CSI Fine Wine Edition

  • Crime doesn’t pay.
  • The best way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a big one.

What happens when you combine these two old sayings? Well, you would think that it would add up to the fact that if crime doesn’t pay, then wine crime really doesn’t pay. But that may not be true. How else can we explain the recent fine wine crime wave, which may well be just the tip of the iceberg.

Wine Crime Wave?

Most of the attention has been focused on Rudi Kurniawan’s recent conviction for wine fraud — the first federal criminal prosecution and conviction for wine counterfeiting. This dramatic crime and the revealing trial has really captured the public’s imagination in part, I think, because of the romance associated with rare wine and the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” environment of the crime, the criminal and the victims.

There’s also a bit of what you might call a “Lance Armstrong” effect. The crime went on for years along with accusations, defenses and denials. Then suddenly there was the trial, the conviction and the house of cards collapsed. Now we are left to wonder how widespread this sort of wine fraud might be and what wines are true and which are false. The conviction isn’t the end of the story, only the beginning of the next chapter in the mystery.

Thanksgiving Day Heist

The Thanksgiving Day wine heist in Seattle was a grittier affair but perhaps equally interesting to wine crime buffs. I’ve been trying to piece together what happened from published reports and private sources. The more I learn about it the more this crime reminds me of something from a television show — CSI or maybe Mission Impossible!

Here is what I think I know.

Two “common thieves” (plumbers by trade, according to the Seattle Police) broke into the wine storage facility operated by Esquin wine merchants in the SoDo neighborhood (SoDo stands for South of the Dome — the Kingdome sports stadium in this case, which was demolished by implosion in 2000). They ransacked 15 of the 450 private storage lockers in the climate-controlled facility and made off with more than 200 cases of wine valued at more than $600,000.

If you are doing the math, that’s an average of more than $3000 per case or more than $250 per bottle. I’m guessing that no Two Buck Chuck was taken!

The break-in was ingenious — the perpetrators apparently cut a hole through a wall and brought the wine out case by case. Police report that the crooks spent  13 hours selecting their wines and then driving the loot to another warehouse less than a mile away. Their SUV getaway vehicle had limited capacity, so they had to make 9 round trips. Although they blacked out all the security cameras that they could, apparently this was not completely successful and some images of the crooks and their SUV’s license plate were captured.

You would think that “common thieves” would not be terribly discriminating wine shoppers — after all I suspect that most of the bottles and cases at this storage facility were of some value. Why not just smash and grab? But that’s not what happened.

Making a List, Checking it Twice

The bad guys apparently worked from some sort of shopping list, taking specific wines and vintages and leaving the rest. I’m told that the only Washington State wines taken were Quilceda Creek and Corliss, for example. Leonetti and Andrew Will? Apparently not up the discerning crook’s standards! I understand that wine was not just stolen, but also moved around and mixed up during the extended shopping spree and a few of the victims are apparently having to sort out which wines are theirs and which belong to someone else as well as which bottles have gone missing.

A good old-fashioned paper trail of evidence helped solve the crime and now opens the door to other possible heists. The first criminal captured had apparently kept receipts from a home improvement store — great idea in case you need to return an item! — and police used the day/time information on the paper to access security camera footage showing the suspect and his accomplice buying  the hardware used in the criminal act.

According to the Seattle Times a second paper trail opens the door to an earlier wine crime.

A shipping label found in Harris’ wine-storage locker led detectives to a San Francisco wine consultant, who told police he purchased $100,000 of wine from Harris and another man in April or May, charging papers say. Through an online search, Detective Don Jones determined there had been a large wine theft in the Bay Area in March, the papers say.

Covering Their Tracks

KOMO news report added a another Mission Impossible-style detail about the carefully plotted plan to crack the wine storage facility.

New details from the charging documents filed Monday reveal police found a journal labeled “The Plan” in Harris’ SUV. The journal reportedly included a step-by-step guide to the crime, a list of needed equipment, steps to destroy any evidence, steps to ship the wine and how to leave the country.

In addition, police found a book titled “Thinking  About Crime,” as well as printed out documents called “Is it Accidental Fire or Arson?” and “How to Commit the Perfect Crime,” inside Harris’ house, according to the charging documents.

Where does the arson come in? Well, the thieves planned to cover their tracks in the most comprehensive possible way. They cut  gas lines and expected the building to blow up. Good fortune prevented any loss of life and good police work captured the criminals. Some of the victims are more upset about the idea of the flaming cover-up plan with its potentially tragic consequences than the actual robbery.

So case closed for now — the thieves in custody and a good chance that most of  the wine (minus one  empty Champagne bottle) has been recovered. But are these two common thieves the whole story? Or is there a criminal mastermind (not necessarily Rudi K) still at large making up a shopping lists for clients too smart to buy fakes but maybe not too smart to avoid stolen goods? Good question!

