Saving our Skins: French Vineyard Dreams (and Reality)

Caro Feely, Saving our Skins: Building a Vineyard Dream in France. Summersdale Publishers, 2014.

Caro Feely, Grape Expectations: A Family’s Vineyard Adventure in France. Summersdale Publishers, 2012.

Caro Feely is an economist and a dreamer and so there was bound to be a bit of cognitive dissonance when she and her husband Sean and their two daughters pulled up stakes in Dublin and moved to Saussignac to grow grapes, make wine and live the dream instead of just dreaming it.

The Vines Aren’t the Only Ones that are Stressed!

Cognitive dissonance? Yes, that’s the stress that you feel when you try to believe two contradictory things at the same time and there cannot be two thoughts that are much more in contradiction than the idea of taking over a dilapidated house and run down vineyard and cellar and making great wine and the notion that you will be able to pay the bills and support a family in the process.

The easiest way to make a small fortune in wine is to start with a big one, they say, and the Feely fortune was not all that big to begin with. Stress? Yes, lots of stress.  And two fine books, too.

I’m not quite sure if Feely’s 2012 book Grape Expectations was written as a creative outlet, a cheap form of therapy or to generate an additional revenue stream, but it is a delightful book that I recommend to all my friends. Feely tells her family’s story and the book could be placed on a shelf along with Under the Tuscan Sun or A Year in Provence because of its ability to give all of us a peek at expat daily life in a suitably romantic setting,

More Than Just a Good Story

But while there’s enough romance in Feely’s book to make it attractive to someone looking for an escape, it is the reality of her situation that appeals most to me. Besides telling a good story about her family’s experiences she also teaches us a great deal about the arts and craft of winegrowing and the economics of the wine business, with its peculiar challenges and opportunities.

I enjoyed Grape Expectations enormously, so I couldn’t wait for the sequel, Saving our Skins, which is released this month.  The Feely saga continues in the new book, but with a twist. Having survived their first vintages with their marriage, home and business intact, Caro and Sean take the possibly fatal step of pushing things to a new extreme.  They decide to go biodynamic. Yikes!

Biodynamics brings with it a new set of cognitive dissonant stresses and strains, which is tough on the Feelys who must struggle through them but good news for us, because we get to pleasantly continue our wine-growing and wine business educations.

Both books are highly recommended. Great summer (or anytime) reading.

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This video leans toward the romantic side more than the books do, but it does let you view the Feely’s property. Sean is the fellow with long hair, Caro has short hair and glasses. Look closely for their daughters. Click here to read about their winery and wines.

Wine and Identity: Branding, Heritage and Terroir — a review

Matt Harvey, Leanne White and Warwick Frost (editors), Wine and Identity: Branding, heritage, terroir. Routledge, 2014.

The premise of this interesting collection of academic papers is that the global wine market is highly competitive and rapidly changing and, in this dynamic environment, identity has become an increasingly important factor in the way that wine is thought about, experienced and especially how it is marketed.

Harvey, White and Frost, Australian professors of law, marketing and tourism respectively, analyze wine and identity in terms of heritage, branding and terroir — three flexible but useful “created” concepts.

You might think that heritage and terroir are historical and natural phenomena whereas brands are manufactured by marketers, but when you think about it heritage and terroir are subject to the same story-telling factors as commercial brands and are perhaps more powerful because unlike a created brand they bring with them a sense of authenticity.

Like many others, I see story-telling and identity as key to wine in the 21st century, so I was excited to receive this volume and I find it well-written, interesting and wholly worthwhile. I think anyone who wants to understand wine a bit better will find something useful here.

Each of the 18 chapters presents a relatively brief introduction to an interesting topic — enough to whet the appetite for more research and raise some thoughtful questions. Chapters that I found interesting include a comparison of wine heritage in California and Victoria (Australia), two regions with a great deal in common besides their wine, a comparison of wine in the “emerging” markets of Malaysia and the United States that made me rethink what I thought I knew about the U.S., and heritage and tourism in the Barossa Valley examined through case studies of Penfolds and Jacobs Creek, two wineries now owned by multinational firms.

I also enjoyed chapters on identity as expressed through winery architecture and an unexpected analysis of online “terroir.” There was something to like in every chapter, although as with every collected papers volume some parts will be more interesting to any given reader than others and the heritage-branding-terroir theme sometimes gets lost.

