias - bias toward wines and wine styles we 'like' and producers that we have good personal relationships with (NZ is a small country) or those that have a great track record. Even blind tasting creates a certain form bias toward specific styles such as more forward, vibrant wines that stand out in a line up over more subtle wines (but that is a subject for another blog post). Personally I don't think we can eliminate bias. Our jobs as critical, independent professionals is to first mitigate it as much as possible, then acknowledge our biases and control for them as much as possible (just as scientists do) and finally, if a conflict of interest remains then disclose, disclose, disclose. 

But most importantly we have to be professionals. We have to be self-aware enough to understand what we like, don't like and why then be bold enough to (where appropriate) publicly acknowledge these things. What I find abhorrent in both the wine and food industries generally and in NZ specifically is writers and reviewers who cannot separate personal opinion: "I enjoyed the dish" from educated, professional, objectivity: "The dish was well executed." To give a personal example, I really dislike Pegasus Bay Riesling (I am a huge fan of their other wines) but I have to acknowledge that it is one of the finest examples of the 'medium-kiwi' style on the market and objectively a world class wine. It just happens to be a style I loathe. The same can be said of most barrel aged beers. Likewise, I enjoy whiskey but know I simply do not have enough knowledge about it to make any comment other than "I like whiskey x". I acknowledge this because if I wasn't able to do so I don't think I could fairly call myself a "drinks professional." 

Real criticism requires a balance of both opinion and objectively but most importantly the integrity to separate between them. Too many wine, beer and restaurant reviewers have become so full of their own importance that 'I like' equals good, and 'I don't like' equals bad. This to me, much more of a disservice to the consumer than pay-to-play. 

Finally, the whole argument pays a lot of lip service to, but ultimately ignores consumers. Arguments on all sides scream of 'we know better'. Guess what - consumers are not stupid. They know we have a great gig (I'm not saying its not hard - it is) but they also know where our bread is buttered. They know we don't pay for wine, we can't afford it (ironic huh) and that we have built our business model on the largess of producers who, on a collective basis, don't need us. To most consumers a good review or medal is little more than a nudge toward a wine that in the very least, is not going to be disappointing. Its an indication of a certain level of quality but much less powerful than a general affinity with a brand or even a personal recommendation from a friend.  Jackson suggests, "knowing the brand and resonating with the brand values is brilliant and is the holy grail of all us wine marketers, but an independent endorsement can be even better." I don't believe it for a second. The most successful brands in the market are such because consumers believe in them, their wines and their stories. When they win awards they only act to cement consumers connections with the wine. A good gong may help you sell a few cases today but there is another wine show or wine column tomorrow and is not going to be a huge help long term (the exception is the few wines that consistently get good reviews and awards) - this is one of the things that does help in creating that sense of customer loyalty in the first place. Consumers are not stupid and when we treat them as such it is not them we are doing a disservice to (they don't care) it is ourselves and our profession.

Is the practice of pay-for-play ok or is it not? You make the decision. But be aware of all the facts.

2015 Wine in Review

So, it is that time of year where people release top ten lists and so forth. This is a top twenty of sorts, but broken down into ten categories that mean something to me (and I hope, you) with a winner and runner up... 

This year has been a challenge for me. Both generally and in relation to wine. It is the first year in many that I have tasted as widely as I have and this has opened my eyes to a lot of new things. I have also opened a restaurant, written and released a book and bought a house. This list is mostly, but not exclusively kiwi. Likewise I've also tried to include wines that are on the market (however rare) because, you know, thats the way I roll. 


Most challenging (and rewarding) wine...

These are wines that were just so different, standing out head and shoulders over the monotony screaming with personality and individuality and are challenging in a way that made me shift my preconceptions about wine in general. These are not wines for everybody but they deserve to be celebrated. 

Runner up: 2013 Paltrinieri 'Greto' Lambrusco DOC

Funky, bone dry, red and sparkling. Not what I was expecting but a stunning wine and one which is an amazing buy for under $20 retail. I'm going to be drinking a lot of this over summer. 