So welcome to the new era of wine crime where the questions a fine wine enthusiast needs to answer now range from red or white and Burgundy or Bordeaux all the way to real or fake, stolen or legit? Cheers!

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I can’t resist adding the opening credits from the Mission Impossible television show.

Wine Economist 2013 in Review

It’s the end of the year and time to take inventory. The Wine Economist blog has passed a number of milestones on its way to New Year’s Eve 2013.

  • Earlier this month we published the 400th post in our 6 years in residence at this address.
  • We blasted through the 800,000 total visit barrier with more than 200,00 visits in 2013. This is a tiny audience be the standards of the wine blogging icons (200,000 was probably a slow weekend’s total for Gary Vaynerchuck in his web wine video heyday), but it is quite a lot for a specialized wine business publication.
  • Email subscriptions have risen steadily to just under 1500 names.
  • The monthly number of visits has risen from just 92 in January 2008 to over 22,00 in January 2013, the current high.
  • 2013 also saw the publication of my new book Extreme Wine and research or speaking expeditions to Australia, California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Virginia. Great to see so many readers and meet so many nice folks!

Too Many Highlights!

There were too many personal and professional highlights to count this year, but one of my favorites was being interviewed by the journalist Christiane Amanpour! Click on the image below to view the video. You can see that we both had fun doing this piece!

Top Post Roadmap

Back to the blog — what did readers find most interesting? Well, most visitors headed straight for the website’s home page and so viewed the then-current post, but many (guided by emails, search engines or links on other web sites) clicked their ways to particular posts or pages. Here are the most visited specific pages this year. Gives you some idea of what brings people to this stop on the digital highway.

  1. Which Wine Magazine?
  2. Riesling: How Sweet It Is?
  3. Curse of the Blue Nun
  4. Wine’s Future: It’s in the Bag (in the Box)
  5. Costco and Global Wine
  6. Wine Wars
  7. Wine Distribution Bottleneck
  8. Extreme Wine
  9. New Year’s Resolution: De-Alcoholized Wine
  10. Blue Nun Gets a Makeover
  11. Mike Veseth
  12. Is Carmenere Chile’s Next Big Thing?
  13. Sizing Up Supermarket Wine
  14. [Yellow Tail] Tales
  15. No Wine Before Its Time
  16. Will Imports Take Half of the U.S. Wine Market in 2025?
 I’m looking forward to 2014 and passing the million visit milepost. Hope to see you there. Happy New Year, everyone!
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 I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to thank everyone who contributed ideas for columns, left comments on the posts or helped in one way or another with this project. Special thanks to contributing editor Sue Veseth and to Mooch the Wine Economist cat.

Extreme Wines of the Year

Rebecca Gibb, my editor at Wine-Searcher.com, asked a few of us to nominate our “wines of the year” for 2013 and I was happy to add my voice to the chorus. My selection — the 2012 first vintage of Eroica Gold Riesling from the Columbia Valley, Washington — was complicated.

As you know, I don’t review individual wines or assign scores so, while sensory factors clearly matter, I decided to base my final choice on a wine’s potential to shape or shift the market, or at least a particular segment of it, as well as the obvious taste, aroma and texture aspects. (You can read all the Wine-Searcher selection here.)

A New Gold Standard?

That’s where Eroica Gold stands out for me. It is different from most of the other American Rieslings that are produced in sufficient volume to enjoy wide distribution and so represents a potential step forward in this rising marketplace.

Eroica Gold is made in the style of a German Gold Capsule Auslese Riesling. About a third of the grapes were Botrytis infected. Sweetness and acidity are nicely balanced and the orange marmalade aromas and luscious texture are memorable. This is Riesling for adults, that’s for sure, and my hope is that this joint venture between Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen will open up a new market segment for Rieslings of this style.

Eroica Gold surprised me and working on the Wine-Searcher project got me thinking about other surprising or Extreme Wines (to engage in a bit of shameless self promotion for my new book of the same name). Herewith a quick accounting of some of the other wines that got my attention, focusing on Australia, which we visited back in September.

Head for the [Adelaide} Hills

The Adelaide Hills get less attention than some other Australian regions, but it provided three wines that made me stop and think. Two of them were made by Larry Jacobs at his Hahndorf Hills Winery. A medical doctor by training, Jacobs immigrated to Australia from South Africa where he founded Mulderbosch. He seems to think outside the box when it comes to wine — how else can you explain the Gruner Veltliner and Blaufrankisch (or Lemberger) that we tasted?

You might think that it was a simple typographic error (easy for auto-correct to mix up Austria and Australia), but it was obviously a carefully calculated move. The 2012 Gruner was in fact named the best wine of its type from outside Austria! Quite a distinction.

