Monday, July 17, 2017
I WAS TICKLED PINK when an Irish wine merchant in France (a reader of my column in The Connexion) wrote: “You should replace that boring woman who writes for The Saturday Telegraph.” Then, I wondered, how could Victoria Moore (The Telegraph’s wine editor, BBC Good Food programme contributor, ’Wine Columnist of the Year’) be boring?
She seems game for a laugh. In her Summer Wine Guide (The Saturday Telegraph, June 28), she recommends a “frothy and fun” Sauvignon Blanc as perfect “for a hot day running under sprinklers.” What fun! Though whimsy is not really Moore’s thing. “I loved this despite myself,” she confesses.
Moore is less forthcoming on the perfect occasion for a wine she calls “a slutty red that oozes languor”. Titter ye not. Maybe after a hot day running under sprinklers? Though parody is not really Moore’s thing either, despite having just tarted up the “cheeky little wine of amusing pretension” of satirical memory.
Sitting in her candlelit cellar, there’s no mistaking Moore is a serious wine writer. And that means tasting notes. Lots of them. Wines “redolent” of chalk, hot pavement, baked fruit, hot lemons, earth, dust, old saddles, and church incense. At the end of a long tasting note in her Summer Wine Guide, a breathless Moore throws her hands in the air and concludes “it’s all there.” The reader is now understandably lost.
“Most modern wine critics can’t really describe wine,” says Hugh Johnson, “so they use a list of ingredients, such as orange and mango that really nobody understands.” Stuart Walton, in his myth-busting wine business book You Heard it Through the Grapevine, goes further: "Descanting about rose-petals has undermined the entire wine-writing enterprise.”
Moore should (and probably does) know that tasting notes are bullshit.
Roman Weil studies what tasting notes communicate at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business. In one study, 200 wine drinkers tasted three wines (two were the same) and matched them to descriptions from Robert Parker and Wine Spectator magazine. The ability to match tasting notes with wines is “no better than random,” Weil reports in the Journal of Wine Economics.
In other words: “Deep ruby colour includes purple nuances. Closed aromatically, hints of crème de cassis and black cherries. Cuts broad swath across the palate with considerable depth and concentration. Tannic as well as broodingly backward” (a Parker description of a Rhône wine from Weil’s study) had no informational value for tasters.
Adrienne Lehrer, author of Wine and Conversation and Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, concurs: “People have a no better than random chance of identifying a wine from their own tasting notes.” Even wine experts using expert tasting notes perform only slightly better than random.
Notwithstanding, in Appreciating wines made on volcanic soils (The Telegraph, 10 June), Moore rushes her tasting note into the third paragraph, except the wine turns out to be “hard to describe.” Is this a wine critic at the top of her game? To clarify (or mystify), she adds “it is underlaid by an intriguing, savoury sensation, almost as if the volcano is trying to make its presence felt.” Um… maybe the volcano was rumbling and she got distracted?
Moore does better when she tastes in silence. In an introspective piece, Why I prefer to taste in silence (The Telegraph, 17 June), Moore says she gets so “frustrated at work tastings” when the person pouring “begins a barrage of distraction.” Like when you’re holding a telephone and the person on the other end is talking… so off-putting! Only the pluckiest wine writer could detect “summer pudding and cherry blossom” under such conditions.
But what if the “yackety-yak” (of which Moore bemoans) is neither the pourer’s banter, nor the label's spellbinding tasting notes, but the sound of her own knickers getting into a twist? (A sound “like a band turning up to play a demo tape to an A&R man, then belting out a competing round of London’s Burning,” she says). Under the strains of such jangling dissonance, Moore complains, “I am thrown and have to check myself and start again.” How maddening!
This slight column is actually about how language influences perception. “Advertisers have known for years that if you surround a product with positive imagery and expectations then it becomes more desirable,” Moore informs nobody. “I can’t pretend to be astonished by these findings,” she admits. Me neither.
