Irish online wine shops

There’s an updated introduction to Irish online wine retailers below, while elsewhere on this blog is a suggested checklist for choosing an online shop, and I hope both are of some practical use to you. (There was one glaring omission in this list which I’ve rectified this morning. If you see any other amendments you think I ought to make please let me know by leaving a comment below).

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

A well-chosen line-up of rosés at O’Brien’s most recent tasting. Click it to see my review in the Irish Examiner.

While I was revising the list of shops, the thought struck me that, like the dog in the night-time, many wine business sites are interesting for what they don’t do. I’m thinking particularly of stores which don’t trade online at all.

While obviously not of direct relevance to someone who wants to shop online right now, the thought is germane to people interested in wine, which is why I’m starting with that footnote.

Many retailers, large and small, are missing a trick. I wish those trading only from physical shops would put their wines on the net in the same way as online shops do. Even though we customers obviously wouldn’t have the opportunity to click through to a till, I think the shops in question would benefit greatly from proffering that virtual shelf online. And we wine fans (and perhaps wine itself) would benefit setting such information free.

Certainly, an online placeholder might be of some use to a retailer – a rudimentary site with a store finder, opening hours, contact details etc. But by not showing the actual wines, such stores are passing up on the unique opportunity presented by the internet. Browsing a wine business’ site which doesn’t have a proper database of the wines it sells is like walking into a carefully planned shop designed by architects, laid out by professional display artists and  illumined by lighting engineers – but which doesn’t show what’s on sale nor how much it costs.

I’m thinking in particular of big retailers such as Dunnes, and franchises such as SuperValu and Carry-Out.

Often the nearest you’ll get to wine range is a PDF of the current ‘special offer’ leaflet – usually headlined by big brands (led by spirits and slabs of lager) thereby sidelining the store’s own exclusive wines. At best you’ll see only a handful of wines, rarely kept up to date and often without key specific information such as vintage. I’ve encountered cracking wines from all and would love to be able to point to a link on their sites. And so would other shoppers. Look around at social media where people are sharing hints and tips: Even a shop’s biggest fan really couldn’t be arsed putting up a link directing their friends to a site which essentially says ‘buy from us, we’re great’.   No, we want the specifics. What customers are saying online is “Got a great sauv blanc from WineCo – here’s a link with the details”.

And then there’s the search engines. Shops looking at search engine traffic will quickly discover that, in general, we aren’t searching for what the wine shop thinks of itself

award-winning red… delicious wine… small, family-owned winery… serving Ireland since 1922… you’ve tried the rest now buy the best… enjoy a drink in relaxing surroundings…

We’re far more likely to be looking for terms specific to us, such as

chenin blanc… cava… Bordeaux available in Mullingar… Chateau Wotsit 2011 half bottle…

We’re not landing on the vague sites. Or if we are, we’ll find little or nothing about what the store is selling right now.

For all the foregoing reasons, I hope wine shops, wholesalers and shoppers alike take a look at the first site here – even though it doesn’t actually sell wine.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

www.searsons.com

Searsons has been in the wine trade for about 90 years, having bought into the Davy family’s grocery business which had been operating around Dublin for most of the 19th century. They remain one of Ireland’s best importers and wholesalers, equally adept at posh high-end wines for special occasions and good solid wines at relatively approachable entry-level prices.

Unlike the wine stores listed below, the site is not a click-and-buy, but rather a shop window linking to retailers that Searson’s supplies. The site used to be the least sophisticated wine site in the world ever – merely a series of PDFs and a phone number. But it’s now a proper site allowing you browse wines and view a map showing stockists nationwide. Crucially, it also has the full name, rank and serial number (well ok, full name, appellation and vintage) of every wine. As it doesn’t sell directly, the site can’t of course tell you what the retail price is: that contract is between you and the retailer. But it does helpfully give an rrp (recommended retail price) for each. It workd as an excellent support for the independent retailers the company supplies, and a wine-finder resource for us.

There’s no such restriction on big non-online retailers, which could easily offer all the specifics and, for instance, update special offer and multiple-buy info with a few keystrokes. (Indeed there’s no reason such publicly available info couldn’t be integrated with their stock control system).

And franchises could just as easily emulate the wholesaler Searsons. Some have gone part of the way. For instance, the Carry-Out site has an excellent, well-organised interactive map of all its 50-plus franchises with full contact details. Yes there’s a special offer leaflet as described above. But no indication of its basic range.

That’s a pity. There’s nothing preventing all the franchisees agreeing to stock say a dozen or twenty basics, each in an agreed, tight price band. Suddenly anyone – bloggers, columnists, Facebookers, tweeters, TV radio pundits – could feel confident in saying ‘cracking pinot blanc in Carry-Out for €x’ knowing that it actually means something to anyone, anywhere in the country.

Now on to the online wine retailers proper, starting with the top six that I would choose first if I were buying wine for delivery right now.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

Irish online wine shops

Curious Wines website

www.curiouswines.ie

Curious Wines is an exemplary, comprehensively searchable and informative website.

Between their participation in big tastings, and snapshot samplings of parts of their range (most recently a handful of discounted wines from Bordeaux and Spain) I’ve found the store offers many terrific, good value wines.