I love Rieslings and Pinot Noir and the Adelaide Hills boasts many fine examples of these wines (we especially enjoyed the wines of Ashton Hills). But it was an Adelaide Hills Shiraz that we tasted at Charles Melton in Barossa that made me stop and think. “Voice of Angels” it is called and it comes from a vineyard at Mt Pleasant.

A very cool site and a very distinctive wine made, I was told, by co-fermenting the Shiraz grapes with a bit of Riesling from the same vineyard.  Did I really hear that? Shiraz and Viognier, yes. Shiraz and Riesling? Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but in any case this was a wine to remember!

Big in Barossa

P1060519Sue and I were fortunate to be able to taste three of Australia’s most iconic Shiraz wines: Torbreck, Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace. They were all memorable, but in different ways.

Our favorite Torbreck wine was a cool climate Eden Valley Shiraz called The Gask — just stunning — but I was stunned again by a sight not a taste when we toured the winery. There, hidden away, was a bin containing giant 18- and 27-liter bottles of The Laird (which sells for about $900 for 750 ml).

The idea of a 27 liter bottle of this wine — called a “Primat” according to one source and equivalent to 3 standard cases — floored me.  I think I was told that the glass bottle alone cost about $2000 and that once filled it might be worth as much as $40,000 to a collector. Quite a trophy! I’ve inserted Sue’s photo of the whale-sized bottles below.

Grange and Hill of Grace are particularly interesting to me because they are in some ways the ying and yang of top flight Australian Shiraz. Hill of Grace is a single vineyard wine and Grange is a multi-vineyard, multi-district blend. Year after year Hill of Grace comes from the same vines in the same valley (not a hill — the vineyard’s named for the church across the road) while Grange mixes things up a bit each vintage in the search for a particular style. Two different approaches to extreme wine-making.

Taste the Terroir

Listening to Stephen and Prue Henschke talk about their wine made me understand that while the Hill of Grace is a single vineyard in the way that we define these things, it is in fact a very complicated and varied site. The old vines there seem to be able to draw out the variations and the complex and distinctive blend results.

Both Grange and Hill of Grace were memorable, but I must admit to a preference for Hill of Grace. Maybe it is because I tasted more different vintages of this wine or perhaps it is because it comes from Eden Valley, a cool climate area.  Or maybe its the site and the power of those old vines. Can Australia produce terroir wines? No doubt about it!

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If I may permitted one more extreme wine for this column, I think it must be the Domaine A Cabernet Sauvignon from the Coal River Valley in Tasmania that we tasted with winemaker Peter Althaus on a drizzly foggy day. Tasmania is one Australian region that doesn’t have to worry about having a cool climate (at least for now). Althaus scoured the world for a chilly and distinctive site for his vineyard and moved here from Switzerland once he found it. Each of his wines breaks a barrier of some sort — the Pinot Noir perhaps most of all — and the Cabernet is quite an achievement. Another extreme and memorable experience! Can’t wait to see what 2014 has in store!

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Thanks to Kym and Bron Anderson for our tour of the Adelaide Hills. Thanks to Savour Australia for giving us the chance to taste so many vintages of so many extreme wines. Thanks to Dr Loosen and Chateau Ste Michelle for introducing us to Eroica Gold at Riesling Rendezvous. Thanks to Scott McDonald for the tasting and tour at Torbreck. Special thanks to Stephen and Prue Henschke for their hospitality in Adelaide.

Deconstructing and Disentangling the Disintermediation of the Wine Business

Disintermediation was a hot topic in financial economics a few years ago — I built an entire economics class around it — and it remains a powerful idea even if it may be an unfamiliar word.  I think we don’t use the term so much these days because the concept is now woven into the fabric of our daily lives! Time to untangle it and see how it works, especially in the wine business.

Disinter … what?

Disintermediation refers to the process of “cutting out the middle man” — reducing the number of links in the supply chain by eliminating certain functions. If you’ve ever tried to sell a home yourself rather than using a real estate agent “intermediary” or bought or sold anything on eBay or Craig’s List then you’ve been part of the disintermediation movement to a certain extent. As the video above suggests, the quotidian activity of buying an airline ticket was once upon a time a middleman business. Not so much any more!

Commercial banks were the main focus of financial disintermediation back in the day. Banks and other financial intermediaries provided valuable services (that’s how middlemen earn their pay), but the incentive to borrow or lend directly through “securitized” products was strong and that’s why financial disintermediation started to occur. Disintermediation increased the apparent efficiency of the financial markets but also probably increased risk and volatility because some of the functions of the intermediaries were lost and the bank-based regulatory structure found it difficult to cope with the “non-bank banks” and other institutions that evolved. Or at least that’s my take on how the process unfolded.