I can’t pretend to be astonished by retired wine professional Roger Mole’s comment following her column either. If he is anything to go by (and his is the only comment), The Telegraph’s readers are having none of it:
And yet Moore finishes her column on silence with three ‘Wines of the week’, including this Italian white: “Delicate, neat and fine, with flavours of chalk, lemon juice and zest and white grapefruit (M&S, £13.50).” (For those who can’t decide what to drink for summer, her Summer Wine Guide has 35 shopping recommendations).
Wine recommendations are of the ‘what to buy and where to find it’ school of wine writing. It’s the approach of someone who thinks that a passion for the automobile is satisfied by reading the Auto Trader price guide; or that Top Gear peaked in 1982 with Tiff Needle’s road tests. Worse, it directs wine lovers to supermarket aisles where they learn nothing about wine.
But what’s a soulless, or clueless, wine writer to do? Teach other people how to fake it?
In How to sound like a wine expert (BBC Good Food magazine), Moore reveals "what you need to know to talk wine with confidence” despite Walton’s warning that "large numbers of people think winespeak is tedious flannel, and all those speakers and writers who utter it are, quite frankly, too far up their own arses.”
But Moore is not afraid to go there.
She advises “wannabe wine gurus” to talk about trendy regions, for example: “There are some great wines coming out of Etna, the Jura, Porongurup and Swartland” (wines that should be on "every hipster's sipper map"). A few scant paragraphs later, we learn (somewhat relieved) that it doesn't matter if you know nothing about these regions because: “Even the nerdiest of wine experts doesn't know it all, but you'll rarely hear them admitting to that. Instead they will bluff, nod and spout on confidently. You should do the same - no one will ever know.”
Yes, they will. And they will avoid you at parties. People recognise “tedious flannel”.
Her final tip is for wannabe wine experts who find themselves “in the awkward position of opening a favourite bottle for friends only to feel disappointed and faintly embarrassed when they obviously don't like it.” How mortifying! “Say ‘it isn’t showing well.’ Everyone wins,” says Moore. It doesn’t mean anything, but “wine experts never let themselves lose face over this.”
Tellingly her column has 0 comments despite this invitation to readers: “Any tips or tricks for sounding like a wine aficionado?” More tellingly, the column ends: “We’d love to hear how you got on with this recipe. Did you like it? Would you recommend others give it a try?” Do the editors of BBC Good Food magazine (‘Media brand of the year’) also care so little about wine?
MOORE HAS A SPECIAL class of friends she calls “wine friends”. They are distinct from “lay tasters” (who presumably enjoy wine but have only pretensions to “summer puddings and cherry blossom”). She invited “wine friends” to dinner to celebrate the deal to publish her new book ‘The Wine Dine Dictionary’.
Curiously, on the webpage introducing her new book, Moore doesn’t discuss pairing food with wine at all. Perhaps she knows it’s bullshit too. Instead, the reader is treated to the story of the book’s publishing deal, beginning with meeting her agent “who is very brilliant and beady (just don’t try to kiss her hello while wearing lip gloss, you’ll get trapped in her magnificent hair).” I’ll remember that.
Well, it’s a thrilling two weeks! “We were in the midst of a bidding war,” she says. “I cannot even begin to tell you what a fizzy stomach I had.” This goes on for five paragraphs. It’s really the kind of story to share just with “wine friends”.
Predictably, Moore’s book publishing success story ends with a wine recommendation and this tasting note: “An incredibly complex wine, that unfurls in your glass like a perfume, and smells of wood smoke and the dried herbs and scrubland on a craggy, sun-baked hillside in the south of France and warm fruits grown in the south of France (£39 from The Wine Society).”
I live in the south of France, so when Moore waxes lyrically about “a craggy, sun-baked hillside”, I know what she’s talking.
