John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – January 7th, 2017

Beware The Restless Natives (Advertisers) & Vino Bueno y Cheapo
by John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Ahh, January looms! The month of lingering hangovers and accumulated credit card debts. We can’t help you with the former, but the latter is our area of expertise. At least we can help you spend less to get more, should you care to sip some good cheap vino. VINTAGES knows the pattern, offering the annual January “smart buy” thematic, which is code for “mid-teens”, the average price for these wines. I found a half-dozen reds and two whites between $13.95 and $21.95 that I’d qualify as really smart buys, bueno and cheapo. But first, a warning about the proliferation of sponsored content and native advertising – independent news (and wine recommendations) are imperiled by the changing media landscape. It’s time to start sifting very carefully through the reviews.

Suggestions for 2017: Hierarchize Your Information Sources

It’s been happening for some time now, but in 2016 it became really dramatic. I’m talking about the degradation of the independence of information. Writing as long ago as 2000, media critic Robert McChesney wrote in his paper “Shaping the Web: Why the Politics of Search Engines Matters (2000): “The American media system is spinning out of control in a hyper-commercialized frenzy.” And in the last decade and a half things have only gotten worse. The recently decried proliferation of fake news on Facebook is but one example of our loss of control over what information we’re able to consume.

Fewer and fewer media conglomerates control the growing majority of news outlets. And, “With every aspect of our media culture now fair game for commercial exploitation, we can look forward to the full-scale commercialization of sports, arts, and education, the disappearance of notions of public service from public discourse, and the degeneration of journalism, political coverage, and children’s programming under commercial pressure”, continues McChesney. No need to look forward any longer. It’s here. If you followed the American elections at all, you know exactly what I’m talking about. McChesney was dead right. Advertorial is replacing editorial at an alarming rate. More and more, we’re hearing what commercial forces want us to hear, not what we need to hear.

So who’s to blame? We are, obviously. The Internet has created a curious and imbalanced relationship towards information. Consumers’ attitude seems to be “Information? Oh, that’s free”. It’s equal access for all, the great democritization of knowledge. How much do you pay for information? For hard news, travel and restaurant suggestions, wine recommendations?  If you’re somebody who does actually pay subscriptions for such information, you’re in the lonely minority. Most are content to surf the web and click on whatever pops up for free.

But if consumers are not willing to pay for information, how will it get created? Reporters cost money. So do reviewers. Websites, magazines and newspapers, radio stations and every other distribution model cost money to produce and maintain. To adequately and independently cover any newsworthy subject is most definitely not free. So, enter commercial enterprises to cover the shortfall in subscription revenues, those with something to gain by selling you something. They’re more than happy to subsidize the news to get their message out. But there’s nothing democratic about that.

Advertising is of course nothing new. But what is changing is the way that ads are delivered. Fast disappearing are the days of standard print ads, or online banners or video commercials or any other form of advertising that is obviously advertising. Increasingly, the messaging is fed to us in the form of news itself, sponsored content or advertorial veiled as editorial. Even more insidious is the recent rise of “native advertising”, the logical extension of product placement. Wikipedia describes native advertising as “a type of disguised advertising, mostly online, that matches the form and function of the platform upon which it appears. In many cases, it manifests as either an article or video, produced by an advertiser with the specific intent to promote a product, while matching the form and style which would otherwise be seen in the work of the platform’s editorial staff.” In other words, you can’t easily tell that you’re being pitched a product because it looks an awful lot like other ‘real’ news, seamlessly integrated. It’s not just James Bond sipping a Heineken, it’s Bond catching the villain in the Heineken factory itself and grabbing one for the road after dispatching the evil-doer. Product and content are merged in native marketing.

What’s worse is that Google and other search engines have largely taken the place of real editors. As the The Wall Street Journal reported on the changing media landscape: “The legacy media companies addressed [the advertising] issue by trying, admittedly with varying degrees of success, to establish walls between the departments responsible for editorials, news reporting and advertising. This will be far more difficult in an era where algorithms—not editors—often control the content and ads a person consumes.”

That top-of-page hit on whatever you’re searching for is not necessarily the most credible source of information.

I bring this up because the wine world is particularly vulnerable to surreptitious advertising disguised as credible third party recommendations. I accidentally discovered a couple of weeks ago that a Canadian lifestyle blogger received close to $1500 from a PR company in exchange for the mention of a wine brand dropped into ramblings about an episode of Bachelorette Canada. Sneaky, eh? And I thought that she just really liked the wine. It would be like the producers of Sex in the City making a penny or two off the sale of every Cosmopolitan cocktail in North America, a trend inspired by the show’s main characters. Product and content merged. It’s happening everywhere.