The authors of the chapters are appropriately multinational — Australia, New Zealand, France, Canada, Brazil, Georgia, Slovenia, the UK and South Africa are represented. Well worth reading. Part of the Routledge series on gastronomy, food and drink.

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Note: Since I am an economist, I have to mention cost. Academic books like this are expensive for personal purchases. You might see if your local library has a copy or can borrow one for you.

 

Enthralled by Wine Wars! Jerry Lockspeiser’s Review

I was surprised to discover a nice review of my books Wine Wars and Extreme Wine penned by Jerry Lockspeiser when I checked the Harpers.co.uk website this morning.

The column is titled “Jerry Lockeiser is enthralled by the wine business insights of Mike Veseth.” Wow!

Thanks to Jerry for his kind words and gentle critique. Click on the link above to read the review.

 

Mostosa the Debt-Slayer: Exploring the Native Wine Grapes of Italy

Ian D’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy. University of California Press, 2014.

I really didn’t think there was much left to be said about wine grape varieties after Jancis Robinson and her team published Wine Grapes, their magisterial analysis of 1365 different grape varieties. (There’s a nifty Kindle version of this 2012 volume available now for you e-Book fans.)

Been There, Done That?

So I was skeptical when this big book arrived in the mail — it looked like a lot of pages and text given that the subject is just one country, even one as viticulturally complicated as Italy. Was there really enough new and interesting to justify adding a volume like this to my already-groaning wine bookshelf.

Well, I am pleased to say that I was wrong to be such a skeptic and that I find Ian D’Agata’s just released book to be detailed, interesting and original and I recommend to anyone interested in Italian wines or the topic of native wine grapes generally. It is a seriously fascinating read.

The book begins with two chapters that set the stage then drills down through the layers  starting with major grape groups and families (familiar names to most of us), moving on to major native and traditional grape varieties (less familiar names here), “little known” (not lesser or minor) grape varieties, and then by a brief chapter on “crossings.”

Italy Beyond the Usual Suspects

Suspicious of how much there might be to learn, I started with three grape varieties that I know pretty well and have written about, Pignoletto from Emilia-Romanga, Lacrima from Marche and Piedmont’s Ruché. Reading through the entries was a humbling experience because there was so much more to know about these grapes and the wines produced from them than I ever imagined.

The grape variety entries are detailed and very personal, which makes them a pleasure to read, with notes about specific producers and occasional specific wine recommendation. The notes on the major grape varieties such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are particularly detailed and informative, as you would expect, but what about the less-known grapes?

Well, there are dozens of them analyzed here, so I decided to try to narrow the focus be reading only the entries for grapes from Emilia-Romagna —  I am somewhat less ignorant of this region than other parts of Italy because I lived for a time in Bologna when I taught at the Johns Hopkins center there.

Mostosa the Debt-Slayer

The list of little known grapes from this area was still very long and in some cases just a few rows of vines remained.  D’Agata treats each carefully and occasionally pleads for someone to step in and save a promising grape variety from extinction. Obviously one purpose of the book is to raise awareness of these grapes and the wines made from them and to support those who seek to preserve them.

My favorite “lesser known” grape variety? It has to be Mostosa, so named it is said because of the large quantities of must (mosto) that it produces and the large quantities of wine that result. A productive grape, you might say, and perhaps for that reason is sometimes associated with a wine known as Pagadebit (debt-payer).  Fine wine or Chateau Cash Flow? I’ve gotta get back to Bologna to find out.

D’Agata’s book caught me by surprise and has earned a place on this skeptic’s wine book wall. I can’t wait to take it with me to Italy and let it guide me to some fascinating new experiences.

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If you find this interesting you might want to check out De Long’s Wine Map of Italy – beautiful and informative.

Silver Anniversary Celebration: How Wine Has Changed Since 1989

Robert Parker, Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide (New Edition 1989-1990). Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Our friends were married in 1989 and recently celebrated their silver anniversary with a dinner party where almost all of the wines were 1989s from their cellar (plus a few bottles from their children’s birth years). What a treat! I’ll paste a photo of some  of the wines we enjoyed at the end of this post to give you an idea of what a great time we had.

1989 and All That

To paraphrase a famous football coach, wine isn’t like life, it is life, so wine and life’s celebrations are natural partners and our very small gift to the happy couple was an autographed copy of the 1989 edition of Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide.  I hope that what the book says about how wine has grown and changed over the last 25 years will inspire them to consider how their relationship has deepened and matured like a great wine!

