31 Mar 2011

The great Bordeaux "futures" farce starts up again

This article is probably only of special interest to those who follows matters of wine closely. Although, when I think about it, the whole business that I am about to describe could be put down as a modern version of the Comedy of Errors, and so has some application to human behaviour in general.

Every year, when daffodils are out, the birds in full song, and leaves are beginning to bud and burst, the wine world of Bordeaux gets itself in gear for what has now become its major annual collective promotional campaign. This could be called the Futures Game. What are we talking about here?

These annual tastings, which now last for at least a week and involve a cast of thousands, have been organised in various forms every year by the Bordeaux wine trade for their major customers (importers and wholesale wine merchants) for as long as I can remember. For example I have memories of my father, who spent all his life in the wine trade, going to Bordeaux each year during the 1950's and 1960's to taste wines and make decisions as to which would be bought by his company for delivery to England a year or two later, then for bottling (in those days wines were mostly shipped in bulk) and storage by his company before being sold, sometimes years later, to private customers. These were more or less formal events of a purely commercial nature, organised by the Bordeaux négociants whose job it is to sell the wines that they buy, or contract to buy, from the wine estates (or châteaux in this instance). The public, and even the press, ignored them.

It should be remembered that the top level châteaux, with very few exceptions, do not sell their wines directly to importers, even less to the general public: they go through a complex chain which includes first a local merchant (known as négociant in French), and then importers, for export markets, as well as retailers of various kinds. All of this naturally increases the prices of the wines to the final consumer. The idea of buying the wine early, before it is bottled or shipped, is to get it at a lower price by taking a risk. This often works out for the buyer, but not always. If the wine sells this way, the producer is laughing all the way to the bank as he has cash for a product that he hasn't finished. It should be underlined that only a small percentage of all Bordeaux is able to sell its wine this way, but the media attention given to thsese events make for (usually) excellent coverage for the whole region.

Nowadays these tastings have not only been moved forward in the year (from May/June to March/April), they have also been opened up to en ever-incresing population of all kinds of wine professionals, from a growing number of countries, but also to all kinds of hangers-on and friends of producers and/or négociants. The result is a pretty good stab at organised chaos, although the official tastings organised sine 1973 by l'Union des Grands Crus, the largest collective grouping of top châteaux, are in fact perfectly organised. This year, for the tastings of the 2010 vintage, they are expecting some 5000 tasters as from Monday April 4th!
What has created some furore in press circles (we could call this a storm in a wine cup, given the low relative importance of this issue compared to other current affairs in the world) is the fact that some press members, eager to scoop a story, have "jumped the gun", already tasting a lot of wines in unknown (to us) conditions, and even publishing their opinions on the web. These greedy individuals are perhaps simply obeying the logic of all forms of journalism, where speed is of the essence. Yet it is not my idea of the right approach in this case, where greater subtlety is required to estimate the future quality of a wine which is not yet stable. In any event the wines are all being tasted far too young for anyone to be sure that they will actually resemble the finished product. Many barrels have not gone through their malo-lactic fermentation and so special barrels have been selected to prepare the samples. And none of the wines have finished their barrel-ageing phase, and so none can possibly be in their finished form.

In the past, when I used to go to these events, time and time again I tasted samples which were more or less different from the wine bearing the same name that I tasted a couple of years later, after bottling. And yet producers will be issuing prices for these young wines that are not finished, and many journalists accept to publish ratings, rantings, tasting notes and so on, some of which will serve to fuel the price positioning game which is the next phase of this very juicy business. Juicy for some, essentially on the production and selling side of course, as the "futures" sold mean cash in hand for the relatively small number of producers (maybe 5% of the total number in Bordeaux, but as much as 25% of the total value of all wines produced there) who manage to sell their wines through this system of buy-before-you-get.

The French term "farce" has an interesting double meaning in this context: one is the same as in English, signifying a slap-stick comedy; the other signifies the English word "stuffing". Guess who is being stuffed here? A mixture, as with all good stuffings! Press, retailers and the final buyer, in many cases. The system has become corrupt and hypocritical in that it pretends to be what it cannot be. Recently a Burgundian appellation, Gevrey-Chambertin, decided to ban all official tastings of unfinished wines to the press. They are of course perfectly right. Unfortunately, the amount of money at stake in the market for Bordeaux futures has become so considerable that I cannot see this system coming to an end for a long while. 