Nicholson's

http://www.jnwine.com

Stunning list operating out of James Nicholson’s award-winning shop in Crossgar, Co Down. You’ll also find some of these at Parsons’ Wine Warehouse, Carrigaline Co Cork as well as in selected restaurants such as Star Anise on Bridge Street in Cork. In brief, Nicholsons sell a disproportionately large number of my favourite wines on the Irish market. As far as I’m aware it has another distinction as the only site that allows you to buy and deliver anywhere in Ireland or the UK — I’ve found it a godsend for sending gifts to England. Finally, make sure you select the right jurisdiction in the “Delivery Location” tab on the opening page so you see the wines priced in the right currency.

www.obrienswine.ie

The growing off-licence chain (with stores all over Leinster plus one-off outposts in Galway, Limerick and now also in Douglas, Cork) has a winning wine selection, and is also a great one-stop shop, as it also stocks a wide range of good beers and ciders too. Their most recent tasting  confirmed again its expertise with an imaginative well-chosen range including some cracking good value.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

www.wineonline.ie

Excellent site featuring hundreds of wines from everyday sippers to special interest bottles.

www.winesdirect.ie

One of the first wine retailers online (now in its 20th year) Paddy Keogh’s site is excellent in terms of functionality and its wine-list. Check out Sticks Chardonnay, Viognier Yarra Valley 2006, €12.90 or rich ripe spicy Chateau Haut Rian Cuvée Prestige Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux 2005, €13.70.

www.simplywines.ie

Ian Dornan’s smashing list is very well worth returning to for its frequently top-class wines – backed up by a money-back guarantee.

++++

www.bubblebrothers.com

Began exclusively with Champagne, hence the name, but now sells a wide range of classic wines. Also has a drive-in warehouse at Marina Commercial Park, Cork as well as its original store in the English Market in the city centre.

www.karwigwines.ie

Award-winning wine list also sold from their store at Carrigaline, Co Cork. Smashing affordable wines from all over but I am particuarly fond of several of Joe’s wines from Italy, Germany and Portugal.

www.lecaveau.ie

Extensive list also available at its store in Kilkenny.

www.marypawlewines.com

Ireland’s longest-established importer of organic wines. I’m agnostic on the whole organic thing but believe that winegrowers and winemakers even aiming for organic certification  by definition lavish TLC on their plants which is where it all begins. Mary makes no specific health or even quality claims for wines made from organically-grown grapes – but rightly emphasises that she’s looking for good, carefully-made wine and there are several winners in her list.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

www.mccabeswines.ie

Excellent online presence of the shops in Blackrock and Foxrock.

www.mitchellandson.com

One of Ireland’s most informative and interesting sites and a premium range of wines from the 200-year-old upmarket Dublin wine merchant.

www.onthegrapevine.ie

Long list touching the most important bases with some brilliant minority interest specials.

Bordeaux, try rich ripe Chateau Rauzan-Despagne Bordeaux Reserve 2006, €15.50.

www.FromVineyardsDirect.ie

The newish Irish outpost of a British online store. Highlights include a cracking value expressive plump tropical chardonnay from Burgundy, Saint-Véran Merloix Bourgogne Blanc 2007, €12.45, and crisp white Rocca di Tufo Orvieto Classico 2007, €11.45.

www.superquinn.ie

Extensive range. Delivers only in the Dublin area.

www.terroirs.ie

Spin-off from the eponymous gourmet shop in Donnybrook, Dublin.

the wine store

www.thewinestore.ie

The retail wing of importer Tyrrell & Co is a multiple award-winning site focusing on wines from France, Spain and Italy and, in particular, the Rhône valley.

Finally, it’d be pretty understandable if you skipped the long footnote that I opened with. But it is worth thinking about if you get a chance. Information belongs to all of us, rather than being in the gift of some presumed elite. As Tim Berners-Lee tweeted during the recent inspirational Olympics opening ceremony, ‘this is for everyone’.  ♦

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

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Kiwi fruit

Today in the Irish Examiner I’m highlighting  the half dozen whites which, to my mind, stood out at that annual The New Zealand wine trade fair that took place in Dublin last week. All are available in outlets nationwide and/or online.

In this instance, choosing just six bottles to highlight didn’t feel like I was doing justice to the quality of wines on offer and for what it’s worth I’m firing up an extended list  here.

The prices quoted are the importers’ recommended retail prices, and there can be quite a difference between that and what you’ll find in shops. Of course, where the importer is the retailer (for instance James Nicholson or O’Briens) the price quoted is your actual price.

Cassidy Wines

Nautilus Estate Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2010 €13.99
Stockists – Nationwide Superquinn; Dublin McGraths Drumcondra, Kelly’s Clontarf, Baggot Street Wines, Cheers Palmerstown; Sweeney’s, Glasnevin;  Nolan’s, Clontarf; The Orchard, Rathfarnham; The Drink Store Manor St; Bin No. 9 Goatstown; The Corkscrew, Chatham St. Limerick Next Door Westmeath The Old Stand, Mullingar.

Liberty Wines

Tinpot Hut Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011   €16.99
Delta Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011                  €16.99
Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011    €21.99

Yealands Estate Riesling Marlborough 2011                        €16.99
Yealands Estate Gewürztraminer Marlborough 2011   €16.99
Yealands Estate Viognier Marlborough 2009                    €17.99
Yealands Estate Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011  €16.99

O’Briens

ARA Pathway Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011                    €12.99
ARA Single Estate Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011          €11.99
ARA One Estate Sauvignon Blanc Brut Marlborough NV     €12.99
Available at O’Briens and obrienswines.ie

Ampersand
Babich Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011                                                           €12.99
Babich Headwaters Organic Block Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011    €16.99
These vintages are not in the shops yet    

Nash Wines

Elephant Hill Sauvignon Blanc Hawke’s Bay 2010             €12
Elephant Hill pinot gris Hawke’s Bay 2011                            €15
Elephant Hill Chardonnay Hawke’s Bay 2010                      €14
Stockists include Cork Matson’s, Bandon; Dublin The Hole in the Wall, Blackhorse Avenue; Galway Cases;  Waterford Ardkeen Stores; Wicklow The Parting Glass, Enniskerry.