I couldn’t part with the book without looking at it myself — just a quick glance to see what Parker wrote about and how — not the detailed analysis of the individual winery and wine entries that would yield the greatest insights. Here’s what I found.

What’s changed since 1989? Well, you won’t be surprised to know that prices have done up. Parker rates each wine with a point score out of 100 (his signature rating system) and an alphabetical price indicator. A = Inexpensive (less than $8) to E = luxury (in excess of $50).  The 1984 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon receives 96 points and a D ($25-$50) for example. The Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab cost only C ($15-$25) — I should have put some of that away!

It is interesting to see how the world wine map has broadened in 25 years. The sections on the Wines of Western Europe is very complete, as you would expect, with France, Germany, Italy Spain and Portugal well represented.  A section on The Best of the Rest includes Australia (of course), and briefer discussions of Argentina, Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, New Zealand, Switzerland,  the UK and Yugoslavia.

It would be hard to make a list like this today without including Austria, South Africa and China. Brazil, India, Israel and several other countries would also claim a place in the lineup.

American Wines Everywhere

What about North America? Well it is there, of course (sans Canada, alas), wedged between Europe and the Rest, with about 250 pages of text compared to nearly 550 for Europe. That’s not a bad page count ratio when you consider how much more wine the Europeans produced then and how tiny the US industry was by comparison.

California got 210 of these pages followed by Oregon with about 30 pages. Parker has a particular interest in Oregon wines and is a partner with his brother-in-law at Beaux Frères (Parker does not review these wines because of understandable conflict-of-interest concerns).

I was interested to see what Parker had to say about Washington wines back in 1989, so I turned quickly to the chapter on Other American Viticultural Regions (other than California and Oregon that is). Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, — the list goes on, wine seems to be everywhere in America  – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and then finally Washington!

Washington: Lingering Doubts, Encouraging Signs

“While I still have doubts about the overall quality and potential for Washington state wines,” Parker writes on page 843, “there are some encouraging signs …”.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but probably how many wine people saw the situation at the time. California was obviously important. Oregon, too, because of its Burgundy-like prestige.

Washington? Still needed to prove itself, which I think it quickly did. Washington is now the nation’s #2 wine producer in quantity and challenges California in many areas in terms of quality and reputation. But not in 1989.

In a very brief guide to the state’s best wines, Parker found no Outstanding Chardonnays and just one excellent producer (Hogue). Arbor Crest, Columbia, Chateau Ste Michelle and Zillah Oakes made the cut as Good Producers of Chardonnay.

The best Cabernet Sauvignons? Chateau Ste Michelle’s post-1983 Reserves earned them an Outstanding recommendation. The Chateau’s regular bottling was rated Excellent along with the Columbia “Red Willow” Cab and wines from Latah Creek, Leonetti and Woodward Canyon. Six wineries received the Good score, including Quilceda Creek, which is since earned cult wine status.

While we know that Parker thought the 1985 Pinot Noir Reserve from The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon was worth an 89 score and cost a C amount, we have no numerical rating or tasting note data on any individual Washington wine at all.

Much has changed since 1989 as Parker’s book  makes clear, but a lot has stayed the same, too. Many of the great wine producers of the world have aged and developed as gracefully as the 1989 wines we had with dinner. New wineries, regions, styles and varieties have emerged. Wine was great in 1989, as Parker’s guide tells us. It is even better now, don’t you think!

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Jamie Goode’s New Book: Second Thoughts on Wine Science

Jamie Goode, The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass 2/e. University of California Press, 2014.

Jamie Goode’s 2005 book on The Science of Wine is one of my favorites — I’ve read it from cover to cover twice and I dip back in all the time to research specific topics. It seems like there is always more to learn and I enjoy Goode’s teaching style.

I was excited to receive a copy of the new edition and to see what’s new in this important field and how much of a revision the new book represents.

Vineyard to Cellar to Your Glass

The basic organization of the earlier edition is preserved. We begin “In the Vineyard,” move on “In the Winery” and finish with “Our Interaction with Wine” (these are the titles of the main sections of the book — I have copied the Tables of Contents of both volumes below for your reference.

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Table of Contents — 2014 edition

 

Once you drill down, however, the extent of the revisions become clear. New chapters replace some of the old ones (the chapter on GM vines is gone, with a new one on Phylloxera and ungrafted vines in its place) and there is much new wine in the old chapter bottles as Goode identifies new issues, reports new research, and brings in new perspectives.