Winner: 2014 Milton Libiamo 

Wow! This is a head-fuck of a wine. This year has seen a lot talk about natural wine in general and orange wine in particular both those who love the wines and hate the wines have been equally loud and sometimes vitriolic. The arguments are getting tiresome. Both camps are right (and wrong): yes, they are here to stay but they will only ever represent a fraction of the market. At Hillside, we've been supportive of these wines (but not out of devotion to any worldview) because they are interesting, different and challenging. Challenging (as this category suggests) often equates directly to rewarding. This wine is both. Aged on skins for 78 days it is a wall of tannin but is also a beautiful expression of vintage, variety, vineyard and the personality of its creator James Milton. To me, these four things in balance is the ultimate expression of wine. It has taught me something about orange wine too - the process can seriously mute varietal characters so imho those varieties with heightened aromatics (Gewurtztraminer as is the case for Libiamo) but also Sauvignon and to a lesser extent Riesling trump less aromatic varieties like Pinot Gris and Chardonnay (although there are exceptions such as the fantastic Mount Edward 'Clockwork' Orange). And needless to say when it comes to skin contact wines, while it is not the case for this one, less is often more. 


Wine that shifted my thinking...

These two wines are chosen because they made me think very differently about a variety, region, winemaker or combination of the above that I had previously discounted. 

Runner up: 2010 Terroir Wines BDX

80% Cabernet, 20% Merlot from Martinborough. To me this would always be a challenging proposition to the point where previously I would have said, "why bother, this is going to be too green, and whats more, way to hard to sell". But it is fantastic. Super ripe, pure and focused with edge and drinkability. The 11 is better in every way (it is also 20% more expensive and not in my opinion 20+% better). Damn good wine. Get some.  

Winner: 2014 Savage 'Follow the Line'

I don't often also buy wines for both myself and the restaurant, this is one of those exceptions. A truly beautiful blend of rhone varieties, starring Cinsaut and from the Western Cape in South Africa. First off, the variety. Usually starring in lesser southern French blends (that have a coarseness that I am rarely fond of), I've never seen a Cinsaut with such purity, poise and grace. Something that further surprised me considering the region too. Light in body and colour but wonderfully aromatic and spice. It has power and presence without being overbearing.  


Best Value...

Not the cheapest, but the wines that to my mind offer amazing bang for buck. Both retail for under $25 but that is more of a coincidence than something planned

Runner up: 2014 Colombo Syrah

This was a hard pick for me, but the Colombo came in a hair over the slightly less expensive Ash Ridge (also HB Syrah). Bright, fruity, expressive of vineyard and vintage but also unique. Has the poise of a Pinot with cranberry and white pepper. Bloody good. 

Winner: 2014 RM Wines Two Gates Gewurtztraminer

Its not your proto-typical gewurtz. Bone dry and more musky than spicy/floral. That said it is delicious and was our 'house white' in the restaurant for a few months. We will be drinking it at the wedding in January. 


Most exciting wine....

Not necessarily the best but the wines that exited my palate... These are the wines that when opened you are forced to text wine buddies to come taste or simply force a glass into the hands of unsuspecting passers by. 

Runner up: 2014 Kindeli 'La Zorra'

Skin fermented (a.k.a. orange or amber wine) has featured heavily in my life this year. I am a convert but not a blinkered one. They can be extremely challenging and some are, put simply, fucking awful. But those go for wine in general. This has been one of the most rewarding. It is Chardonnay and unlike many orange wines, still tastes varietally pure. It has been a great tool to have in the arsenal and has matched amazingly well to countless dishes.

Winner: Bellbird Spring Sous Voille

Another challenging style but one that forces you to stand up and take notice. Essentially a sherry style (part way between a manzanilla and palo cortado maybe) but grown in Canterbury and made from Pinot Gris. Aged in the traditional solera method with a veil (hence the name) of flor yeast this is bone dry but jumpy, nutty and thoroughly refreshing. 


Overrated Wine Trend...

Here we come to the part of the discussion where I might alienate people. If this is the case, apologies. These are the things in the wine world that I'm 

Runner up: 2013 Hawkes Bay Wines

So much have been made of "the vintage of the century" for Hawkes Bay. Truth be told the wines are fantastic, but so are the 2014's (and if you are a Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay drinker - arguably better at times). There are certain powerful producers in HB who like to scream about how amazing every vintage is, maybe its because their customer bases are extremely traditional and are still obsessed about 'good' and 'great' vintages (these customers are, to be polite, 'aging out'). TBH I don't care about vintage any more. Yes, in the very best (and very worst) years wines are a little better or a little worse than usual but in 2015 this is far less important than producer, vineyard or designation. Heralding these vintages is overstated and overrated and while it may shift units of that vintage, overall it isn't helping you to sell wine, especially not to emerging consumers. 

