Monthly Report - October 2011
A verdant landscape …
The vineyard is simply bursting with new growth. It is full of canes that have grown 50cm in the past 30 days, and do not look like stopping anytime soon. It has been a lovely start to the growing season and we are extremely happy with the levels of growth we are seeing throughout the vineyard, especially after last year where the vines were really struggling with the low groundwater levels due to extremely low rainfall.
Most of the first wire lift is done, we have sprayed undervine, and the slow job of cleaning out the excess growth has begun. It is a slow and methodical task but the results speak for themselves and we are not going to ramp up fruit tonnages or dilute any flavor in any of our wines – we want a true expression of what the vines can do if tended as well as we can possibly do. Though we have had little rainfall for the month (unlike much of the state of Western Australia where our little corner has missed much of this activity), the little we have had has been spaced out nicely and kept all the vines ticking along.
Thus little to report, it is a bit “groundhog day” for the next few weeks while we go through flowering, but once the fruit is set during November / December we will have a much better appreciation on how this vintage will pan out. To date it looks like business as usual.
Shiraz picking at Blue Poles
It is a familiar gait. Driving up to the Howard Park cellar door, I looked across and saw a small guy walking up into the winery and I knew it was James Suckling.
Carrying what appears to be a wine glass storing brief case, he was heading in to meet up with his “team” of Ned Goodwin MW and his PA who were wiring and firing up their laptops in the upstairs tasting room. I had a bottle to add to the tasting and I thought, well I may as well meet the man that forms part of the world of wine critique – and bluffing my way past the 4 cellar door staff (4!) I wandered on in and got to spend 2-3 minutes with him.
Was it more or less than I expected? Well it was neither, it was like meeting anyone who is well known in their field – he was very polite, quietly spoken, and listened attentively to my babbling – even noting one of our wines of interest to him through his contact with the major grower in Italy where the variety is sourced. I looked over 2-3 tables full of booze laid out by grape varieties for them to taste through, and I thought “I’d better leave them to it”. Walking out to the sound of keyboards being tapped at, and the business of what would have been an office anywhere in the world, I thought, he seemed alright to me and showed genuine interest in what we were doing.
James Suckling (left) and me at Howard Park
But James Suckling is an enigma. And to explain this statement I will take you through a potted history of this wine critic and how he has ended up in Wilyabrup, Margaret River drinking (and hopefully enjoying) Blue Poles wines (amongst 100’s of others).
Born in the late 1950’s in Los Angeles, he appears to have been raised in a very well to do family, with his father being an Attorney in Beverley Hills. Suckling developed his taste for great wine thanks in part to his father, who, as he says, “always drank great wine at home and was happy to share with me at an early age”. Headed off to University after schooling and studied Politics and Journalism before what appears to have him majoring in Journalism at the University of Wisconsin. Moved back to California, sometime during 1978-1980, he then applied to be a contributor to the newly formed (and very small) Wine Spectator magazine, and got accepted.
Now from this point on it is like a rush – he quickly gains credibility within the magazine and by 1984 is located in Paris and doing the European wines for the magazine. Hitting the “Greed is Good” period, discussing and consuming the finer things of life becomes an obsession for the new rich and James landed feet first right at the start of this massive new interest from America for high end European wines. From Paris he moved to London, and then finally in 1990 he moved across to Italy where he still lives today. We forget that Robert Parker was not much earlier into France than James and Wine Spectator, with his claim to fame being the “declaring” of the 1982 vintage as being one of the greatest (and this had been after a run of effectively 20 years of hardly any news from Bordeaux, and often with good reason as poor wines were often the order of the day). I remember glancing through the Wine Spectator magazine of the early 90’s and skipping through the tasting notes by James, and all in all they were always not too distinct from Parker, a point here a point there, but they seemed to know the palate of America.