Goode was still working his “day job” as a science editor when the original book appeared. Since then he has embraced wine writing as a full-time occupation and this book reflects his more intense focus as well as the many wine industry people he has met in his global travels. His interviews with them contribute to the analysis throughout.

Substitutes or Complements?

One thing that hasn’t changed from the first edition (a legacy of Goode’s editor days) is his clear and interesting writing style, even when things get quite technical, as they sometimes must in a book like this. One of Goode’s go-to methods is to identify an issue and then pick it apart by asking questions and answering them. Simple, but effective. You always know what he is talking about and why. Clear, direct — a good model for writing on any topic.

I read the second edition over the course of a couple of long air flights and like the first edition it held my interest all the way. But I think  it will be especially valuable as a reference book that you pull off the shelf as you try to answer troublesome questions or get up to speed on research quickly.

Both books are valuable, but does the second edition replace the first or complement it? I’m not sure. I was going to give my first edition away, but now I’m thinking about keeping it, since some issues in the old volume are not discussed in as much depth in the new. And I think it will be useful on some issues to compare and contrast the two volumes to analyze how Goode’s thinking (and the research that backs it up) changed over time. Highly recommended!

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Table of Contents – 2005 Edition

Has Tom Stevenson Written the World’s Most Useful Wine Buying Guide?

Tom Stevenson, Buy the Right Wine Every Time: The no-fuss no-vintage wine guide. Sterling Epicure, 2014.

Has Tom Stevenson written the world’s most useful wine buying guide? Well it depends upon which part of the wine world you are talking about. If you are trying to figure out which of the famous Classification of 1855 first-growth Bordeaux wines to lay down to drink in 2034 or to buy en primeur for future auction sale, then no. This is not the book for you. It will do  you absolutely no good. Save your money!

If, on the other hand, you live in the world of the beginning or early-intermediate wine consumer, then this just might be the best book I have seen for you. And it comes from an unlikely author, because I associate Tom Stevenson more with the rarefied atmosphere of the one percent than the gritty world of the 99 percent (he’s an expert on fine Champagne, for example, and writes for The World of Fine Wine) .

White Zinfandel? Really? (Well, Why Not?)

Reading the preface, Stevenson seems to be as surprised as the rest of us. “When I started this project,” he writes, “I did not imagine in my wildest dreams that I would end up recommending the likes of White Zinfandel or Blossom Hill, let alone White Zinfandel from Blossom Hill.”

The trick, which is difficult to pull off, is to simplify without dumbing-down. Stevenson’s method is to begin by breaking down the world of wine according to certain styles and grape varieties. So far so conventional. Then, within each category, he recommends a short list of wines that meet his three criteria. First, he likes them. You might disagree with his taste because de gustibus is after all non disputandum,  but telling people to try wines that you like makes more sense that pointing them towards stuff that you think they should like.

The second criterion is that the wine must be pretty widely available and not the invisible or imaginary wines that some critics like to praise. Then, finally, the wines must be consistent from year to year so that vintage isn’t the critical factor. Yes, I know this rules out most Red Burgundy wines, but so be it in Stevenson’s book (to be fair, he does actually list a couple of Red Burgundy wines, however.) Beginners have enough trouble finding wines they enjoy without the added complication of vintages, he suggests. Save this for the more advanced wine drinkers. A limiting constraint, but not an unreasonable idea given the target audience.

And so you begin by looking for a style you like or would like to try, Then you find lists of wines in “recommended,” “highly recommended” and “to die for” categories, with rough price ranges supplied. Head to the supermarket or wine shop with this list and you will probably find something to try — or at least that’s the idea.

Onward and Upward

What if you like the wine once you get home? Well, here is where Stevenson earns his pay. The main part of the book is a collection of profiles of the specific wines he recommends along with “next step” recommendations for each one. Did you enjoy that Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel? What to try something more intense and of better quality? Look for a bottle of Ravenswood Lodi Old Vines Zin! Want something better but a bit less intense? Go for a single vineyard Zinfandel from Ridge. Want to try something completely different in this vein? Look for red wines from Croatia or Primativo from Puglia.