Disintermediation still goes on today, but it has become so commonplace that we don’t give it much attention — until we are the links cut out of the chain! The advent of “crowd-sourcing” or “crowd-funding” websites is a good example of disintermediation. There are all sorts of ways to shorten the supply chain, both when it is a good idea and when it is not (sometimes it turns out the missing link was really important).

How Does This Relate to Wine?

Which brings us (finally) to wine. A Wine Economist reader writes to suggest disintermediation as a topic for a column and I think it is a great idea.  There are a lot of big and little examples of disintermediation at work in the wine industry.

On the big end of the scale we have giant firms like Tesco who now often source bulk wines directly from around the world and bottle them under their own labels (sometimes in their own plants) and sell them under house brand labels.  The streamlined process shortens the chain and cuts cost.

Disintermediation was part of the story for one of American wine’s biggest success stories of recent years — Two Buck Chuck (a.k.a. the Charles Shaw wine sold at Trader Joe’s stores). Most wine in America goes through the three-tier distribution system with its built-in middleman structure. But Bronco Wine, which makes 5 million cases of Two Buck Chuck a year, and Trader Joe’s took advantage of a provision in California regulations that allowed companies like Bronco to deliver directly to the retailer, cutting out a link and making it possible to profitably sell a two dollar wine. A lot of factors contributed to Two Buck Chuck’s success and this disintermediation was one of them.

Disintermediation works for medium sized firms, too, such as Naked Wines, which uses an interesting crowd-funding and direct sales model — their “angel” investors finance wine production and become a built-in direct-to-consumer market for the final product — that’s double disintermediation in a way. My helpful reader drew my attention to a direct wine retailer called Fass Selections. which aims to cut out two links in the supply chain for their wines: importer and distributor. That’s disintermediation, all right! Disintermediation isn’t everywhere, but there’s a lot of it around (tasting rooms and cellar door sales?), even in places you wouldn’t think to look.

 Down Under Disintermediation

My favorite example of wine disintermediation was a discovery that Sue and I made while walking through the big Queen Victoria public market  in Melbourne during our visit to Australia in September. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the big stack of wine barrels at the ReWine market stall.

refillers

The ReWine folks offer a carefully curated selection of wines that they have purchased in bulk from Australian producers. They sell them directly to consumers in the Queen Victoria and Preston markets — the bottles are filled from the barrel containers you see in the photos. Bring your bottle back to be refilled (like the wine “growlers” that are gaining popularity here in the U.S. where local law permits them) and you get a discount.

The wines range from basic dry red and dry white wines sold at a low price to some very interesting products on up the line including dry, sweet and fortified wines. There was a nice Pinot Noir from the Adelaide Hills on offer when we stopped by.

You get what you pay for in the basic range, we were told, as these wines are blends made for a particular price point like basic wines everywhere in the world, with more distinctive products at the higher price points. Something for everyone, I think especially for a wine economist like me!

These examples just scratch the surface of disintermediation in the wine industry. I visited with a  2500 case winery recently that seemed to build its entire distribution model around the concept of cutting out the middleman. Easy to see the incentive to do this and also to appreciate the risks.

Once you start to think about disintermediation you will begin to see it at work everyone, even in the world of wine. Keep your eyes open — it might not change everything, but it’s bound to have a big effect.

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Thanks to my economics-savvy reader for suggesting this topic. Thanks to Sue for the Melbourne photos.

American Wine Economists to Meet in Walla Walla — June 2014

The American Association of Wine Economists have announced a Call for Papers to be presented at their annual meeting, which will be held in Walla Walla, Washington this year.  Click on the links below for more details. Hope to see you in Walla Walla. Hope you enjoy this video, which is a good introduction to the Walla Walla wine story. Enjoy!
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The 8th Annual Conference of the  American Association of Wine Economists AAWE  will be held from
 
          June 22-25, 2014 
   in Walla Walla, Washington.
Check the website for more information.
Please send a 500-word abstract to   aawe@wine-economics.org.
The submission deadline is March 1, 2014.

Wine Snobs, Cheese Bores and the Fake Hooters Conspiracy

Recent columns by two of my favorite writers — Eric Asimov and Simon Kuper — provoke a brief rant about globalization (and its discontents).

Simon Kuper

The Global Cheese Bore Epidemic

Simon Kuper is a global citizen and so, like a fish in water, he sees globalization from an insider’s perspective. Born in the Netherlands, he lives in Paris and writes about global sport and global affairs for the British newspaper, the Financial Times.

His recent FT column on “An everyday taste of happiness” is on the surface an appreciation of good food. Paris has great food, Kuper writes, and he wonders at one point whether he would live in Paris if its food was bad? No, he’d probably stay — he loves Paris — but he had to think about it.

