Sympathy for the Widow

The Veuve Clicquot Champagne house has been on the receiving end of a barrage of Twitter humour/abuse in the last few days, due to reports that it has warned off an Italian sparkling wine producer over the use of a “confusing” orange label. Tweets have suggested that the company may take legal action against Prince Harry, the sun and red squirrels. (Prince Harry, fair game, but hands off the sun and red squirrels, they’re much too rare and precious in this part of the world.)

This story captured my imagination for 2 reasons. As a former intellectual property lawyer, I used to make a living out of this sort of thing. I once did a lot of research into the law regarding colour trade marks, more particularly, purple surgical gloves, which was (OK, I do know that this makes me sound deeply sad) probably the most interesting file of my career. NB, I did say former intellectual property lawyer. Now I teach law and drink wine. Rarely at the same time.

Given that my livelihood used to depend on businesses getting litigious over trade names, slogans, branding etc, I think that I am more sympathetic to Clicquot’s cause than the average tweep.
Secondly, I recently read a brilliant book (“The Widow Clicquot” by Tilar J Mazzeo) about the life of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the grande dame who built up the Veuve Clicquot empire and revolutionised the world of Champagne.

This contains several fascinating passages that describe la Veuve Clicquot’s contribution to the Champagne industry, both in technical terms, as she is credited with inventing remuage, but also in terms of her role in establishing Champagne as a luxury product with a strong brand image.

At the turn of the 19th century, wine labels were virtually unknown (so how did you choose your wine at the supermarket?, I hear you cry…), but winemakers burned a symbol into the cork to identify their wine. The Clicquot symbol of the anchor was chosen in 1798 by Philippe Clicquot, founder of the house and Barbe-Nicole’s husband, until his untimely death in 1805 left her a widow (veuve) at the age of 27.

At the time of the 1811 Champagne harvest, a great comet that had been visible since the spring made its most brilliant appearance over the region. Among the French people, it was rumoured to be a portent of great change and possibly of the fall of Napoleon’s empire. To the winemaker, the comet was seen as a symbol of the harvest that took place under the most perfect conditions ever seen. Many winemakers (including Veuve Clicquot) branded their corks with stars in place of their usual trade marks in homage to the “Comet vintage”.

In 1814, Veuve Clicquot became one of the first winemakers to use labels on its bottles. These were originally plain white labels with just the date, the location of vineyard and a few floral motifs.

It was in the 1860s that the house adopted the now-famous “Clicquot yellow”, described as “the colour of the egg yolks of the famous corn-fed hens of Bresse”, for the branding of its new brut Champagne. Until this date, Clicquot Champagne was sweet, to appeal to the valuable Russian market. The new label was registered as trade mark in 1877.

In 2011, Veuve Clicquot won a trade mark infringement case in the Belgian courts against a cava manufacturer, who was labelling its bottles in a similar colour. However, the colour in that case was much more similar to Clicquot yellow, being an orangey yellow, rather than what appears to me to be clearly orange, ie the subject matter of the present “amicable conversation” (not lawsuit).

To maintain a sense of perspective, please remember that the interests of Champagne producers en masse (or should that be en mousse?) are protected by the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne, which has over the years taken steps to protect the dilution of the Champagne brand by preventing its use on bubble bath, underwear, shoes and (rumour would have it) iPhones.

So, while I understand the viewpoint of those who mock Veuve Clicquot for going slightly OTT, the lawyer in me (gone but not forgotten), my admiration for la grande dame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin and my empathy with the desire to fight to protect all that she fought to achieve, lead me to defend her against ridicule and to hope that this matter can be resolved calmly and without further adverse publicity (if indeed such a thing exists …).

