Malbec & Maradona: Wine and History in Argentina

Ian Mount, The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec. Norton: 2011.

Malbec and Maradona

The most stunningly creative student paper I’ve received in more than 30 years as a college professor was written by a first year student enrolled in my introductory International Political Economy class. We were studying Argentina’s latest financial crisis and she analyzed the situation not just through facts and figures but rather by telling the story of Diego Maradona, the legendary soccer player who achieved great success on the global stage but succumbed to the pressures, stresses and temptations that came with it.

Maradona is always measured against Pele, the Brazilian star who is often proclaimed the greatest soccer player in history, and every talented young Argentinean forward is compared to  him (Messi is only the latest “next Maradona”). But an air of tragedy is unmistakable despite Maradona’s heroic achievements. This same air, my student wrote, hangs over Argentina’s politics and economy, and then she proceeded to analyze Argentina’s political economy history in detail in  terms of the Maradona story. It was, in both conception and execution, a brilliant analysis.

Ian Mount’s new book on Argentinean wine, The Vineyard at the End of the World, is also brilliant and in much the same way. Like my student’s paper, it can be read at several levels. It is, first and foremost, a history of the Argentinean wine industry from its roots with the Spanish explorers to its current spectacular flowering.

Although Argentina has been a major wine producer for literally centuries, it has only arrived on the global stage in the last ten years. Within Argentina its long history is heavy baggage that sometimes weighs it down. For the rest of the world, however, Argentina is a new discovery and the lack of prior experience of and attitudes toward its wines has arguably been an advantage.

Mount fills us in on the history and serious readers will appreciate the added depth this gives to the appreciation of the wines themselves. It also provides an interesting contrast to neighboring Chile and its wines, whose history is perhaps better known. But that’s only the beginning.

 Lucky Survivors

Malbec is a second theme, which is understandable because Malbec is king in Argentina right now. Malbec from Argentina has been one of the hottest product categories in the U.S. wine market is the past few years. But today’s Malbec (like Maradona) is a lucky survivor of Argentina’s booms and busts – a lot of Malbec was grubbed up during the market swings and swirls. It makes me appreciate wines (like one of our favorites, Mendel Malbec) that are made from the surviving old vine blocks.

More than anything, however, this is a history of Argentina itself told through wine, making this a book that deserves a very broad readership. Based on my previous research, I knew that Argentina’s politics and economics were reflected in the wine industry, but I didn’t know how much. Come for the Malbec, stay for the politics, economics and personal stories of those who succeeded or failed (or did both) and try to understand the country and people of Argentina.

Significantly, the book ends with a sort of Maradona moment. In terms of wine, Argentina has won the World Cup with Malbec, although the country must share the glory with international consultants (like Paul Hobbs and Michel Rolland) and foreign investors and partners (too numerous to mention). But for all its strengths the industry is still somewhat fragile, struggling to overcome the problems of the domestic wine market that it still depends upon and the domestic economy in which it is embedded.

After decades of “crisis and glory,” Mount sees a  bright future for both Malbec and Argentina. Let’s hope he’s right and the Maradona moment passes.

Ian Mount’s new book is a valuable addition to any wine enthusiast’s library. Mount provides a strong sense of the land and people of Argentina and the flow of history that connects them. Argentina is unique, as Mount notes early on, in that it is an Old World wine country (in terms of the nature of its wine culture) set in the New World, so that its history is broadly relevant and deeply interesting.

I studied the Argentina industry before going there last year, but Mount taught me things I didn’t know in every chapter. I love Laura Catena’s Vino Argentino for its account of the history of wine in Argentina told through the Catena family story and now I’m glad to also have The Vineyard at the End of the World for its broad sweep and detailed analysis. They are must reading for anyone with an interest in Argentina and its wines.

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Another Malbec-Maradona connection: Diego Maradona is most famous for a play that has gone down in soccer history as “the Hand of God” goal.  It was in a 1986 World Cup quarterfinal match that Maradona illegally struck the ball with his hand and scored the winning goal – an offense that was clearly visible to everyone in the stadium except the officials. Must have been the Hand of God, not Maradona, I guess.

Now (or very soon depending upon the release date) there is  Hand of God wine. We tasted Hand of God from the barrel when we were in Mendoza earlier in the year and we enjoyed the wine even if Maradona had nothing to do with making it. I suppose the name honors the importance of wine and soccer to Argentinean society and the struggles that both have endured. (Maradona’s team beat England in that famous game, so I wouldn’t look for big Hand of God wine sales in the U.K. market. Just saying …)

Special thanks to Jon Staenberg (proprietor of  Hand of God) and Santiago Achaval for letting us sample this wine!

Bottoms Up: The Bargain Wine Revolution

George M Taber, A Toast to Bargain Wines: How innovators, iconoclasts, and winemaking revolutionaries are changing the way the world drinks. Scribner, 2011.

George Taber knows something about how seemingly small events can sometimes turn the world of wine upside down. He was the Time magazine reporter who covered the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting where top French wines were matched against California Cabs and Chardonnays in blind tastings evaluated by famous French critics. The New World wines held their own and even took the top prizes in both red and white categories. Thus was a fermenting revolution recognized and encouraged.

