Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Decline and Fall of the UK Wine Trade

April 2013 (66750.4) DECLINE
When I joined the wine trade in the early 90s, it was like entering the Garden of Eden; actually, it was better, because there wasn’t an omniscient God punishing sinners, so we all gave into drink, temptation and each other. In an early episode of Star Trek, the crew of the USS Enterprise visited planet Psi 2000 and became infected with a virus that took everyone to the amorous edge of drunkenness. Kirk was always a tart, but even Spock was getting it on behind the Styrofoam rocks, just like I was getting it on between the wine crates.   The company I worked for imported wine, we sold it to retailers and restaurants, and youthful journalists recorded everything in words that could have been written by fairies with cuckoo quills and lily pads. We were all achieving our targets: I was selling, the customer was buying, and the journalists were breaking stories – Australia, Chile, California, New Zealand. We were so happy. And the wine trade grew. It grew boldly in places it hadn’t grown before, as it did, perhaps, for Spock and Nurse Chapel before the bare-chested Sulu went berserk on the bridge with a cutlass and the threat of castration.

The Australians have a line about the English, that we’re smelly, which is wrong because we spend most of our time trying to keep warm, and sweating isn’t as straightforward as stepping outside into 90 degree heat. What the Australians were right about, though, was our love of brands. Brands quickly take root in class-ridden Britain because we obsess over status, and the best way of elevating oneself above life’s flat trajectory - short of marrying a royal - is mislabelling. In 1985, when Leslie Muranyi was convicted of starting a riot at a Cambridge United football match his mother defended him by saying “He’s such a nice boy really…….and he wears those expensive Pringle jumpers!”

At around the same time Muranyi was buying his casuals from Bodger Brothers in Cambridge town centre, Penfolds was perfecting its global brand strategy. I loved Penfolds; they had a range of wines that, for a brief moment, attained the perfect symmetry between price and quality: Koonunga Hill, Bin 28, Bin 707, Grange; each successive bottle cost £7.00 more and was £7.00 better than the previous one. I got carried away, and so did the press; carried away and flown away, because the clever people in Australia had also worked out how nepotism and cronyism underpinned “our” way of doing things. This was the sort of connectedness we responded to, not the other kind that tells you how things fit together and work. It’s not what you know, but who you know would become significant later, when the big companies started sluicing through the cheap crap and repositioning Bin 707 and Grange so that the relationship between price and quality went from being linear to exponential. We were enamoured by our Aussie hosts, all those sunny days drinking tinnies and wearing their Akubra hats instilled memories and loyalties that would prove as durable as the pair of stockman’s boots I bought. Together we sniggered at terroir; talked about ripeness; tucker; Botham; Bradman; bushmen; sunshine in a glass; and dished-up tasting notes that sounded like they were being read off the payline of a slot machine – “PINEAPPLE, STRAWBERRY, MELON, CHERRY” – Streuth! You didn’t even need a pair to win that test of skill. And, get this; all the while somebody was stood by the pokie, slipping you dollars and pulling the handle. Life, jobs, wine, it all seemed so very, very simple. “LEMONS!” 

Most stuff changes, even the laws of physics aren’t immutable. Newton’s gravitational theory got Apollo 13 to the moon and back, but it couldn’t get Chekov to Psi 2000; only warp drive could do that. The last time I walked past St John’s College, Bodger Brothers had been taken over by Moss Bros. Gone, too, were the outfitters best customers, the Cambridge Casuals, who after the imprisonment of “General” Muranyi, just ended up looking like a load of shocking golfers. I started buying French wine rather than New World, and followed Robert Parker. I can pull Parker up on a few things – blind loyalty to Mourvèdre/underscoring Monte Bello – but he did hold châteaux to account, and when he saw how big the wine world was becoming, he looked around for help. One man can’t cover all the territory, so Parker sensibly recruited other critics and got close to a few enologists. You have to protect your reputation when you’re the best.

