NEAL MARTIN

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ONE OF THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS WINE WRITERS AND CRITICS OF MODERN TIMES

From a relatively inconspicuous and notably wine-free start in the world of insurance, a chance job offer set him on a vinous trajectory that launched him through various far-flung galaxies to land as the first ever UK-based writer for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. Since then, Neal has become one of the wine world’s most authoritative voices on various regions, including Bordeaux and Burgundy, and now fills the role of Senior Editor at Antonio Galloni’s much-lauded website Vinous … when he’s not working on solo projects, such as his recently published book ‘The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide: One Hundred and Fifty Years from 1870 to 2020’.

Chelsea Vintners’ Buying Director Giles Cooper caught up with his old friend over a glass of the good stuff to find out more about Neal’s unique journey through wine and how Bordeaux came to be one of his (many) great passions.

You’ve had a bio or two written about you in your time (I’ve noticed that people love to describe you as ‘Essex-born’) and we know that your route to where you are now was not a straightforward one. Can you tell us more about how you first discovered the world of wine?

For me – like many in the industry – finding a career in wine was completely serendipitous.

Growing up, we never had wine in the house and to this day I’ve never seen my mum drink wine, ever. She comes from a properly working-class family, and so anything she views as a luxury, such as wine, she simply feels that she doesn’t need. Even at some of my best wine dinners closest to home I’ve never seen her drink a drop. So, when I went off to the University of Warwick to study Management Science (which of course turned out to be not at all useful) I was drinking either cheap Diamond White cider or ruby port with lemonade …

After university I worked in insurance before heading to Japan for a year to teach English, which was a great adventure. I had never really travelled – I never got into a plane until I was 18 or 19, and Japan was my first ever long haul. When I returned to the UK, I went back into insurance, but I missed Japan, and I couldn’t work out why I was back … I remember sitting in a long after-hours meeting about how and where we should move the office photocopier, thinking ‘please, someone kill me’. Particularly since in the end they decided to leave the machine where it was!

It then happened that quite literally the day after Photocopier-Gate, a subsidiary company of Japanese Airlines approached me for a job (sourcing both wine and paper cups) and I thought yes, anything to get me out of here. I knew nothing about wine, so I went to an off-license in Southend the night before the interview and memorised the names on the bottle labels. I could have bought one and taken it home but at that point I didn’t actually drink the stuff, so I think I just ended up with a packet of crisps! It was incredible, because I had memorised things like Black Tower but fortunately the person interviewing me didn’t have a clue about wine either, so we were both very happy and I was offered my first job in the wine world.

That first job must have felt like a very steep learning curve!

Yes and no. In the beginning it was more like an admin job, where I saw some good brands like Gosset champagne but nothing spectacular happened. That is until one very pivotal day when the telex machine went off (this was 1996) and we received an order list with something like a hundred cases of DRC La Tâche and two hundred cases of Château Lafite on it. Quite literally overnight I went from doing bills of lading to sourcing Grand Cru Burgundy and First Growth Bordeaux. This was the 1990s and so whilst the quantities were and still are mindboggling, those were the days when you could generally whip up twenty cases of La Tâche at a moment’s notice, no problem.

As you can imagine, I had no concept of what these wines really meant at the time.  One of my first proper lunches was with Corney & Barrow, and I can remember drinking things like Henri Jayer and thinking, ‘I should probably start learning about this now …’

At what point on the journey did your website, Wine Journal, come into being?

As my career ramped up, I enrolled in the WSET and completed what is now the Diploma – my advice to anyone starting out in the industry now would be to get those valuable qualifications. I was also enjoying being wined and dined a lot because my buying remit had become very wide. I was very diligent during that period and kept a spreadsheet for my tasting notes, which just got bigger and bigger – I really knew absolutely nothing and so this was the only way. I was completely Machiavellian about it and always tried to engineer opportunities to fill drinking gaps in my spreadsheet wherever I could by dropping careful suggestions to my hosts!.

When it came to Wine Journal, I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I had amassed all these notes and could see the internet was going to have a massive impact. I was playing PacMan one afternoon and was again wondering what I was going to do next when an idea came to me … I walked down to Piccadilly Waterstones, bought a book on HTML, and that afternoon to my astonishment managed to copy and paste a tasting note into something resembling a webpage. This was, in fact, June of 2003, almost 20 years to the day that we are having this conversation!

