Wine Economist in Wonderland

Alice entered Wonderland by jumping down a rabbit hole. I got there by walking through this doorway.

It happened 30 years ago and inside the door I met a famous winemaker who was as interested in economics was I was in wine. The result of our chance conversation was my fascination with wine economics and, ultimately, this blog.

Through the Oak Door

This is not an ordinary door. It is made from the planks of a huge oak cask. I rediscovered it a few days ago when I visited Napa Valley to attend the annual Stags Leap District Winegrowers Vineyard to Vintner (V2V) seminar, tasting and celebration.

The Stags Leap AVA can understandably be viewed as Wonderland by wine lovers. It is famous for its distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon wines, including some of the ones that did so well in the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris commemorated in George Taber’s excellent book of that name and the more recent somewhat dubious but nearly always entertaining film, Bottle Shock.

I was in Stags Leap at the invitation of the growers association to attend the events and to consider how wine has changed in 30 years, using the terroir of this region as my test bed.

One Side Makes You Grow Larger …

It was hard to know how Stags Leap and its wines would develop when I first opened the door thirty years ago.  There were a lot of indications that the area might turn into what some critics say the whole of Napa Valley has become — the over-commercialized Disneyland of wine.

Although it was only really “discovered” as a winegrowing area in the early 1970s, a lot of money was already focused on Stags Leap when I made my first visit. Clos du Val (first vintage in 1972) was the result of a collaboration between American businessman and wine industry investor John Goelet and Bordeaux winemaker Bernard Porter. It was just the sort of thing that gives Mondovino fans screaming nightmares.

Chimney Rock Winery (1980) looks like a South African Cape Dutch estate because its founder Sheldon “Hack” Wilson made his money selling Pepsi Cola in South Africa. He was the largest volume Pepsi bottler in the world at one point, according to my copy of James Halliday’s Wine Atlas of California.

Silverado Vineyards (1981) — a beautiful winery with a beautiful view — unintentionally reinforces the Disneyland theme because the family of Walt Disney built it, starting with a vineyard purchase in 1976 and continuing today.

It was easy to imagine in 1980 that this trend would continue — and the wines would suffer — as more money flooded into the tiny Stags Leap area.

… And the Other Makes You Grow Smaller

But capital is not always blind (to paraphrase Walter Bagehot). Some of the early Stags Leap investors were the sort of people I have labeled terroirists who value wine for its somewhereness.

I suppose that Dick Steltzner would fit into this group. An experienced viticulturalist, he planted what might have been the first vineyard at the base of the Stags Leap palisade in 1965, finally making his own wine at Steltzner Vineyards in 1977.

Warren Winiarski, the guy who won the red wine competition in the 1976 Paris tasting with his Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, strikes me as a terroirist, too, although perhaps he was just a stubborn, philosophical wine perfectionist. So all the pieces were in place for a battle for the soul of Stags Leap wine.

And Now Which is Which?

Looking back to 1980, it seems like it could have gone either way. Globalization money and media creating Coca Cola wine … or the revenge of the terroirists, preserving the distinctive quality of Stags Leap.

How did the story turn out? Check back in a few days to find out what I think I learned from my fieldwork.

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