You can find pretty good food just about everywhere these days and globalization is partly responsible.”Globalization tends to improve cooking,” according to Kuper, and I think he is right. Immigration — global movements of people — also entails global movements of their cuisines, enriching the host country food scene. Global tourism means that millions are exposed to foreign foods and food ideas and bring them back home.

Global media plays a role, too. Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet paved the way for what is now a global media foodie explosion. Top Chef, Master Chef. Iron Chef. Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain.  Good news, mainly, according to Kuper’s theory. He even admits that as much as he may not appreciate the global brand Taco Bell it is probably better than the Wonder Bread cuisine of the 1950s that it has partly replaced.

But he doesn’t forgive everything — “The ‘food renaissance’ is indeed linked to class and therefore encourages status displays: the fastest-growing demographic category from Britain to China today is ‘cheese bores.'” (!)

Could you take Kuper’s essay the replace “food” with “wine”? Almost. The parts on immigration (expanded to include flying winemakers and harvest interns) and tourism would hold true. Global media has not yet embraced wine to the same extent as food and fashion, however. But the positive general effects (and boorish negative side effects) that Kuper describes would still hold.

Asimov’s Global Glass

Eric Asimov

If Kuper sees globalization as a glass half full, Eric Asimov seems to worry that it might be half empty in his New York Times column “Europeans Stray From the Vine.” He starts with the sad news that wine drinking is in decline in France. It is way down in terms of quantity and he is concerned a bit about the quality as well. The French now drink more rosé than white wine and box wines have risen from 5% of the market to 30% despite being banned in some regions. Sacrebleu!

What are the French drinking instead of wine? Well, just about everything. Craft beer, spirits, everything else. Even when they drink wine, the French don’t limit themselves to the regional selections that might have been their only choice 50 years ago. Now they seek wines from across France and Europe and around the world. The French are becoming more like Americans!

And Americans are becoming more like the French, enjoying not only their own wines but (with Asimov’s encouragement) drinking wines from France and everywhere else. Asimov has written in the past what a joy it is to live in New York City these days with the world of choices (of wine but also food and other cultural produce) that are available there.

Globalization has costs and benefits, he concludes. “The benefit is better wine and more pleasure for all who are interested. The costs? Homogenized cultures and hyper-competition for the historic benchmark wines that put them largely in the hands of the ultra-wealthy.”

The Globalization Paradox

It is worth reading the columns by Kuper and Asimov and looking at how they intersect, agree, and sometimes disagree. I’m struck by the fact that they both find class issues to be of concern when it comes to global food and wine, for example — the curse of rich wine snobs and cheese bores. I am also interested to note the way that they both end up commenting upon an idea that I first saw in a book by Tyler Cowen called Creative Destruction. I call it the Paradox of Globalization.

Cowen’s book is all about the costs and benefits of cultural globalization and it is one of the best globalization books I know. The paradox, which you will recognize in both Kuper and Asimov essays, is that global influences enrich our lives here at home. More diverse food, wine, art, music, fashion — the list goes on and on. But, there’s a dark side, too.

The problem is that this globalization isn’t limited to your home town. Everyone — in New York, Paris, London, Mumbai — everyone wants to enjoy these global experiences. And they get them although maybe not all at once and with the rich having greater access than the poor. You get the picture.

Which creates the problem that when you travel you find that the quaint little villages (and village wines)  that you imagined would give you that authentic foreign experience have been replaced, at least in part, by the same global selection you have at home. In short, home gets better, but travel becomes something of a disappointment. That’s the Paradox of Globalization: As everyone’s home town becomes globalized, enriching our everyday lives, the world seems to become less foreign, less global, and that seems like a big loss.

Hooters in Innsbruck

A couple of my former students sent me a photo from their travels back in 2000 that captured this point precisely. It showed a quaint street in Innsbruck, Austria with one and only one visible “global” sign: a yellow banner that proclaimed the grand opening of a Hooters restaurant. Famous for hot wings and the tight t-shirts its waitresses wear, Hooters in Innsbruck might strike some people as a kind of evil American conspiracy against indigenous culture.

“What’s wrong with globalization!” was written on the back of the photo. Yikes! You can imagine how dismayed they must have been to see this unexpected (and for them unwanted) reminder of home.

[Update: a reader's comment (see below) reports that Hooters my students saw was not a real one -- some Austrians appropriated the name to set up "fake" Hooters that fooled many people.]

I admit I felt a little bit the same when I saw the big TGI Fridays restaurant near the main square in Riga, Lativia. TGI Fridays? Here? Really? But I got over it when I saw all the happy Latvians enjoying the barbecued ribs. Why shouldn’t they?