Initially my triumph was completely ignored, obviously. But then all of a sudden, I was drinking Dom Pérignon ‘69 at a lunch and suddenly noticed that I’d had two hundred website visits. I’d written an article on La Féte de la Fleur at Château Mouton which was slightly wry and self-deprecating, and a link had been put onto the Robert Parker forum. From that minute it just went mad, like turning a tap on. Looking back, the numbers became astronomical. I was number one on Google for all Bordeaux château reviews with web hosting that cost me 99p a month. Wine Journal only existed for three years but at that time I don’t think anyone else was communicating in that sort of tongue in cheek style and it seemed to work for people.

You’ve got to remember at that stage there were literally four or five writers with websites doing what I was; I guess you would call us the disruptors, with the old guard being broadsheet newspapers. In fact, I applied to join the Circle of Wine Writers and they rejected me because I was ‘just a blogger’!

Three years after the launch of Wine Journal, you were approached to join the Wine Advocate team. How did that come about?

Robert Parker was more switched on than most, particularly when it came to online content, and could see what was happening in that world early on. I knew through a mutual contact that Parker was reading my site, and one day I simply got an email out of the blue. I initially thought it was a joke and phoned a friend to ask if they were having me on … but no, it turned out to be genuine.

Funnily enough, the original offer was to cover the Loire and Provence, so some negotiation was needed. I was the first UK-based person to write for Wine Advocate but I didn’t want to do regions I knew nothing about, and so eventually they allowed me to continue what I had been focusing on with Wine Journal, which was the most important thing for me throughout the discussions and one of the main reasons I am where I am now.

What do you feel is the relevance of scoring in today’s wine world? Do you think the industry attaches the same importance to scores as it did at the height of Robert Parker’s influence?

I think to a great extent scores depend on who they’re from. I always joke that if you just want as many numbers as possible, I can ask my mum … she might not drink wine, but she can certainly count!

When I speak to merchants it’s clear that there are still certain voices with the power to move the market, but that brings with it a certain danger – which I feel with 2023’s en primeur campaign – there’s never going to be another Parker-level critic with that much power and influence but I think that now the chateaux now want as many voices as possible. Some seem to be looking for a sort of chorus line of people to go to en primeur and give as many high scores as possible, which they can then combine and use as a mandate to sell wine. The problem is that this obviously dilutes the value of scores as a whole. It can become less about credibility and more about big numbers and in the long run that can undermine the wines and the region. Critics have to remember that these things do influence consumer behaviour; I make my money by having a clear, honest perspective, not from giving relentlessly high scores.

How do you feel en primeur has changed since you started writing on Bordeaux?

I think en primeur has changed massively. When I started attending, you had to be writing for a ‘serious’ publication to be invited; then there was a period where you had to have an established presence on the internet, then a stage where you could have started a blog the week before and they’d invite you in. That all means that I think now it’s probably too many people. There’s also been a big shift from trade to journalists more broadly; I’ve always felt the core of primeur should be about trade but it’s now more about jockeying for position in terms of brand image and where you sit in relation to your peers and neighbours. Whether you sell the wine or not is almost neither here nor there, which is a far cry from the days where that was the key purpose of the campaign.

Do you pay attention to the commerciality of en primeur or do you try and see the vintages and wines as an objective intellectual exercise?

When I write my report it’s totally objective – although Parker always used to include a few notes on the market for context and I do that too.

I love Bordeaux wines, always have, and I want it as a region to do well- so when I taste a really good wine with great reviews that is really going places, and then see a stupid, prohibitively expensive price, I sometimes wonder what the point was. The trouble is that a lot of chateaux are divorced from the reality of the market because they are essentially removed from it. Many people forget that selling out to négociants in one day isn’t the same as actually being sold out.  If négociants started sending anything unsold back to the producer it would change overnight … although now there are plenty of places with super-wealthy backing who perhaps wouldn’t even worry about it.

I get the impression that there is a real shift in terms of what Bordeaux wines are going to cost, as we see more movement to things like organic vineyard work. Surely, more expense and more investment at all stages means that prices are inevitably going to go up.

You mentioned that the Bordeaux has begun to change in terms of winemaking philosophies – what do you think the future holds for the region?

Bordeaux has always been a very dynamic place; it has lots of space for innovation, lots of supporting industries supplying all kinds of interesting technology and exciting new kit, and there’s lots of toys to play with!