Neither WineAlign nor any other wine publication that I know of survives on subscription revenue alone. There are too many ‘free’ sources of wine information. Advertising is the only option. All we can do is be very clear about what content is sponsored and what recommendations are entirely independent. As for other sources of information, if you care about credibility and integrity, I suggest that you hierarchize your information sources and be aware that you’re constantly getting pitched from all quarters.

On that note, here are my unsponsored top picks from the January 7th VINTAGES Release

John Szabo’s (unsponsored) Buyer’s Guide: Red

Château Bouscassé 2009 Madiran, Southwest France ($21.95). I appreciate the authenticity of this wine: leathery and earthy in all of the tannat-based register of flavours, with fruit that still has much life left, vibrant but mature, gracefully ageing. Tannins are still properly firm and upright, and the length is excellent. This should be on the radar of any Bordeaux/cab/full bodied red wine lover, complex and complete beyond all expectations. Best 2017-2021.

Gérard Bertrand 2013 Grand Terroir Tautavel Grenache/Syrah/Carignan, AP Côtes du Roussillon-Villages France ($18.95). The reliable Gérard Bertrand delivers yet another solid, satisfying southern French red here, with light but firm tannins, balanced acids and very good length. This delivers all one could hope for in the style and price category – prepare your roasts and stews, inflected with wild Mediterranean herbs. Best 2017-2020.

Château Bouscassé Madiran 2009Gérard Bertrand 2013 Grand Terroir Tautavel Grenache/Syrah/CarignanRio Madre Graciano 2014

Rio Madre Graciano 2014, DOCa Rioja Spain ($14.95). This is nicely open and perfumed, with zesty acids and fresh, resinous herbs leading over crunchy red and black fruit. It offers a lot of character and energy for the money, highlighting the freshening role that graciano plays in a traditional Rioja blend. I’d happily drink this as a casual Tuesday night house wine with rustic country fare. Best 2017-2022.

Cantina San Paolo 2015 Aglianico, IGP Campania Italy ($13.95). Here’s a shockingly flavourful and characterful aglianico for under $14 dollars. Yes, it’s a bit (unnecessarily) sweet, but it offers authentic, swarthy character, full of dark spice and resinous herbs, dark fruit and leather-tobacco notes, the sort of stuff found in much more expensive versions. For this price, I’m in. Just bring me my roasted leg of lamb. Best now-2020.

Cantina San Paolo Aglianico 2015Umani Ronchi Jorio Montepulciano D'abruzzo 2013Michele Chiarlo 2014 Le Orme Barbera d'Asti Superiore

Umani Ronchi 2013 Jorio Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, DOC Italy ($16.95). Pleasantly juicy, balanced, honest country wine, with polished tannins and gentle texture, ready to enjoy. Nicely made. Best now-2020

Michele Chiarlo 2014 Le Orme Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG Piedmont, Italy ($13.95). Light, fresh, crunchy and pleasant – this is classic red wine for the country table, to be enjoyed with a light chill and food, without contemplation. Crack and enjoy – perfectly drinkable everyday wine.

John Szabo’s (unsponsored) Buyer’s Guide: White

Nikolaihof 2014 Terrassen Grüner Veltliner, Wachau, Austria ($20.95). This is lean, tight, taut, energetic and lively Grüner Veltliner from the region’s (and one of Europe’s) oldest biodynamic producers, since 1970. It’s still in a smoky reductive phase and not really near prime drinking, even for this great estate’s entry-level bottling. The palate is perfectly pitched and finely etched, with very fine length and depth. A terrific wine at a terrific price, for the purists in the crowd. Best after 2018.

Nikolaihof 2014 Terrassen Grüner VeltlinerMan Vintners Free Run Steen Chenin Blanc 2015

Man 2015 Free-Run Steen Chenin Blanc WO Coastal Region, South Africa ($13.95). Here’s a steely, characterful white for the money, with more flavour intensity, length and complexity than most in the category. Although clean and sharp, this has a slightly acetic/appley edge that may not appeal to all, as well as sharp acids that give a jolt to the palate (which I love, but take some getting use to). In any case, this is absolutely tasty wine that I’d have on hand as a respectable house wine. At this price, I can even invite lots of friends, too.

That’s all for this report. If you are still shopping for your New Year’s sparkling, make sure to refer back to my annual Fizz Report publish early in the month.


John Szabo, MS

Use these quick links for immediate access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release.

Szabo’s Smart Buys
All January 7th Reviews


New Release and VINTAGES Preview


Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012