The force of its not what you know, but who you know is lost in French because of the difference between savoir (knowing a fact) and connaître (knowing a person). It’s easy to fall into the trap that Parker’s relationship with Rolland was all about influence and nothing to do with edification. After all, members of the UK wine trade visited lots of wineries through the 90s, but most squandered the opportunity to learn anything. We left Australia believing that the New World order of varietal labelling only needed to recruit evangelists to achieve its aim of global domination. We were  suckered in. 

There were wine factories in South Australia that made grape growing sound like an inane bureaucratic directive - technically superfluous, but legally enforced - but at least you could blend what you damned well wanted to. A policy document – 2025 – was issued. Australia was going to do for 21st Century wine production what Japan had done for 20th Century car manufacture. Cut the Big Red Land and it would bleed Shiraz. But just as Australia got bigger, so it also became more detailed. The behemoths of the Australian Industry could fight among themselves for market share, but evolution results in diversity, not a single winner. That’s not to say there weren’t extinctions along the way; some estates were lost. The death of individuals and species is part of evolution, it occurs to those who can’t keep up with change, or mitigate its effects. And that is exactly what happened to elements of the UK wine trade as well. One day the guy with the bag of coins didn’t show, and the reels stopped rolling. Business was better off talking to business directly; it didn’t need agents or the press to articulate what it already knew: that there are only so many possible combinations of melon, cherry, pineapple and banana. The story had become so simple it didn’t need telling any more.

The American philosopher Hilary Putnam made the observation that atomic structure can’t tell us why round pegs don’t fit into square holes; to do this we need a different way of describing objects, one that covers 3-dimensional geometric shapes and their compatibility at a macro level. Paring everything down to µ isn’t always as edifying as we might think. There isn’t one big vocabulary of connectedness that links creation to a sliced 2-iron, unless you cling on to the bible. 

Putnam’s remark seems to offer support to critics who always opt for the glass of wine over the viticulture textbook. Remembering back to their time in Australia they might say: “Of course there are facts out there in the monotonous realm of electrons and atoms where all stuff is ultimately the same stuff, but the consumer wants light, colour, education, and the confidence to shout STRAWBERRY, BANANA, CHERRY, MELON when they smell it. They don’t need all the balancing dark matter of enology as well. There is one language of consumption, and another for production.”

If labelling by variety had succeeded in relegating “Gevrey”, “Grosset”, and “Napa” into history then I’d happily concede the argument, but it took 20 years for the trade to whittle its knowledge down to the level of regular drinkers, only to find out they didn’t take the bait. People sinking bottles of Pinot Grigio in pubs aren’t experimenting with grape varieties; and neither are they planning on leaving Psi 2000 for Jerez anytime soon. Articles on decanting or hyping Riesling didn’t achieve what we’d hoped they would, just as handing out golf clubs to Muranyi’s Pringle-wearing thugs was never going to get them off the football terraces and on to the driving range. Let’s be honest here: the Chinese aren’t buying Bordeaux because of education; they’re buying it because they’re rich.

There is crucial distinction to be made between mystery and mystique. The Côte de Nuits is the most complicated wine region in the world, and as an agricultural system, perhaps only Asia’s paddy fields are more tortuous. Paddy fields and Vosne Romanée tell us something important about humanity and the fluidity of our relationship with Nature, because it would have been easy for the Cistercians and the Chinese to have missed the faint impulses that flowed from their fields of rice and vines: the coded messages of flavour and texture that suggested walls and channels. “Cros Parantoux”, “biodynamics”, “natural wine” and “Monte Bello” open us up to the mystical possibilities of human devotion; dismissing them on the basis of a superficial understanding of enology, or a “mission to make wine simple”, sounds like ignorance.  Putnam’s suggestion is that we use different vocabularies to do different jobs, not that we give-up on the benefits of alternative explanations by positing one simple way of talking about things; like grape varieties, for example. Australia misleadingly gave the impression that the wine world was getting easier, when it was only getting bigger.