Now the issue isn’t so much Old versus New as it is Expensive versus Cheap and Elites versus Masses. Taber sides with a democratic vision of wine and this book is a celebration of the fact that there are more drinkable bargain (less than $10) wines in the world now than ever before. The glass is more than half full. Drink up!

What to Drink (for $10 or Less)

Taber’s celebration comes in two parts. The second half of the book is a bargain wine buyer’s guide. Taber provides top 10 lists of his favorite “$10 and less” wines and wine brands sorted by grape variety and region. He also recommends a couple of splurge wines in each category for good measure.

My, what a lot of inexpensive wine George Taber must consumed to write these recommendations. Bottoms up, indeed!

Here’s what I mean. The section on blush wines highlights 10 wines including a $3 Oak Leaf White Zinfandel (from Wal-Mart) and a $6 Riunite Strawberry White Merlot. I assume that Taber tasted the big selling Sutter Home White Zin and found it wanting since it does not appear on the list, but he doesn’t list all the wines he tried in each category, only the best ones, nor (and this would be particularly useful) the really really bad ones to steer clear of.

Revolution from Below

The first half of the book makes the case that maybe you should take bargain wines more seriously (and not just because of the current economic situation). Taber sets out to undermine the conventional wisdom about wine. Maybe wine judges are as confused as the rest of us. Maybe taste is so subjective that your opinion really is all that matters. Maybe (gasp!) bottles and corks are a pointless anachronism when it comes to everyday wines and you should reconsider your prejudice against “box wines,” which have changed a lot since you tried them in college.

My favorite chapters are the profiles of the iconoclasts who are leading the wine revolution. Taber’s reporting skills are put to good use in telling the tales of Fred Franzia (the godfather of Two Buck Chuck) and John Casella (the father of Yellow Tail wine).  Both wines changed the world in important ways and it is interesting to have their stories told so effectively and to be able to see these two phenomena side-by-side.

The final chapter (before the buyer’s guide) examines China. Will it too change the wine world? Maybe – that’s the answer here. China is still a work in progress and perhaps it is too soon to draw many conclusions. Taber does a good job pulling together different trends and facts.

What’s a Bargain?

One of the ironies of this book comes from the fact that Taber needs to define what he means by “bargain wine” and value (like taste) is pretty subjective. He draws the line at $10, which is a good thing I believe since this allows him room to include a lot of pretty good wines in his lists and not just focus on extreme values. Ironically, however, a $10 wine is classified as “premium” and sometimes “super-premium” here in America. The majority of American wine drinkers think of a $10 wine as a splurge.

I have friends who are afraid to try a $10 wine because they fear that they will be able to taste the difference and be forced to turn their backs on the $6 wines they’ve been enjoying for years.

I wonder if wine snobs will be annoyed by George Taber’s book? After all, with this book Taber seems to suggest that democratic wines deserve the same respect as those Judgment of Paris aristocrats. Me? I’m just grateful that he’s done the dirty work of tasting and sorting all those really inexpensive wines so that I don’t have to! Bottoms up!

Chinese Wine [Uncorked]

Li ZhengpingChinese Wine 3/e (translated by Shanghai Ego — really!). Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Many of my conversations with wine makers and wine sellers this year have looped back around to the question of China. China seems to be the Great Hope for people who see it as a vital future market and also a Great Mystery for those who haven’t yet figured out how to uncork it.

Great Wine Wall of China

Uncertainty is the Grape Wall of China to those who wish to penetrate its market borders. The known knowns are few and the unknown unknowns many, or so I am told. Talk about assymetric information inefficiencies! So everyone’s interested in learning more about wine in China.

Hence my interest in this slim (146 page) book from Cambridge University Press. It is part of the “Introduction to Chinese Culture” series of brief guides that includes ten published volumes (Chinese Clothing, Chinese Furniture, Chinese Music and more) with additional volumes (Chinese Gardens, Chinese Jade, Chinese Food, Chinese Tea and so on) set for publication in 2012.

The back cover description of this book reads.

This illustrated introduction to Chinese wine explores the history of wine production in China, the legends and customs that surround it and its place in China today. Traditionally, Chinese wine and spirits were made from grain, and had three important uses: to perform rituals, to dispel one’s worries and to heal. Today, wine is still believed to have a therapeutic benefit, but the Chinese beverage industry has expanded on a large scale and now includes famous brands of beer and, increasingly, vineyards producing red and white wine for global consumption. Chinese Wine is indispensable reading for both wine-lovers and all those with an interest in the transition from traditional to modern Chinese culture.

The book delivers on this promise with clear direct prose and beautiful illustrations. But it would be a mistake to read more into this description than there is.

Lost in Translation

The term “wine” can easily get lost in the translation. Wine here in the U.S. is grape wine for the most part, but wine in China is a much broader concept including fermented fruits and grains. Chinese Wine  examines grain wine, beer, distilled spirits and Chinese-made grape wine. Changyu, Great Wall and Yanjing brand wines receive special attention.

