Kiwi Wine Wars: Terroir and Its Discontents

When Sue and I visited New Zealand in 2004 we found a wine industry experiencing tremendous success, but worried that the good times might not last. It seemed like New Zealand’s wine production was doubling every few years — could global markets continue to absorb so much Kiwi wine?

Eleven years later the conclusion is that global consumers still love Kiwi wine, but the concern is still there for the future.

A Kiwi Variant of the Dutch Disease? 

There were lots of worries back in 2004. One was a kind of Kiwi variant of the “Dutch Disease” — the concern that tremendous success in one part of the wine industry would put a curse on the rest of it. Would the triumph of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc crowd out other regions and winegrape varieties and leave New Zealand uncomfortably reliant on a single type of wine?

But that wasn’t the only problem people saw then. Ironically, we met with one very successful Marlborough producer who was worried about Pinot Noir messing up Sauvignon Blanc. New Zealand’s brand is Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, he told us. Giving more attention to Pinot Noir risks confusing consumers about the Kiwi wine identity and killing the goose that lays the golden egg.  Put all the chips on Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and make sure that very successful and profitable wine doesn’t fade away, he advised.

Eleven years later I think the concern about reliance on Sauvignon Blanc is  still around, but I’m not hearing much talk about Pinot Noir getting too much attention for the industry’s good. And that producer who wanted to deemphasize Pinot is now proud to make some highly-regarded Marlborough Pinot Noir in addition to his Sauvignon Blanc!  So a lot has changed even if some things stay the same.

 It’s Terroir Time

One concern that is still on the agenda is terroir and its importance in marketing the wine by telling an authentic terroirist story. As I have suggested in previous columns, terroir designations have morphed from a protective tool in Europe (an attempt to control fraud, for example, and protect geographical trademarks) and a brand issue here in the U.S. (brand Napa Valley) to an indicator of authenticity in the story-telling necessary to effectively sell wine today.

It’s terroir time in wine world. Upscale consumers want to have authentic stories to go with the products they buy — this is true for wine and other products — and a specific geographic designation is one way (but not the only way) for winemakers to tell that story.

Some of the people we talked with in Marlborough back in 2004 were thinking in terms of protection and brands and they were worried by New Zealand’s lack of a stronger geographic indicator system for wine. Marlborough is a very large designation, one producer told me, and it is a powerful brand for Sauvignon Blanc. But it is such a big and diverse area, he said, and the wines are so diverse in terms of style and quality.

He was afraid that as production was ramped up the lack of consistency would undermine Marlborough’s credibility. Private efforts to stress particularly excellent sub-regions did not seem to be getting traction and official actions looked slow in coming. Would Marlborough’s success ultimately undermine its credibility? That’s the pattern that I called “the Curse of the Blue Nun” in Wine Wars.

NZ-based wine writer Rebecca Gibb recently wrote about the movement to identify key Marlborough zones for Pinot Noir, concluding that as appealing as the idea is it might be premature. Maybe Kiwi winemakers are still learning where the the best places are to grow particular varieties, Gibb says. If she’s right then it was certainly too soon back in 2004, when the zones might have been crafted with SB, not Pinot, in mind. And Jamie Goode has recently cautioned about the movement to adopt geographical indicators in general.

Gimblett Gravels: Seizing Control

We visited Hawkes Bay on the North Island in 2004 and some of the winemakers there were impatient with Kiwi geographical indicator policies. Growers in the Gimblett Gravels knew that they had special terroir and, having saved it from exploitation as a gravel quarry, wanted to both protect it and brand it. But how?

They did both in the most direct way available to them, forming an association, registering “Gimblett Gravels” as a trademark and rigorously regulating its use. In essence I guess they “privatized” their terroir designation because they were frustrated with the lack of a clear public path.

Here is an explanation from the GG association’s website.

GIMBLETT GRAVELS is the registered trademark of the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association. The Association and registered brand were developed to define and then name a winegrowing district using principles that are not catered for within New Zealand’s proposed Geographic Indications Act legislation.  … The Association and designation of the area was formed at a relatively early stage in its winegrowing life to ensure that the purity and integrity of its designation was not compromised by political issues outside its control. … To the best of our knowledge this is the first viticultural appellation in the New World where its ultimate boundary is defined by a distinct soil type boundary, no compromises, no politics.

