The coming wine war

There’s a clash of cultures in the world of fine wine, and before too long it could become a war.

On the one hand, we have the fine wine establishment, which is dominated by Bordeaux, but also includes the top Champagne houses, as well as a few others such as the super-Tuscans. This is wine as a luxury good or an investment vehicle. It’s where the money is.

On the other hand, we have the emerging terroiriste/natural wine movement. This is somewhat counterculture, and its development as a category threatens the status quo of fine wine.

As the message of authentic wine with a sense of place – made by people driven by passion rather than profit – gains traction, it is causing a degree of discomfort in the fine wine establishment.

While things are currently very rosy-looking for the top Bordeaux properties, I wouldn’t be surprised if the more enlightened proprietors are casting an anxious glance at the success of events such as the three day natural wine fair held in Borough market this May, just as the large (and currently dominant) Champagne houses have been discomfited by the critical acclaim given to grower Champagnes.

Expect to see an increasingly hostile, organized reaction towards the natural wine movement, and those journalists who support it. There are already many people briefing against natural wines. As is so often the case, money is at the heart of this conflict.

Bordeaux enjoys a favoured role in the world of fine wine. It has a high, almost dominant profile.

The prices paid for top Bordeaux have escalated over the last decade, and this has made the top Chateaux quite wealthy. They will find the natural wine movement threatening because it exposes high-end Bordeaux for what it is: on the whole, somewhat less interesting than the newly emerging terroir wines from other regions.

My prediction is that Bordeaux will seek to protect its place – and wealth – by bringing its influence to bear where it can. Already it holds leading journalists close, through quite lavish hospitality and access to rare older vintages for the privileged few. Some journalists have spotted where the money is, and for this reason have chosen to write extensively about Bordeaux. The top Châteaux’ sizeable advertising spend ensures that consumer wine magazines have a strong focus on the region. Perhaps these magazines will be discretely avoid giving coverage to the profoundly interesting (yet cash poor) terroiriste and natural wines, which come with zero advertising spend.

When it comes to wine education, there’s the horrible possibility that major sponsors of the WSET and IMW could seek to influence what is being taught to students of wine. I would hope that the curriculum of these wine education bodies is independent of any commercial pressure, but it may be in the future that generous sponsorship comes with implicit ‘strings’ attached.

It could reach the stage where passion-driven journalists who write at length on wines that they find more interesting (such as natural wines) are ostracised by wine publications anxious to protect their advertising revenue. It would be a terrible shame, but it is not inconceivable that journalists may forced to choose between writing what they would like to write, and following the money.

In the past, there would be nothing that anyone could do about this. Fortunately, in the age of the internet, there are independent voices left – and they will be heard.

58 comments to The coming wine war

  • MarkT

    Surely the rich Bordelais don’t need to get their hands so dirty? They can, after all, sell all they produce and more in China.

  • As always, Jamie, case brilliantly stated, but what percentage of total world wine sales would you say will go to either of the two “enemy camps” as compared to say, YT and other mass-market wines? Is it less than 20%? Your comment on education and sponsorship makes me shiver, but then I realize that this is exactly the way the rest of the world is powered, from religion to politics, entertainment and food. Are we expecting too much of wine, based on our “pure” love for it? Great read, thanks.

  • As always an interesting observation and blog article from the John Simpson of winebloggers from the heart of the wine war zone.

  • It really makes me think of the “Salon des Refusés”, this art fair where all the artist to be called “Modern” gathered (such as Manet, Whistler, etc…), since they were rejected by the “Académie” from the official art fair…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salon_des_Refus%C3%A9s

    Guess who history will remember …

  • Neil Stewart

    Sadly the opportunity for most of us to enjoy fine Bordeaux is reduced with each vintage. I was trying to explain the dominance of Bordeaux in the fine wine market just this weekend, my brother in law didn’t believe that there was no real competition right now but hopefully we’ll see a change – either a bubble bursting or challengers coming into the fray – in the latter case please don’t position or price yourselves out of reach of the enthusiasts!

    Re: Growers’ Champagnes I recall Oddbins falling out with the Grand Marques at one stage in the 1990s and stocking a range of really good small producers, there are so many out there we should all be able to find alternatives.

  • Good piece, Jamie. In reference to your paragraph about risks of ‘official’ wine education bodies being influenced by their sponsors, do you have any evidence to support this concern? How about asking for an official response from IMW and WSET? Yes, these replies will inevitably be diplomatic/political, carefully-worded answers, but it would be interesting nevertheless.

    In my own experience, I simply know that smaller and more obscure wine regions, that may well be regarded in certain quarters as trendy or up-and-coming (e.g. Jura/Savoie) have long been pushed off the WSET Diploma syllabus, meaning that wine students only learn about them if they pursue their studies (as anyone serious in the trade should) outside the classroom. As for the debates about grower Champagnes, ‘Natural wines’ or even prices of top Bordeaux, whereas I’m quite sure these matters are much discussed by MW students, contemporary issues don’t get much of a look in at Diploma, arguably the most important qualification for anyone working in the UK wine trade, and more’s the pity.

  • Unfortunately, this is more of the same from Bordeaux and its ilk. The wine world has always been composed of an oligarchy of producers and supporters convinced of their own importance it seems. There is a continuing class struggle between those who value labels and those who appreciate the intrinsic quality of wines. It is the interest of the elite producers thus to accentuate scarcity and price, and limit access to objective or non-indoctrinated critics and consumers.

    While the internet and social media are giving a voice to all perspectives, the globalization of the market has given more financial leverage to the oligarchy. Opposition viewpoints can be expressed. But how much traction can they gain against a marketing machine?

  • Presciently observed. As a small independent retailer, I am increasingly persuading customers to try perhaps, 2 really interesting (but virtually unknown) wines at around £10.00 – £15.00 each, over a single ‘name’ at £30.00. Happily, they return more frequently.
    Whilst there are negative elements to the polarisation you outline, I think, for those who enjoy wine at its most fundamental level (and I am not just thinking of the alcohol!), it’s a very exciting time.