How deep does the Paradox of Globalization go? My suspicion is that the most obvious instances are surface level phenomena and that real indigenous culture is able to withstand whatever damage that Hooters or Taco Time might do. But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be cautious.

The globalization paradox is part and parcel of the world we live in today and while it may disappoint us when we see the French losing hold of a certain idea of wine  that we associate with them, I think we can also take pleasure that Americans (and Chinese and many others) are embracing the culture of wine. And we can hope that the younger generation in France will discover their own idea of wine.

A final point to consider is this: food is far ahead of wine in terms of its global diffusion and penetration , don’t  you think? The media embrace of food might be responsible for this but there are other factors — everyone eats but only some of us (the lucky ones) drink wine.

But I think wine will catch up. Looking at the world of food today, I wonder what the world of wine will look like in 50 years?

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Thanks to Melissa and Mari for the Innsbruck Hooters discovery.

If you want to read more about this topic, my 2005 book Globaloney is a critique of globalization’s cultural impacts and the arguments we make about them. It was named a best business book of the year by Library Journal. Incredibly, someone seems to be selling a lightly used copy on Amazon for 1-cent (plus shipping). Two Buck Chuck, meet One Cent Mike.

Economist Report: Bacchus to the Future?

Wine Economist readers might want to check out the current (November 30, 2013) issue of the Economist newspaper to see what they have to say about the changing (and  not so changing) world of wine. I’m talking about an article called “Bacchus to the Future” that is featured in the Technology Quarterly section of the newspaper.

The story is about technological advances in what outsiders might consider a very traditional business. Please follow the link to read the entire article. I will insert a few quotes just to tease you a bit.

Few industries are more suspicious of change than winemaking.

True, but not universally true.  My reading of wine history shows that sometimes technology is  embraced (the Gallos and Robert Mondavi are on my list of noteworthy innovators) and sometimes stubbornly resisted. Europeans were in denial for decades after phylloxera hit them. How long did they resist grafting their vines onto American rootstocks?

“Technology has vastly improved the low end,” says Tim Keller, a former winemaker at Steltzner Vineyards in Napa. “There’s no longer an excuse for making a defective wine.”

So true. I discuss  this in the chapter of Extreme Wine about the best and worst wines. Inexpensive wines might not be to your taste, but they consistently achieve a commercial standard and are unlikely to be the worst wines you will ever taste. A warm embrace of technology is part of the explanation.

Because consumers remain seduced by the notion that wine should be made by humble farmers with as little intervention as possible, fine-wine labels still try to keep their experiments under wraps. But they are quietly deploying technology in a new way: not just to make bad wine decent, or to make good wine more cheaply, but to make already-great wines greater still.

The article talks about de-alcoholization as one of the hidden technological innovations and I think most of us agree that this useful (and sometimes necessary) tool is generally kept out of sight. Other examples of widely used but invisible wine technology?  Two words: Mega Purple!

France is the undisputed global leader in wine technology. As Mr Merritt notes, the country has a greater demand for mechanisation than America because its agricultural wages are higher. And France’s reputation means that its elite winemakers, unlike those in other countries, do not have to worry about criticism from elite French winemakers.

This is a point that I haven’t considered before. Sorta makes you think, doesn’t it. And I guess that’s the point. Check out the article to see what else it has to say.

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While you are thinking, you might give some thought to holiday gifts for your wine-loving friends. You can’t go wrong with my books, Wine Wars and Extreme Wine. Just a suggestion!

Fine Wine Investment: Reading the Tea Leaves

My third column on the fine wine investment market for Wine-Searcher.com appeared recently — it’s an end-of-year analysis called  “Reading the Fine-Wine Tea Leaves.” Tea leaves? Yes, because I look ahead to 2014 using the recent Hong Kong auction results as my “tea leaves” leading indicator.

Please click on the link to read the whole  article — be sure to leave a comment if you agree or disagree strongly with my analysis.

One of the missions of The Wine Economist project is to promote objective analysis of the wine industry — to treat wine as a business, which it is, and not as a completely special “planet wine” where the laws of physics (and economics) don’t really apply. Although it is fair to say that I am still getting the hang of writing about the very specialized fine wine investment markets, that’s what I try to do with my Wine-Searcher columns, too.

One of the points I make this time is that we perhaps should not be too surprised that the blue chip fine wine market (read “Bordeaux”) is not booming right now. If fine wine is an “alternative investment” category like gold, for example, then it is natural that interest wanes when there’s a boom market for more  conventional investments (the alternatives to the alternatives, if you get my drift).

Equity indices are up strongly in the U.S. and Japan this year. Gold — perhaps the ultimate alternative investment asset — is sharply lower. Should we be surprised that Bordeaux-heavy fine wine investment indices (which have declined much less than gold) are not on the rise?