Grain wine, especially rice wine, is much more important than grape wine in this narrative. Why? The author explains that “Grape wine is easier to produce than rice wine. However, as grapes are seasonal and cannot retain their freshness for long compared to grain, grape wine-making technology was not adopted extensively in China.”

Whereas grape wine is made when the grapes are harvested, rice wine (like beer) can be made year round from stored rice — a practical advantage. But grape wine was favored in times when it was necessary to conserve grain stocks.

The cultures and traditions associated with Chinese wine are superficially very different from ours.  Wine is if anything much more important in China (if I have read this book correctly) than it is here, but the social rituals of wine drinking seem to be the point, not the beverage itself. Maybe this is not so different after all? Chinese Wine is making reconsider what I thought I knew about grape wine’s social function in the world of vitis vinifera.

An Afterthought?

Chinese Wine treats us to discussions of the origins of Chinese wine, the varieties of Chinese alcohol, rituals and traditions, legends (a very interesting group of tales) and finally, towards the end, a bit about imported wine and its growing popularity. Seriously, imported wine takes up just a couple of pages if you don’t count the photos, and the most important brand name mentioned is Gallo’s Carlo Rossi red (which is credited with boldly entering the Chinese market in 1992).

Is that it? Is imported wine in China just an afterthought? Probably not, although it is good to put things in perspective. I suspect that the author was chosen because of expertise in Chinese cultural history and so the book reflects this (and goes lightly on China’s recent fascinating with Bordeaux). Certainly everything I read suggest that market for grape wines in China is growing and maturing rapidly.

But it doesn’t hurt to remember that wine exports to China to do enter a sort of market tabla rasa. Just because there are few European-style wine traditions in China doesn’t mean there are no wine traditions at all. And the importance of grain wine should not be ignored.

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I called this entry [Uncorked] because none of the traditional wine vessels illustrated in the book looks remotely like anything that you could stop up with a cork, highlighting the differences between Chinese and European-style wines. The urns and pots are often beautiful. A feast for the eyes!

In Search of Pinot Noir

Benjamin Lewin MW, In Search of Pinot Noir. Vendage Press, 2011.

Burgundy makes Burgundy, Benjamin Lewin reports (quoting a local producer). All the rest make [merely] Pinot Noir.

What should we make of Burgundy’s self-proclaimed status as king of the Pinot Noir hill? Lewin circled the globe to find out and this fascinating book is his report. I recommend it with enthusiasm.

To the Summit

Burgundy dominates the book, as one would suspect, both for its wines and because it is the standard of reference, and in the final pages Lewin reveals his conclusion: Burgundy does indeed stand at the summit based in part upon its superiority ability to age and develop in the bottle (with DRC and Domaine Leroy at the peak of the peak).

But Lewin’s search for Pinot, which takes him to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Oregon, California, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, reveals a number of near-rivals and raises many questions. The Pinot world may not be very big (compared with Cabernet and Chardonnay, for example), but it is a bigger world than Burgundians might like to think. And it is changing fast.

Dr. Lewin’s Lab Notebooks

Pinot Noir (along with Riesling) is thought to be the ultimate “terroir” wine, so the wines themselves should tell the story. In vino veritas as they say. This line in inquiry takes us into the detailed tasting notes that are appended to most chapters. These are Lewin’s lab reports (he is a famous scientist — a cell biologist — so it is unsurprising that he would evaluate claims empirically). At best the tasting notes are insightful observations of the ways that wine changes as time and place are varied. Sometimes, I have to admit, they are a bit like wine porn, read to vicariously share Lewin’s delicious work.

Do the wines of Burgundy live up to the myth of Burgundian terroir? Sometimes is Lewin’s answer. Burgundy at its best reveals its terroirist magic, but it doesn’t always turn out that way; caution and care are warranted. Winegrowing and winemaking practices can highlight terroir or disguise it. It just depends.

And climate change threatens to make Burgundy more like everyone else’s Pinot Noir by fundamentally altering growing conditions. Indeed, the book’s final pages ask whether Burgundy will be able to maintain its subtle complexity in the face of climate change and other challenges.

New World Challengers

I received my copy of In Search of Pinot Noir just as I was leaving to give some talks in Oregon Pinot country and I reported Lewin’s conclusions to my audience, which including many wine industry people. If you taste wines from different Oregon AVAs made by the same producer, Lewin writes, you can taste the terroir — just like in Burgundy. But when you taste wine from different producers in the same AVA, no strong common terroir thread emerges. Terroir is a weak force in the New World, it seems. Why? Lewin has an answer.

If you taste the best available Burgundies against the best available Pinots from Oregon and California, Lewin writes, the French wines “blow away” the competition. But it’s a biased comparison since the very best wines from New World producers never see the marketplace. They are tiny production single vineyard wines that disappear into allocation list buyers’ cellars. Ironically, they have no impact on the regions’ reputations and cannot define a signature terroir style.

The best available wines are more comparable to Burgundian village wines than the grand crus, according to Lewin. No wonder they suffer by comparison to the best of the best Burgundy has to offer. No wonder that Burgundy is Burgundy and the rest are not. Interesting.

