Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Wine Critic's Critic: James Molesworth (Wine Spectator): The Wine Industry's Alchemist. 92/100 points

'His tasting notes are the literary equivalent of a sugar rush (admit it, we all love that feeling), words gushing from his frontal lobe as he disappears into a vinous-fuelled orgy only to reappear having described every fruit known to Del Monte. You can tell that he just loves wine and the people who make it'.

I have a good idea what James drinks because I read the WS, but I don’t know what his magic potion is. Whatever it is, I want some. He has the olfactory receptors of a great white shark, able to detect, for example, 1 part Jonagold apple to a 1,000,000 square hectares of New York orchard. He is the sensory alchemist who can turn a standard Cote du Rhone into a core of crushed plum, linzar torte and Lapsang souchong tea. He has the vivid imagination of Sid Barrett (former singer of Pink Floyd) on interstellar overdrive.

James is a Senior Editor for the Wine Spectator covering Bordeaux, Finger Lakes of New York, Loire Valley, Rhône Valley, South Africa. I write about both him and the Wine Spectator here, and score them together.

Eric Asimov and others have criticized critics like James Molesworth (and other critics) for using words in tasting notes which, in their view, are essentially meaningless, exaggerated in their jargon and contain obscure references. Some believe he and others are guilty of overwriting, deploying hyperbole and reaching for superlatives in his notes.

I don’t care what the others say. I love reading James’ work not only because I like his prose but most importantly because his notes seduce me into trying the wines and visiting the growers. I look at his writing like the lyrics of a song – they may be, sometimes, obscure but the singer gets away with it because the overall sound and melody are very easy on the ear. Some of my favourite singers (Van Morrison, Talk Talk, David Bowie,…..) regularly wrote and still write obscure lyrics but I love what they do nevertheless.

To James, his tasting notes are the verbal expression of his sensory perceptions and these are underpinned not just by his knowledge but also by his passion, notably for the Rhone.

Some people read critics’ notes just for their educational value but I look for more than just opinions, knowledge and experience. I also want to feel the critic’s love and passion for the subject matter. I want him or her to draw me momentarily into their sensory world and let me experience what they can experience regularly. The role of the wine critic, in my view, is not just to educate and inform but to entertain too. For me, James does this with great success.

By informing, educating and entertaining the world about wine, the end game of the critic has to be to encourage more wine drinking (responsible of course) otherwise what is the point?

I love James’ passion – it is one of the defining human characteristics of successful people and can paper over any cracks. I use it all the time to paper over mine.

Here are some examples of James’ tasting notes from the WS:

This white cuts a bold swath, delivering flavors of dried Jonagold apple, fig, creamed pear, hazelnut and persimmon. Creamy and lush, held together by a finely beaded spine of acidity, with strong minerality kicking in on the lengthy finish. Showy and suave, yet balanced.

This is gorgeous, with lush linzer torte, boysenberry pâte de fruit and plum sauce notes that captivate, while anise, Lapsang souchong tea and singed apple wood notes fill in the background. The long finish is fleshy and driven.

Ripe and lush, but very pure, with gorgeous yellow apple, white peach and Cavaillon melon fruit aromas and flavors, lined with honeysuckle, heather and quinine and sailing through the long, stone- and mineral-framed finish. A really beautiful combination of weight and purity.
On the WS site, he uses video very effectively covering all his areas and includes interesting topics such as food and wine matches, differences in types of wines (e.g. Gigondas and Chateauneuf du Pape, Tavel and Provence roses, Cote Blonde and Cote Brune on Cote Rotie), discussions with growers and tastings). These excellent videos and they are very intelligible to the viewer.

The WS accepts wine advertising and some purists would argue that this affects their ability to score objectively. I don’t subscribe to this view. I think they have a huge vested interest in ensuring their readers believe their integrity and I would be amazed if commercial interests affected editorial judgement. Money doesn’t always corrupt – it can be very powerful at holding commercial interests to account as well.

Here are my scores for James and WS:

Read on. The Wine Critic's Critic: Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker will feature next, after Christmas.

The Wine Critic's Critic: Jamie Goode: The wine industry’s Anorak and Head Teacher. 87/100 points

'Jamie was born to teach. He has huge breadth and depth of knowledge, and he has that rare gift of being able to distil complex subjects into meaningful and easily digestible words, and do it in an interesting way. He doesn't possess the bigger resources of some other critics but his website and work are outstanding. He is right up there with the world's best critics, and often betters them'.

