The White Club: A sordid tale

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The White Club, a Swiss-based fine wine “club” with whom I had some dealings, has recently been exposed as a scam.

On Monday 12th May, Peter Hellman of the Wine Spectator contacted me to ask about The White Club event held at Texture restaurant in London in April 2013 and the Club’s practices. His article can be seen here.

I gave a full reply to Pete, which I reproduce here with yet more information that has come to light subsequently.

I first contacted Rene Dehn and Malene Meisner in July 2011 when I was consulting to a Swiss-based auction house. Pekka Nuikki of FINE magazines, who I knew well and had done many articles for, had forwarded me their details as potential consignors/buyers for the auction. Subsequently we arranged to meet in London in February 2012. We hit it off and I was invited to their Sauternes dinner held in Basel on 30th March 2012. Dehn and Meisner had a relatively small apartment and already had guests so I was farmed out to (very charming and hospitable) Danish friends up the road.

It was an epic dinner; the wines were spectacular. All the corks were on display to assert condition and provenance. Jürg Richter was there and he knows more about Sauternes than anybody. His presence gave the event enormous creditability. (“Star guests” was a recurring theme with TWC: Jancis Robinson, Neal Martin, and Peter Sisseck, among other wine industry “stars”, attended TWC events.)

An 1830 Ferreira Port was served. I subsequently wrote, “one of only four – now three! – bottles left. It was so red-blooded and lively that I would never have guessed its age… It looked, smelled and tasted like a 40-year old Vintage Port, more 1970 than 1830.” The liveliness of a 182-year old Port aroused my suspicion, as did Dehn’s story of how he acquired it, not least because the number of bottles left always changed with each telling – as did the number of TWC members. But the splendour of the Sauternes overrode any real doubts about this bottle. Dehn was unreliable with figures and clearly had no aptitude for administration or financial metrics but I took the view that he could be worked with because he was so good at sourcing impeccable wines through (as he claimed) TWC’s members or direct from châteaux and domaines.

I continued to contribute texts to their website (on a goodwill rather than cash basis, usually with recycled articles). We maintained a cordial relationship and I visited them twice again (in August 2012 and in February 2013) to discuss how we could continue to work together on a more professional and formal basis. By February 2013, TWC had pulled off some spectacular events, including the Sauternes dinner, the DRC weekend and the Pomerol events with Neal Martin. I had confidence that we could have a good working relationship, combining their marketing and hosting skills with my administrative abilities.

However, as I got closer to TWC I harboured serious doubts about its financial administration and viability. It was non-existent. I could not see how it made any profit, even allowing for the high cost of membership and attending the events. With no obvious source of income what did Rene Dehn and Malene Meisner live on, or, for that matter, how could they pay me and other associates? Dehn dropped hints that he was wealthy and had a private income from, among other things, commission on fridges sold in India. As he told me, two TWC members had done a deal through him to sell fridges in India and Dehn had collected a small ongoing % commission on this. Just think of how many fridges are sold in India: even a tiny % would generate a lot of money.

At the February 2013 visit Dehn mentioned that some wines were left over from the December 2012 DRC event. It was decided to do an event in London with these bottles. I had been invited (by text from Dehn) to the December event at very short notice (text received at 4pm with an invitation to lunch in Burgundy the following day) but I was recovering from norovirus at the time and was too ill to travel. I later saw a few post-event write-ups but I was unaware of exactly what had been served. For the planned London dinner I had not seen the bottles prior to the event. I trusted Dehn to have done proper diligence. After all, the December event had included a visit to DRC and M de Villaine. Dehn asserted that “his” bottles had been seen and de facto authenticated by M de Villaine himself.

Tasters are entitled to query the veracity of an old and very expensive bottle. But several of the people at the London dinner booked another White Club event straightaway (which was subsequently cancelled). The wines were, except for the 1958 and 1972 vintages, astonishingly good. I reported the provenance of the wines as described to me by Dehn.

The day after the event I went back to the restaurant to settle the bill and to collect any leftovers. I took all the empty bottles home with me and scooped up the corks and put them in a box. The bottles and corks were then put into a cupboard and I did not look at them closely until January 2014.

