WWC 21 – Simon Woolf


Number 21 in our ongoing series of entries to our wine writing competition comes from Simon Woolf, who tells us: 

Were it not for a previous writing competition judged by Jancis, I would never have started writing about wine, let alone entertain thoughts of doing it professionally. The Morning Claret, aka The World's Least Influential Wine Blog, opened for business in January 2011, with the entry I'd (unsuccessfully) submitted to the competition as the single post. It looked a bit silly on its own, so I thought I'd better write some more. It must have got a bit out of control because, six years later, I appear to be doing this as a career.

During that time, life also took me from London, via Austria, to Amsterdam, where I now live. My other career as an IT consultant does a slightly better job of paying the bills than wine. Any time left over is spent as a keen amateur cook, vinyl obsessive (music, not carpets) and explorer of Amsterdam's restaurant, wine and craft beer scenes.

Along the way, I picked up an obsession for orange wines, regular commissions from Decanter magazine, and the privilege of getting to know many beautiful parts of the world where wine is made. Some would pigeon-hole me as a 'natural wine' specialist. To an extent this is true, but I retain a healthy scepticism about this or any other niche.

Natural food, unnatural wine

1. Beer

Craft beer has exploded onto our palates over the last decade. From its humble beginnings as a rebel response to the USA's hugely conglomerated brewery sector in the 1970s, the scene has come of age. Brightly coloured bottles and cans line our shelves, promising a whole gamut of flavours. More hops, more alcohol, less alcohol, more oak, more bacteria, more bizarre added ingredients.

Craft beer fans tend to be irreverent thrill-seekers when it comes to taste, happy to try something new – especially if it's packaged with a cheeky label or promises the taste of a new style.

All of which is rather refreshing, compared with the considerably more conservative habits of most wine drinkers – recently, the Co-op released research showing that 50% of British wine drinkers stick with the same wine for at least 10 years.

If you hang around beer tasting sessions or their online versions (untappd and ratebeer are two popular apps), you'll rarely be treated to a fruit-salad tasting note. Nor will you generally see much reference to faults – an obsession in some echelons of the wine world.

Artisan beer brewing reaches its extreme, and many would say its pinnacle, with the sour beer category. Epitomised as Oude Gueuze from the Zene Valley in Belgium, this is the oldest, wildest and probably most esoteric of any beer style. It's also one of the most expensive and most revered. Oude Gueuze is a blend of young and old lambics made with wild yeasts. And guess what yeasts proliferate in that area? Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces lambicus.

All that brett is tasty. Oude Gueuzes are unique, wild, farmyardy and yes, sour, often with complex aromas that are part floral, part feral. Most beer fans admit they are an acquired taste, but one well worth acquiring. In some ways, traditional sour beers, with their laissez-faire production methods and spontaneous fermentation, are the beer world's equivalent of natural wine.

But there's a difference – sour beer isn't controversial, and craft beer fans don't spend their free time having endless discussions about whether it's faulty or not. They just drink the stuff, with most pundits accepting that the style is a worthy tradition that has a unique place in the modern world.

2. Cheese

Sourness and bacteria aren't just important in the best beer. Anyone with more than a passing interest in cheese waxes lyrical about washed rinds, stinky blue veins or unctuous creamy textures. Many of the world's most well-loved cheeses are fairly extreme – super-mature, high-acid parmesan or comté, for example. Then there's époisses, a cheese so putrid it's hard to believe how delicious it is once in the mouth, or ripe camembert with its bark of ammonia.

But the very zenith of cheesemaking, the high temple where all self-respecting cheese-nerds worship is raw milk, or au lait cru, with all the flavour that pasteurisation tends to remove.

Perhaps it is cheese's equivalent of natural wine – except that it's not a fringe activity, and it's certainly not hated or denied by cheese journalists.

If you're into cheese, raw milk is the badge that shows you're serious. Raw milk contains some 300 different bacteria and 70 yeasts. Not only do these bacteria give regional cheeses their individual characters, they also help preserve the milk – far longer, it turns out, than the pasteurised equivalent, which has been stripped of both harmful and beneficial germs.