  • Truth is wine education, wine publications and wine awards are all driven by money. Nothing new there, or nothing at least shocking. What’s more shocking is that there are people who believe otherwise.

    Till the money flows elsewhere, or someone can point out the emperors new clothes, the norm is going to stay the norm.

    Great piece!

  • Kieron

    The IMW has to be seen to acknowledge the support of its sponsors, otherwise it wouldn’t have any and the student fees would be astronomical.However, the exams are structured such that only having knowledge of the IMWs supporters and their wines would make it impossible to pass. Interestingly, the two principal sponsors for the first year programme in Europe are Austrian Wine and The Hungarian Trade Commission (as of 2011). There is a Bordeaux visit sponsored by the Union des Grands Crus Classes en 1855 for a limited number of students in the first year as well.

  • Hi Jamie, in re >>When it comes to wine education, there’s the horrible possibility that major sponsors of the WSET and IMW could seek to influence what is being taught to students of wine. I would hope that the curriculum of these wine education bodies is independent of any commercial pressure, but it may be in the future that generous sponsorship comes with implicit ‘strings’ attached.<< I can agree that this would be horrible but I can assure you that MWs value our independence hugely and that any effort, by any sponsor, to influence out programmes would get short shrift. While we try to help our sponsors through cooperative ventures not only would we never accept such interference but the sponsors themselves would not attempt to do so. Our sponsors are very keenly aware of the independent nature of IMW and this is one of the reasons they value working with us – we offer a genuine voice which is as independent as can be. Further, I am quite certain that the students themselves would also be up in arms at any such development.
    As you well know I can have strong opinions about various things (semillon sauvignon ring any bells LOL?) but IMW values well-argued points of view rather than simply trotting out stock answers. Hence, it is likely that next year there could easily be a question on Paper 4 on this topic which could easily see passes from answers demonstrating opposite pints of view. This year's exam had questions on terroir, green winemaking, biodiversity, organics without suggesting that there is one correct point of view.
    Sorry for the long comment but I felt that the position should be clarified. In re WSET I very much doubt that they would behave any differently and I have complete confidence in our members, sponsors and students to do the right thing.

  • “When it comes to wine education, there’s the horrible possibility that major sponsors of the WSET and IMW could seek to influence what is being taught to students of wine.”

    Jamie, you’ve planted a flag on such an important issue: education.

    I cannot speak about the IMW, but I have read the WSET textbook a few years ago and was surprised to find missing anything that had to do with natural or biodynamic winemaking. I do recall a scant mention of organics.

    YOU have pointed to the most important battle field in this war. Again, it’s education. More specifically, it is educating these ‘wine professionals’

  • A really good piece Jamie.

    I’m not discarding your thesis that the elite echelons of the wine world, both in producers and publications will fight to protect their own inherited positions of royalty. You are probably correct.

    But in essence, the more they do, the more irrelevant they become. This is the power of the Internet where scarcity, restrictions, dishonesty and controlled supply and demand, will eventually implode on itself. Books. Autos. Real Estate. Specialty foods and on and on have all democratized over time on the net.

    From my small vantage point of what I see in New York, and my bias as a supporter and blogger on the natural wine and food movement, this seems like so much rumblings about whether the inventory of scarves in a chain like Bergdoff is changing. Much ado about little.

    I keep getting told that the amount of natural wine sold here in NY is minute. Maybe so. Or maybe since most natural wine isn’t noted as such.

    I don’t know but there is an explosion of natural wine shops and wine bars in every neighborhood here. And a shock to not see 20+ % of wine in restaurants and bars classified as natural. And honestly with truly influential and open minded wine journalist like Asimov and Feiring, and a host of local blogs driving much of the buying, I’m not feeling the rumblings of a war anywhere on my horizon.

    Or is this strictly the domain of the mid-town steakhouses? Or the wine collectors? Of a revolution that will play out on the polo fields somewhere far from the thousands of restaurants where normal folk who love great wine and food eat out often and influence greatly what really gets imported and consumed.

    I really appreciate this perspective because it keeps my opinions broadened but on the ground, even in a city as cosmopolitan and wine centric as NY, this ‘war’ seems somewhat inconsequential and non impactful.

  • Don’t really understand why ‘Bordeaux’ would feel the need to attack the natural wine movement, they’re not competing are they?

    You say it’s because… “it exposes high-end Bordeaux for what it is: on the whole, somewhat less interesting than the newly emerging terroir wines from other regions”.

    So (in best Monty Python voice) this shall hence forth be known as (trumpet blast)… “The Somewhat Less Interesting War”.

  • I need to clarify that I think the threat to the establishment doesn’t come from simply the natural wine movement, but also from all terroir-driven wines from ‘leser’ appellations. Interesting, serious wines are being made from all sorts of places, yet are almost ignored, or at best patronised, by the fine wine establishment. The natural wine movement is important because it plants a flag, getting a lot of press attention. But it’s not the only alternative.

  • Jamie,

    I had to laugh. I have visions of Nicolas Joly storming Lafite and Baron Eric cowering underneath his gold lead laminated desk promising to use less sulphur.

    Firstly you tarnish Bordeaux with the same brush, so those greedy Grand Cru Classe (no argument there) get lumped in with say a decent Cote de Blaye grower struggling to put a roof over his family like the one I met last week. So these all-powerful estates represent a very small percentage that to be honest, are divorced from the reality of Bordeaux.

    Secondly, putting the greed of the top Grand Cru Classe aside for one moment, not that I am denying or excusing it in any way, you would find that the top chateaux represent some of the most natural winemaking today. Difficult to swallow in this context of untramelled avarice, but true. Spend some time visiting Jamie. The Bordelais are well aware that they ruined their vineyards with chemicals and herbicides during the 1970s and they aren’t going to do it again. There are a number of certifide BO estates such as Pontet-Canet, Mazeyres and Gombaude-Guillot and there are many trialling it discretely. A vast number are completely organic.

    The notion of natural winemaking vs. Bordeaux is pure fantasy. Don’t forget that a lot of the young winemakers, usually the guys that don’t get written about, are from outside Bordeaux. They have done much usher the region towards organic viticulture with minimal intervention in the winery.