Time went by, with an on-off correspondence between me and TWC. Dehn and Meisner would vanish for weeks at a time and then I would be deluged with requests for, say, copy for the website. It took Dehn three months to contact me to settle the bills for the London event, proving my view that he had no interest in or aptitude for basic financial administration. It was a very unsatisfactory aftermath and I decided not to have any further dealings with him – too feckless and too unreliable. My last correspondence with Rene Dehn was an email from him on 26th September 2013. After that I made no further attempts to contact him.

I bumped into Neal Martin at a Burgundy tasting in January 2014 and he asked if I’d had any contact with TWC recently. I said that I hadn’t and that, like him, I’d had trouble getting paid and wanted no more to do with them. (Neal and I had both attended a “private” TWC dinner at Dehn’s and Meisner’s Basel home in February 2013.)

Shortly afterwards I was emailed by a Swiss-based Burgundy “expert” who informed me that real doubts had surfaced about TWC’s activities. Between meeting Neal Martin and receiving this email a Danish journalist, who said that he had strong evidence to show that TWC had been serving fakes at its events, had also contacted me. I asked to see this evidence and the penny dropped. At least two of the bottles that were served in London had been previously used at the December 2012 DRC event.

I got the bottles out of storage and for the first time had a long, hard look at them. Discrepancies were immediately apparent. I’ve seen more old bottles than most people and, given time to do proper diligence, I can spot discrepancies that indicate a fraudulent bottle. I worked with the Danish journalist and Michael Egan to examine the bottles and ascertain which were fakes (that is, refills) and which were forgeries (made from scratch).

I believe that six of the nine DRC wines opened in London were fakes or forgeries: the 1923 is in a brown rather than green bottle; the 1937 was used at the December 2012 event (possibly a genuine bottle but refilled for London); the 1945 was also a refill from the December event (possibly a Kurniawan forgery, thought Egan); the 1958 is a green bottle that is the wrong colour; the 1963 has a creased, off-centre label; and the 1972 also has a suspect label (though the jury remains open on this one).

Images of the previously used 1937 Romanée-Conti and 1945 Richebourg can be seen here.

The images of the 1937 and 1945 against a black tablecloth were taken by me. To clarify, these two bottles were previously used at the December 2012 event held in Burgundy. I hadn’t seen them before the London event – and, to be even more transparent, I did not see them until I entered Texture restaurant with the other guests. I co-promoted and co-hosted the event. I had no part in sourcing the wines.

We all have the benefit of hindsight. I think back to the DRC event at Texture and I recall that the bottles were opened (by Dehn with the sommelier) at the last moment as guests were arriving. This was all part of Dehn’s act. I should point out that Texture and the sommelier for the evening are in no way implicated in Dehn’s fraud. Like me, they were there to do a job. They had no prior knowledge or sighting of the wines.

No corks were displayed; the wines had little or no sediment; Dehn left the restaurant without a word to me or the staff, leaving me to make arrangements to settle the bill and to collect the empty bottles. He never seemed to pay for anything, always relying on quid pro quo deals (swapping bottles rather than paying for them with hard cash; getting Parmigiani to pay the rent on his Basel house; offering me access to his events rather than hard cash etc). He repeatedly changed his mobile phone number; the 1937 Romanée-Conti had a J. Drouhin neck label and was unlikely to have come from the Domaine itself as Dehn claimed (DRC does not sell direct to consumers, though it’s possible that it has bought in some stock over the years).

Professionalism meant that I trusted Dehn to do the right thing. You cannot have a working relationship with somebody if you doubt every word they say. But today I feel that he was attempting to hang me (and others) out to dry, getting me to talk up the provenance of the wines and therefore associating me with them.

It is a tricky balance. I earn my living from wine. Like Neal Martin and others, I had to weigh up a potential source of income and the opportunity to taste wines that everybody wants to try against an implied duty of care with assessing the provenance of these rare bottles. Fine and rare wine is incredibly seductive and a priori diligence tends to go out of the window when a bottle of 1937 Romanée-Conti is plonked in front of you by a charming and knowledgeable host. (Incidentally, Peter Hellman’s report quoted me as saying “Prior diligence tends to go out the window”; perhaps Wine Spectator readers do not have an appreciation of Latin philosophical terms.)

