Georgia to Host UNWTO Global Wine Tourism Conference in 2016

I think the United Nations has a thing about wine. I recently wrote about the surprising number of wine regions that have received Unesco World Heritage site recognition, for example. Now the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is getting into the act.

The 1st UNWTO Global Conference on Wine Tourism will be held in the Kakheti wine region of Georgia from 7-9 September 2016. “Wine tourism represents a growing segment with immense opportunities to diversify demand. In the case of Georgia, this potential is well-known and we are very pleased to be holding the first UNWTO Global Conference on Wine Tourism in the country,” according to UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai.

Why Georgia? History is part of the story, but it is also true that wine is an effective way to promote tourism and economic development. Come for the wine (and food) and stay for the people, culture, history and geography. Trade and investment flows may follow the wine route, too. Georgian officials appreciate this logic.

“Georgia’s unique wine-making traditions date back 8,000 years and are part of UNESCO’s intangible heritage, creating the ideal base to host the Wine Tourism Conference. Herewith, the country’s recent success in attracting a growing number of tourists, its development in terms of tourism products, branding and marketing present an excellent platform to share best practices, experience and knowledge¨ according to Dimitry Kumsishvili, Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia.

U.S. regional wine associations with a strong interest in wine tourism may be able to participate in the Georgia program, but I am not sure about the details.  More information can be found here.

I wrote about wine tourism in my book Extreme Wine, so I am going to be following this initiative closely. Best wishes to Georgia and the UNWTO for a successful inaugural conference.

A Kenyan Wine Mystery: Whatever Happened to Richard Leakey’s Il Masin?

I’m working on a project about wine in Africa and I need some help. Does anyone know if Il Masin in Kenya is still making wine? Here’s the label of their 2005 Pinot Noir. I can find references to Il Masin on the internet up until about 2012 and then … nothing. Are they still around?

Il Masin is interesting in many respects starting with the basics: Pinot Noir in Kenya? Really? But the fascinating thing for me is who is or was behind the project: paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey! 

Here’s a link to the blog that Leakey’s daughter (and his winery partner) Louise maintained until 2011. Whatever happened to Il Masin? Please use the comments function below to leave a message if you have any information.

Thanks in advance for your help!

Looking Back at the European Invasion of California Wine

The Beatles’ Boeing 707 landed in the USA on February 7, 1964 and pop music has never been the same. It isn’t that the British Invasion conquered American pop music as much as that a creative dynamic was accelerated. The influence can still be felt more than 50 years later.

Another invasion took place from about 1970 to 1990 when a number of Europeans made significant wine investments in the United States, stirring the creative pot in ways big and small. Last week I talked about the Skalli family’s Mondavi-inspired investment in St Supéry and the recent sale of that property to the brothers who own Chanel.  That event got me to thinking about the other invaders. Where are they now? Here are a few quick case studies.

Chandon’s French Invasion

Domaine Chandon, for example, has thrived as a sparkling wine producer and now also a maker of fine still wines.  Chandon California (1973) is part of Moët Hennessy’s  global luxury wine portfolio that also includes Newton Vineyard in Cailfornia, Chandon Argentina (1959), Chandon do BrazIl (1973), Chandon Australia (1986) and Chandon China (2013) as well as Cape Mentelle, Cloudy Bay, and other famous brands.

(Newton Vineyard is the part of the answer to one of my favorite trivia questions. What two California wineries were featured in the Japanese re-make of the film Sideways, which was set in Napa Valley? Answer: Newton and Frog’s Leap.)

Boisset Comes, Goes, Returns

Chandon was not the only French firm to invest in the California wine industry. Boisset, known today for DeLoach, Raymond, and Buena Vista wineries among others, came on the scene in the early 1980s. In fact, Boisset sold Robert Skalli  the Rutherford property on Highway 29 that became the St Supéry winery.

Boisset first entered the California market as an importer and producer in 1980. The Rutherford property was purchased in 1982 (the Victorian home you see there was used as a summer residence for a couple of years). But it was sold to Skalli in 1984  as the result of a strategic shift to focus to building the company back in France rather than expanding further into California.

