Liv-ex interviews Neal Martin, part one

Neal Martin interview

Neal Martin founded the independent website Wine-Journal in 2003, before joining Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate three years later. He reviews wines for regions including Burgundy, South Africa and Sauternes, and in 2015 he took over the role of reviewing Bordeaux En Primeur from Parker.

Neal came in to talk to Liv-ex last week. In the first part of the interview, published below, he discusses Wine-Journal, wine writing and Bordeaux 2005 (recently re-scored by Parker in a ten year retrospective). Visit the blog on Monday for Neal’s thoughts on En Primeur, The Wine Advocate and competition among the critics.   


You began your career in wine by working for a Japanese importer – how did you make the transition to critic?

I started in 1996. I knew nothing about wine at all, but part of me thought I should keep a record of what I was tasting, fairly ignorant that I was tasting some pretty good wines. I would go to merchants’ for lunch and I would come back and write the wine name, vintage, a comment and a score in an Excel spreadsheet. I used to read Andrew Jefford’s column in the Evening Standard and so I nicked his scoring system. He had a quirky system out of 25 so I copied that. It was just a private thing. From 1996 to about 2002 I built up 3-4000 notes.


Were there any 25 point wines at that stage?

You wonder when you’re going to give your first perfect mark, or if you’re going to give one at all. My parents didn’t like wine so it was a novel thing. Between publishing everything there were seven years of working out what my palate was and what the benchmarks were, whether there was a perfect wine. One Tuesday night I was meeting a friend for dinner and she brought a bottle of Latour 1961. When I had that I thought, now that is a perfect wine. I’ve had it several times since and it’s still the best I’ve ever drunk. I remember that somebody asked me if I was going to publish my Excel spreadsheet notes and I said I wouldn’t until I’d tasted all the 1982 First Growths. It took three or four years. At that point I thought 1982 was the benchmark and you start fitting everything else around that.


How did you get into the wine profession?

I was buying wine for a subsidiary of Japan Airlines – JAL – which was a great job. I was very lucky because it coincided with the Japanese wine boom, which was very similar to the Hong Kong one of the last few years. I literally had a blank cheque for DRC and First Growths at a time when you could go out and buy them. I’m not saying it was easy but it was far easier than now. I did that for a few years.

But I could see it would come to an end. One lunch-time I was playing Pacman on the computer and I thought: I need to really sort myself out. I walked down to Waterstones in Piccadilly, bought a book on html – I’m not computer literate at all – and I took it back to the office and typed in something. It was half past one, and I thought: “Oh, I can print my name”. From that to printing a tasting note was just a copy and paste. By the evening I had a first page for a website which was the basis for what became Wine-Journal. It was very simple but that was its strength. On the first day of Wine-Journal I had a serious database of 3,000 notes, which at that time, not many had.

Nobody was reading it for the first month – it was just my mum. Then I remember I was having lunch at St John and I saw I’d had 150 readers access the site. I’d written up the la Fête de la Fleur at Mouton in my style, taking the mickey a little bit, and someone had posted a link on the forum. It sent a whole load of traffic. I read the comments and saw that some were saying that it was quite fun to read. That was really the catalyst; it snowballed from there.


What did you want to achieve with your writing style?

In the beginning, I’d read a couple of articles where I felt that, to quote a famous song, “it says nothing to me about my life.” I’m supposed to like opera, supposed to be upper class with a double-barrelled name. I don’t fit into that, but I do like fine wine. Wine-Journal was intentionally written to be quite alternative: not provocative, but funny and humorous. Prick the egos a little bit. I was drinking amazing wines and meeting famous people, but at the same time they’re just human beings like me, so in one sense I was bringing them down to reality. I liked music a lot so I put in lots of music references and that had a huge audience as well. It was intentionally not classical music, but alternative, hip-hop, underground artists and so on. I’ve never changed that. Twelve years later I still do the “Album of the Month”.

I only did Wine-Journal for three years. It seems a lot longer. I was still working for JAL because there was no money from the website at the beginning. We had a meeting and the sommelier started quoting back my scores in front of my boss… He knew I was coming in and doing 30 minutes of work and then doing the website for the rest of the time, but he let me get away with it. By the end I was getting 120-130,000 unique readers.


