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Cha, cha, cha, changes…Spanish wine needs to learn from the Pancho affair

Jay Miller is out. Neal Martin is in.

This is the story that spilled onto “the Twitter“, in the blogosphere, and onto “the Facebooks”. Regurgitated and recycled from one blog to another showing that there is no limit to the amount of naval gazing possible by any niche community. The scandal relates to whether Pancho Campo charged money to make Jay Miller magically appear  in any given Spanish wine region’s back yard so that Parker‘s surrogate point giver Jay, could bestow a fresh layer of numerical digits upon the Spanish countryside. Read the full details here if you’ve been under a rock this week.

Between you and me, I think Pancho is guilty and Jay is just lazy. For Jay not to know implies ignorance, and while Jay may be ignorant about Spanish table wine under 15% alcohol, he’s no dummy, or so I’m told. And for anyone who thinks that Pancho is not buddying up to the Parker crew so as to sell bigger and better tickets to his events, not to mention raise funds for his “seminars” when Jay’s in town, well, there’s a bridge that just came on the market. Interested?

Pancho once said to me, “Ryan, I’m a business man…”, a statement made after he had turned down a proposal where I had asked for actual money from him to help promote WineFuture1 through live video. I agree he is a business man, and business men by their own admission can be quite slimy. Wine is secondary to Pancho, business is first. We wanted to promote the wine event, but he wanted to line his pockets with more of Rioja’s euros(disclosure my accommodations were paid, as a speaker at this event). Wine Future exists, not because it discusses the future of wine, but rather because a bunch of people whose names are at the top of the wine industry’s glittery rankings all get together on stage for a big group hug. And in doing so, Pancho can then raise enough money to live a life high on the hog.

I’m a bit envious actually. I wish I cared less about wine, and was more cut throat. In being so, I might actually be living in a better apartment, driving a bigger car (actually any car would be a step up, currently carless for 7 years now), drinking better wines, and doing as I please.

Now I’m sure at this point some of you are wondering what happened. This nice little blog that simply helps wine loving travelers to find tips on what to buy and what tapas to eat has all of a sudden gone rogue! I guess the simple explanation is that I felt this needed to be said, and with the “end” so near, I say “why not”! The wine industry here in Spain and in Portugal is suffering and mainly due to ego and silly politics. Nothing more. Pancho is not the problem by himself but rather a nice indicator of a system that’s broken. It makes him an easy target. I feel bad for him in that way, but then again, I can’t say he didn’t ask for it.

Back to Spain.

When I started in wine in the 90’s, while living in Minnesota, Spain was an up and coming wine region. Today, it still is. In that time South Africa up and came, Austria, Chile and many more. In fairness, the wines here have gotten considerably better in that time period, but on the other hand, they ‘ve been good for a long time. The question being, why is Spain so often struggling to be accepted as a quality wine country?

Personally, I’m sick of it! Spain makes great wine and should be recognized as a quality wine producing country – at the same level as France, Italy, and others. And to be clear, these quality Spanish wines I’m referring to do not include wines such as the  100pt anointed splinter ridden, syrupy, over-extracted fruit bombs of Toro, or the big “new style Rioja’s” that often have enough tannin to warrant a 2 year decanting so as to make them safe for human consumption. Oak, by and large, is a disease in Spain. And though the trend is waning, we still tremble when opening a Spanish red in fear that another wooden lollipop full of fruit juice flavors will pour forth. All that said, there is amazing quality here, under the 90pt ceiling, even lower sometimes!

Spanish wine for us is white and often bubbly. It’s a wine that is fresh and crisp and often preceded with a statement from the winemaker that goes like; “This is just our basic wine, it is not serious, just something fun”. Well, I’m serious when I say that this IS the wine we love, and it’s not  the wine that Mr. Miller would be giving any points too(not sure if they could afford them). We consistently find ourselves being drawn to these simple wines. Fruit driven Godellos, herbal Mencias, fresh Carignans, silly little Moscatos, and fruity Tempranillos that show us their berry laden underbellies as they dance across our palate. Our award winning wines we purchase here in Spain rarely cross the 15€ mark, though they do stray into the upper tiers every so often. We can’t deny loving wines of all calibers, but we still gravitate to the “simple”.