Good luck!

30 Mar 2011

Rosé comes with spring, and at different prices

The fashion for rosé wines has gone crazy here in France over recent years. And, so I hear, in a few other markets. Somebody even told me the other day (he was naturally a producer of rosé wine) that the French now buy more rosé than white. This seems quite hard to believe, and even to understand. But on the rare occasions when I venture into those horror chambers that are known as supermarkets (I am lucky to live in a place that has many street markets and still some good independant food shops), I do seem to see more shelf space devoted to rosé wines than to white.

At any rate, with the advent of spring, us wine hacks are regularly invaded by numerous samples of rosés (yes, I know, all of you who are not in the business are tut-tutting and saying: the poor sods, what a tough life!). And yet we do our conscientious best to do these samples proper justice by tasting them all. I have just received wines from two of the large-scale producers in Provence, the region which has, over recent years, become, for better or for worse, almost synonymous with this type of wine. The producers are Castel, one of France's wine giants in terms of size, and Gassier, which is part of the slightly less huge Advini group. The rosés I received from them are clearly at the upper end of the market, as for the 7 bottles we tasted, the price scale runs from 5 euros to a whacking 25 euros (gulp!).

I should first apologize for the very messy backdrop in my hastily improvised studio in the living room of my small flat. I promise to do this kind of thing better in the future, but I was in a hurry to write this piece.

In front we have the 3 wines that my colleague Sébastien and I preferred, unanimously. Interestingly enough they include the least expensive wine of the seven (5 euros, on the left) and the most expensive (a silly 25 euros, on the right). In the middle is a wine that sells for 7 euros.

I won't bore you with details such as tasting notes, as that is not the point here. What I do want to say is that there seems, in this instance at least, to be little correlation between price and a scale of quality. I will admit that the most expensive wine was the best. But, to be quite honest, if I was having a picnic or a barbecue with family and friends, I could almost buy a case of 6 bottles of the least expensive of these wines (the one on the left un the front row) for that price of a bottle of the one on the right. And I am quite sure that nobody would feel that I was being a cheap-skate and serving them with indifferent wine. The 5 euro wine is perfectly good, refreshing and with enough fruit flavour to give it character. In other words, I have yet to be totally convinced by the added value of expensive rosés.  

29 Mar 2011

Girls on motorcycles 3

I know, I have been sadly remiss in my posts for the past few days.

Work (of the sort that earns us a living) has its priorities, from time to time. Of course, in a way, all is work and so all can also be construed as play. But I dislike this kind of sophism, especially when we think of jobs being done, in many parts of the world, that very few people would elect to do if they had such a thing as real choice and a lack of constraints of various kinds.

At the time of writing, I think in particular of all those working in Japan to attempt to deal with the consequences of nature's brute power and man's lack of control of that power (not to mention his lack of foresight!). But also of all those who, around the world, do (often for all of their lives) unpleasant and badly paid jobs because they have no choice, just in order to survive. We who have the great good fortune to live otherwise should not forget this.

Now to today's post which has nothing to do with the above, and which could be seen as a form of indecence on my behalf on account of that. I have chosen, for the major part of this blog so far, to concentrate on the sunny side of life, even if we probably need shade to appreciate light, and vice-versa. This is another debate to which I will perhaps return one day.

I have made 2 posts on the subject of lady bikers on this blog. You can find them here:



And now here is a third one...
First of all you should know that there is, in the UK, at least one magazine devoted to the topic and bearing the title Lady Biker.

Now before I get accused of being sexist (or whatever) on account of just showing good-looking ladies on bikes, I would like to remind everbody out there that it takes all shapes, sizes and everything to make a world. But, as my friend Mark Williams has recently mentioned, large people can cause some problems. And we would have to include bikes in this field. On the left we have an example of what can occur when wieght to power ratios get out of hand. (and yes, she is...very brave as well as being very big).

Going back in time, riding in groups (or packs, if you prefer that kind of silly "Wild Bunch" language) was not restricted to the male gender of our species. This picture (by the look of the garb and the bikes) dates from the late 1910's or early 1920's, almost certainly in the US of A.

Talking about time (or time warps), how about this? Anyone spot the anchronisms here? And the country?

I mentioned in my previous post on this subject the apparent differences between US biker ladies and German ones (at least for the examples shown). How about Russia then (see left)?