Jean-Charles Boisset returned in California in 2003 with the DeLoach purchase and has gone on to become an integral part of the wine industry here with a large wine portfolio and deep local roots. He is married to Gina Gallo and the couple live in the old Robert Mondavi house.

Water to Wine: Hess Collection

Donald Hess wasn’t looking to start a winery when he came to the U.S. from Switzerland in 1978, although he ended up creating the Hess Collection vineyard and winery on  Mount Veeder and starting an international wine portfolio that now reaches out to California, Argentina and South Africa. Hess wanted to produce and sell bottled water in the U.S. and he traveled across the country looking for both a production source that appealed to him and evidence that there was a growing market for bottled water.

Having failed on both fronts when it came to water (he was obviously just ahead of his time), Hess became inspired by some of the wines he tasted and changed direction. He invested first in the vineyards high up on Mount Veeder and then took over the historic Christian Brothers winery up there, which is quite an inspiring place to visit now that Hess has strengthened and restored it after the Napa earthquake. Hess’s signature modern art collection is spectacular, too, and some of the wines we tasted were memorable indeed. 

Atlas Peak to Antica Napa Valley

As we drove the winding road to Antica Napa Valley I had that feeling of déjà vu: have I been on this road before? Impossible? Nothing much out here except Antica Napa, the Antinori family’s Napa Valley winery (the Antinori are also involved in Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Red Mountain’s Col Solare in partnership with Ste Michelle Wine Estates) and this was our first visit.

But I think I had been there before, back when it was called Atlas Peak. The winery and its famous cave system are a fascinating story. Piero Antinori first came to California in 1966, when Robert Mondavi was just starting out with his new winery. Antinori fell in love with the place and started a slow, thorough search for the right path to enter the region.  He finally found it in 1986 when he entered into agreement to purchase land for vineyards and a site for a winery in the beautiful Atlas Peak area. Antinori formed a partnership with Whitbread, Inc., the British brewer, and Christian Bizot of Bollinger Champagne, who were also keen to get a toe in the U.S. pond.

The partnership did not go quite as planned (a long story that Richard G. Peterson outlines in part in his new book The Winemaker) and in 1993 Antinori bought out the Whitbread and Bollinger shares and in 2006 renamed the operation Antica (Antinori + California) Napa Valley.  The road from 1966 to today has been as full of twists and turns as the road to the winery itself and I think it is fair to say that the journey continues with growing confidence. The Townsend Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon we tasted speaks volumes about this winery’s capacity, vision and direction.

Two for [Opus] One 

No one remembers for sure, it is said, whether it was Mondavi who approached the Rothschilds or if it was the other way around, but whoever had the idea for a French-California partnership it proved to be a good one. The terms were simple: fifty-fifty. No one had a controlling interest, everything had to be mutually agreed.

The first Opus One wines were made in 1979 and 1980 and in 1981 a single pre-release case sold for $24,000 at the Napa Valley Wine Auction. It was the highest price ever paid for an American wine at the time and still quite a lot of money for a case of wine today. The first wines were released in 1984.

The landmark winery sits just off Highway 29 across the road from the Robert Mondavi winery where those very first wines were made. The dramatic architecture of the winery gets all the attention, but the vineyards are the important thing here.  Opus One counts part of the historic To Kalon vineyard as a key asset and component in its wine.

Constellation Brands purchased Mondavi in 2005 and inherited half ownership of Opus One. The Rothschilds considered buying out the American half interest as was their right under the founding agreement, but opted instead to keep the winery with a foot in both wine worlds. Constellation and the Rothschilds reached an agreement to remain partners while assuring the winery’s independence and integrity.

Unintended Consequences

I admit to being surprised when I learned about the Constellation side of Opus One.  I could not imagine that the Mondavi family would structure things in a way that would allow this jewel to slip away.

But things don’t always turn out the way we plan and perhaps this quick survey of the European Invasion shows just how diverse the experience has been for those who came to America in the 70s and 80s to make wine here (and for American winemakers, too).


Thirsty Dragon? Symposium on the Wine Trade in China

Suzanne Mustacich’s new book about wine in China, Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Winesseems to have captured the wine world’s imagination.

Jancis Robinson raved  about Thirsty Dragon in her regular Saturday Financial Times column. This is a bigger deal than than you might think because Jancis is generally too busy writing great books to take time to review them! Thirsty Dragon clearly is something special.