The approach taken has determined that a carefully planned and professional branding program was required to promote the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District as a viable sub-region within the Hawke’s Bay region. The lack of any legal Geographic Indication status for Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District has determined this approach. The branding program has developed a strong logo and branding platform that controls the use of the name “GIMBLETT GRAVELS” and “Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District”.

Kiwi Terroir Today

I suspect my friends here in the U.S. who are caught up in various aspects of AVA and sub-AVA politics will look at the Gimlett Gravels initiative with respect, admiration and even a bit of envy. What a bold move! And I think it has been very successful, too.

Terroir and geographical indicators have grown and changed in their significance. Where does New Zealand stand today? Come back next week for a quick look at progress on this front both in private sector branding  and in Kiwi wine policy.

Natural Cork vs Alternative Closure Wars: Race to the [Wine Bottle] Top

At the end of my review of To Cork or Not to Cork, George Taber’s informative 2007 survey of the wine bottle closure wars, I vented some frustration. Not with the book, which is great, but with the closures themselves. Taber taught me that no wine bottle closure was perfect, although he had high hopes that competition among closure producers would make the future brighter. Here’s the conclusion of my 2007 column.

[Taber writes that]  … finding a solution to the wine closure dilemma is a worldwide problem and global market competition is forcing the stopper makers to innovate and make better and better closures and forcing winemakers to get better, too, since they can no longer automatically blame any flaws in their wines on bad corks. “Unfettered competition,” he writes, “remains a powerful driving force for good.”

I think Taber is right, but for now I’m just standing here in the basement, looking with suspicion at the wine in my little cellar, trying to guess what is going on beneath the lids. Having read Taber’s book, I now know enough to be anxious about each and every bottle!

A Wealth of  Closure Choices

Eight years have passed and the closure wars continue. Perhaps the single most-asked question when I speak to consumer groups is about what’s at the top of the bottle, not the contents. “What do you think of screw-caps?”  Well, what should I think?

The question continues to haunt the wine industry. Recently two U.S. wine industry monthlies featured cover stories on the closure wars. “Alternative Closures Go Upscale” was the headline on the May 2015 issue of Wine & Vines. while the June issue of Wine Business Monthly featured their 2015 “Closure Survey Report.”

Jane Firstenfeld’s Wines & Vines article “Unconventional Toppers for Top-Shelf Wines” takes the form of a series of brief interviews with premium winemakers who report their use of screw-cap closures (including Van Duzer, Chehalem, Meoimi, Silverado and Sonoma-Cutrer) or synthetic closures (Schug and Eberle).

The article gives a sense of the great variety of alternative closures available (gone are the days of one-size fits all) and the research and trials necessary to assure the best possible fit between wine, winemaker and closure. It’s a good piece of reporting if you have a dog in this fight!

Natural Cork is #1. So are Synthetic Closures. Discuss.

Curtis Phillips presents the results of the Wine Business Monthly survey of winery closure use in his article “Natural Closures Rated Highest.” One colorful graph caught my eye — it showed the results of the survey for five years where respondents were asked which closures they used for their $14-$25 red wines? Options (more than one choice allowed) started with natural cork and moved on to technical cork, synthetic closures, screw caps and an “other,” category that includes Zork and Vino-Seal.

The graph suggests that natural cork is used by about 50% of the wineries surveyed, down from nearly 70% a few years ago. Technical cork is shown rising from about 20% to 30%, while ynthetic closures are roughly stable at a little more than 10% and screw caps are shown rising from about 10% to 30%.

The devil is in the details in surveys like this and to their credit WBM provides details that clarify the picture. The unit of analysis for the survey is the winery whether it is big or small, which changes up the conclusions you might otherwise draw.

Many more wineries use natural cork, but many more bottles of wine here in the U.S. are sealed by synthetic closures. The 10% of wineries that use the synthetics such as Nomacorc include some boutiques (Oregon’s Ken Wright Cellars, for example) and some giants (Gallo), so that about half of all wine bottled in the U.S. comes with a synthetic closure even though only about 10% of wineries surveyed use it.

There is more to the WBM story than this, of course. Winery respondents were asked to give their ratings of closure alternatives and the result is a rising tide — all of the closures were rated higher than they were a few years ago. When it comes to quality in wine closures, the trend seems to be up and up.