To return the the USA, the attitude may seem freer, but one should perhaps beware of imitations and, as always, of fashions which tend to travel faster than the plague.

Here in Western Europe, our lady bikers are perhaps (for the most part) a touch more conventional and clearly more sensibly dressed than their counterparts on the other side of the pond, indeed in a similar mould to most of the men.

Finally, I cannot resist showing you another picture of my favourite lady biker, Leslie, the Queen of Speed (at least in the USA). See also the post Girls on motorcycles 2. I hasten to add that she does not ride that Fireblade in anger dressed like that.


26 Mar 2011

Overcrowded exhibitions

I love looking at paintings and other stuff in galleries or museums. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will realise that. But I do dislike very crowded places, and this includes museums. Hence the growing popularity of major exhibitions has made me avoid going to most of them simply on account of the sheer numbers of other human beings that throng to these shows.

I am not about to take a totally elitist stance on this issue (or maybe I am, after second thoughts), but I find it quite insufferable to either stand in a queue for hours, or, even worse, to be amongst a pack of humans inching past paintings that one cannot even stop and contemplate at one's leisure without having some idiot's hat floating in front of your eyes (hats should be banned indoors anyway), or having hot breath poured down one's neck, or hearing ridiculously banal comments all the time, not to mention the life stories of one's immediate and unchosen neighbours.

What makes matters even worse is that clearly 50% of the people there should be somewhere else anyway, because they don't even try to look at the paintings. They are far more intent in reading the captions places alongside. I suppose it must reassure them to know the name of the painting and where it is usually hung. Maybe even to read the name of the artist, although they should know that by heart since they have actually paid to come to see an exhibition of this person's work. Perhaps they would spend even more time looking at the captions if the current value of the painting was added. I think that some day I will sat up an exhibition with empty frames and just the captions alongside. It might well be a huge success.

Why don't all these people just buy a catalogue and flick through the pages? This would probably halve the numbers of unseeing lookers in museums and shows and let the rest of us spend the time we want in front of pictures without being pushed, shoved, blocked, trampled and generally considered as cattle by the organisers.  

24 Mar 2011

Portraits through time

These portraits span a period of just over 500 years, with a major gap between the late 17th and late 19th centuries. What has changed, apart from the invention of motor-cars and people's clothing?

Posted by Picasa

23 Mar 2011

The Allman Brothers Band

The other day I saw a poster in the Paris metro advertising a coming concert by Greg Allman. 40 years on! Hard to believe sometimes how time goes by. Here is a recent picture of Greg Allman. Remember the Allman Brothers band?

They were one of the great blues-rock bands of the 1970's (I suppose my favourite one at the time, at least of the US bands) with all those sometimes over-long guitar solos. Duane, who was in fact an excellent and stylish guitarist, was killed in a bike smash in 1971 (no, I am not waxing romantic about bike accidents, in fact I hate them: they are messy and painful, but shit happens).

On left, Greg Allman and Cher back in the 70's

So Greg Allman is back on the road. Be quite interested to hear what he does these days musically. I remember a good singer.

Now here is your little present, which is a nicely done animation by Brett Underhill using different cuts of one of the band's best songs, Blind Willie McTell's Statesboro Blues. The sound jumps a bit because he has put together bits from different tracks and concerts. The composition of the band changed over the years, and this is reflected in the images too. It finishes with a nice little acoustic solo by Duane. Like this a lot. Looking forward to hearing some more.

Ok, the Allman Brothers Band.... from Brett Underhill on Vimeo.

22 Mar 2011

Girls on motorcycles 2

No, this is not going to be about lightly-clothed models draped over bikes in bike shows or in garages. Although they may be very decorative, I doubt whether these ladies actually ride bikes. Some time ago I wrote a piece on this blog about ladies who really do (or have done in some cases) ride motorcycles in earnest. 

I said at the time that I would return to this subject, and I have found some more evidence, starting with this picture from 1907. Not sure that this lady rode very far dressed like this though...

Harleys seem to have been popular with ladies even back in the 1920's. This lady is dressed for the part, although I am not sure that I would have wanted to ride pillion behind her on that thing that looks like an old Brooks bicycle seat.

And, while we are on the subject of Harleys, this one, from the 1940's by the look of it, looks like she meant business.

