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I always thought the end of the world would be a bright, sunny day. It’s been very hot this weekend. This is the time you’ve been waiting for if you work in wine. It is the moment we’ve been talking about for so long, that elusive hot day to have those Rose. Then I pick up the Guardian. The Guardian recommends Gallo’s Barefoot Shiraz.

Speechless.

Yet I have seen a lot of recommendations for Gallo recently. Before Fiona Beckett in the Guardian, there was Jancis Robinson’s two posts on Gallo and Victoria Moore in Daily Telegraph. These are all people who taste a lot of wine and I respect. It only makes me wonder more what is going on. Let’s put this another way.

If I saw a big up for Coca Cola from journalists, I’d ask questions. You’d have to ask questions. Coca Cola: It’s a classic taste of America. A brand icon of the 20th century. It is a big company and it is creating a product that a lot of people seem to love. But is it necessary? And what does that mean, and what are the implications of promoting this soft drink in a national newspaper? Stop and imagine. What would you feel if you saw an article on why you should buy Coca Cola.

When I see four pieces on this wine that really needs no introduction, I wonder.

Are journalists beyond implications? That seems to be the impression I get from twitter when I questioned how Gallo has been mentioned in the space of month. The PR for Gallo must be patting herself on the back. Well done.

But I am not the only person who feels a bit queasy about this cheerleading, it’s just that I have an opportunity to say it publicly on twitter. The response from journalists was along the lines of “I am looking after my readers,” and also “I think about taste only”. Really?

I asked Jamie Goode* on twitter: if you have a wine that has a bad environmental track record, tastes GREAT, would you recommend it?

“Good wines tend to be made by good viticulture”.

This avoids the question. But at least it’s a fundamental point we agree on. (And the reverse, what if a wine doesn’t taste good but has good viticulture? That could be the summation of many natural wines. Yet, the opposite seems to be a hazier area).

The politics

There is a huge interest in how companies produce and their impact on the planet. In 2000, Naomi Klein published No Logo opening up a Pandora’s box of big brand bullying. For the wine industry, an industry that is so aligned and in touch with the weather, climate and environment, this seems to matter more. Wine is the connection between culture and nature.

Maybe that’s all we can expect from our wine critics. They have a wine in front of them and they decide if it’s good. The whole system of wine judging seems to support this idea: wine is divorced from its place and judges by the hundreds in lab style conditions. But it is naive to think that this is the whole story. Especially when journalists are constantly talking about companies that are too big, wines that are natural with dubious tastes, and critical on certain points that are arcane to the most average reader. Also, as there is a well-developed PR industry to cater to wine journalists every whim. Why the sudden support of Gallo?

Maybe we expect too much from wine writers. We want them to be advocates of the best. But they are just trying to earn a buck like anyone else.

As Gallo is a wine seen everywhere I walked down to my local off-licence and asked him for a wine recommendation. He was stacking a bright pink Rose from Sicily. I said, is it any good? He said, It’s not bad. It’s 2 for £5.

Provenance is important. If you work in wine, you know this is what is true, and real, and what moves people to try something new. Where and how the wine is coming from has an impact on the wine. It is also one of the unique characteristics of wine. As someone who worked at Fosters, I know damn well how wine is treated when its seen the same as a brewery. It’s not good on many levels, and many people lose their jobs and good products get wrecked. Just look at Wynn’s Coonawarra.

I will lay it on the line. If you eat McDonald’s, you ipso facto support McDonald’s. If you buy from independents, you support independents. If you eat out at your local pub instead spending same amount on frozen food section in supermarket, this says something. Where you spend your money matters. This is not a new thing nor even that radical anymore. Companies are very aware of this. It’s a shame wine writers don’t seem to feel the same way as the people who work in the wine industry. Yes, they want to look after their readers rather than the industry that supports them, but I would wage a bet many readers would like to know the wine’s provenance – if they were given a chance.

If you don’t think brands are an important issue, then you weren’t in London during the riots where gangs smashing and looting shops. Brands are what move people, whether this is right or wrong – the power is there.

Think and choose. If you want to drink a wine that is £7.19 from Gallo. Go right ahead. But don’t think your decision exists in a vacuum and doesn’t matter. Like those CCTVs during the riots, it’s being monitored every step of the way.

 

* The question was asked in a conversation on twitter about Guardian article.