Greenlea Wines

Giesen Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011                                            €10   
Giesen The Brothers Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2010          €15
Giesen The August Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2010              €16

James Nicholson Wines

Mud House Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011

Delegat’s Wine Estate

Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011    €11.99
Oyster Bay Chardonnay Marlborough 2011             €11.99
Widely available

Irish Distillers / Pernod Ricard

Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011 €12.95
Widely available

Findlater

Saint Clair Vicar’s Choice Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2010   €13.39
Nationwide
O’Briens, Next Door, Fine Wines; Cork Bradleys, O’Driscolls; Dublin Mitchells & Sons; Tipperary Eldons, Clonmel, Galway Cases; Joyces.
Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc  Marlborough 2010
O’Briens, Molloys, Next Door, Jus de Vine, Tipperary Eldons Clonmel; Cork O’Driscolls.

Classic Drinks

Old Coach Road Sauvignon Blanc Nelson 2011    €13.99
Old Coach Road Riesling Nelson 2011                         €13.99
Seifried Sauvignon Blanc Nelson 2011                       €15.99
Aotea Sauvignon Blanc Nelson 2011                           €16.49

Stockists include Cork Pinecroft, Grange; Matsons, Bandon; Mannings, Bantry. Dublin Hole in the Wall, D7; Tipp The Wine Cellar, Cashel; Waterford No 5 Off-Licence; Worldwide Wines.


Barry & Fitzwilliam

Villa Maria Private Bin Riesling Marlborough 2011                                 €12.99
Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011             €12.99
Widely available 


Reeling in the years 2012

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

IF you haven’t already seen it, I’d recommend you download and read The misuse of alcohol and other drugs, a report released this week by the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children.

As the name suggests, it has a wide focus. Among its recommendations are stricter controls on prescription drugs, and funding for drug and alcohol rehabilitation schemes. But as you’d expect from a wine blogger, my main focus is on the parts of the report dealing with alcohol.

Alcohol consumption in Ireland has gone up by 231% since 1960. Source: http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx

Some of the recommendations have hit the headlines but it’s really worth reading the full report as it delivers a more rounded sense of the submissions the committee heard, lays out some key evidence, provides useful graphics which can help our understanding of the issues, and contains comprehensive references/links to further relevant stats, audio etc.

Retailers

One of the most controversial recommendations (11) suggests the government should consider an “outright ban on the sale of alcohol in certain outlets”.

But the more specific proposal in this regard is (10) for legislation to “ban the presentation and sale of alcoholic products alongside groceries, confectionary and fuel”.

This is the ‘garages-and-supermarkets’ bit you may have heard about in the news.

While on the face of it, this may look like an enormously radical change, it’s little more than a reversion to the situation that prevailed a few decades ago. The recommendation doesn’t suggest firms operating supermarkets shouldn’t run off-licences, and in practical terms it could mean little more than alcohol being hived off into an area separate from the groceries in supermarkets. This is pretty reasonable really, giving alcohol its proper place as a speciality rather than normalised as a shopping trolley staple.

However I think the 12th recommendation — “that the Government prohibit the practice of retail deliveries of alcoholic products directly to consumers’ homes” — may be a mistake. I believe it’s inspired at least in part by the shocking images from a sting operation in August 2010 on RTÉ’s Prime Time.

That film showed how four off-licences and two supermarkets had sent round alcohol to people who certainly looked like under-18s without checking for identification. The practice is also being targeted by Garda undercover sting operations.

However it’s important to distinguish between such a dial-up booze taxi and the activities of online stores occasionally mentioned in this column which take orders by credit or debit card and deliver wine and beer days later. I see little connection between the online wine stores mentioned on this blog and the booze taxi scandal. Is this because those online wine shops appeal to middle-class folk like me? Captured by the posh? Moi? Don’t think so. No, really. No, it’s because factors including price and the time lag between order and delivery are likely to make them far less appealing to underage drinkers. I’m not convinced anything would be achieved by banning them that wouldn’t be done better by ensuring they’re regulated.

A majority of the committee commended the government’s plan to indroduce minimum pricing, with a minority proposing tax increases, the proceeds to be ring-fenced for alcohol addiction services. The committee also backed a recommendation by the chairman Jerry Buttimer TD to end VAT refunds on below-cost sales. It came as a surprise to many including me that the state was, I presume unintentionally, subsidising some retailers’ sales.

The Nanny State

Inevitably, some of the committee’s recommendations, and the outlook expressed here, will be ridiculed as advocating ‘the nanny state’: folks being coddled and controlled by big brother. Well fine. Let’s look at the world from that perspective…

The Nanny Sector

Instead of the nanny state we have the nanny sector. The retail and drinks lobbies have persuaded the state to privatise much of its policy on how alcohol is advertised and sold, along with winning concessions on matters such as store size and opening hours. And then there’s the advertising and sponsorship. The ‘nannying’ we get from state bodies such as safefood.ie shrinks to infinitesimal dimensions when compared with the wall of communication funded by the powerful, largely self-regulated, alcohol industry. It’s been building its brands by advertising to impressionable young people. For many children and teens, some of the most exciting, engaging experiences are coming to them with alcohol stapled on.  The afternoon movies over Christmas on UTV were sponsored by an alcoholic cider. Matches at the most recent soccer World Cup were bookended by comedy sketches advertising a beer. The very name of Europe’s premier rugby competition is a brand of beer.

Here’s the committee’s recommendation (4)

that the Government explore the option of a ban on all retail advertising relating to the discounting of alcoholic products, a ban on the advertisement of alcoholic products on television before 9PM, and any advertisement of alcohol products on social networking websites (these bans to be given legislative standing).

In what way is this nannying? What will be missing from your life if you see fewer advertisements for drink?

If such advertising weren’t so powerful, they wouldn’t be spending so much money on it. Young people also can’t help but notice the ubiquitous availability of alcohol as part of the weekly shop — which helps normalise drink as a somehow inevitable part of grown-up life.

What happens next?

