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Judging in context

29 May, 2018

There is a subtle, inquisitive thrill to sitting down to blind taste a dozen glasses of unknown liquid. Even repeated eight times over five days, as at the latest Decanter World Wine Awards, the excitement doesn’t wear off. Twelve shades of lemon or gold, ruby or garnet, and among them, perhaps, a wine of real beauty, interest and distinction. 

It will soon be time for the World Cup, which kicks off on June 14 when host nation Russia takes on Saudi Arabia. Even with over four weeks to go, we are already starting to see the retailers get behind the tournament with special packs, sticker albums, football merchandise and team kits in stores.

Sir Anwar Pervez didn’t earn a place on The Sunday Times Rich List without spotting a good bargain – and in the fallout from the monumental collapse of Conviviality he’s got one in both name and spirit with the acquisition of Bargain Booze.

Nobody would willingly defend the merits of crack cocaine. Apart from drug dealers, perhaps. Recently it has been recommended that the maximum stake playable on fixed-odds betting terminals should be reduced from £100 to £30. These casino-style games machines theoretically allow gamblers to bet more than £10,000 every hour, earning them a reputation as the crack cocaine of gambling.

London recently played host to the seventh annual edition of Raw, the most influential wine fair of the decade. We’re all familiar with Raw’s polemical stance on natural, low-intervention wine – it has generated a lot of strong feeling in the wine world. But leaving aside the question of whether such wines really are healthier for us or the planet, it is now clear that we are living in a post-natural wine world where traditional assumptions about wine are being decisively challenged.

The Scottish government initially passed legislation for minimum pricing of alcohol back in 2012 and, following a lengthy legal challenge, it will be coming into force at the start of May. Once in place, it means that a single unit of alcohol cannot be sold for less than 50p, so the stronger the drink, the more expensive it will be. 

Following the recent cold snap, I’ve decided to focus on what is just around the corner – summer, which brings thoughts of longer days, warm weather and enjoying a nice, cold beer in the sun. 

Dressing to impress

19 March, 2018

We’ve all had impressed on us the idea that we mustn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s one we tend to repeat at opportune moments, while singularly failing to follow it when buying books, or anything else.

The value of fine wine

19 March, 2018

Like the vast minority of the population, my comfort zone for wine is around £10-£25 per bottle. In that price range, I can find wines of very good quality in almost every style – and when I get a disappointing bottle, I don’t feel like I’ve been ripped off too much. 

Sorry to brag, sorry to lord it over you like this, but we were reading the Guardian the other day.

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.

A rose by any other name

21 February, 2018

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.

The joys of January

24 January, 2018

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.

Seeking collaboration

24 January, 2018

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.

Lifting the spirits

19 January, 2018

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.

Agreeing to disagree

18 December, 2017

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.

Wine's time to shine

18 December, 2017

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?

The Cape comes of age

17 November, 2017

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.

Myths and moral panic

15 November, 2017

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.

Drams and tots

30 October, 2017

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.

What to expect at Christmas

20 October, 2017

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.

Talking terroir

09 October, 2017

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.

Faith in fakes

11 August, 2017

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.

Rediscovering the wonder

11 August, 2017
Escapement, lug, onion crown, tourbillon… since I recently bought an automatic wristwatch, these previously meaningless terms have become loaded with intrigue and interest. I had no expectation of becoming a watch nerd, and it has been a satisfying new experience to delve into an unknown world. It’s been equally satisfying to tell the time without having to look at my phone.

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.