My copy hasn’t arrived yet, so look for a book review here at The Wine Economist in a couple of weeks. In the meantime some of you in the Seattle-Tacoma area can meet the author, learn more about wine in China, and taste Chinese wines.

Wildside Wine in Tacoma is hosting a program called Symposium: The Wine Trade in China on Monday, November 30 at 6:30 PM. The cost is $25 , which includes wine and h’ors d’oeuvres. The event is nearly sold out, but if you are interested check with Carol at

I will be there to add what I can to the discussion, but the featured speakers will be the  China experts: Suzanne Mustacich and my academic colleagues Pierre Ly and Cynthia Howson, who have recently returned from another fieldwork expedition to China to gather information for their own forthcoming book about the Chinese wine industry.  I’m looking forward to meeting Suzanne and learning more about the Thirsty Dragon!

St Supéry Winery Sale: From Algeria to California & from Skalli to Chanel

I was surprised to learn a couple of weeks ago that Robert Skalli, founder of the St Supéry winery in Rutherford, was selling his family’s iconic winery and vineyards to Chanel, the French luxury goods producer.  Press coverage such as an article in Decanter was pretty limited — not much more than the press release version of things — lots of unanswered questions in my mind.

Sue and I visited St Supéry in September (we loved the wines and the people we met) and we were told many times how committed the Skalli family was to the project, so I was caught off guard by the change in ownership. It is natural to keep quiet about a business deal until it is finally done of course, but the quick change got my attention.

All in the Families

The facts of the sale are these. Chanel owners Alain and Gérard Wertheimer,  who are said to be worth €16.6bn, have reached an agreement to pay an undisclosed sum for the winery on Highway 29 in Rutherford, the 35-acre vineyard there and the magnificent 1500-acre Dollarhide Vineyard up north in the hills.

No reason was given for the sale, although Skalli is quoted saying he happy that his winery will be run by a firm that shares his values. The Wertheimers own two wineries in Bordeaux, Château Rauzan-Ségla and Château Canon, but there is no indication that they plan to build a luxury winery portfolio. Lots of questions — why, how much, and so forth — but winery sales happen all the time and details are not always fully revealed. So why am I so curious to find out more?

I first got interested in St Supéry when I was working on my 2011 book Wine Wars. I was examining the tensions between New World and Old World ideas about wine and I came across the fascinating story of the Skalli family wine empire.

Rise and Fall of Skalli Wine Empire

Robert Skalli is the founder of the Skalli Group, a holding company that was until 2011 one of the largest producers of wines in the Languedoc.  The Skalli conglomerate made branded varietal wines  and sold them in France and around the world. Skalli sold almost all its wine interests to Boisset in 2011. Almost all? They  held on to St Supéry.

Robert Skalli’s grandparents were pied noirs, French migrants to Algeria.  Many pied noirs emigrated to Algeria starting in the 1870s, when phylloxera wiped out vineyards and grower incomes in the Languedoc. The Skallis left France in the 1930s, presumably in search of greater opportunity in Northern Africa – and they found it.

Robert-Elle Skalli, Robert Skalli’s grandfather, built an empire on grain and wine. By the time that Francis Skalli took over from his father after World War II, the family business included a huge grain operation, Rivoire et Carré with a mill in Marseilles, the number two pasta company in France, Lustucru, a vineyard in Corsica, a rice producer, Taureau Aile, and of course vineyards in Algeria.

By 1964 the Skalli vineyards in Algeria spread over 600,000 acres, which is nearly as large as all the vineyards in Languedoc today (700,000 acres, which is much less than a few years ago). This was the wine that the French négociants blended with the weaker Langudoc product to make industrial strength vin du jour and they made vast quantities of it.

Like many other pied noirs families, the Skalli eventually fled to France as a result of the Algerian war and its independence in 1962.  They settled in the Languedoc and went about rebuilding their business.  Robert Skalli entered his father’s and grandfather’s business in the 1970s and, as part of his education, studied and worked (as  a “flying intern”) with winemakers in Australia and the United States.

