Recent columns by two of my favorite writers — Eric Asimov and Simon Kuper — provoke a brief rant about globalization (and its discontents).
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
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?
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.
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.
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!
Special thanks to Wine-Searcher editor Rebecca Gibb for her help.
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.
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 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.
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!
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
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!
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
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
IDAHO WINE COMMISSION
Cinder Wines: 2012 Dry Viognier
Clearwater Canyon Cellars: 2009 Renaissance Red
Koenig Vineyards: 2010 Syrah
Ste. Chapelle: Soft Huckleberry
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
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
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
OKLAHOMA GRAPE GROWERS & WINEMAKERS ASSOCIATION
Chapel Creek Winery: 2012 Oklahoma Tempranillo
Chapel Creek Winery: 2011 Oklahoma Norton
Coquelicot Vineyard: 2010 Estate Sangiovese
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
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
Barboursville Vineyards: 2012 Viognier Reserve
Rappahannock Cellars: 2010 Meritage
Rappahannock Cellars: 2012 Viognier
Tarara Winery: 2012 Nevaeh Red
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
A shipment of four Chilean Sauvignon Blancs arrives at our door (courtesy of Wines of Chile) along with a request to see how they paired with seafood. That’s the kind of challenge that we like, so we called our friends Cynthia Howson and Pierre Ly and organized a dinner tasting.
The conversation was stimulating, with Pierre and Cynthia exchanging tales of their wine research in China (which has been reported here at the Wine Economist) and their WSET classes for news of our recent travels in Idaho and Australia. Then we got down to business with the food and wine.
For appetizers I decided to focus on wines from the coastal areas and the pairings were very successful. The Santa Carolina Leyda Estate Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2013 was good on its own but fabulous with a rich smoked salmon dip. And the Los Vascos Casablanca Sauvignon Blanc 2012 that we have enjoyed before was even better with fresh oysters from nearby Hood Canal and white prawns.
For the main course I selected the wines from the central valley and Andes foothill areas. The minerality of these wines (Calcu Colchagua Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2012 and Santa Ema Select Terroir Maipo Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2012) really stood up to and enhanced a special brodetto (a seafood stew from Romagna) made with Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s recipe from The Splendid Table cookbook.
The meal was great (especially topped off with Sue’s raspberry-currant crostata) and the Sauvignon Blanc-seafood pairings really worked.
Taken as a group these were the best Chilean Sauvignon Blancs yet — an indication that perhaps Decanter reviewers were right when they said that Chilean wines just get better every year as site selection is fine tuned and the winegrowing and winemaking techniques continue to improve. Significantly, the wines were not carbon copies — either of other wine regions (think Marlborough SB) or of each other — we appreciated the diversity as much as the overall quality.
Four wines can’t possibly tell the whole story of a complicated wine country like Chile. But if these four are representative of the kind of Sauvignon Blancs being made there today, I think Chile has finally arrived!
Thanks to Emily Denton of the thomas collective for arranging this tasting. Thanks to Pierre and Cynthia for their help and to Sue for the photos.
Everyone we met in Idaho was keen on the potential of this sometimes overlooked wine region but at the same time aware that greater success — in terms of sales, recognition, and premium prices — is far from guaranteed.
Idaho, as I discussed in last week’s column, is unique in many respects, but it is typical of emerging American wine regions in that it is searching for the key that will unlock the latent potential of the people and the land.
Idaho Wine Surprises
One thing that surprised me was the vitality of the local wine market. Although Idaho has wine roots going back to the 1860s, the industry and the local wine culture was destroyed by Prohibition and was slow to recover afterward even by American standards.
Boise — the state capital and largest city — has changed enormously since I first visited over 30 years ago. The downtown now boasts both a Whole Foods Market and a Trader Joe’s — a sure sign that there is a critical mass of resident upscale consumers — and the wine department of the Boise Co-op supermarket grew so large that it took over a nearby building (it was crowded with interesting wines from Idaho and the world and buzzing with activity when we visited).
