Strong Wine

Wine’s strength is usually measured in percent of alcohol — and everyone complains that it is too strong, too hot. A recent charity event reminds me that there are other ways of measuring the power of wine and that perhaps it can never be strong enough.

Tacoma Wine Classic

Mike and Karen Wade of Fielding Hills Winery asked us to pour their wines at the Tacoma Wine Classic, a charity dinner/auction organized by the Tacoma Community College Foundation to benefit TCC’s scholarship fund and education programs. It’s their major fund-raising event and they were hoping to generate about a third of the $500,000 annual target on this one night. More than 200 people paid $150 each to attend. Wineries and others donated thousands of dollars of goods and services (including a “mountain of magnums”) to the auction. Scores of volunteers contributed their time to pull it all together.

We poured the Fielding Hills wines during the reception alongside representatives from Fort Walla Walla Cellars, Kestrel Vintners, McGavick Winery, Milbrandt Vineyards, McCrea Cellars, Northstar, Page Cellars, Spring Valley Vineyards, Woodward Canyon Winery, Maryhill Vineyards and Saviah Cellars (what a great group of wineries). Everyone had a good time tasting and noshing and bidding on silent auction items (wines and wine-related packages). Then the dinner bell rang — more wine, good food, and the oral auction, which included a five-year vertical of Leonetti Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon magnums that went for about a thousand dollars.

As I reflect on this experience the thing that stands out to me is the power of wine to bring these people together to support a good cause. Providing adequate resources for higher education is very important, but the free rider principle is powerful and the “collective action problem” is therefore difficult to solve. It is hard in general to get people to support projects that provide widely dispersed benefits. Mancur Olson, the great political economist, argued that “specific incentives” are often needed to motivate individuals to cooperate to produce collective goods. People need to feel that they benefit as individuals in some way from their support of collective goals and that their individual benefit and the collective benefit are linked. (This is one reason public television stations both ask for your unselfish support of their public good and at the same time try to give you some sort of private good — a Masterpiece Theater coffee mug? — in exchange for your donation.)

Wine’s Hidden Strength

It seems to me that wine lends itself very well to solving the collective action problem. Wine has obvious private benefits, but it is well known that these benefits are best appreciated (magnified?) in association with others. This is obviously true about wine consumption — half the fun of drinking wine is talking about it with friends. But it is also true of other aspects of wine. People gain private benefits from display of their wine knowledge and taste and from the generous feeling one gets in sharing with others. But these benefits can only be realized in the company of other people — they are private goods that are collectively produced, if that makes any sense (I was tasting as well as pouring last night, so my logic may be a bit fuzzy). Educational benefits are both private and public in a similar way, at least to some extent, which makes the wine and education link useful in both symbolic and practical ways.

In an age when many social activities such as listening to music are increasingly individualized and privatized (think iPod here) the power of wine to connect remains strong and perhaps has become more profound. I would like to say that wine has a universal power to bring people together, but that’s clearly wrong. Some people just don’t care about wine — they have other interests– and some positively object to it because of its alcoholic content.

But it is interesting to observe how effective wine can be at events like this to bring together people of different ages and backgrounds to share collective experiences and support a good cause. The TCC Foundation is wise to uncork wine’s hidden strength by making it the theme of their annual fund-raising event.

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