Winner: Natural Wine

As I said in relation to Millton's fantastic Libiamo, there has been a lot of talk about both Natural Wine and Orange Wine. I want to congratulate Bob Campbell MW on his honesty in regards to his personal preferences when he weighed in on the subject. The argument itself is best summed up in this Guardian article. But briefly, Natural Wine can be challenging and at times can be faulty. This turns the wine establishment off as they have been taught that faulty = bad. Most of the time it does. But some of the most interesting wines I have tasted have had flaws. Wine, you see, can be more than the sum of its parts. I could go on, and on, and on hashing out each side of the arguement... but I guess thats why its the most overrated trend. 


Wine Trend...

Runner up: PET NAT

Petillant Natural aka PET NAT is a darling of the Natural Wine scene. Essentially these are lightly sparkling wines made from allowing a small amount of residual sugar / yeast to remain in a wine before bottling and then ferment out creating a light fizz. These are wines of the moment both figuratively and literally. They are made to drink now and also only last open a few hours. But the best are typically lower in alcohol, absolutely delicious, offer amazing value for money can be made with almost any variety. Pour me a glass now. Look out for wines from Kindeli, Cambridge Road

Winner: Colaboration Wines 

Collaborations have been a thing in beer for a while and there have also been some super high-profile ones in the wine world but these have been more about marketing and production logistics than the coming together of minds. More and more producers are coming together to create wines together. I think the best results occur here when producers with similar philosophies but from different regions come together, it can also work well when people from other parts of the trade or from outside of the trade (such as fashion houses) come together to make a wine. One of the best examples of this is salo / Leheny Gibson. salo are a Yarra Valley producer that makes a HB Syrah with the fruit from Bilancia - owned by Trinity Hill winemaker Warren Gibson and his wife (also an accomplished winemaker) Lorraine Gibson. They in turn release a Yarra Valley Chardonnay under the Leheny Gibson label which they describe thus: "our ‘side project’, showcasing wines from beyond our normal Hawke's Bay roots, wines from classic wine regions that are stretching the boundaries of style and quality….….oh, and some Olive Oil, maybe white wine vinegar….family projects!" These wines (and colab wines in general) are about sharing ideas and creating something bigger than one producer could do on their own - they also serve a marketing purpose... cross-exposing consumers to each others wine. This is real, honest marketing and it works. 


Up and coming producer...

Runner up: Colombo Wines

Mentioned in regards to their stella syrah, Colombo have burst on to the scene. The wines are consistently good, varietally pure and offer excellent value for money. They are also expressive, unique and have soul. Committed to their Martinborough vineyard Carolyn and Baptiste have also made Marlborough and Hawkes Bay wines. 

Winner: Don / Kindeli

Winemaker Alex Craighead (alongside his partner Josephina) is behind these wines and they are fantastic. Some are challenging (such as the Don Orange Pinot Gris and Kindeli 'La Zorra'). While priced similarly, Kindeli represents a more whimsical approach and Don a more serious, terroir expressive stance.  Alex is at the vanguard of Natural Wine in NZ and is an active ambassador both in NZ and abroad. They offer excellent value for money, are presented impeccably and are among the most food friendly, enjoyable wines I've seen this year. The first releases have been from Martinborough fruit but they also promise Nelson and HB wines in the near future. 


Producer of the year...

This the producer who I've found to put out consistently good, reliable, and some times exceptional wine. Everything has to be good and some has to be great. They also have to offer exceptional value. 

Runner up: Villa Maria

I might get lynched for saying this, but I love the wines of Villa Maria. Year on year, of all of the producers in NZ they are the most consistent at every level of the market. Each brand imprint has a separate identity that makes sense and the wines express this. The wines are commercial but they are everything that is good about commercial wine. From the $12 Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc to the $180 Esk Valley Terraces they guarantee to put smiles on faces, each time, every time. 

Winner: Black Estate

Simply put, the Black Estate wines are fantastic. They are pure, focused and express the personality of the vineyard, vintage and winemaker. They are approachable but also easily able to hold the attention of any serious wine drinker.  I thought the sweeter style riesling a more pure expression of site than the dryer recent vintages but they are one of the few producers where I would be happy to stand behind/list/drink any wine made by Black Estate.  


Best wine media...

Either online or in print (but also includes podcasts, videos...) these are the resources that I have found most rewarding this year... 

