Wink Lorch is known to many in the Circle, having served as Editor of the Circle Update from 2015 until 2017 and been a member since the early 90s, but she has also become one of the foremost writers on wines from the Jura (writing the crowd-funded Jura Wine, published in 2014). Her latest venture has been authoring Wines of the French Alps: Savoie, Bugey and beyond which was published at the end of July, and for which she has been on a book tour throughout the US and Europe ever since. Amanda Barnes interviews Wink about her thoughts on Jura becoming a ‘hipster wine’, why wine mapping could be better than it is, and learns how Mateus Rosé was soon switched to Gevrey-Chambertin in her teenage years.
What was your first introduction into the world of wine?
My parents drank wine at home when they entertained and in restaurants, usually German white or Burgundy red, until my Dad felt the price of the latter had gone up too much, and swapped for cheaper reds… He loathed Bordeaux, something that strangely I seem to have inherited, despite battling against the loathing (I make exceptions for 30+ year-old First Growths paid for by someone else).
My Dad was keen for me to enjoy wine from my mid-teens, enticing me when out with something sweetish like Mateus Rosé. By the time I was 16, my elder sister ran a conference centre and bought their wine. She lived in my parents’ annexe and I would sneak out to spend time with her and her friends, and remember often drinking Nuits Saint-Georges and Gevrey-Chambertin (usually from négociants like Bouchard Père et Fils), which she had been given as samples. After school I had a gap year and worked in a Swiss ski resort, drinking copious amounts of Fendant, I already had an interest in Alpine wines…
I didn’t enjoy my brief time at university (I did not complete a degree) and was trying to find out a career that I could enjoy. Amazingly, the answer came in a little A-Z of wine given to me by my father and under W was ‘wine trade’ and how to work in it. I was reasonably good at both German and French, and this made me think I could be qualified, because I could read and pronounce wine labels. To my Dad’s disgust, I left university, started studying WSET courses, worked in a pub, learned to type (to my Mum’s disgust – she thought I would end up as a secretary), and typed letters to find a job in the wine trade.
The Hon. Sir Ralph Mansfield (of Hatch Mansfield from whom my Dad sometimes bought wine) told me it was too hard for a woman to work in the wine trade, but that if I insisted he would pass my name onto Grants of St. James’s, which he did and I successfully interviewed to become a management trainee. But that was only after the ‘best job in my life’, now 40 years ago, working for six months for the irrepressible Cliff Roberson, then running Buckingham Vintners. Burgundy again reared its head, because I helped organise a trade tasting of the Burgundy négociant they represented, Henri de Villamont, with wines going back to the 1950s – I still have the old-fashioned, big Burgundy glasses I landed from that.
You’ve been working in wine since 1979. How have you seen wine writing and communication change in that time and what excites and/or scares you most about wine writing today?
The most worrying thing is how little wine writing has changed over 40 years, mostly it’s the medium that has changed. And my biggest bugbear since I became well educated in wine (by the end of the 1980s) has not changed one bit – too many writers do not fact-check and publish downright errors. Over the years, I have seen surprisingly little innovation in wine writing apart from the introduction of the 100-point system, which has been discussed ad nauseum already, so I have nothing to add.
However, in the wider form of communication in wine, imagery and modern technology are allowing innovation, though this remains slow to emerge. Videos and podcasts have changed little over the past decade. Top photography remains undervalued – some of the drone images produced by CWW members who are professional photographers recently has been spectacular and not enough is done with it, to add words to explain the context of the photos.
Likewise, with mapping: In the early 1990s I worked on what I consider to be a most extraordinary book – Oz Clarke’s Wine Atlas, first published in 1995. Today, we could use satellite mapping to produce this – then we had a laborious method involving artists and ordnance survey maps – but so few communicators and wineries are using the tools that are out there.
You are the author of Jura Wine and the category has become somewhat hipster in some wine markets. Why do you think Jura has found a new appeal?
