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Richard Hemming MW's irrefutable wine truths

Two unbelievable truths: every wine shop should sell top-end Bordeaux, and the wine trade is excellent at innovation. And I can prove one via the other.

Thinking Drinkers: pairing off the BBQ

Sun’s out, buns out. British summertime has begun and that means it’s barbecue season. By rekindling our innate relationship with fire, barbecuing reconnects us all with our prehistoric ancestors. Before TVs, radiators and microwaves, there was only fire. Man gawped at fire, heated himself with fire and cooked animals (and maybe a few vegetables that didn’t require running after) using fire. 

The rip-off of shrinkflation

There’s no doubt that enforced product reformulation is the weapon of choice for so-called public health” in its campaign to make us all as slim as racing snakes.

The cocktail hour

One of my favourite books is the Savoy Cocktail Book, which sits not on my bookshelves with all my other books, but on my drinkshelf with various bottles of gin, rye and rum, not to mention maraschino, triple sec, bitters and much else besides.

Nielsen: what to stock for summer

We are heading towards the longest day of the year and I hope the sun continues to shine. We’ve had a mixed bag of weather so far and we know all too well that this can either boost or play havoc with alcohol sales. Let’s look at how the weather has impacted sales so far and predict what we can expect. 

Judging in context

There is a subtle, inquisitive thrill to sitting down to blind taste a dozen glasses of unknown liquid. Even repeated eight times over five days, as at the latest Decanter World Wine Awards, the excitement doesn’t wear off. Twelve shades of lemon or gold, ruby or garnet, and among them, perhaps, a wine of real beauty, interest and distinction. 

Keeping the glass half full

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How to win the World Cup

It will soon be time for the World Cup, which kicks off on June 14 when host nation Russia takes on Saudi Arabia. Even with over four weeks to go, we are already starting to see the retailers get behind the tournament with special packs, sticker albums, football merchandise and team kits in stores.

Bestway could take Bargain Booze back to its roots

Sir Anwar Pervez didn’t earn a place on The Sunday Times Rich List without spotting a good bargain – and in the fallout from the monumental collapse of Conviviality he’s got one in both name and spirit with the acquisition of Bargain Booze.

Gambling with wine’s prospects

Nobody would willingly defend the merits of crack cocaine. Apart from drug dealers, perhaps. Recently it has been recommended that the maximum stake playable on fixed-odds betting terminals should be reduced from £100 to £30. These casino-style games machines theoretically allow gamblers to bet more than £10,000 every hour, earning them a reputation as the crack cocaine of gambling.

Rebellion against refined sensibility

London recently played host to the seventh annual edition of Raw, the most influential wine fair of the decade. We’re all familiar with Raw’s polemical stance on natural, low-intervention wine – it has generated a lot of strong feeling in the wine world. But leaving aside the question of whether such wines really are healthier for us or the planet, it is now clear that we are living in a post-natural wine world where traditional assumptions about wine are being decisively challenged.

Minimum unit pricing: what the people think

The Scottish government initially passed legislation for minimum pricing of alcohol back in 2012 and, following a lengthy legal challenge, it will be coming into force at the start of May. Once in place, it means that a single unit of alcohol cannot be sold for less than 50p, so the stronger the drink, the more expensive it will be. 

Beer offers a ray of sunshine

Following the recent cold snap, I’ve decided to focus on what is just around the corner – summer, which brings thoughts of longer days, warm weather and enjoying a nice, cold beer in the sun. 

Dressing to impress

We’ve all had impressed on us the idea that we mustn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s one we tend to repeat at opportune moments, while singularly failing to follow it when buying books, or anything else.

The value of fine wine

Like the vast minority of the population, my comfort zone for wine is around £10-£25 per bottle. In that price range, I can find wines of very good quality in almost every style – and when I get a disappointing bottle, I don’t feel like I’ve been ripped off too much. 

The cancer of the policy-makers

Sorry to brag, sorry to lord it over you like this, but we were reading the Guardian the other day.

Richard Hemming MW: the dangers of becoming a cork dork

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A rose by any other name

When I was the manager of a wine store, I hosted a weekly tasting based on a theme. At the end, I would gather up the tasting sheets to see what people really said in their notes.

Don’t let gin become the drinks industry’s next novelty act

I appreciate that in the age of a man-child US President, suicidal UK Brexiteers, tinderbox Middle Eastern politics and impending nuclear Armageddon in Asia there are more important things to lose sleep over, but I am quite worried about gin.

The joys of January

Of all the months of the year, January has the best intentions. It reminds me of Eddie in Ab Fab, late for work, horribly hungover, coming down the stairs in oversized sunglasses to frumpy Saffy sitting at the kitchen table. “Health, health, health, darling!” she sings. But the illusion doesn't last for long.

Seeking collaboration

Of all the topics this column has returned to, I wish that anti-alcohol rhetoric wasn’t the most frequent. But it remains one of the most threatening issues the wine trade is facing, and the one which our industry seems to find most challenging to counter effectively.

