Keep the customer satisfied – why non vintage Bordeaux makes sense

(A piece commissioned by, and originally published on, Timatkin.com)

Imagine, if you will, two equally-skilled chef-restaurateurs whom we’ll call Jean-Paul and Jean-Jacques. J-P’s philosophy is simple: he makes the most out of locally-grown ingredients – even when they aren’t very good – and only cooks dishes he personally likes; J-J, on the other hand takes pride in traveling to find the best ingredients and giving his customers meals they enjoy.

In which of these culinary giants’ establishments would you most readily spend your money? Some of you I’m sure will happily place yourselves in J-P’s hands, and accept the parts of your meal that don’t work for you. I’ll freely admit that I’ll be down the road chez Jean-Jacques, for pretty much the same reason that I prefer jazz musicians who take requests and comedians who keep careful track of the laughs they get from every audience and polish their acts accordingly.

The wine industry – apart from the oft-derided ‘branded, commercial’ end of the market – takes a different view. This year, countless French producers are going to give us frankly substandard wine because it’s the best they could manage in the climatically challenging conditions of 2013. To return to my restaurant analogy, they’re like chefs who readily ask their waiters to serve second-rate steak with the explanation that the meat wasn’t very good at the market this morning. Except of course that restaurateurs who want to remain in business don’t do that: they frankly apologise for not being able to offer steak. Some vignerons will honourably follow a similar path with their 2013s, possibly biting the bullet and making a palatable non-vintage blend. Most however, will ask us to share their pain – and pay for the privilege of doing so.

These Europeans are, I freely admit, constrained by laws and custom. Outside Champagne and the Douro, vintages are sacred; the notion of a Bordeaux château fessing up to the need to skip one is as imaginable as a politician admitting that he isn’t going to implement one of the key policies in his manifesto. And, far from making frankly non-vintage wines, many winemakers proudly refuse even to take advantage of the legal right to blend 15% of another year.

Tradition is one thing, but this – to my mind – misplaced reverence for purity now seems to be increasingly apparent in the New World. If I had a bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy for every example of okay-but-less-than-dazzling 100% Sangiovese or Tempranillo or Vermentino I’ve been offered in Australia, I’d have a rackful of great drinking. Quite often, the winemaker freely acknowledges that the wine might have tasted better if they’d blended in a little of another variety, but they ‘just want to see how the pure version works’. Please don’t misunderstand me. I applaud them doing all this Research & Development. I just don’t see why they expect customers to fund it.

Fundamentally, winemakers, like chefs, musicians and comedians, have to decide who they are working for, and why their customers are giving them their money. Most wine drinkers, I’ll bet, buy wine for the pleasure it will afford them. In their minds, they may well have an idea of the way they expect and want it to taste; I don’t think they are paying for the experience of discovering how well or badly a producer has handled rainy or cold weather – or to be in on a first attempt with an unfamiliar grape. I’ll also bet that the people who do happily relish the intellectual rewards of sampling the admittedly substandard vintage or winemaking experiment are either loyal followers of that producer – like fans who turn out to hear a band try out songs from a new album – or avid wine enthusiasts.

So here’s my modest proposal. Winemakers could acknowledge the different audiences for which they perform. Produce small quantities of 2013 Médoc by all means for the faithful fans who are going to enjoy comparing it to the 2012 and 2011, but maybe make a non-vintage blend for everybody else. And, perhaps those innovative New Worlders could make a virtue out of their experimentation, labelling their R&D efforts as ‘discovery’ cuvées and inviting customers to tell them what they think of them. I’m sure the Jean-Paul’s of this world, and those who buy into the notion of ‘winemaker-as-artist’ will dismiss my suggestion out of hand, but I’d be very interested to see what they and others think.

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