Editors Note: We are very excited to announce our second EWBC 2012 keynote, Andrew Jefford. Andrew’s CV does an impeccable job explaining why we believe this Decanter contributor, author and speaker views the theme of “source” in the digital world. Below are some questions he kindly answered for us. We hope you enjoy them and we look forward to hearing more from him in Turkey!

This year’s EWBC theme is “source”, so we want to ask the most open of questions, what does “source” mean to you as a wine writer?

It’s the raw material — what one writes about. And, I guess, where it comes from (one’s sources). At the very most, though, source is only half of the attraction to your audience. What the writer/blogger then does with the source material is just as important as the source itself. Perhaps we could call this performance. I will expand on this tension between source and performance in my speech to the conference.

You are hailed as a respected wine journalist and author, but your focus has been wide and varied. In an age where diversity can arguably dilute one’s digital influence, how do you see digital wine writers’ ability to become a respected source of information?

Good question. I often wonder what I would do if I was 25 and not 55, and just starting out as a communicator in today’s wine world. It certainly looks as if specialisation is essential today, at least for those who wish to earn a living from this activity. The obvious career path is to become THE specialist on some area or other: geographical, stylistic … so that those in the global community of winelovers who share that interest might be prepared to pay for your insights. You could call this the Burghound model. Even here, though, the future is far from assured, as few wine lovers will ever be prepared to take on a battery of a dozen or more online subscriptions. There will always be a market for English-language insights into Burgundy, but if you decide to make Romania your specialisation, your potential market suddenly shrinks. Once someone has made a region their own, too, there will be very little room for others: the winner takes all. I think the way all this will eventually pan out will be that sites like the Parker site and the Robinson site become clusters of specialists, so that your one or two subscriptions buys you a fistful of specialists. Perhaps that, too, is what the Decanter and Spectator sites will eventually morph into. We are already halfway there, in fact.

You could also argue that it is no longer possible to be a generalist: the wine world is now too complex, there are too many regions to visit, there is too much tasting to do. Every celebrated generalist has his or her blind spots, and they must of necessity proliferate with each year that passes.

Despite these reasoned arguments, though, I instinctively feel that there must also be a future for generalists, or for those who are ready and able to tackle wine with the broadest cultural perspectives. Perhaps we should introduce another concept here: that of authority or voice. If you can establish yourself as a ‘voice’ which carries some sort of authority (or excitement, interest, intrigue) in the babble of the blogosphere, then that voice becomes something of marketable value, and the audience will always be interested to hear what you have to say on more or less anything in the wine world. This takes time, but it is possible and it will always be possible. If the world of wine communication is exclusively given over to specialists, it will become nerdsville. (Some would say it already is …)

What is missing from the digital wine conversation, in your opinion, that might make it more worthwhile?

I think there is almost everything one could want somewhere or other in the digital wine conversation. What is missing (in my case, at least) is the time to look for it and to find it. That may just be a personal problem — many of those taking part in the conversation don’t yet have children to look after, and have jobs or other income streams that leaves them with at least some spare time. But it does make me think that what is really missing is some kind of organising or shaping force which could help deliver what you want. Search engines are highly efficient but also primitive and colossally over-deliver. You can google a subject, but not an approach or a way of thinking. I think there is an opening for those who might offer to corral material together for the time-poor, in the wine field as in every other field.

Something else which is still missing from the digital wine conversation is quality. Perhaps it’s inappropriate to ask for this — it is a conversation, after all, or a social interaction. Free access and free delivery lie at the root of the digital revolution and drive its magnificent democratising force. But this means that the vast majority of ‘the conversation’ is ephemeral, and often plain tedious save for those who are actually conversing with each other. So where do you go for quality? And who rewards quality, or how might it be rewarded? It requires research, time, effort, a first draft, a revision …

What do you think of the “eastern mediterranean” has to offer us with regard to wine and food in 2012?

I love the food traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean: bringing the garden to the table, for example, as in the Lebanon; or the Levantine mezze tradition of a spread of small dishes. The obsession with ‘the main dish’ or ‘the main course’ — that oppressive slab or pile of whatever-it-is — which still dominates the culinary traditions of Western Europe seems to me ripe for eclipse. (Note that Chinese and Indian traditions are far closer to those of the Eastern Mediterranean in this respect.) Felafel still seems to me to be the best fast food ever. So food: lots.

Wine, by contrast, is a project in progress: much to discover, and much to rediscover (the cradle lies in the Caucasus, so wine’s childhood was probably passed here).

In your book The New France, you speak about “championing the individual rather than the multi-nationals, of families rather than corporate shareholders, of agriculture rather than industry, of authenticity of origin rather than marketing stratagem”. Do you see social media as a means to support these particular goals?

Certainly. That battle has come a long way forward since I wrote those words (over a decade ago, now). It is hard, moreover, to think of a better tool to help serve the individual or family involved in creating wine through agriculture which reflects authenticity of origin than the internet. The problem is, of course, the fact that governments of all sorts like to raise revenue on alcohol sales: this is the major check preventing individuals selling to individuals. That won’t change. But things are still moving in the right direction.

In a 2011 article in Decanter called, “Many natural wines are a dismal self-indulgence “, you state “No winemaker claiming to express terroir should fall back on the crutch of abusive acidification, chaptalisation, tannin-addition or de-alcoholisation of wines from unsuitable varieties in distinguished sites. Or claim that rough handling and crass filtration are good enoughto make wines of purity and precision. Nor, though, should they fold their arms and stare righteously at the ceiling while their wines turn malodorously delinquent through neglect. If this distinction seems complicated, I apologise.” With current opinions being so polarised, to the point of slander from both sides, I wonder if, and how, your view of natural wines has changed?

It hasn’t. Which is to say that I urge naturalness in wine creation, but deplore the fundamentalist perversion of that difficult ideal.

So: I am wholly behind all those who are prepared to champion the ideal of naturalness with flexibility and intelligence, and I hope they sweep both industrial wine and fake terroir wine, which claims to ‘respect the vineyard’ but which in fact contains a battery of unlabelled ‘ameliorations’, into oblivion. The most beautiful wines in the world are those made as naturally as possible, and this approach is the only way to make true terroir wine.

I just don’t want to drink the orange or murky red, heavily oxidised, under-ripe, cidery, rank, bretty, bitter-edged, mucky, muddled wines made by fundamentalists. I’m not a fault-Nazi, and love (for example) the subtle, controlled oxidation you find in some fine white wines made in the Jura tradition. (And in some burgundies — though not, of course, the chronic premoxones.) But you can’t abandon your palate entirely and claim that ideological purity equates to organoleptic pleasure, which is what many ‘natural winemakers’ have tried to do over the last decade.

Wine is difficult, not easy! Everything worthwhile is difficult, not easy!

I also support, by the way, any systematic campaign for full labelling transparency of all additives in wine. I don’t think there is one yet, but someone should be lobbying EU legislators to bring this about, or at least to put the labelling of wine additives on an equal footing with the labelling of food additives.

You had mentioned that you had been in Turkey many moons ago. What do you hope to experience or discover during your return?

Beauty and singularity.

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  • David Whelehan

    “The tension between source and performance”, I cannot think of anyone more qualified than Andrew Jefford to challenge all those attending on the holy grail of content. On the importance of reasoned interpretation in the creation of original and relevant material as opposed to the infinitely more simple regurgitation of secondary research or the reciting of direct quotes. What a great coup for the organisers’.