Pluses and Minuses
Boise impressed me as quite cosmopolitan. We had lunch on the Basque Block, for example, a cluster of Basque restaurants, social clubs and community center. Boise celebrates the cultural diversity that its Basque community brings and is working to strengthen ties (including wine connections) with the Old World. A group of local winemakers recently traveled to Spain to exchange ideas with wine people there, which seems like a great idea given the success some wineries are having with Tempranillo. A lot of pluses here.
And some minuses, too. Idaho wine is not well known outside the region and this is a disadvantage for those with national ambitions for their wines although obviously less of a factor if you define your market territory carefully to include the mountain states and parts of the Pacific Northwest.
Focused effort seems to be what is needed. Greg Koenig looks to be on the verge of success in China, for example, where buyers may not know where Idaho is but they understand what he has to offer — delicious Snake River Valley Riesling Ice Wine!
Building Brand Idaho
The economic structure of the Idaho industry is not ideal with big dog Ste Chapelle dwarfing the rest of the industry. It would be great if Ste Chapelle were to play a hegemonic role, working to grow markets and develop the supply chain for all of Idaho wine the way that Chateau Ste Michelle did for Washington wine in that industry’s early days. Or at least that’s what I was thinking before my visit.
But these are different times and Idaho is a different place. Ste Chapelle is part of the dynamic Precept Wine group which has important wine assets in Washington, Oregon and Idaho and competes in a market environment where important new players (Gallo in Washington and Kendall Jackson in Oregon) have recently entered. Ste Chapelle must necessarily act as part of an ensemble, not as a solo performer, and while I think that great success is possible for the winery itself, it might not necessarily be able to pull the rest of Idaho wine along with it. The smaller wineries need to make their own paths and they seem to realize this fact.
I noticed that some of the new Ste Chapelle “soft” releases were designated “American Wine” even though they are for now at least made using only Idaho grapes. This will help the Ste Chapelle brand if and when they scale up production using fruit from other areas, but it doesn’t promote Brand Idaho. Not a criticism, because I understand the business logic, but true nonetheless. On the other hand, however, it must be said that the Idaho wine industry would be much less vital without Precept’s key vineyard investments, which provide grapes for many smaller producers.
What will it take to bring Idaho wine to the next level? Well, I’m tempted to say that a big critical success would do it and high scores certainly help. The quality of the best wines makes strong ratings more than a dream (and in the case of a few wines, already a reality). But the market is very crowded right now and my winemaker friends tell me that even 90+ scores don’t always have the impact on prices and sales that they would like.
Wine tourism is another strategy that holds promise. The Sunnyslope area is a short drive from Boise and a wine trail is in place although it is hampered a bit by state restrictions on signage that limit the ability of individual wineries to direct buyers to their tasting rooms. Visitors from adjacent states represent an obvious marketing opportunity that effective wine tourism promotion could enhance.
New investment in vineyard assets would be welcomed hereabouts, as I wrote last week. But what will it take to get major vineyard investments that would fill the barrels and bottles that Idaho winemakers long to produce? Well, it’s complicated of course. From a strictly economic point of view the situation is that land must be worth more as a vineyard than at its next best alternative use — orchard, pasture or residential development — and this isn’t always the case.
Idaho wines are often a bargain given their quality and tend to sell for much less than the Walla Walla wines that some makers compare them to. This helps sell the wines, but it also limits vineyard growth. Low wine prices dictate low grape prices, which means low vineyard land valuation.
An economic impact statement prepared in 2008 projected that the number of Idaho wineries would continue to grow from 11 in 2002 to 38 in 2008 to 78 in 2015. The current number is around 50, much less than that estimate, and the number of vineyard acres has probably declined a bit from the 2008 level. Is this just an understandable (given the Great Recession) pause in the upward trend or has the industry plateaued?
Too soon to tell, really, but I am cautiously optimistic. The land is there and the people, too, both thoughtful consumers and smart, hand-working producers. I sense a new energy in America’s regional wine industries (this energy was captured in the book American Wine by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy). Idaho’s time will come.
Here’s a list of some wineries from our visit. Sorry that we didn’t have time to visit others!
