“There is, perhaps, no country in the world where drinking a glass of wine in a public space has more political significance than in Turkey. Just now, that significance extends to a glass of Turkish wine drunk anywhere in the world.”
It’s Not [Just] About the Wine
We don’t usually think of wine in political terms, but as this quote from Andrew Jefford’s recent Decanter.com column indicates, these are unusual times in Turkey and even otherwise innocent wine is caught in the crossfire. Jefford writes that
The world watched Turkey tumble into political turmoil last week. Protests over a building project … erupted into wider discontent about what many see as PM Erdoğan’s peremptory paternalism, and the sense that Turkey’s hard-won secular traditions were being gradually eroded in a stealthily managed slide towards ‘soft Sharia’.
So how does wine fit in? The answer is law number 6487, which piles additional restrictions on the promotion and sale of alcohol, including wine. This law seems a step backwards for a county that seeks to join the European Union, where wine is nearly ubiquitous . But, Jefford explains, it’s not about the wine.
What makes life for Turkey’s wine producers so singularly wearying is that alcohol is a lightning rod for these [political and social] tensions. As Turkish journalist Sevgi Akarçeşme wrote in her blog in Today’s Zaman on May 26th, alcohol is always “more than alcohol” in Turkey. It is, she said, “an issue about which you can hardly have a reasonable public debate. … in Turkey alcohol is not simply about a personal decision to drink or not to drink.”
A recent article in The Economist (the source of the pointed illustration above) provides additional context.
Hoteliers fret that the curbs will scare off tourists. Secularists see another step to sharia rule. After a decade under AK [the ruling party] Turkey feels a lot more conservative. Islamic clerical training for middle-school pupils has come back, Koran courses have grown and finding a drink in rural Anatolia is hard.
Recommended reading if you are interested in learning more about the controversy: Elin McCoy’s report form VinExpo on the challenges and opportunities for Turkish wine.
But What About the Wine?
So wine makes a statement in Turkey and Turkish wine, according to Jefford, makes a political statement everywhere else. So what kind of statement is it — as wine, I mean, not as a political symbol? Well, I suspect that most Americans don’t really know and would be hard pressed to find a bottle of Turkish wine to satisfy their their desire to lend support to one side or the other in the Turkish protests.
We were fortunate to be given the opportunity to sample a number of otherwise hard-to-find Turkish last week when Olga and her team at Vinorai (who are just breaking into the wine import business) invited us to sample some wines being considered for the U.S. market. The Turkish Commercial Attaché was there to give his blessing — wine may be controversial within Turkey but wine exports apparently are not.
The wines represented a wine range of grape varieties, wine styles and price points. We found much to like even if we liked some better than others as would be the case in any tasting. Although there were credible wines made from international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz, Sue and I were drawn to the indigenous grape varieties, especially white wines made from Narince and Emir and juicy, fruit-forward red wines made from Öküzgözü.
Narince and Emir are unfamiliar names to most U.S. wine drinkers, but they are not especially intimidating ones and there is no particular reason why consumers who have only recently learned to say “Torrontes” should not embrace them. If you see one of these wines in a shop or on a menu, try it. Very refreshing.
Öküzgözü is another matter of course with its Scrabble-master spelling and abundant diacritical adornment — it really looks like a Turkish name, doesn’t it?. I suppose the name alone might stop some consumers in their tracks, which is a shame because we tasted some delicious interpretations of the grape. The literal translation is “bull’s eye” or “ox eye” because the grapes are as large and dark as a farm animal’s pupil and perhaps a clever marketer can exploit that fact to entice consumers to lean in.
(Hungary’s “Bull’s Blood” wines are popular and most people who buy them probably don’t concern themselves that the wine is a blend featuring the Kadarka grape, which is thought to have been brought from Turkey!)
So how do you get consumers to try Turkish wines? Well, I’m not sure you have to get people to try them because, as Olga noted, so many Americans have vacationed in Turkey and tried and enjoyed the wines there (even if they might not have made notes about which particular varieties they liked best). It may only be necessary to reintroduce these former visitors to the wines by inviting them to relive their experiences enjoying Turkish food, culture, and of course its wine.
Beyond Politics: Wine, Food and Culture
The wine taken completely by itself may be a hard sell, I admit, because the market is so crowded and the competition is so fierce, but the key is to present the wines as part of an integrated Turkish cultural package that draws on happy memories and associations and promises to extend them. Italian wines (even those from unfamiliar regions made from hard-to-remember indigenous grapes) have always benefited from this cultural strategy. And while Turkey doesn’t have Italy’s prime place in American hearts and minds, there are plenty of positive associations to draw upon.
Culture, not politics, is key when it comes to selling Turkish wines in America. Tim Atkins is probably right that raising a glass of Turkish wine makes a statement just now, but when it comes to expanding the market for the wines, it may be best to keep divisive politics out of it and let the warm and welcoming side of the Turkish people themselves lead the way.
Thanks to Olga and her Vinorai team for inviting us to sample these Turkish wines. Thanks to Sue for her tasting expertise and the photos shown here.