The dirty secrets wine harbours
Traitor or patriot? Whistleblower or scoundrel? Depending on your point of view, Edward Snowden, the man behind the recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance techniques, is either a hero or a villain. Whatever you think of the guy – not least the fact that he has disclosed the contents of top-secret documents – you have to admire his courage. “I do not expect to see home again,” he has admitted from his hotel room in Hong Kong.
By its very definition, the intelligence world has more than its share of dirty secrets. You could almost argue that uncovering and keeping them are its raison d’être. But every business has things it would rather keep to itself: pieces of information that the general public would consider disquieting, shady or, on occasion, downright illegal. Wine is no different.
As a rule, such things only emerge when there’s a scandal. There have been a handful of these during my wine writing career, mostly involving chemical adulteration (remember diethylene glycol, methanol and sorbitol?), illegal blending and creative mislabelling.
But that’s only the tip of what is a large and rather grubby iceberg. There are plenty of half-truths that the wine industry likes to pedal, too, concealing the reality from consumers.
Why don’t people blow the whistle? Partly because of a sense of solidarity – vinous omertà, if you like – but also out of self-preservation. I suspect anyone who started to ask detailed questions about bulk wine shipments (from Italy to France, for example, or from Argentina to Spain in difficult vintages) would be warned off pretty quickly. A couple of threatening phone calls is all it would take.
In the spirit of Edward Snowden, I’d like to suggest a few areas where the wine trade is “economical with the actualité” as the late Alan Clark put it during the Matrix Churchill trial. I’m not breaking the Official Secrets’ Act, but here goes:
1. Value and cheapness aren’t the same thing. Our industry is sustained by deals, offers and the notion that wine should be a “bargain”. Most of the time, people get what they pay for. Cheap wine is rarely good value. And when it is, it’s often because the people who made and imported it were exploited.
2. Half-price supermarket wine deals are generally a rip-off. The notional, establishing price at which a wine is sold for a few weeks is over-inflated to facilitate the deal. This is deeply unethical.
3. An average bottle price of £5.11 is unsustainable for the UK wine business. Producers are turning away from these islands in droves, especially if they sell mid-priced wines. Wine is too cheap given current duty levels, partly because of supermarket price wars, but also because of consumers’ fixation on bargains, largely created by major retailers.
4. Most fine wine is a poor investment at the moment. Investment funds may tell you otherwise, but wine isn’t the sure-fire bet it once was. You need to know what you’re doing – and have access to the handful of wines that reliably show a profit, such as Pétrus and DRC. Otherwise, the returns are meager.
5. Buying en primeur doesn’t make much sense for consumers. My inbox has been clogged with offers for 2012 Bordeaux and 2011 port this year. There’s nothing wrong with either (in fact, the latter is pretty special) but there’s no need for consumers to buy most of the wines now. Let’s face it, most 2009 and 2010 clarets have not increased in value, so why should the 2012s? And the ports won’t be drinkable for at least another 15 years. Wines from Burgundy, Barolo and the Rhône are in shorter supply, but can usually be bought once bottled. Punters should think carefully before they flash the cash.
6. Illegal blending, both across borders and within countries, is widespread in the wine industry. I’d rather hang on to my kneecaps, but this isn’t hard to prove. Just talk to a few winemakers about nighttime deliveries and bulk shipments. We should also be more honest about the fact that it’s perfectly legal to add 15% of another variety or from another vintage in the EU.
7. Cork taint hasn’t gone away. Are things better than they were a decade ago? Screwcaps have certainly made wine more reliable, but a cork-related failure rate of 5% or more (if you include scalping, random oxidation and outright TCA) is still unacceptable and shames our industry.
8. Pinot Grigio is mostly a dull grape variety. Yes, I know there are exceptions, but how have we allowed such a boring grape to colonise so much shelf space? We should be steering consumers towards Albariño, Grüner Veltliner, Picpoul, Vermentino and Assyrtiko instead.
9. Wine scores are only as good as the journalists who assign them. The same goes for wine competitions. The wine trade behaves as if both are interchangeable, plumping for the highest score and/or medal, irrespective of credibility. We are not all 100 points on that.
10. British-made wine is disgusting, produced to a price point and nothing else. Described by some as an “easy-drinking wine style that benefits from lower alcohol levels”, it’s undrinkable plonk made from concentrate.
Anyone got a spare ticket to Hong Kong?