When did it get incorporated into The Wine Advocate?

That would have been 2006. I was going through e-mails at work and amongst the spam there was one that said, “Are you interested in working for The Wine Advocate?” I thought it was a spoof. My whole life is plotted by what I was tasting at the time, so I remember I had a Penfolds Grange tasting with some friends that night and said, “Did any of you send me an email about working for The Wine Advocate?” They all said “no”, so I thought maybe it was real. Then I spoke to Bob the following week.


How did it work?

We migrated the website as an independent part of The Wine Advocate that Bob termed “critic at large”. It’s written in a very different way, with regular articles. The only part I didn’t transfer was called Diary of a Wine Writer, which was the blog part. I deleted it because it was very personal. I started reading it recently and thought it is still quite funny, so I’ve started rewriting it and will publish it somewhere. It captures the last few years when young people like me could taste off-vintage Bordeaux.


Parker has stated that he hired you because he “wanted a younger voice” to reach “younger demographics”. Do you have an idea in mind of the audience you’re writing for?

I think people see through it, if you try and write for a young audience intentionally. I could write an article and quote what’s number one in the pop charts to make me look cool, but it’s patronising. I write what’s in my head. If it appeals to a young audience that’s great, and if it doesn’t, you have to accept that. At the moment it still does.


Have you had to make your analysis and structure more commercial?

I don’t think so – I’m amazed what I get away with. I think that fits in with The Wine Advocate. Although it’s seen as mainstream actually the way it’s written is not. I’ve got many reasons for joining but one thing that was important to me was that they’d never edit or change the way I write. I write things that I’m sure other magazines would never print. Every report has a tasting note where I’ve put something really strange in to see if someone picks it up.


How are you perceived in the US?

When I started Wine-Journal it was written in a very English, almost parochial way, with lots of references to Essex or obscure Detroit house B-sides. My assumption was that it would appeal to about three people who live in Essex and like Techno. Actually it was completely the opposite. Right from the beginning Wine-Journal always had a big audience in the US. I have a Monty Python theory. Monty Python was so English yet it’s massively popular in the US. I’ve always had a following in the United States but I haven’t changed anything to suit what they’re looking for.


Would you term yourself as a wine writer or critic?

I usually say wine writer that enjoys critiquing. If you gave me the option to do one or the other I’d say I write, but I think it’s important you try and critique wines. I get more enjoyment from writing.


What makes a good wine writer?

A lot of imagination. For example, wine writing tends to be chronological – beginning, middle and end. Why not start in the middle? Or write it backwards? Doing a basic wine article is pretty easy. Good writers bring in analogies and take it in a different direction. I do a lot of re-writing and adding things in, waking up in the middle of the night and inserting prose. I pull things straight from my head and write them down.

A lot of people say “I really enjoy your writing” and I think that’s very important. I’m not sure how much wine writing is actually enjoyable. I want to elicit an emotion in the reader: I want them to find it funny, or sad, or moving. If you write something you want to read then it’s likely someone else will want to read it.


How do you balance the factual and creative elements?

You can’t do the creative side, and the jokes and the music and the weird analogies and Harry Potter references [the Bordeaux 2014 report started with a quote from Hermione] unless you have facts and information and rigour. They have to come first. If you just do the other bit you look like a clown. You have to put them together and draw the reader in. I want people to read it from start to finish. That’s not easy. If you give them a lot of information then you need to give them a little bit of relief.


How do you as a wine critic gain further influence?

I couldn’t really give a toss about influence. If you say you’re going to be the most influential wine writer in the world, then you’re an idiot. I try to write the best that I can and do the best report, and if from that people follow the scores or find that it helps them as a guide then that’s great. Influence doesn’t put bread on the table: subscribers do. That idea of influence is very 80s or 90s to me and I think that the internet’s changed that. If you want to be influential, don’t put a paywall up, put everything up for free. My duty is to give the people that pay the best content that I can. If it becomes influential afterwards then that’s not up to me, that’s up to you guys. I have no control over that.


How do you see the role of critics changing with the internet and peer-to-peer sites such as Cellar Tracker?