California Inspiration

Significantly, according to the official company history, he worked with Robert Mondavi, who introduced him to the idea of branded varietals and opened his eyes to a different vision of the wine business, one based not on the condition of supply (and the traditional practices and regulations governing production) but on demand and the development of vineyard, cellar and marketing techniques that would provide buyers with wine that they could understand, appreciate and that they would buy.

Skalli returned to France and began to organize a business to make the clean, consistent, mid-range varietal wines that he saw in California and Australia. He established partnerships with growers and cooperatives in the Languedoc, providing financing for the process of pulling out their tough old vines and replanting with market-friendly varietals like Merlot and Chardonnay. Replanting is expensive, both in direct outlays and in lost production while the vines mature.  I suppose having the backing of the profitable Skalli grain business was useful in this transformation process.

The main Skalli brand, Fortant de France, was established in 1983 to produce and market these wines both in France and in 25 foreign countries.  The Cabernet Sauvignon sold  for about six dollars a bottle back when I was doing my Wine Wars research. There was a cheaper brand, Couleurs Du Sud, sold mainly in European hypermarkets and also a kosher wine line.

Mondavi Again

The Skalli family eventually decided to concentrate on wine – the grain and pasta businesses were sold or spun off.  They had wine interests in Languedoc, the Rhone Valley, in Corsica, where they owned the largest private vineyard, and in California.   Skalli credits Mondavi with helping him make the St Supéry investment.

And in return Skalli supported Mondavi’s aborted attempt to invest in the Languedoc on the logic, I believe, that anything that Mondavi did would draw favorable attention to the Languedoc, which would benefit both family businesses.

In 2011 the Skalli family sold off their wine interests to Boisset but, significantly, retained St Supéry. This surprised me at the time and I figured that it must either signal a new direction or a special fondness for the Napa project. Now I am not sure what to think.

But it seems like the winery is probably in good hands if Chanel gives the excellent local team that Skalli developed some autonomy. Luxury goods companies are sometimes more focused on managing brands than making wine. Skalli seemed to be good at both and perhaps Chanel will take the winery to the next level. Fingers crossed for a bright future at St Supéry.


The decade from about 1975 to 1985 featured a surprising number of European wine investments in California. Sue and I have made a point to visit many of them over the last few years to find out how they have changed or developed. How have those ambitious Euopean investments of 30-40 years ago turned out?  Tune in next week for some thoughts.


The Wall Street Journal published an interesting article about Chateau Canon, one of Chanel’s French investment on November 11, 2015.  Unclear if this is  St Supéry’s future.

Wine Sustainability: Trade-off, Trilemma or Synergy? It’s Complicated!

milanSue and I are in Milan this week at the International Congress on Sustainability during the 26th edition of SIMEI – International Enological and Bottling Equipment Exhibition.  This event is sponsored by the Unione Italiana Vini, an association of Italian wine producers whose 500 members account for 70% of the nation’s wine.

I will be leading a discussion of the economic elements of sustainability in wine on Tuesday and then taking part in a panel that looks at the role of sensory analysis in sustainability on Wednesday.

One of the themes of the conference is that sustainability is not simply an ethical matter but also a key to wine quality and wine market success. I am looking forward to meeting the international group of speakers and participants.

I was asked to prepare a quick “ice breaker” presentation to jump-start the discussion of the economic aspects of sustainability in wine and I thought I would share its outline with you here. I begin with the conventional wisdom of the “triple bottom line” analysis: sustainability must take into account the natural, social and business environments. The question is how are these three related. The answer is “it’s complicated.”

Some people see these simply as discrete goals and focus on trade-offs. Others see sustainability as a trilemma — pick two and the third is eliminated. I can understand this logic, but I think it is possible to design for sustainability and I will try to direct the discussion towards strategies for synergy and success.

I plan to get the ball rolling by talking about the case of Durbanville Hills winery in South Africa, a success story in terms of both wine quality and sustainability. Durbanville Hills isn’t sustainable by accident but rather results from the combination of effective leadership, a progressive organizational design and strong institutional commitment by all stakeholders. Inspiring! I hope the participants will contribute other success stories that will collectively point the way forward.