The report is now being considered by junior Health Minister Roisin Shortall. But she doesn’t get to sit on the couch and just read the report. Not by a long chalk. Don’t forget that various interested parties will be lobbying hard right now, now that change is in the air. The obvious lobbying battle line (alcohol-industry-versus-regulation) is likely to be blurred, and the hardest skirmishes may well be fought by the various sectors of that industry trying to ensure they don’t lose advantage to the others. From their persepective, it’s all about access to markets. The one justification you won’t hear for such opposition is ‘because we profit from it’.

If I knew how, I’d add a countdown clock to this blog. It’d be interesting to see, starting from the publicaton date of the committee’s report, how many days til we read press reports about the disastrous impact alcohol regulation would have on employment.

If I do get round to it, my countdown clock will be accompanied by a wry visual metaphor– a picture of a telegraph operator protesting against the advent of fax, email, SMS and social media and their effect on jobs in that now obsolete medium. 

Here’s an idea: Public policy in areas fundamental to our wellbeing such as health, education, crime, justice and welfare – should never depend how many jobs are in it.

To anyone workng in the alcohol or retail fields who feels I am being glib about the prospects for your business or your job, please be assured that is not the case. Take it from someone working in the print media: things change. It may even be for the better. And anyway, the liberalised regime of retailing and promoting alcohol in this country right now is an recent invention. I don’t recall anyone in the 1990s protesting that their sons or daughters (perhaps you) couldn’t get a job in the alcohol industry just because the local garage wasn’t allowed stock it, or your local sports club wasn’t allowed promote it. One day soon we will regard the ubiquitous alcohol policy as a flash in the pan – as brief and unwise as prohibition.  

Read the industry submissions included in the report and you’ll get a sense of the lobbying. For instance, the National Off-Licence Association is promoting measures which will make it more difficult for supermarkets to mop up market share. The supermarkets in turn — who need no lessons in lobbying from anyone — will be fighting to water down any proposals which impact on their business. I presume  other interest groups such as online wine traders are getting together right now to contact the minister. And on it goes. And it’s in that melee that policy will be formed.

Reeling In The Years

I’m hardly alone in suffering occasional pangs of embarrassment-by-proxy while watching Reeling In The Years on TV. You get that sharp pain when you spot among the video clips from yesteryear the often bizarre clothing, regrettable haircuts, ashtrays in the maternity wards, and members of our ruling class in mullets and kipper ties talking up the property bubble. The blithe reassurances that, yes, it was a good idea to hand our power to churches and companies and forego democratic oversight and regulation of them. And there’s us voting for them. What the hell were we thinking?

Well here’s a handy hint. If you’re wondering about the wisdom of anything from a political policy to a haircut — now, today — just cast your mind forward and imagine how it would look featured ten or twenty years hence on Reeling In The Years 2012.

With regard to alcohol, I figure there’s a good chance we’ll be pretty embarrassed. The way we drink, and especially the way we allow the industry to behave in 2012, will look wildly inappropriate when we look back at it a decade hence. With the lucidity of hindsight, we’ll look back in wonder at the way we handed over power to a small few stakeholders in the alcohol and retail industries, and it’ll all look utterly mad. Here’s a snippet of what we’re likely to say…

“Self-regulation? Given the lessons we’d already learnt from what that kind of power did to the financial industry? What the hell were we thinking?”

We ought to commend this Oireachteas committee, and any governement with the courage to drive on with the broad thrust of its report. As I mentioned above, there will be powerful groups who make their money from alcohol lobbying the minister. So who’s missing from her table? Most of us, really — disenfranchised by our silence, left reading page after page of court reports about alcohol-related violence and accidents. Because right now. whether we like it or not, that’s what’s ‘normal’.

The advertising, availability and display of alcohol aren’t the only factors contributing to the abuse of alcohol. But they are among the few in our direct political control. That’s our power which, for a generaton, we’ve ceded to private firms for profit. If you welcome the partial rolling back of ubiquitous alcohol and alcohol advertising, and taking power back from sectoral interests, you might consider contacting your TD or the minister to give them your backing.  ♦

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

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The skeptical wine lover

See below for a link to Tim Minchin's White Wine In The Sun.

I WAS delighted to raise a glass recently in honour of Cork Skeptics‘ first birthday. Part of the worldwide skeptics (or sceptics) movement promoting critical thinking, they meet monthly at Blackrock Castle Observatory and kindly invited me to their December event to present a talk, ‘Suck It And See’.

That title is intended to suggest that our best understanding of wine comes from our own senses, unmediated by a host of other voices from advertising through to the opinions of independent wine columnists and bloggers like me. The subheading, ‘everything we think we know about wine is wrong’ is a deliberately provocative overstatement…  But it can be a useful motto to adopt, leaving you refreshed, open-minded, and prepared for a delightful new journey into wonderful wine.

I said then I’d post links to some of the key issues I covered that evening. Here they are. Yes it’s a very long post (and it’s likely to get longer). But firstly, this isn’t a hurrah-here’s-a-wine-you-might-like kind of post and many of the points do need all that background and context. Secondly, this (plus the posts I link to) really comprise a compliation albubm plus extended remixes. I’ve mentioned almost all of the points, in one form or another, in my column in the Irish Examiner and on this blog.

Comments, questions and challenges are of course always welcome —but particularly to this post, and to the links on it.

Some background

The psychology and physiology of misunderstanding is a rich field, ranging from Richard Dawkins pointing out our difficulty in grasping evolutionary time, through to the exploration of the issues on Dr Brian Hughes’ blog. I don’t think anyone’s suggesting we should (or could) shake off our all-too-human perceptual shortcomings which seem to be a hardwired component of our makeup. But we can acknowledge and understand, and thereby work around, them. The components of misunderstanding — such as unwarranted or unquestioning faith in authority figures; misattribution; mistaking coincidence for causality — these are lenses which can interrupt or distort our understanding of the world around us. And, specifically in relation to wine, they can distort our perception of quality and value.