However, this isn’t often mentioned in polite society but you just can’t underestimate the impact it had when Parker stopped reviewing Bordeaux. It was a massive thing; whether you loved it him or loathed him, there was an incredibly strong market for the style of wine that had become synonymous with those reviews. However, Bordeaux has since become a far more interesting place than the region of fifteen years ago where everyone was focused on those oaky, rich styles that Parker loved. Everything is much more heterogenous.

At the same time, I do think that consultants are still very influential in the region, and I believe they have a uniformity of their own. I wonder whether maybe we have lost that culture of the maverick wines and winemakers that are completely different to others; the wine that epitomises that rogue mindset for me is Palmer ‘18, one of the few times when I really felt that I understood a wine. Palmer is generally not my style but when I knew the background and realised that this was a wine totally off the leash that was going to be one that is different to every other Palmer … it was amazing. You’ll have to wait a long time for it to be really ready but I wish there were more of those bottles now.

The wine styles that have emerged post-Parker see much less new oak, which naturally gives way to more vineyard expression, but always I think that when wine is young you see the stamp of the vintage and only when it’s aged do you see the quality of the production …  a young wine can trip you up. When it comes to maturing Bordeaux, it’s not a straight road but a meandering river, so it depends when you catch your fish, so to speak. All this tech can mean that wines can be quite photoshopped, and I think maybe you want to see the imperfections. Perhaps what gets lost is those imperfections that make things more interesting and beautiful. My analogy is that if you were to autotune Bob Dylan’s voice, would it make a better song? Of course it wouldn’t. With wine it’s exactly the same principle.

What advice would you give to collectors and aspiring Bordeaux buyers at this point?

Find the châteaux that appeal to you irrespective of cost and start your journey from there. Say for example you decide you love Figeac …  ask whether there is a mini version of Figeac out there doing the same thing, a newer or smaller producer working with dominant Cabernet Franc. There is always a lot of interest and excitement in seeking out new and different properties doing things in a similar style. I always like to have different vintages lying around as well and I think that buying back vintages is always fun. Remember that new releases are great but can also be brilliant opportunities look at older vintages to backfill your collection.

Speaking of older vintages … there is much discussion of the 2016 Bordeaux vintage as the region’s greatest vintage of the last two decades. Where do you stand on this?

I think the reason why 2016 was so successful is that post the Parker era, 2016 was the first vintage that really epitomised where Bordeaux was going. It had miraculous elegance and lightness, the first Bordeaux vintage which really seemed to say, ‘here we are and look what we can do!’. That’s why it attracted so much attention. There was also so much difference between this and the run of previous vintages, especially ‘09 and ‘10 – I felt that 2009 was particularly backward looking, after which there was a slow shift in style with 2016 being the first year to really nail that special kind of purity. Weather-wise it was also a sweet spot, preceding a run of really hot summers which completely changed the game for vintages like 2018. When châteaux owners hold the ‘16 up as example of amazing purity and balance, that was in no small part achieved thanks to a relatively cool summer in comparison with what was to come. Many look back at that year as both a perfect pinnacle and turning point, with the wines striking an amazing balance between looking back and looking forwards, whilst enjoying the added benefit of some new tech but not enough to make it too polished.  I gave more 100-point scores to wines in 2016 that I have in any other year.

What’s the difference for you between a 99-point and a 100-point wine?

I think I’m always pretty consistent about where I will give 100 points. The way for me to approach it is, if you have to ask yourself whether it’s a 99 or a 100, then it’s a 99. No doubt. It sounds funny but often you just sort of know it, the way I knew it when I tasted Palmer ‘18.

The first true 100-point wine I ever tasted was Latour 1961. It was quite early on in my career, a slightly dodgy looking bottle with a low ullage that I really wasn’t sure about, and yet when it opened … even today I can’t put it into words. I just knew. Andrew Jefford has a great perspective on this and discusses the fact that some see 100 points as a plateau to reach and maintain, whilst others see it as a peak with room for only one or two. I’m very much a peak person. Only one person can stand on top of Everest at any one time! When you’ve tasted a true 100 pointer (‘55 La Mission is another that springs to mind) you just know, and it puts everything into perspective regardless of whether it’s a young wine or old.

I am always very careful with scoring because all your notes continue to live – I still reference notes that I wrote 25 years ago – so you have to be completely sure because once you’ve given that score it’s not going anywhere. With blind tasting I always go back when the wine is revealed and see if that bottle is consistent with previous notes, and if not, why not? Is it me? The bottle? You have to be able to justify why something may have changed, particularly if you’ve put a massive score down somewhere in indelible black and white.

