Jancis Robinson, the heavy-weight British wine critic, wrote an article last week about the imminent Bordeaux Primeurs circus called “Bordeaux 2010 – when to publish?” It has sparked an intense debate both on her site and on the internet in general. Read it all here: http://www.jancisrobinson.com
In her article Jancis advocates that wine journalists and critics should hold off on publishing the tasting notes, or at least the ratings (scores), until after the primeur wine prices have been set. She went on to contact several of her most prestigious colleagues (Robert Parker of the wine Advocate, Thomas Matthews, executive editor of the Wine Spectator, Guy Woodward, editor of Decanter and probably several more) to get their reaction to her suggestion. Predictably, most of the journalists whom she has contacted seem to decline her proposal, whereas many others, both journalists, bloggers and other commentators on the internet seem to think it is a great idea.
So, what would the point be in holding off on publishing? Well, Jancis says that she is starting to feel as if she is manipulated by the Bordeaux trade: “I do increasingly feel like a pawn in a game designed to part you with as much money as possible”. So her idea is that if there is a co-ordinated effort among journalists not to publish notes until after the prices have been set, maybe the price increases will be less dramatic and less unreasonable.
I see several weaknesses in this reasoning and I don’t really think it’s a good idea.
Firstly, if a journalist is reluctant to have an impact on consumers and producers, then it is better not to publish at all. It is inherent in the role as a journalist or critic to have an influence. That, to a large extent, is the whole point of it! As a journalist you cannot choose to write only for one type of audience (e.g. only for the benefit of “consumers”). You have to accept that what you write can be read, and used, by anyone.
And perhaps it is even to some extent based on an exaggeration of the influence that journalists have. Is it really due to journalists’ and critics’ writing that some exclusive Bordeaux wines have become outrageously expensive? (“Outrageously” from some people’s point of view. Others think they are good value.) I suspect that the journalists, and in particular the primeur ratings, only have a very limited impact on Bordeaux pricing and that in reality it is other factors that have much more influence. (You can of course find the odd counter example, like the Parker effect on the Lafite prices last year.)
Then one has to take into account how the trade functions. The wines are released only in ‘tranches’, so the producers are drip-feeding the market. So should the let’s-keep-a-secret agreement be valid until just the first tranche has been released or until all has been sold? If the former, what will be the point? The prices can easily be changed for the subsequent trances.
Then you have the fact that the “release prices” are just the initial price that the chateau sets to the first level of the trade. If the market is ready to pay the very high prices it is currently doing then limiting the price rises at the producer level will just move the wind-fall profits to later stages in the selling chain, to e.g. wholesalers, importers or retailers. Perhaps that is one of the reasons whey some trade voices have seen this as a good idea?
But the most basic reason not do such a thing is that it seems to be an unreasonable type of collusion between journalists (as Parker says) – refraining from communicating with the readers. And that prices are set by the market – what the customers are willing to pay.
The highly respected French journalist Michel Bettane has also chimed in with a similar issue. he has written an open letter to the UGC (Union des Grands Crus – one of the organisers of the primeur event). His argument is that it is unfair that some journalists are given the possibility to taste the primeurs before others, and that this gives them the possibility to publish their comments earlier tham others. But this too is a curious argument: First, who has said that journalism and in particular the primeur event is supposed to be “fair”. The organisers can do as they please and the journalist can participate or not, as they please. Secondly, the letter more seems to be a case “why is he given access when I am not allowed to come?”.
Or to quote from his open letter:
“il est insupportable de voir James Suckling délivrer ses commentaires deux ou trois semaines avant tous les autres et d’imaginer mes collègues de la RVF avoir des conditions spéciales de dégustation”
Envy of not having been given the front row in this event? One can only wonder how many times M Bettane has been given privileged access to events and tastings that many other journalists have not had equal access to? Was Bettane threatening to boycott those events too, when he was on the other side? There is of course nothing that says that all journalists are supposed to be given equal access or equal opportunity to report, nor that they should have the opportunity to publish at the same time. An online journalist will always be able to publish faster than a print journalist, per definition (just as an example).
One other voice who seems to support the case (but perhaps I am mistaken) is Tyler Colman at the Dr Vino blog http://www.drvino.com. There are many interesting comments on that post.
So, in conclusion:
- No, journalists should not keep secret the tasting notes on Primeurs until a later, mutually agreed date
- If one does not like how it is organised, then the only real solution is not to participate. If you don’t like the Primeur Cricus and the skyrocketing Bordeaux prices: don’t review the wines, don’t write about it.
- It is doubtful that the tasting notes have any significant long term effects on the price of the wines. (Many journalists rate other wines just as high as Bordeaux wines but those wines don’t reach the same astronomic price levels.)
- The market is open: the wines will cost whatever the consumers are prepared to pay. And today it seems that there is almost no limit to how much (some) consumers, i.e. the market, is willing to pay for the most expensive Bordeaux wines (dare I say claret?)
What do you think? Is there a right or wrong?
(And then there is of course the question of how relevant it is to taste the Bordeaux wines en primeur. Can you really give a fair and accurate judgment of how the final wine, which may be a quite different blend, will be? But that’s a different question!)
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