You can argue with the criteria, you can argue with the ratings and you can argue with the specific recommendations — as economists like to say, it is disgusting not to dispute – but I think it is hard to argue with this as a way for people to move forward in their appreciation of wine. Imagine a wine tasting club that took this book as their guide for weekly tasting. I think they could rather effectively advance their appreciation of wine within a year without breaking the collective budget — and this strategy could be successful even in parts of America that because of regulatory constraints are poorly served by the wine retail trade.

There are lots of surprises here until you stop and think and then they make sense. There are a disproportionate number of Washington State wines recommended, for example, which makes sense since they are very both good (Stevenson must like them) and widely distributed. Lots of wines by “big vat” producers like Gallo, too. The Cabernet Sauvignon list includes Alamos, Louis Martini, Gallo Family Vineyards, Redwood Creek and Turning Leaf brands, all of which come from the Gallo portfolio.  And a great many wines from Australia, just to remind you that while these wines may have fallen from fashion a bit but they continue to be both good to drink and good values.

Dead Ends, First Steps, More Surprises

I was also surprised to find Stevenson did not list any top-rated “to die for” wines in some categories and then  left out the merely “recommended” category in others. The reason? Well I suppose that the real “too die for” Sauvignon Blancs are either too hard to find or too subject to vintage variation. On the other hand, there are so many great and reliable Riesling wines in the market (starting with the “to die for” selections: Pewsey Vale The Contours and Jacob’s Creek Steingarten) that there is no reason to dip down below the “Highly Recommended” part of the list (indeed, the inexpensive Chateau Ste Michelle Dry Riesling listed here is a mighty nice glass of wine!).

So what about that unexpected recommendation of the Blossom Hill White Zinfandel? It’s a perfectly decent wine, Stevenson writes, technically well made and consistent — no reason why someone shouldn’t drink it if they like that style. But then they should take a few steps up or over and see what they think. Maybe try a Kir made with Moscato DdAsti with a bit of Cassis for color if you want something more intense. Or perhaps try a dry Rosé from the Rhone or a Rosado from Navarro if you’d like a bit more elegance. Something different? How about Riesling?

Seen in this way, the White Zin isn’t so much a dead end destination as the first step on a journey. And Stevenson gives you the  outline of  a map to guide you. Who knows where it could lead?

I was surprised by this book — very pleasantly surprised as you can probably tell — and I am happy to recommend it. It would make a great gift for that younger or newer wine drinker in your family or group. And you might enjoy reading it yourself before gifting it on.

Has Tom Stevenson written the best wine guide ever? Can’t say — it’s too much a matter of taste and circumstance. But it is a very useful addition to the wine guide bookshelf.

Two New Wine Guides: The Hedgehog and the Fox

Two new wine guides have appeared just in time for the holiday wine-book-gift-giving season. Informative and interesting, they present us with two very different ways to think about wine and buying it. Perfect for a comparative review!

The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine by Jeff Siegel (a.k.a. The Wine Curmudgeon) 2013 (also available as Kindle e-book).,

Complete Wine Selector: How to Choose the Right Wine Every Time by Katherine Cole, 2013.

These books remind me of the parable of the hedgehog and the fox that served as the inspiration for one of Isaiah Berlin’s best known essays. The fox knows many things, the story goes. But the hedgehog knows One Big Thing!

The Complete Wine Fox

Complete Wine Selector is the fox in this story.  Gosh, it sure does deliver on its promise to be complete. There is just so much useful and interesting information packed these 250+ pages. Sue and I were both impressed.

And it really does focus on choosing wines, providing both general principles and specific recommendations. Cole builds the book around the idea that people should learn about styles of wine and not just focus on varietals, appellations, etc . The ten wine glasses on the book cover represent the ten wine styles that she analyzes in the book, including crisp, lean whites; rich full-bodied whites; light, refreshing reds; sparkling wines and rosés; continuing down the list until we reach fortified wines.

The idea of thinking about wine in terms of style is very useful even if it is not really new. Hugh Johnson stakes a claim to it in his foreword to the book and I have seen many restaurant wine lists that focus on style versus grape or country of origin. There is even a chain of stores called WineStyles organized along these lines.  Cole’s comparative advantage is in the execution of the wine styles strategy, taking us from general principles to specific wines and wine recommendations very effectively.

The final pages of the book present more general background information, such as how wine is made, how it should be served and stored, good places to buy it and so on. Interesting and good to have, but the stories behind those ten glasses on the cover are what you are here for. Like the fox of the famous fable, this book knows many things and organizes them in a way that will delight many readers.