3. Bread

Raw milk shares its longevity with the most ‘naturally’ made bread. For bakers, market bread-sellers or passionate foodies, sourdough represents the holy grail in grain form. Sourdough is the peak of artisan baking – the most natural, the most extreme and the most non-interventionist.

Sourdough requires no added yeast, just time and a warm place. There's something wonderfully arcane about the method, stepping out of the way and letting the bacteria do their thing. To return the hospitality, they provide complexity, sourness and flavour. The taste is pungent and acidic – a flavour that sits up and barks. A good sourdough doesn't come quietly. But is this a taste only enjoyed by bearded hippies in hair shirts, and scorned by any right-thinking person?

Go to any good farmers’ market, even the bread counter of an upmarket supermarket. The sourdough products sit at the premium end. Go to the best pizza restaurant in town, and the dough is invariably a 24-hour sour. This holds true in Naples, London and New York, but maybe not in Domino's.

Sour flavours are central to many traditional foodstuffs. Russia and Poland's most famous soup Borscht is properly made with a fermented beetroot and rye mixture called kvas, which adds a seriously pungent kick. Koreans swear by their kimchi – a salty, fiery fermented cabbage preparation.

The common theme to all of these well-loved, and nowadays often ‘artisanal’ products is bacteria. Bacteria, it seems, is tasty. Blue cheeses, sourdough bread, surströmming, Belgian red ales, sauerkraut – all of these gems use wild, uncontrolled bacteria to create intense, exciting flavours.

4. Wine

Is it not a little strange that conformity and ‘sameness’ – call it typicality if you will – are so often valued over excitement in wine? Critics and professionals often fret if there's a flavour out of place, if the wine is cloudy, if it's not star-bright and supermarket perfect.

One could be forgiven for thinking that some of the mainstream wine press and trade want wines that have had all their individuality and character studiously and carefully removed.

The natural wine niche is the response to this problem, the wine equivalent where winemakers allow wild, uncontrolled bacteria to transform their grapes into a tasty beverage.

Brettanomyces, acetic acid and wild yeasts can all create wonderful flavours in this context, yet their presence in many wineries or on most trained palates is often enough to raise alarm bells. But why should wine be a sanitised, homogeneous experience, any more than ‘proper’ cheese, bread or beer?

By way of example, let's subject La Stoppa's Ageno to some analysis. This white blend from a small producer in Emilia-Romagna is fast becoming a cult skin-contact wine. It varies from year to year, but often flirts with quite significant brettanomyces and volatile acidity – 2009 being a case in point. This wine would probably appal food scientists, but uncork it with an open mind, and it is excessively enjoyable.

Ageno and others like it could be seen as the sourdough of wine, the Oude Gueuze of Emilia-Romagna. Yet there are many well-established wine critics who dismiss such wines as an ‘emperor's new clothes’ phenomenon, full of faults and barely suitable to use for cooking. One such critic exclaimed at a tasting earlier this year ‘I wouldn't serve this to someone I didn't like at a funeral’.

Wines such as Ageno need to be judged without the emotional and historical baggage that has built up around wine. The same spirit that drives people to try home-made kimchi or stinky cheeses is what's needed here. After all, there's probably nothing better to wash down your époisses and sourdough baguette.

Except perhaps a wild, unfiltered sour beer.

Will the next Robert Parker please swipe forward?

One of the wine trade's worst-kept secrets concerns the sales traction achieved by most critics and writers. It's close to none – at least when it comes to direct consumer purchases. This, above all else, explains the meteoric rise of Robert Parker to coronation as the world's most influential wine critic.

During his heyday, Parker's effect on sales was legendary. Whenever an individual château or an entire vintage received the Maryland maestro's blessing, prices and sales would bloom accordingly. The reverse was also true. It's not exaggerating to say that Parker had a direct hand in shifting 1982 clarets, caused a price crash in 2002 and a surge in 2008. Favoured estates such as Le Pin and Ausone were propelled ever higher into the stratosphere, on the back of Parker's pen.

There are perhaps fewer than ten wine critics worldwide who get anywhere close in their ability to make bottles fly off shelves (or dockets rustle into bonded warehouses, if you prefer). In the UK the list of course includes the esteemed owner of this site, plus perhaps Olly Smith and Victoria Moore.