    With regard to magazines, there you have a valid point. However, when I did my Diploma, Bordeaux was probably the worst represented wine region and from all accounts, it still is. I spoke to one MW recently who had only tasted one Grand Cru Classe when she passed. As Dermot said, the IMW are not stupid enough to start modules entitled “Bordeaux Is Brilliant: Fact!” If anything, the exorbitant prices create so much negativity (and rightly so) that it puts many people off.

    So forget the war. There are good and bad Bordeaux wines at all price levels, there are good and bad natural wines. Many Bordeaux are natural wines.

    Rgds
    Neal

  • Great post, Jamie

    At the heart of the argument is: “what makes a great wine?”

    That the top wines of the 1855 classification remain some of the most valued wines in the world (in terms of price) reflects the money fueled spell the Bordeaux trade has cast on the wine press. If the food world were the same, galantine of fowl, hare cake and aspic jelly would still be all the rage!

    Arnaud’s comment is brilliant.

  • Lee Newby

    Great piece.

    I don’t see natural wine entering the stratospheric prices that top Bordeaux producers receive. I think all outstanding wine should be assessed on its merits, be it industrial, or single vineyard natural wine. I am a Diploma WSET student and see no pressure within our program which includes MW and MW candidates as instructors. But we are in the colonies ;)

    I love great wine and we need more distinct wine of quality and less “International Style” wine.

  • Martin

    Hand pruned, hand harvested, manures as the only fertiliser, no chemical sprays – only milks, no yeasts in the winery, natural ML’s, no tractors in the vineyard – only horses. Racking via gravity. “Industrial” winemaking at Latour.

  • Wow Jamie. You’ve moved from a ‘wine science’ theme, where you at least reference some evidence, straight into the world of astrology. Given that there is so much crackpot quack science applied by some ‘natural’ or biodynamic winemakers (you were at that dinner with Michel Chapoutier in June, weren’t you?) this move seems somewhat appropriate.

    You’ve painted a nice picture here but just like the best mentalist you have filled in a lot of gaps to do so. Many of your premises are false. As others have noted, your image of Bordeaux as some sort of Saruman-collective, anxiously watching all that is good and natural in the world surround their ivory towers, is ridiculous. Apart from the fact that the ‘evil’ Bordeaux you choose to paint is just too easy a target these days, and reflects the common misconception that all Bordeaux is examplified by a few grand classified estates, any suggestion that these wines are lacking in “sense of place” is inappropriate. There are no wines in the world that can successfully imitate Bordeaux (those chateaux that haven’t cocked it up in recent years, anyway); look-a-likes, yes, but not replacements. Bordeaux might be a mono-vinicole, but it’s hardly industrial. Second, I think rather than looking on in fear, Bordeaux is moving to imitate; there were more than a few horses out in the vineyards when I visited in March this year. Organics and biodynamics are popping up all over the region, as well as other new methods and innovations aimed at protecting the long-term integrity of the region and its vineyards. I find the idea that they will react by waging war on other vignerons – as if they saw some competition in them – is laughable. They are distinct sectors of the wine market. They might learn a lot from them. But be threatened by them? Really?

    One three-day wine fair in London has been and gone, and you seem to interpret it as a tidal wave of natural wine, sweeping the world of all the Bordeaux and Champagne detritus. Nonsense Jamie. Don’t be caught up in the insular UK-hype; tastings like these have been going on for years, from Nicolas Joly’s Renaissance tasting (annually in Angers) to entire Salons dedicated to natural wine (such as Millésime Bio, this year in Montpellier). A few plane tickets to London doesn’t equate to Bordeaux-smashing world domination I’m afraid.

    Rather than just disagreeing, which I think I have done enough of, can I throw a couple of questions your way? You comment that there are “already many people briefing against natural wines”. Can you indicate who these people are? I know of a couple of names that spring to mind that specialise in supporting all things natural, such as Alice Feiring, and I’m thinking I might list you along with her, but who is making a point of “briefing against natural wines”?

    I’m also interested in your comments that Bordeaux “holds leading journalists close”. Apart from the fact this has been going on for years and years, and reflects the intense interest many drinkers have with the region (and there is still a lot of room for more diverse and fresh opinion on Bordeaux, IMO) isn’t this true of the natural wine movement also? Are the plethora of samples you feature from Les Caves de Pyrene, and the meals you describe with Doug Wregg (“Natural wines with Doug at Brawn”, May 2011….”A wonderful evening at Terroirs”, July 2010) not indicative that those with ‘natural’ wine to sell also like to keep sympathetic journalists close?

    There are other holes I could pick. Whereas I agree that Bordeaux has a massive marketing budget, and thus dominate UK (and other English-language) publications, they do not have 100% control. Take a look at Le Rouge & Le Blanc, for instance. And rather than hurling unfounded “horrible possibilities” at the IMW and WSET from a distance, would it not be more appropriate to approach them with your thoughts? I am sure you would receive a response, and perhaps this would add more balance to your blog post.

    That’s enough I think. You certainly stimulate some good debate, which I enjoy.

    When’s the natural wine book due out? :-)

  • Great piece Jamie,

    I agree with Neal in that there are both good and bad Bordeaux, and “natural wines”….I don’t think Bordeaux will be shaking in their….albeit very flash, expensive boots…as they are in a different market sector.

    One thing that will be of concern to the Bordelais, is the amount of bandwidth the natural wine movement is receiving (along with the negative press for the pricing of their own wines).

    The drive for natural wines is counter culture in some ways….driven by new communication channels… be they blogs or the various social media options. Everyone now…. should they have the inclination… has a voice and those combined voices can become a cacophony in an era where traditional broadcast marketing is waning.

    In the end…both are a slice of the overall wine pie. But it an increasingly complex pie with lots of ingredients….it’s just that the people that ponder these questions are vastly outnumbed in the wine drinking populace…I think there’s room for all.

  • Hi Jamie

    I read that you have raised with interest “the horrible possibility that major sponsors of the WSET and IMW could seek to influence what is being taught to students of wine” and whilst I agree with Chris Kissack that you are “hurling unfounded horrible possibilities at the IMW and WSET from a distance” I am very happy to have the opportunity to respond to you, and your readers/contributors.