Runner up (Tie): Tim Atken MW and The Hosemaster of Wine

This is a tie because Ron Walsham (Hosemaster) does his best work on Atken's site. The site has a great depth of content and a good balance between tasting notes, commentary and opinion and has excellent, in depth regional reports and a diverse list of contributors (Tim - do you want a beer writer? You know you do!. The site is not behind a paywall which is a plus and the most enjoyable thing about it is that Atken allows all point of views and can play devils advocate such as in the two part series "In praise of natural wine" and "An antagonists view of natural wine" - both penned by Atken. The most enjoyable part of the site though is Ron Walsham's hilarious satyrical columns (there are more of these over on his blog, The Hosemaster of Wine). He is unafraid of firing shots over the bow's of the establishment as his recent furore with the Riedel Corporation attests. However my favourite of his recent pieces is this one, hamming the lovely Le Pan magazine.

"We are creating the world’s finest wine and lifestyle magazine for those who are clueless about actual style and desperately need to get a life. We curate only the best of the best whether it be wine, cuisine, luxury experience or goods — for one thing, the free samples are better that way, and, believe me, MWs are very picky about free samples. Our voice will be authoritative, sophisticated, educated and assured, except in the Chinese edition where it will be far more pedantic and condescending. Believe me, they like that. We edit out all the complicated wine stuff, and just tell them what all the billionaire Europeans and Americans are drinking. Really, we’re just fucking with them. You’re the audience we want. Because if you don’t read our English-language edition, none of the Chinese will believe anything we say! Let’s keep that between us, shall we?"

Winner: Punch Magazine

I've only discovered Punch recently but I have gone back and devoured lots of older articles. It is a drinks publication rather than one devoted to wine and as such brings a unique, fresh and engaging perspective. Among my favourite articles is "Reconsidering the Influence of the Wine Store" which delves into the touchy subject that while Somms and Winemakers get all the limelight, it is the retail buyers who have a lot of power, bemoaning their lack of (comparative) celebrity and celebrating the best of the best. By far and away the best article I have read all year is "Is Wine Developing Its Own Version of Nomcore":

"For a new generation of wine drinkers, seeking out esoteric and unusual wines became a way of establishing a different value system, one that ignored past status symbols of crus, points and high price tags. Buoyed by adventurous importers, retailers and sommeliers, an alternative wine canon emerged and evolved; cru Beaujolais and traditional Rioja became the gateway to Jura and orange wines.

But now that these producers and grapes have become somewhat commonplace, “cool” wine is at a crossroads. What began as a search for value in the undiscovered has, for some, become a transfer of value onto the wine’s obscurity itself—the difference between “this undiscovered wine is cool” and “this wine is cool because it’s undiscovered.” And it’s here, where maintaining the frontiers of the obscure-cool gets increasingly untenable, that wine begins to look more like the pre-normcore fashion world."


Wine of the year...

Simple... the best, most memorable wine I have tasted this year. 

Runner up: 2013 Trinity Hill Homage

Wow! Structured, elegant and masculine. This is an uncompromising wine and a truly great one. No longer 100% Gimlet Gravels fruit it bucks the trend and harks to a more traditional style of HB Syrah as even the more serious examples these days have forward fruit (and/or over the top wood spice). Its damn good. 

Winner: 2013 Millton Clos de Ste. Anne 'Le Bas' Chenin Blanc

This is far and away the hardest wine to pick. Picking the runner up was easier - which does not make much sense. But this wine is fantastic. Millton has always made amazing Chenin however this takes it to another level. Quite simply the finest NZ white wine I have ever tasted. And thats saying something. Bone dry with pure, driven acidity this wine is a stunning expression of Chenin that stands shoulder to shoulder with the worlds best. I just can't wait to taste it in 10 years. 


Next week... 2015 Beer in Review. 


Quotes from TimAtken.com and PunchDrink.com were used with permission.  

2013 Scoundrels and Rogues Cider

$10 - Canterbury


Made by a scoundrel, a rogue and a member of the wine industry (who has asked to remain nameless) this is an amazing cider and something so different to anything else available on the market.


Weighing in at 8.5% and coming in a 500ml bottle this is a hefty cider (I've just drank a bottle and have canned the plans I had for going out this evening) but what makes it special is its sweetness. "There are so many sweeter ciders on the market, why should that make it special?" I hear you ask! Well, I've never tasted a cider with residual sugar that still remains 'serious'; with depth, complexity and intensity. In a lot of ways the cider reminds me of Canterbury Riesling - it has an amazing balance between sweetness, acidity and funk. Even the cider itself describes itself as "mildly offensive" before suggesting that, "you'll get over it."