Two visit Red Mountain

Two visit Red Mountain

Do you recognise this vineyard? Or are you thrown by the presence of palm trees? OK ……………………………………………………………… ……………………….. it’s Red Mountain Estate in Burma (Myanmar).  I bet you’re kicking yourself now! My husband and I were recently lucky enough to … Continue reading

A few book recommendations

If you’re a fellow wine enthusiast, you may also have read some or all of these, but here are my top recommendations for wine-related reading:

Judgment of Paris – George M. Taber

This is absolutely my favourite wine book.  It was recommended to me by the ever-dependable Amazon, after I bought the DVD of “Bottle Shock”.  I’m not knocking “Bottle Shock” – it was entertaining and the lovely Alan Rickman was great – but “Judgment of Paris” gives us the true story, exposing the film as a heavily-fictionalised version of real-life events.

The book tells the story leading up to and the fall-out from “the historic 1976 Paris tasting that revolutionized wine”.  This was the event organised by Steven Spurrier, where comparable wines from France and California were blind tasted, resulting in overall higher scores for the Californian wines.

What I love about the book is the combination of detailed technical wine-making information (testing for sugar ripeness, pumping over, malolactic fermentation etc) with inspiring human-interest tales of the people behind the wine.  In particular, I was gripped by Mike Grgich (Miljenko Grgić)’s vision and quest to make it from his native Croatia to the “paradise” of California.  I was moved by his determination and patience to escape poverty and dictatorship and keep edging towards his dream.  In my view, his story would make a better film than “Bottle Shock”.

Something else I really like about “Judgment of Paris” is how balanced the writing is.  Mr Taber was the only journalist to attend the tasting, so is in the perfect position to give a true and fair account of what happened.  A lot of sensationalist and distorted accounts of the event have been written, but Taber tackles the complaints head-on and sets the record straight.

The Widow Clicquot – Tilar J Mazzeo

I think that it was again Amazon who recommended this to me, off the back of my purchase of “Judgment of Paris”.  In a similar way to “JoP”, what appealed to me about this book was the combination of technical wine information plus historical interest.  My mum isn’t remotely interested in wine (other than drinking it), but she loves historical books, so I lent her this and she enjoyed it.

The books opens against the backdrop of the French Revolution and tells the tale of how Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin became a young widow (la Veuve Clicquot) and revolutionised the Champagne business, inventing remuage along the way.

I think that Ms Mazzeo writes beautifully, but is hampered by the lack of surviving records about her subject.  This leads her to speculate endlessly about what Barbe-Nicole may have worn, thought, felt, etc.  While I understand the author’s reasons for needing to do this, I did find it a bit off-putting.  If the book was a novel, this would have been fine, but I found it a little clunky in a biography.  I personally preferred the more factual passages describing how champagne was invented (by the Brits, bien sûr) and made popular (with the support of Napoleon) where there was less need to speculate.

Drops of God – Tadashi Agi (Author) and Shu Okimoto (Illustrator)

Isn’t is wonderful how your love of wine can take you to new and unexpected places?  Who would have thought that I would get into manga at the age of 40-something?

Drops of God is a series of manga books about wine described by Decanter as “arguably the most influential wine publication”.  I don’t know about influential, but it’s certainly innovative.  They say that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Given the choice of reading a 1000-word wine review or looking at a picture of Shizuku (the book’s hero) being transported into a field of flowers and berries by a mouthful of Pinot Noir, I know which I find more pleasurable, memorable and therefore educational.

The earlier volumes focus on French wines, although Shizuku’s colleague (referred to as the “faux-talian”) regularly extols the virtues of Italian wines.  Volume 5 (in the English language) jumps ahead in the series to focus on Californian and Australian wines, in an attempt to boost sales of the English translations.  I hope that this works, or I will have to read the rest of the series in French, as my Japanese is non-existent.

In true manga style, you need to read the book from back to front, left to right.  The book’s publishers claim that this will make the reader smarter – bonus!

What is biodynamic wine? – Nicolas Joly

I’m currently ploughing (;-)) through this and finding it fascinating but heavy-going.  I’ll post a review once I’ve finished it.

Have you read any of these books, or can you recommend some other wine-related reading?  Please leave a comment and let me know.  Thanks.