My only real criticism is that the graphic design sometimes seem to overwhelm the book’s content, although I acknowledge that some readers (especially those under 30 years of age) will disagree. Trying to fit content into design-determined boxes sometimes results in text that is hard to read. And sometimes images seem to just fill a designed illustration space rather than usefully illustrate a key concept. On the other hand many of the graphics (such as the detailed wine label illustrations) are really good, so perhaps I am being too picky (Sue didn’t object to the design at all).

I loved Cole’s previous book on biodynamic viticulture in Oregon. I’m happy to have her new wine guide on my bookshelf!

The Hedgehog Curmudgeon

Jeff Siegel’s new book is the hedgehog. Although Jeff knows as much as any fox about wine, his book digs deep into a single topic — his One Big Thing — cheap wine. Like Rodney Dangerfield, cheap wine “can’t get no respect” and Siegel aims to change that.

Some people treat cheap wine as if it were a contagious disease, but not Jeff Seigel. He knows that bad wine (of any price) is a curse and good wine, especially if it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, is a blessing.  Cheap wine today is the best in history. Celebrate!

The table of contents gives you an idea of how the story is developed.

  • Why cheap wine matters
  • Cheap wine’s long and winding road
  • The revolution in cheap wine
  • Understanding cheap wine
  • How to buy cheap wine: The basics
  • How to buy cheap wine: Advanced course

There is a lot to like in this book — lots of fascinating stories. I like the strong sense of history that comes through and the appreciation that the rise of quality cheap wine was in a way the triumph of technology and business competition over entrenched attitudes among consumers and industry politics that resisted change. This book is about more than cheap wine, you see, although Siegel takes care never to stray too far from his hedgehog focus.

There are many twists and turns on the path that Siegel chooses and, as I look at my notes, his hedgehog touches on a lot of topics that Cole’s fox also explores. No surprise there, I suppose — they inhabit the same wine forest even if they focus on different elements of  it. Both are interesting books that you should consider if you are looking for wine guide that wants to shake up your way of looking at things!

Beyond the Budometer: Tim Hanni’s Vinotype Analysis

Tim Hanni, Why You Like the Wines You Like2013.

Writing about the problems of “misunderstood” Riesling earlier this summer (and why people are so hung up on the dry-sweet thing), I was struck by a distant memory of … the Budometer! I recalled reading an article some years ago about a wine expert who had taken the qualitative differences in personal wine perception and taken them to the next level by quantifying them through painstaking experimentation.

The result was the Budometer which was not a measurement of how many Budweiser beers a person could drink (although that would be interesting, too), but a way to determine what types of wines an individual consumer might prefer, with the seemingly inevitable trial and error  phase eliminated. Budometer and is taste buds if you see what I mean.

It seemed like a great idea when I read about it, however I admit that I didn’t do much with it at the time.  But it was easy enough to find that old Wall Street Journal interview online and so I set about to retrace my steps.

From Budometer to Vinotype

I have bad news to report. The Budometer is no more. But don’t despair because it’s been replaced by something better, the Vinotype. And the wine expert who got all this started is still at it, too. His name is Tim Hanni and he’s a famous person in American wine history. He and Joel Butler were the first Americans to pass the devilishly difficult Master of Wine exam. Fewer than 400 people in the world have survived the rigorous process that gives them the right to wear the initials M.W. next to their names.

I’ve never met Hanni but he seems like an unusually interesting person. Although he knows pretty much all there is to know about wine he doesn’t drink the stuff (or any alcohol) any more. His mission now is to help others enjoy the beverage that he no longer imbibes.

Hanni’s research indicates that wine drinkers hardwired into four basic groups or Vinotypes, which he calls sweet, hypersensitive, sensitive and tolerant. It you want to know all about Hanni’s system you should probably read his 2013 book, Why You Like the Wines You Like or visit his websites www.timhanni.com and www.myVinotype.com. I’ll provide a quick summary here, but I risk over-simplifying. You should seek out the more complete reports available in the book on the websites.

Sweet to Hypersensitive

Prefers Brown Sugar … Probably a Sweet.

“Sweet” wine tasters are very sensitive to anything that assaults their senses (not just in wine, according to Hanni). Bitterness and alcohol in wine must be covered up with a blanket of sweetness.  Women (about one in five) are three times more likely to be Sweet Vinotypes. White Zinfandel is their kind of wine. It isn’t a lack of sophistication (White Zin drinkers get a bad rap in wine circles), it’s just the way they are built.

