25 years of Wine Alchemy – the first article redux
25 years! Early in 1998, the Wine Alchemy brand was inflicted on an unsuspecting world. In short,
I’ve taken this extravagant journey
So it seems to me
I just came from nowhere
And I’m going straight back there*
A (slightly) Longer Version
This was in the early days of the Internet, subsequently known as “Web 1.0”. Shortly afterwards, the first WA website appeared. In 1998, most households had no computers, and the internet was primitive and slow. Access was by 33.6 kb/sec dial-up using a squawking modem with Windows 95 and Internet Explorer 4. Downloads took hours, and storage was still on floppy disks. Broadband, social media, streaming, smartphones, and smart TVs were years away. Google, Amazon and eBay were in their infancy; online commerce was unfamiliar and untrusted. Yahoo and AOL portals dominated the “worldwide wait.” Where are they now?
The idea for the website was to see if there was a potential online audience for wine writing. It turned out there was. It was also a shop window for my other wine activities. There were then few websites about wine and a great deal of scepticism about the merit of the internet. A more straightforward alternative explanation for doing it is that it was a part-time exercise to relieve the drudgery of the day job, learn about the web and keep up with technology.
The “Web 2.0” version of the website came along in 2003. By then, there was slow ADSL broadband, CD-ROMs, Google search and even Wi-Fi. Blackberry and iPhone lay in the future, though the dot-com bubble had burst spectacularly. The picture above shows the Wine Alchemy Homepage at that time (archived courtesy of Wayback Machine). I love that retro colour scheme!
We can’t do without it.
25 years later, billions of people are online, and websites are commonplace and easy to create. We take this online transformation for granted and can’t live without it.
I’m still here; now, this is the day job, though now I drink from a different glass. Most of the articles written before 2016 are long gone. In any case, who reads yesterday’s papers?
So, to celebrate 25 years of the Wine Alchemy website, here’s the first piece I wrote for the first version of the website. When moving house, I found a copy on an old CD at the back of a cupboard. It’s called Modern Wine is Rubbish.
Modern Wine is Rubbish
Modern Wine is Rubbish – well, mostly. Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be the case, though I admit to not letting that get in the way of a good headline.
The UK is something of a vinous paradise. If you want to try a wine from any country, region or appellation in the world, then the chances are that it will be for sale in the UK. Also, today’s wines have often improved markedly compared to a generation ago, and few are now genuinely nasty. Those undrinkable excuses of yore have mostly disappeared from our shelves thanks to improvements in science and technology and intense global competition. So while too many faulty and flawed bottles remain, technological advances continue progressing. Meanwhile, the UK can now call itself a nation of wine drinkers, and its indigenous wine industry, while tiny, continues to improve.
These are all good things. So where’s the problem?
Well, most of the world’s volume of wine is from mass production in a factory. It’s an industrial fluid made to be consumed without respect for the land, the people who created it, or those who drink it. Its only rationale is corporate profit. Branded, bland and inoffensive continue to dominate the current wine scene. At best, these are merely pleasant intoxicants. Nothing is demanded from us except a repeat purchase if the price is right, encouraged by the dual illusions of supermarket choice and convenience. Only the ensuing hangover is memorable.
It’s muzak, graffiti, a concrete block, and a flat grey landscape. Such wine doesn’t excite; it’s unambitiously dull. Welcome to McWine. And before you accuse me of elitism, this article is neither a critique of cheap bottles nor praiseworthy of expensive ones. Mediocrity is independent of price and exists at all price points.
Expense, elitism and fashion
Compare this situation with the small amount of wine from the winery elite. Virtually every wine-producing region has them. While some of these producers rest on their laurels, most can easily justify sitting at the top table for decades. But superstars have become ludicrously expensive. Demand far exceeds supply, so prices spiral, all encouraged by point scores and hyperbole. As a result, these wines are as inaccessible to most of us as a McLaren F1 supercar or a Patek Phillipe watch.
Yet I’m glad these wines exist; they show what humans can achieve. But the “fine wine” world has also become characterised by trophyism – such wines are simply another elite demonstration of power, status and wealth. As a result, they are rarely (if ever) opened and enjoyed. Their purpose is no longer as a refreshing beverage; they are collectable investments to show off. As a result, millions of these bottles will never emerge from the dark limbo of the Bonded Warehouse.
Meanwhile, fashion includes the vinous equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes. Deliberately created cult wines sold at hyper prices without the accomplishments or track record to justify it—mere wannabes created by temporary celebrities and corporate egos. You just haven’t earned it yet, baby. And chances are, you never will.
The 80/20 rule suggests that 80% of Modern Wine is Rubbish. That leaves 20% as the antidote: exciting, affordable and sustainable. Wines that contribute to the joy of drinking and sharing with family, friends and food. Wines that bring a sense of connection, not least to our Earth and nature. Moreover, these wines have authentic stories, part of civilisation, culture and creativity. Their makers could play an important role in combating Climate Change and will perhaps aid our survival as a species – in a small but positive way.
A Design for Drinking
We all deserve this antidote, where worthwhile wines all share common essential characteristics in a Design for Drinking:
- Environmental Sustainability. Sustainable wine growing is more than Biodynamic or Organic cultivation. Sustainability means addressing the entire distribution chain from grape to glass. Sustainable wine involves more than winery vinification too. It also addresses aspects like packaging, logistics, carbon footprint, appropriate technology, renewable energy sources and dealing with waste, especially plastics and water usage.
- Terroir. Yup, the T-word. Great wine is faithful to its origins, suggesting a sense of place, of belonging.
- Winegrowing philosophy. Winegrowers who respect their land are proud of their heritage and traditions and worry about their legacy for future generations while always looking to improve.
- Socially Equitable and Ethical. Good governance promotes diversity, inclusion, a living wage, and Fair Trade. That contrasts with modern slavery, worker exploitation and class-based elitism.
- Economically Viable. Here’s a cliche: Q: How do you make a small fortune in wine? A: Start with a large one. But not everyone has deep pockets, so let’s not forget real-world business skills, using an appropriate business model, whether as a small artisan, family firm, international Brand or part of a large cooperative.
- They taste good! Humans have devised many ways to make good wines in many different situations and with thousands of different tasting grape varieties at all price points.
I hold these truths as self-evident that not all wine is created equal, but their creators endow the best with unique, unalienable properties. Among these are Art, Beauty and a Celebration of Life*.
*With apologies to Thomas Jefferson for paraphrasing the 1776 Declaration. He liked wine – a lot.
So here we are. In the past 25 years, our world has changed enormously, whether in technology or so many other ways, sometimes for better though often for worse. I have changed, and so has my audience. Websites are hardly cutting-edge tech these days, either. And the Climate Emergency is upon us.
But wine’s essentials have stayed the same. They are eternal. Significant progress has been made with wine sustainability, and organics is no longer a dirty word. Biodynamics isn’t confined to a handful of so-called crazies.
However, too much Modern Wine is still Rubbish.
On a personal note, while I can hope for another 25 years, the likes of Wine Alchemy will probably be replaced soon enough by ChatGPT (an AI Bot) or one of its ilk. Maybe it’s replaced some of my peers already. And, after all, how do you know it didn’t write this? Well, my views on AI can be found here.
*Pete Shelley/Howard Devoto, Boredom, 1976.