Confessions of a wine snob

When I started learning about wine and going on WSET courses, my colleagues called me a wine snob.  I resisted this accusation for as long as I could.  However, the fact that I still giggle to myself whenever I remember the joke which the lovely Tim Atkin told about the Riedel Pinot Grigio glass indicates that perhaps they were right.

More recently, my suspicion was confirmed when I read the comments on a discussion forum when the opening poster had asked how to pick wine.  While everyone was trying to be helpful, I found some of the replies truly disturbing – should I email Michael Gove to lobby for WSET Level 1 to be made compulsory for all schoolchildren?

“I usually judge it by how nice the label is.” This isn’t going to end well.

“Try buying one on offer for £6/7; one that would normally be £10-12, and you’ll get the idea of what a good red tastes like – smooth, fruity, pleasant smell and a rich, dark colour.” At least 2 big problems here: 1) it is a truth universally acknowledged that supermarket wine “offers” are a joke; and 2) I think that’s a massive generalisation about red wine.  While most (but not necessarily all) has a pleasant smell, smoothness, fruitiness and colour all depend enormously on the variety and style.

“It might be worth getting a couple of those mini bottles – you can normally get 3 for £5 and do some taste testing!” I don’t want to live in a world where you can get 3 bottles of wine for £5.  Or you have to drink from mini bottles.  Plus, supermarkets seem to choose their nastiest wine to go in those small bottles and mark them up by infinity%.

“Don’t touch anything under 13%.” Oh grow up and try a German Riesling.

“Don’t try pub wine, they are often terrible, especially by the glass.”  I can relate to this one, as bad pub wine scared (or scarred?) me off Chardonnay for years, until I went to an Association of Women Solicitors wine tasting run by a lovely Scotsman in a kilt, tasted a Puligny-Montrachet, was outraged to discover that I’d fallen in love with a Chardonnay and haven’t looked back since.  Just pick your pubs more carefully, or stick to gin and tonic.

“Once you get into wine, you usually gravitate to a grape variety or blend/style that you enjoy.”  I disagree with this one.  Before I did WSET Level 1, I pretty much stuck to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, because I enjoyed it.  My idea of heaven was going into a bar on my honeymoon in New Zealand, where you could order 5 different ones by the glass.  However, since “getting into wine”, I’ve tried and enjoyed many other varieties and feel that my life is richer for this.

“Steer clear of Pinot Noir, unless you spend a lot it is rough as hell.” Disagree!  Maybe Burgundy’s trendiness is hiking its prices, but there is some excellent non-Burgundian PN out there at a snip.  I recently had a gorgeous Chilean one from the Wine Society (Zarcillo 2012) for the princely sum of 6 and a quarter English pounds.  It was not as rough as hell; it was delicious and fruity.

“Waitrose have a very poor wine section.”  I don’t agree; I’ve bought some excellent wines there, usually after sampling them at a tasting (see below) or seeing them recommended in Decanter.  Case in point:  Paolo Leo Primitivo di Manduria 2010, a firm favourite.  However, I sometimes find the staff somewhat in my face.

“I can drink white zinfandel like squash.”  That’s because it is 99% squash.  OK, that’s not true and I have to confess that when I was younger I used to love a mushroom korma and a glass of white zin on a Friday night.  Then I grew up.

So, was there any helpful advice?

“Go to a couple of wine tastings and take notes.” Yes! Yes! Yes! Work your way round and try everything with an open mind.  (On that note, I’m very excited by the Wine Society’s forthcoming “You’d Swear Blind” events.)  You might discover something that changes your life.  Although I have to confess that my notes get more fanciful/ illegible/ turn into smiley or sad faces as the tasting progresses.

“I choose the ones with pictures of animals on the labels!”  I can’t argue with this.

My name is Renen-Utet and I’m a wine snob.  Are you?

PS.  It’s got a hole in the bottom.

Midnight express delivery


My first entry is inspired by the Drunken Cyclist’s Monthly Wine Writing Challenge.