Sadly, Neal has no chance of helping us out in this regard. Neal Martin is a great taster. Granted he has admitted a certain ignorance of Spanish wine, and I personal don’t find this to be an issue, having seen the ratings that Jay Miller has given over the past few years to Spanish wines, I’m sure many would agree it doesn’t appear he harbored much knowledge himself about Spanish wines. If it wasn’t red and rich, both in price and character, with a few exceptions, Jay didn’t seem to see to care much. So I don’t think Neal will do poorly. I’m sure he can hand out random numbers as well as any other wine critic. I just don’t see the style focus changing that much. I truly hope I’m wrong.

However, I truly wish Spain would change. There are already grumblings over Jay’s replacement, but in all sincerity, Who Cares?! He’ll give out numbers, and you will put them in press releases, and the country and wineries will say, “See we get big numbers too…” and all will be happy. But it really won’t. We’ll still be reliant on someone else to sell our wine. Shifting responsibility for our sales, or lack there of, to a third party. Again more whining and kevetching, but no real work. No change of attitude.

But I have a dream. The dream is fanciful, and at times, powerfully emotional; but in the end, it’s a simple construct of an overly active imagination. The dream starts with a tableau: one where the wineries look out at each other, everyone on their own boat, floating in a sea of wine. Instead of trying to out paddle their neighbor, searching for the shore by themselves, struggling to stay afloat, they join hands and begin to link boats together with small strands of magical string. Forming a flotilla that moves rapidly through cooperation and coordination, they explore new directions and water. Now, granted, I know this is a dream, because no one is using the phrase, “What about me?” in my version. Instead, they are saying, “We can go further and grow stronger”. The larger rafts cautiously avoid the hidden reef of “points”, and “shiny medals”, wise to their dangers, while the ones not willing to tie up to the group teeter cautiously on point ladden reefs, hoping they will not float adrift.

The “points” reef is a real danger. When you land on it in calm waters, it can provide stability and structure, allowing the freedom to breathe and not worry about perpetual paddling. But we all know that in a storm that same sense of stability can tear apart the strongest foundations. In my dream, the flotilla quickly moves beyond, trying to seek out more stable lands. The dream usually ends when the flotilla connects with boats and rafts of other niches. Avoiding those sharp and scary reefs, the wise winemakers throw a rope to fellow wine drinkers who are out enjoying a thing we call life. Laughing, drinking, sharing stories, they will even break the consumer barrier and become “friends”.

I know it’s a silly dream. Removing the needle of points from the arm of Spain’s wine industry (heck who am I kidding, the whole damn wine industry) is going to take a lot more than a blog post and knowledge of the pointy reefs. No, it will take more of us wine communicators talking about life and opening a nice bottle while we do it. Being human first and geek second. Points have a place, they just don’t need to be taking up the whole table!

Spain’s addiction to points helped create the mess that is the “Jay and Pancho Affair”. They are just guilty as the person who brings the “point giver” in exchange for money, or the point giver who naively thinks he’s not involved.

Pancho, you’re helping the industry. We know the industry is full of “Languedoc Pinot Noir” and “La Mancha flavored Riojas”. Many a critic as been paid to write a favorable article and I’m sure you’re not the first to try sell the opportunity for  points to a region. You just helped us all see how dirty it makes us feel. You’re helping the industry to realize, or I would hope, that this whole imbalance of power that is given to the “point weilders” is wrong. Thank you.

Spain, I say to you, invest in relationships, not with critics and communicators. Invest in real wine drinkers. And within your own market, cultivate a culture where wineries collaborate to raise the Spanish wine industry as a whole. Spend money on the crazy ideas and small projects that are working to present a united front of Spanish wine. Leave the medals and points to the accountants, you have great wines, be confident in that. Make friends with those who are not celebrity, but rather those that pay money each day for another glass of vinous liquid. The wine drinkers not the wine spitters. You can do it!

Consumer, you know what to do. Grab a corkscrew. Find a bottle, and make sure you have a friend or two with you. Get a couple of glasses, shape has no importance. Then start drinking. While your doing it, laugh a little. Smile. Heck go for it and cry a little. Just make sure to savor the flavors. It’s good for you. Oh and make sure to invite me!

Hope you enjoyed this one. It felt good to get it off my chest. Time to open a bottle of something pointless.


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