Fresh from the Bordeaux 2017 En-Primeur tastings, we caught up with Lisa Perrotti-Brown after her first campaign as Bordeaux writer for the Wine Advocate and the responsibilities that brings. The Wine Advocate still remains a key influencer in terms of wine review and what they write will have huge repercussions on the success of the vintage as a whole as well as sales of individual wines themselves. Lisa states that “perhaps the most difficult job of a reviewer is to make such a complicated vintage as 2017 accessible to readers. To bastardize a Shakespeare quote, “Brevity is the soul of wine writing” (as opposed to “wit”). If I’m being critical with myself, I would like to continually strive to articulate the soul of the vintage with impactful brevity and without short changing or dumbing it down”. At the same time she state trade and consumers have to get out of the habit of dissociating scores from tasting notes. One means nothing without the other. A score indicates where a wine sits qualitatively within a peer group, but it tells you absolutely nothing about what the wine is like.
Read Part 1 of our interview with Lisa Perrotti-Brown which focusses on her journey to becoming the Wine Advocate Editor in Chief and Bordeaux reviewer, how she prepared and approached the Bordeaux 2017 en-primeur tastings and her thoughts on the campaign that followed.
- Bordeaux en-primeur 2017 was your first as the official Bordeaux reviewer for the Wine Advocate, but do you feel it has been a long time coming? Can you give us the background of your career and what got you to this point?
Like many wine lovers, one of the first regions that drew me to wine was Bordeaux. In the early 1990s, I managed a wine bar in Pimlico, London. Bordeaux was very popular with the regulars at that time—they drank everything from everyday clarets to sky’s-the-limit bottles. So, I was fortunate to be able to sample a wide range of Bordeaux wines at all price points very early on in my career. In the mid-1990s, I went to work for Corney & Barrow, the UK agents for Pétrus, the Ets Jean-Pierre Moueix portfolio, DRC, etc., doing on-trade sales for restaurants, hotels and bars. I don’t need to tell you what an incredibly rich learning experience working for a top UK wine merchant was! At Corney & Barrow, I had the opportunity to be formally educated on the Bordeaux region, with access to regular tastings with winemakers and château owners as well as sales trips to Bordeaux.
In 2002, I moved to Tokyo and became a wine buyer for one of the top wine importers in Japan, with Bordeaux being a major part of the company’s portfolio. I was therefore able to continue my annual en-primeur pilgrimages. By this time, I was already writing formal tasting notes and giving scores for the importer’s, as well as my own, benefits.
I started working for Robert Parker in 2008 and my first regions for critical review for his publication were Australia and New Zealand. In 2012, when I took over the position of Editor-in-Chief, Parker was still reviewing the wines of Bordeaux. It honestly never occurred to me then that I would one day have the opportunity to review Bordeaux for Robert Parker Wine Advocate. When the chance came up in late 2017, I could not have been more excited. I cut my teeth on the wines of Bordeaux early in my wine education and career—so it felt a bit like coming home.
- Bordeaux 2017—how was your first en-primeur campaign as the Wine Advocate reviewer?
Whenever a reviewer takes on a new region, it requires an enormous amount of work to build the foundations for one’s individual system of working. Every little detail needs to be considered: which hotels you will call home base, the communes you will focus on, how many days to allot per commune, who to visit (and you can’t visit everyone!), etc. All the while leaving little gaps in your itinerary for performing the necessary second and third tastes, as the need arises. It doesn’t help that Bordeaux is such a sprawling region with a lot of miles to cover…and the traffic around the city just gets worse and worse. So, just getting the logistics in place before my 2017 en primeur trips was incredibly challenging. And before you ask, no—I do not have an assistant who does this, nor would I want one. I’m a bit of a control freak like that.
Upon careful consideration of the 2017 primeur tasting enigmas—especially with Easter falling in the middle of the primeur visit period and the unique nature of the vintage—I decided early on that I would break my reporting up into two visits, one in mid-March and another in early April, equating to 24 total days in Bordeaux. Although it may have appeared a bit like overkill at the time, the earlier March visits were essential for laying the ground work and getting the story behind the story. For all but one of the châteaux I visited, I was the first critic to come and taste their 2017s in March. But, I hasten to add, this wasn’t about being “first” to rush our notes out. In fact, we didn’t publish any notes or scores until end of April. These earlier visits were about taking time, while the winemakers had time, to discuss the vintage in greater detail. By the end of March and into April, none of the winemakers would have had any time to talk; it becomes a mad rush. Another point, dare I say it, is that by primeurs week most of the wineries have their marketing patter down. I wanted to speak with them when they were still able to discuss the vintage freely and candidly without time pressures and before wineries could formulate stock responses.
- I would assume the 2017 vintage was a difficult one to begin with, due to it being atypical and quite unique. What were your thoughts as you tasted through the wines?
It was a wonderfully unusual vintage to taste—like tasting two vintages in one, which spawned my idea for writing the The Gemini Wines preview article. I loved the surprises and conundrums that this vintage yielded. From a trade/financial perspective however, it wasn’t quite so exciting.
It was during my first round of visits in Bordeaux that the penny dropped for me that this vintage was, by its very nature, most likely doomed to be a damp squib of a campaign. One thing I have learned following all my years in the trade is that the more money people are prepared to spend on a great vintage, the less money they are willing to fork out for a less-than-perfect vintage. This is because the value for the consumer is not just what is inside the bottle, but the first impression that the bottle will elicit. Therefore, especially in the case of Bordeaux, the vintage is as equally powerful a brand as is the label itself and the score. The major problem this year was not that there are no spectacular 2017 wines—there are! But 2017 is not universally great, like say, 2000, 2005, 2009 or 2010. Certainly, it was not nearly as consistent as 2015 or 2016. And you can’t even really say it was a Right Bank or Left Bank year, which, barring the possibility of being a universally great year, is the kiss of death in terms of vintage status.
