As I travel the world’s wine regions, I’m often asked for my opinion by wine producers.
What are they thinking? What do I know about making wine? Could I run a press cycle? Or transfer wine between tanks? Or clean a filter properly before using it? Or carry out a delestage?
And when it comes to marketing wine, how many cases have I sold? Have I negotiated a contract with a multiple grocer in a foreign country?
This begs the question: should producers listen to journalists? I’ve certainly been on press trips where my fellow travellers have offered unsolicited advice (I think that is just rude, to be honest, and naïve).
My answer would be a (qualified) yes.
A lot of it depends on the journalist of course, but many of my colleagues are smart, perceptive and well travelled. They’ve been to wineries around the world, and if they have been asking the right questions, then they’ll have picked up a really good perspective.
And perspective is important. It helps to be able to see the big picture; to be able to see things in their correct context.
It’s also good to listen with a selective ear. If winegrowers are smart, they can effectively pick up some consultancy for free when journalists visit. This requires them to have the ability to rapidly assess whether or not the journalist in question is smart and switched on, and then to filter the useful from the less useful feedback.
Some journalists are technically quite good and have an understanding of the winemaking process. Others have dug around a bit under the skin of the wine trade and have a good handle on marketing. They know the sorts of wines that different sectors of the market are interested in. Others are gifted and honest tasters.
The problem comes when journalists offer naïve or inappropriate advice. We have to recognize the reality of the wine market, and that different rules apply at the commodity end from the fine wine niche. Quality is best defined as fitness for purpose. Yes, a producer may be knocking out a simple tasty wine at €1.5 a bottle ex cellars, but if you encourage them to make a much better wine at €4 a bottle, or to experiment with exotic varieties, for example, they may end up with no market.
I really appreciate it when I visit a winery and they show me the full picture, warts and all. With this honesty comes a responsibility. If something is off the record, it is off the record.
Most of all, though, humility is required on the part of a journalist. It takes an awful lot of hard work to produce a clean, fault free wine – let alone something more exciting. Sometimes we can forget this as we taste a producer’s wine; that this is their year’s work we are assessing – and it deserves a reasoned, thoughtful assessment, not a snap judgement.