Creative Destruction in the Closure World

This did not surprise me because closure manufacturers keep me well-supplied with press releases about their newest innovations and I have been impressed with the way that they have responded to criticisms and invested in improved technology giving wineries higher quality and greater choice. There has also been something of a shakeout taking place over the years, with some producers dropping out of the market, increasing the scale of the others, which further increases the return to new investment.

The race to the top is true for natural cork, as Antonio Amorim and Carlos de Jesus made sure I appreciated when I met with them in Porto last year.  Natural cork producers made a terrible mistake when they did not recognize problems in past years, and they paid a high price in lost market share as a result, Amorim told me.

But better consistency, higher technical quality and strong consumer acceptance makes natural cork a competitor in every market, he said. And of course better natural corks force the other closure makers to raise their game, too. Winemakers and wine consumers certainly gain.

If there’s one area where cork closures would seem to have an unavoidable disadvantage over screw-caps, however, it would be convenience. Screw caps are just easier to handle and, with rising technical quality, that would seem to give it a big advantage in some markets at least. Even wine guru Hugh Johnson thinks so. His  May 2015 column in Decanter magazine proclaimed that “I am faintly irritated now when I come to open a bottle of wine and find I need a corkscrew.” Gosh! The screw-cap is “incomparably better” than natural cork, he says.

Do the Twist — Like This!

Well, Amorim doesn’t want to lose Hugh Johnson’s business (or anyone else’s) so last year they released a screw-cork closure called Helix.  That’s right — screw-cork (see the image above). The cork and specially-made bottle are designed so that the cork screws into (and out of) the bottle slick as can be.

Screw-cork? Amazing.Probably not as important in the grand scheme of things as the technical improvements in cork production at Amorim, but still a great example of how innovation occurs even in centuries-old industries like cork closures.  Is this an example of Taber’s idea that unfettered competition is a driving force for for good? When it comes to closures, it sure seems to be true. Here’s to the race to the top!

Best in the World? Gourmand International Wine Blog Award!

gourmandAs I mentioned back in January, everyone at The Wine Economist was delighted and just a little surprised to learn that we were short-listed for a major award.  The Gourmand International “Best in the World” awards are given annually to recognize excellence in food and drinks writing.  My 2011 book Wine Wars was honored by Gourmand International in one of the specialized categories when it was published.

This year there is an award for best blog. Here are the finalists.

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Best Wine and Drinks Blog:

The results were announced on June 8 in Yantai, China. I wanted to be there along with the other nominees in all the food and wine categories, but I was already committed to being in Conegliano, Italy giving a pair of talks at the famous wine school.

Well, the results are in and, to make a long story short, the winner is …

The Wine Economist? Yes! We at the Wine Economist are surprised and deeply honored by this recognition. Many thanks to everyone at Gourmand International for this award and personal thanks to Edouard Countreau for his support and encouragement.

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Book Review: Oz Clarke’s History of Wine in 100 Bottles

Oz Clarke, The History of Wine in 100 Bottles: From Bacchus to Bordeaux and Beyond. Sterling Epicure, 2015.

It was a brilliant idea. Select 100 items from the massive collection of The British Museum and then present them, one at a time and in chronological order, to create “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”

Simply Irresistible

It was an instant hit with history-hungry Britain. Never have the artifacts of the British  Museum’s collection been so closely studied and appreciated by millions! And of course the use of physical objects of various sorts was perfect because, as we all know, we are living in a material world and so telling the story of civilization through material goods is simply irresistible. You can see a list of the objects here and briefly view each one in the 5 minute video below.

In another brilliant move, the organizers did not present the series on the television or the internet as you might expect but via one-hundred short  15-minute BBC Radio 4 broadcasts starting on January 18, 2010 and ending on October 22 of that year. Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, wrote and narrated all the episodes.

The combination of rich language plus fertile imagination inspired listeners to seek out information about the objects  through all available means including visits to the British Museum (which must have been one of the goals of the enterprise). Watch the video and click on the website link — maybe the hundred objects will fascinate you as they have so many others.

 

100 Bottles of Wine on the Wall

Oz Clarke takes something of the same approach to the history of wine in his new book and the result is very appealing indeed. Clarke’s challenge is to tell the story of wine in 100 short, punchy, chronologically-ordered episodes. Some of the chapters are about actual bottles as promised by the book’s title (1964, for example, is a jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy), but most are the stories of people, events or forces that shaped significantly the world of wine.