It is like the recent “discovery” of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria wreck. Having taken a few murky photos in deep water, US underwater investigator Barry Clifford has said, “All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is Columbus’s famous flagship, the Santa Maria.” People want to believe that it’s Columbus’s ship. Time and diligence will tell.

Wines I had chez TWC were always first timers for me: I had no points of comparison. Dehn knew that I would have noted it if I had the same wine more than once with TWC and I would have compared notes and photographs, which would surely have exposed his scam. But to somebody arriving at a restaurant the bottles in London and at other events all looked the part.

I was close to The White Club but so were, at various times, Jancis Robinson and Neal Martin. Unfortunately for him, Neal in particular was heavily exposed to TWC fakes. He was served the same bottle of Pétrus 1970 twice, for example. But, like many people, he was seduced by Dehn’s charm and the opportunity to taste those wines. Jancis admitted in her recent article, “As someone who, along with le tout Bordeaux, was initially taken in by Hardy Rodenstock, I can easily see how someone establishes their credentials before gradually increasing the proportion of fake wines they serve.” It’s the same for me and, like her and Neal, I got out of it well before the recent exposé.

François Audouze, “le pape des vins anciens” and a respected authority on old wines, was at the December 2012 event where a bottle of 1900 Margaux – now known to be fake – was poured. He later wrote, “Peter Sisseck tells me that this wine is so young that if it actually is not 1900 Château Margaux, an award should be given to the winemaker who has managed to create such a phenomenal young (sic) wine. And indeed this wine is absolutely out of this world. It is worth a hundred Parker points, that is obvious, but it is so much more than that. Balance, emotion, length, depth – it has everything. And I have indeed made a mistake about its age, but it is not the first time that sublime vintage wines fool everyone (my italics). The reason everyone thought of Pétrus was because of this truffle taste, of rare precision. It is a beautiful lesson, and a splendid wine. It has inimitable perfection and absolute elegance. It could very well be the winner at the end of the day.” As confidence tricksters, Dehn and Meisner are peerless.

Dehn’s partner Malene Meisner had left him some time ago (she did not attend the London event, though she helped to market it). My understanding was that they continued to maintain a professional relationship. I was told that Meisner was living in Copenhagen with an Israeli businessman. Her recent attempts to distance herself from Dehn and TWC are contemptible. She must have known what was going on. For goodness’ sake, they lived together! When it was revealed that she did not study or pass the WSET Diploma as she claimed she had (her name is nowhere to be found on the WSET list of Diploma graduates – or is she there under a different name? For the record, I’m on page 80) the game was up: too many lies had been told for her to claim innocence.

Other people continue to support Dehn, despite plenty of evidence of his fraudulent activities. Indeed, I was forwarded an email recently that was composed by Dehn’s South African fiancée Shelley Webb, with whom I had some dealings when she was TWC’s PR. Webb is continuing to stand by her man as they work together under a new business called “Grand Cru Unique”. I was told that the Twitter stream for Grand Cru Unique has been deleted but the Facebook page with a list of events planned globally was still visible, including “bespoke venues” as listed below:

Cape Town Launch at MONDIALL Waterfront on Friday 20th June 2014

Andalusia – Picasso Museum in Malaga on Friday 19th September 2014

Johannesburg at Le Sel @ The Cradle of Mankind – with Coco Reinharz on Friday 31st October 2014

Switzerland at Razzia on Friday 21st November 2014

London on Friday 20th February 2015

Germany, Munich on Friday 20 March 2015

Austria on Friday 22nd May 2015

Belgium on Friday 19th June 2015

Amsterdam on Friday 26 June 2015

Grand Finale in New York on Friday 19 September 2015

Make a note of these dates in your diary.