Harleys were also into the Wild West folklore element, like here. Cute in a way, and nice bike too (I suppose a 1950's Knucklehead, although I am far from an expert in matters Harley)

There is something rather more serious about the German lady biker...

Then we move to contemporary pictures, and how about this lady? Her name is Leslie Porterfield, she has a motorcycle shop in Dallas, and she is known as the Queen of Speed.

And she really does it too, like here at Bonneville on what looks to be the same machine. She was the fastest lady on 2 wheels in 2008 with this run.

And of course there are many more of them, which is good news as we will definitely come back to this subject in some form or another.

Meanwhile, ride well, and safely, and enjoy the ride...

21 Mar 2011

Wine(s) of the week, from the upper Loire

I realise that have lapsed in feeding this column over the past few weeks, but here we go with a whole range of wines from a small estate/winery in a tiny and little-known region of France. It goes without saying that I find these wines not just unusual, but good and of excellent value for money. Their retail prices (if you can find them) should vary between about 5 and 10 euros (in France), depending on the wine. Their range is bewilderingly large, which is one criticism that I would dare to make to this enterprising and sympathetic young couple whom I met for the second time at this year's Loire Wine Fair back in February. And the labels, as you can see, are refreshingly creative.

The Côtes Roannaise appellation vineyards lie at the southern extremity of the very long (for France) River Loire: in fact close to its source. Bordering on the Massif Central highlands they are far from extensive (just over 200 hectares, or almost 500 acres) and the estates are accordingly of a small scale. The altitude is clearly a significant climate factor here, as the vines lie at between 400 and 500 metres above sea-level. Thus the vine plots are only planted on southerly facing slopes, to maximise sunshine. As in nearby Beaujolais, the soil type is basically granite. Again as in the much larger and more famous neighbour, the red grape used is Gamay. White vines, mostly planted on plots with a higher clay content, use the Chardonnay grape.

Although essentially a wine producer from its 10 hectares of vines (25 acres), the Domaine des Pothiers also raises Limousin cows on their less well-exposed land.

I really like these wines for their crisp definition, clear-as-a-bell fruit flavours, and delicious lightness. And the least expensive products are often just as good as the higher-priced ones. The former are usually made in tanks, whilst the latter tend to undergo some maturing in oak barrels. All are keenly priced though.

My favourites, from my recent tasting, are these: Chardonnay, Vertige, Référence, Cuvée no:6, and Domaine. But I do hope they stop producing new cuvées, and even start reducing the number!

Take a look at their well made web site (unfortunately only in French) to get more of an idea...

You will notice that they also have a gite on site for rental. Good place to base yourself for a trip to this region.

20 Mar 2011

My twelfth bike was a Ducati Multistrada 1000DS

As was the case between my first Norton Commando (the 750 Fastback) and the Moto Guzzi La Mans Mk1, there was a bit of a gap between the time I sold (with bitter regrets, but I have since manage to assuage them by buying back the same machine) my Norton Commando 850 MkII and the next machine I owned: this grey Ducati Multistrada 1000. I bought this bike new in the summer of 2002, if I remember correctly.

I have always been keen to run a Ducati but, to be honest, was not that eager to have the small of my back and my wrists tortured during the long rides that I planned and enjoy. Hence exit, at least for the time being, dreams of the fabulous but uncompromising sports bikes for which Ducati is rightly famed. Years ago when working part-time as a tester/photographer for Bike magazine in the UK I had ridden, in and around the factory, a 750SS prototype. I just loved the sound and feel of it, whilst hating the belting it gave my body on everyday roads. This must have been in about 1972/73. Much later on (30 years, how time flies!), when the firm from Bologna brought out the Multistrada, and depite is somewhat ungainly looks (although it has its good angles), I instantly felt that this would be the ideal combination for a now slightly older biker who still likes his ride to go fast, brake and corner well, and yet not turn him into a basket case at the end of each trip of above 100 miles. The Multistrada offered me the mechanics of a sports bike with adjustable and confortable supension and a sensible riding position for road use.

