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   Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009

 

 

 

 

Book Review: James Halliday 2009 Australian Wine Companion (7 Aug)
 

When I first got into this book, it irritated me. I kept on finding things I didn't like or things that annoyed me. For example, the only Shiraz to score 97 points came from the Mornington Peninsula, not exactly an area renowned for this great variety. Second on the list was a Shiraz from the Adelaide Hills. That’s almost as perplexing. And then I noticed the Majella 2006 The Musician blend had received 95 points, the same score as the Majella 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon. These were the sort of things that irritated the hell out of me, because I completely disagreed with them, and immediately wondered about the credibility of the book. As I read it, there were more of these niggling irritations. Red rag to a bull stuff! Then I sat back, stopped looking at the trees and started thinking about the forest. That, and a glass of good red, completely changed my perspective, and made me realise that despite the niggles and irritations, the book was (is) a fine piece of work. When the whole manuscript is put into context, especially when you consider the inherent limitations of a book, for every niggle I fond, there are a hundred good things.

This review will look at the niggles and the book as a whole. Only by looking at the forest, as well was the trees, can one get a complete picture.

The Wine Companion is limited to 768 pages; that’s about the size of two average crime novels, but reading it from cover to cover is about as exciting as watching paint dry, even for a wine tragic that needs to get a life! However, it is easy to spend hours cherry picking your way through it looking at your favourite wines and wineries. Its inherent size limitation means restrictions. It is impossible to cover every Australian winery, let alone every Australian wine between its covers. So, anyone who expects either of these two facets will be disappointed.

Let’s examine some numbers, because they are impressive and will give you an idea of the scope of the book. When I bought the “Interactive Companion” that came with a CD in 1999, it boasted there were 4,000 tasting notes on the CD. Now, ten editions later, the book for one year contains a whopping 5,778 tasting notes from 1,661 wineries. (There are 169 wineries making an appearance for the first time.) If you think that number of 5,778 tasting notes is impressive, which it is, it does not take into account the 2,196 wines that did not make the grade! Total 7,974 wines tasted to produce the book. That’s staggering!

The challenge in tasting all those wines is formidable and in past years, James has done it all himself. However last year he announced that
Ben Edwards would be assisting in future editions. The addition of a new taster is the biggest change this year, but in many ways although it’s completely transparent, it’s hidden from view in plain sight. Ben is an experienced show judge as well as being head of the Australian Sommeliers’ Association. In essence, James Halliday's Wine Companion has gone from being James Halliday to being the James Halliday Brand. This has both positives and negatives. Firstly, according to James, Ben brings a breath of fresh air to the project. Experienced readers will quickly be able to pick the difference between Ben's writing style and James's style. Ben's tasting notes certainly are a breath of fresh air. However, the downside is the individual tasting notes are not marked with the author's initials, so unfortunately one cannot definitively know who reviewed each wine. To quote James, "Ben is not a clone." Ben’s palate may be similar, but it is not the same as Halliday’s, so if you are trying to align your palate to Ben’s taste, not having each tasting notes identified by author is a disadvantage. Judging by what I have seen in the book, Ben has been heavily involved in reviewing the wine. Hopefully in years to come the tasting note will be identified by author.

To complete the book, the average day's tasting was between 150 and 170 wines. At three minutes per wine it would take seven and a half hours to go through 150 bottles. That's a lot like hard work. Bloody hard work! One of the criticisms I have made in the past about Halliday's tasting notes is the brevity. Let me give you an example, from the 2009 Companion, of one of the longer tasting notes on an icon wine to understand what I am talking about. "Diana Madeline 2005 As ever, has fine but persistent tannins running from the fore-palate through to the finish; the deep and intense fruit will sustain the wine until those tannins loosen their grip. All five Bordeaux varieties present led by (75%). Screwcap. 14° alc. Rating 96 To 2018 $90. So what does this tasting note description actually tells. The tannins are fine, long and tight. The fruit is deep and intense. It needs time, but doesn't say how much, but it will last till 2018.

From a personal perspective, and it is a personal perspective, tasting notes like this, at best, are sketchy and rely far too much on the score, rather than the description, and don't provide enough information about the wine itself. And herein is one of the major problems with this work. It is impossible to provide comprehensive tasting notes when you have a very limited number of people tasting a huge number of wines, and restricted hardcopy publication space. So given those parameters, my personal likes and dislikes don't come into it. The format is the format, and if anything, it is my thinking that is out of sync with the objectives and parameters of the book, as well as what the public desires.

 

(As an aside, since I drafted this story something happened yesterday that is worth sharing with you. I went to a retrospective tasting for a small producer. We started tasting wines at 10.30 and finished at 4.30 with an hours break for lunch. During that time I managed to make brief tasting notes on fifty seven wines, and it was bloody hard going. Even without the discussion time and lunch, I would not have been able to get through more than a hundred. Anyone who can do a hundred and fifty to a hundred and seventy in a day deserves respect.)      