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My “Role Models: The Changing Profession” article published by Sommelier Journal

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Just look at what sommeliers are doing nowadays. Taking on a wide range of duties beyond the restaurant floor, many have become entrepreneurs. They can be found selling wine at retail, consulting on cellar acquisitions and management, writing and broad- casting, working as creative designers and brand strategists, hosting corporate hospitality events, and supporting public-relations campaigns for regional wine associations. Even some who remain within the traditional confines of the front of the house have taken on a new role: that of celebrity, stepping out of their chefs’ shadows to become culinary stars in their own right.

The full article can be accessed free of charge here.

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Peter Lehmann 1930-2013

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I was saddened to learn of the recent death of Peter Lehmann, the “Baron of the Barossa”.

He was as responsible as anybody for the current preeminence of the Barossa Valley and its wines, not just in the Australian industry but in the global industry.

SDG Peter LehmannI met Peter only once. During my Young Wine Writer trip to Australia in November 2004 I stayed with Stephanie Toole. Stephanie and I went for dinner at The Rising Sun in Auburn. A burly man walked in and Stephanie said, “That looks like Peter Lehmann”. It was and he and his family joined us. He was big and said “bloody” a lot.

I know from other people that he was generous with his time and his knowledge. It was hard not to be awed by somebody who had achieved so much and who had such unbreakable integrity. He was an outstanding man.

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My “Fine Wine Auctions: Hammering Out The Issues” article published by Drinks Business

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It was a funny old year. In 2012 a Korean pop singer became a global phenomenon. Venus came very close to Jupiter. And the world did not end on 21 December, as some had blamed the Mayans for predicting.

In the art auction world, 2012 was a banner year for trophy hunters, thanks to “The Scream”, Richter and Rothko. In November, auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s brought in $787.3 million (HK$6,105m). All this amid a financial crisis.

But the sometimes astonishing prices did little to ease growing concerns that a price bubble was swelling, that the market was becoming sickly, and that China’s once seemingly inexhaustible buying power was starting to turn lethargic. Sound familiar?

Click here to read the full article.

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“The Wine Forger’s Handbook” published

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Fine wine is a multi-million dollar industry and is fraught with peril. From fake bottles to fraudulent contents, from mislabelled wine to misled consumers, wine has been faked, forged, and used for fraud for as long as it has been consumed.

This eBook provides a brief history of forgery and fraud in the fine wine world, including case studies on Rudy Kurniawan and Hardy Rodenstock.

The Wine Forger’s Handbook also functions as a guide, both on how fraudsters have been found out, and tips on how to avoid being fooled in your own wine purchases.

Written by a pair of award-winning writers, wine expert Stuart George and best-selling art crime expert Dr. Noah Charney, The Wine Forger’s Handbook is a fun, informative, engaging read, and one which could potentially save you from making costly purchases of fake wine.

The Wine Forger’s Handbook is ideal for anyone from wine collectors to casual drinkers, or those who enjoy true crime stories of forgery, deception, and detection set against the vivid backdrop of the world of wine.

BUY IT AT AMAZON

ABOUT THE AUTHORS Noah Charney is a professor of art history specialising in art crime and a best-selling author of fiction and non-fiction. His books include the international best-seller novel The Art Thief; the best-selling Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece; The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World’s Most Famous Painting; and the guidebook series Museum Time. He is editor of Art & Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Art Crime, the first peer-reviewed academic journal in its field. He is the founder of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, an international non-profit research group on art crime and cultural heritage protection (http://www.artcrimeresearch.org/). He teaches art history and art crime on the ARCA Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection at American University of Rome and for Brown University. He is a popular speaker and recently gave a TED talk on art crime, which can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T897Foh5s0g. He is an award-winning columnist for numerous magazines, with regular columns in The Daily Beast (http://www.thedailybeast.com/features/how-i-write.html), Tendencias del Mercado del Arte, and ArtInfo (http://blogs.artinfo.com/secrethistoryofart/). He encourages readers to join him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/NoahCharney) or through his website http://www.noahcharney.com/.

