During the long hot spell endured by the Burgundians this summer, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a lunch with the new ‘mover & shaker’ of wine critics – at least as far as the wines of Burgundy are concerned.
Meadow’s burghound.com arrived on the scene just in time for the release of the 1999 vintage. At his website you can subscribe to a quarterly newsletter written by Allen Meadows that typically provides in excess of 1,000 tasting notes from domaines, reports of vertical tastings or profiles of different communes or vineyards. The website itself is more a shop window for the the quarterly report than an ‘active’ website – though you can find a section on ‘Burgundy of the Week’, but typically he must be so busy typing his reports that this is only updated once a month at best. The reports use the almost ubiquitous 100 points system for scoring the wines, though there is (fortunately for me) a healthy dose of descriptive prose too. Scoring seems not to be ‘over-generous’ – after twelve reports only four or five wines have reached 98pts – or if there was a 99 I missed it.
Despite the fact that one might be forgiven for assuming the market for wine critics was completely saturated, I have to say that, Allen has become one of my prime references for information about this diverse region – and it seems I’m not the only one! Ignoring for a second the quality of the output, I think there are two principal reasons why Burghound has been so successful:
- firstly – the ‘major brands’ of wine critics seem to be following same strategy i.e. market extension – increasing revenue by extending their coverage to (almost) all wine producing regions – only possible of course, by hiring additional staff writers. The problem here is not the ability of the old or the new names, but one of information overload. If your heart is mainly in one region you have to wade through, and pay for, an awful lot of material to get at what you’re really interested in.
- secondly – whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, there is a concern (maybe just from a vocal minority) that for some vintages the major critics’ ratings are ‘out of line’ with the palates of those who consider themselves Burgundy aficionados. Personally I feel this is because people (simplistically) focus on the laughable scores rather than the words – though I have to say that this view has taken a few ‘dents’ given the recent comments on bulletin boards by the providers of said scores! Anyway, this debate seems to have successfully opened the door for another voice. Of course people can be fickle, so further down the line burghound could also find itself castigated in the same way.
Meeting Allen for the first time stirred my imagination; Californian, approaching 50 with a build that would make me wary of challenging him to a race over 10km; perfectly turned out with dark glasses and a briefcase – after just a few words I decided that he could be a modern day Felix Leiter – Thunderball vintage! Our venue was the restaurant ‘Ma Cuisine’ which is an old favourite just off the ‘Place Carnot’ in Beaune – and for the record we had a 1979 Beaune 1er Theurons from Jacques Germain – a sublime, indeed a beautiful bottle. Anyway, with Burgundy only accounting for about 0.5% of world wine production there was obviously a gap for someone looking to provide more depth and focus for the region, and focus is certainly what Allen provides; close to 4 months of the year are spent in the Burgundy region – usually in 3-4 week chunks. This time commitment even brings praise from unexpected quarters; I heard Clive Coates say “Meadows is a good bloke, he has experience of drinking great bottles and does things in the necessary depth by spending the time in the region and talking to the growers” – high praise indeed – sorry if that was a secret Clive!!
It was after completing business school in 1979 that Allen spent some time traveling in Europe. As luck would have it he ended up tasting in the cellars of Burgundy and stayed to work the harvest. Despite finding himself a job he made a similar pilgrimage to the region every year in order to build up his own collection of bottles – by the way Allen is a magnum kind of a guy – not the cheesy private investigator, but bottle size; he has over 500 magnums in his cellar. In his own words he was “reasonably successful” in the corporate world and this facilitated ‘freedom’ at a relatively tender age. Initially, writing a book was the plan, but regardless of whether burghound.com was started just as an excuse to do something he enjoys or as a true business, it has turned out to be very successful; Allen now has subscribers in over 30 countries and 50+ new subscribers per month. He’s also working on a new visitors guide to the Côte d’Or, concentrating on restaurants and hotels. Speaking as a subscriber myself I’d say this success is amply justified given the output to date.
When we met in July, Allen was just coming to the end of a tour of Chablis and Maconnais – and believe it or not that’s about all I can tell you! We chatted about this and that like old acquaintances – most of which I can’t remember and some that, well, he might have to kill me if I did tell you – after all he might really be Felix Leiter and he could have been carrying anything in that briefcase…!