The Strange Affair of the Missing Wine Mention

Plus a critical case of natural wine vapours…

–Doug Wregg

Note: these are the opinions of Doug Wregg and do not reflect those of Les Caves de Pyrene as a company.

Every time Jay Rayner mentions wine in his Observer restaurant column a fairy falls down dead from shock. Not just on account of his splenetic perorations about natural wine, but a shock generated by the fact that restaurant critics (as a genre) so seldom refer to wine in any way, shape or form in their columns.

Drink is no trifling detail, however; it is an integral part of dining. Examine your bill next time and calculate the proportion spent on drink versus food.  If we suppose an average of 40% is spent on wine and drink then why should not even a fraction of a review be dedicated to the subject? It’s more than tad daft that a fundamental part of the enjoyment of the evening for so many people (drinking) does not rate a mention.

Where wine lists are mentioned, observations are ill informed, plain mistaken and downright crass.

The restaurant critic might postulate that wine is not a variable like food and service and therefore has little to do with the overall quality of the restaurant. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wine is an artisan product and needs to be sourced, tasted and selected with as much discernment as fish, meat or cheese. A good wine enhances the meal; a bad wine leaves a bad taste in the mouth literally and figuratively. Amongst the many questions that could and should be tackled by a competent reviewer is an appreciation of the overall quality and originality of wine list. Does it accord with the food and the style of the restaurant? Many wine lists focus on one region or a few grape varieties. Does the list specialise in any regions? Is there a good selection of wines by the glass? What’s the house wine like? Is the wine served properly (nice glasses, appropriate temperature)? Is the wine service generally informed/clueless/ helpful? Are the mark-ups reasonable or grasping? Other notable points (good beers, interesting eaux de vie etc)? There is certainly plenty to write about.

Certain reviewers may write as if they are inebriated but it will be only on their own verbosity and the heady draft of contempt.

As one restaurateur mischievously confided to me: “One reviewer can’t drink, one doesn’t drink and another can’t remember what he drank.” Most restaurant columns, particularly in the weekend newspapers, are primarily style features or digressive soliloquies doused with self-amused solipsism. Writing may be a form of entertainment but there is the occasional duty to inform as well, to give bouquets to the worthy and brickbats to the incompetent. Certain reviewers may write as if they are inebriated but it will be only on their own verbosity and the heady draft of contempt. The fact that he doesn’t drink means that wine will never figure in his column. And the critic who never imbibes is a bit like a vegetarian in a restaurant that specialises in steak. Even the more knowledgeable writers tend only refer to the wine in the context of the general mileage of drink that they have clocked up on the bill. It may be that the palate of the average critic is heavily geared towards describing food; they don’t taste wine in an equally analytical way, and because they feel uncomfortable with the language of wine, would rather not commit themselves to describing it at all.

Where wine lists are mentioned, observations are ill informed, plain mistaken and downright crass. Ignorance can take forms such as, for example, criticising a restaurant for selling a Pinot Grigio at a certain price without ascertaining the name of the producer. Reviewers will have little or no idea of what restaurants pay for wine (unless those wines happen to be branded), yet when they do mention the subject, pontificate happily about margins without knowing about break-even points. There is, dare one say, a largely lazy, amateur approach to reviewing highlighted by a lack of curiosity and poor quality of research.

Many restaurants, conversely, are highly professional concerning wine, employing sommeliers, specialist managers, even consultants, or sending their staff on courses. It is good for them to know that this outlay has been repaid. By not mentioning wine at all there is no way of differentiating a restaurant that is passionate about its product and sells it intelligently and one that takes little care or interest.

There is, dare one say, a largely lazy, amateur approach to reviewing highlighted by a lack of curiosity and poor quality of research.