Stuart George is an independent wine consultant in London. In 2003 he was awarded the UK Young Wine Writer of the Year. Stuart was co-author of The Wine Box (2005), picture editor and leading contributor to 1001 Wines You Must Try Before You Die (2008), and editor of the award-winning The Finest Wines of Tuscany and Central Italy (2009) and The Finest Wines of Champagne (2009). Stuart has contributed to publications on five continents, including The Daily Telegraph, Fine Wine International, Fine Wine & Liquor, Meininger’s Wine Business Monthly, Sommelier Journal, The Tasting Panel Magazine and the Times Literary Supplement. He is a sought-after show judge and has been a jury member at wine competitions in Austria, Brazil, Chile, China, France, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain. He has worked harvests in France, Italy and Australia.

His website and blog is at http://www.StuartGeorge.net/. He can be followed on Twitter at @sdgeorge1974.

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My “APPELLATION: Trento, Italy” article published by Sommelier Journal magazine

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A mountainous corner of Italy produces sparkling wines of distinction. Prosperous and picturesque, Trento is the capital of Trentino province, a northern Italian region that wasn’t annexed until 1919, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The city—which has retained its distinctly Germanic flavor—gives its name to a sparkling wine whose character is reflective of the pale-colored, craggy Dolomite Mountains to the north.

Click here to read the full article.

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Book review: “American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wine Producers of the USA”

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Jancis Robinson and Linda MurphyAmerican Wine

278 pp. Mitchell Beazley.

Hardback. £40.00 / US$50.00. 978 1 845 335281

Published 4th March 2013

Double acts are not uncommon for wine books. Indeed, Jancis Robinson is co-author with Hugh Johnson of recent editions of the mighty The World Atlas of Wine. “Jancis Robinson makes frequent visits to the USA to stay ahead of the crowd,” asserts the dust jacket’s blurb. A search of www.jancisrobinson.com shows that her last visit to America was, as far as I can tell, in July 2009, when she went to Bonny Doon winery in Santa Cruz, California. If Jancis does stay ahead of the crowd it is through her handpicked stringers – such as Linda Murphy – and not through “frequent visits”.

American Wine is very comprehensive, covering every state and every AVA. Who would ever have guessed that wine is made in such unlikely places as Arizona, Hawaii, Nebraska and Texas? The opening chapter is an excellent overview of the past, present and future of the American wine industry. The authors speculate on how “one can only imagine the advanced state of the grape growing and winemaking in America today, had Prohibition not stalled progress”. Indeed.

Things change but rarely stay the same in the USA wine industry. For example, in 1900 Missouri was the country’s second largest wine producing state behind only California. Today it is not even in the top ten.

The influence of conglomerates is noted wryly: “In the modern-day Californian wine business, one needs a scorecard to track all the players”. The diametric of USA wine’s big business is the so-called “natural wine movement”. There are plenty of references to organic and biodynamic estates but there is no mention of “natural” wine. Is this an oversight by the authors or is it that such wines are so insignificant commercially that they do not merit any attention?

The maps, part borrowed from the World Atlas, are outstanding. Handsome as the book is, some of the “snapshot” boxed texts are very hard to read (for this reviewer, anyway), with a small and faint font on a light-coloured background.

The text needed closer editing. Having “seven thousand” on one page and then “7,000” on the next is admittedly tautological but also indicative of poor, or more likely non-existent, sub-editing. The 57-word sentence that begins “On a visit to Napa Valley” is not a sentence at all: there is a “who” missing before “had kept”. Worryingly, no editor or sub-editor is cited on the masthead.

The “200 breathtaking photographs” are not breathtaking but they’re certainly easy on the eye. They’re not bespoke, however, and have been sourced mainly from wineries and winemaker associations, as the credits on the book’s final page make clear. This is disappointing for a book that costs £40 (or £32 on Amazon; it will also be available as an eBook) but so perilous is print publishing these days that one can sympathise with the need to keep image costs down – but surely not editorial costs.

American Wine is comprehensive, authoritative and close to definitive – an outstanding reference work. To see a hardback book on wine like this might suggest that all is well in wine publishing. But the lack of time, money and attention paid to images and editing – and no trips for Jancis – says otherwise.

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Book review: Gambero Rosso Italian Wines 2013

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959 pp. Mitchell Beazley.Gambero Rosso 2013

Paperback. €30.