Much to Like [and to Learn]

In Search of Pinot Noir, like Lewin’s earlier books (What Price Bordeaux? and Wine Myths and Realities) is big and bold, filled with colorful (and informative)  charts, maps and photos. The depth and breadth of Lewin’s analysis is impressive as he breaks down each Pinot Noir region into the historical, cultural, economic and natural forces that shaped it in the past and continues to influence it today. A great wine economist read. A great read period for anyone with a serious interest in Pinot Noir.

I think I learned something new on almost every page. But the most interesting parts  of the book for me are the questions, not the answers. Almost every chapter ends with a question about the future of Pinot Noir. Sometimes they seem to be leading questions (where you are pretty sure how Lewin would answer them) but others are very much more open.

I sense that the search for Pinot Noir is open, too. Market forces and climate change mean that the future is up in the air. Will Pinot Noir retain its special status as the ultimate terroir wine? Or will it become just another “international variety” with subtle differences slowly lost as styles converge on a rich, ripe “international style?”

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What make’s Pinot Noir different? Here’s the famous scene from Sideways where Miles makes the case for Pinot Exceptionalism. Enjoy! (Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above)

NZ Winemaking: Delayed Reaction meets Arrested Development

Eric Arnold, First Big Crush: The Down and Dirty on Making Great Wine … Down Under. Scribner, 2007.

I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading this 2007 book about wine-making in New Zealand. I am very interested in Kiwi wine and I’ve written about it on several occasions. Can’t explain my why I didn’t find time for it until now.

Delayed Reaction

First Big Crush is Eric Arnold’s account of a year he spent working at the Allan Scott winery in Marlborough. It is a chronological record of what he did in the vineyard and cellar, the people he met and the flow of life, wine and commerce as the seasons changed.

I felt a personal connection as I read the book because Sue and I spent part of that same year in New Zealand and so I visited some of the places Arnold describes and met a few of the same people.

One of my strongest memories of that trip (which produced a chapter called “Globalization versus Terroir” in my 2005 book Globaloney) was a conversation with Jane Hunter. Hunter had just come from a difficult meeting with growers where she told them the bad news — they’d need to drop more grapes to preserve quality. Growers (who are usually paid by the ton) understood the need for a green harvest, but it wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

Arrested Development

Arnold does a great job putting that difficult day (and many others like it) into context. And although wine economists are surely not the author’s target audience, I found Arnold’s explanations of the economic side of the business very interesting, especially the stories about grower relations and handshake contracts (that sometimes are literally worth the paper they are written on), vineyard labor relations and the crazy market for bulk wine within the New Zealand industry, which reminds me of a game of wine-infused Twister.

Although I am glad that I read this book for the reasons I’ve just explained, I have to admit that there were several points where I nearly stopped reading. The problem? Well, Arnold reports a lot of crude behavior often using crude language. Some of the humor would not be out of place in a middle school locker room. I guess I’m not surprised that this sort of thing goes on among wine-makers since it goes on every where else. It’s just not my cup of tea (or glass of Sauvignon Blanc?).

Authentic Wine: Terroirist Manifesto and DIY Guide

Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW,  Authentic Wine: toward natural and sustainable winemaking. University of California Press, 2011.

“The wine industry is at a crossroads,” write Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop in the concluding chapter of their fine new book, Authentic Wine. “Wine is a wonderful natural, authentic product. Do we emphasize this naturalness, celebrate the diversity of wine, and put our house in order by steering away from unneeded additions and manipulations? Or do we allow wine to become simply another manufactured beverage whose flavours are manipulated to match perceived consumer preferences?”

Thus do Goode and Harrop state what I have come to call the Terroirist Manifesto. It is pretty clear, when you put it this way, that our only choice is to take up arms in defense of natural, authentic wine. Going down the other road is unthinkable (and perhaps undrinkable).

Terroirist Sympathies Disclosed

Let me say up front that I am very sympathetic to the Terroirist Manifesto. Indeed, I argue in Wine Wars that “the revenge of the terroirists” is a necessary feature of the future of wine. We need terroirists to keep us (and our wine) honest.

But does it boil down to a simple choice — this way or that way? Despite my stated sympathies, I say no. Wine is not a single thing, it is many things and I think it that monolithic thinking is the wrong approach. Wine travels many roads and I don’t really see the harm if some wines are industrialized so long as that doesn’t stop other wines from taking a more arts and crafts approach. It is up to us, the consumers, to understand the difference so that the wines of the type that Goode and Harrop champion will endure and prosper.

So it would seem that I disagree with the authors, but that’s not really true. What makes this a really interesting book (and one that I recommend enthusiastically) is that Goode and Harrop argue strongly for the principle of authentic wine and then carefully instruct on the practical matter of how to get there, focusing on choices in the vineyard, the cellar and the marketplace and taking account the real world differences between high volume commercial products and small lot craft wines.

In other words, I think Goode and Harrop are really telling winemakers that they don’t have to make a big choice — wine is not really at a crossroads — because there are practical sensible ways to achieve their goals without debasing the idea of wine as a unique element of society. The key is keep the idea of authenticity in the forefront.