It may be pretty hard for us to remember back to the mid-80’s, but I am pretty damn certain that Bordeaux Chateaux and Chai were nowhere near as luxurious and modern as today, let alone the hills of Tuscany or Duero Valley. It would have been hard yards early on during this period for James to travel around and meant he would have relied on the support of many families and wineries throughout Europe until he settled into the role. I am sure many of those friendships live on to this day, especially in Italy where he now lives, and it would be part of his collective memory. But for the past 10-15 years it has been a world of prestige and expense that is only accessed by the most fortunate it seems – and this is where issues arise.
James Suckling is a controversial figure – and does stir strong resentment in some people. Now the reason for this is due to what appears to be the “un-deservedness” of James Suckling. They do not see a wine critic, they see a wrongly anointed “privilege”. They do not see the tasting notes, they see hollowness and mimicry. They do not recognise the scores he presents; they see an impostor passing off knowledge as a right. Events run or chaired by James Suckling are heavily panned due to either cost, or assumed favouritism, or even to the way it has been promoted. It is quite surreal to see such venom on the net – a quick google search of simply “James Suckling” will bring up a few negative sites, and I am not going to reproduce the links here as I feel they are simply over the top and not worthy of repeating.
James Suckling – proving the old saying white t-shirts and red wine do not mix
The vitriol started as far as I could see as soon as James left Wine Spectator last year and cut out by himself. I do not know whether this was planned or not; but as far as I can tell both parties have kicked on without any dramas or animosity. Wine Spectator has taken up Oz Clarke as a European expert and James Suckling has hit out on his own with the www.JamesSuckling.com website.
The startup of the website was a bit of a story in itself – two videos that were initially released as “teasers” for the site, and will go down in wine folklore. One video has James pronouncing scores on wines in the presence of the winemakers in predominantly Bordeaux Chateau, yelling “I’m 94 points on that” in a series of ever increasing scores until he reaches the zenith of “I’m 100 points on that” – most expected the room to explode at this point! The other video has him walking and talking with numerous wine luminaries “I’m here with…” was repeated ad nauseam throughout the world of wine. Not everyone’s cup of tea but certainly got attention.
And how did we react in Australia? Well actually with incredulity and typical cynicism – we just could not believe what we were seeing, who was this guy? Videos posted since (and there have been quite a few) have come back to ground and some of them are actually quite amusing (Ch MacDonald was especially good as I think I rode past that maccas near the outskirts of Libourne on my bike). There is always an element of “I’m here with…” whenever there is an interview, and it seems to be James’s way to promote himself first before discussing the topic or interviewing the character – it is like a massive brand awareness program that he is putting up in front of us. But why? He did not strike me as the biggest extrovert in the world when I spent my 3 minutes with him.
I am guessing James has put $10 on black, which means the influence of Robert Parker is on the wane, and in the wine world where many love to be led, they will need a new leader. James Suckling could not be that while tied to a small part of a magazine that may not be as influential as it used to be. Sometimes you have to just put yourself out there to make it. Robert Parker has wound down his tasting responsibilities so much that only Bordeaux can be assured of his presence each year. California, Barossa, and numerous high octane wine makers throughout the new and old world have woken up to a new paradigm. Apparently the new Wine Advocate taster – Lisa Perrotti-Brown is in the country tasting wines of Australia as we speak, but where? And how would I get a sample to her? And what chance would she care for a Eurocentric styled red wine from Margaret River, an area that has never been covered by the Wine Advocate in any detail in the past that I know of?
So as you can imagine there is a real window of opportunity and a substantial point of difference that James can exploit. Flying into Sydney with Ned Goodwin MW from Japan, and his PA he immediately headed to areas that Parker has never really reviewed and had no intention of doing so anyway. Hunter Valley was the start point, down into Victoria where King and Yarra Valleys got a run, on to Mornington Peninsula, then across to Barossa and McLaren Vale before touching down in Margaret River. And he clearly told the world that he was after “Real Aussie Wine” – he was going to go all out to find wines that were not the “Jam Monsters” that Robert Parker defined as Australia’s best drops, and if could find these “Real Aussie Wines”, he will tell the world. All of this has been done with his own dollar (though I am sure wine folk everywhere he went would have been delighted to provide facilities, wines, and possibly dinners etc), and as such should not be dismissed as a sip, spit and sunbathe event – he needs to generate good copy as much as we perceive we need good press for Australian wines.
