Artisan Wine versus Grape-a-hol: A Rant


I’m reading a new book by Michael F. Spatt and Mark L. Feldman called Grape-a-hol: How Big Business is Subverting Artisan Winemaking and the Future of Fine Wine. The book is an extended rant about the problems of artisan winemaking (especially in New Zealand).

A rant? That sounds bad, but I don’t mean it in a negative way. I really appreciate a good rant. In fact one of my favorite television programs (CBC’s Rick Mercer Report) is built around the host’s weekly rant (see above). Nothing like a good rant to let off steam … and to make a good point!

Spratt and Feldman have a lot of steam to let off and some good points to make. They see the wine world as a spectrum with artisan winemakers at one end and “grape-a-hol” producers at the other. You can probably already guess what they mean by grape-a-hol: “an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grape juice and passed off as a substitute for fine wine.”

The Opposite of Fine Wine

Grape-a-hol is an industrial product made in mass market quantities or perhaps blended from bulk wines from various sources. It is the opposite of fine artisan wine.

At this point it helps to know that the authors are partners in Destiny Bay Vineyards on Waiheke Island, New Zealand (near Auckland) and so they know a bit about the extremes of the wine world. New Zealand certainly has its share of relatively large wineries, most of them owned by foreign multinationals like Pernod Ricard (Brancott Estate), LVMH (Cloudy Bay) and Constellation Brands (Kim Crawford). Whether you think they make wine versus Grape-a-hol is another matter, but let’s continue with the rant.

Destiny Bay Vineyards is at the artisan opposite extreme in several ways. First, in a country that is geographically remote from many of its markets, Destiny Bay is even more isolated. Sue and I remember the pleasant ferry ride from Auckland to Waiheke Island. It wasn’t very far, but it sure seemed like we were entering another world. I guess that’s part of the appeal.

The winery is small as befits an artisan establishment and the wines themselves are unexpected. No cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush Sauvignon Blanc here and no Pinot Noir, either. They aim to rival the top wines of Bordeaux, producing a Cab-strong Left Bank blend, a Merlot-led Right Bank and a third wine that drives down the center line.  Critics give the wines high marks — here is a Wine Advocate tasting note from the 2007 vintage (this wine scored 93):

The Magna Praemia 2007 has a very refined, very Right Bank bouquet with blackberry, tobacco leaf, scorched earth and wild-hedgerow. Understated but growing in intensity in the glass. The palate is full-bodied with fine tannins, very powerful and yet controlled. Harmonious towards the finish. Very polished but beautifully poised, this is a wonderful Waiheke wine. Drink 2011-2018. Tasted at the blind Waiheke Island tasting and then at the estate the following day.

Although the wine sounds lovely, I was prepared not to like this book because of the in-your-face (Big Business Subverts!) attitude of the subtitle. But it won me over. The short punchy chapters all have a point and they make it without much beating about the bush. (Rants are usually best in small doses). I learned a lot about the wine business and especially the New Zealand wine business from these anti-Grape-a-hol protesters.

A Whale of a Wine

I’ve written several Wine Economist columns about the increasing trend towards shipping wine in bulk — whale-size ocean containers filled with a 24,000 liter Flexitank bladder instead of cases and cases of bottled wine. So I was fascinated to read about this from the artisan Kiwi standpoint in Chapter 3 (The Plonk that Launched a Thousand Ships) and Chapter 4 (The Mouse that Tried to Roar).

Only about 5 percent of New Zealand wine was exported in bulk before 2008, according to the authors’ figures, but now the number approaches 50 percent. Spatt and Feldman argue that while this might make sense from the Grape-a-hol perspective, it doesn’t suit New Zealand’s particular interests very well. They especially see the loss of quality control when bottling takes place abroad as a threat to the country’s precious wine reputation.

Here is a sampling of the chapter titles to give you a sense of the book’s breadth and tone:

Brand Burning in the Supermarkets

The False Economy of Cheap Wine

Wine Competitions and the Gambler’s Fallacy

Day Traders, Dilettantes, Parasites and Pilot Fish

Harry Potter has Nothing over Biodynamics

Claptrap about Closures

Mantra or Manifesto?

The book ends with “The Mantra for the Artisan Winegrower: Authenticity, Integrity and Responsibility,” which is a sort of manifesto for wine terroirists. They call upon artisan winemakers to re-take the high ground in the wine wars by banding together locally as the Waiheke winegrowers have done in creating the Waiheke Certified Wine program. Together, they believe, the terroirist multi-local groups can mount a solid front against the multinational Grape-a-hol producers.

But it won’t be easy, they say. “Artisan winemakers are not looking for special treatment, subsidies, or protectionist trade barriers, ” they conclude. “However when tax, regulatory, and industry association policies conspire to exclude them from markets, burden them with punitive costs, and undermine the provenance on which their individual brands stand, they have a legitimate grievance.”

Yes. And a reason to go on a rant!

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One response

  1. Great review! This sounds like a really fun read. I’m in total agreement. Nothing like a good rant. As long as the rantor has the same opinion as mine.

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