    And to answer Wink Lorch’s view that this reply “will inevitably be a diplomatic, political, carefully-worded answer” all I can do is to tell you the truth. I will leave you, and your readers to decide if I am diplomatic and political.

    I can categorically state that WSET’s curriculum, and the specification for each of our growing portfolio of qualifications, is, and always will be, completely independent of any commercial pressure, and that none of our Corporate Patronage agreements (you call them sponsors) comes with any strings attached. When discussing with any current or potential Patron (or sponsor) I make it abundantly clear that WSET is completely impartial, and that patronage is a two-way street from which they will gain tangible educational benefits, but that the content of all our programs (courses and qualifications) is driven by what our target audience (current and potential students world-wide) want and need in terms of education. We cannot be bought!

    I was very pleased to see the comment from Dermot Nolan, who is doing a great job keeping the Diploma program going in Ireland under VERY difficult economic conditions, saying that he has complete confidence in WSET “to do the right thing”.

    WSET launched Corporate Patronage in 2003 very openly with the aim of injecting some cash into an organisation whose student numbers were flagging, which wasn’t keeping its courses and qualification up to date, and was on the brink on going bust.

    Since then – thanks to the influx of Corporate Patronage funding in the mid 2000s – we have brought all our qualifications up to date. This in turn has created an ‘upward spiral’ of more students coming on our courses, generating the funds to expand our programs and to keep them current. This year (with 4 weeks to go until the end) over 32,000 students will have attended a WSET course in one of 55 countries (this is a 3-fold increase on 2001/2). Our financial turnover has also tripled over the same period.

    And just to put the record straight, in response to Ryan’s comment, whilst I cannot speak for wine publications and wine awards, wine education – certainly WSET education – is NOT driven by money. We are a not-for-profit educational charity which has grown its business exponentially because our programs are sought-after and valued the world over. Can I invite you both (Ryan and Jamie) to Bermondsey St so I can show you what the WSET does, and explain what our plans are for the future?

    To Jeff V, who read “the WSET textbook a few years ago and was surprised to find missing anything that had to do with natural or biodynamic winemaking” can I suggest that he might like to buy a current book. We review all our qualifications and materials annually to ensure they reflect what is happening currently in this fast-moving industry.

    To Wink, who states (incorrectly) that “contemporary issues don’t get much of a look in at Diploma” I would suggest she speaks to some current Diploma students who have done Unit 1 (the Global Business of Wines and Spirits) recently to see if they agree. I will be teaching this session next Thursday (yes, I do sometimes escape from my ivory tower) and we will be covering issues which are affecting the wine (and spirits) industry NOW – and if there is anything significant in the news over the next few days, we will use this in the case studies next Thursday.

    So please, don’t throw around accusations about WSET without knowing the facts – we were set up in 1969 to serve the wine and spirit industry, and nothing has changed – except that we now serve a global industry.

    Ian Harris, CEO of WSET

  • I’m surprised to read that you think there is a coming wine war between high-end Bordeaux (which you imply isn’t ‘natural’) and the emerging terroiriste (‘natural’) camps. Will be interesting if that does happen.
    My less well educated guess would have been that – if it is the case that more natural wines are emerging (I don’t know either way) – this could put pressure on lower-end commercial wines rather than fine wines, as casual drinkers realise you can get more authentic rather than bulk-made stuff for a similar price. Surely that would be true counterculture, as opposed to taking the commercial place (and prices) of high-end Bordeaux.
    Although I suspect you’re talking about very high-end ‘natural’ wines here – they’re not exactly affordable for many people either, just as fine Bordeaux isn’t, so it could be argued they’re almost as exclusive already, just a bit more trendy. Bordeaux as Microsoft and ‘natural’ wine as Apple.
    Good work on stimulating a debate though – and I loved the ‘Day Today’-esque title and in particular the first sentence. In Chris Morris voice: It’s War!

  • Ah yes, wine wars. Here is a Marketing History observation from a different beverage category… Coke and Pepsi always start “wars”. “Wars” engage consumers and guess what? Both sides end up winning – if they play it right. Usually the smaller side starts the “war” (remember the Pepsi Challenge?) because it is in their interest to get the trade/press/consumers into a 50:50 choice – a 50:50 choice is better than their existing say 20% share. Normally the best response for the bigger player is silence – don’t give the other side oxygen and the fire goes out. For that reason I don’t think you’ll hear any response from Bordeaux’ Grand Cru for a while. However if the smaller side has made a good start to the “war”, with press, trade and consumers all engaged, then it is in the bigger players’ interests to talk it up too. Wars really do grow the category.

    Putting aside the “war”, which as an independent retailer I’m happy to support/inflame because it helps sales, my core view about wine is very, very different. To me Natural v Fine is a false war. I seek Beauty in wine. I am not too fussed about how the artist(s) (the grower and the winemaker) achieve their Beauty, it just has to be beautiful. That’s why I have no problem swooning over a delicious Cos Frappato with my first course (Biodynamic, Sicily, low sulphur, blah, blah, blah) followed by devouring an elegant Domaine de Chevalier 2000 with my second (Grand Cru Graves, 18th Century, yawn, whatever…). From different camps, but both those wines are beautiful; conversely plenty of both Fine and Natural wines are ugly. This obsession with how the wine was made (Natural wines) and tradition/pedigree (Fine wines) often gets in the way of the primary question: is it beautiful?

  • I like the piece Jamie! However I think that it focuses on a very narrow narrow section of the wine drinking population. I see wine as a commodity becoming a far bigger threat to the establishment then the niche natural wine movement. Just look whats happening in the UK with the grocery chains.

    It would be silly to that the classed growths of Bordeaux are facing a threat from the natural wine movement as they appeal to a different market segment. The biggest threat the Chateaux face is their own pricing. Perhapsn the pressure from the natural wine movement will cause more producers in Bordeaux to follow the lead of Chateau Ponte-Canet and practice farming practices that allow wines to express typicity!

  • Ian Harris

    Did you get my response, posted 2 hours ago? It seems to have been removed!