Poster by Alan Barrett

Cork Skeptics

There’s a second chapter to all this: the sometimes well-meaning and mistaken, but often deliberate, manipulation of our wobbly perception by others. Some newspapers profitably agitate readers with nonsensical stories which you could broadly divide into yay (something will improve your health) and boo (something will damage your health). Such stories are often entirely incorrect, or at least so misreported and decontextualised as to be even worse than lies — true-but-misleading. The same media also often presents specious made-up stuff from press releases as fact when reason suggests they know better.

And it’s not just the media. Among the matters previously covered on this blog are, for instance, the way retailers’ sales can distort our perception of value; how heavy, carefully-positioned marketing spend keeps upmarket wines such as Champagne high in our affections; and research suggesting we’re positively influenced by higher prices; a refreshing dose of reality from an unexpected source acknowledging the glut on world markets which suggests that broadly speaking the price of many wines may be artificially high. And here is an occasionally-updated post you may find useful for reference purposes — a list of the most common wine myths you may encounter regarding the likes of organic wine, sulphites and more.

The foregoing plus the following new links set out to illustrate some of our perceptual limitations and how they can be manipulated. And the underlying point of all this? I adore wine and want to help clear away some of the guff that surrounds it so we can drink better, and better value, in 2012. Happy New Year!

Start here

Dr Ben Goldacre is one of the most prominent debunkers of media pseudoscience. On August 7, 2009, in the wake of the swine flu panic, he appeared on BBC Radio 4’s satirical news/comedy programme The Now Show. In less than six minutes – along with the show’s anchors, Laura Shavin, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis – he delivers a tour de force of what you could call fact-based comedy, filleting the travesty that is much of popular media science reporting.

Dr Ben Goldacre

Click to hear Dr Ben Goldacre's tour de force on a BBC Radio 4 comedy show.

It’s not all fun and games, and you may be angered by some of the evidence he provides of borderline psychotic media irresponsibility. Ultimately, the clip is an excellent piece of public service focusing well-deserved derision on the crap we let the media get away with.

The audio clip here on YouTube doesn’t even mention wine. But go on. It really is the best place to start. Follow that link and rejoin me here when you’re done.

Roll up! Roll up! Getcha magic beans!

Everyone from Sense About Science to the National Consumer Agency keeps reminding us that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. True that is. Given that it’s panto season I might add that anyone who’s been to see Jack And The Beanstalk will know magic beans don’t work or, at best, are an expensive rip-off.
Click here to read my post on a palpably ridiculous comedy spoof dead-serious articles in two newspapers about a magic bean machine that will make your wine better. Really. It’s tempting to comment that ‘you couldn’t make this stuff up’. But they do.

Those wines are rubbish. But ours are fab. And good for you.

The belief that there is some kind of class system of wine wholesalers and retailers is, I believe, one of the worst and most persistent wine myths.

Wineupmanship: Pay us more than you have to, and look happy about it.

This is suggested to me by, for instance, wine fans practically apologising for buying wine in a supermarket or corner shop rather than a specialist wine store — even though they’re quite often buying better, or at least the same, as they would in a wine specialist. This impression is based on anecdotal evidence and at a later date I’ll look around for harder evidence of it.

While I percieve this bias being projected by us consumers, I suspect some wine traders may well practice wineupmanship, taking advantage of this misperception about the quality of their wares. For now though here’s an extreme example of wineupmanship you might enjoy.

Media boo!

The Channel 4 wine scandal

As a counterpart to media yay! (nonsense ranging from generic wine-is-good-for-you yarns to the magic bean machine press release above) the feral end of the media business loves media boo! stories too.

Dispatches, the investigative current affairs television strand on Britain’s Channel 4, has a reputation for tackling important issues head-on including, for instance, going undercover at a residential care home to expose abuses. On September 5, 2008, it broadcast a documentary named What’s in your wine? which set out to expose a scandal that we consumers ought to know about.

Click to view Channel 4's Dispatches programme on wine, presented by Jane Moore.

The programme does indeed point towards some issues which should cause us sceptical consumers concern. But it is so thoroughly compromised that it’s worse than useless. I do recommend viewing the programme, and I’d welcome your comments below. At a later date I intend putting up here a timeline answering each point raised by the programme. Some, such as the litter-strewn Champagne vineyard, do cause me concern. But the programme-makers have as many questions to answer as do the winemakers.

For now, let’s look at some of the broad issues that undermine it, starting with the promises made in the Channel 4 press release which should raise eyebrows even before you see a single frame of the documentary.

With wine consumption in the UK hitting record levels, Jane Moore investigates the many different substances — including fish and dairy products — that can be used to produce wine but which rarely appear on the label of the average bottle.

Anyone who has attended the most basic wine course will chuckle at this paragraph. Because they will know that since time immemorial, naturally-occurring compounds derived from sources such as fish (isinglass), egg (albumen) and clay (bentonite) have been used to refine and filter wines. Big deal. But those with enough interest and time on their hands to sign up for Wine 101 amount to a tiny minority of the wine-drinking population. And this TV programme which purports to inform and educate the public is achieving precisely the opposite, scaring people unnecessarily by couching widely-available uncontroversial facts in terms normally reserved for startling revelations.

Let’s try a more calm approach.

One of the great benefits of EU membership has been the introduction of standardised mandatory labelling on food and other packaging. I think the labelling information on wine could be much better: Processes such as chaptalisation (adding sugar) and the use of fining agents should be disclosed. And in particular, I think the presence of that most misunderstood of additives, sulphites / sulfites, should be disclosed by means of a parts-per-million measure rather than just blankly as “contains sulphites” (see the ‘Contains Sulphites’ entry in Wine Myths for more). Isn’t that a reasonable proposition? A wine buyer for the Co-Op retail chain makes similar positive suggestions in the programme. But, embedded as they are in the shriekingly fearful tone of the programme, such reasonable points may be misinterpreted as suggesting there’s some sort of wine conspiracy going on. Let’s go back to that statement from Channel 4.

