Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Conflicts of interest in the wine media - and a rant about the apathy of the Languedoc and Roussillon marketing bodies

All of a sudden, many of the wine journalists and commentators I follow seem to be falling over themselves to offer their thoughts and opinions on the ethics and possible conflicts of interests of wine writing (chiefly concerning the acceptance of various forms of "hospitality" from the trade). This follows a recent post on the Dr. Vino Blog about the apparent difference between Robert Parker's own publicly-stated policy on the ethics of wine writing (which basically states that he always "pays his own way") and that of certain others employed by Parker at the Wine Advocate. The Internet wine community now seems to be alive with discussions on various blogs and wine fora, about where to draw the line between what might be loosely be termed as "legitimate assistance" and being "in the pay" of wine growers and merchants.

This is hardly a new subject in the wine world, or in any other branch of commerce, for that matter - the Payola scandal in the American music industry of the late 50's and early 60's was an early variation on the theme. Not that the subject presently under discussion can quite be compared with such an extreme example (and we're certainly not talking about money changing hands) but there appears to be much introspection amongst the wine writing community as to what sort of hospitality should be acceptable and what should not. For instance, if a wine writer is treated to an all-expenses-paid trip to a wine region on the other side of the world, with first class flights, 5 star hotel accommodation, lavish wine dinners and winery visits, should that be considered as a legitimate use of a particular wine region's (or grower's) marketing budget or a blatant ploy to get favourable treatment in the media? I suppose the answer is that it is down to the individual and how easily they can be influenced by such treatment.

By and large, I think most are careful not to let their judgment be unduly influenced, although the number of "column inches" a writer devotes to a particular region or grower/growers often seems dependent on the ability of the growers to pull out all the stops. Is this wrong? I'm not sure it is, really, especially if the writer's genuine enthusiasm comes through in what they write, or if they can offer a balanced critique - and even, occasionally, be critical!


From my own point of view, and as a merchant specialising in the wines of southern France, I only wish that the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc, Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon (who don't even have an English version of their website) and Les Maisons de la Région Languedoc-Roussillon would get their acts together and be as proactive and aggressive as the likes of Portugal, New Zealand and various South American countries currently are in promoting their wines. My friend Peter Gorley is having the Devil's own job in trying to find a publisher for the 2nd edition of his book "Gorley's Guide - The Wines of Languedoc and Roussillon". Peter has had communication with Georges Freche himself (the President of the Languedoc-Roussillon) on this issue, though I have not heard of any progress more recently.

Given that there have been no significant books published on the wines of these regions since Peter's 1st edition, along with Paul Strang's and Rosemary George's books (i.e. since around 2002) I am amazed that the Conseils and Les Maisons have not bent over backwards to offer influence and financial assitance in order to get Peter's new book published. Such a book would provide a huge boost to the region's wines and winemakers (and, of course, the tourist industry) - not to mention merchants like me in the UK and further afield - at a time when it is really needed. Furthermore, the region could use as much good publicity as it can get right now, especially with the recent Pinot Noir scandal still relatively fresh in the memory!

Having spent the last 2 or 3 years (and a great deal of his own money - no corporate hospitality, here!) visiting and reviewing countless wine growers in all corners of Languedoc and Roussillon, Peter has compiled an impressive amount of material on the regions' wines and wine people (I've had a sneak preview of the "outline" manuscript) which is just begging to see the light of day. I myself recently wrote to the UK office of Les Maisons, suggesting that perhaps now (especially with the beginning of the new financial year and a shiny new budget) is an ideal time for them to help make this to happen. The cost involved would probably be no more than a tiny fraction of your average City banker's annual bonus, yet would reap untold rewards for the region and its wine growers. I'm not holding my breath, though..............

Leon Stolarski

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Wine fraud and bogus orders - a growing problem for merchants and growers

Rarely a day goes by (even for small merchants such as myself) without receiving a number of email wine "orders" from a growing band of conmen lurking out there in cyberspace. Most - if not all - are easy to spot and go straight into the "deleted items" folder (I don't like junk filters - I might miss something important). And most are asking for the same old wines and are seemingly written by illiterates who should never be allowed within a mile of a keyboard. Basically, these people send out bulk emails to every merchant email address they can find from trawling the Internet, in the hope that some gullible or desperate merchant will despatch the wines, having apparently taken payment, only to find out in due course that the credit card was stolen. The end result is that the credit card company takes back the money, leaving the merchant with a big hole in their accounts - whilst, in the meantime, the wine has been hastily spirited away from the delivery address, never to be seen again.

Luckily for me, I don't do trophy wines, so I couldn't supply what these people are after, even if I wanted to. Consequently (and much more importantly) I am not in a position to get fleeced. But I wonder how often other merchants who do stock these sort of wines get taken in - it must happen, or the conmen would eventually give up trying.