Eating out as a sacramental balance, the holy trinity of good food, good wine and good service. Whilst the food critics ignore wine it will continue to be seen as a separate issue rather than part of the whole experience of eating out. Meanwhile restaurateurs would prefer to be appreciated or criticised on their merits, and when the wine list is a merit, then that should be advertised. My modest proposal is to encourage restaurateurs to club together to send reviewers on an intensive wine course. A little learning may be a dangerous thing, but it’s better than nothing.

Which leads us to the latest Jay Rayner intervention, waving his natural wine schtick. Increasingly over-ripe for parody JR’s now finding himself on distinctly schticky ground. To some extent one may take his utterances with a healthy dose of sulphur powder – he only does it to annoy because he knows it teases etc, but whereof he knows not, thereof doth he fulminate. Noisily. And it’s now very boring. All this repetitive handwringing makes him sound like a crustifarian bemoaning the mores of the yoof of today.

My modest proposal is to encourage restaurateurs to club together to send reviewers on an intensive wine course.

I think it is fine for a restaurant to advertise the fact that its wine list is compiled according to specific criteria. If the emphasis is on naturally-made wines, then the intention evidently is to appeal to customers who enjoy hand-crafted rather than industrial wines. That is not a problem. The art of the skillfully-assembled wine list is rather to have a range of choice of naturally-made wines, to take account of diverse moods and tolerances.

Jay Rayner associates winemaking with dogma, as if to say vignerons are content to make faulty wines out of perverse political choice. In the world of wine there are indeed faulty wines (conflating natural with faulty, however, is lazy journalism); there are also extreme styles, and then there are wines that taste straight as a dye – and every style and shade in between. To ignore this wide spectrum is to demonstrate the slenderest of knowledge of the facts.

Thereafter it boils down to the actual wine in the bottle/glass and how we respond individually to its charms or otherwise. Wine will be (should be) unpredictable – unless it is made according to denaturing recipe and therefore can never be more than it is. What Rayner may find offensive or undrinkable I might find singular and captivating; what he believes is acceptable and commercial, I might think is totally undrinkable. Even so, to generalise about natural wines as if they are all much-of-a-muchness, shows a complete lack of understanding about wine, both about how it is made, and how it may taste.

To ignore this wide spectrum is to demonstrate the slenderest of knowledge of the facts.

Rayner’s operatic dislike of natural also begs the question whether he judges food by the same criteria. One assumes that he is a fan of unpasteurised cheese – so a smelly runny camembert is not only acceptable, it should be the very raison d’etre of the cheese. And game – should one not expect it to smell – and taste – gamey? Should we tolerate tripe and andouillette? Maybe the Durian fruit is somehow incorrect for being what it is? For someone who probably has unpasteurised food taste-preferences, Rayner seems to go for the full homogenisation-hog on his wine choices. They are his wine choices, but let’s not pretend they are any more sophisticated than those of the person who says: “I don’t know much about wine, but I know what I like.” Instead he adopts the predictable position of one who doesn’t know (or care to know) why low-intervention wines have become so popular, which is to attribute it to some sort of misguided hipster chic.

There are two clear choices for restaurant (and wine) critics. One is to entrench yourself in your prejudices; the other is to try new things with an open mind and certain humility, maybe even to do a little research into the subject. Mark Twain said: “Write what you know.” I would say: “Find out about what you don’t know and give yourself authority to write.”

This Post Has 5 Comments


    Dear Doug I think it is you that is conflating concepts – whilst all ‘natural’ wines might be hand crafted, not all hand crafted wines are ‘natural’. Therefore if a restaurant chooses to put natural wines on its list it is not because they are hand crafted but because this is the style of wines they wish to offer. By the same token many restaurant wine lists feature what they would call ‘hand crafted wines’ – wines made by small growers who pursue low intervention both in the vineyard and the winery but who would not label their wines ‘natural’ and certainly not ‘industrial’ (by which I’m assuming you mean mass produced wines made by large commercial wineries which involve many manipulations and where quality is not necessarily the priority). And just because a wine is ‘hand crafted’ it doesn’t make it good – not if the craftsman hasn’t learnt his craft and ‘natural’ or otherwise. So I don’t really get why a restaurant would limit the options of its customers by JUST offering natural wines – why not offer a selection of wines made by small growers including those using organic and/or biodynamic principles as well as natural wines if they wish? I get JR being irritated by the wine list at WL – I had a very good meal there a couple of weeks ago and drank a beautiful wine, but only after I had tasted and rejected three before it that for me were just too funky or had a fault. We all have our preferences for the styles of wine we like and you are right we should all try new things but by banging your drum for the natural wine cause and consigning everything else into the industrial/commercial (ergo ‘unnatural’ wine heap) you are coming across as the person entrenched in prejudice.