Fujishin Family Wine Cellars
Hat Ranch Winery
Ste Chapelle Winery
Telaya Wine Co.
We spent a weekend in the Idaho wine country last month and I’m still trying to make sense of the experience. It seems like every time I think I know what Idaho wine is I shift my ground a little bit and see something new and usually something different.
So the view keeps changing. Rather than trying to ignore this problem, I thought I’d make it the theme of this column.
Snake River Valley Views
Let’s start with the natural elements. The main vineyard area in Idaho winds along the Snake River and some of the views are spectacular — the photo above taken from Bitner Vineyards shows one of the best.
The vineyards reach down towards the river and the slope is key both because these hillsides provide a natural solar-collector effect (the area is called Sunnyslope), but also because cold air drainage is an important factor in preventing frost damage to the crop and freeze damage to the vines.
The view shifts when you move along a few miles. This region is a high desert plateau. A lot of the land is pancake flat, ideal for many crops but not necessarily wine grapes, especially given the cold issues. Rainfall is surprisingly sparse here so access to irrigation water is key.
Although Idaho shares borders with both Washington and Oregon, there’s no question that its wine industry is more Columbia Valley than Willamette Valley. This might seem obvious since the Snake River joins the Columbia River on its way to the Pacific Ocean, but it’s mainly because they share that dry plateau feature.
No sense looking for a “signature variety” in Idaho as they do (in Pinot Noir) in Oregon. No, Idaho is more like Washington — lots of grapes can thrive here (in the right spots) and lots of interesting wines are possible. A blessing from a winemaker standpoint and a bit of a curse from a marketing point of view. Riesling to Tempranillo and lots of options in between.
Big Dog Ste Chapelle
From an economic point of view, on the other hand, Idaho is a world of big and small without too much in between. This is also a bit like Washington state wine, where Ste Michelle Wine Estates (including Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Crest, 14 Hands and other wineries) dominates making more than half of all the state’s wine. Ste Chapelle is the big dog in Idaho to an even greater extent producing a total of about 300,000 cases of wine under the Ste Chapelle label plus other brands.
Ste Chapelle is part of the Precept Wine group these days, having been bought and sold several times since it was founded in the 1970s as the U.S. wine business went through consolidation and then financial crisis. I think there is a sense that the stability that Precept can provide is welcome after some years of drama. The largest privately held wine company in the Pacific Northwest, Precept controls half of Idaho’s vineyard acreage (variously estimated at 1200-1500 acres) in addition to its assets in Washington and Oregon.
Ste Chapelle makes several lines of wine. Their “soft” (read sweetish) wines are technically well made and perfectly in line with current sweet red and moscato-style market trends. The soft red and a soft pink wine with a subtle huckleberry flavor are the top selling wine SKUs in the state, crowding out the California “usual suspects.”
Ste Chapelle also makes smaller (but still substantial) quantities of dry wines, including 40,000 cases a year of an off-dry Riesling that nearly stole the show at Riesling Rendezvous this year. And they produce Precept’s wildly popular Chocolate Shop and Almond Roca wines at their facility.
Limits to Growth
If Idaho is the land of the big it is also a world of small. From 300,000 case Ste Chapelle we drop sharply down to 12,000 – 15,000 case Sawtooth (also a Precept Wine brand) and Greg Koenig’s operation of about the same capacity, where he makes his own products as well as those of four other wineries including Bitner. That’s a big gap between #1 and the rest in terms of size and market penetration. Not too many of the remaining 40+ wineries in the state have total production as high as 5000 cases.
What limits growth? Well, you have to sell what you make, so market demand is an obvious factor. But I got the strong sense from several winemakers that they could sell more if they could make more. Vineyard capacity is a real roadblock.
While they were glad to be able to purchase fruit from the Precept group’s 400 acre Skyline vineyard, they needed even more. Land surveys indicate that there are many good sites that could contribute to the industry’s growth if only new investors would enter the region.
