jamie goode's wine blog: Skinnergate

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Skinnergate

Tim Atkin, one of my favourite wine writers, has written an excellent editorial in this week's Off Licence News. It's about the Skinner scandal.

Matt Skinner is a young-ish Aussie sommelier who UK wine book publisher Mitchell Beazley have been attempting over the last few years to cast as the trendy face of wine. Initially, he was based in London as part of Jamie Oliver's 15 restaurant project, and this was when he began his annual wine guide, The Juice. A couple of years ago, he returned to Australia. This made doing an annual wine guide for the UK market problematic, because he's no longer so in touch with what is available here. But MB have persevered with him (although a third of his choices are Australian).

So what is the scandal with the 2010 version of The Juice? Skinner was caught inventing tasting notes for wines he couldn't possibly have tasted. This is because the deadline for the book was May, and some of the wines he included were from the 2009 vintage and weren't released by this time. Skinner admitted this deception, but defended himself by saying that the wines in question were consistent from year to year.

'This is dangerous territory,' comments Atkin. 'Wine writers aren't infallible, but what evolves over a period of years is a form of trust between a taster and his readers, based on the knowledge that the former is doing his best to point people towards good booze.' He adds, 'I do hope Skinner will change his modus operandi for The Juice 2011, because an author who selects a wine he hasn't tasted is short-changing his readers. Just as significantly, he is insulting his own profession.'

Tim is right. I'd go further. I wouldn't have so much of a problem if this had just been a general recommendation for a wine; the fact that there are tasting notes for wines untasted is the biggest problem, because this enters deeper into the territory of dishonesty. A specific tasting note is based on the wine and the clear contract between the reader and writer is that the wine has actually been tasted. To say that, for example, Montana Sauvignon Blanc is a consistently good bet year on year as an affordable Marlborough Sauvignon is a very different matter from me giving you a tasting note of the 2010 vintage (which would clearly be absurd).

For further reading, see the excellent Decanter news piece.

14 Comments:

At 10:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about merchants who don't change TN from one vintage to the next? Not just for relatively cheap wines, I've seen it for en primeur wines at 100+ per bottle where the TN is very similar from year to year.

 
At 12:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the above poster, tasting notes that don't change are just as dishonest as those that are made up. I work for a well known wine merchant and am often frustrated that the same tasting note is supplied year-on-year to even our fine wine range (and I've often had to contact head office just to get the vintage dates right - what a hopeless bunch!)

That said, the vast majority of punters don't give a toss about hacks' opinions about wine. Unless your name is Jane Mcquitty, or you're on national TV (and not even then) most people don't give two hoots what is said by wine writers, which is probably why Skinner gets away with his BS.

 
At 5:29 AM, Blogger The Wine Mule said...

"We either upset one side or the other. There's the side that wants the most up-to-date information, and there's Michael Cooper's side. The majority of the wines in The Juice don't rely on vintage variation. A lot of them are going to be consistent each vintage."

Which is the side that wants to read false descriptions?

 
At 11:25 AM, OpenID winebear said...

This is a very stupid thing to do and what strikes me is why it is necessary? If you are a good critic then there are literaly thousands of potential wines worth reviewing. Maybe it is to ensure that the book stays prevalent throughout the year but as Jamie goode says he could easily review the current vintage and say that it is the type of wine that is consistent, vintage to vintage.

 
At 3:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree - it's a really stupid thing to do. But why the surprise? Cook book publishers cynically cash in by selling gastroporn with some celebrity tellycrumpet's picture on the cover. Nobody who can actually cook bothers with that kind of book - and nobody who actually cares about the way wine tastes will bother with this one. Publishers are embarassed all the way to the bank.

 
At 8:32 AM, Anonymous Tony said...

If Skinner is recommending the same wines each year without tasting them why would a consumer bother buying his book each year? You'd just have to buy one and it would never go out of date.

 
At 11:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is more about the UK wine trade not liking an upstart, the suffix MW crowd splitting hairs. There's even a disclaimer on vintages on page 3 of the book so it's hardly deception is it? Most producers, like Vasse Felix (one of the wines that was picked out that he couldn't have tasted) aim to reproduce a taste profile and style from year to year, especially at the sub-10 level. It's why the overwhelming majority of on-trade lists have split vintages, or non at all on their lower-level wines.

 
At 4:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The main problem people have with it is twofold:

1) wine critics should NOT be recommending wines that they have never tasted; and

2) if you're going to make the claim that some of the wines never really change from year to year, then don't take the public for a ride and release a book every 12 months.

You can't have it both ways.

 
At 9:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You miss the point: he has tasted them, he's simply telling you what vintage will be available on the shelf in the UK when the book's published.
And you publish a book every year because every year you talk about new wines.
Not a difficult concept to grasp; all wine writers do it!

 
At 11:11 AM, Anonymous Sean Mitchell said...

Interesting post. I can't help thinking that Matt thought his disclaimers were doing more work than they actually were, at least judging by the apparent controversy.

 
At 2:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, you're missing the point.

HE HASN'T TASTED THAT PARTICULAR WINE.

I'm sure he's tasted previous vintages, but how can he possibly write an accurate tasting note on something he's never tasted? Just because the previous 5 vintages were good, doesn't mean the new one will be.

A cynical exercise in milking the public's cash - that's all it is.

 
At 11:05 PM, Blogger TommyB said...

It's disgusting, a guy in his position who can't even be bothered to go and find new wines so he just makes it up - it makes me sick to the stomach.

 
At 10:36 AM, Blogger Jamie said...

A statement has been released by the publishers and Mr Skinner:

http://www.mattskinner.net/Matt_Skinner/Update.html

The last sentence by Mr S is totally illiterate. Nice touch.

 
At 11:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point I was making is virtually no wine critic gives a particularly unique tasting note on a wine. There are only so many adjectives in the language, so the same ones keep coming up again (count how many wines have blackcurrant/blackberry flavours in Oz Clarke's book!). They're guides, for the unintiated to use to try something new. If you can't use language to describe the uniqueness of a wine, it barely matters what vintage it is surely?

 

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