The 2013 vintage is the first 'commercial' vintage of the product but there are reviews around for the small batch 2012 and 2011. The cider is pressed, then fermented and aged in old French oak to integrate but mainly because the producer, "was too slack to bottle the cider early, and the onset of the next harvest prompted [him] to clear the barrels." Bless. In 2013 the producer harvested several from several orchards (he is also cultivating his own, planted with heritage French and English varieties as well as cuttings from a 50 year old orchard) before pressing and fermenting them; keeping them separate until final blending, much in the same way wine is blended from grapes harvested and vinified from individual parcels.

The producer ages the cider in barrel as he believes that it smooths the tannins and acid of the cider, making it rounder and more complete. This is just such a beguiling drink because it is so complete: acid, sugar, tannin, fruit as well as the aforementioned corruption. Wow.

The flavour is of apple, obviously but it also has secondary characteristics: cooked apple, fermentation, smoke and decay. It is broad on the palate but focused, starting with a burst of fruit but with tannins giving length on the palate and acidity providing freshness. It is rich but balanced. 

This will be an amazing cider to drink with food - just think of the same things that either Riesling or apple goes with: scallops, roast pork, duck (especially Cantonese roast duck), Szechuan dishes like mapo tofu but will also be lovely with sweeter (although not sweet) fare such as spiced apple cake and sharp English style cheeses. 


In two words: Impure, polarizing. 


Music Match: The Killing Type - Amanda Palmer (LOUD) 

"I just can't explain how good it feels!"

2014 MW Contemporary Issues Questions

Every year, Jancis Robinson publishes the years exam questions to the Masters of Wine exams. I believe that these, especially the Contemporary Issues paper are a particularly excellent bellwether for what is going on in the industry at large, especially the issues that are troubling people. This years are no exception. 


As you read through bare in mind that as Robinson points out while some of the questions may seem simple, "The examiners are looking for extremely detailed responses that the questions don't really hint at." I have posted the questions in a block before going through each one and briefly noting why they are important and what they signify.


The Questions:

Theory Paper 4 - Contemporary Issues

(one question to be answered from Section A and one from Section B)

Section A 

1) Is wine becoming too industrial? 

2) Does the wine industry lack innovation? 

Section B 

3) To what extent do you agree with the assertion that viticultural legislation does more harm than good? 

4) Can the wine industry ever be socially responsible? 

5) To what extent is fake wine a problem in today's wine market? 


Q1) Is wine becoming too industrial?

There is nothing wrong with industrial wine. But so much industrial wine pretends not to be something else. As we have seen from the rise of the Craft Beer industry, consumers are getting bored of homogenized, boring product especially if it is insincere about where it comes from. Unfortunately for the industrial wine world more and more people are pushing back and opting for products that can walk the talk. In my blog about Hot Red Hawkes Bay I made the point that consumers, even at the lower end (although not the at the very bottom) are demanding product that tastes of what it is and where it comes from. This is also applicable to authenticity - if a brand says it is X, it better damn well be. I believe authenticity in wine will become a hot button issue in the industry and am seeing tightening demand for industrial product.


Q2) Does the wine industry lack innovation?

This is a hot button issue as well. I wrote an article for Palate Press a few years ago addressing this in relation to wine marketing, comparing it with how craft brewers behave in the market place. But the story is the same for the whole industry. Yes, there are some amazing people pushing the boundaries but by and large there is a lot of resistance to innovation to the point where many brands go to lengths to emphasize tradition, history and family. Some even make all of that up. In contrast, craft beer is amazingly good at looking after those constantly in search of new experiences. This is something I believe that the wine industry in general and brands in specific should try and do more of, everyone needs to attract more customers, especially if the old ones are beginning to die off.


Q3) To what extent do you agree with the assertion that viticultural legislation does more harm than good? 

I just love how biased this question is and more or less anticipates the candidates feelings here. Most in the industry believe that viticultural legislation is outdated, at least to some degree. I think the interest in this has been renewed by an organic producer in Burgundy being fined severely for not spraying vines in the midst of a disease outbreak. It is especially true of the old world, there are silly rules about what you can plant where, how you can grow it, how you can make it and how you can package it. This ties into Q2 as much of this legislation is designed to quash innovation in favour of tradition and history. Is it all bad? No. But it is an interesting debate that manages to surface every couple of years (I think last time it was an Valpolicella producer not being able to use screw caps). 


Q4)  Can the wine industry ever be socially responsible? 