Jamie’s own sobriquet is the Wine Anorak which reflects his credentials as an expert in plant biology (he has a PhD no less) which is a useful entrée into the world of wine. His scientific background must make him one of the best qualified to write about wine. But don’t be fooled by his paper persona as a geek – his site appeals to all and his style is very personable.

Jamie was born to teach. I love his site and the way he imparts knowledge. Where James Suckling’s style and commentary are flamboyant and, some would argue, lacking in substance, Jamie’s is brimming with substance and science. It is full of juicy bits of information addressing such subjects as the science or otherwise of tasting, bottle closures, microbes, the science of wine making and its sustainability. These topics appeal as much to the professional trade as they do to the expert amateur like me.

But he is also adept at appealing to the average consumer too. Just in the last 6 months, he has covered wines of Stellenbosch, California, Alsace, Chile, Priorat, Georgia, Turkey, New Zealand, Canada, Portugal, Bordeaux and Israel to name but a few. All are written on subjects and in a way which would appeal to the average consumer. He is also adept at using social media to communicate with his thousands of followers.

He is a prolific taster and his tasting notes and vineyard visits, some combined with video, are simple to read whilst giving the reader a very good understanding of what is in the glass. He often combines these with restaurant reviews, bringing the wines to life (see his latest one on Chez Bruce, one of my favourite restaurants in the world and where I would take my wife-to- be 16 years ago when we lived in London).

His site also has features where he focuses on a specific area (e.g. Chile) or grower (e.g. Bruno Paillard and Eben Sadie) or topic (e.g. the concept of a noble wine and carbonic maceration). I like his ability to have a point of view on all subjects vinous as well as an array of other subjects – football, cricket, religion. This makes him a much more interesting writer and personality than some of the other wine critics out there who just seem to be writing for themselves and other wine bores.

On tasting notes, Jamie writes very clearly. Here is an example of one of his tasting notes from Chez Bruce. It is classic Jamie Goode – accurate, measured and evocative. He makes you really want to taste the wine.

Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile 2001 Alsace, France. Beautifully delicate but full flavoured at the same time, this is the special anniversary bottling. Citrus, melon, a hint of lychee, some creaminess. Delicate and precise with a lovely crystalline fruit quality, and with fruit sweetness that adds a rounded character. 95/100.

His depth and breadth of knowledge are very impressive and he knows how to communicate complex subjects. As we know from our school days, this is the real skill of great teachers. Knowledge is irrelevant without the passion and ability to impart it to the audience.

His site is the antithesis of Suckling’s and Jancis’ sites in terms of slickness, structure and functionality, but despite this, it just oozes class, passion, personality and knowledge.

Where is a boy band, is a real musician.

I know that Jamie has built this site himself, from the ground up, over many years which is testament to his dedication and abilities in web application development. He is clearly a very clever bloke.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Wine Critic's Critic: John Livingstone-Learmonth: The wine industry’s Cricket captain. 83/100 points.

'JLL's site is the antithesis of James Suckling’s and Jancis Robinson's sites in terms of slickness, structure and functionality, but it just oozes class, passion, personality and knowledge. Unlike, this is a site dripping with love and soul, not legal and commercial mumbo-jumbo'.

The quintessential Englishman, he is dapper, erudite, affable and quick-witted, like Colin Cowdrey, the former England Cricket batsman. JLL is the master of his specialist area, the wines of the Northern and Southern Rhone, whilst also practising as a communication training expert.

Like Cowdrey, he has amazing longevity. He has been batting at the crease in the Rhone valley for over 40 years and his mastery of its characters, nuances and old wines is unrivalled. He was learning about this area nearly a decade before Parker discovered it. Key players in the region such as Christine Vernay and her husband Paul Anseleme venerate him for his vast knowledge going back to the days when he would wine and dine with Christine’s father, Georges Vernay.

His site is the antithesis of James Suckling’s and Jancis’ sites in terms of slickness, structure and functionality, but despite its clunkiness (although I notice that JLL has just upgraded his site), it just oozes class, passion, personality and knowledge. Like Meadow’s site,, this is a stellar example of the online specialist communicator. But unlike, this is a site dripping with love and soul, not legal and commercial mumbo-jumbo.

I admit that I am a Rhone fanatic so have a soft spot for this site. It is full of information gathered over 40 years and John allows you to access it in many ways. You have regular monthly updates on what has been happening in the region and extensive tasting notes and information about each appellation in the North and South Rhone, from the well known to small artisan wine growers. It also has a glossary of terms.