97 thoughts on “Wine Riot

  1. Woaaah! I have 71,480 tasting notes on JancisRobinson.com. 52,703 of them (at the time of writing) garnered a score (hate the idea that wine is reduced to a number but at least it forces me to make my preferences clear) of at least 16/20. (Lots of wines I taste I don’t even bother to write tasting notes on, they’re so boring.) So you could say I have recommended more than 50,000 wines in the last 12 years. Of those, precisely 3 were made by Gallo – none by Blossom Hill incidentally.

    And the reason I recently recommended the Gallo Moscato I tasted at Sainsbury’s press tasting? Because it’s delicious! And good value (it’s not difficult to make a delicious Moscato, as you know). I haven’t a clue who Gallo’s PR is. You aren’t really suggesting that the likes of me and Fiona Beckett have fallen for a concerted all-out PR offensive, are you? I am blissfully unaware of such a thing. And besides, we’re far too old!

    I don’t know why Fiona recommended Gallo Shiraz but I do know her enthusiasm for Gallo Barefoot Moscato (which may be very different from the one I tasted) was because she tasted it blind with many others in a food and wine matching event and it triumphed. (See http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a20120801.html) I fear you have added one and one and made a sinister but inaccurate connection.

    But you seem to be saying that, however delicious a wine made by a big company is, one should never recommend it. That’s fine as a point of view but I feel I would be cheating my readers if I practised that sort of triage. No Steingarten Riesling? No Mondavi Reserves? No Grange?

    I fully accept that the early history of the Gallo business is pretty murky. And there is nothing remotely admirable about products like Thunderbird. But many another company has a nasty little division based on RTDs. I like Gina Gallo and I think it would be unfair to condemn the entire production of Gallo forever on the basis of their past history. (Yes, I have read both the official and unofficial biographies of E & J. And have been to Modesto and written critically about Ernest.)

    Keep up the good work, keep writing thoughtfully and provocatively, but can I get back to work now?

    • I think there is also the need for journalists – particularly in the mainstream to recommend wines that people will actually buy. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands or more who will only buy Blossom Hill, Gallo etc. For those people encouraging them to buy one of the wines that is actually good is a good thing no? (I haven’t tasted any of the wines and won’t therefore comment on them). But if one of the roles of a wine journalist is to help people drink better wine then for many of them a better wine from someone they are likely to buy from already is a good and valid starting point.

      Wine appreciation is a journey not an epiphany for most people. Different people move at different rates, some are more adventurous than others but not everybody who drinks Blossom Hill will suddenly love white Burg – or indeed be willing to buy them. But they might buy a wine from Gallo, and if it is better than the wine they have been drinking that is a good thing. A progression.

      American TV Evangelists spend their entire time trying to convert their viewers but 90% of people who watch are already converted, and of the others it is estimated they will come into contact with Christian stuff an average of 32 times before they would make a final decision one way or the other. I think wine is like that.

      If we make wine writing about wines that Joe Public won’t buy, the writing becomes irrelevant to the mass media (and columns get dropped). That is not to say that wine writers shouldn’t write about better wines too – the best writers will help their readers to engage in a journey.

      If my friend drinks Blossom Hill but reads that Gallo Moscato is great – they’ll probably try it – if they read that Vernaccia is great they won’t. But having bought the Moscato, drunk it (I wouldn’t use the term ‘tasted’) and liked it, chances are a) they’ll buy more of the same and b) they might pay attention to what that journalist recommends in the future and maybe try that Vernaccia.

    • Thanks Jancis, and sorry I have taken so long to respond as yes, I have to work! Many people I know have read this post and have said, you can tell Jancis has thought about this and confident in her position (which, I never doubted). In fact, it’s because I find it so hard to understand that I had to “write it out” to try understand the mixed emotions.

      I value the wine industry for this debate about what makes it tick. I also value you posting your opinion as I know how busy you are with your upcoming book. This is what this was really about – to discuss. You comment has really made me think and added a lot. For what it’s worth, thank you,

      Juel

    • Thanks Jancis for that clear answer. It’s becoming rather chic nowadays, specially on Internet, to dislike anything that comes from a more than 10,000 bottles production… And it’s also very fashionable to declare your passion for a “vin nature”, a “nude wine” or whatever you might call it.

  2. Great piece of work.

    Wine cirtics should really be a bit more long sighted……..

    Sure the £7.19 Gallo may well be a decent drinking wine…. (I really don’t want to know if it is or isn’t) but I really question why such professionals are lapping this up. By promoting such a wine, aren’t they driving consumers away from smaller artisan producers (and independent retailers) who offer a diversity that in turn give them more to write about.