Made In (But Not of) Idaho
If Idaho has not attracted as many wine growers as it needs, it certainly has attracted wine makers who see this area as a good place to live and to work. A number of small urban wineries have sprung up as wine enthusiasts from other regions are attracted here and others who have left to establish careers elsewhere return home.
Many of their wines are clearly Idaho products, but we tasted a number of them that were made from grapes imported from Washington, Oregon and even California. The practice of using out-of-state or region grapes or juice is not that uncommon in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon’s largest winery, King Estate, brings in fruit from the Columbia Valley for its NxNW wines, allowing them to produce a more complete portfolio of wine varieties and styles. And the Pamplin Family Winery in the Willamette Valley is one of several that make high quality Bordeaux blend wines using Columbia Valley fruit. And of course most of the grapes used in Seattle-area wineries are trucked over the mountains from Eastern Washington.
Necessity (and limited local grape supply) dictated the use of non-Idaho grapes in some cases, but we met several winemakers who cited passion for a particular style of wine as a driving force. I did a University of Puget Sound alumni program at the Mouvance Winery tasting room while we were in Boise and enjoyed their Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris wines made from the fruit of the family’s own vineyard in Oregon. Pinot passion drives this project and so Idaho grapes just won’t work.
What should we think about Idaho’s cross-border wineries? Well, just like everything else in Idaho wine it depends on your point of view. They certainly do contribute to the critical mass of winemaking that the industry needs to move ahead and clearly help foster what I see as a vibrant emerging wine culture (more about this next week). But I also picked up understandable concern that their efforts didn’t contribute as much as some would like to building the local industry from the ground (the vineyards) up.
Where is Idaho wine headed? My thoughts next week.
Thanks to everyone who met with us during our Idaho visit. Special thanks to Jim and Melissa Thomssen, Ron Bitner, Greg Koenig, Gregg Alger, Maurine Johnson, Moya Shatz Dolsby, and the Idaho Wine Commission. Thanks to Sue Veseth for the photos.
“Restaurant Australia” (the subject of two recent columns) was not the only attempt to re-brand Australian wine that we experienced at Savour Australia 2013. Other groups are busy getting the message out in their own ways using both high tech and “old school” approaches.
We encountered two memorable statements that deepened our understanding and appreciation of Australia and its wines. One had wine-making families tell their stories up close and personal. The other let the wine itself do the talking. Together with the Restaurant Australia campaign they made a compelling case. Here are the details.
Sue and I were fortunate to be invited to a dinner hosted by Australian First Families of Wine and it was an eye-opening experience. The First Families are principals in twelve family-owned Australian wineries that together span the continent’s history, wine regions, and styles.
The member wineries are: Brown Brothers (based in Victoria, founded in 1885), Campbells Wines (Rutherglen, 1870), d’Arenberg (McLaren Vale, 1912), de Bortoli Wines (Victoria and New South Wales, 1928), Henschke (Eden Valley and Adelaide Hills, 1868), Howard Park Wines (Western Australia, 1986), Jim Barry Wines (Clare Valley and Coonawarra, 1959), McWilliam’s Wines (several regions, 1877), Tahbilk (Victoria, 1860), Taylor’s Wines (Clare Valley, 1969), Tyrrell’s Wines (Hunter Valley and other regions, 1858), Yalumba (Barossa and Eden Valley, 1849 — oldest of them all!).
Founded in 2009 (dark days for Brand Australia) this is an exclusive club, as Graeme Lofts explains in his history of these wineries, Heart & Soul: Australia’s First Families of Wine. What do they have in common? Australia, of course, and family ownership plus the longevity to be able to offer a vertical tasting of at least 20 vintages. Some are very large and others relatively small, but they are all top quality producers with a multi-generation point of view.
They are all export focused, too, and so naturally worry about how their wines in particular and Australian wines more generally are viewed by global consumers, especially those in China and other growing markets. James Halliday writes in the book’s foreword that “The underlying rationale for the formation of Australia’s First Families of Wine was the realization that export markets had either lost sight of or had no way of knowing about Australia’s rich history, its diverse regional and wine styles, and the fierce personal commitment of the best winemakers to the production of high-quality wines true to their variety and geographical origin.”
