by Tim Atkin

Matt Skinner and a difference of vintages

How much store do you set by tasting notes? Would a fulsome description of a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc — combine mouth watering, zingy, tangy, nettley, gooseberryish, minerally, etc in the order of your choice — affect your purchasing decision? My guess is that the identity of the person behind the recommendation, and the affinity you may or may not have with his palate, is probably more important than the words used.

This doesn’t mean that tasting notes are guff, however boring most of them may be to read. They are an honest attempt to capture the ineffable. We all know that it’s as hard to describe a smell or a flavour as it is a piece of music. But if we don’t try we are left with what amounts to a simple thumbs up, or down. Scores are sometimes regarded as comment enough, but even Robert Parker believes that his descriptions are more important than a 92, 93 or 94.

However subjective his palate may be, the least you can expect of a wine writer is that he has tasted the wine he is attempting to pin to the page. In an ideal world, we wine hacks would sample something at least twice, the way many film reviewers return for a second viewing of a controversial movie. It would be even better if we tasted the same bottle over a period of hours to see how it develops, preferably with food.

Sadly, ideal worlds don’t always overlap with reality. If you’ve only got four hours to evaluate 120 wines at Sainsbury’s, Oddbins or wherever, you are forced to taste at a reasonable pace. One wine writer I know breezes into tastings and whips round the room at what amounts to a jog, but that seems unprofessional to me. The minimum time you should give a single wine is two minutes of your attention.

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. I’ve never agreed with Art Buchwald’s comment about wine writing — “I did what almost everyone else does: faked it” — for the simple reason that I would never dream of commenting on a wine that I hadn’t tasted. I may make mistakes and even the odd, vintage-related typo, but you can be sure that I’ve sampled whatever I recommend at least once.

That’s why I was intrigued to hear about the furore surrounding the publication of The Juice 2010, a slim volume of tasting notes aimed at the Christmas stocking filler market. By his own admission, author Matt Skinner recommended a number of New World wines from the 2009 vintage that he could not have seen before the book’s deadline in May. The fact that he lives in Australia and rarely attends tastings in the UK might undermine the breadth of his choices for some readers, but inventing tasting notes is much more serious in my view.

The defence advanced by Skinner to is that some of the wines he included in The Juice are consistently good from year to year. His publisher, Mitchell Beazley, added that this was a way to get around long lead times and potential public disappointment. In previous years, apparently, several of Skinner’s choices had sold out before the book hit the shelves.

This is very dangerous territory. Skinner may well be correct that there’s not much to choose between, say, the 2008 Brown Brothers Moscato or the 2008 Doña Dominga Chardonnay and the 2009 releases of the same wines. But that is beside the point. Supposing the new vintage turns out be an over-cropped shocker? Or is completely different from the 2008? The description would then be inaccurate.

Arguing that vintages of certain brands are effectively interchangeable reduces wine to the status of an FMCG product. Just as Coca Cola or Heinz Baked Beans are consistent from one batch to another, so wine is seen to be boringly predictable. Quite what such bottles are doing in anyone’s selection of the year’s best wines is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t say much for Skinner’s appreciation of diversity.

I have a lot of time for Matt Skinner as a sommelier. I also think he has attracted a lot of younger people to wine through his books and TV appearances. But on this matter, I believe he needs to ask himself a simple question. Would he recommend a wine in a restaurant that he hadn’t tasted himself? I hope the answer would be a firm no.

Assuming that’s the case, why do this in a wine book, however much it helps with deadlines? Why not put the whole thing on line to make it more immediate and up-to-date? I 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.

Originally published in Off Licence News

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