Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Wine Critic's Critic: Jancis Robinson, The wine industry’s Doyenne and Head Girl. 86/100 points

"It is the site which, on the face of it, nearly has it all, and is worthy of A*. Yet it doesn’t leave me satisfied. I have thought about this site more than any of the others because I have struggled to solve the puzzle – how do I reconcile its apparent excellence with my disappointment? After all, it can’t be me who is wrong….

Respected across the world for her wine knowledge, she is the Doyenne of the wine industry - intelligent, organized, keen, serious, thorough, conservative, slightly self-important and a bit of a goodie-goodie. So orderly and correct is her site, you feel like you are being shown around a Convent by its Head Girl. But what really needs is a smidgeon of decadence, moral laxity and self-indulgence - think cigars, Cuban bars, gambling, booze, gossip, scandal, anything to alleviate the boredom. Or may be it just needs some simple love and soul.

The stand-out attributes of (and Burghound for that matter) are its wealth of knowledge but also its general boringness. Both sites are certainly examples of substance over style, which, let’s face it, is rare in this world of gloss and self-publicity. Their sites are on-line text books, a place to gather facts quickly and leave rather than linger to seek inspiration.

I always think of Voltaire’s famous quote when perusing Jancis’ web site: “Le secret d'ennuyer est celui de tout dire” (the secret of being a bore is to tell everything). You see, knowledge alone isn’t enough for me so this isn’t a site which tempts me into staying long.

Everything seems to be in order. It is very well laid out and organized, revealing a huge source of vinous information. Jancis and her team (which she rather self-importantly calls ‘Team JR’) generate prolific output – the site provides some global coverage and does print, web and (poor quality) video. There are news, views, features, tasting notes, maps, an events diary, access to the Oxford companion, expertise, information on food and wine stores, restaurants, discussion forums and recommendations.

It is the site which, on the face of it, nearly has it all, and is worthy of A*. Yet it doesn’t leave me satisfied. I have thought about this site more than any of the others because I have struggled to solve the puzzle – how do I reconcile its apparent excellence with my disappointment? After all, it can’t be me who is wrong…

I have concluded that for all its wisdom and knowledge, what it lacks is passion, colour and humour in most of the writing compared to many of the other wine sites. And it provides little insight into the people who make the wine. I will get accused of generalising but this is my overriding impression after years of reading and related articles.

Many articles and notes are distilled into a faultless presentation of facts and conclusions, like a technically perfect but dull exam answer. Or perhaps a better analogy would be a faultless but utterly uninteresting wine. I am not after quantified, laboratory-standard accuracy or perfect results and opinions; but I do want to be seduced by the subject matter. I want some passion, wit and controversy in the writing because how the knowledge is conveyed is as important at the knowledge itself. The writing is often just too factual and wooden. Others may like this clipped style but I don’t. I know this is my style preference which determines this very subjective point of view, but this is what I think.

What do I mean by passion? I mean people who, because of how they write tasting notes, can get my mouth watering, drawing me momentarily into their sensory world, allowing me to experience what they experience regularly. Someone who can get me excited about a subject by sheer force of personality, affection for the subject, writing style and knowledge, and make me want to travel to the wine regions they are visiting and describing. Knowledge alone can’t do this and that is why doesn’t ‘do it’ for me. Conversely, Parker, Molesworth and others do.

However, I do like the look of Alex Hunt, one of her contributors. His rapid fire, more irreverent and pugnacious writing style is much more appealing than much of the other tedious and bland stuff on the site, including Yellow Arrow’s, I mean Alder Yarrow’s. With the exception of a few of his articles, I can’t get past paragraph two. His writing can be insufferably dull and stiff, just like a starched white, button-downed shirt worn by a lawyer in a John Grisham novel. Please oh please provide some more interesting insight, wit, colour, passion… anything to relieve the boredom.

When I read the sites, articles and tasting notes of James Molesworth/WS or Robert Parker or Jamie Goode or John Livingstone-Learmonth, their writing seduces me into wanting to taste the wines and visit the growers, but I never feel that with I look to the writer to reveal the life and soul of the wines. I am as interested in the context (stories, history, food, people, sport – their whole culture) of wine as much as what is in the glass because this conveys so much more to me than the simple recital of intricate flavours and aromas. Yes the latter are important but I need more.

Jancis’ site is centred on tasting notes, and while there is some information on growers, it isn’t enough or particularly easy to find. Compare it for example with Parker’s site where the grower information is everywhere and can be found alongside the tasting notes. Or James Molesworth/WS where the producers feature as much as the wines.

Some will disagree but the role of the wine critic, in my view, is not just to educate and inform but to entertain too, and doesn’t do this for me. Parker’s site and James Molesworth/WS are full of knowledge but they evince passion and style as well.

Jancis – please bring more passion, humour, controversy, irreverence and colour to balance your undoubted expertise.

But trying to put aside my subjective preferences (like a good critic tries to do), if it is knowledge and information you are after, it is an impressive site. She clearly runs an impressive operation and has a very knowledgeable team supporting her.

Her tasting notes are quite pithy but understandable: Here’s an example of one:

René Rostaing, Côte Blonde 2009 Côte Rôtie
Scented and concentrated. Very fresh and pointed. For the moment very youthful indeed. A little inky on the end. For Rostaing this is quite dramatic! It will need quite a while.

Here are my scores for Jancis and

Jancis Robinson and
Generalist web site and publication, suitable for all consumer groups but notably the trade and expert enthusiast.

Web site look, functionality and ease of use: up to 15 points

The web site is a very good example for any consumer-based site. It is well designed and works very well. It is suitable for all consumer groups. However, it is considerably weaker on video that WS and James Suckling.

Ability to inform the consumer (keep them up to date on news and events): up to 15 points

Very regular updates across a wide variety of topics

Ability to educate the consumer (provide depth and breadth of content): up to 15 points

The site has excellent depth and breadth of content. It is right up there with the best sites although it could use video better.

Ability to entertain the consumer (so the information and education is easy
to assimilate and enjoy): up to 15 points

This site is more about educating and informing than entertaining. It uses all the media (articles, blogs, videos) in a simple way so is capable of communicating effectively even if the writing lacks colour. It could improve a lot on its use of videos – quite limited and not slick.

Quality of tasting notes: up to 15 points

Jancis and her team write clearly and concisely but it lacks the evocative, purple prose of Parker and Molesworth

Overall impression: ability to communicate with target audience, using both online and print media: up to 25 points

It is an impressive site and source of information even though it lacks some love and soul.

A grade

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