Thus 1855 is the Bordeaux Classification of that year and 1863 is Phylloxera. 1965 marks the invention of bag-in-box containers and 1976 the famous Judgement of Paris.  The story begins with the invention (or was it a discovery?) of wine in about 6000 BC and concludes with Rudy Kurniawan’s wine fraud conviction in 2014.

I think there is something here for all wine-lovers to enjoy and appreciate, although I understand that some will criticize the entries for being too brief  (more of the 2-page landscape given to each entry goes to images than to text) and others will find fault with the particular entries chosen and not.  Regarding the depth of analysis, I think you have to accept this for what it is and, like the BBC/British Museum project, see this as an invitation to further study rather than a much too brief final chapter.

Regarding the topics the Clarke included versus those left out, I think it is inevitable that people disagree about what’s most important — and maybe there’s fun in arguing about it a bit. I was pleased that many of the people, events and forces that I have written about here on The Wine Economist and in my books were important enough to be included in Clarke’s book.  I’ll gladly defer to him where we might disagree because after all it is his book not mine, but I was happy that we agree in so many areas.

For example my chapter on “Extreme Wine People” in Extreme Wine highlights a number of individuals who transformed the idea of wine in one way or another. Almost all of them make Clarke’s list including Robert Mondavi (1966), Angelo Gaja (1968). David Lett (1975) and Nicholas Catena (1994). I highlighted Montana’s Brancott Estate in Wine Wars because that’s where the first Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in Marlborough, New Zealand. Sure enough, that’s Clarke’s entry for 1983,  And world’s highest vineyards (in the Salta region of Argentina) appeared in the first chapter of Extreme Wine and as the entry for 2006 here.

Here’s a selection of other chapter entries to whet your appetite and give you a sense of the variety of topics presented: Pompeii (79 AD), Tokaji (1571), Constantia (1685), Dom Perignon (1690s). Chianti (1716), Louis Pasteur (1860), Vega Sicilia (1915), Mateus (1942), Emile Peynaud (1949), Robert Parker (1978), Canadian Ice Wine (1991) and China (2011).

The History of Wine n 100 Bottles is fun and informative — a great gift for your wine enthusiast friends and a colorful addition to any wine bookshelf.

By the way, if you are interested in projects like these, you might also want to read Tom Standage’s 2006 book A History of the World in 6 Glasses. The glasses, in chronological order, are filled with beer (in Mesopotamia and Egypt), wine (in Greece and Rome), spirits (in the Colonial Period), coffee (in the Age of Reason), tea (the British Empire) and Coca-Cola (in the American Century). There’s a seventh glass that represents the future. What does it hold? Water, of course.

My Hidden Agenda

I was keen to get a copy of Oz Clarke’s book when it was published because I’ve started work on a project that has something of the same flavor. Although  Money, Taste and Wine: It’s Complicated won’t be released until August, I’ve been at work for some time now on the next book in the series, which I’m calling Around the World in 80 Wines. Don’t you think that’s a great title? My challenge is to write a great book to go with it!

I wanted to see what Oz Clarke would do with his hundred wines and, while I can’t fault his use of the BBC/British Museum model, that’s not the way that I’m headed. Clarke and the BBC make a journey through time and I’m traveling through space — around the world, with 20 stops (chapters) and 80 wines. Some chapters search out and find a single most significant wine story wine while others reveal a treasure trove of different wines — or search and search and come up empty. How annoying!

But journey’s don’t reveal their significance all at once or in carefully measured doses. They ebb and flow like life itself and that’s what I’m going to try to capture. I’m sure that some will second-guess my choices and want more depth here and less there but, as with the BBC/British Museum’s series and Oz Clarke’s new book, I think you’ll find the result worth the effort. — fun, interesting. Maybe even irresistible!

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Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

On the {Wine} Road Again: Wine Economist World Tour Update

Here at The Wine Economist we are counting down the days until August 4 when my  new book Money, Taste and Wine: It’s Complicated will be released. You can pre-order on Amazon.com, of course! The early feedback (see below) has been very positive, so I can’t wait for August to see the actual book and hear what you think of it.

In the meantime, the Wine Economist World Tour continues. Sue and I have recently returned from Southern California where I spoke about the “Secrets of the World’s Most Respected Wine Regions” to the winegrower audience at the Ramona Valley California AVA “A Grape Day in the Backountry” Symposium.

