This book is a bit of a curate’s egg. I picked it up in a second hand bookshop in Cambridge for the bargain price of 75p. It’s a first edition and has a nice inscription to someone called Richard from ‘Dad and Barbara’. I’m always intrigued by the back story of old books and recently picked up a first (UK 1948) edition of The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, although I had to spend £2.50 to take it home. Despite still collecting old books most of my new reads are on Kindle as I am a convert to this way of reading (especially when travelling).
Wine Snobbery is subtitled ‘An Insider’s Guide to the Booze Business‘. I read it on a recent writing trip to Portugal and designated it as research rather than a recreational read. In some ways it is anachronistic and very rooted in 80s issues such as the ‘antifreeze scandal’ but Barr is a good writer with a tight investigative journalistic style, so it is pretty engaging for someone interested in the history of the wine business, but is not an ‘everyday read’ for the average wine geek or someone seeking entertainment.
Barr covers the emergence of wine brands in the 1960s and the increasing power of supermarkets. It was this which enabled women to buy wine more readily. It also signaled the end for lots of ‘middle men’ because supermarket buyers with big bucks to spend could go straight to producers. They also launched own brands which had negligible advertising costs so were very competitively priced. When they did advertise they were harnessing ideas around authenticity and using them liberally. For example Barr cites Sainsbury’s Pink Champagne in 1984 being described as ‘made by a small family concern’. In fact this ‘small concern’ was Charbaut who were selling two million bottles per year. Their standard champagne was ‘made by Roger Duval’, actually by the house of Duval Leroy who like Charbaut were selling millions of bottles; so not really a cottage industry. Times may change but the spiel remains the same.
Barr rails against ‘advertorials’ and burgeoning product placement. He is very clear about many of the conflicts of interest endemic to the wine world and scathing about critics in the pocket of producers. Parker is mentioned as a paragon of virtue but others fare less well.
There is a brilliant swipe at wine writers and merchants… “To become the first you have to be pushy, to become the second you need lots of money” (page 61). Not much has changed and this is what makes this book fascinating. As with most things, there is an historical continuity and we learn much about the present through the fine detail of the past. It is a very detailed book but at times the research seems lacking and it reads as if it were written by a journalist committed to getting down many thousands of words per day. Admirable in professional terms but not always the recipe for a consistently good read.
Barr does do a pretty good job of sniffing out key issues, such as the complexity of the notion of terroir. He retains a healthy skepticism and ambivalence towards such multifaceted constructs and doesn’t dumb down with his arguments. (A glass of water over the keyboard has put paid to hyphens and question marks on this netbook so I feel like I am writing a lipogram like Gadsby; which has no ‘e’ in it!) For example he explores tensions between beliefs about marginal and cool climates.
One interesting paragraph focussed on a study carried out by the University of Piacenza which looked at wines made in 19 sites in the Tyrol from the Vernatsch grape which, according to Barr, ”showed colour, acidity and aroma substances were all fundamentally affected by the mineral content of the soil” (page 183). I couldn’t find the reference but would like to see the paper if any one has it…