Medium and Message
The idea was to provide counterpoint to the stereotype of Australian wines abroad, according to Halliday. “The wines have none of the corporate or industrial aroma attached (no matter how unjustly) to the brands produced by the largest Australian producers.”
So how do the First Families make their case? Not by relying on flash websites and streaming video, as effective as they can be. If the medium is the message, those media might send the wrong message about these fine wines.
No, in fact, they do it the hard way, the old school way. The families (all of them, or at least representatives of each and every one) travel to key markets and host dinners and events like the one we attended. There is real wine in real glasses, real people tell their stories and make their case. These are family wineries, you see, and family is always personal. So the message is personal and the medium must be the same.
I was impressed by the commitment. There were no empty First Family places at our dinner despite the group’s recent return from a grueling round of more than a dozen events in East Asia. The show must go on, as they say in the theater, and they seemed to draw energy from their audience, their mission, and each other. Quite an experience!
Yalumba Museum Tasting
The second effort to define Australian wine was necessarily even smaller and more focused, but the impact may still be substantial. Yalumba’s proprietor Robert Hill Smith (who was also at the First Families dinner) invited a few of us to The Old Lion Cellar & Tunnels in Adelaide to take part in a special tasting of museum wines.
Our meeting was only the 24th in a series that began in 1977. Initially the focus was internal, I’m told, to let Australia’s young winemakers taste some of the very best wines across both time and space and be informed and inspired by them. A sure cure for “cellar palate” complacency!
Gradually the focus has evolved and it was clear that our tasting was meant for export — to leave a strong impression on Savour Australia 2013’s international delegates. And it (plus Robert Hill Smith’s engaging personality and a bit of excellent cuisine) certainly did the trick. Scroll down to see the list of wines we sampled.
Australia Three Ways
Restaurant Australia aims to use the power of modern media to cast a spell on consumers that will entice them to experience Australian food, Australian wine and … Australia! It targets the big global stage and seems well suited to its role.
Australia’s First Family of Wines is a more personal experience that lets a dozen families speak for the nation’s fine wine. It’s a different stage (an intimate theater versus a huge IMAX screen) and a different audience, but powerfully effective because of that.
The Yalumba tasting, for those of us lucky to experience it, is the ultimate personal experience — a conversation where the wines literally speak for themselves, telling stores of the past and present with implications for the future.
Taken together, these efforts make a strong statement about Australian wines! Here — because I can’t resist sharing them — are the wines of the Yalumba tasting. Enjoy!
- Pewsey Vale “The Contours” Eden Valley Riesling 2002
- Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 1973
- Yalumba Riesling 1938
- Yalumba “The Virgilius” Eden Valley Viognier 2010
- Yalumba “The Virgilius” Eden Valley Viognier 2007
- Yalumba “The Virgilius” Eden Valley Viognier 2003
- Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2010
- Vasse Felix Heytesbury Margaret River Chardonnay 2008
- Heggies Vineyard Reserve Eden Valley Chardonnay 2006
Shiraz — Eden Valley
- Henschke Hill of Grace Eden Valley Shiraz 2006
- Henschke Hill of Grace Eden Valley Shiraz 2004
- Henschke Hill of Grace Eden Valley Shiraz 2002
Shiraz – Clare Valley
- Jim Barry “The Armagh” Shiraz Clare Valley 2006
- Jim Barry “The Armagh” Shiraz Clare Valley 1994
- Jim Barry “The Armagh” Shiraz Clare Valley 1989
- Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
- Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
- Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2001
Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz
- Yalumba “The Signature” Barossa Cabernet Shiraz – The 3 Amigos 2004
- Yalumba “The Signature” Barossa Cabernet Shiraz – A. “Eddy” Waechter 1992
- Yalumba “The Signature” Barossa Cabernet Shiraz – A Harold Yates 1966
- Yalumba Shiraz Port No. 9 1922
Special thanks to Robert Hill Smith for including us in the museum tasting. Thanks as well to the First Families, especially Victor De Bortoli, Prue and Stephen Henschke, Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg and Tom Barry.