    After all…. how many “cola” critics make a living out of comparing the merits of pepsi v coke …. and I struggle to name another alternative.

    As a, independent wine merchant trying to make a living out by selling wines from artisan producers, I can say that there are loads of wine under £10 from smaller scale producers. Sure it might take a little effort to find them but they are there and are worth supporting and need it more than those like Gallo, Jacobs Creek, etc….. and above all else they are a little more interesting too.

    • Surely it depends on which way on a progressive movement the wine drinker is going. As an indie merchant you’re assuming that the readers will move from fine wine to branded wine (and who probably won’t buy Gallo anyway because they are the informed type of customer). That’s fine but that is 5% of the market. What about the 80% drinking worse wine who start a movement in the other direction?
      I too am an indie merchant- but recognise that for many consumers moving from Blossom Hill to Burgundy might be a move too far – something that we indies are slow to catch onto. We need to create islands for these people to get to safely and this can be one of those. We assume that the recommendation is the end in itself whereas I’d like to see it as a means to reach an end.

      • That’s an interesting point about moving from Blossom Hill to Burgundy. It is something I think about a lot – the journey from one wine to another. I like the idea of islands. I have never heard of wine recommendations described so well – agree wholeheartedly. Jm

      • Hi Tim,

        I can assure you that my focus is create cost effective, interesting alternatives to the supermarket wines. While it would be nice to base my business focus on migrating Gallo drinkers to burgundy; the majority of my wines are sub £11 from relatively small producers across the globe.

        Given the amount of repeat custom I receive, our recommendations that are marginally more expensive than the supermarket options, do work, and more often than not, that customer over time will then start to invest a little more for their “Saturday night special” wines. Unfortunately that is still short of the burgundy price point but at least the drinker is trying something different.

  3. Good subject for a blog and a well-written post (as ever) but unfair.

    * I wrote Gallo had come out best in a blind tasting with Rogan Josh. That’s news so worth reporting. It hardly constitutes a recommendation

    * To suggest the wine press is all in thrall to the Gallo PR machine is absurd and not worthy of you, Juel

    * To imply that only those who can afford to buy wine from small, artisanal producers should benefit from wine recommendations is also wrong in my book. Suppose you only have £4 to spend on a bottle? Or live in an area where there are no wine merchants to speak of (the majority of the country) Or can’t afford to order a case? Should we ignore those readers?

    I don’t think so.

    • Thank you Fiona. I know we have discussed this a few times already and you know how I was a bit upset at time. Regarding your second point, I think people do question the PR connection so it is good that you could tell us more.

      As someone who got interested in wine from a bottle of Rosemount Grenache Shiraz Mataro (Mataro? How exotic? What is it!) I really hope a wine recommendation from you gets people on the journey to discovering about wine. I really hope so. It’s been a worthwhile journey. Thank you very much for spending time explaining more,

      Juel

  4. On the tweeeeter, I introduced Juel’s blog by saying ‘journalists bemoan the power of supermarkets and then continue to recommend wines they sell”. I have been banging on for ages about how although its only small support for the Indys, that if wine writers stop recommending wines available in supermarkets, it may in some small way reduce their dominance.

    @winedineLondon said, “gotta remember who the audience is, most consumers are only getting wine at the supermarket”

    My friend Natsha, @londonvino said “by and large, journos recommend supermarket wines ‘cos their editors give them no choice”.

    My reply was that it’s time to unionise the wine writers and that most supermarket shoppers don’t read wine columns, so its a chicken and egg situation. I also see no issue with recommending a good (for example) Soave from an Indy and then suggesting if you can’t get to an Indy stocking this particular wine (who may also be on line) you may find something comparable in your local supermarket. My point is that you have then introduced the reader to a specific quality wine and perhaps introduced the uninitiated a a new style/region. Now I am not a newspaper journalist and have no experience of such, and may not be aware of the politics and power of editors. I would like to know if all wine writers stopped supermarket recommendations, would they all lose their jobs?

  5. This ‘wine writers’ appellation is a very unfair generalisation. Has anyone actually noticed how rarely I mention the supermarkets and how often obscure wine retailers and producers?

  6. I really respect your passion and certainly agree in general with your point about ‘where you spend your money matters’ and consumers have political clout etc – it’s definitely true – but I differ slightly in this case.

    If we say wine writers can’t recommend certain wines or even just mention them – who gets to decide which brands can be mentioned and which ones can’t? What criteria do we use?