I think this is probably the most important question that can possibly be asked about wine and I have for a long time wanted to look at it in depth. In the wine world there is a strong "it's not us" mentality about the harm caused by alcohol to the point where other sectors of the industry are heavily scapegoated. This is especially true as price tags get more expensive. Bringing up this in conversation with those in the wine trade does not make you friends. While the worst of the worst are not drinking expensive or even mid-range wine, there are many median and high decile earners with drinking problems who cause harm in public, in private and behind the wheel. I'm not saying that an industry like the RTD one does not cause more harm, only that all alcohol has the ability to cause harm and many of us ignore it. Even when faced by evidence in our own lives. And this is only one side to the social responsibility debate - labour is an issue, as is corporate responsibility and environmental sustainability. 


Q5) To what extent is fake wine a problem in today's wine market? 

For a second I was almost going to write this off as a problem for spoilt little rich kids, Russian oligarchs, tech billionaires, robber-barons and members of the wine illuminati. They are most adversely affected, of course, but the prevalence of wine fraud especially in less controlled markets like China is hurting all producers which in turn hurts all consumers. There are two issues here - the first and most important is less scrupulous merchants and outright fraudsters lying to the consumer about where wine comes from or who made it. I have spoken with members of the trade who were shocked at how many variations of the spelling Rothschild there were on bottle store shelves in China. These were not wines made to sell for vast sums of money but people trying to cash in on someone else's good name. It won't be long before we in NZ see the same thing happening with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Central Otago Pinot Noir. The other side is the big ticket items. Many wine critics have been caught up in this with some of the biggest names giving amazing scores to wines that were probably frauds (they may have been better than the real thing). This makes for fun reading for most of us as there just not the financial reward to start forging the wine most of us drink most of the time. But yes, it is an issue. Caveat emptor. 


If you want to read more, I would also suggest Robinson's notes on the recent MW Symposium in Florence. 


I've been thinking a lot about orange wine recently, and read this great post on FB by Christopher Hayes, an Aussie wine consultant, with his thoughts on the subject. I reposted it on my feed, as I believe it too is indicative of many in the industries thoughts on the subject. 


Do let me know what you think in the comments. I'm sure this will rile some up!

Bach Brewing Kingtide Pacific IPA

$10 - Auckland


Bach Brewing is the brain child of Craig Cooper, who has significant experience in both the craft and the industrial brewing sectors. He was a partner in Limburg Brewery in Hastings which was founded by Chris O'Leary who is now production manager at Emerson's Brewery. The relationship to Limburg is important for several reasons. Firstly, and more personally, Limburg Beers were the first beers I ever tasted that I enjoyed. This was when I was working at Black Barn Bistro on my first break from university, summer of 2003 / 2004. Prior to that I had only ever tried commercial beer and while I drank it if it was around, I never really enjoyed it. This beer was different. It wasn't until almost three years later, toward the end of 2006 when I discovered Epic Pale Ale and realized that beer was as exciting and dynamic as wine. 

The second important thing about the Limburg connection is that the first two of the Bach Brewing beers take their name from the two most popular Limburg beers: Czechmate which is a stunning, refreshing, clean, focused pilsner (and I believe is being made according to the same recipe as it was under the Limburg label) and won Champion International Style Lager at the Brewers Guild of NZ Awards in 2006 and 2007. There is also Hopsmacker which has been hopped up to satisfy the modern craft beer consumer but still retains its broad, toasty, biscuity malt base. 


Kingtide, then, could be said to be the first truly original Bach Brewing beer. It was developed with Kelly Ryan (ex Thornbridge, Epic and Good George) who had retired from brewing to care for his father who has recently passed. Kelly is an excellent brewer and is beginning to establish his own brewery in Taranaki - Brew Mountain. It is amazingly exciting to see Kelly re-entering the industry as he is a fantastic guy and extremely talented brewer - check out his blog BeeRevolution


Kingtide is described as a 'Pacific IPA' as it "is brewed with a caravan full of five character hops from the NZ and US coasts of the Pacific Ocean". That is to say it combines the flavour profile of the already well established APA with the emerging New Zealand Pale Ale style. Of the development of Kingtide Craig Cooper says that he and Kelly brainstormed two recipes for the pilot batch; one with more of a focus on NZ hops, the other with the focus on US hops. Kelly then brewed trial batches of the beer and they decided on the US hop dominant beer as Craig wanted something "distinctively different than Hopsmacker". 