    Ian Harris – CEO, WSET

  • Ian Harris

    Just spotted a couple of typos – here is the revised version:

    Hi Jamie

    I read with interest that you have raised “the horrible possibility that major sponsors of the WSET and IMW could seek to influence what is being taught to students of wine” and whilst I agree with Chris Kissack that you are “hurling unfounded horrible possibilities at the IMW and WSET from a distance” I am very happy to have the opportunity to respond to you, and your readers/contributors.

    And to answer Wink Lorch’s view that this reply “will inevitably be a diplomatic, political, carefully-worded answer” all I can do is to tell you the truth. I will leave you, and your readers to decide if I am diplomatic and political.

    I can categorically state that WSET’s curriculum, and the specification for each of our growing portfolio of qualifications, is, and always will be, completely independent of any commercial pressure, and that none of our Corporate Patronage agreements (you call them sponsors) comes with any strings attached. When discussing with any current or potential Patron (or sponsor) I make it abundantly clear that WSET is completely impartial, and that patronage is a two-way street from which they will gain tangible educational benefits, but that the content of all our programs (courses and qualifications) is driven by what our target audience (current and potential students world-wide) want and need in terms of education. We cannot be bought!

    I was very pleased to see the comment from Dermot Nolan, who is doing a great job keeping the Diploma program going in Ireland under VERY difficult economic conditions, saying that he has complete confidence in WSET “to do the right thing”.

    WSET launched Corporate Patronage in 2003 very openly with the aim of injecting some cash into an organisation whose student numbers were flagging, which wasn’t keeping its courses and qualifications up to date, and was on the brink of going bust.

    Since then – thanks to the influx of Corporate Patronage funding in the mid 2000s – we have brought all our qualifications up to date. This in turn has created an ‘upward spiral’ of more students coming on our courses, generating the funds to expand our programs and to keep them current. This year (with 4 weeks to go until the end) over 32,000 students will have attended a WSET course in one of 55 countries (this is a 3-fold increase on 2001/2). Our financial turnover has also tripled over the same period.

    And just to put the record straight, in response to Ryan’s comment, whilst I cannot speak for wine publications and wine awards, wine education – certainly WSET education – is NOT driven by money. We are a not-for-profit educational charity which has grown its business exponentially because our programs are sought-after and valued the world over. Can I invite you both (Ryan and Jamie) to Bermondsey St so I can show you what the WSET does, and explain what our plans are for the future?

    To Jeff V, who read “the WSET textbook a few years ago and was surprised to find missing anything that had to do with natural or biodynamic winemaking” can I suggest that he might like to buy a current book. We review all our qualifications and materials annually to ensure they reflect what is happening currently in this fast-moving industry.

    To Wink, who states (incorrectly) that “contemporary issues don’t get much of a look in at Diploma” I would suggest she speaks to some current Diploma students who have done Unit 1 (the Global Business of Wines and Spirits) recently to see if they agree. I will be teaching this session next Thursday (yes, I do sometimes escape from my ivory tower) and we will be covering issues which are affecting the wine (and spirits) industry NOW – and if there is anything significant in the news over the next few days, we will use this in the case studies next Thursday.

    So please, don’t throw around accusations about WSET without knowing the facts – we were set up in 1969 to serve the wine and spirit industry, and nothing has changed – except that we now serve a global industry.

    Ian Harris, CEO of WSET

  • Ian, Great response and had the same reaction about Wink’s and Jeff V’s comments.

  • Siobhan Turner

    Dear Jamie

    Following the very sound comments of Dermot Nolan MW and Ian Harris above, I should like to add to the discussion.

    The IMW study programme and examination are built around a syllabus which covers all aspects of the art, science and business of wine. We work with a wide range of supporters from the international wine community, who recognise the value of wine education. Whilst they do contribute in a variety of ways to our study programme they do not have any influence over our syllabus.

    Working with supporters ensures that our study programme remains relevant to the modern wine industry and all such cooperation is based upon sharing knowledge and experience. The IMW’s good standing is founded upon its integrity and independence and it remains constantly mindful of both.

    Siobhan Turner, Executive Director, Institute of Masters of Wine

  • Charles Sydney

    Nice article, Jamie (and many thanks to Jim Budd, whose blog landed me here). Also a nice (and typically more to my style) reply by Chris Kissack.

    Unfortunately you’re too late. The war is already over.

    The war has been waged by the UK government (they call it duty and VAT), ably abetted by the ECB and an over-valued euro – and has been lost by the UK wine drinking public and by the ‘natural’ wine guys, though maybe the fine wine establishment will survive.

    Stats tell us that around 95% of all wine consumed in the UK is still sold at under £6 a bottle.

    On a good day that might give the Poor Bloody Producer the grand total of 1.50 € per bottle (I would have said more but I just saw one single estate wine I sold at 1.65 € on sale at £7.99, so I’m a little less optimistic).

    With the best will in the world, nobody can make natural wine or fine wine at these prices.

    The only thing that has a hope of making either natural or fine wine relevant to the real world that is the UK wine trade is a devaluation of the euro coupled with a complete review of the UK duty system.

    And that won’t happen until we all (producers, brokers, journalists, educators and consumers) stop squabbling and start fighting for our future.

  • Interesting article Jamie.

    Personally, I’m a little confused by the two sides in your pending war. “Natural” wines don’t really compete for the same market segment as the big guns of the wine establishment.

    As you very eloquently put it, the top of the establishment wines occupy a market as a “luxury good or an investment vehicle”. That’s because a segment of the market is seeks status symbol product that may appreciate in value. I seriously doubt if many of the natural wine makers want their products to be viewed in such a way, and therefore I don’t think that they are competing for the same market.

    The natural wine makers are much more “at war” with the aspirational wines of Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, “lesser” France, Chile, Argentina and even the UK. These wines are bought by the middle classes, position themselves as a cut-above what the supermarkets and big multiples sell and are generally in the £15-£30 price bracket.

    The choice is much more along the lines of “do I buy that interesting English sparkler, or that rustic ‘natural’ wine”. It’s the adventurous that they seem to be aiming for, not the mainstream.