The health benefits of the occasional glass of red wine are widely acknowledged but Dispatches reveals how a great deal of the wine we consume is enhanced, sweetened or flavoured, creating a drink that one critic describes as no better than, ‘an alcoholic cola’.

“Widely acknowledged” eh? Actually, the health benefits of an occasional glass of wine have never been demonstrated. And nor has the opposite contention. Again I refer you to the Wine Myths post. That sort of assertion is understandable at the water cooler. But this TV programme purports to have expertise in divining the truth about wine and informing us of it, and really should stick to the evidence rather than parading this wilfully ignorant OMGism.

The ‘alcoholic cola’ bit is a quote from veteran wine writer Malcolm Gluck. Which brings me to two aspects of the editing which oversell and undermine the film.
Selective editing. The film includes soundbites from two luminaries — former Guardian wine critic Malcolm Gluck and winemaker Randall Grahm. There are brief clips of both, their tone broadly condemnatory of much modern winemaking practice. But each soundbite is bracketed by voiceover from Jane Moore which seems to be levelling more serious charges. Further, we don’t get to hear the full interviews with either. Indeed, not once are we allowed hear the questions that elicited those quotes — not a major problem in a light entertainment show. But hardly best practice in a groundbreaking current affairs programme.

What did they really say? In full I mean. And what questions and prompts were put to them? Any chance Channel 4 would put the raw video online?

I believe their quotes were deliberately taken out of context, that the broad thrust of their comments was not to suggest that any, or even many, wines contain dangerous nasties, but rather to distinguish between the upmarket wines they might advocate, and more popularly-priced ones. It’s perfectly reasonable for them to profess that the latter are not good quality or that they’d prefer not to drink them. But that’s a world away from the panicky feeling induced by the frantic tone set by the two framing devices — Jane Moore’s commentary, and that wretched soundtrack.

[By the way – Apart from one accessibly-priced mourvèdre, I have never bought wines made by Randall Graham. I’ve tasted a few down the years and they did indeed rock, but they are way outside my price bracket. To give you an indication, here’s a link to the nearest stockist of their wines I could find.]

Manipulative audio. Have you ever trawled YouTube for funny movie mashups? You should. Amateur auteurs take clips of popular movie and television hits, edit them together and post them as faux trailers for strange new imagined hybrid movies. Among the most popular are Sesame Street muddled up with Mean Streets (there’s a lot of swearing and violence in that one so you may want to avoid showing it when children are around) and classic horror The Shining as a romantic comedy. They’re a lot of fun – and they’re also terrific examples of how easy it is to manipulate meaning, and the viewer’s emotions, with a soundtrack.

If it weren’t so grossly misleading the public, the Dispatches wine programme would be almost as funny as those mashups. The film is accompanied throughout by a soundscape which is, frankly, distressing. Such manipulation has no place in any reasonable assessment of the issues involved.

But my ‘favourite’ sequence in the whole show is the startling revelation [cue spooky music; odd camera angles] made by a SCIENTIST [man in white coat; test tubes] about the level of residual sugar in various Champagnes and sparkling wines…

Good God, what a reveal! High fives all round the production office! We nailed Big Wine, eh?

Problem is, it’s not a revelation. The sugar levels in various wines including those bubblies are widely available; none of the ‘tests’ fouund any discrepancies from the stated levels; and not only does the process leading to that sugar’s presence in sparklers have a name (‘dosage’), but if you visit any winery making a champenoise sparkling wine, they will actually show the process to you as they proudly demonstrate the intricate business they have to set about to make this fascinating and often delicious wine style.

This programme has to be the most most cynical confection of weaselly, misleading crap about wine I’ve ever had the displeasure to endure. But there’s a positive message for us — we shouldn’t believe stuff just because it’s on telly, in a newspaper, or on a blog including this one: if they don’t provide clear evidence, what they’re saying is quite likely to be untrue or misleading.

And finally…

I’ll add more links as they crop up. For now though, let’s leave the topic as we began it, with comedy, sort-of. There’s a wave of top-class comics such as Dara Ó Briain who riff on and ridicule pseudoscience to devastating effect. Among the foremost is Tim Minchin, whose appearance at Cork Opera House this year was promoted by Cork Skeptics.

The Australian comic’s appeal to both our reason and to our funnybone is certainly reflected in this song, White Wine In The Sun. But it’s also a moving paen to the Christmas spirit, and an expression of love to those closest to us — and enjoying good wine in their company. I think that’s what wine should be all about. ♦

Christmas tastings + Suck It And See

Cork Skeptics wine event at Blackrock Castle Observatory

Cork Skeptics wine event

[Update – Friday, December 16, 2011]

THE event below is now of course in the past tense. It’s rare for any more food and wine events to take place this close to Christmas, but if I hear of any I’ll stick details up here.

I will post links to a heap of original sources and/or opinion related to the issues I mentioned during my winey talk at Cork Skeptics’ December meeting. The idea was to highlight how we keep on putting barriers between us and what our perceptions actually tell us about the wine nestling in the bottom of our glasses.

I had intended to post these links on Wednesday and said so here. Unfortunately, one of life’s little wrinkles diverted my attention, and that was followed by a computer crash. And so I’m posting that material much later than intended. I apologise for the delay.

My column in tomorrow’s Irish Examiner Weekend (quite aptly linking in to the broad theme of skepticism) is looking at wine made using organically-grown grapes. Some of my conclusions may surprise you. And I’ll also be looking at another good bottle of beer to leave out for Santy.