I love his features of ‘Goings on’, ‘Veterans corner’ and ‘Where to eat and stay’. He also makes a big play on WOW wines (‘what one wants’ – or wines which immediately declare pleasure) and STGT (soil to glass transfer - wines that are very low on intervention, that reflect truthfully their place of origin). He gets excited about these wines, the grower being undoubtedly aware of the importance of terroir, and of his or her role in coaxing that out. Coverage of up and coming areas – Rasteau, Roaix, Cairanne….

There is also a quality of fun and joie de vivre about John who is a horse lover and keen gambler. He loves these wines, their people and region and that shines through in his oeuvre.

I think it is a site for the trade or expert consumer because his notes are quite technical and he focuses on depth of content in his specialist area.

I drink a lot of the wines which feature on his site and I think he has an exquisite palate. He has an eloquent, descriptive and old fashioned style of writing. Take Clusel Roch’s Les Grandes Places from 2009 which he gives top marks to:

“(cask) dark red, black at the centre. Good ensemble on a substantial bouquet – baked fruits, a hint of dates from ripe, not overdone fruit. There are wafts of smoke in what is a full, but lucid nose – a mark of its quality. This is very well-constituted, has real good togetherness of its elements, a sealed-up quality. It builds as it goes, has finesse and strokeable black fruit that culminates in a licorice and an oak sprinkle. The tannins are fresh, live. Has the reserve of the northern zone, but ripe and good quality fruit wins the day. This can become complex, has pure qualities, is STGT. I just prefer the Viallière 2009. 2026-29. Bottling Aug 2011. Nov 2010”.
Here are my scores for John and

The Wine Critic's Critic: James Suckling: The wine industry’s Bon Viveur. 87/100 points.

'I'd love to meet James one day. He looks like a bloke who just loves life. I bet he would be a great guest to invite to a dinner or drinks party. His site is a superb example of how to use social media and appeal to a wide range of consumers. He shows that knowledge alone won't make you popular - you need to know how to market your brand to support it, and he is damn good at this'.

An aficionado of Italian wines and cigars, James Suckling globetrots between exotic locations (London, Cuba, Tuscany, Hong Kong, New York, LA) seeking out the best tastings, smokes, parties and celebrities. He is a cross between a well-healed, personable bon viveur (Monte cristo and liquor in hand, discussing his favourite topics with amigos in a late night Cuban bar) and the Hollywood star Jack Nicholson at the height of his career (mane of hair, cool dude, charm, charisma, cigars and, above all, self confidence).

James has his critics. Some have called him pompous, self-promoting and a lazy taster. But this isn’t how I see James.

James may come across as phlegmatic and self-promoting to some, more style than substance, but don’t under estimate his seriousness, knowledge and ability as a wine connoisseur and communicator. I believe James is the greatest communicator of wine on the planet to the enthusiastic and novice consumer groups.

There is something quite addictive about his site. Maybe it is the combination of novelty, video and his easy, sometimes breezy style (hey man, how’s it goin’) which appeals to me. He is different and an antidote to the serious web sites of Allen Meadows and Jancis Robinson. Each to their own.

His web site is very slick and a stellar example of how to use new media (notably twitter and video) to convey his knowledge of and passion for wine in today’s world. He is definitely ‘new school’ and some in the wine industry will find his simple communication style, tasting approach and tasting notes uncomfortable, but he knows how to speak to his target audiences.

His site doesn’t have the depth of content of Allen Meadows and Jancis Robinson but his target audiences are different. His simple and pithy tasting notes suit some people and make his knowledge easily digestible. He is more entertainment than education, and this appeals to a very large segment of the market, even if it alienates the more serious end of the trade. He adopts a ‘less is more’ approach and it works. Here is an example of a tasting note:



“This is a phenomenal pure merlot with blueberries, raspberries and hints of milk chocolate. Some nutmeg too. Full body with very fine yet chewy tannins and a long, intense finish. Reminds me of the amazing 1998. Best ever from here. Needs four or five years of bottle age to soften”.

He is innovative too, bringing vineyards, growers and events into your home through video, creating a platform for independent merchants through his wine challenges, creating his Lalique glass and using his own events (e.g. Great Wines of Italy and Divino Tuscany) to both market his business and showcase great wines.

He has started to franchise out some of the content creation to his partners (as Parker has done) and it remains to be seen whether they can live up to his standards (as with Parker’s site) and get people re-subscribing.

So efficient (i.e. short and sharp) and interesting (on the whole anyway) are his videos to watch, James' challenge will be to create enough content to keep up with demand. His site and business are clearly well funded.

Here are my scores for James and