“I was woken in the middle of the night by the sound of wailing.  At first I thought it was a baby crying, but as I listened, it sounded more like a cat.  I got up and went to investigate where the noise was coming from.  As I padded down the stairs, I saw that the front security light had come on and realised that the noise was coming from outside the front door.

I opened the door to find not only a small black cat, but also a bottle of wine, both sitting on the drive, which was glistening with frost.  I picked them both up out of the cold and brought them inside.   I checked to see if the cat was wearing a collar.  He was, a purple collar, bearing a tube for his name and address.  I removed the scrap of paper but this contained only a note written in block capitals: “PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS CAT.  TO LEARN HIS NAME, TASTE THE WINE.”

Not knowing what to make of this, I turned my attention first to the cat.  I gave him some chicken out of the fridge, which he devoured gratefully.  I settled him down on my old faux fur coat, then turned my attention to the wine.

The bottle had a screw cap, which was still intact.  The bottle was entirely blank; either no labels had ever been affixed or they had been removed extremely carefully.  What should I do: pour it away and name the cat either Heathcliff or Morrissey, the two names I had always been torn between?  Or take a risk and discover the cat’s true name and possibly a great bottle of wine?  What sort of person would abandon a cat on my doorstep in the middle of the night with a bottle of wine?  An eccentric feline-loving Master of Wine who just happened to be passing through on the way to a vertical tasting of Mouton Rothschild?  Or a mad old lady with a Blue Nun habit?

I looked at the cat, who was perched on the coat, contemplating me as if he was only marginally more in the know than I was.  “What’s your name, little boy?” I asked him.  “I knew a black cat called Chardonnay once, but I think that was inspired by a soap opera rather than a love of Chablis or Pouilly-Fuissé.”

Feeling intoxicated by the strangeness of my mid-night adventure, I turned my attention to the bottle.  I removed the cap and sniffed the contents.  I couldn’t perceive any aroma, probably due in part to the fact that it was so well-chilled.  I poured a small amount of the wine into a tasting glass and held it up to the light.  It was a pale ruby colour with a purple rim.  I swirled the glass vigorously to try to arouse its contents.  This definitely worked on the cat, who followed my movements intently with his yellow eyes and gave a reproachful miaow, as if to say “it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

I smelled the wine in the glass, looking not just for the usual aroma characteristics, but also for any tell-tale toxic signs.  I’m not exactly familiar with poisons, but I understand from Agatha Christie novels that they usually smell of almonds.  The wine was slowly beginning to release its secrets, and I thought that I could discern red fruits: cherries, strawberries and violets.  Feeling braver, I took a sip.   I looked back to the feline, his black fur glossy under the spotlights.  He gave another little miaow, which this time sounded more like “Pinot”.   “Is that your name, furry boy?  Are you called Pinot Noir?”  He gave what looked like an approving twitch of his head and curled up to go to sleep, purring like the cat who got the Cremant.

Feeling more confident, I tasted the wine properly, slurping and swirling it round my mouth.  It was as soft and velvety as the cat’s fur.   An explosion of ripe summer fruit: unmistakably Pinot Noir…

… So, I know that you don’t really like cats and you said that we couldn’t have one, but as he’s just arrived, and in such a strange way, we can’t throw him out, can we?  Look how peaceful he looks, he can stay can’t he?  And he came with such a great bottle of Pinot Noir, that’s a bonus, isn’t it?”

I looked imploringly at my husband, who turned to look at little PN, his face set in a stern expression.  As he looked at the sleeping kitten curled up on my coat, his regard softened into something approaching a smile.  “Well, he did make quite an entrance and brought us a fantastic bottle of Pinot.  It’s like something out of a deleted scene from “Sideways”.  Perhaps he can stay, just for now and we’ll see how he settles in.” With that, he kissed me goodbye, gave Pinot a little rub on the head, and left for work.

I closed the door behind me and smiled fondly at my new furry partner in crime.  I opened the rubbish bin, just to check that the carefully steamed-off wine bottle labels and certificate from Cats Protection confirming Sooty’s adoption were fully buried.