As for the Skeptics event itself, a hearty thank you to everyone who endured my peripatetic conversational style. It’s why I generally stick to writing, and why the links I’ll be posting speak louder and better than I can. ♦

[The following was posted on December 6, 2011]

WE’RE coming up to the last few wine events of the year. As ever I’d suggest you check out my hints and tips for making the most of a wine tasting. The line-up of events includes a rare outing for me on Saturday with something completely different.

December 10 – Suck It And See, Blackrock Castle, Cork

PART of an international movement promoting critical thinking, Cork Skeptics live here (corkskeptics.org) and also at the splendid Blackrock Castle Observatory (bco.ie). Each of its meetings turns the focus on topics where sceptical evidence-based thinking has been *cough* absent or challenged — ranging from alternative medicine to moving statues, pyramid schemes, scams, GM Foods and UFOs.

A quick word about language: Skeptic is an alternative spelling of sceptic. More importantly, you may hear the words skeptic and cynic used interchangeably. Big mistake. They’re so different you could say they’re opposites. A cynic has all the answers, whereas a skeptic just keeps asking questions.

Poster by Alan Barrett

Anyway, this week Cork Skeptics kick off the festive season by turning their attention to wine, and have kindly asked me along to help. In a wide-ranging illustrated talk, I’ll be presenting a heap of evidence that our prejudices distort out perception of quality and value, and suggesting how we wine fans can suck it and see and learn to trust our own tastebuds.
The whole thing is meant to be provocative and fun and, reflecting the suck-it-and-see philosophy I try to promote in my column.

I was tempted to get the Cork Skeptics to advertise it as a stand-up comedy gig. I don’t presume that I’m funny – but much of the material certainly is hilarious in that cringey you-couldn’t-make-this-crap-up way.

Along the way I’ll explode some of the popular myths about wine. And while on the subject of memes and factoids, we will take a critical look at the media, with some eye-watering examples of both PR-driven non-stories, and misleading reporting regarding wine (and indeed all alcohol) and health. Even worse than misapprehending the science behind wine, I ask whether some media are deliberately misleading their readers on this topic? Come along, take a look at the examples I’ll be presenting and see what you think. I’ll also highlight an empirical study which I suggest makes nonsense of every wine health story.

It takes place at 8pm on Saturday, December 10. Admission is free, it’s open to anyone over 18, and see corkskeptics.org for more details. And you get your money back if not utterly delighted. ♦

SuperValu slaloms through the caveats

SOME cracking wines showed up at a wine tasting held by SuperValu last week, and provide the basis for today’s wine column in the Irish Examiner. It was their first media tasting in, I think, eight years. And although I was surprised to discover they showed only 33 of their 143 ‘Specially Selected’ range, picking six highlights proved too much for me, so I squeezed in several further bottles I’d recommend.

For this reason there was only room to barely mention two things which deserve a better airing.

1. Price is everything

The tasting coincides with SuperValu’s World of Wine promotion which starts tomorrow with reductions of up to 50%. As ever, shoppers should remember the ancient caveat about sales: the reduction is immaterial, and what matters is the quality you perceive in the wine, and the price you’re paying at the till.

Many wines in many stores will be ‘reduced’ at any one time. However you must realise that often the ‘reduced’ price is in fact the destination price, intended all along. A retailer can quite legally put a few bottles up on its shelves priced at say €15 (when any objective tasting would rank it at, for instance, €10) for a month or so and then ta-dah! reduce the price to €11.

There’s nothing new in this. There’s been what you could call a permasale in all sorts of wine retailers for years – not just the big supermarkets.

Here are two previous posts about price promotions, citing two unexpected sources: One big retailer pointing out that wine sales distort consumers’ perception of value, and another retailer, perhaps unintentionally, referring to the glut of wine on world markets behind the see-saw prices.

What are we looking for? Price/quality, that’s what. When I suggest readers check out a wine sale, the bottles I recommend fall into two categories – those I’d happily pay ‘full’ price for, which are even more attractive now they’re reduced; and bottles which I believe are  only ok value or even overpriced at the ‘normal’ tariff, but which offer good value in the sale. In SuperValu’s sale, not only are there quite a few that I think are well worth buying at their full price, there are even a handful that I think are underpriced: I’d happily pay more than their full price.

The rule remains – focus only on what you’re getting for what you’re spending. I’d go further. We’re seriously missing the point if we focus only on the likes of Tesco, SuperValu, Dunnes etc. Sure, those supermarkets and big chains deserve our scepticism – but every other wine business is, after all, a business, and each will use whatever way it can to welcome our lovely lolly too.

For instance, some salespeople can talk up their wines and indeed their entire shop. As Gary Vaynerchuk, the mentor to a generation of social media wine marketers said, “don’t sell wine, tell a story” – meaning one can sell more wine at higher prices by talking up the “passionate winemaker in the small, family-owned vineyard” narrative that pushes our aspirational buttons… Even though there are other wines which are just as good made by winemakers who are equally passionate in other similarly family-owned vineyards at lower prices in other stores…

It’s what’s in the glass that matters, and the price you paid for it.

No wine seller has a monopoly on puffing itself up, just as none has a monopoly on providing good value. Shop wisely and you will find super wines at great value in every store. If the smart shopper’s caveats and scepticism are a sort-of retail slalom course, the highlights I picked from SuperValu’s  selection whizzed through those obstacles this week. I’d recommend them for your shopping list when the sale starts.

2 Excellent beer and wine events this week

Being the time of year, there just wasn’t room in the column for more details about some of the beer and wine events coming up.  The All-Ireland Beerfest, a great evening with Yalumba, Lohan’s Wine Fair… I’d recommend you check them out in my guide over here. Enjoy!

