The Great Wine Swindle by Malcolm Gluck - review

POSTED ON 03/11/2008

A sharp intake of breath is advised to negotiate the opening sentence of The Great Wine Swindle. ‘The world of wine is populated by liars, scroungers and cheats. It is administered by mountebanks. It runs on misrepresentation and ritualised fraud. Wine drinkers are duped by wine producers, wine merchants, wine waiters and wine writers’. There you have it then. Or are the Stevenson’s Rocket levels of indignant steam exiting the writer’s ears an attention-seeking ploy? Recalling that the author used to be in advertising copywriting where making it up as you go along is par for the course, one’s suspicions are aroused. But let’s give the author the benefit of the doubt and see what ‘the shocking truth’ is about the wine trade and its conspiracy against the consumer?

Well, we learn that a wine with a grape variety on the label may well include a small percentage of other varieties and indeed an entire appendix is devoted to this scandal that has the author ‘prudishly shocked’. It gets worse. Wines use commercial yeasts and enzymes and processing agents such as bentonite, unless they’re from organic producers, who, according to the writer, ‘use no chemicals’. What, not even sulphur or copper sulphate, which most organic rule books permit? We are not told. Meanwhile France’s appellation contrôlée laws (look away now if you’re of a sensitive disposition) ‘protect the wine grower and not the consumer’ which is ‘a scam and a scandal’. And there’s no such thing as terroir according to the self-styled apostle of plonk and consumer champion because ‘grapes are not wine’. A little learning is a dangerous thing.

The author aims the sharpest of his barbs at the true charlatans of wine, the wine writers, to whom no fewer than three chapters are devoted. Firstly they can’t write, not like the author at least, whose former guide, Superplonk, is compared favourably, by the author, to A Year in Provence and Eats, Shoots and Leaves, even if his spelling is up the spout, viz. Francis Ford Coppolla for Coppola, Carole Bouchet (for Bouquet), distain (sic), to give a handful of examples. Secondly he names and shames writers for such misdemeanours as having a husband or wife who goes out to work. More to the point, wine writers are rotten to the core.

We hear of one prima donna of the species who puffed his own vanity project wine in his newspaper column and then profited from the proceeds until his conflict of interest was made public and he was forced into a humiliating climbdown and to donate future proceeds to charity. This same mountebank, to borrow one of the author’s favourite archaisms, edited the wine section of the Sainsbury’s Magazine, all the while clearly uninfluenced by his lucrative brief. Among the numerous free lunches, dinners, luxury hotel rooms and trips said junket merchant took was one with Sainsbury’s following which the supermarket wine buyer said ‘he may be a twat, but at least he’s our twat’. He also tells us that the same writer attempted to climb into bed with Tesco until they told him where to get off. And the identity of the morally bankrupt villain of the piece? Step forward, er, the author. Pot? Kettle?

Ah, but despite all the conflicts of interest and never-ending stream of freebies, the writer is at pains to reassure us that he’s not influenced by the payments received or swayed in the slightest by all the junkets. No, everyone is out of step but our Malcolm. But why the compulsion to tell the world about all this in such pompous and painstakingly self-humiliating detail? Did the sour grapes become just that more acetic after the newspaper job went west and the website and wine guide sank without trace? Hard to comprehend even quite why Gibson Square put their name to this farrago of bile at all when any redeeming points are buried beneath an avalanche of self-regarding sanctimony. The problem with the antics of the little boy with the catapult and steamed up glasses is that he’s too myopic to notice that he’s living in a glass house.

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