    Lots of wines are very well produced, even when not completely following the strictest interpretations of “natural” wine making. What is interesting is how many wines are organic, biodynamic or even “natural”, but choose to rely on their character when opened rather than their status quo threatening counter culture roots. (Status Quo and counter culture in the same sentence, I wasn’t expecting that!)

    I see a lot of people supporting the natural wine movement and not that many “briefing” against. Wasn’t “Chateau Monty” promoting the movement? I was very impressed with the press and web coverage that The Natural Wine Fair received. It was considerably more visible that than any of the supermarket wine fairs and I’m sure that their budget was much lower.

    The only article that I remember seeing against natural wines was Quentin Sadler’s piece on his blog (http://quentinsadler.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/natural-wine-fad-or-future/). I tend to agree with his conculsion that “what matters is the liquid”.

    Are there many examples of people “briefing against natural wines”? I’d be interested in reading the articles and seeing how the authors drew their conclusions. As a former computer games and gig reviewer, I know how much pressure PR and marketing people can try and apply. I enjoyed many entertaining days and nights!

    What is for certain is that many wine makers around the world are struggling to make ends meet. The Natural Wine brigade are doing a good job of raising visibility for their wines and creating a new class of product in consumers’ minds. They’ve got us all typing. Hopefully this will bring them commercial success, as I’m not too sure how realistic the image of wines “made by people driven by passion rather than profit” really is. I get the feeling that lots of terroiristes wouldn’t mind making a euro or two for themselves.

    I’m all for natural wine, as long as it tastes great. However, I don’t think that they’re at war with Big Bordeaux.
    8cs8

  • Ian,

    I applaud WSET for churning out Junior Wine Bores so successfully and so independently.

    Who was the genius who came up with the “Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine”?

    For those who haven’t had the pleasure, here’s an example of a wine note the WSET “Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine” way:

    Appearance
    Clarity: Clear
    Intensity: Medium
    Colour: Garnet
    Rim: 3mm

    Nose
    Condition: Clean
    Intensity: Medium
    Development: Developing
    Aroma: Fruit

    Palate
    Sweetness: Dry
    Acidity: Medium
    Tannin: Medium
    (Yawn)
    Alcohol: Medium
    Body: Medium
    Flavour Insensity: Tedium (typo, sorry)
    Flavour characteristic: Fruit
    Length: Medium

    Conclusion
    Quality: Good
    Price category: how can I taste what someone is pricing it at Sir?
    Readiness for drinking: ready to drink, but can improve

    So was the wine, so described above, Beautiful? If so why? If not, why not?

    I put it to you that by the time someone has tasted wine under the Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine he or she is no nearer identifying the beauty of that wine than if he or she had poured the wine down his or her ear.

    Can I disrespectfully ask that this section of the WSET course be revised so that eager, bright-eyed students can appreciate and impart the intrinsic beauty of wine? Rather than bore themselves (and then others) to death with this tosh.

    Cheers,

    Rob Malcolm
    Finborough Wine Café
    finboroughwinecafe@gmail.com
    Where you can do a wine appreciation course called Wine Journey
    (Hint: I thought I’d start a real wine war…)

  • In re the basic premiss of the piece “As the message of authentic wine with a sense of place – made by people driven by passion rather than profit – gains traction, it is causing a degree of discomfort in the fine wine establishment.” I would question the following assumptions:

    That natural wine is the “authentic wine with a sense of place”;
    That natural wine makers don’t care about profit ” made by people driven by passion rather than profit”;
    That the bigger producers have no passion ” made by people driven by passion rather than profit”;
    And that there is “a degree of discomfort in the fine wine establishment.”.

    I’d love to see some serious examples to back up these assertions.

  • Richard Morris

    @Rob Malcolm

    “So was the wine, so described above, Beautiful? If so why? If not, why not?”

    A subjective (and vague) question so not helpful.

    And, you may take the mickey out of ‘medium’ but most wines are ordinary. Bell curve and all that.

  • Thanks for all the insightful comments.

    I need to emphasize that this is what I see as the ‘coming’ wine war – that is, I am not describing what ‘is’, but what may happen. Many of the posters seem to have ignored this.

    Second, it’s not natural wine versus bordeaux or fine wine. The natural wine movement has helped place a marker, and ignited this debate. It is more about authentic wine versus inauthentic wine. It is about who gets to decide what ‘fine’ wine is. It is about an existing aesthetic system pending a major perspective shift.

  • Don D.

    Two opposing dogma’s in an ongoing clash about contrasting ideals. Sounds like America. Here’s to eternal open debate, with everybody (not just the financially successful) putting their two cents worth in.

    Is the philosophy of terroir an “emerging” movement? I teach expression of terroir as a tradition winemakers maintain in the face of growing modern winemaking technology. Quite possibly related more to the “old world” wine culture than the new. The idea that new world winemakers will not “express” their distinctive place as a result of infatuation with technology is worrisome. Less variety to choose from. Undemocratic.

    It’s interesting that you refer to the terroirist/natural movement as counterculture! I can’t really argue with you yet it seems that the terroir nation exposes more varied and distinctive culture than the international movement. But since your article focuses on “fine wine,” many great wines of reasonable price inevitably appear countercultural in their casual clothes.

    The choices available to winemakers are expanding daily. Some are dangerous and others not so much. Biodynamic is a choice. So is micro-oxygenation. Organic, sustainable, oak-aging, clones, cultured yeasts, etc. Students must understand these choices and decide for themselves which are valuable and which are forms of “cheating.” They should be exposed to all emerging wine regions, varietals, styles of wine, etc. Any good wino knows that a delicious “value” wine is the sign of great wine smarts. Lets face it, there are great and terrible expensive wines and great and terrible cheap wines.

    It is the responsibility of journalists and educators to ensure students of are given enough information to make wise decisions. The influence of money will affect any market, sad but true. But in an ideal world one learns (and can taste) what entails a good wine, a flawed wine, and a manipulated wine. Money is not always the best indicator.

    (By the by, as a blatant terroiriste, I still enjoy a good bottle of Bordeaux, and find a pretty accurate expression of “place” in most of them. And the threat of money “talking” lurks in California, Italy, and everywhere wine is made.)