The stars began to align for Jura from the start of this century. A couple of US importers specializing in regional French wines, began trying to introduce Jura and were surprised by the success, not just of the oxidative whites, but also the very light reds – drinking the latter became a type of badge of honour for the anti-Parker American wine lovers, as Jura reds were diametrically opposite in style to so-called Parker wines. At a cheaper price level, Crémant du Jura, became appreciated as good value, fine fizz and helped get the name known in several countries.
Meantime, quality was going up, and increasing numbers of Jura wine producers turned to organics, biodynamics and natural winemaking methods. Jura became synonymous with the natural wine world, so much so that when I have been writing and speaking about the region in the past decade, I have had to dispel the myth that all Jura wines are ‘natural’. In summary, the region is viewed as authentic, unusual and green and wine lovers appreciate the complexity of the wines in every sense. Yes, my book has helped, but it is mainly the vignerons and the importers, who have made the category work and demand continues to grow around the world. The scarcity of many cuvées from the best vignerons add even more to the allure. Jura produces only 0.2% of French wines and some vignerons with just 8ha, for example, make 40+ different wines each year.
Your new book, Wines of the French Alps, was published this summer and throws light onto a wine region that is still under the radar for most. What is exciting about Alpine wine today and what potential do you see for it in the marketplace in the future?
The vineyards of Savoie, Bugey and its neighbours, while not at very high altitude, are often on steep slopes of predominantly limestone soils and influenced by dramatic Alpine weather systems. This terroir, coupled with a great array of indigenous grape varieties – Jacquère, Altesse, Mondeuse and Persan to name just four of the principal ones – gives wines of generally lower alcohol and greater natural acidity than those from their nearest neighbours of the Rhône and Burgundy – a taste profile increasingly in demand. Climate change, while posing a greater risk of fiercer hailstorms and spring frosts than before, has generally benefitted wine regions of the French Alps in allowing more regular ripening.
The excitement is in these obscure grape varieties, which, when in the hands of the best vignerons, produce wines of great freshness and elegance, with a huge range of flavours too. In the past, technical advisers to the region encouraged vignerons to bottle much too early, in order to supply wines from the previous vintage to the winter ski tourists. Now, along with a reduction of yields and better vineyard and winery practices generally, wines bottled later from these varieties show their true colours, which emerge after time and allow the wines to age for much longer. Many young vignerons are establishing organic estates and there is a real energy in these regions and an interest in selling the wines on export markets, away from the ski resorts. For that the wines have to be as exciting and spectacular as the scenery, and they increasingly are. There will never be big volumes, and the wines will never be cheap on export markets, so the potential is mainly for independent wine stores and the on trade – and like Jura, scarcity allied with quality may add to demand.
Both your books were self-published and crowdfunded. What have you found to be the greatest challenge in self-publishing?
They were partly crowdfunded – my Kickstarter campaign funds didn’t pay for everything, and certainly not for my time. The greatest challenge in self-publishing, without any doubt, is handling the sales and distribution of the finished book. Yes, there is Amazon, but some of us don’t want to go down that route in a big way, and I have found that to fulfil the demand for my book around the world (and I’ve despatched Jura Wine to over 50 countries now, and I think Wines of the French Alps has reached 30+ already), is every bit as much a labour of love as writing the books was in the first place. There seem no reliable companies out there to pack and despatch books efficiently on behalf of a small customer like me, so I do it myself, with huge help from my brother. I deal with all the sales and order communication; he packs and despatches.
And what have you found to be the greatest advantage?
I choose how to promote, distribute and price my book, and all the money is mine!
Which is the next undiscovered French region you’re going to uncover?
That’s it, I’m done. Two babies are enough for me, and I shall continue to nurture them for a while, at least. I am enjoying being able to use the existence of my books as a springboard to doing more wine educational activities, work that I’ve enjoyed over many years. And, I am appreciating a gradual return to tasting ever-evolving wines from around the world (except Bordeaux).
More information on Wink’s latest book is available online here.