I think there’s a difference between giving an opinion on something and critiquing something. I could show you a painting and ask what you think of it and you’d be entitled to your opinion. If I brought in an art critic who knew the technique and where that painting sits within the context of art, then that’s a critique.


Do you see a tasting note as a critique, and a score as a judgement?

I don’t see them on their own. When you meet people who are very anti-scores they will take one note and say, “How can it be this?” But I’m writing that score as part of a tasting note, having tasted all the wines from that grower and conveying that those I appreciate and those I might not. Those notes will live with all the others taken within the last 13 years. It’s like a big organism. If I taste 2,000 Burgundy wines that’s 2,000 for subscribers to look at as they wish.

There’s an assumption that the score is there indefinitely. For me it’s never indefinite – it’s there until the next time I taste it. So it could go up or down. I like to taste again and again and again, so you get a picture of the wine in barrel, in bottle, at the chateaux, in a magnum, at dinner. There’s usually a theme that comes through. It’s like taking a picture of somebody from different angles.


So you shouldn’t put too much initial weight on score?

If you said that you gave a wine 92 points it doesn’t mean anything to me because I don’t know what your 92 points is. By speaking to you, maybe I could find out. If you had a big Excel spreadsheet or a database then I could see what your palate is like. Every single successful subscription website is based on a big database of tasting notes. What has changed is the telling of a story: a picture of the winemaker and what he was doing. When you have the scores you can relate them back to that story. In terms of my job that means there’s now a lot of work to do because you can’t do it sitting in a room. You have to get out there. That’s led to much better wine writing. People look at the established media – whether it’s The Wine Advocate or Allen Meadows or Wine Spectator – and presume they’re full of scores. Actually if you read it there’s a lot of wine writing and a lot of background information and I think that’s the influence of the internet and bloggers.


How do you expect a consumer to react to a wine that has two very different tasting notes and scores – for example Larcis Ducasse 2005 [which scores 100 from Robert Parker and 87 from Neal Martin]?

It’s up for a consumer to decide. It could be the other way round – I like Grand Puy Lacoste 2005 more. Consumers want somebody to be consistent. If I had to score like someone else then people would see right through that straight away. They know if I really like a wine where it’s going to be, just the same as Bob, Lisa and everybody else. The important thing is for each reviewer to be consistent. But there’s not a single critic in the world who is so consistent that every time they taste a wine they’re going to give it exactly the same score. People say wine is subjective: I completely agree. Anyone who says, “Yes, I tasted it twenty times and every single time it was exactly the same” – that’s not reality, thank God. Part of the reason why we love wine is that we have our favourites and we never quite know what’s going to happen when we pull the cork.


Do you taste blind?

I do a lot of blind tasting. But you can’t taste En Primeur blind. To taste an unfinished wine blind is kidding yourself. Primeur is about predicting what’s going to happen. How do you know what’s going to happen without knowing where you are? I see other people doing Primeur and writing as if it’s the finished wine. That’s not what it is. You’re taking the raw materials and speaking to the winemaker, getting some information, tasting it and then looking to the future. In bottle it’s completely different. I think I’ve tasted every vintage of the last fifteen years blind, including the First Growths. I think that is important. Then you’re auditing yourself and seeing how close you were. That Larcis Ducasse 2005 was tasted completely blind in Southwold.


On your tasting note you say it reminds you “more of Napa than of Saint Emilion”.

It depends on how important typicity is to you: whether you have a model standpoint that a wine should fit into this kind of style and how willing are you to go outside that.


Do you and Parker disagree on that?

I don’t know really. For Bordeaux there’s a lot of things we actually agree on. People will always pick on Larcis Ducasse 2005.


A lot of people in the trade think the Left Bank 2005 is really good. Are you more into the Left or Right Bank 2005?

I’m probably slightly more Left I think. There are some Right Bank wines I very much like, but I think wines such as Grand Puy Lacoste are fantastic. I never look at what anyone else writes, including Bob. I write what I see in the glass. Consumers are drinking the wines and it’s up to them to decide whether they like it or not.


Visit the blog on Monday to read the second part of our interview with Neal.