Parker's pre-eminence as a driver of sales goes some way towards understanding the itch that the fine-wine trade loves to scratch. Exactly who's going to replace him, as he retreats into the wings. Will it be Neal Martin? Antonio Galloni? James Suckling?

Most probably none of the above – nor any of their contemporaries. Influence in the 21st century has not just upped sticks, so much as emigrated to another galaxy. Where once we relied upon experts, now we crowd-source much of our rating and review needs, with scant interest in whether the reviewer is a professional or not. Sites such as Trip Advisor, Rotten Tomatoes and Yelp have set the trend by which consumer products and experiences are rated and recommended.

Wine rating apps took a while to catch on, and there were plenty of misses along the way (anyone remember Wine Demon?), but now we're starting to see the favourites edge out in front. Delectable has made a convincing showing, as has Wine-Searcher. But Vivino is lapping the competition right now, with an impressive 20 million registered users and counting.

Any wine professional or geek who wants a reminder of how most average wine consumers consume really ought to register on Vivino. The vast majority of ratings and tasting notes are submitted by non-specialists. Analysis of their habits and predilections is – sometimes grimly – fascinating.

Vivino's founder, Danish-born Heini Zachariassen recently presented some findings at Port wine day, the port trade's annual get together in Oporto. They ranged from banal – the most used descriptors for port wines include ‘sweet’ and ‘alcohol’ – to revealing. Taylor's Late Bottled Vintage is the most reviewed port wine on the site, bar none. Descriptive words such as ‘fruity’, ‘smooth’ and ‘cigar’ contributed to higher ratings, while ‘alcohol’ tended to indicate a poor score.

These are isolated examples, but they demonstrate that Vivino is becoming a rich source of data on consumer drinking habits and preferences.

Vivino's genius has been to gamify the reviewing process much more than its competitors. ‘Likes’ and comments were added fairly early on, along with badges. Rated at least 20 northern Italian white wines? You're now an ‘expert’ of the style – listed for all to see in your profile.

Users also get a country-specific rating which places them in a league table. Vivino doesn't disclose the exact algorithm, but it's not difficult to figure out that it relates to the user's level of activity, and how much interaction their reviews attract.

It isn't stretching things too far to say that this number is actually a measure of influence. If you're Vivino's number one user in the UK or the US, your audience is big. The UK's top ten users all have many thousands of followers.

Out of the top ten, seven are amateurs – ordinary wine consumers, if you like. Take Chris England, the UK's Number two. England doesn't possess a WSET diploma, nor is he studying to become a Master of Wine. He's just a keen wine drinker with a little bit more enthusiasm for sharing his thoughts than most – see the screengrab above.

Here's where it starts to get interesting. Vivino has recently added the ability for direct in-app purchases of some wines. So while you're reading one of Chris's exhaustively detailed tasting notes – or notes from any other Vivino user – you may see a ‘buy now’ button, depending on the availability of the wine and your country of residence.

Clearly, if Vivino's top users are rating wines that are available for purchase through the app, that puts them in a potential position of power. Users rise to the top of the league table partly because others find their reviews useful, enlightening or fun. If you scroll through Chris's reviews and establish that you share his taste, why wouldn't you trust him when you make your next in-app purchase? If Chris rates a wine five stars (the maximum), and 5% of his followers click ‘buy now’, that's 250 bottles sold. Just like that.

What if smart importers and distributors start to target influential users on platforms like Vivino? Imagine that a wine receives a number of five-star reviews from top-rated Vivino members. With the rise and rise of our instant gratification culture, it's not impossible that this could lead to a few thousand bottles being sold within a short space of time. That sits in very stark comparison to most of the conventional wine press, which barely moves product. It may help raise awareness of regions or styles, but this is a soft effect, close to impossible to measure.

There might never be another Robert Parker, but if there is, chances are high that they won't come from the ranks of professional wine writers, they'll never publish more than 150 words at a time and they won't spend their waking hours studying the soils of the Mosel. As you swipe and scroll through your favourite Vivino users, you might just be staring them in the gravatar.