Natural versus Authentic Wine

So what is authentic wine? Well, even after reading the book I don’t think I can give you a precise definition. This may be by design. Apparently Goode and Harrop originally wanted to title their book Natural Wine, but then the “natural wine” movement appeared, advocating extremely limited intervention in wine making. Although its advocates argue that this is the only way to make “real wines” (remember the English “real ale” movement of a few years ago), others say that it is just a fad or an excuse for the flawed wines that result from this extreme approach.

Goode and Harrop were probably wise to duck this controversy. Although their goals may align pretty well with those of the most vocal natural wine advocates, their strategies and tactics do not. They are far too practical (a good thing in my book) and understand that no one is going to risk making a million gallons on flawed wine because they are wedded to the most extreme versions of the natural wine principle.

Goode’s fingerprints are readily recognized on many pages. A scientist, he is also author of The Science of Wine, a book that I have read from cover to cover twice and consult very frequently. The combination of emotional manifesto and reasoned analysis works very well.

VooDoo Viticulture?

So what do the authors think of biodynamic wine (the topic of last week’s post)? Biodynamics is an interesting test — a sort of enological shibboleth. You would think that biodynamics would be the ultimate natural wine, but the question is more complicated in practice. Although biodynamic wine is pretty consistent with natural wine practices in the vineyard, I think biodynamic rules actually allow some winemaking practices (sulfites, for example) that the “natural wine” proponents forbid. So biodynamic wine may be authentic, but not natural. Very strange.

Goode and Harrop devote an entire chapter to biodynamic viticulture and they offer a very readable summary of the  limited academic literature on the subject. The bottom line: there doesn’t seem to be any objective evidence that biodynamics has positive effects that go beyond those available through standard organic viticulture. The cosmic “voodoo” elements may be just that and, the authors warn, they may even have negative impacts to the extent that they divert the focus from organic practices.

So biodynamics is a hoax? Well, not so fast, the authors say. The limits of the test studies are examined, as they should be, and then the chapter finishes with a set of profiles of winemakers around the world and their biodynamic biographies (this, interestingly, a thumbnail version of the approach Katherine Cole takes in her book about biodynamics in Oregon, Voodoo Vintners). Maybe it really is doodoo voodoo yoga (as I reported in my last post) after all!

Goode and Harrop can’t prove that biodynamics works, but they don’t want to dismiss it. They are sympathetic (as am I) perhaps for philosophic reasons or perhaps it is political — every movement needs a few fundamentalists to keep the party line from straying too far.

Authentic Wine: A Fork in the Road?

At the end of the day it is pretty hard to argue with the idea of Authentic Wine as presented here. This is partly because Goode and Harrop make such a strong case, but it is also because in “authentic wine” they have created a flexible concept that is narrow when they want it to be and loose when that’s what’s needed — along with a map for  consumers and producers to follow so they can enjoy the benefits of authenticity without tears or fears.

Go to the fork in the road … and take it! I think it’s a step in the right direction.

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In case it isn’t clear above, I recommend Authentic Wine enthusiastically. I read it in the galley stage and wrote a “blurb” that you’ll find on the back cover. I saw one critic refer to this as an “academic book” and I suppose it is — it’s published by the University of California Press. But that doesn’t mean that it is tedious and full of charts and graphs. It is actually full of people, which is a great way to tell a story. It is a serious book, but you wouldn’t be reading The Wine Economist if you didn’t already have a serious interest in wine.

Biodynamics: The DooDoo VooDoo Yoga Effect

Katherine Cole, Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers. Oregon State University Press, 2011.

You can’t come to Oregon and speak about “green wine” as I did a couple of weeks ago without talking about biodynamic viticulture. The Willamette Valley is a hotbed of biodynamic activity; Demeter USA, the national biodynamic certification organization, is even based here. And now Katherine Cole, a writer for The Oregonian newspaper and several wine publications, has chronicled the movement in her nifty new book Voodoo Vintners.

Black Magic Burgundy

Biodynamic viticulture is controversial – do a simple Google search for the phrase “biodynamic viticulture debate” and you’ll see what I mean. Organic viticulture sort of adopts Google’s motto: Don’t Be Evil. Eliminate chemical fertilizters, sprays and so forth. Biodynamics takes a different and more proactive approach that considers vineyards the way the Gaia Hypothesis thinks of the earth, as a living organism. Just avoiding harm is not enough! If you want healthy grapes you need the entire environment to be healthy and growing, from the dirt and its microrganisms on up.

This sounds good enough, but then there are the cow horns and other unexpected elements of the system. Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture’s Austrian founder, prescribed certain treatments, sprays and practices that strike many as more black magic than agricultural science. Any recipe that begins with burying a cow horn filled with manure (that’s DooDoo) in the vineyard and involves special stirring instructions for the resulting organic tea to harness cosmic energy before it is sprayed on the vines (VooDoo?) is bound to have skeptics.