Later this week we leave for Italy, with the GPS pointed to the famous Scoula Enologica di Conegliano. I will be giving two lectures on June 9 and 10.  The first seminar is titled “Anatomy of the U.S. Wine Market” and the second “Wines of the Veneto: A SWOT Analysis of the U.S. Market.”  Watch this space for a report.

Closer to home,  at the request of good friends, I’m giving an “Extreme Wine” talk as part of the Senior University program at Franke Tobey Jones on Wednesday June 24 at 6pm. Looking forward to seeing familiar faces in the audience at Senior University and  tasting a few wines with “extreme stories.”

Then it’s north a few degrees of latitude to Osoyoos, British Columbia to speak at the BC Wine Institute’s annual meeting on July 6.  We had a great visit to the BC wine country a couple of years ago and look forward to returning and seeing what’s new.

Back home again, I will be on a panel of local bloggers discussing  the blogosphere and its discontents on July 15 from 7-8 pm at the Tacoma Public Library‘s Olympic Room.

The weather is great here in the Pacific Northwest in July so it is hard to get me to leave, but I couldn’t say no to an invitation to speak at the California Association of Winegrape Growers Summer Conference on July 22-24, 2015 at the Silverado Resort & Spa in Napa, California. I’ll be speaking with Wine Market Council president John Gillispie on“Wine Market Update and Insights” on Thursday, July 23.

And then? Several interesting trips in the planning stage. Who knows, maybe I’ll speak at a wine event near you?

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In the spirit of “shameless self-promotion,” here are some of the early comments on Money, Taste and Wine: It’s Complicated. 

Mike has the unique ability to look at wine differently and discover facts beyond the mythology. In this fascinating book, he gives the poor consumer overwhelmed by choice and myth an eye-opening look at wine.
Paul Cluver, Paul Cluver Wines, South Africa

Written in Mike Veseth’s ineffable style, Money, Taste, and Wine goes down as easily as the finest pinot, will make you laugh, and will fatten your wallet. If you’ve ever suspected that wine’s pricing is rigged, fumed at stratospheric restaurant tariffs, or want to be amazed at how the revolution in global trade has affected your favorite drink, then look no further than this book. A must for any consumer of the fruit of the vine.

William Bernstein, author of Birth of Plenty, A Splendid Exchange, and Masters of the World

In Money, Taste, and Wine, preeminent wine economist Mike Veseth teaches us how to be a rational, informed wine consumer by better understanding available wine choices, personal tastes and preferences, and common wine buying mistakes. Along the way, he provides fascinating insights into the workings of the wine industry in a fun and interesting way with his engaging and provocative writing style. A must read for anyone who drinks wine or has an interest in the wine market.
James Thornton, Eastern Michigan University, author of American Wine Economics

A remarkable blend of research, history, and examples straight from the heart of a genuine explorer makes this book a must read. Mike skillfully walks his readers through the multifaceted relationship of money, taste, and wine and leads them to a smart, optimistic, and enjoyable conclusion. A perfect fit for those who thirst for more.
Evy Gozali, CEO of Sababay Winery, Bali, Indonesia

With his usual wit, wisdom, and whimsy, the ebullient Mike Veseth (aka The Wine Economist) unravels the complexities of what he calls the ‘unhealthy love triangle of money, taste, and wine.’ For anyone with taste who is remotely interested in discovering hidden, undervalued vinous treasures and willing to learn a little about themselves along the way, this insightful book is a must read. Having fought the good fight in Wine Wars and tickled the imagination in Extreme Wine, Mike’s insights into the vexed relationship between Money, Taste, and Wine could be subtitled ‘choose your wine and those you share it with carefully.’

Michael Hince, HinceOnWine, Australia

I laughed out loud reading Mike Veseth’s Money, Taste, and Wine. He has such a humorous and down-to-earth style when writing about wine, and his new book involves hilarious romps through supermarket aisles, restaurants, and discount stores to find a good deal on wine. It also has its serious points, providing invaluable information for wine lovers in analyzing their own palates and expectations. A definite read for all wine enthusiasts, wine students, and wine newbies.
Liz Thach, Master of Wine, Professor of Wine Business & Management, Sonoma State University

Money, Taste, and Wine is a great read: entertaining, informative, and heartfelt. Like Wine Wars it is packed with economic and historic insights into the world of wine. At times I found myself laughing out loud and also reaching for my notebook to jot down facts and add (wine and non-wine) books to my reading list.
Caro Feely, Feely Wines and French Wine Adventures

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World tour? Well, it’s a small world! Enjoy!