Well he has attacked the tour with gusto and tasted on last count ~1200 wines in about a week or so and has claimed that he has drunk 100 point wines, has had epiphanies on the quality of our Semillon and dry Rieslings and feels that some wines of Margaret River are clones of the best of Bordeaux. I believe Blue Poles wines were tasted and enjoyed, having been dragged along to a dinner and used as examples of good wines they have found that day (this from a wine making friend who attended the dinner), and I do hope that they garner scores which can be used to aid us in obtaining exports into Asia – a holy grail for us.
Well what next? Will James Suckling rise and rise and hopefully take some of the lesser known producers in Australia along for the ride, or will he be another blip of hope on a rather quiet radar scope? To be honest, and taking off my cynical cloak, I hope he succeeds simply because he has gone about this the right way. You can argue that he and the team may have tasted too many wines, were sucked up to by too many people, and that he has only a cursory understanding of Australia – that is very easy to lay on the table. BUT the thing about James Suckling, love him or loathe him, for the past ~30 years he has had some of the best wines made on this planet passing through his Riedels. Simply by encountering such great wines on a regular basis, a competent taster will simply “know” when a wine is achieving the highest quality, as he has seen them before. If James Suckling says our wines are of a high standard I “know” that he is comparing that to very high standards and that I CAN PROMOTE. If Jancis Robinson, Andrew Jefford, Oz Clarke, Michael Broadbent, Allan Meadows etc ever tried our wines and liked them – then I would feel exactly the same way.
So I am going with the “Go James” team – I am glad he came to Australia and I am glad I had a chance to meet him. I recognize his perceived flaws and imperfections, but he has put his money where his mouth is and I am happy with that as in a way we have done the same thing. Plus some people who would otherwise never have heard of us now know we exist.
Now here is hoping we get a wine, or wines, that score well. I am all up for some good news at Blue Poles and if we were to get some, I’d be 99 points on that!
Glorious Spring weather...
During this time of year, you would have to be the grinchiest of Grinch's to not be in love with Margaret River. The weather is generally sensational on the sunny days, and when it rains it provides some gorgeous looking landscapes dappled in green and cloaked in clouds. Weather has been progressively warming and drying over the latter half of the month and it has not been very windy at all, providing excellent growing conditions for the tender initial vines.
The numbers for the month and last year’s figures are provided below:
Avg Maximum Temp 20.4°C
Daily Max recorded 27.9°C
Avg Minimum Temp 10.1°C
Daily Min recorded 4.5°C
The maximum temperature ranges are a lower than last year, and this relates directly to the cloudier weather brought on from mid-level features taking rain through the state but covering us in cloud. Minimums are also higher due to the greater cloud cover holding in the heat of the day. Rainfall in October is similar to last year’s monthly figure, but at least this year we have had good rainfall totals for the winter months.
Avg Maximum Temp 21.0°C
Daily Max recorded 27.5°C
Avg Minimum Temp 7.7°C
Daily Min recorded 2.4°C
Growing, growing, grown …
Well this is when the vines shoot to the sky and set this vintages crop through flowering. It looks like a good year out there at the moment, but all of this could change with a real windy spell or a late arriving front bringing some heavy rain and hail. As always there are 101 jobs to complete, and I will get on to them as soon as I finish writing this report.
As always if you have any queries about what’s been written or about wine in general, do not hesitate to contact us either by email or www.twitter.com/bluepoles and we’ll do our very best to answer any question.
Blue Poles Vineyard