Lifting the spirits

I were to sum up alcohol sales over Christmas 2017 in one word, it would be “gin”. At Nielsen, we define the Christmas period as the 12 weeks to December 30 and in that time gin sales were £199.4 million, which means they increased by £55.4 million compared with Christmas 2016. There’s no sign the bubble is about to burst either. Growth at Christmas 2016 was £22.4 million, so gin has increased its value growth nearly two-and-a-half times in a year. The spirit added more value to
total alcohol sales than any other category, with its contribution dwarfing that of the next biggest grower, wine, which increased sales by £23.8 million. Among our team of alcohol analysts, no one can remember such an impressive performance for a single-category spirit during the Christmas period, and if current growth rates continue, gin looks likely to overtake blended whisky by next Christmas.

There's not going to be a campaign for that for much longer

The campaign name There’s A Beer For That may have got cynics like me trying to think of things there wasn’t a beer for, but broadly speaking it was a force for good.

Agreeing to disagree

Disagreeing about wine is a fact of wine-trade life, like drugs in sport or corruption in politics. Because taste is entirely subjective, debates about our personal preferences are as inevitable as they are interminable. Indeed, these long-winded, wine-fuelled arguments are precisely what make our jobs so much fun.

Wine's time to shine

At this time of year, the activity of an independent wine merchant has the quality of a time lapse in a David Attenborough documentary.

The shops that stand out from the madding crowd

The judges met last week to sort out the winners in the independent categories of our 2018 Drinks Retailing Awards. The results are top secret until the awards dinner on February 6 but it’s giving nothing away to report that the overall standard of those that will be revealed in the shortlist of finalists in the January issue of DRN is higher than it’s ever been.

Richard Hemming MW asks: what’s the next step for indies?

In the not-too-distant future, when all humans are born with inbuilt VR headsets and Trump is Supreme Commander of the Known Universe, how will students of wine look back on the present era of retail in the UK? And, in such a dystopian world, why would anyone care?

The Cape comes of age

An enthusiastic wine drinker finding themselves a fly on the wall at a trade-only tasting would undoubtedly be surprised by how serious everyone looks. Within the trade, we regularly hear from customers how nice it must be to spend at least part of the working day tasting wine. Although it’s hard to put it on the same level as moving furniture or reconciling accounts, tasting is nonetheless work that requires stamina, discipline and concentration, hence the scribbling and frowns.

Myths and moral panic

I am fed-up with politicians and academics with an agenda endlessly repeating the same old anti-alcohol tropes – usually without having the faintest idea about where they came from or whether they are true. I recently heard a minister (who must remain nameless because the meeting at which he spoke was under Chatham House rules) repeat that old canard that “minimum pricing is justified because alcohol is being sold at pocket money prices, often cheaper than water”. Now, maybe Tesco’s cheapest “everyday lager” has been sold for less than the most expensive bottle of Perrier, but the idea that supermarket shelves are stacked with booze that is cheaper than water is just nonsense. I asked the minister could he give us even one example of this and he couldn’t. What is true is that certain brands of bottled water are outrageously expensive. Just saying!

The perpetual pendulum of taste

Perpetual motion machines are scientifically impossible, but that doesn’t stop people believing in them. As usual, the internet provides a happy home for such nut-jobs, for whom scientific impossibility is just another government conspiracy, man. Hence the abundance of blogs purporting to prove that perpetual motion machines are, like, totally real, and that the Large Hadron Collider is actually a stargate to a new cosmic wormhole. I’m not making this up, by the way.

Drams and tots

Some drinks have such immaculate branding behind them that it's hard not to believe there's some mastermind behind it, a strategic genius of such infinite subtlety that their work is apparent everywhere and yet utterly untraceable.

What to expect at Christmas

The arrival of October means that we’re now officially in Nielsen’s Christmas trading period. Manufacturers and retailers alike have until December 30 to optimise their sales plans and activate them in-store in order to win at Christmas.

Talking terroir

When Bordeaux was in fashion, it seemed almost logical that we should fetishise winemakers. Here were people responsible for brilliant acts of blending, across large estates and multiple grape varieties, including superstars such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot. These days, fashion has moved on and pinot noir is ascendant. As a result, the star of the winemaker has fallen and we find ourselves following a new star in the sky: terroir.

Faith in fakes

One of the most fascinating stories in wine, fit to stand alongside the Judgement of Paris, is that of Rudy Kurniawan, a man who managed to fool friends, auction houses and experts into believing they were drinking some of the world’s most expensive wines.

Don't fall for minimum unit pricing case

Last week columnist Guy Woodward launched a quite extraordinary rant in our sister title, Harpers, in which he railed against the Scotch Whisky Association and argued in favour of minimum unit pricing. He called the SWA “shabby” for fighting MUP and threw his weight behind the anti-alcohol lobby. The basis for his argument was a press release put out by the neo-prohibitionist brigade and he bought its claims hook, line and sinker, without holding them up to the scrutiny they deserve.