    1. Doug

      Thanks for your comments, M. I think there are various issues here. My main one is the lack of knowledge of certain restaurant columnists. As well as being mean-spirited (in my opinion) JR is also misinformed. He lumps all (what he calls natural wines) into one basket – ignoring the spectrum of styles. He makes it seem that the farmers/vignerons don’t know what they are doing and that the wine buyers are somehow buying into an idea rather than an artisan reality. He criticised one London restaurant as having a “natural” list – except that it only had a couple of examples of wine that one would remotely classify as that; he also had a go at their mark-ups (just 70%) and said that the wines could be purchased at x price (which wasn’t true either). He is making the “facts” fit his narrow thesis. As I wrote: In the world of wine there are indeed faulty wines (conflating natural with faulty, however, is lazy journalism); there are also extreme styles, and then there are wines that taste straight as a dye – and every style and shade in between. To ignore this wide spectrum is to demonstrate the slenderest of knowledge of the facts.”
      The other matter is one of taste. I think it is fine for restaurants and wine bars to advertise their natural credentials, but also to have wines that reflect the “spectrum”of styles that I refer to. Wine lists should have a balance (and most do) even within their specialisms.
      The problem, or what JR is making the problem, is the use of the word “natural” to describe a cross-section of styles. It is not exclusive, however – and it is relative to how wine is made. Wines which are not natural, are not, by definition, industrial or conventional. They are more manipulated and have more interventions, for better or for worse. If you seek wines that are made without chemicals or obvious superimpositions then you would tend to seek out natural wines on lists – they can be clean and straight or wild – it totally depends on the wine and the grower.
      Your anecdote from Westerns Laundry reminds me of an experience I had when I went to a well-known restaurant in Notting Hill. The sommelier was lovely, but every wine she brought us (and wanted us to enjoy) we couldn’t drink, because they all tasted fake and pretentious. And believe me the wines were the result of good farming, but (in my opinion) suffered from clumsy and intrusive winemaking. Others might not agree – these, after all, were “trendy” growers’ wines. So, it cuts both ways, but this also shows the importance of not generalising about wine (JR never lets the truth get in the way of his bolting hobbyhorse), and asking questions, engaging with the waiter/sommelier, tasting in the round and understanding. And if you have a certain preference or dislike to make that clear. Ultimately, the arguments are way more subtle than some commentators would have you believe. One person’s delicious is another person’s nasty. And vice versa. Flaws are often what makes wines more interesting and singular. Faults are absolute – but even experts can’t agree on what is a fault and what is a flaw. The people who heckle most tend to know least, however, or just entrenched in their opinions.


        Hi Doug thanks for your reply to my comments. I think you might be understandably irked by JR’s comments on natural wines and he clearly isn’t a fan, the problem for me is that whenever I read discussions about the pros of natural wine it is often accompanied by a fair amount of condescension and holier than thou swag, the superior gleam of the evangelical. If you don’t understand the subtle nuances of natural wine, if you don’t celebrate its individuality or embrace any flaws it may have then you are a clod. I suspect many commentators would be far less offended by natural wines were it not for the patina of zeal surrounding it and the relentless need for its defenders to throw muck at everyone else. Nothing more irritating than the condescending gaze of a sommelier in a natural wine bar who behaves like they are serving yet another infidel. Whilst one person’s delicious is another person’s nasty I agree but all too often the recurring problem with some natural wine is one of sameness – care in the vineyard rendered worthless by the homogenisation of wine into a narrow spectrum of flavour by its faults – oxygen, brett and ethyl acetate don’t respect vineyards, appellations or borders.