Seafood, wine — and a cracking new beer

Howling Gale Ale

Howling Gale Ale

THIS week in the Irish Examiner Weekend I’m looking at food and wine matching, plus a smashing new beer brewed in Mitchelstown Co Cork. There’s more about Howling Gale Ale and Eight Degrees Brewing’s growing list of stockists below. First though, the food and wine…

PAIRING wine and food is like sex — both cause a heap of unnecessary anxiety, but with a bit of empathy and a light-hearted attitude they can bring untold pleasure and fun. I’m taking a look at it (wine matching that is, not sex) in today’s Weekend section of the Irish Examiner and you also can see it online here. For rhetorical purposes I’ve started by dismissing two extremes – the hopelessly general idea that a wine is “great with pasta” at one end; at the other, those terrifyingly specific lists you’ll see suggesting you simply must get a Domaine De Wotsit when shark toasties are on the menu.

I am suggesting some wines – five whites and one red – to go with some very broad types of seafood dishes, but I hope readers will regard these as inspiration rather than prescriptions.

It’s most helpful to view wine as an ingredient, working with the others on your plate. The wine will bring its own payload of contrasting and complementary elements to the other components via a heap of fruit flavours, but also through the key components of acidity, texture, sweetness and, in reds only, tannin.

One great lazy tip when matching wine to food: If the recipe is more or less ‘traditional’, look to its homeplace for inspiration. The most blindingly obvious of these has to be Boeuf bourgignon with pinot. So it is with seafood which is the topic I’m looking at today: you won’t go far wrong by trawling (sorry) the seafaring traditions along Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. Sailing from north to south, the highlights would include…

Bordeaux blanc, surely the most versatile white wine for seafood
♦ the shamefully overlooked delights of soft Muscadet de Sėvre et Maine sur lie,
♦ Fashionable and therefore saucily-priced Albariño from Galicia and its counterpart,
Alvarinho from Portugal which is sadly under-represented on our shelves
♦ Portugal’s other great white, modestly-priced, simple (and generally low alcohol) Vinho Verde branco

There are further delights when you plunge into the Med – such as the shamefully overlooked fish-friendly wine from the Coteaux de Languedoc, Picpoul de Pinet. Bubble Brothers have a cracking one for €12.

Needless to say these wine styles have been emulated with great success in the new world. For instance, by Bordeaux, I really mean sauvignon blanc & semillon blend wherever it is made (and, by red Bordeaux, cabernet sauvignon & merlot).

Finally, a word about red wines. The “red with meat, white with fish” isn’t the worst rule of thumb: Tannin (found only in reds) is certainly a friend to red meat. But some of the lightest reds can go beautifully with seafood dishes — especially the more robust tomatoey recipes, and in today’s column I’m suggesting a Tarrango made by Brown Brothers. You’ll often see pinot noir (particularly Bourgogne) suggested, as well as its southerly cousin, Beaujolais. This might be a helpful suggestion but remember it’s based on a somewhat out-of-date presumption: the breadth, alcoholic strength and tannicity of red wines from these regions has edged up in recent decades. But as I suggest in my column, please do experiment and enjoy.  ♦

ALSO this week in the Irish Examiner Weekend I’m suggesting Eight Degrees Howling Gale Ale as beer of the week. I’d certainly enjoyed the draught version at its launch during the Franciscan Well‘s beer fest at Easter. But my focus is exclusively on take-home beer and wine, so bottle is where it’s at. And Howling Gale is certainly there.

This isn’t just a promising first attempt – it’s a highly accomplished and beautifully-weighted ale. I’d certainly enjoy a bottle myself, and would expect dedicated beer fans to do likewise. But the singular achievement of this authentic beer is that it’s so simpatico: I’d be very confident that people more accustomed to mass-market beers would enjoy it too. See the brewery’s website at www.eightdegrees.ie for more.

Eight Degrees Howling Gale Ale is available online at www.Drinkstore.ie and in the stockists below. All of them may sell the beer to take home, but the ones in bold certainly do.

Cork

city & surrounding areas
Abbot Ale House, 17 Devonshire St, Cork

Bierhaus Cork, Popes Quay, Cork
Blairs Inn, Cloghroe, Blarney, Cork
Bradleys Off Licence, North Main Street, Cork
Fenns Quay, 5 Sheares Street, Cork
Franciscan Well, 14 North Mall, Cork
county
Costcutter, Amber Garage, Fermoy, Co Cork

Cronins Pub, Crosshaven, Co Cork
Springfort Hall Hotel, Mallow, Cork
Ballyvolane House, Castlelyons, Co Cork
Costelloes Malthouse, Clonakilty, Co Cork
The Clonakilty Hotel, Clonakilty, Co Cork
Fields Supervalu, Skibereen, Co Cork
West Cork Hotel, Skibereen, Co Cork
The Good Things Cafe, Durrus, Co Cork
Glandore Inn, Glandore, Co Cork

Dublin

central
Against the Grain, 11 Wexford Street, D2
Bull and Castle, Lord Edward Street, Christchurch, D2
Crackbird, 34 South William St, D2
Deveney’s Dundrum, 31 Main Street, Dundrum, D14 
The Village Bar, 26 Wexford St, D2
north

L Mulligan Grocer, 18 Stoneybatter, D7
McHughs Off-licence, 57 Kilbarrack Rd, D5
McHughs Off-licence, 25e Malahide Rd, D5
http://www.Drinkstore.ie, 87 Manor St, D7
south
D-Six Off-licence, 163 Harold’s Cross Road, D6
Redmond’s of Ranelagh, 25 Ranelagh, D6
Next Door, 23-25 Sundrive Road, Kimmage, D12
Claremont Railway Union Lawn Tennis Club, Park Avenue, Sandymount, D4

Galway

Cases Wine Warehouse, Tuam Rd, Galway

Waterford

Number Five Off-licence, Tyrone Rd, Lismore Park, Waterford
O’Brien Chop house, Lismore, Waterford

Wicklow

Hollands Fine Wines, 78 – 80 Main Street, Bray

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