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Part 2
Top-ender or bottom-ender?
Different philosophies of wine

There’s an important philosophical distinction that underlies the branding debate, and it surrounds the grapes. Are they just the raw materials for a manufacturing process, or is there something special about them that derives from where and how they are grown? Taking this a little further, is there more to wine than just what is in the bottle?

The Guardian’s wine writer Malcolm Gluck made a telling revelation last year when he was interviewed on Andrew Jefford’s Liquid Companion BBC Radio 4 programme. Drawing a parallel with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, he divides wine critics into two groups, the top-enders and bottom-enders. ‘If you remember’, says Gluck, ‘the great war was between those who wished to eat their eggs from the narrow side up, and others who cracked their eggs from the round side up.

‘I think it is the same with the wine critics’, he continues. ‘I’m a critic who’s a top-ender – I look as wine as it comes out of the bottle. I’m interested in rating it, seeing how it compares with many other wines and recommending it on that basis. There are other wine critics who are bottom enders, who look at the sediment – who look at the bottom of the bottle and all the romance that goes on; that has accumulated, if you like, in that sediment.

‘And there are wine critics who are less interested in recommending bottles than talking to vineyard owners about the sort of worms that they have in the vineyard, and the sort of grape varieties and all that arcana and mysterious goings on which create the legend of the wine.

‘As far as I am concerned’, he states, ‘legends count for nothing; the real romance of the bottle is the liquid that comes out of it. And that’s it.’

So, top-ender or bottom-ender? In wine appreciation, this is a tremendously important philosophical distinction. If Gluck is right – that wine is to be judged and appreciated solely on the basis of what the liquid in the bottle is like – then all context is irrelevant. We have to discard the very factors that make wine interesting, most importantly the cultural and geographical elements that help make wine such an enriched, diverse subject.

I am going to make an assumption. You, dear reader, are interested in wine. I’m guessing this is the case, because you are motivated enough to be visiting a wine website. So let me ask you this: what do you find interesting about wine? Is it just what is in the bottle? Is it simply that you like the flavour of certain wines? Or is it because there is actually more to wine than just fermented grape juice?

For me, the interest in drinking wine stems not only from the fact that it can taste nice, but also because of the ‘arcana’ of such factors as grape varieties, vintage variations, regions, producers, terroir, ageing curves and winemaking techniques. I’m interested in where the grapes are grown, and even the lives of the people who make it. It’s such a rich subject, and strip away this richness and all you have is an alcoholic drink with little more interest to it than lager, fruit juice or milk. I drink lager, fruit juice and milk, and enjoy them, but I wouldn’t buy a book about them or go on a trip to see where they were made. I’m labouring this point a little, but it’s an important one.

I wouldn’t want to be a top-ender critic, like Gluck. If a wine writer’s job consists solely of recommending bottles on the basis of just what is in the bottle, then there is little interesting for that individual to say. Strip down the complex subject of wine to the level of the perceived interest of the ‘general reader’, and it ends up being so mundane and dull that the general reader ends up wondering why they ever bothered reading about it in the first place.

Of course, top-enders see nothing wrong at all with brands. As long as the wine tastes OK, then who cares whether it was manufactured using hi-tech winemaking trickery from grapes trucked in from which ever mega-yielding irrigated vineyards happened to be producing them at the right price that year? But while I join in with the top-enders in celebrating the fact that the brands mean tasty wines are available cheaply for the masses, the reality is that the current dominance of the brands means a loss of diversity for everyone. The rarer, more interesting wines can’t hope to compete in such a competitive multiple-dominated marketplace, and have become an endangered species.

See also 

November 2002
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