That said, I am cautiously optimistic about fine wine investment in 2014. Read the Wine-Searcher column to find out why!

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Special thanks to Wine-Searcher editor Rebecca Gibb for her help.

European Wine Economists to Meet in Lyons — June 2014

Update 17 December 2014. The date of this conference has changed — now scheduled for June 4-7, 2014.

Our friends at the European Association of Wine Economists have asked us to announce the “Call for Papers” for their upcoming annual conference. As you can see below, they are interested in broadening the academic discussion of wine economics to include scholars from other fields — a great idea! And Lyons is great location for wine and food. Interested? See details below.

call_1_EuAWE

  For more information please click through to these websites:

Vineyard Data Quantification Society – VDQS http:// www.vdqs.net

European Association of Wine Economists – EuAWE http://www.EuAWE.org

Society for Quantification in Gastronomy – SQG http://www.gastronometrica.org.

Thanksgiving: American Wines for an American Celebration

Thanksgiving is the distinctively American holiday and we are happy to share the idea of a day of appreciation with other nations. A festive meal is generally part of the Turkey Day plan and so the question always comes up, what wines should we serve?

America: Beyond the Usual Suspects

There are many good choices depending upon the components of the meal, but we tend to lean towards American wines here at The Wine Economist office. And as Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy’s recent book American Wine reminds us, we do not need to limit our choices to wine from the “usual suspect” states and regions. While most of America’s wines are produced in California, most of America’s wineries (by a small majority) are in other states!

Wines & Vines reports that the United States boasted more than 7400 wineries in 2012 and of those about 3500 were located in California. The Californians made a vast majority of the wines measured in either value or volume, but there are active wineries in all of the states and so lots and lots of  “local wines” for anyone wanting to support the local industry.

Most of us have tasted wines from California, Washington and Oregon and while some wines are surely better than others, it is clear that the best are world class products. Perhaps fewer have sampled wines from further down the list: New York, BC, Virginia, Texas and so on. What is the state of the art of wine in these states and regions?

Well, I have tasted many New York, Ontario, B.C. and Michigan wines at Riesling Rendezvous and other tastings and I can attest to the high quality of the best wines. Idaho with 50 wineries doesn’t make this list, but we tasted many outstanding wines when we visited there in October.

An opportunity to sample the wines of Missouri, for example, or Oklahoma does not frequently present itself. Most of the wineries are small and rely mainly upon cellar door sales. Very few make it into the broader distribution channels. It is a rare treat to be able to taste them.

Great American Wine Festival

Which is why we motored down to Portland recently to join the fun at the Great American Wine Festival, an event organized to coincide with a wine tourism conference. I’ll paste a list of the wine regions represented and the specific wines that they poured at the bottom of this column.

The event presented a cross section of American wine ranging from regions with high name recognition  (Sonoma County, Santa Barbara) to others that would be better known to wine historians than to contemporary wine consumers (Maryland, for example, plus Virginia and Missouri).

How were the wines? Well, first a couple of caveats. No one is going to send a bad wine to an event like this even if some questionable wines are made. And I might have cheated a little bit — there were too many wines to taste them all so I let the winery recommendations from Jancis’ and Linda’s book steer me to particular labels in many cases.

Wine Thanksgiving

And as with any tasting, we liked some of the wines better than others. But I would say that overall the quality of the wines we tasted was impressive and they can make us proud of American wine. There was something to enjoy at each table and several of the wines really surprised and delighted us.

Choose well, Americans, and your local wine (or in any case an American wine) will be the highlight of your Thanksgiving table — something we all can give thanks for!

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Thanksgiving update: Our wines were

Appetizers: NV Domaine Ste Michelle Columbia Valley  Brut sparkling wine

Turkey dinner: 2006 Boedecker Cellars “Stewart” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

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Here is a list of wines presented by the regional wine groups present at the Great American festival. Click here to see all of the participants, including individual winery representatives not on the list below. Thanks to the Great American Wine Festival for their hospitality and to everyone we met at the tasting. Keep up the great work!