Rediscovering the wonder
Escapement, lug, onion crown, tourbillon… since I recently bought an automatic wristwatch, these previously meaningless terms have become loaded with intrigue and interest. I had no expectation of becoming a watch nerd, and it has been a satisfying new experience to delve into an unknown world. It’s been equally satisfying to tell the time without having to look at my phone.

Discovering this new interest has reminded me of what I first found fascinating about wine. The longer we spend in the industry, the more jaded we can become. What often starts out as an enthusiastic passion decays into cynicism brought on by the daily drag of a professional life.

The high price of buying craft beer makers

“Would you pay £4 million for this crap?” That was the question posed by the front over of the NME in February 1986, a reference to the over-hyped electro sci-fi punk band Sigue Sigue Sputnik and the fee allegedly paid by record company EMI for their services.

Lesser-spotted Bordeaux

One of my earliest memories of drinking proper wine was with a university friend who liked to get out of Oxford on Friday afternoons and spend the weekend in London. There, we were able to prise open cases of her dad’s wine – Médoc something, I vaguely recall – stored in the garden shed and often more shed-cold than cellar-cool when we opened it.

Reasons to be cheerful

I would like to think my outlook on things is generally optimistic. Perhaps that’s a natural consequence of working with something designed to give pleasure. But recently it has become increasingly difficult to ignore a creeping sense of negativity pervading the British wine trade.

Thinking Drinkers: beer-curious need guidance

Back in 2005 (how’s that for a topical intro, folks?), we were on the panel of judges at the International Beer Challenge which awarded the Supreme Champion gong to Rogue Mocha Porter.

The limitations of Instawines

Picture the scene. You put your key in the keyhole, shove the door with your shoulder, drop your bags and look down. There, beaming up at you, is some relative or friend’s smug postcard with sandy beaches, Piña Coladas and palm trees (or, these days, an in nity pool and a detox smoothie) with a literal or metaphorical “wish you were here” written large.

Richard Hemming MW: How I Would Run a Wine Shop

Where I live, you can buy McDonald’s milkshakes 24 hours a day if you so desire. Yet both local wine merchants (one independent, one national chain) had locked their doors at just after 7pm when I was trying to buy a few bottles recently. For a neighbourhood drinks retailer to close so relatively early seems like wilful mismanagement to me.  

Richard Hemming MW: beware inverse snobbery

Few things can bring communal pleasure so intimately as wine. Apart from a hot tub, perhaps. Sport can trigger mass jubilation, film gives us shared empathy, but wine has a nigh-unique ability to bestow conviviality among us through a shared bottle – which makes it especially galling that we spend so much time divided over it.

Jason Millar: making sense of "vintage"

In my first wine shop job I was astonished by a colleague’s ability to remember the personality of particular regions’ vintages and to casually observe, while stacking shelves, that the labels of a given wine had moved on from one vintage to another. Never blessed with a prodigious memory, this seemed to me as breathtaking as a circus trapeze act.

Thinking Drinkers: The Importance of Being Ernest

Whyte & Mackay has launched a Scotch in honour of legendary arctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton – a replica of the whisky he took with him to the bottom of the world, and famously left there for 100 years. 

Rosé tinted glasses

I was asked recently what I thought the biggest change had been in wine fashion in the past five years. My answer was unequivocal: sales of pink wines. From being a niche that expanded and contracted with the sunshine, rosé has subtly but steadily become a stalwart of many merchants’ ranges, with Provence firmly at the top and asked for by name.

Richard Hemming MW: harnessing cyberspace

At school, I was the kid who rushed through work to get five minutes playing Granny’s Garden on the classroom computer at the end of the lesson. In an era when neon legwarmers were trendy and Hock was posh, this clunky puzzle was the height of gaming technology - press spacebar to continue” felt like an invitation to the future.

Brewdog finds it's a dog eat dog world

There’s a standard bearer for the British craft beer movement that recently carried out an extraordinarily successful crowdfunding campaign. It’s a brewer that is at once innovative, experimental and exciting in its approach to making beer and has embarked on opening top-notch specialist bars to bring both its own and other producers’ best brews to significant urban locations. Its fundraising effort to ease its expansion plans attracted enthusiastic investors going into four figures and achieved 179% of its investment target.

Breaking up with Burgundy

Making my way through the recent tranche of Burgundy tastings for the much-hyped 2015 vintage, I found myself experiencing a moment of guilt.


Personal passions

I love Estrons. No, it’s not an obscure grape variety or a hipster wine bar – alright, chances are it’s probably both, but I’m talking about the Welsh band. I first heard them on the radio, started listening to them regularly, saw them playing live a couple of times, and am completely hooked on their energetic, sultry, riff-driven, growling indie rock. They call it heavy pop.