Florentine foibles


This article was originally published on Purple Pages, in the Don't quote me section reserved for opinion rather than news. We are making it Free for all as part of our Throwback Thursday series. Purple Pagers, please note the useful new appendix on the identity and structure of the world's largest cooperage companies. 

One of the few advantages of age is that as you grow older, you are less likely to be told off. In fact, I am delighted to say that this happens to me extremely rarely nowadays and generally involves one of our children and some wanting aspect of our household.

But last weekend while attending the eighth symposium in 29 years organised by the Institute of Masters of Wine (I attended the first, in Oxford, while expecting our second child) I managed to be scolded no fewer than three times. The first time was when out to dinner with three fellow Masters of Wine, including a past chairman of the Institute. With two spouses there were six of us at the table of the rather misleadingly named Botega del Buon Caffé. We enjoyed excellent food, about which Nick will be writing, and three bottles of excellent wine: a 2010 Friulano from
Ronco del Gnemiz and two Chianti Classicos, Isole e Olena's 2006 Gran Selezione and Palazzino's Grosso Sanese 2007. We also enjoyed each others' company and laughed a bit, not excessively I would have thought. But the two Italian women at the nearest occupied table disagreed and told us sharply to pipe down.

I thought it was so funny that four senior members of a supposedly august organisation were scolded like children that I tweeted about it. Only to find that next morning, someone calling themselves @pedantmonkey replied, '
Not sure we need the reference that you are all MWs – in no way relevant and a bit boasty.' That was me told off for the second time in 12 hours.

And then I received a third reprimand the next night at the DionysianAntinori_winery_dinner_for_MWs gala dinner for 400 organised in the specially cleared barrel hall of Antinori's extraordinary flying saucer-cum-winery
(pictured here by MW student Mark Davidson before the invasion of the glass snatchers) near the old one in San Casciano. Beforehand, the setting sun smiled on us all on the terrace outside while we tasted a wine from each of the 19 members of the Grandi Marchi, a group of larger, superior Italian wine producers who are supporters of the Institute. We worked our way down several hundred yards of tasting tables. I was very glad I had, for once, remembered to take one of my stash of paper cups to use as a portable spittoon, for spittoons were relatively thin on the ground. But juggling it, tasting glass and a tasting booklet as thick as a paperback was not easy and at one point I made the mistake of putting down the first two on the table assigned to a chap doing a sales pitch for Riedel glasses. 'This is not a service table', I was told sternly. Strike three.

It is of course far worse to be told off for something you feel genuinely ashamed of than for what I consider the minor infractions listed above. The things that still haunt me about last weekend in Florence, and that I deserve to be scolded for, are twofold. During the first session of the symposium, I was one of three speakers asked to speak about 'Wine communication: reaching tomorrow's audiences'. In my haste to enthuse about the delights of running JancisRobinson.com, and my belief that online is the ideal medium for communication about a subject as complex and compelling as wine, I fear I gave the impression that I was against print in all forms and on all subjects. Although I think publishing any but the most sumptuous wine magazines nowadays must be extremely challenging, I do think there is a future for all print that is aesthetically beautiful, and could not be more supportive of our local paper boy (actually, the miraculously cheerful Mrs Sandy Patel) and our local Daunt bookshop, where both Nick and I buy an average of more than a book a week. I should have been much, much clearer in my talk (whose pace was a little erratic since the timer designed for speakers was not working properly).

But the thing I regret even more is an act of impudence, nay folly. I listened to the penultimate session on 'Science versus belief' with great interest. In it Institute chairman Jean-Michel Valette MW quizzed lauded winemakers
Francisco Baettig of Chile's Viña Errázuriz and Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux plus the king of oak, Henri de Pracomtal, head of one of the world's leading barrel suppliers Chêne et Cie* which includes Taransaud. As de Pracomtal described the enormous investment his company makes in research and development, about half a million euros a year, I couldn't help wondering whether this would be sustained while so many winemakers around the world seem to be choosing to use bigger, older or – heaven forfend – no oak barrels instead of the serried ranks of new barriques that used to be a badge of honour for any self-respecting winemaker. So I asked him what steps he was taking to maintain turnover in the light of these new, surely sales-depressing, developments. I did admit the question was impertinent and pointed out that I had the utmost respect for him. But it was hardly a kind question to put to someone who has been such a loyal supporter of the Institute.

He did later, privately, explain that what is helping is that they are steadily increasing their market share but, Henri and Institute, you may scold me.

* I originally suggested that Chêne et Cie also owned François Frères but San Francisco barrel broker and Purple Pager Mel Knox corrected me,signing himself, of course, The Scolder:

Chêne does not own Francois Frères. Francois Frères is part of TFF group which includes:
Demptos of Bordeaux
Napa Demptos
Demptos España
Sogibois, the largest maker of French staves
Treuil, a cooperage in Brive 
François Frères
50% of Trust Hungary
AP John of Australia
Stavin & Arobois

Chêne owns:
Xtra Chêne
50% of Kadar of Hungary

World Cooperage, owned by the Boswell family, is probably the largest producer of barrels in the world. They make mostly Bourbon barrels but lots of wine barrels as well.

Most illuminating. Thank you, Mel.