The Wine Economist 500

500This is the Wine Economist’s 500th column and a good time to reflect on the wine road that got us here.

The very first post, dated May 29, 2007, reported on “Bottling the 2005 at Fielding Hills Winery,” comparing the hand-bottling process to Adam Smith’s famous pin factory. The division of labor was very efficient, I concluded, and the payment (a picnic lunch overlooking the Columbia River and a bottle of wine signed by all the crew who bottled it with me) quite satisfying.

A lot has changed at Fielding Hills since that day. They remain one of Washington State’s outstanding wineries (and a personal favorite of ours), but 2015 is probably the last year they will bottle using friends, family and wine club volunteers and hand equipment. They’s grown, opening a tasting room facility in nearby Lake Chelan, and are expanding production beyond the level where hand-power makes sense.

Mostly Wrong

The Wine Economist has changed, too. Not many people tuned in for that first column compared with the global reading audience today. Total page views since inception are now more than 1.1 million and rising.

In terms of content, the columns posted here continue to do most things wrong, but a few things right. New columns appear only once or twice a week, which I’m told is too infrequent for a web publication. Gotta constantly post content, people tell me, because readers have short memories and will  wander off unless constantly pulled back.

And the columns are too long, too, averaging between 750 and 1000 words — about the same as a newspaper op-ed piece. Conventional wisdom dictates lots of short, punchy posts because of limited reader attention span. Incredibly, many people seem to read these relatively long  columns all the way through to the end, shattering the myth that no one actually reads anything on the web.

Partly Right

What does the Wine Economist get right? Well, I try to keep the tone positive and I don’t think that’s a bad idea. And I think the style, which is explicitly modeled on The Economist newspaper, is pretty effective, too.

There is also a modest Wine Economist social media presence, which is probably a good thing. You can “like” The Wine Economist on Facebook and follow @MikeVeseth on Twitter (@WineEconomist was already taken) or subscribe to the blog (it’s free!).

There would not be 500 Wine Economist columns were it not for loyal readers and their feedback. Thanks so much for your support. Looking forward to the next milestone. As Buzz Lightyear might say, “To 600 posts — and beyond!”

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I was looking for a music video about writing 500 blog posts and the result was an epic fail. But I did find this! Just substitute “write 500 posts” in the appropriate places and sing along. Enjoy!

Book Review: Jurafsky on The Language of Food (with implications for wine)

Dan Jurafsky, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Dan Jurafsky is a Stanford University computational linguist who is fascinated by the way we talk about food. He’s written this provocative book that tells a series of stories that mainly trace the way that the language of food changes over time and how this is related to global cultural and economic exchange.

Turkey, turkey, sushi and ketchup

One story, for example, explain how the turkey, which is native to Southern Mexico, came to be named for the country of Turkey in England and here in the U.S. while acquiring names associated with India in France and elsewhere.

Another chapter traces the origin of ketchup (or sometimes catsup) back to China and then around the world to the familiar red Heinz bottle buried in the back of your refrigerator.  Great stuff if you are interested in food, globalization, history or language.

Unsurprisingly, I was hoping to read about wine in this book and I did both directly (the origins of the social custom of the  “toast” in spiced toasted bread that was dipped in wine to improve its flavor) and indirectly (vinegar, wine’s close relative, as the unlikely global connection between sushi, the food of Japan, English fish and chips, and a host of other delicacies).

Menu Language and Economics

The most thought-provoking ideas about wine actually came from the chapter of the language of restaurant menus. Jurafsky and his colleagues were able to amass a considerable database of restaurant menus for digital analysis. The data is both broad (there are hundreds of thousands of menus on the web) and deep (the New York Public Library has a historical collection of 10,000 menus dating back to 1843). So it is possible to analyze both how the language of the menu has changed over time and how if has evolved differently for different types of restaurants.

The menus don’t just describe food, they also list prices, which makes them interesting to an economist. What types of words are most associated with higher and lower menu prices? The researchers adopted the necessary control procedures (so that they were comparing apples with apples) and here’s what they found.