Walking the Talk with Alois

Some wine people declare that biodynamics is bogus, a hoax. Others approach the concept with almost religious reverence. We spent an hour walking the vineyard rows with Italian biodynamic guru Alois Lageder earlier this summer and the depth of his faith was hard to miss … or to resist. He’s a true evangelical biodynamic fundamentalist and there are many who share his faith.

Alois Lageder Mesmerizes Mike

So I approached Cole’s book with great interest. Would she argue for the fundamentalists like Lageder or side with the skeptics? The answer is neither – the book is organized around a set of profiles of Oregon wine people rather than a strong central argument.

As you read the book you learn about the history of biodynamics and Rudolf Steiner, its charismatic originator. And you meet some Oregon wine growers who embrace biodynamics, some who reject it, some who’ve tried it and given up and others who like the idea, but will only go part way, It’s an interesting journey because these are interesting people and Cole is a fine writer who takes us into their lives as they weigh the costs and benefits.

Biodynamics and Yoga

All very interesting … but so what? What’s the point? I kept looking for Cole’s argument and I couldn’t find it.  Then, going back through the book I discovered that I had missed the thesis, which was stated in the introduction.

For my part, I like to compare BD [biodynamics] to yoga,. It’s a way to strengthen and fortify the whole body, to ward off illness and to maintain health.  …

OK, but what about the voodoo stuff? Well, Cole writes, yoga has its mystical side, too.

Yoga is self-contained, holistic. … There is another, metaphysical, aspect to yoga that isn’t much discussed.  … It is possible to be a practitioner of yoga without buying into the spiritual side.

That’s true. I used to do yoga exercises but I was only interested in the physical (flexibility) and mental (calm) benefits. I wasn’t looking for enlightenment.

Biodynamic viticulture in Oregon is similar to yoga at your neighborhood studio. Although it’s still a fringe phenomenon, it’s becoming increasing popular and voguish. Many winegrowers are dabbling it it. A small number are devout practitioners.

Having read the book I think Cole’s yoga analogy is a good way to describe how wine growers in Oregon relate to biodynamics — most are pragmatists and do what they think works, although a few also embrace its more mystical elements. This is a book about the people as much as (and maybe more than) the biodynamics they practice [or not]. For all its black magic, in Cole’s telling of the story, it’s still the human element that matters most.

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I enjoyed Katherine Cole’s book and I recommend it, but I still have doubts. Is biodynamics really like yoga, a healthy activity but ultimately matter of personal choice? Isn’t there any scientific evidence one way or another that can serve as a guide?

Well, there is a new book that examines biodynamics (and other green wine approaches) systematically and makes a strong argument that goes beyond bending and stretching. It’s called Authentic Wine and I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.

In the meantime, here are some Yoga exercises for wine drinkers (hint: don’t try this at home)!

The Parisian Idea of Wine

Olivier Magny, Stuff Parisians Like. Berkley Books, 2011 (official release date: July 5 2011).

France is a real paradox when it comes to wine.  Outsiders imagine that wine holds a special place in French culture and, while this might once have been true, it seems that it is today just a romantic myth. French per capita wine consumption has fallen by about 5% per year in the last decade, from 58 liters per person in 2000 to less than 40 liters in 2009.

If that sounds like a big drop consider this: the French consumed more than 125 liters of wine per capita in the early 1960s. Wow — what a collapse!

I’m always looking for insights into how French attitudes towards wine are changing, so I was pleased to receive a review copy of Stuff Parisians Like. The author knows Paris and he knows wine; Olivier Magny is, as the press release says, “Ô Chateau Sommelier, Wine Bar Owner & Parisian Ambassador of Hipness.”  The book is based on his blog called, naturally, Stuff Parisians Like.

Because wine is so important to Magny, I was pretty sure that he would tell me all about the Parisian wine scene and, in the process, update my understanding of French wine culture. This he did, but not in the way I expected.

What do Parisians Like?

Parisians apparently like lots of stuff and learning about it helped me to better understand my experiences in Paris and my Parisian friends.  Parisians like conversation, for example, but its is not about having an exchange of ideas according to Mangy, it is about winning the exchange. Conversation, to a Parisian, is a contest and there is always a winner and a loser. This explains a lot about my friend M, who will never give up on a losing conversation.  Choosing at random from the short, punchy chapters, Parisians like …

  • Having Theories;

    A Unicef Card

  • Making Lists;
  • Crossing the Street n a Bold Way;
  • Saying They Like Classical Music;
  • Bitching About Waiters;
  • The Idea of Moving Overseas;
  • The Idea of Sailing;
  • New York;
  • Urinating in the Street;
  • UNICEF Cards;
  • Bashing Tourists;
  • Scarves and Wearing Black;
  • Despising les PSG (you need to be a soccer fan to understand this title);
  • and so on for more than 250 pages.

Where’s the Wine?

I admit that I enjoyed this tour of the Parisian psyche, but I soon became impatient. What about wine? What kind of wine “stuff” do Parisians like? I expected to read about wine right at the start but, by about page 200, I began to worry that wine might never appear.

I was almost right. Wine is invisible until page 274 (right after the chapter on why Parisians like Barack Obama). The last chapter is titled Why Parisians like … “Not Drinking Wine.”

