Matt Skinner

If you’re interested in wine as well as food it’s likely that you’re aware that Matt Skinner, Jamie Oliver’s head of wine, has found himself embroiled in controversy this last week or two.  The furore broke when New Zealand wine writer, Michael Cooper, reviewed The Juice 2010 and realised that, given publishing timescales, it wouldn’t have been possible for Matt to have tasted the vintages of some of the wines recommended in the book.

Subsequently, Matt has admitted that some of the wines weren’t tasted and, Mitchell Beazley, the publisher, has said that this approach was taken to make the book contemporary.  Apparently, with previous editions, the buying public complained that the book was out of date and that wines recommended were, effectively, inprocurable.

As you might imagine, there’s been a fair bit of vilification going on since.

While I don’t condone the lack of transparency about this issue, I think that the Matt-bashing has been a little unfair.  OK – if Matt snuck his non vintage specific reviews and recommendations in to the book without the editor or publisher knowing he should be hung out to dry (and I suspect that if he had done that Mitchell Beazley, the UK’s largest wine publisher, would probably be dropping him like a hot potato).

If, when discussing the ‘out-of-date’ issue and how to resolve it, it was Matt that came up with the idea and pushed it and sold it to the publisher, then he also deserves a hard time.

However, I suspect that neither of these scenarios is what happened.  Any book is a collaborative effort:  writer, publisher, editor, illustrators, designers, photographers, marketing people … yes, it’s the writer that gets the kudos (and the flak) but the end product is not his or hers alone.

There are two other things which Matt-bashers seem not to have been taken in to account.

Firstly, the book is published in the UK for the UK market.  While living in the UK I bought The Juice 2006 (when it came out) and I can see how the buying public would complain that the book is out of date.  Most wine in the UK is bought from supermarket shelves and the turnover is phenomenal.  With the majority of wine, you are simply NOT going to find a back vintage once the current vintage has been released.  A book singing the praises of (for example) a 2008 Riesling is next to useless if that wine is sold in a supermarket and the 2009 vintage has been released.  In The Juice 2006 the majority of the wines listed are under £10 and available from … you guessed it, the supermarket (or high street).

Secondly, the target market for The Juice is not the wine blogger or other ‘serious wine enthusiast’.  While I’m not suggesting that every reader does not deserve the same degree of transparency and high standards, the publisher does need to respond to feedback.  I suspect that people who buy The Juice fall in to one of three camps.  The first is people who want to know more about wine, want to drink more diversely and are a bit scared.  They choose to spend £1 or £2 more on a bottle of wine (let’s not forget how incredibly price sensitive the UK market is), based on Matt’s notes.  They arrive at the supermarket with the details written down carefully and discover the exact wine is unavailable.  They are unwilling to spend that bit extra money on a different vintage so they go back to 3 for £10 on whatever it is they normally drink.  This happens several times and the £8 they spent on the book starts to seem a bit of a waste.

Other readers might completely ignore vintage details and use the book as a rough guide – seeking out wines from producers listed, or perhaps visiting a different shop, or using it is a springboard for other things.

And the third group are people (like me) who quickly realise they have next to no hope of buying the wines and put it on the shelf, flicking through it every now and then.

Which one of these groups actually suffers because the publisher has tweaked vintage dates?  Oh, that’s right, none of them.

If I were lucky enough to write for Mitchell Beazley I very much doubt I’d have the courage to put my foot down and insist on listing only vintages I’d tasted or otherwise pull the book!  I know I’d argue for clarification in the text (perhaps a section on wines that are consistently good from year to year, with general tasting notes) but how do any of us know that Skinner didn’t do that?

I don’t condone what’s happened but I do think that many responses have been high handed and have not considered The Juice 2010’s place in the UK wine market.

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