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Jefford on Monday: Loosening Up

There are various critiques on the wine world, but when it’s time to popularise and demythologise, get stuck in; loosen up; have fun.

The postman recently brought me a copy of the craziest wine book ever to come my way: Wine is a passion for all by Alfredo Terzano and Mariana Gil Juncal, written for and published by an Argentinian wine club called Baco Club.

The first page is deliberately printed upside down, for example; and by pages 5 and 6 the two authors, dressed in black and with one in high heels, are fighting over which glass to drink wine out of. It’s simple, exuberant, South American and lots of fun – even if the English translation (destined in the first instance for the Wine Appreciation Guild in the USA) is clanky. As a stab at out-and-out wine populism, it works. That’s rare.

Does it matter? The wine world is often accused of being ‘elitist’, most recently in the UK by Simon Green, founder and writer of the tabloid-like www.wineoption.org, which “campaigns for radical change to the most backward of all businesses – the wine trade, whose arrogance, condescension, and insensitivity to key consumer issues are a disgrace.”

WineOption lets fly at a number of targets, including ‘monster wines’ (“14% and rising … the true horror story”); wine writers (via the feeble satire of its ‘Rancid Jobinson’ column and by spotlighting ‘Gooldenballs’ – wine descriptions which Green described to me when we talked recently as “pompous cliché-ridden drivel”); pubs and wine service (an easy target, though usually worth targeting); supermarkets (ditto); and UK government excise and alcohol policies (ditto).

I’m all in favour of agitation, but much of the WineOption critique seems to me to be a shallow one at present, based on more noise than substance, and resorting to cliché-ridden drivel of its own from time to time (“Many producers, retailers and wine writers have traditionally taken much of the potential enjoyment out of wine by shrouding the subject with myth, snobbery and arcane or pretentious language”). Those are WineOption emphases, by the way, not mine.  

The truth is that wine language is no more difficult to understand than football language or computer language – you just have to want to engage with it and with the subject. (And it’s more accessible than cricket language.)

Wine notes in ‘plain’ English, I’m afraid, are plain boring. Notes, like novels, can be written well or badly, but the existence of badly written ones is no reason to damn the genre as a whole.   

There are a spectrum of reasons why many wines are now 14% or more, and unless we’re ready to embrace genetically modified yeast it’s unlikely to change any time soon. The best are delicious, harmonious and not remotely monstrous; a vast improvement on the skinny, hollow and underripe 12% or 12.5% wines which dominated European production in the dismal 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s.

The level is always on the packaging (though Green mysteriously alleges a “frequent wine labelling practice of virtually concealing alcohol content”). Since we all cope with beers at different alcohol levels and wildly different levels of alcoholic dilution in mixed drinks based on spirits, what’s the problem with a small spectrum of alcohol levels for wine?

When it’s time to popularise and demythologise, I prefer the Argentinian approach to WineOption’s peculiarly British grumpiness. Get stuck in; loosen up; have fun.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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