Zut Alors! (I learned that in my 7th grade French class — Magny teaches that a Parisian would probably say “Putain!” instead.)

“It is very easy to spot tourists in a Parisian cafe,” Magny writes, “They are the ones drinking wine.”  Having a glass of wine gives the tourists pleasure. Not drinking wine is what Parisians like to do.

Even if I hated the rest of the book (which I obviously don’t), these few pages would be worth the modest price of admission. Magny, with obvious frustration, enumerates all the reasons wine has fallen from grace in Paris. Once it was the default choice, he says, but now young people especially understand that they have many choices, most of which are easier to comprehend and have better marketing behind them. Water, beer and spirits — these are the go-to beverages of Paris now.

There’s a Theory for That

Women are a particular problem, Mangy says. They think drinking wine makes them fat and encourages them to lose control. No Parisian woman would want that!

When Parisians do drink wine, he says, they drink bad wine. This is especially true for the bobos who flock to wine bars specializing in vins naturel, (“natural wines,” made with minimum manipulation) which hide their obvious technical flaws under a cloak of “authenticity.” I guess this is evidence that Parisians like “Having a Theory” (real wine = natural wine) more than they like “Not Drinking Wine.”

I started this book hoping to learn how Parisians are different from the rest of us, especially with respect to wine. I am struck instead, however, by how much the Parisian way of wine is not as different as we (and they) might want to think. Oh, the poor people of Paris!

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Wine Myths (and Reality)

Benjamin Lewin MW, Wine Myths and Reality. Vendage Press, 2010.

They say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (or a wine by its label?), but does weight offer any clue to quality? Some winemakers apparently think so — they put their best wines (or at least their most expensive ones) in the heaviest imaginable bottles to give them physical heft to match their presumed sensory impact.

If you take Benjamin Lewin’s latest book as a sample of one, intellectual heft and physical weight are pretty highly correlated, too. At 634 pages and 1.9 kg this is indeed a weighty tome — and a very valuable one for anyone really interested in wine.

Wine: Myths and Reality is a great book for people (like me) with a geeky interest in wine. I like it so much, in fact, that I am going to make it required reading for the students in my university class, The Idea of Wine. They may not appreciate having to carry it around in their backpacks, but I guarantee they will thank me when they sit down to read it.

DIY Master of Wine?

I was tempted to title this post “Dr. Lewin’s DIY MW.” As I was reading the book I couldn’t help thinking about the Master of Wine exams and how closely the book seems to follow the syllabus. (I found a copy of the 2008/09 syllabus on the MW website — click here to view the pdf file). I am sure that reading Dr. Lewin’s book isn’t adequate to pass the MW exam, but I think it gives you a sense of the depth of knowledge that Masters of Wine are expected to master.

The Master of Wine was invented to help educate and prepare wine professionals — people who make their living in the wine business as buyers, sellers, advisors, writers and critics. The exam’s structure reflects the need to understand not just wine but its entire commodity chain.

The first two papers deal with the production of wine.

Paper 1 will examine candidates’ knowledge and understanding of ‘Characteristics of the vine and wine’ up to and including ‘alcoholic and malolactic fermentation’.

Paper 2 will examine candidates’ knowledge and understanding of ‘Wine maturation, blending and bottling’ up to and including ‘quality assurance and quality control’.

The first half of Dr. Lewin’s book does a rather masterful job of covering the material for the this part of the exam. Clear, organized, detailed, interesting and provocative — just what the doctor (or aspiring MW) ordered.

Getting Down to Business

The third MW theory paper is on wine business, which makes sense since so many MWs are in “the trade.”

Theory Paper 3: The Business of Wine.   The purpose of this unit is to assess candidates’ current knowledge and understanding of financial, commercial and marketing aspects of the international wine industry. Candidates should demonstrate the ability to apply their knowledge to a range of business situations including marketing and investment strategies, financial decision making, supplier – customer relationships and strategies for identifying and meeting consumer demand. Candidates will require a broad background knowledge of wine industry structures around the world and how these relate to one another.

I have argued in the past that the Masters of Wine program was been very important to the development of the global wine market by its efforts to create a highly trained group of industry leaders. Reading Dr. Lewin’s book you can understand why. Dr. Lewin is not quite as comprehensive in this part of his book, which is understandable since this material will be of less interest to a general audience, but his analysis of global wine market trends and issues is still very interesting and useful.

The fourth MW essay is on “contemporary issues” and I think Dr. Lewin does a great job of raising and analyzing important issues throughout the book. As someone who writes and uses textbooks all the time, I appreciate that Dr. Lewin provides us with his opinions (not playing the old “on one one hand, on the other hand” game), but he does so carefully, citing evidence after having outlined the issues clearly.

The final third of Dr. Lewin’s book is a world tour — an introduction to the regions, the wines and the relevant controversies, with special focus on Burgundy and Bordeaux, which is understandable given their place in the world of wine and especially because of Dr. Lewin’s particular interests and expertise.