A little more than a third of both men and women in Hanni’s surveys are Hypersensative Vinotypes. They have intense sensory experiences as the name suggests. Hanni says they love fragrances and “revel” in aromatic memories. Rather than cover up offending flavors with sweetness, however, they instead seek out delicate wines that are dry or off-dry, aromatic (obviously) and very smooth. They avoid big red wines with lots of oak (or any wine with overt oak treatment). Sparkling wines, drier Rieslings and Sauvignon Blanc wines fit this profile very well along with lighter reds like Pinot Noir.

Are You Sensitive or Tolerant?

“Sensitive” vnotypes make up about a quarter of the wine drinking population and Hanni says they are the most adventurous drinkers (and eaters, too). They like to try new things. Accordingly they enjoy a broad range of red and white wines while leaning towards the drier side of the sweetness spectrum.

“Tolerant” Vinotypes are less sensitive when it comes to harsh, bitter sensations such as you might find it rugged, high alcohol red wines.  Given a choice, Hanni says, Tolerant Vinotypes head for the big reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and are not daunted by high alcohol levels because the smack of the alcohol is mitigated by a deceptive sweetness that they perceive even in a completely dry wine.

You won’t be surprised to learn that men outnumber women two to one among Tolerant Vinotypes. The next time you see a couple drinking in opposite directions – he with a big, bold Aussie Shiraz and she sipping a delicate Oregon Pinot Gris, don’t shake your head, just appreciate that you’ve stumbled onto a “mixed marriage,” Tolerant male and Sensitive female.

You Are What  You Drink

The key to the Hanni’s Vinotype analysis is that people are very different from each other and their wine preferences are not just about wine – they reflect a person’s sensibilities more generally. Thus in one incident reported in his book, Hanni pressed an apparent Hypersensitive vintoype all the way and asked if by chance he sometimes wore his underware inside out (to avoid the relative harshness of the interior seams). “How did you know!” came the response.

I hope you take Hanni’s test and find out your Vinotype. It’s fun and also useful to think seriously about your habits, attitudes and sensory experiences. What will you learn when you are finished? Well apart from Hanni’s cool list of suggested wines,  I hope this helps you accept that people really are different when it comes to wine and other things in life. There is no reason why you should like everything your friends like in wine (and indeed there are good reasons why you might disagree). If you are a Sweet Vintotype you are never going to enjoy that Napa Cabernet and the Cab lover is never going to understand your passion for White Zinfandel.

The Riesling Question

Hanni has gone far beyond the Vinotype in his research and I encourage you to check out his work because there is a lot that might stimulate your imagination (if you are a Sensitive type) or challenge your firmly held habits and beliefs (if you are on the Sweet side and unwilling to break out of your comfortable routine).

For me, thinking about the Riesling problem, there were several key points. The sweetness scale that the International Riesling Foundation promotes is probably more important than I thought since both Sweets and Hypersensitives might look at Riesling wines, but they will be looking for very particular styles.  Senstitives might find something interesting in all Riesling styles, but Tolerants will want nothing to do with the wine.

This is a problem, according to some research that Hanni reports, because Tolerants buy wine much more frequently than Sweets. Getting Sweets to drink more Riesling could be problematic because they just don’t drink it very often in the first place.

Food for thought, don’t you think?

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In other news … the Kindle version of Extreme Wine has been released!

Three New Books: Sicilian Wine, Postmodern Winemaking & a Wine Economics Textbook

September is an awkward time of the year — it will still be summer for a few more weeks here in the northern hemisphere, but the start of both the harvest cycle and the school year are upon us, too. Still time to play, but work beckons.

This situation inspires me to review three new books from the University of California Press. We’ll start with a bit of summer wine touring, go on to autumn wine making, and then head back to the classroom.

The Sicilian World

The World of Sicilian Wine by Bill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savio. University of California Press, 2013.

I admit that I didn’t know very much about the wines of Sicily before I picked up this interesting and informative book. I guess I just didn’t realize what I was missing! The authors really do take the title seriously, revealing a stunning 360-degree examination of Sicily’s world of wine.

Many (most?) readers will be drawn to the excellent discussion of Sicily’s wine grapes and the detailed survey of Sicily’s regions that make up the second half of the book. After all, if you are interested in understanding the wines themselves as a consumer or enthusiast or perhaps visiting Sicily as a wine tourist, these are the critical sections.