- Do you think too much emphasis is placed on the overall opinion of vintage when reviewed? In anything but a terrible vintage (like 2013 Bordeaux for example), I often think when I am tasting wines from the same vintage it tends to be producer skills and terroir that determine the quality of the wine over and above vintage (while vintage obviously can add nuance/ personality to the wine). It seems such a shame when a great wine in a less than perfect vintage is often lost in the vintage overview.
It would be nice to imagine a world where simplifications like great vs lousy vintages didn’t exist, but I fear without such short cuts as vintage generalizations global fine consumption would rapidly head into recession. We wine dorks sometimes forget how complicated wine is. The vast majority of the wine drinking population are only prepared to commit so much time and energy to learning about a topic that is, by its very nature, impossible to fully master. Learning the universally great Bordeaux vintages as a general marker for quality is a short cut that serves many consumers well and I don’t think they should be chastised for using vintages thus nor do I think that they should be financially penalized for doing so, which is pretty much what the pricing of the 2017 primeurs has done. We need to get into the mindset of the consumer and accept how much commitment they are prepared to make, not try and bully them into our mindset. Because that’s the quickest way to lose consumers.
- How can this best be managed by critics and the trade?
Well, critics and trade have two very different agendas. The trade provides services for consumers whereas critics serve consumers. It’s our job to tell consumers the good, the bad and the ugly about a vintage. We need to discover everything that happened, both anecdotally and via the glass, and then essentialize it. But we would not be doing our jobs if we downplayed the inconsistent nature of a vintage. This said, I think what we can all do – critics and trade – is make consumers aware of the vast range of styles available in any given vintage and the quality levels that exist across those styles. This is probably going to sound like heresy coming from me, but I do feel very strongly that we need to get trade and consumers out of the habit of dissociating scores from tasting notes. One means nothing without the other. A score indicates where a wine sits qualitatively within a peer group, but it tells you absolutely nothing about what the wine is like. How can you know if you will like a wine, if you don’t even know what it is like? Coming back to Bordeaux, this huge, sprawling region produces a vast array of styles. You know what style you like, I know what style I like, but neither of us is going to know what style we’re buying if we only look at the score. If critics and trade sincerely want to serve / service the consumer and help them navigate vintages, then we need to make it easy for them to find the wines that they are going to love within those vintages. In my Bordeaux report about the bottled 2015s, I took a first step towards doing this by highlighting what I saw as three major, very distinct red wine styles produced that year across the communes, describing those styles and splitting the greatest wines of that vintage into those style categories. This is something that I hope to continue doing for vintage reports on newly bottled Bordeaux wines going forward.
With regards to pricing, sadly it appears the Bordelaise tend only to factor in pricing precedent and score. They do not seem take into account the power of that vintage brand, which is huge. Think about the difference in the reaction a bottle of 2000 placed on the table will elicit from your average consumer with a little knowledge vs a 1999 or a 2001, regardless of what the wine is. The truth is, if the consumer isn’t being offered any vintage cachet, the price needs to reflect this, with a significant drop compared to other recent vintages that do have cachet. It’s only my view, but I think the Bordelaise would have won a lot of favor with the consumer if they had started with a baseline 33% reduction on 2016—negating the vintage factor in the perceived value altogether, as “2017” essentially has no value to most consumers. A few chateaux like Troplong Mondot and La Mondotte seemed to get this and came out with spot-on pricing at around a third off their 2016 release prices, which make for fair deals considering both produced pretty spectacular wines. But, sadly, their strategy was the exception and not the rule.
- There was a lot of talk about the 2017 vintage even prior to the en-primeur tastings. Had you read much about the vintage before tasting?
Of course! The wonderful thing about social media these days is that you can keep track of the growing season and occurrences via a myriad of different voices, perspectives and agendas. But while it is important to intimately know the growing season, vineyards and winemaking, it is also important to be aware that these will only fill you in on how and why a wine came to be as it is. The only absolute truth about the quality of a wine and ultimately the vintage is in the glass.
- What have you learned from the en-primeur campaign and would you do anything differently next year?
To bastardize a Shakespeare quote, “Brevity is the soul of wine writing” (as opposed to “wit”). Perhaps the most difficult job of a reviewer is to make such a complicated vintage as 2017 accessible to readers. That is to say, it can be a challenge to essentialize all the need-to-know facts in order for our readers to quickly and easily make informed buying decisions. 2017 was particularly difficult because there was a lot of background info that needed explaining and I’m afraid that may have just turned into background noise. If I’m being critical with myself, I would like to continually strive to articulate the soul of the vintage with impactful brevity and without shortchanging or dumbing it down.
- Following the retirement of Parker, the number of critics has expanded considerably. Is this a positive or negative thing? Why?
Positive! There is always room in the wine world for more relevant, well-informed, talented critics with open minds and without agendas. Why? Because apart from better serving the consumer as a collective, we help guide readers toward improved wine drinking experiences and, I hope, appreciating the culture of wine as opposed to the cult of alcohol.
- How hard is it for a pro reviewer to disengage from a relationship or the reputation of a wine or winemaker when reviewing?
Professional reviewers must keep a healthy distance from the trade—this should go without saying. But, many critics trot out this relationship/reputation aspect as their rationale for tasting blind. I’m shocked whenever I hear this. If you are a professional critic, then you must taste every wine with an open mind and without bias. Period. Price, reputation, regional quality hierarchy (Grand Cru, 1er Cru, etc.), person behind the label, terroir, previous track record—none of these factors matter. The only thing that matters is what is in the glass. If a critic believes that they will be influenced by a famous label, high price tag or designation, then they probably should quit reviewing wines and go get some more experience.