COLORADO WINE

Boulder Creek: 2011 Cabernet Franc

Canyon Wind Cellars: 2012 Anemoi Apeilotes

Carlson Vineyards: 2012 Cougar Run Dry Gewürztraminer

Colorado West: 2012 Elks Gewürztraminer

Ruby Trust Cellars: 2011 Gunslinger

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COLUMBIA GORGE WINEGROWERS ASSOCIATION

Cathedral Ridge Winery: 2010 Cabernet Reserve

Cathedral Ridge Winery: 2012 Riesling

Jacob Williams Winery: 2012 Chardonnay

Jacob Williams Winery: 2009 Syrah

Memaloose Winery: 2011 Cabernet Franc

Memaloose Winery: 2012 Trevitt’s White

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IDAHO WINE COMMISSION

Cinder Wines: 2012 Dry Viognier

Clearwater Canyon Cellars: 2009 Renaissance Red

Koenig Vineyards: 2010 Syrah

Ste. Chapelle: Soft Huckleberry

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Livermore Valley Wine Country

Concannon Vineyard: 2010 Conservancy, Cabernet Sauvignon

Garre Vineyard & Winery: 2009 Primitivo

John Evan Cellars: 2010 The Paracelcian, Cabernet Sauvignon

Las Positas Vineyards: 2009 Casa de Vinas, Cabernet Sauvignon

Little Valley Winery: 2010 Tempranillo

Longevity Wines: 2012 Livermore Valley, Chardonnay

McGrail Vineyards & Winery: 2010 McGrail Reserve,Cabernet Sauvignon

Murrieta’s Well: 2012 The Whip, White Blend

Nottingham Cellars: 2011 Casa de Vinas, Petite Sirah

Retzlaff Estate Winery: 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon

Tamas Estates: 2010 Double Decker Red (blend)

Wente Family Estates: 2012 Morning Fog, Chardonnay

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 MARYLAND WINE

Basignani: 2007 Lorenzino Reserve, Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc

Big Cork Vineyards: 2012 Chardonnay

Big Cork Vineyards: 2012 Late Harvest Vidal

Boordy Vineyards: 2012 Dry Rose, Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Syrah & Petit Verdot

Boordy Vineyards: 2010 Cabernet Franc, Reserve, Eastern grown Cabernet Franc

Crow Vineyard and Winery: 2012 Barbera Rose, Barbera, Vidal

Elk Run: 2011 Syrah

Knob Hall Winery: 2012 Willow, Traminette, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Vidal Blanc

Knob Hall Winery: 2011 White Oak, Chardonnay, Traminette, Vidal

Old Westminster Winery: 2012 Chardonnay

Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard: 2010 EVOE!, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cab Sauvignon

2011 Columbia Valley Viognier

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MISSOURI WINES

Hermanhoff Winery: 2010 Vidal

Les Bourgeois Winery: 2011 Premium Claret

Montelle Winery: 2012 Chambourcin

Montelle Winery: 2012 Dry Vignoles

St. James Winery: 2009 Norton

St. James Winery: 2012 State Park Seyval Blanc

Stone Hill Winery: 2012 Chardonel

Stone Hill Winery: 2011 Chambourcin

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OKLAHOMA GRAPE GROWERS & WINEMAKERS ASSOCIATION

Chapel Creek Winery: 2012 Oklahoma Tempranillo

Chapel Creek Winery: 2011 Oklahoma Norton

Coquelicot Vineyard: 2010 Estate Sangiovese

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SANTA BARBARA COUNTY VINTNERS’ ASSOCIATION

Dragonette Cellars: 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon

Dierberg/Star Lane: 2011 Dierberg Chardonnay

Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard: 2012 Fess Parker Santa Barbara County Chardonnay

Foxen Winery: 2012 Pinot Noir

Hitching Post: 2008 Hitching Post Pinot Noir Perfect Set Sta. Rita Hills

Lafond Winery: 2011 Pinot Noir AVA Sta. Rita Hills

Lucas & Lewellen: 2008 Cabernet Franc

Refugio Ranch Vineyards: 2010 Barbareno, Santa Ynez Valley – Syrah / Petite Sirah

Santa Barbara Winery: 2012 Chardonnay AVA SB County

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SOUTHERN OREGON WINERY ASSOCIATION

Agate Ridge Vineyard Ledger-David Cellars

Cliff Creek Cellars Plaisance Ranch

Deer Creek Winery RoxyAnn Winery

Del Rio Vineyards & Winery Serra Vineyard

Devitt Winery TesoAria Vineyard & Winery

EdenVale Winery Trium Vineyard & Winery

Kriselle Cellars

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VIRGINA WINE

Barboursville Vineyards: 2012 Viognier Reserve

Rappahannock Cellars: 2010 Meritage

Rappahannock Cellars: 2012 Viognier

Tarara Winery: 2012 Nevaeh Red

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THE WINE ROAD NORTHERN SONOMA COUNTY

Alexander Valley Vineyards: – 2009 CYRUS

Alexander Valley Vineyards: 2010 Sin Zin

Silver Oak Cellars: 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Stonestreet Winery: 2011 Gravel Bench Chardonnay and Broken Road Chardonnay

Trione Vineyards and Winery: 2012 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Trione Vineyards and Winery: 2010 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Twomey Cellars: 2011 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

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