Fine wines, fine minds


9 July 2017 See the bottom of this article for a particularly interesting response from the southern Rhône.

1 July 2017 A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

Get-togethers for wine professionals tend to follow a pattern. We meet, we taste, we sometimes eat, and then we disperse, usually feeling more well-disposed towards the world than when we arrived. 

But two weekends ago Nick and I were invited to what sounded like a more cerebral gathering. The invitation promised ‘getting the best brains in the wine biz together with some leading lights of the international political, economic, cultural and tech world for a small Camp David-style powwow to wrap heads collectively around the big topics and trends likely to define the next decade’.

It came, perhaps self-evidently, from someone whose previous career had involved directing think tanks. And if we weren’t sufficiently intrigued or flattered by Nicole Sierra-Rolet’s meeting of cultures, then the location of Fine Minds 4 Fine Wine earlier this month was the clincher. I had been aware of her Chêne Bleu wine estate in the southern Rhône for some time, and of the care and cash lavished on it by her and her husband Xavier Rolet, head of the London Stock Exchange, but had yet to visit it. This seemed like the perfect excuse.

One of those fine minds we were promised of course belonged to him, and the sudden cancellation of the annual City Mansion House dinner meant that he was able to reach us much earlier than had been planned. Another belonged to Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, which also fielded Elizabeth Linder, founder of its Connectivity Initiative.

Her background in Silicon Valley provided just the sort of cross-cultural flow of ideas that characterised the event. She is clearly relishing her transfer from a culture in which a bottle of craft beer is the alcoholic drink of choice to the much more vinous atmosphere of St James, and is even doing Wine & Spirit Education Trust courses.

Her day job involves trying to drag corporate executives, governments and politicians into the digital twenty-first century. Part of the problem is their natural reluctance to be natural, but interaction today is based on a host of individual voices, given their own platform. YouTube is so much more compelling than Hansard.

She confirmed the rise of amateurism and the decline of trust in experts – a running theme in virtually all discussions, and one particularly relevant to wine criticism – and suggested that the wine business might profit from turning Instagrammers into brand ambassadors. I was fascinated to learn from her how effective the police now are at harnessing social media to trace missing people and monitor civil unrest. More people nowadays apparently trust police updates than trust media reports about the police.

The principal application of Xavier Rolet’s fine mind and financial background to the wine business was to bemoan the extreme fragmentation and inflationary regulation of it. He is worried that wine production is no longer economically attractive to young people (even if romantically alluring to retirees in possession of a fortune) and would like to see greater agglomeration of businesses to give them better access to capital and more muscle in a world where distribution is in so few hands. All of which is doubtless sound, dispassionate advice but is rather at odds with another strong trend identified: towards extreme individuality along with authenticity and traceability.

Each of us attendees was issued with a special Chêne Bleu name badge as shown top right and above. Those from the wine side of things included Steven Spurrier, who organised the seminal Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, his ex-pupil Michel Bettane, France’s best-known wine writer, Andrew Caillard MW and UK wine writer-turned-wine-marketer Robert Joseph. Many commented on the parallels between trends in eating and drinking.

As diners turn from three-star fine dining to more casual establishments, the definition of fine wine is infinitely broader than it used to be, even quite recently. The think tank took place during the death throes of the 2016 bordeaux en primeur campaign, which, to judge from my Inbox and website, elicited minimal interest. The number of views of the relevant thread on our Members’ forum is one seventh the equivalent number last year.

Today’s wine drinkers are interested in a much broader array of wines, from all over the word, than ever. And there is no single objective measurement of quality – certainly not price. But while it is pretty evident immediately which beers are industrial products and which qualify as ‘craft’, definitive visual clues from wine packaging are thin on the ground. Wine producers need to work much harder on their most obvious point of contact with consumers, the label.

The wine business’s need to communicate with consumers much more effectively was a constant theme of our discussions. Few producers use social media with any flair or consistency. Minter Dial, another import from the tech world, pointed out that there are now so many opportunities to educate and inform via QR codes and augmented and virtual reality. He also threw in, perhaps not entirely frivolously, that driverless cars would do away with drunk driving, and that nowadays you can decode your personal genome for hardly more than $100. Could different wines, or at least wine types, be matched to a personal genetic make-up?

If more sophisticated use of social media could bring producers and consumers into the same digital space, and more tasting opportunities via retailers and educators could spread the liquid as well as the word, nothing beats the increasingly popular sport of wine tourism for total immersion.

French wine producers, with a few exceptions such as those in Alsace, were berated for being so much poorer at encouraging visitors to their cellars than their counterparts outside Europe. Our hostess explained some local constraints: French law prevents wine producers from charging for wine tastings, and from hiring chefs, on their premises.

With a fairly heavy French contingent present, it was inevitable that the generic wine promotional bodies came up for discussion. (All the local ones had been invited to the think tank but shied away once they learnt that the word ‘fine’ was involved; too difficult to justify to their members.)

One well-placed French wine-trade insider urged producers to take a much more proactive role with the generic bodies, getting involved with deciding how their considerable funds are spent. A notable trend in the European wine world has been disaffection with these organisations by those who are levied to pay for them.

But despite all this well-intentioned and illuminating discussion, I have to admit that my favourite bit of the whole weekend was the most familiar, a tasting of bottles of wine considered fine that we participants were urged to bring. My favourites are listed below. For tasting notes on all those I tasted, see What is fine wine?.

These were my personal favourites tasted from a selection of 32 bottles brought by participants in Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines in the southern Rhône recently.


Clos des Papes 2009 Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Ch La Nerthe 2002 Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Dom de Beaurenard 1986 Châteauneuf-du-Pape (magnum)
Au Bon Climat Chardonnay 2014 Santa Barbara

Dom Fourrier, Clos St-Jacques 2011 Gevrey-Chambertin
Clos de Trias 2010 Ventoux
Clos des Papes 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Ch Rayas 1997 Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Gérard Bertrand, Clos d’Ora 2013 Minervois-La Livinière
Lukasi Saperavi 2014 Kakheti
Ridge Monte Bello 1991 Santa Cruz Mountains
Tenet 2014 Columbia Valley

Wilson Thorburn, Dom l'Ancienne École, Vinsobres responds As someone who is neither young nor has amassed a great fortune, but who has nevertheless fallen for the romantic allure of winemaking in the South of France, I wish if I may to offer some observations on your article on Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines.

I do not think that the trends of consolidation and authenticity are at odds with each other. Rather what we are seeing, as in many other spheres of commerce, is the market rapidly splitting in two with the need to be very large or very small and with meagre pickings for those in the middle.

As for the attraction of wine as a career choice for the young. At least in the old world the problem is not that it is unattractive, but that those who inherit their vines and winery do not take account of cost of capital and the consequent downwards pressure on pricing makes it hard for outsiders to compete thus exacerbating the lack of innovation.

The wine tourism offering in the old world is a far cry from that in the new world, but the prohibition on charging for tasting is a red herring. As soon as there is any added value (including commentary!) one can charge. Instead we should look to the restrictive planning regulations, including prohibitions on development and on road side signs, and of course the prohibitive cost and administrative burden of employing people in France. Finally, on social media, I certainly agree that few wine producers have an effective media strategy, and those with an eye to the future know that needs to change. However, at least in this part of the world, for the moment the core customer base has little interest in social media, so at least for the moment the commercial pressure is not there.

So the challenges are well known, but the solutions less obvious. At least with a new President we can hope for a more entrepreneurial business climate and less restrictive labour laws, but as we all know, change does not come quickly or easily to France...