I see the beer as combining elements of Kiwi and US brewing styles both in terms of the flavours and aromas of the hops used but also style in general. One of the things I love about many bigger Kiwi brewed pale ales is their ability to hide their weight well. Liberty Citra is probably the best example of this but examples can also be found in the beers of Epic, Hallertau and 8 Wired. This is opposed to the US brewed beers (which, admittedly, I have only ever tasted in New Zealand) that seem to favour a richness and sweetness of malt body that boarders on cloy. Being a bit of a beer snob I now almost exclusively buy beer imported by Beer Without Boarders who ship and store their beer cold so in theory I am drinking them in the best possible condition. This beer is broad and relatively sweet but still has a clean, focused finish so does not stray into tasting cloy. This beer is massively hoppy but rather than the dominance of US hops that Craig Cooper refers to, I see a seamless weave between the piney, orange, lemon and grapefruit aromas of the US hops and the more focused bitterness, passionfruit flavours and floral aromatics of the Kiwi hops. 


In two words: Full + Focused

2012 Te Mata Awatea

$33 - Havelock Hills, Hawkes Bay

Of all the wines made by Te Mata in Havelock North, Awatea has always been my favourite. This is for a lot of reasons. I was recently invited to the release of Te Mata's 2013 Estate Range and their 2012 NAMED Range (for want of a better description) and so was able to try the impressive 2012 vintage.

The 2013 Estate Range showcases just how good the 2013 vintage was but also showcases Te Mata's consistency at this price range (around the $20 mark). They are wines that over deliver and I particularly enjoyed the Chardonnay and Syrah but that is not what I am here to talk about.


2012 was a difficult vintage for Hawkes Bay, and Te Mata have made an exceptional song and dance about their demarcation of Coleraine (their premium Cabernet Blend) fruit saying things along the lines of 'we managed to produce some but we would not be able to satisfy demand for it so have blended it into Awatea'. I can't think of any serious producer releasing their top Hawkes Bay reds (especially Cabernet and blends) from 2012. Why would you? It was a cold vintage and there simply would not be the ripeness, extraction, concentration and intensity to make truly fine wine which is what is expected in the $50+ category. I guess what I am trying to say here is that what Te Mata have done by blending Coleraine fruit into Awatea is nothing special or unusual. Their song and dance about it is disingenuous at best. Truth be told there are some bloody exceptional and excellent value 2nd and 3rd tier wines out of 2012 for those very reasons.


To be honest, I have never been a huge fan of Coleraine and in the past have sold my fair share of it but am a huge fan of the whites (which are consistently good and the '12s surprisingly so considering the vintage) and the Bullnose in good years (I will pass on the '12). Awatea, to me, has always been where it's at. It always has an amazing wildness, a hint of pine resin and similarity with the wines of Saint Estephe in Bordeaux. It is also about a third the price of Coleraine for a wine that is, to my mind, just as good, if not better some years; unless of course you are prepared to cellar the wine for a decade or more. Even then I have had many better bottles of old Awatea than of Coleraine. (But this could have more to do with my budget and my preferences)


The '12 Awatea has a nose wound tight with hints of the blackest cassis, subdued hiding violet florals and a toasty, smoky, cigar like oak note. It is tight on the palate as well; integrated and balances power, grace and structure. To me it is a textbook Bordeaux blend from a difficult vintage but certainly the wine making team has done well to compensate for this. Over time it opened up to unravel layer upon layer of densely packed fruit, cocoa, the aforementioned pine resin, cedar and burnt earth all balanced by harmony between fine acid and tannin. 


For the $30 price tag it is exceptional wine but the cool vintage does shows so not everyone will love it, the higher levels of acidity should help it age and it should last a decade. 


In two words: Tight, classy. 

Source: temata.co.nz

2012 Tongue in Groove Clayvin Vineyard Pinot Noir

$45 - Southern Valleys, Marlborough

Tongue in Groove are a new wine company that are based in Canterbury. Fronted by Angela Clifford (whom I interviewed for this article) with winemaker Lynette Hudson at the helm, creatively. Lynnete is ex-Pegasus Bay and highly regarded wine consultant who works in New Zealand and internationally. They make Waipara Riesling and Pinot but I was also overjoyed to see this wine, from one of Marlborough's best regarded Pinot vineyards in the box of samples I received from them recently.

Clayvin was originally planted by Mike Eaton; a pioneer of serious, traditonally grown and handmade Marlborough wine, Pinot in particular. Among Mikes many achievements was establishing Terravin Estate. The Pyramid Valley 'Eaton Vineyard' Pinot and the Terravin 'Hillside Selection' (also made by PV winemaker Mike Weersing) are two of the finest examples of Marlborough Pinot I have ever tasted.