        I don’t agree with your analogy of natural wine with unpasteurised cheese – your inference being that those such as Rayner who value an unpasteurised cheese over a pasteurised one (or indeed a sourdough over a commercial loaf or anything that is traditional/raw/artisan) should for the same reasons like natural wines over wines that have undergone intervention (or put another way processes that enable a wine to be protected and preserved) These particular food analogies are misleading because artisanal cheese and bread making are strictly regulated processes that require the control of beneficial and non-beneficial organisms. Young cheeses are always salted in order to inhibit spoilage microbes before they are aged through the management of temperature, humidity and microbial growth. These artisanal products would rot in an unpalatable way were it not for these very interventionist processes.

  2. Mike

    I don’t think JR has any issue with natural wine per se – I think his biggest issue is the premium that is put on a bottle because it is ‘natural’ and if by definition therefore better. Good natural wine, can be a thing of beauty and is worth the money, but not all of it. Mark-ups not withstanding, the cost from grower < merchant (+tax) < restaurant < consumer becomes disproportionate (particularly as many of these wines are hard to find retail) to what the wine is and even what some of the growers intended, the idea of 'vin de soif' becomes redundant.

    1. Doug

      Hi Mike,

      I think he does have a problem with natural wine – I’ve lost count how many times he applauds the food and deplores the wine in restaurants especially establishments that take great care in putting together interesting and diverse wine lists. I suppose I have insider information regarding mark-ups – knowing how much we purchase the wines for, what our mark-ups and margins are, and what restaurants and retailers are making. You are quite right that once you add tax, transport and storage costs, are penalised by the weak pound, and further add your margin and on top of that the restaurants add their whack, then the price bears no relation to the original cost. However, this is true throughout the world – if you go to Scandinavia you will see that prices over here are only relatively eye-watering. And it is true of all wines –
      I would suggest, however, that naturally made wines are normally better value for money. They are the result of hands-on organic and biodynamic farming, manual selection of best quality grapes. This is what determines the cost of the wine, rather than the winemaking (not using new oak barrels saves quite a lot of money!). The vin de soif wines are therefore not at all expensive as they are bottled early (most of them would be 5 euros or less); more structured wines, matured for a long time in barrels, are “naturally” dearer. And on that point compare the relative cost of a bottle of wine from Ganevat or Houillon, for example (arguably the most sought after wines in Jura) to the classic wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy.
      In London it is not uncommon to see a wine that has 1- 1.50 euro of wine in a bottle to be selling for £25-£30 in pubs and bars. With natural wines you will be assured of much better quality but the wines will not cost that much more on lists (it being one of those rules that the cheaper the wine the worse value it is!)
      It seems to me that JR is always comparing apples with pears. He doesn’t understand what the wines are, how they are made, how they can be so very different, the spectrum of styles; he doesn’t understand the cost of production nor relative pricing nor mark-ups. As such his comments are based on irritable feeling rather than hard prima facie evidence. (IMHO!)
      In the words of Max Allen: “The hottest wine trend of the decade? That’s easy: all things natural. Grapes grown with a minimum of sprays, preferably organic or biodynamic; nothing
      added in the cellar except perhaps a small amount of sulphur dioxide preservative at bottling. Just wine.
      It’s also been the most controversial trend of the past 10 years. Critics in the industry decry the lack of an official definition of natural. They grumble about the murky, rustic and even feral flavours found in some natural bottles, and they accuse some winemakers of jumping on the natural bandwagon. But the trend has been overwhelmingly positive as far as wine drinkers are concerned (so what if the chardonnay’s a bit cloudy and smells a bit like cider? It’s still delicious), and the movement shows little sign of slowing down.”

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