In the book’s favour, for each winery listed it provides comprehensive information, including address, region, contact details, website address, winemaker, production, and date of establishment. It also provides a brief description provided by the winery. Each winery is asked to update the details when they submit their wines. One could be forgiven for thinking that if a winery thought it was important enough to submit wines for the publication, that ensuring their details were correct would also be important. History has proved my thinking foolish. Experience has shown that much of this information is incorrect. Unfortunately there is nothing Halliday or the publishers can do. The wineries provide the information themselves. If they are so slack that they don't provide correct and up-to-date information, it is the winery's loss, not Halliday's.

There are a number of areas in a book like this where authors can never win (especially with opinionated bigots like me.) I have alluded to a couple already. The Majella Musician score is one example. Here is another. Halliday's winery of the year is Brookland Valley. I say Halliday's winery of the year, because it's not mine. It's probably not yours either. But that's not the point. The point is that the author, be it right of be it wrong, for his own reasons, which he explains, has elected this winery to be his winery of the year. And that is what this book is all about. Personal opinions, not pronouncements from upon a high that are carved in stone by some mythological wine God!

There are those that think Halliday rates many wines to highly, and yet I have already seen comment on one wine forum where someone was stating that it looks like there is some downward pressure on scores, and many wines had dropped by a couple of points. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I might add that the comment came from someone who said their main concern “was no big deal for me, but may be for some wineries.” From my perspective, the authors of the book should not give a damn about what the winery thinks of their rating. They are not writing the book on behalf of the wineries.

For the record, there were 520 wines that were rated 95 points or higher. That’s 6.2% of the total tasted. Readers will make up their own mind if they think the number of 95 point and above wines are excessive, and when you read the book it may even look that way; however the 6.2% figure shows the real result, not the illusion.

One thing that readers can not fail to notice in the Companion is the author’s complete and utter dislike for cork. Comments like, “Pray for the cork” or “Cork permitting will be long lived” are common. Whilst I respect the authors views on corks, they could make their feeling forcefully known at the front of the book, which is far preferable, than throwing out disparaging comments about cork all the way through the book. All wines sealed with corks are so notated anyway, so there is no need to keep putting the boot in. However, from their perspective, 17% of the wines sampled were under natural cork, and of those 1,355 bottles, over 100 of them were suffering from cork related defects! That’s 7.4%, which is a frightening statistic, and close to my own tracking numbers. The number of defective wines caused by the seal under other closures was negligible. So much for the pro cork proponents that tell us the quality of cork is improving!

The worth of this book has been proved over the years. It has grown from strength to strength. Improvements and changes are made yearly. Some are minor tweaks and some, like the addition of Ben are major. It is because it gives the consumer what they want that sales keep increasing year on year. Last year they produced and sold approximately 40,000 copies, which is an impressive number. This year the publishers are shooting for 50,000.

But there is more than the book. Lots more! If you visit www.winecompanion.com.au/ you will find almost 50,000 of Halliday’s notes online, as well as loads of additional information. It has details on all Australian wineries, including the 822 that do not appear in the book. The 2009 tasting notes are already online. The ‘Best of the Best’ list, which rates the top wines by variety, always a hugely popular segment in the book, is also online already. Later this month, a virtual cellar facility will be added. The ‘What James is Drinking’ segment will be updated regularly too. (Drool drool.) It is also envisaged that about a hundred tasting notes will also be added every month. That’s incredible value for $22, which is only the cost of a bottle of drinkable plonk.

Critics are human; they have likes and dislikes, good days and bad days, and make mistakes occasionally; this needs to be taken into account when reading the work. As long as you adjust your thinking to the parameters of the book, you should enjoy it, but more importantly, find it very useful. Whilst I can nitpick about a few scores and other aspects that I disagree with, overall it is a damn fine bit of work.

As to the future of the Companion, now there is a succession plan in place, Brand Halliday is no longer a one man band.


 

Feel free to submit your comments!

From Allan Wilkerson (aka Waiters Friend): Wednesday 13 July

In regards to James Hallidays Wine Companion 2009, I just wanted to pick up on the comment about the scores of 95 and above equating to 6.2% of wines reviewed. On the surface, this might look excessive, but I’ve rarely if ever seen Halliday dip below a score of 80 in his Wine Companion, and I’ve been buying it on and off since about 1995. So, if the scores have a range in practice of between 80 and 100 points, its statistically realistic that 25% of wines could rate 95 or over (on the assumption that there is an even spread of quality in that 20 point range). In practice, of course, you might apply the traditional ‘bell curve’ – even so, 6% is not unrealistic. Any problems might be with the scoring system itself.

 

Copyright © Ric Einstein 2008

 

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