The Clayvin Vineyard has an amazing pedigree of producing truly fine, seriously long lived wines: Chardonnay, Pinot (of course) and even Syrah; with some of the finest examples of all three made by the team at Fromm. It was established in 1991 and is managed organically; it was one of the first high-density planted (5500 vines / ha) vineyards in Marlborough, the first hillside vineyard in the region and regarded as one of the first vineyards to show the wider industry just how serious Marlborough wine can be. I have only ever been delighted and surprised by wines from this vineyard and especially by their ability to age gracefully over a very long period. Last year it was leased to Geisen who use it for their organic range (they have sourced some fruit from it for the past few years) and will hopefully do excellent things with it. While they are a commercial producer, they are also making some serious wine and Marcel is also known for some of the country's best, most site specific Pinot and Chardonnay at Bell Hill in North Canterbury. Clayvin is named such as it's soil composition is heavy in clay and, like many clay dominant vineyards has a reputation for producing very savoury, structural wine.  


This is all important background information as hopefully it demonstrates how excited I was when I saw this bottle of wine: despite being from a new label it has impeccable pedigree which the fun, 'designery' part Python, part Art Nouveau label of Tongue in Groove belies. I'm not just trying to out-wank you all. I've just poured my second glass and I haven't even got onto tasting notes yet so lets do that.


The integration of aromas on the nose indicate this wines youth and its potential to become a truly fine wine. It hints at ripe red berry fruit, rhubarb with a hint of oak giving definition. Over time it releases a subtle floral finish which follows through to what is on the palate. 


The palate is silky smooth, even slippery. It has gorgeous, textural weight and is while not overwhelming is definitely in the realm of masculine Pinot (it is apt that this is the only, so far, of Tongue in Groove's labels which feature a male figure). At the core of this wine is some truly beautiful sweet red fruit and it has clean focused acid and slippery tannin. The palate echos the fact that this wine is a baby and its drinking, infanticide. I want to see this wine again in five years, and again in another five. Over time the palate opens up and hints at licorice and a hint of floral aromatics on the long, refined finish. The wine conveys a real sense of place with intensely savoury earth defined by the pure but suppressed fruit that is characteristic of clay soils. It is a truly stunning wine.


In two words: Brooding, sensual. 


Music Recommendation: The Pulp Fiction Soundtrack


2012 Valli 'Old Vine' Riesling

$28 - Alexandra, Central Otago

Grant Taylor is one of Central Otago's finest winemakers, his region specific Pinots are some of the most exciting, site specific wines coming out of NZ: each crafted to express its own terroir perfectly. This Riesling is from one of the oldest Riesling sites in the country and to me it is one of the purest examples of long, focused, linear, truly dry Rieslings made in New Zealand. Which is interesting as one of the things I find most endearing about Central Otago Riesling are its typically extremely floral, beautiful aromatics.

It starts with a restrained nose of lime zest, flint and stones; minerality being at the center of this wine. On the palate it opens up but plays the same tune as the nose with lime and stones being at the center and some gently floral aspects of mandarin and lime blossom playing about it. I have not written about wine a lot recently and find this wine particularly difficult to describe as flavour is not the primary driver of this wine. It is all about texture, intensity and soul. These are things that my words fail to describe. It is stunning.  


In two words: Soul Piercing. 

RRP: $28

Source: http://www.valliwine.com/

Welcome to XY Drinks

Welcome to my new drinks blog. This is something that I have been meaning to do for quite some time. I first wrote The Wine Wanker, renaming it Grape n' Grain as I became a professional in the industry. I enjoyed writing these but they had lived a full life. I then tried again with NZ Wine Dispatch which unfortunately never quite worked for me. I will be re-posting some reviews from here when I find wherever they are on my hard drive.


I am going to try and do things differently. I will be re-posting some older content that is either republished or as-yet unpublished but when I get up and going I will be writing about (these are not reviews) a lot more wine, beer and spirits; largely focusing on New Zealand. 


I will endeavor to tell you the stories of the wines as well as what they taste like and am not going to rate wines as I have in the past. Firstly it does not give me any pleasure and secondly I don't feel qualified or entitled to do this. Most importantly though I will write only about wines I like and admire for whatever reason. This is similar to my writing style in Homestyle. They may not be wines I LOVE to drink but they all have something special to commend them to you. I think I have enough emotional, professional detachment to tell the difference between "wine/beer I love" and "good beer/wine". I am going to try and focus on the latter.


As I said,  I won't be reviewing per-se but I will finish each post with a two word description of a wine. This is to challenge me to be more creative by summing up something amazingly complex succinctly. I hope you enjoy these.


I will also be writing more about the industry, drinking culture and other similar issues as time goes by.