So does Princeton University economist Richard Quandt. “In some instances, there is an unhappy marriage between a subject that especially lends itself to bullshit and bullshit artists who are impelled to comment on it. I fear that wine is one of those instances where this unholy union is in effect,” he writes in his essay On Wine Bullshit in the Journal of Wine Economics.
Yet, this isn’t just wine bullshit. Fatally, Moore is now just talking about herself. She even advises “lay tasters” to file her books under ‘Self-Improvement Manuals’. Her self-improvement guru name is ‘Planet Victoria’. This is ‘head-up-the-arse’ wine writing with a selfie-stick up there. Quite an achievement.
When I contacted @PlanetVictoria on Twitter (with the Irish wine merchant’s assessment of her inability to engage readers with a passion for wine), she replied: “More politics of hate”. Confused, I scrolled through her tweets, expecting to find the concentrated essence of Moore’s approach to wine writing. Before I could scribble down her supermarket wine recommendations and tasting notes, she blocked me from her account.
The most curious response I had was from wine writer Gavin Quinney: “Unusual pitch. Call a hugely respected writer 'that boring woman' on the cover of your book and then ask her to buy and review the book.”
First, there are not huge numbers of people reading wine journalism (why would there be?). So by whom is she “hugely respected”? A clique of wine writers and wine industry types handing out ‘Columnist of the Year’ gongs? Second, huge respect should be reserved for huge accomplishments. Wine writing is not one of them. Boring wine writing even less so. Then again, maybe Moore's just ‘not showing well’. Everyone wins!
Sunday, June 4, 2017
AFTER WRITING two conventional wine/travel books (120,000 words about wine!), the idea of writing something similar didn't thrill me, but wine still interested me. So, instead, for three years, I used my wine column in France's leading English-language newspaper, 'The Connexion', to take an offbeat look at wine culture and answer these basic questions: Why are the French (and Brits) so clueless about wine? Why do they learn almost nothing about wine from what they drink? What does price really tell you about a wine? And what does a Rumpole mystery reveal about the actual cost of wine? How can you spot a decent restaurant wine list? And choose wisely from a bad one? What can a tea lady teach you about wine and food pairings? Why are medals an unreliable guide to wine quality? Can a biodynamic wine have a bad "leaf day"? Are all wine gadgets just Plenty O'Toole? What kind of wine fault is man boobs? What would Reliant Robin engineers conclude about screw-caps? Or the Gamma Hydra IV colonists (from the Star Trek episode 'The Deadly Years') about industrially manipulated wine? Why would it be absolute mangos to use Brad Pitt as a tasting note? And why will your favourite wines not be coming soon from China's Ningxia province? When I had answered these basic wine questions - without once telling a reader what wine to buy and where to find it (or what floral notes come to mind) - I quit writing the column. The editor did ask me to stay! But I'd discussed wine culture (the making, selling, consuming, and talking about) in enough detail to interest anyone with a passion for wine (OK, maybe not a doctoral student). One reader, who said she appreciates my "twisted sense of humour" also told me "you should replace that boring woman who writes for The Saturday Telegraph." That was nice of her. I've now collected those wine columns and made them available in one slim volume. I thought about calling the volume 'All You Need to Know About Wine'. Instead, it's called 'The Wine Diary'. I am also the author of 'Discovering Wine Country: South of France' (Mitchell Beazley) and 'The Wines of Roussillon' (Trabucaire).
Friday, June 2, 2017
THE PHOTOGRAPH 'Plenty O'Toole' by Nigel Bradley (Decanter, Wine Spectator) was taken to accompany a column in 'The Connexion' about folding helicopters, flappy-padle cork screws, and James Bond. I chose the image for the cover of 'The Wine Diary' because it's also a visual metaphor for determination in the face of pretentiousness, an important trait for a wine critic. It is not by accident that 'Plenty' is confronted by a bottle from Château d'Arse ... a name that evokes the place where many wine writers have their heads.