The key, of course, is to bridge the gap between theory and practice. and to identify the key pressure points. Sustainability is important in wine both for the success of the industry and as a beacon to other sectors. Wine, with its strong social and cultural connections and its deep agricultural roots, presents a clear example of how complex thinking about sustainability pays off.

Ciao a tutti — hope to see you in Milan!

Book Review: Richard G. Peterson, An American Life in Wine

Richard G. Peterson, The Winemaker. Meadowlark Publishing, 2015.

I was going to title this review “A Life in American Wine,” but Richard Peterson’s autobiography is all-American through and through starting from humble Iowa origins on to university at Iowa State, a tour in the Marine Corps and then  a Masters in Food Science and PhD in Agricultural Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley (the Davis campus was not yet a reality). Quite a journey for a coal-miner’s son.

Wine was part of the story from the early days. The photo on the cover shows Peterson making his first batch of wine in Iowa. The grapes were Concord. The year was 1948. He was 17 years of age.

The Research Lab at Gallo

As he was finishing his Ph.D. in 1958 Peterson was approached to come work in a new research lab at E&J Gallo, which was at that time the third largest wine producer in the U.S. after Roma and Italian Swiss Colony. Gallo was riding high on the basis of the success of Thunderbird and they wanted scientific rigor as they worked on both developing new products and improving the quality of existing ones. In retrospect, this was probably one of the best places to be in American wine at the time as the Gallos were willing and able to put resources into wine research and development.

Reading Peterson’s account of his time at Gallo and the people and products he found there is pure pleasure. It is a very personal account, not an academic study, and it gives the best insight I know into what was happening deep inside the industry in the 1960s when the foundations for the rise of American wine were being laid.

Working with Tchelistcheff

Peterson moved his family to Napa Valley in 1968 and started a new job. Where do you suppose one goes from Gallo? It is easy to think about American wine as being sharply divided into industrial wine and craft wine, but I have always maintained that American wine is more complicated than that and Peterson’s next step proves it. After much thought and many interviews, Andre Tchelistcheff hired Richard Peterson to work with him and eventually to take his place at Beaulieu Vineyards, one of Napa’s crown jewels.

Peterson stayed at Beaulieu through the sale to Heublein, leaving in 1973 and moving to an ambitious new project called The Monterey Vineyard. He stayed on as this project evolved into Taylor California Cellars with Coca Cola and then under Seagrams ownership. He moved to another ambitious new winery project, which Sue and I have recently visited. Today it is called Antica Napa, an outpost of the Antinori family in Napa Valley, but it was originally called Atlas Peak, a partnership between Whitbread, Inc., the British brewer, Christian Bizot of Bollinger Champagne and Piero Antinori.  Peterson built the elaborate cave system that we visited on our trip among other achievements here.

Gallo, Tchelistcheff, Antinori — quite a resume, don’t  you think? Peterson’s book takes the curious reader through wine science, wine history and wine business. There are several key themes. One is the importance of quality, even for inexpensive wines. This could be called “the Curse of the Thompson Seedless Grape.” A second theme deals with Peterson’s experiences working with people who know the wine industry or are willing to learn (Gallo and Coca Cola get good grades here) versus those who don’t understand wine or prefer to be ignorant (Hublein and Seagrams among others).

Bronco and Peynaud

One of my favorite parts of this book is a story that Peterson tells about some consulting work he did for Fred Franzia. Fred wanted to make sure that the Bronco winery in Ceres was doing everything right, so he paid Peterson to come around regularly and be a snooping “Big Brother” — seeing all, hearing all, and calling Bronco out if there was an issue. Peterson had contracted with Bronco for wine stocks when he ran Taylor California Cellar and he had a high regard for the winery’s quality and consistency. The attention to detail he saw on his inspections explained it all.

I was also fascinated by the brief section on Peterson’s work with Emile Peynaud. They couldn’t speak each other’s languages, but they found a way to speak wine, which I guess is a universal language. So many interesting stories here. Peterson is a lucky guy — what an interesting life!

Richard Peterson is generous with his praise and sympathetic with those who made honest mistakes, but very sharp with people and companies who tried to take unfair advantage of situations. Not everyone will be pleased with how they are portrayed in this book. It is a very personal account of American wine, told by a real insider. It is very much worth a place on your wine bookshelf.


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