Having run it in quite carefully, I found not much to criticise in the bike. It went quite fast enough for my limited capacities on normal roads, although it did tend to thump and protest a bit below 3000 rpm. The acceleration had plenty of "grunt" and the bike held a line well, although it was not that keen on uneven surfaces when leant over a bit. The braking was spectacular (well, what modern bike wouldn't be compared to the Commando I had previously owned, but I did also have the benchmark braking of the Guzzi Le Mans embedded in the seat of my pants!). Luckily I tend to brake mainly with the front item as the back brake is not that great. The worst thing about it for my use was the seat: hard as nails and very uncomfortable. I changed it fast for a comfort model (rider and passenger) sold by Ducati and very good. I also changed the screen for a marginally higher one with a slight reverse curve at the top edge which made a lot of difference when cruising on motorways (not that I do much of that). And I fitted removable paniers for those longer trips. One thing I never managed to sort was the silly petrol guage which goes onto reserve more than 100 kms before you run out of petrol. I just got used to that and started counting when the warning light comes on!

The above picture shows me on the grey MS with paniers chasing a red one during the first day of the 2005 Centopassi rally in 2005. At the end of the first day we were based in one place so the paniers stayed behind in the hotel.

The MS is a perfect bike for these mountain roads. The Centopassi rally spends three days in a mountainous part of Europe. I have since joined the European Multistrada Club to do similar things in a more relaxed atmosphere, as the Centopassi was polluted for me by a few young Italians on Japanese superbikes taking themselves for V. Rossi. This is fine on a track, but stupid and inconsiderate on open roads. 

This, my first long-term experience with a Ducati (apart from the spin on the 750SS, I did borrow a 450 single from a friend once, but I had problems starting the thing: it probably needed the timing adjusted or something), was to lead to another, as you will soon discover.

Ride on...

19 Mar 2011

The charioteer of Delphi, in Greece

I visited the site of Delphi a few years ago. Apart from the impressive scale and beauty of this site, a single object has stuck in my mind ever since as one of the most beautiful pieces of sculpture I have ever seen. Delphi is a well-documented site and you can find much about it on the usual sources such as Wikipedia.

I am talking about the work known as the Charioteer of Delphi, also known as Heniokhos (the rein-holder), which can be seen in the museum at the foot of the archaeological site. It was found in 1896, in amazingly good condition, on the site of the temple of Apollo. Originally part of a much larger work that included the chariot and horses, it is said to be the most complete of ancient bronze sculptures.

Parts of the original base of this statue and the legs of one of the horses have also survived. The base shows an inscription indicating that the statue was commissioned by Polyzalus, a ruler of Gela, a Greek colony in Sicily, as tribute to Apollo for helping him win the chariot race during the Pythian games which were held every four years at Delphi. The hippodrome and stadium are still visible. The statue was erected at Delphi in 474 BC.

I have yet to find a photograph (and I regret not having taken one myself) that truly shows the subtleties of this sculptural figure of the charioteer. Somehow, most photographs of sculptures seem to totally miss the subtle dynamics that makes some sculptures come almost alive. In this case, I think it all starts with the feet....

Above is a plaster-cast of the feet of the charioteer, held, I believe, in the Louvre in Paris. It cannot give you the whole idea of what I am attempting to convey, but, if you look at the heel of the foot on the left (your left that is), you will notice that it is clearly carrying less weight than the other foot. And when you see the sculpture and move around it, that right hand heel (the charioteer's right) appears to lift ever so slightly off the ground, poising the weight of his body towards his toes. And the body has that slight twist that turns his head, his torso and his hands ever so slightly to the right, guiding the horses.  

I have looked at hundreds of photographs of this scupture and have yet to find a single one that shows the detail that, to me at any rate, makes it really work: the lightening of the body's weight from one heel. The feet, which are beautifully sculpted, are shown here, but they are seen from the front, which partially misses the point, although you can sense the man's left-foot toes just lifting off the ground, balancing him against the raising of the heel of the other foot (which is not shown on this pictire).

There are also fine detail shots of the right arm and the hand holding the reins, or of the drapes of his garment, all of which of course participate in the beauty of this work.

But I can find no image to show the sublety of what links him to the soil (in fact the platform of the moving chariot), all of which stems from the back of his feet that give the impulsion to balance and set in movement what otherwise could appear to be quite a rigid stance on the part of the charioteer.

I cannot think that I am the only one to have noticed this. Anyone got a picture out there?

18 Mar 2011

Light and shade in Lyon 2

A follow-up to yesterday's post of photographs that I took in Lyon.

all photographs by David Cobbold