Breaking with Tradition

I was initially surprised by the organization of the regional wine survey chapters. Traditionally the Old World comes first and the New World trails along behind. Dr. Lewin reverses the order. Why?  I believe that it has to do with the theme of the book. The title, Wine Myths and Reality gives a strong hint of the book’s over-arching argument.

The myth is that Old World wines are unmanipulated natural products and that New World wines are highly processed industrial ouput. Dr. Lewin argues throughout the book that all wine is manipulated — how could it be otherwise?  Left to itself, wine is just a stop on the liquid road to vinegar.

It is hardly surprising that Benjamin Lewin would take this stand on wine. He is a renowned cell biologist who understands better than most the role of science in wine. To dismiss “manipulation” is to ignore wine science, which seems like a foolish, ignorant attitude.

Embracing Dr. Lewin’s argument raises the true question — what do we want wine to be and how best can we achieve this goal? Everyone manipulates (or else makes spoiled wine) — the question is how, how much, why and to what effect? Telling the story of the New World first puts this argument in context and highlights the real issues effectively.

This is a very fine wine book — one of the best I’ve read — and certainly worth a place on your bookshelf — even if you have to reinforce it to bear the extra weight!

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This book’s color illustrations  — maps, photos and graphs — are simply excellent. I think one reason the book weighs so much is that it is printed on special high gloss paper to make these illustrations unusually clear and useful.

Vertical (Not Necessarily Sideways)

I’ve been reading Vertical, Rex Pickett’s sequel to his novel Sideways, which was the basis for the 2004 film Sideways that changed the world of wine. The rise of Pinot Noir in recent years and the slump in Merlot sales is often attributed to the Sideways Effect.

I didn’t read Vertical for pleasure (I’m more of a non-fiction kinda guy) or to evaluate it as a work of literature (my colleagues over in the English department will breathe a sigh of relief). I wanted to see if Pickett would do it again – create a scene or storyline with the potential to connect with wine enthusiasts and change the way they think about wine.

Dump Buckets & Dunk Tanks

What sort of scene would that be? Well Sideways the film had a number of memorable moments. (I’ll focus on the film Sideways here rather than the novel since I think people are more familiar with the film.)  Some are famous for being outrageous, like the scene where Miles has just received bad news about his book project and self-medicates his depression with wine – tipping a dump-bucket full of secondhand wine over his head and face, soaking his clothes and getting a lifetime ban from that particular tasting room. Yuck! If  you’ve seen the movie I guarantee you remember the sequence.

Vertical has its share of outrageous scenes, including a reprise of the dump bucket experience. There are several other scenes with a high Yuck! Factor including one where we learn what happens when you take too many Viagra pills all at once and another, set at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, that features a dunk tank filled with Charles Shaw Merlot and two  over-sexed (there’s a lot of sex in this book), matronly wine lovers determined to get “sideways” with Miles.
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Getting Personal About Wine

I loved the dump bucket in the Sideways film, but that’s not the scene that created the Sideways Effect. It was this one, of Miles and Maya on the back porch, talking while Jack and Stephanie were getting “sideways” in the bedroom.

Miles and Maya are chatting about wine and why they love it and about Pinot in particular, but they are really talking about themselves, don’t you think? They are really talking about who they are and who they want to be and the words they use to talk about wine express something deeper that goes to what it means to be a human being.

Who doesn’t sometimes feel fragile, like Miles, and need a little TLC? Who wouldn’t want to grow and change, as Maya suggests in the concluding part of  the scene (not shown in this brief excerpt), even if it means eventual decline?

Who indeed? It seems to me that almost anyone can identify with the longings expressed here indirectly through wine. And so the Sideways Effect was born as some people projected their longings onto Pinot Noir and others just went along for the ride.

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It’s Not About the Wine

Did I find a similar game-changing scene in Vertical?  Well, no. There are some scenes that make you stop and think, that make you reflect a bit on life, but most of them come late in the book, after a whole lot of sex, drugs and Pinot Noir, and they don’t really have very much to do with wine. I would give away the plot of the book if I told you more, so I will draw a line here.

A Vertical movie, if they make one, will certainly be feature a lot of wine (especially Willamette Valley Pinot Noir), but I don’t think there will be a Vertical Effect on the wine markets to rival the Sideways Effect.

But why did I think there would be? After all, Sideways wasn’t really about wine, it was about people and relationships — as you can plainly see from the movie trailer I’ve inserted here.  Sideways just happened to strike a chord with wine lovers. Pickett builds on that chord in Vertical, as any sequel author does, but it’s not and never really was really about the wine.

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By the way, there is a Japanese version of the film Sideways — have you seen it? It’s set in Napa Valley, not Santa Barbara. Frog’s Leap and Newton are the featured wineries and Cabernet Sauvignon, not Pinot Noir, is the wine obsession.

To the best of my knowledge this film did not produce a Sideways Effect in Japan. Why not? Well, for one thing it focused on wines that were already well-known and popular in Japan, so it was using the wine to sell the film not using the film to change the way people think about wine.

Besides, I think, the Japanese version is even less about the wine and lacks that critical back porch scene. They did keep the dump bucket, however, as you can see in the trailer that I’ve inserted above.

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