Monday, November 27, 2006

Ponce, meet Dunce. Dunce, meet Ponce.

Welcome to the second era of Oz.

The first era was Oz Clarke's now legendary partnership with Jilly Goolden on Food & Drink. Now, whatever they thought of each other, Oz & Jilly managed to get through to the national consciousness and raise the profile of wine. Unfortunately what we remember most are Jilly's over-the-top descriptions and therefore ridicule their legacy. However, Oz came across as a likeable and knowledgeable chap, and that legacy is very important and should be built upon.

It is for that reason I was very happy to see that Oz was coming back to our screens in not one, but two programmes in the run up to Christmas. However, it now seems you can't move without bumping into him. In the last few weeks alone I have seen him at the London Wine Show, BBC Good Food Show in Birmingham, BBC2 (more on this later) and in various magazines like Harpers and Wine & Spirit. Is that not enough Oz for one year?

Well, we will be seeing more of him (literally I expect) now that the BBC2 show, Oz & James' Big Wine Adventure, with James May is under way. There was much anticipation in the business for this show, some with dread, others with glee. I think I was in the latter category to start, but am wondering whether I expected too much.

The show first aired last week and I sat in my hotel room (after a rather long day at the BBC Good Food Show) to see what this was going to be about. The show is meant to be about Oz introducing "beer drinking","petrol head" and "man of the people" James May to wine. I am all for that concept, as it afforded all sorts of great opportunities to educate interested viewers. However, the producer is obviously a graduate of the reality TV or day time chat show school of television, where every programme must create a tension between different participants in expectation that they'll have a fight.

So instead of being well rested and clear headed, they are made to sleep in a tent together (WHY?). Instead of having someone drive them around so they can both taste wine, they go to top wine producers, and have James taste no wine (DUMB!). Then they have stupid stunts, like driving across a field in a 2CV to see if some eggs might break (not even funny on Top Gear) or making wine from bought grapes in a half gallon quantity with a packet of what looked like bread yeast (simply disgusting).

Why? There are SO MANY clever, fun, relevant things they could have done.

On top of all this, presumably to get a few cheap laughs and get people talking (at least that worked) they show us their two virtually naked bodies in various "wine spa" treatments. Yuk! On both counts.

I had hoped that Oz would come across as he is, an affable wine expert who is not stuffy and old fashioned, and therefore bringing wine to lots of potential new wine consumers. Unfortunately so far he comes across as a dotty old codger without a plan to actually get James on-side and enjoying wine. Why does he insist that there is a "right" answer to how a wine tastes? The whole point about wine is that we each have our own experiences and we should have fun exploring the thousands of wines out there. Why does he not get him to taste a range of wines to compare and contrast instead of getting him to sniff cow pats?

As for James May, well, I guess he is playing his part according to the script. I can't say I was overwhelmed by his style, and I do wish that everyone who has anything to do with Top Gear would stop trying to be Jeremy Clarkson. Get a life, or at least, get a personality of your own!

[For some other reactions, read some other reviews here, here, and here]

I fear that this will be not only an opportunity lost, but will reinforce the misguided stereotypes about wine, and therefore make us worse off.

Let us hope the producer has a trick up his sleeve and will rescue this programme before too long.

Damp Squibs

As could have been predicted, the result was not nearly as dramatic as the trade, the media and the excited consumers might have hoped.

The EU Courts ruled to keep the status quo relating to the payment of duty on wine (and other duty-payable products) imported for personal consumption.

To be honest, I expected this. The law as it is is already very complicated to monitor, and I could already forsee all sorts of ways to get around the remaining Customs oversight if it had changed. Pragmatically, the Court decided that only wines bought in person, in another EU country, and transported back by the consumer themselves would not be liable for duty in the home country.

It is important to note that this ruling did reiterate that even for "personal consumption" purposes, there is a maximum volume of 90L that you can bring in. I do know that a lot of people assume there is no limit, and they also assume that they can ship it without paying further Duty. In many cases the values are too small for Customs to bother with, but the rules are there so you ignore them at your peril.

So, are we any further forward after this? Well, this argument helped to highlight the future benefit of harmonising tax regimes so as to remove this difference, but governments that charge high duty will still need the money, so they will only collect it elsewhere if this source dries up. I will not hold my breath until the UK decides to lower duty on wine & spirits for UK consumers.

Secondly, it did make wine (and cigarettes ... shame we have to be connected all the time) the topic of a national conversation again. Unfortunately this was, once again, all about price and "savings". In practice all you would save was the duty anyway, so it would disproportionately have benefited cheap wines. Not ideal.

Lastly, it did highlight that such a move would push most small merchants over the edge financially. Some of them got a chance to say this to a wider audience because of this story, so maybe, just maybe, there will be some consumers out there who take this to heart and decide to support those merchants by buying their wines from there instead. One can dream.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Tax me baby, one more time

Tomorrow the EU Courts finally give their verdict on the hotly anticipated issue of intra-EU Duty payments on alcohol and tobacco.

I see so many ways this could, and then might not, affect how wine is bought and sold, but I will hold fire until the judgement is released and try and make sense of it.

I suspect that after all the fretting (see how Majestic is getting concerned here), little will change in practice, but it has lots of people talking about wine ... but it is about price, once again.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Give & Take

Good and bad news recently.

On the positive side, I hear that Oz Clarke will be hosting a new wine (well, wine and food) show on ITV. As he says himself, there has been "a bit of a gap" since Food & Drink last aired and we lost his dulcet tones. Thankfully it does not involve Ms Goolden (but we do have to cope with Antony Worrall Thompson).

It may only be a Christmas special, but lets hope it heralds a greater interest in wine, and therefore restarts a wine conversation in this country.

On the negative side, the Independent on Sunday has decided to pull its regular drinks column written by Richard Ehrlich. I have criticised wine columns in the past, but mainly because they are given such tight word counts, and such limited scope, that the editors are boiling them down to mere shopping lists for supermarket brands.

The answer is not to cancel them. I agree that most, although not necessarily this one, are not very interestng, but rather than stopping publishing it, why don't they give their readers something to actually read about! If they dedicated one third of the space used for food or fashion or motoring, someone of Richard's skill would most certainly make this section really worth reading. THAT would attract readers, and that would then attract advertising. I must say I find that news very depressing, particularly coming from the Independent stable that I had some respect for.