It’s another very interesting thing about en primeur in that people forget that a crucial part of winemaking is whether you can translate a 100-point wine from barrel to bottle, because really the only way is down. There is massive skill in being able to do that (‘15 Haut-Brion is a great example) and I think the ability to harness something that is bright and vivacious in the barrel and keep it the same in bottle is one of the talents of a great winemaker.

Is there one single 100-point wine that represents the very peak for you?

Until I tasted that wine, that question was always very difficult to answer, and I would agonise over whether it was perhaps La Mission ‘55 or Latour ‘61. But then came a bottle of 1870 Lafite at a friend’s birthday and it was game over. And that was after we’d had a Margaux 1900! This Lafite was just so … it felt like nothing could ever be that good again. I suppose you could ask whether it was something to do with pre-phylloxera vines, but we won’t go into all that. It wasn’t the age either, just some other indescribable magic.

Let’s talk about your latest book, the seminal work that is The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide. What would you like to tell our readers?

Buy it!

That goes without saying! It’s worth noting that it is a fantastic journey with you as a person. The wine, music and film pairings you create are so unique and joyous, and it is great to see you bringing passions together.

I loved writing it. I wrote it in my spare time, it was just great fun to research and piece all together. I had some rules to keep it tight – I could only have one song per artist and one film per director, so I kept endlessly changing and rewriting as I went along.

It’s not a new concept, in that much of that content existed on the original Wine Journal website, and I did it then in almost exactly the same format for the book. I wanted to write something fun that you could use it as a reference if you were having a dinner and wanted to explore the wines you were enjoying.

As a wine writer, the best thing you can do is know that wine is boring. If you’re not in the room when someone is drinking and enjoying a bottle then it really doesn’t mean much to you, and the trouble with a lot of wine writing is the assumption that the reader is present. Your task is to communicate that feeling to a drinker so you have to think of a way to make this subject more interesting, I’ve always tried to take my writing outside of wine to make it as entertaining as possible, it’s about offering the bait that draws the reader in and keeps them interested before you segue into wine.

The feedback I’m getting is that even people who are not into wine really love the book, which I think says a lot. If you’re encouraging more people to drink better wine, very technical articles or books really aren’t the way to go about it – you’re just writing for the same old audience. Thinking outside the box is incredibly important and you have to come up with a way to do things differently. For example, you want someone who doesn’t know much about Haut-Brion or could never afford it to still get huge enjoyment and value from your writing. Thinking outside the box is incredibly important.

How did you approach the music and film of the older vintages, assuming that your knowledge of the 1900s was limited?!

Well, I’ll have you know that I am in fact a Grade 5 clarinet player, so I know a little bit …!

Mainly I relied on research and a friend who loved classic music. I sent him a first draft to ask whether I’d missed any ‘bangers’ but he was very complimentary. It was much harder than I thought – in my head I thought that I knew a lot of classic music but then narrowing this down to specific years was difficult and I often had to compromise to keep it fairly mainstream and avoid those obscure musical alleyways that are less relevant to most people.

I also had to also make sure to not be too British or too niche! 1988 was a particular comprise. At that point I was really into clubbing and the song I chose (Promised Landby Joe Smooth) is pretty obscure for most people but that one meant so much to me that I thought, you may not know it, but I really don’t care! It’s been very interesting to see that the music in the book has taken centre stage ahead of movies and events; I don’t think that there’s anything more powerful than music to trigger a sense of time and place in your head. It’s been researched and music is proven to have a more powerful cognitive effect than any other medium. This is why we can all still recite word perfect lyrics to songs that came out when we were 9 but we can’t remember what we wrote on the shopping list that morning.

Would you do anything differently with hindsight?

I wouldn’t, no, but let’s say I did a second edition. I’d love to change the music or do an expanded edition. I had so many songs where it was impossible to choose with the rules I had set, and I had to discard so much amazing music. I remember that 1989 again was a massive year for me personally and I was torn between Fool’s Gold by the Stone Roses and Back to Life by Soul II Soul. For me, Soul II Soul were miles bigger because they were huge in Essex, and it was the song of the summer for me … but Fool’s Goldwas the real icon so that was the winner. Another of my rules was to keep a good spread of genres and 1988 was had been dance music whilst 1990 was Madonna, so I needed something more indie.

A South African winemaker asked me quite recently what my legacy was going to be. The idea of legacy is important to me because I believe that you have to leave something behind, and for me, the book is the biggest part of my legacy so far. Yeah … it’s doing alright, really.

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