    It’s easy (and valid) to talk about corporate mass-produced cheap wine – but is the fine wine world whiter than white? Sometimes you see Bordeaux wines merely reviewed, without the critic mentioning any dodgy deals/problems with en primeur/the fact huge companies might own the chateaux etc. Should they?

    So not just cheap wines – which expensive wines can and can’t be mentioned on ethics grounds?

    I don’t ask these things because I think the answer is everything is fair game – as I say I agree with your general position we should be as ethical as we can, where we can. But I think there are shades of grey.

    Like the indies vs supermarkets thing, I think it’s a bit more nuanced than is made out (I don’t mean by you, just in general!). You might agree with indies in principle but do we assume all indie businesses and owners (in wine or not) are equally ethical?

    Lots of shades of grey I reckon – as you say, you worked for Fosters yourself. Others of us probably buy leather sofas or non-organic milk or clothes made in sweatshops or foie gras or we don’t ask whether meat is free range when we dine out, etc etc…

    I wrote a blogpost about this subject on Saturday – excessively long but feel free to take a look!

    Thanks for another good post.

  7. Lots of good points here and what a pleasure to see that everyone has expressed themselves – sorry, this sounds condescending and isn’t meant to at all – with so much consideration, both for the interesting points at issue and for other posters. No sheer vitriol.

    The upshot is that we’ll probably all be a bit more circumspect. At least I hope so. It may be a while before I choose another Gallo wine of the week! But I feel no shame in my Moscato choice. (I still wonder how many people who have posted here have actually tried it.)

    • As I said on twitter, you are the Charlotte Rampling of wine, cool as a cucumber in a summer Pimms. I had a lot of flack on twitter, and I wish they had responded here so I can respond more, but have to say it is cool to see you engage here, with mostly wine trade folk I have to say, who care about what they do everyday.

  8. A thought provoking piece indeed, I’ve often wondered quite how greasy ones palm gets in the world of wine writing and scoring etc. Maybe not that greasy at all by my mind wonders regardless.

    The E&J stories have always fascinated me, what’s factual is another matter. Still, I’m going to need to read those biographies, both official and unofficial..

  9. Really interesting discussion Juel – both the thoughts in your post but even more, the qualified discussion in the comments (and the not so qualified discussions on twitter – you know who you are people!).

    What strikes me today, the day after the “riot” is how the majority of professional writers focused on resenting the implied bribery of writers by the big PRs. Perhaps that was a bit on the strong side, though I’d like to say we all (except perhaps Jancis – nothing but respect!) get influenced in one way or another by PR. Events, nice lunches, quickly sent samples when we are cutting it too close to deadline… I don’t think we are above it, but at the same time, lordy, it’s just wine. It’s not the spending of tax money or the distribution of quality health-care.

    However, it seems your second topic got lost in the storm. That consumers might care where the wine comes from. Provenance, production methods, effect on the local community. In a blind tasting, all those things fall by the wayside. Perhaps what we should do is taste wines blind and among the ones scoring well, look at the other factors before making recommendations? As you say, consumer behavior does not exist in a vacuum and you do support McDonald’s practices by eating at McDonalds. Environmental sustainability and social stability in wine producing regions are key to preserving the wines for the next generation. Shouldn’t we as wine writers (or at least those of us who call ourselves “journalists”) care about what signals we send to the consumers? Many say the consumers don’t care. We can catalyse the change.

    http://vinbanken.se/2012/08/14/tainted-luxury-and-consumer-power/

    • Thanks Erica, is is the second point, as you mentioned, which is more important to me.
      At least we see what our media thinks and can decide from there.

  10. Leaving the riot caused by journalists and wine critics opinions on the pros and cons of writing about Gallo to one side (everyone will naturally justify their stand) I wanted to thank Juel for:

    a) having the balls to write about it and take the flack
    b) raising the issue of Gallo’s provenance
    and
    c) raising the issue of Gallo’s wine making practices

    I haven’t tasted Gallo’s Moscato but thought their White Zinfandel tasted like ribena flavoured fruit juice – I’d love to know what goes on the lab. Wine should be treated as a food and fall under the same labelling laws, we might get to see what’s added to it then.

    People like brands because they are ‘safe’, easily recognisable and reliable. Discovering new wines is a step out into the unknown and can be a bit of a gamble. Do you spend your £7.19 on Gallo or a wine you have never heard of? I hope that people who have started their wine experience by drinking brands will then start to explore by trying the wines from more exciting, lesser known wine producers . . . but not everyone is a pioneer – although I heartily wish they were.

    Gallo et al are little more than alco-pops in my opinion and the more people that realise it the better.