But I have admit that I was fascinated by the introductory chapters, too. The authors drill down into Sicily’s wine history and the factors that unexpectedly pop to the surface are politics and economics! Perfect for a political economist like me.

I was surprised, but I guess I shouldn’t have been. After all, what about Italy is not political? And what about Italy is not economic? And Sicily, with its unique position in terms of politics, economics, history, and geography is a completely fascinating case.

My favorite sections? The analysis of how external factors (trade) and internal incentives (quality versus quantity property rights structures) shaped – or rather pushed and pulled – Sicily in its key formative decades. And the analysis of the European wine policy and its changing impact that opens chapter 3 is worth the price of the book alone. Never seen this explained so clearly. Highly recommended.

Postmodern Turn

Postmodern Winemaking: rethinking the modern science of an ancient craft by Clark Smith. University of California Press, 2013.

[Note: as of 9/5/2013 this book was out of stock awaiting a new printing. UC Press tells me it should be available again by the end of the month.]

I know Clark Smith’s name from his work on music and sensory appreciation of wine, but within the industry he is seen as something of a winemaker’s winemaker – with a twist. His monthly column “The Postmodern Winemaker” in Wines & Vines magazine is required reading for anyone interested in the cutting edge. These columns and other previously published material, edited to be accessible to a broader audience, are the basis for the book.

The book is a complex blend of theory, practice and philosophy. It wouldn’t hurt to have a good background in both postmodernism and winemaking if you want to get the most out of it. (Smith provides a handy winemaking primer in an appendix, which is worth having on its own, and also a glossary of postmodern terms).

This is a very personal book, based on Smith’s years of experience. It might not be a book that you sit down and read from cover to cover. It feels like it wants to be read a little at a time, and not always in the given order, and then digested for a while. Or maybe that’s just my reaction because my background in viticulture and oenology isn’t as strong as it could be.

What’s the bottom line of Postmodern Winemaking? Well, I think the book rather intentionally resists a one-line summary. Certainly there is a lot of technical and technological discussion here and the notion is that technological advances are not always progress. The postmodern winemaker uses technology, that’s for sure. Woodchips, not traditional new barrels or popular staves, are an integral part of Smith’s winemaking (he hasn’t bought a barrel in years) and I was fascinated to learn about  a controversial process called flash détente. But it’s important never to let the science run the show.

I talked about Smith’s book with an Oregon winemaker recently and her takeaway was that the march of technology was shrinking her niche — highly natural wines of origin — into a tiny sliver. She was quite upset — she knew she was fighting a battle, but she didn’t quite realize how outnumbered she was! That’s not the message I got from the book, but I can see how she would read it that way.

Interesting. Challenging! Definitely worth your time, whether you are postmodern (or a winemaker) or not.

Textbook Approach

American Wine Economics: an exploration of the U.S. wine industry by James Thornton. University of California Press, 2013 (to be published in September).

Finally, with classes starting up I am reminded that there are now some university courses on wine economics and so what could be more useful than a textbook on this subject? You might think that I would be the author (and that this post would be filed under Shameless Self Promotion), but I have sworn off textbooks now that I have retired from teaching – I wrote or co-authored textbooks in economics, public finance and international political economy earlier in my career.

This book is called American Wine Economics and it focuses on the U.S. wine industry of course, but with due acknowledgement that the wine world is a very small one now and that international and global integration is a powerful force.

This book, due to be published later in September, fills a useful niche and I think it has the potential to expand the number of wine economics courses both in the U.S. and abroad. The core of the book is a survey of the wine economics literature presented in a way that will be accessible to readers with at least a little economics or business background. I am grateful to see all this material collected in one place.

If I have a criticism it is that the book is too ambitious (or perhaps it is too cautious?). You need to understand something of wine to understand wine economics, so the author provides a brief primer such as might be found in a basic guide, which will do its job for newbies. You also need to understand some economics concepts and tools, so these are presented as well.

The result is that there is a lot of background material to get through before the core chapters are finally reached. A less ambitious author might have sent readers to specialized publications for the wine and economics background or put the primers in appendices. No perfect solution, I suppose, and this is probably a good compromise. The core chapters certainly are meaty.

If you have an interest in pushing deeper into the academic side of wine economics, this is a good place to begin.

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