Here is an example I received today, which (honestly!) is well-written, in comparison to many others;

"Good day ,
I will like to make Inquiry about the under listed wines , Kindly advice
on there unit's prices and the availability, if you can source for supply.



Impressive, isn't it? (Not!)

More worrying still, though, is a recent increase in the targeting not of wine merchants, but the wine growers themselves - with the conmen posing as (legitimate) merchants. And some wine growers - many of whom are becoming more and more deperate to shift stock - are getting taken-in by these "orders" and losing literally thousands of Pounds (or Euros). The trick the conmen are employing is to use the details of real wine merchants to secure the orders, but provide a different delivery address (invariably, of course, not the real merchant's address). If the grower gets taken-in by the con, it is simply a matter of shipping the wines to the spurious address, upon which they are quickly transported to another location - and the trail quickly goes cold. Given that many growers offer 30 or even 60 days for payment by the merchant (some even on the first order from a new "customer"!) that is more than enough time for the criminals to escape with several pallets of wine, having never paid a penny (or a cent) for the privilege.

If you think this is rare, then think again. About a year ago, I received an unannounced visit from two people from HMRC, who were investigating the non-payment of excise duty on several pallets of wine, imported using my Company's name, from a cantina (wine co-operative) in Italy. Suffice to say, I knew nothing about this shipment and managed to convince them of that, fairly quickly. Of course, the fact that I only import wines from France was a fair indicator of my innocence! Statements were taken and (apart from a couple of phone calls by me, to HMRC) I have heard nothing more from HMRC. As far as I am aware, the culprits were caught, but the case has yet to reach court.

I did, however, receive a letter from a firm of solicitors acting for the cantina, demanding payment of several thousand Euros for the wines I had never even ordered and certainly never received. Which kind of puts the priorities of HMRC into perspective - they wanted their excise duty, but were far less (i.e. not at all) concerned about the fact that a wine grower had been the victim of the same criminals and had also lost a lot of money!

The moral of the story - think very hard before becoming a wine merchant. And if you do become a wine merchant (or already are one) - be very sure of who you are "selling" to!

For more on wine fraud, investigative wine journalist and Loire wine fanatic Jim Budd has lots more horror stories on his website http://investdrinks.org/index.html and (more recently) his blog http://jimsloire.blogspot.com/2009/04/update-on-fraudsters-from-ubifrance.html

Leon Stolarski

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The Budget - another rise in excise duty on alcohol

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has just announced a further rise in UK alcohol excise duties. Briefly, the effect this will have on prices (in VAT-inclusive terms) are;

4p on a 75cl bottle of wine
5p on a 75cl bottle of sparkling wine
5p on a 75cl bottle of fortified wine
13p on a 70cl bottle of spirits (37.5% abv)
1p on a pint of beer (4.2% abv)
1p on a litre of cider

To put these latest duty rises into perspective, the duty on a 75cl bottle in March 2006 was £1.29. So a rise of 32p in 3 years is large(ish) in percentage terms, but not huge in money terms.

Far more damaging from the perspective of wine merchants (and consequently, of course, their customers) is the current poor exchange rate between the Pound and most other currencies, especially the Euro. 18 months ago, a Pound bought you 1.5 Euros. Now it buys you 1.1 Euros. Recent fluctuations in the rate have been volatile, to say the least, (the rate was down to almost 1:1, at the beginning of this year) which makes costing and pricing a difficult and frustrating exercise.

In a nutshell, the drop from 1.5 Euros to the Pound, down to 1.1 Euros to the Pound has effectively turned a £6 wine into a £7.50 wine and a £10 wine into a £12 or £13 wine. Which is very depressing for all concerned, from the growers, right through to the consumer. Still...... you wouldn't want to live without a nice glass of wine, would you?
Leon Stolarski

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Some great reviews of Leon Stolarski wines by The Wine Gang

The Wine Gang is a unique collaboration between five of the UK’s most renowned wine journalists – namely Tim Atkin, Tom Cannavan, Anthony Rose, Joanna Simon and Olly Smith. They have grouped together to create a website full of reviews and tasting notes on wines from all sectors of the wine trade, from the supermarkets up to the best independent merchants. And in March 2009, tasting notes for a selection of our wines were published on The Wine Gang website, with some extremely pleasing results. Out of 20 wines reviewed, 11 were rated at 90/100 or better (with 2 wines rated 93/100) and none were rated lower than 87/100.

The Wine Gang website is subscription only (£19.99 for a year) but you can read the tasting notes for each wine in our online shop, so why not have a browse around. Furthermore, we have put together a mixed case, comprising 12 of the best scoring wines. The Wine Gang Case is priced at £130.97, a saving of £10 on the individual bottle prices.
Leon Stolarski