'I think my wine purchases are like capital spending. This is ‘good’ expenditure, like HS2 or a third runway at Heathrow, and we are investing for our future, strengthening (or shoring up) our families’ balance sheets and inheritances'.
It is autumn in post-modern Austerity Britain, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness (to borrow from Keats), and time for me to succumb reluctantly to some spouse-imposed financial control on my wine purchases. My reluctance and apathy are clear by my choice of easy, low-hanging fruit – low-cost subscriptions to wine magazines and web sites – rather than making the really difficult choice to cut deep into my wine stock and planned ‘capital’ expenditure.
My wife believes her challenge to my alleged profligacy is reasonable and I agree to ‘think about’ it. After all, why do I pay to read all these wine critics? Haven’t I got better things to do like reading John Grisham or (when critics write banal, colourless, obliging dreariness) sitting on a spike eating cold porridge?
In an attempt to deflect my wife’s awkward questions (her new reading glasses are so intimidating) about any of my wine-related purchases, I use my tried and trusted line, so effective during our youthful, halcyon days of largesse and late and long nights. “But darling, I don’t ‘do’ drugs or cars or hookers. I ‘do’ wine. And you and wine are my only indulgences”. It falls on deaf ears and is greeted with a contemptuous roll of the eyes. My clichés are wearing thin, although I still elicit a re-assuring laugh from my friends and teenage sons.
Like all CEOs (self-appointed in this case), I meet this cost control challenge by filibustering and I will hang on by my fingernails until the danger passes or I am ‘fired’ by my bride of 16 years and walk away with a (highly improbable) fat cheque. I will do anything to continue investing and avoid cutting.
All my vinous friends are co-conspirators in this game of delay and obfuscation, subject to same rightsizing pressures from their wives. We have devised (rather pathetically, I admit) several ‘systems’ to throw our wives off the scent so we can all continue to buy wine and undertake the planned ‘capital’ expenditure. After all, this is ‘good’ expenditure, like HS2 or a third runway at Heathrow, and we are investing for our future, strengthening (or shoring up) our families’ balance sheets and inheritances.
My three key protagonists in this contrivance are:
- The Wine Merchant and Legal Counsel, Will Bentley of Bentley’s of Ludlow Wine Merchants. Cambridge Law graduate and ex fund manager who had the knack of buying low and selling high.
- The Banker and Head of Security, Julian Rimmer, Cambridge English graduate, child of Thatcher, slave to post-modern Austerity Britain (his phrase), born scuffler and City trader who buys low and sells lower, but who is nevertheless a very quick-witted, fluent and humourous raconteur. I worry about revealing his identity for fear of our wives torturing him, sequestrating his/our assets or freezing his/our bank accounts.
- The Master of Wine and Elder Statesman, Alun Griffiths MW. Aberystwyth French graduate (if that's not an oxymoron), a man of great experience in the world of wine. He keeps us on the straight and narrow, and his smooth talking, calmness and professionalism can always be relied upon to get us out of a difficult spot.
I am The Businessman. Loughborough Economics and French graduate, top sportsman (in my dreams), linguist, master strategist, diplomat, consultant, spreadsheet jockey and bon viveur. It is the perfect team which could pull off any mini-heist.
Our ‘systems’ facilitate ‘off-balance sheet’ wine purchases using nicknames, email aliases, bogus accounts and secret credit cards unknown to our better halves. And when Señor Bentley delivers wine, he uses such an elaborate trail of drops, locations, stop-offs and car routes that even the FBI couldn’t bust it. He is so convincing that he must secretly fantasize about sporting a large handlebar moustache, calling himself Guillermo ‘Vinoso’ Bentos and running a Mexican money laundering business.
Will has a Blairite way of fending off difficult questions about who bought what wine, much to our wives’ amusement or, more probably, irritation. It is like a scene from Fawlty Towers, only more farcical.
I am not profligate, other than on wining and dining, but I just can’t do rightsizing. I hate that management euphemism more than the soul-destroying condition itself. I am genetically engineered to buy and drink good wine, not to cut costs and drink Chateau de Coq-Rot.
But it is when I am asked to wire more post-tax income to renew a subscription for a wine critic’s website in order to fund their next personal/exotic/business* trip/holiday/party* to Bordeaux/Burgundy/Tuscany/London/ Hong Kong/New York* (*delete as appropriate), that I react to my wife’s challenge, not by cutting but by asking myself a set of questions which I need to work methodically though before making a decision.
As you can see, I am The World Heavyweight Champion of Filibuster, Procrastination and Delay. Here are my questions:
a. What insight and extra value do these subscriber sites bring me, the consumer, that wine merchants, brokers and the plethora of free Internet information don’t?
b. What is the point of a professional wine critic? In fact, what is the point of any wine critic, whether you pay for them or not, whether they are professional or just another blogger?
c. Are wine critics so important in upholding the interests of us, the gullible consumer, in the face of those rapacious merchants and other charlatans ‘on the take’ who will flog us any old ‘belly wash’ if they get half a chance? Are they still that important that we feel we need to pay for their expertise?
There are so many questions swirling around my frazzled brain, under sustained bombardment from Mrs Beresford. Let’s focus on the professional critics for the purposes of answering the main question at the top of this posting: what is the point of a professional wine critic?
By professional wine critics, I mean those who operate independently, spend a lot of their time and make a living by writing tasting notes and scoring wines. They may charge the reader for this privilege in the form of a subscription (examples would be Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson, James Suckling, Stephen Tanzer, John Livingstone-Learmonth, Allen Meadows and publications like Decanter and Wine Spectator) or provide it free (like Jamie Goode) or have a halfway house model where some content is free and some is charged for (e.g. Tim Atkin).
Therefore, I exclude wine writers such as Alice Feiring and Eric Asimov. They too are professional, independent and critical but I don’t think they see themselves as wine critics, and certainly the last two abhor the whole notion of extravagant tasting notes and scores.
I also exclude the merchants, who comment and score wines too but whose business it is to sell the wines.
Compared to the merchants and FOC (free of charge) amateur critics and bloggers, are professional wine critics’ palates better? Are they cleverer people? Is it because they are truly ‘independent’, countering the force of the mercenary merchants who can’t be trusted? No, I don’t think any of these reasons apply. But I think there are four reasons why I read them.
To find out what they are, read my next posting: What is the point of a professional wine critic? (Part 2)