Andrew Neather
The views expressed in db Reader do not represent the views of the drinks business.

Rolland and the deafening silence of the press

Bordeaux 2015 – a great year, or over-hyped? Renowned consultant and general Bordelais big shot Michel Rolland is in no two minds about it, and isn’t shy about slamming his critics.

Michel Rolland

Michel Rolland

He told journalist Laura Bernaulte of French website Terre de Vins last week: “For me, 2015 is a truly great year.” But, he said, “There are too many tossers [trop de cons] to see it… We live with people without balls [sans couilles].”

In case anyone was in any doubt as to the particular sans-couilles who had sparked his ire, he added: “There’s not one journalist who’s seen it. Anyway, there’s not a single journalist with any weight in the world today… They can say, write, think what they like, nobody gives a toss.”

Rolland’s “coup de gueule” did sound like the views of a man who’d maybe just enjoyed a rather good lunch. And he has long cultivated the air of someone who doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks; perhaps when you’re as wealthy and powerful as he is, you don’t need to. Still, he hasn’t always been so dismissive of the critics.

Rolland did very nicely, thank you, out of Robert Parker’s love of his fruit-bomb style of wines, building his personal fortune on the back of producers’ rush to enlist his Parker-friendly winemaking skills. Indeed, US blogger Dr Vino (Tyler Colman) has drawn attention to the timing of this outburst early in the post-Parker en primeur years. Some argue that the vogue for big Parker-Rolland wines is over now.

Whether or not Rolland is all at sea post-Parker, he is denigrating journalists who have the temerity to question his hyperbole. Think of him as the Libournais Donald Trump: an arrogant, macho oaf ready to call into question the professionalism of any journalist who says things that he and his rich friends don’t like.

Rolland may have fashioned an image for himself as a cartoon ogre – the sort-of-loveable villain of Jonathan Rossiter’s 2004 film Mondovino. But his latest rant is a bit more Godfather. He doesn’t quite threaten anyone who disses 2015 Bordeaux with being found face down in a plate of magret de canard with a micro-oxygenator injury. He is saying, though, that all journalists and critics are, at best, stupid and a waste of space.

There’s nothing very surprising about Rolland having strong views – or disliking criticism that threatens his commercial interests. What’s more disappointing is the near-silence of the wine press following his outburst. Almost nobody has called out this puffed-up Bordeaux grand legume for what he is.

We can hardly expect the Bordelais themselves to comment on his ridiculous outburst, since he has a finger in dozens of pies from Chateaux Angélus and Pavie to Pontet-Canet. In any case, hyping 2015 is as much in other producers’ financial interest as it is his.

To tackle that, we need critical journalists. Journalists such as, whisper it, Robert Parker, who told db just over a year ago that the en primeur system is, “largely dead, for now.” Continuing, he declared that “Bordeaux has to have a reckoning soon about their pricing.”

You wouldn’t know it, to read the British wine press. For as the silence of the hacks suggests, Rolland is in any case exaggerating wildly about “Bordeaux bashing”.

Sure, there’s regular, generalised criticism of Bordeaux vintage hype. And every year now we see criticism of the en primeur system – entirely justified, since EP is not only based on unfinished barrel samples but driven entirely by producers’ desire for cash flow, a circus emulated by few other quality producers worldwide. A few journalists such as Tim Atkin MW have been notably trenchant.

Yet in the end, most critics of en primeur still get on the plane in April anyway – because everyone else does. They have to as well, if they want to be taken seriously in the wine world – never mind that very few wine lovers can now afford most of the wines concerned.

And the critics carry on writing about the vintage hype too. The Bordelais are happy with this on the whole, even when hard-bitten hacks conclude, in effect, that just some and not all wines are really as good as their producers claim. The Bordelais well understand Oscar Wilde’s dictum for the PR age that “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

So let’s get “Bordeaux bashing” in perspective. Take a look at British political journalists’ stories on almost any given day: crisis, meltdown, worst-week-ever. By comparison, the wine press’s criticism of Bordeaux 2015 looks like what it is: the muted whinges of an industry-driven corner of consumer journalism.

Is it possible to imagine Decanter magazine ever dismissing a dire Bordeaux vintage – at least not until long after the en primeur campaign is over? Would they ever tell the unimaginative rich buyers of such wines to just skip them and look elsewhere?

Even with a horror show like 2013, top crus still released wines at €200 a bottle: is Steven Spurrier ever going to tell them that they’re taking the piss? I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Such publications and most of their writers mirror the interests of the fine wine trade. At least as far as they concern Bordeaux, these now have very little to do with the interests of actual wine drinkers, except a few hugely wealthy ones.

As for “Bordeaux bashing”, as the one wine writer with the courage to respond to Rolland online on Terre de Vins, Hervé Lalau, says, it “will disappear the day the Grands Crus Classés find an acceptable price-quality ratio again” and “stop raising prices even in bad years”.

Meanwhile, with “bashing” like this, the Bordelais can sleep easy in their châteaux. No matter how greedy they get, and no matter how arrogant and rude the likes of Michel Rolland are to journalists, it seems our wine press will just suck it up.

  • Andrew Neather is the former wine critic of the London Evening Standard – you can follow him on Twitter @hernehillandy

2 Responses to “Rolland and the deafening silence of the press”

  1. As I see it, he’s merely baiting the press in a transparent attempt to stir the pot. To add fuel to his fire seems only to serve his purpose of needing to be talked about. We’ve had quite enough of arrogant blowhards on this side of the pond.

  2. Tim Atkin says:

    I agree with Deborah. His comments are best ignored. But an excellent, hard-hitting piece, Andy. Rolland’s power is waning, and he knows it.

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