  • In re Rob Malcolm’s question: “Who was the genius who came up with the “Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine”?” the geniuses were David Bird MW and Maggie McNie MW as far back as the late 1980s and the SAT they devised was short and sweet – clarity, intensity, colour, other; cleanliness, intensity, aroma, development; sweet, acid, tannin, body, intensity, flavour, alcohol, length. No other vocabulary at all, just those headings.

    In re Jamie’s final comment “It is more about authentic wine versus inauthentic wine. It is about who gets to decide what ‘fine’ wine is. It is about an existing aesthetic system pending a major perspective shift.” this again assumes that natural is authentic and “other”, for want of a better descriptor, isn’t. I find this to be a very sweeping and poor generalisation.

    As for who decides what fine wine is Wine Intelligence decided at the 2010 LIWF that this is any wine costing £10 or more. Why do we need to define what fine wine is? Surely each individual votes with his/her wallet and palate and buys what they like? I’ve never bought Latour or Lafite, mainly because I can’t even dream of being able to afford them, but also because I want to try more than just one style of wine. Finally, as for the “major perspective shift” that’s putting an awful lot of cart before a very small horse.

  • Robrt Joseph

    Well done Jamie, for inspiring this debate but I agree with those who’ve said that you’re rather overdoing it with your war image. Top Bordeaux sells at high prices for the same reason as luxury cars, watches and handbags. It’s a desirable product that makes the buyer feel good. (And there’s nothing wrong with that). Natural wine is a new and natural reaction to industrial wine, cherished by people who want to feel a link to the soil in which a wine is made. A(and there’s nothing wrong with that either). Of course, some – many – of the top Bordeaux are ludicrously overpriced and some – many – of the natural wines are downright faulty by any normal wine-quality standards. As one who has criticised some of these wines (I still resent the cardboardy-oxidised character of the bottom half of a pricy bottle from a star natural performer based in Etna), I can assure you that my criticism was not encouraged by anyone else. And nor was my enthusiasm for a natural wine by Foillard.
    But there’s a far bigger problem here that we’re all sidestepping. Top Bordeaux and funky, limited-production natural wines are irrelevant to 99% of the wine drinking population. And, sorry Siobhan, we actually can’t blame the UK government for the fact that we don’t spend over £10 on bottles of wine. One might argue that the nature of our duty system – as opposed to the ad valorem method of Australia – means that at £15+ our bottles are often cheaper than they are elsewhere. Just look at prices of good Chablis in France, US and the UK. Our problem is far more fundamental. We have collectively failed to make £10+ wine aspirational in the way that it is in many other countries. And quite frankly, all of the time and effort we all put into talking about £100 bottles of Margaux and cloudy bottles of Vin Naturel is hardly going to advance the cause.

  • jason carey DWS

    Neal, one comment for you about the WSET. I did the diploma a couple of years ago and they ignore the natural wine movement, I remember quizzing a few of my teachers about skin contact whites, and they always acted like they didn’t know what I was talking about. Also Neal, one important factor that most wine writers forget to mention is that many many wines grown biodynamically or OG are still made using UC Davis or Aussie style winemaking that completly strip them of any unique character. So honestly many wines grown under natural conditions still taste very “made” with all sorts of tricks that make them taste over extracted, oaky, and lacking in varietal character or any sense of place. They are picked so late that they lose all freshness .

    Jamie, well lets be honest, the Asian markets are going to drink all the Bordeaux of prestige class and frankly that is fine for me. I am not a natural wine nazi, but I do drink many of them from France, Italy Spain and California. I love them. I think the glory seekers will continue to buy prestige wines and the rest of us will drink what tastes good.

    Hey after all it is just wine.. and we should all enjoy what we enjoy.

  • jason carey DWS

    Neal, one comment for you about the WSET. I did the diploma a couple of years ago and they ignore the natural wine movement, I remember quizzing a few of my teachers about skin contact whites, and they always acted like they didn’t know what I was talking about. Also Neal, one important factor that most wine writers forget to mention is that many many wines grown biodynamically or OG are still made using UC Davis or Aussie style winemaking that completly strip them of any unique character. So honestly many wines grown under natural conditions still taste very “made” with all sorts of tricks that make them taste over extracted, oaky, and lacking in varietal character or any sense of place. They are picked so late that they lose all freshness .

    Jamie, well lets be honest, the Asian markets are going to drink all the Bordeaux of prestige class and frankly that is fine for me. I am not a natural wine nazi, but I do drink many of them from France, Italy Spain and California. I love them. I think the glory seekers will continue to buy prestige wines and the rest of us will drink what tastes good.

    Hey after all it is just wine.. and we should all enjoy what we enjoy.

  • Alex Lake

    Nice to see a bit of controversy. It was beginning to get a bit dull around here.

    I suspect I regard most of your piece as a brief departure into nonsense, but amusing nonsense nonetheless. The thing that most surprises me is how much support this piece seems to have elicited.

    More, please!

  • Jamie,

    “It is more about authentic wine versus inauthentic wine.” I disagree, and I think your following two sentences to be far more on-the-money. People argue with me about the subjective nature of Beauty, but surely every wine is Authentic (depending on what you wish to be authentic about)? Many Natural wines are riddled with brett, yet they claim to be terroir-driven, “authentic” wines. My response is, “Terroir? Well lay-off the horse-shit next year!” JR and RP had their big bust-up over the authenticity of Pavie, so are you saying that both RP and JR are wrong because how can any expensive Bordeaux be considered authentic – they’re all inauthentic in the eyes of a Naturalista? No look authenticity is another false moral high-ground, something that causes offense to other wines and yet establishes nothing about your own wine.

    “It is about who gets to decide what ‘fine’ wine is.”
    “It is about an existing aesthetic system pending a major perspective shift.”
    I agree with these comments. Diversity is surely one of the greatest things about wine, and if you also seek Beauty then there are so many extraordinary and wonderful wines out there for less than £20/bottle, whether they be Natural, Modernist or Traditional in style. I’m sad that I can’t afford to drink those Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy etc that are so expensive, but I know most of them aren’t that amazing and there’s no point in being greedy.