The Cistercian legacy is visible throughout Burgundy, but the raw passions of conversion and revelation are at their most evident in the less posthumous setting of the New World where they have led to magnificent new constructions like Rippon and Ridge. Just as man nurtures the vine, so the vine can nurture a longing in those that tend to it: the desire to know what can be spun from one’s own stretch of dirt. The intensity and reaction of individuals to these impulses helps us explain why some bottles are labelled “Grosset” and others “Yellow Tail”, but their resonance within wine might also tell us interesting things about our own sensibilities. Josh Jensen and Bailey Carrodus both recall an initial experience with wine rather than vines, which for them coincided with their having access to Oxford University’s cellars.

My first ecstatic encounter with wine was with Lindeman’s St George Coonawarra Cabernet 1979. The first glass primed my senses; the second glass ushered in pathological thoughts about resigning my job; and by the end of the bottle I was drunk. 14.5% ABV! I read, tasted, and took wine exams. My mother always said get between people and their money, but I never heeded a word she said, and within months I’d ditched law and run off to join the wine trade.

A week into my new career, I learnt the true value of all the study. My boss briefed me: Andrew Lloyd Webber was visiting the shop; we had a parcel of undrinkable 1986 Ponsot Burgundies; the Ponsots and Lloyd Webber had to leave the shop together.

Fifteen minutes after Lloyd Webber arrived, I interrupted the meeting, as planned, and asked my boss “If that rather good parcel of Ponsot wines was still available, because I had a buyer on the phone.”   I passed the audition. Lloyd Webber came in with a counterbid, and the wines were sent to his house for a dinner that weekend. The following Monday, the remains of the shocking Ponsot haul were returned to us. Lloyd Webber never bought again, and my boss eventually left the trade.

I changed jobs. On the first day with my new employer the chairman bragged that he always re-invoiced customers the moment they paid, and 70% of the time they paid twice. Mind you, it was worth keeping in contact with him because if he’d heard nothing from you for 5 years he sold your private reserves for cash. The company went bust.

April 2050 (73751.1) FALL

Edward Gibbon documents the fall of the Roman Empire in its "crimes, follies, and misfortunes."
Looking back from 2050, the decline of the UK wine trade now seems as inevitable as the rise of China. No nation has the right to drink Bordeaux and Burgundy ahead of another, or claim cultural propriety, and the redistribution of Crus Classés and Grands Crus wines at the start of the 21st Century was, along with the art and yachts, just another way in which swashbuckling Asian entrepreneurs chose to reward themselves. After all, hadn’t the row between the British and Greek governments over the ownership of the Elgin Marbles set the precedent that whosoever dominates economically also dominates culturally?

For a while, the UK trade resisted, wedged itself between rich men and their wine, cast off the impression that it was led by pompous, self-important men who snored loudly and produced excessive drool; but a world of sophisticated logistics and instant communication really had no need of haughty middlemen.  

At weekends, Asia’s new class of connoisseurs would open bottles of Laffite and Coche Dury and say how fine they were. These were evenings to show-off, but some of the guests found the experience transformative. Wine inspired them - nurtured something deep within - so they spent their time reading books on wine, and visiting France, and even though language was a barrier, they understood terroir and classifications, because nothing in agriculture could ever be as complicated as paddy fields.

By 2030, Zhao Hui An, was established as the most important wine critic of his generation. He had a background in statistics, but devoted 15 years of his life to wine self-education. Like Parker before him, An was inseparable from Bordeaux’s reputation, though he found the 1855 Classification too hyperbolic, and encouraged Châteaux to re-engage with their primordial past. The Chinese market liked the complexity and traditions that lay beneath such man-made impositions; there is an old saying in Beijing that we go through life facing backwards, what is in front of us is our history, and this played well in Bordeaux.

The UK trade carried on in a much reduced form; it didn’t need an infrastructure of journalists, merchants and PR people to oversee its decline, just the odd specialist removal company to fulfil the sale and clearance of All Souls' and Parliament's cellars.