978 18 9014 222 3 Published 15th January 2013

In its January 2013 issue Gambero Rosso magazine published an article by Michel Bettane that was highly critical of “natural” wine. The issue also included an op-ed by Eleonora Guerini—senior editor of the guide—that was equally contemptuous. In response to this, the Italian-language wine blog Intravino published an “open letter” signed by several “natural” winemakers, some of whom do not feature in the guide. Does this mean that Gambero Rosso is anti-natural? Well, no, because there are plenty of natural wine producers included in its annual guide. Valter Mattoni, for example, co-signed the open letter but here he is, listed as producing 5,500 bottles from 3 hectares—hardly a wine that is likely to be easy to obtain. But the guide suggests, “they are well worth seeking out”.

If Eleonora Guerini really did have an axe to grind with “natural” wine then possibly it would be trashed in the preface or excluded completely from the book. But this is what it says in the 2013 guide: “(Wines are described) without prejudice or preference for fermentation in new wood, stainless steel or even earthenware amphorae”. That “even” before “earthenware amphorae” is telling but nonetheless “natural” wine is given space and respect.

Michel Bettane made up his mind about “natural” wine a long time ago. I have worked with Michel and he is not the type to change his kind (he’s French). But I don’t believe that Gambero Rosso has an agenda against “natural” wines. It takes the view that some are crap and some are good—which is my own view, and true of all wine. So it goes.

As for the guide itself, it is now in its 26th edition and is italianissima. The only non-Italians involved in this huge annual project are the translators. But are Italians the best judges of their own wines? One does wonder sometimes. When I worked the 2001 vintage in Friuli I recall a lunch with several well-travelled and broadminded winemakers. Bottles were opened enthusiastically, including at least one that was “tre bicchieri” (three glasses), the Gambero Rosso equivalent of 100 points. We all agreed that the wine was filthy. Unfortunately I have no recollection of what the wine was.

The stats are fascinating. 45,000 samples were assessed by 60 experts, which equates to 750 wines per expert, or two wines per day for a year. Not very hard work, really. The all-time Gambero Rosso champion is Angelo Gaja, with 50 “tre bicchieri” awards since the guide was established. This is 13 more than Cà del Bosco and La Spinetta in joint second place.

There is a broadly sympathetic theme of “environmentally aware producers”, with “Viticulture Method” noted in many but not all winery profiles. Wineries are either “Certified Organic” or “Natural”. (Presumably wineries with no method listed are uncertified or unnatural.) It doesn’t work: It needs to be comprehensive or not used at all, and it can be ambiguous. For example, the Friulian producer Skerk is listed as “Certified Organic”, which he surely is, but he is also a well-known proponent of “natural” wine (yes, that again), which is another category. “Unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles” as somebody once said.

The text has been impeccably, if rather stiffly, translated. There are very few typos or solecisms for such a huge book.

With 959 pages of text this is very comprehensive. It’s hard to think of a significant producer that is not profiled here. At €30 it’s pricey but Gambero Rosso remains unchallenged as the definitive annual guide to Italian wines. Can the newly single and single-minded Antonio Galloni challenge it? As the Italian proverb says, “Dio mi guardi da chi studia un libro solo” (“Fear the man of one book”).

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My “Burgundy not a perfect ten – but a good eleven” article published by Meininger’s

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January is a time for new beginnings and fresh starts so it is appropriate that every year the leading UK importers and retailers of Burgundy dedicate two weeks to showing the region’s latest release to the press, the trade and private clients. The nearly 30 tastings were so comprehensive that the top French critic, Michel Bettane chose to come to London.

Click here to read the full article.

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My “Revolution in the head” article published by Fine Wine International

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After a “fact-finding trip to Hong Kong & China” earlier this year, the british wine writer Robert Joseph reported, “the most serious chinese fine wine buyers… like the flavour of old wine and dislike tannin… there is no question that high-end buyers are switching from bordeaux to Italy, the Rhône and particularly Burgundy”. the winter season of fine wine auctions is tailored to these current market trends, with many old and rare bottles available and an emphasis on Burgundy.

Click here to read the full article.

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