Language varied by the type of restaurant. Inexpensive restaurants tended to talk about the choice they provide their customers, which I suppose makes sense. Diners understand that inexpensive cafes often offer long menus and so standardized products are the norm. Choices (eggs as you like them, for example, or a dozen different flavors of dipping sauces and salad dressings) are a way to diminish the industrial quality of the experience.

More expensive fine dining restaurants don’t stress choice and, in fact, sometimes deny choice by having chef-chosen set tasting menus (sometimes even “blind” set menus where the list of dishes is not revealed when the diner maker her order).  Instead of stressing choice, the menus focus on the particular characteristics of the food, the origins of ingredients, and the nature of the preparation. Language literally “counts” here. There is a positive correlation between average word length in the menu descriptions and the price of the item. Each one letter increase in the average word length is worth about 18 cents!

You Said a Mouthfull!

Longer words and more specific terms are associated with higher menu prices. This is correlation not causation, of course, so it isn’t necessarily true that you and I see longer words or detailed descriptions and pull out our credit cards, but it could be true that these characteristics help us justify a higher price because they seem to signal to us higher quality. If wine drinkers have trouble avoiding the assumption that higher price signals higher quality, it’s not impossible that high-end diners respond to sophisticated word play.

Interesting finding: there seems to be a “spicy” or “exotic” tax. Menu items that include these words typically carry a higher average price than similar products without this designation.

So chicken you order at Wendy’s is about choice (do you prefer grilled or fried?) and at a fine dining restaurant it is about specific qualities and longer words (spicy Palliard of vegetarian-fed Draper Valley Farm chicken with exotic accompaniments), what about casual dining restaurants that occupy a vast middle ground?

Casual dining restaurants like TGIFriday’s, Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday have a menu language all their own, stressing how the food tastes or is prepared, but in very broad general terms. Chicken is tender. Steak is juicy, Crab is … real (because you might think it could be fake crab). Interestingly, terms of this type are all associated with lower prices! It isn’t that you are thinking that tender chicken is worth less, it’s just that a higher quality place wouldn’t need to tell you that the steak is juicy or the crab is real, but a less expensive restaurant would.

Jurafsky calls these “filler words” and they are the types of things you say when you have to say something but there isn’t anything better or more specific to say. The more filler words on the menu, it seems, the less distinctive the actual food items and the lower the price. Interesting, isn’t it?

The Language of Wine

So what does this have to do with wine? Well, it seems to me that the same sort of research could be done on the language of wine, both how it has changed over the years and also the way that certain types of terms are associated with different categories of wine. I’m going to start paying more attention to wine advertising, wine label text and wine reviewer descriptions.

Some off the cuff observations are inevitable. If box wines are the vinous equivalent of fast food, then it makes sense that they would talk about convenience the same way that inexpensive restaurants talk about choice. No sense dwelling on low cost since that’s obvious. It’s the way that the product can be made to accommodate your desires that matters.

Very detailed descriptions reign at the top of the wine food chain just as they do for restaurant food — and this is perhaps because indicators of place and craftsmanship are now almost universally seen as indicators of quality and authenticity. It’s not just food or wine, it is pretty much everything that consumers look for.

Maybe this is why so many AVAs have been created in the U.S. — having an AVA associated with your wine is important to its credibility even if the consumer doesn’t really know what or where it is (and even if it doesn’t really mean very much in terms of quality or style of wine). Sue and I enjoyed a nice Vioginier recently that got my attention because it came from the Clarksburg AVA. Clarksburg? You don’t see that every day. Interesting! Gotta try it (and it was indeed interesting).

I’ve inserted an image of the back label of that Viognier above so that you can read the text. Pretty upscale messaging, don’t you think? Even the average word length is impressive.

What about the wine equivalent of casual dining — branded wines selling in the $8-$12 range?  A quick look at some labels suggests that the descriptors are just as vague (“juicy,” “delicious”) as on the casual dining menus and they probably fill the same function — fillers to provide a little (very little in some cases) textual weight when more specific terms don’t apply. Sometimes, I have noted, the labels can have very little to do with wine at all — simple but perhaps effective filler.

Robert Louis Stevenson said that wine is bottled poetry, but I think there is even more to it than that! The language of food and the language of wine seem to have something in common. Food for thought for wine marketers and consumers both!

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