    Cheers,
    Rob

  • Donna Childers-Thirkell

    Great article Jaime,

    Why does everyone put so much weight on the top 200 Bordeaux producers, actually the top 6 when there’s over 10,000 in the region? There is wonderful wine in Bordeaux that is completely affordable. Bordeaux is a market economy, it’s how the classification came about and it wasn’t the first one, it was just the one that stuck and it’s not even part of the AOC so it’s really just another form of advertising, it’s how they’ve always worked, it’s nothing new, prices are through the roof right now and it’s normal for it to go through these rounds. If you can’t afford it, don’t drink it and don’t mew being denied a drink of these wines due to a country who was predicted 30 years ago to be doing exactly what it’s doing today.

    This is what Bordeaux does and it’s always done it well. Somehow everyone forgets about the Japanese and Burgundy in the 80′s & 90′s. In 1988 they were reporting Romanee Conti going for $1400 in Japan that’s $2500 in today’s money.

    The WSET has very high ethics. I wouldn’t have the knowledge or be able to taste wine as I do now without their education programs and most importantly their support of me. They have done great things for the wine industry around the world in their programs. To disparage and mock them is simply childish and sour grapes. No education program can encompass everything all the time with the current speed of change in the industry. WSET students are able to apply their education immediately into their job positions.

    Anyone who has taken wine courses know they have to keep abreast of trends that aren’t covered in the classrooms. It’s called putting your big boy/girl pants on and taking control of your career. I read the condescending snarky attitudes in these replies and it’s indicative of a bigger problem in the industry today. Now please understand I’m not pegging any individual I’m replying to the entire blog post and the replies in general. It’s not personal.

    Natural wine has too many definitions what is natural and what isn’t. Is it really so hard to understand someone doesn’t want to pour monsanto in the ground anymore. I just wish people wouldn’t make such a hullabaloo about it. So what, someone wants to make wine the way it was made 150 years ago. Big whoop. The top wines in Bordeaux don’t care, and when you say Bordeaux, be specific, I hate writers lumping the entire region when they are really only talking about 10 producers and a couple critics that are driving the market.

    Wine comes full circle. What is in this decade is out the next. In 100 years it will have gone full circle. And we’ll all be dead and some hopefully some wine student will be researching and will come across this conversation and get a really good giggle out of it.

    Wine’s been trading for 1,000 years, we’re talking about a movement the past 20 years. This is but a blip in wine’s timeline. All this drama, good grief, please get a glass of wine and chill out.

  • Rob,

    Authenticity is a tricky one….should authentic wines be “true to class”? With a few notable exceptions you could argue that Bordeaux has changed dramatically since the mid-80′s/early 90′s….many classified growths, from my personal experience at en primeur and tasting privately, have altered in style a great deal.

    The same could be said of many other regions….Rioja, Chianti, etc.

    While some of these changes can be put down to better technical knowledge & modernist offshoots, there is also the fact that many consumers prefer a product that is uniform and without the vagaries of vintage variation.

    What level of manipulation in the winery still deems a wine to be authentic?…MOX, R.O.?….I know of classified growth chateau heating their wines in barrique to 40 degrees….authentic?

    And who or what defines this authenticity?….it’s a fascinating subject.

    Cheers

    Dave

  • I have a real problem with you stating that Natural Wines are a counterculture and are ‘the message of authentic wine with a sense of place – made by people driven by passion rather than profit.’
    I do not accept they are the only message of authentic wine, or indeed that they all are, just because they are natural – whatever that means. Natural wine is foremost a marketing term, so neither can I accept the second half of that statement, it may be true sometimes, but it may be true of others as well, it is too simplistic and cannot be stated as fact. I put some thoughts about natural wine in my piece: http://quentinsadler.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/natural-wine-fad-or-future/

    I think we have to take all wine on its merit and not believe anyone’s hype, it all seems a bit like a religious sect claiming to have the only truth. Shia wine anyone?

  • Classed-growth Bordeaux is no longer wine, rather a commodity. Are the Chateaux concerned about being usurped by the necessarily small-scale, artisanal producers of what is being marketed as “natural wine” ? I doubt it, there is no significant overlap of their respective markets. It’s a bit like Bentley being concerned that the new Ford Focus may impact on their sales.

  • keith prothero

    Tend to agree with Alex and Quentin(and also Neal) Not sure why you think “natural” wine is something special or radically out of the ordinary Jamie? There are so many so called natural winemaking methods and winemakers,but I do not know all that many quality winemakers who make wine unnaturally.———–how do you qualify natural and would you say,for example, Chris Mullineux qualifies or not?
    OK plenty of “industrial” wine is made with bulk fruit,but then what do you expect for £5 a bottle.
    Suggest that the vast majority of quality wine is made as naturally as possible.

  • Good post indeed Jamie, the many comments prove it. Thanks.
    Forwarded to http://mtonvin.net
    Not sure there is any news here though. While taping some 50 interviews of professionals from over the world at Vinexpo, I realized that most of them accept the positioning vis a vis Bordeaux as an indisputable reference in terms of high quality and price, while methodically looking at terroirs on every possible geographical area of the planet, including China.
    The actual news may be that both the value gap between supericons from Bdx and elsewhere and the so-called natural wines is vertiginous, and that the market space for the supericons is expanding : Pontet-Canet for instance sold in 10 minutes to the Place de Bordeaux its 300,000 bottles at €100 a piece.
    Simultaneously there is a growing interest in reasonably priced wines expressing genuine local/regional unknown terroirs.

  • Once again, I need to emphasize that the issue is not the battle between bordeaux and the natural wine movement – I’m arguing that the privileged place Bordeaux holds in fine wine may one day come under threat and that there could be a backlash

  • I can’t see a battle Jamie, just that the classes growths will become an irrelevance to virtually the totality of drinkers as opposed to now when its just the overwhelming majority. They will go on marketing and selling to their market and all other wines to their respective customers. Should or rather when the bubble burst these wine may again become of some relevance to a tiny proportion of the wine buying public.

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