  11. Thankyou Juel for this thought provoking post.

    Just to pick up one thread, I’d argue that whilst we (wine enthusiasts) may well care greatly about who is making our wines and exactly how they’re going about that (which you summed up nicely under the notion of ‘provenance’), for many drinkers such a consideration is secondary.

    Whether we like it or not, wine is a commodity now – just like Coke – to be consumed by drinkers who’s decisions are guided by price and branding, leaving provenance a very distant second (that’s according to recent studies. Larry Lockshin at the Uni of SA has the best information on that topic).

    As a result, whilst plenty of noise may be made about the ethics of recommending a Gallo, the fact remains that if it is cheap enough people will buy it anyway. Over time that situation may change, particularly if the sort of ‘Supersize Me’ backlash that McDonalds faced gains steam, but in the interim it matters little if wine writers even talk about Gallo. People will buy it anyway…

    • Thank you Andrew for reference to Larry Lockshin. Maybe I am idealistic, but I hope that one day things will change and people will think about what they consume. And as you say, look at McDs and Nike, things can change.

      I honestly don’t think readers are stupid, they just have to be presented with the information. If they don’t get the information in the first place, they can hardly be blamed for not knowing. But it is more than that.

      As I live with Italians, we had a new supermarket open up on the main street. At first they stocked mozzarella and branded pasta (they knew and loved from Italy). Now there is no Mozzarella and generic supermarket branded pasta. They were upset, then one asked – did you buy your pasta from this supermarket all the time? You must buy the pasta if it is there, because otherwise they won’t stock it again! And they haven’t. It’s a circle. If you don’t buy it, you don’t get it in. But if you don’t get it in, many don’t know it. And so the big brands fill the shelves.

      Your points were the main point of this blog post. And to wonder, to question, to hear others opinions from across different sections of the wine industry. Maybe get ideas about what we can do. I hope it is not hopeless as you suggest, ie people will buy only on price anyway. Maybe. Maybe not.

  12. Thank you for your post. Hear hear.

    One doesn’t expect food columnists from serious newspapers to recommend Iceland or Bernard Matthews. Neither does one expect fashion columnists from serious newspapers to recommend Matalan. Surely the same goes for wine columnists and wines such as Gallo. I, like you, despaired when I saw what you saw.

    I’ve only recently developed an interest in fine wine and one of the things I find lacking in some wine journalism is sufficient naming and shaming or sufficient warning to stay away from certain things be it on the grounds of price, quality, or ethics. Your honesty is a great tonic.

    On a not entirely different subject – look at this for a shameless piece of wine churnalism.

    bit.ly/OT6p7q

    the original is here

    tinyurl.com/cu4f642

    Not exactly inspiring is it?

  13. Thunderbird. If you don’t know what it is, do your research before you bang on whether or not ethics have a place in wine culture. The KKK does roadside clean up but I’m not going to be signing up for meeting anytime soon just b/c they do one thing “right”.

  14. Independent of the accuracy or not of PR for Gallo, now articulately dissected with sound argument from its protagonists. The rationale that journalists might wish to look critically at wineries that may make a wine of good quality, or other distinguishing feature, but whose production practices bare some exploration, is clear to anyone prepared to see it.

    We now accept that our agricultural practices impact on the ecosystem, wine quality and the sustainability of wine economies and culture. Less than 10 years ago this was not the case; can it be said that we did not realize it? Moreover, the initiative would seem to have come from growers who were then written about, rather than writers uncovering and arguing for it.

    On another but related note, the Bordeaux-centric developments in the fine-wine trade have given rise to an increase in attention to the growing season there, with ever earlier, competing, often circular, interim reports on the vintage from trade and press.

    The fine-wine world especially examines Bordeaux through a microscope,
    discussing the weather, quality potential and market conditions. The enduring enigma is the near total absence in our reports, or indeed producer reports, of anything but cursory reference to climate change.

    We speak of how low winter rains affected the water table of the season ahead, or, extreme weather that could have gone either way ultimately gave an outstanding year, like 2010. Yet we give no reference as to why this might be. This despite the prevailing conditions; a low water table, drought, higher average temperatures but more variable, sometimes extreme weather, being consistent with what we know of global warming.

    When reporting on the extraordinary lengths undertaken to achieve a no-mistakes-perfection at a given chateau, or a vineyard under conversion to more sustainable practices, wouldn’t the effects of a changing climate, so basic to viticulture, merit some examination? Yet, this is not the case. There is a contradiction there.

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