The Trouble with Wine Porn

Not for everyone.

Sometimes I have doubts.  Here at The Wine Economist we seem to be interested in what you might call everyday wines. Not that you necessarily drink them every day, but they are generally available and you can buy them if you can afford them. It’s a matter of choice. Everyman wines might be a better term if it didn’t sound just a little bit sexist.

Wine Porn

But much of the wine world seems preoccupied with impossibly expensive or incredibly rare trophy wines. A lot of attention is given to stories, ratings, tasting notes and images of wines that only a lucky few of us will ever have an opportunity to taste.

I’m tempted to call this wine pornography,  mirroring the well-documented phenomenon of food porn. Stare if you like, drool if you must, but never, never  touch!  (I didn’t coin the term; I found it in Jancis Robinson’s “Wine Porn of the Highest Order.“) The whole Bordeaux en primeur phenomenon strikes me as borderline wine porn, if only the soft-core kind.

Wine porn may be a harmless vicarious thrill for the most part, but like pornography generally it can be a problem when people become compulsively attracted to it. I’m worried that all the fuss that trophy wines receive really does divert us from the excellent Everyman wines on offer and the problems and delights of everyday wine life.

Broadbent to the Rescue

Well, thank goodness for Michael Broadbent. I realize that this is an unlikely thing for me to say at this point because it would be easy to make the case that Broadbent is one of the inventors of wine porn. As the director of the wine department at Christie’s auction house in London, he certainly helped create the winner-take-all economic environment that fuels the wine porn industry now.

And then there’s his writing. Gosh! Broadbent’s tasting notes are extraordinary. Some, dare I say,  are voluptuous! My glasses steam up when I read them. But it turns out that he shares many of my distinctly non-pornographic concerns about wine.

Broadbent recently published his 400th consecutive monthly column for Decanter magazine and he used the occasion to talk about the state of the wine world, very much focusing on Everyman and her wines. “My feeling is that consumers have never had so much choice but they have never been so confused,” he said. ‘”The whole world is making a good standard of wine today and they need some guidance.”

The Perfect Disguise Below

This embarrassment of riches sounds like good news, but Broadbent is concerned that the democratization of wine has created a power vacuum that big players will rush to fill. “Big business seems to be taking over and I don’t like the way things are going,'” he says. He’s concerned about the fate of small producers.

Head-spinning number of choices

Well, I certainly agree with Broadbent’s premise. Globalization has spread wine and wine expertise around the world. The discipline of global markets is slowly driving technically flawed wines from the market place (some still hang on, justifying their existence on the basis of low price or disguising their flaws as terroir).   More wines, from more places, with a higher overall quality standard: good news for Everyman.

But globalization really has created problems. More choice is good, but only up to a point. Some times too much is too much, especially as wine draws in new consumers.  The Constellation Brands study of American wine buyers found that 23% of potential buyers were “overwhelmed” by the choice and frequently walked away empty handed. Broadbent’s right about the confusion factor.

Globalization has changed the problem from making good wine to distributing and marketing it. Here (especially in distribution) large firms really do have an advantage, but this is not a new thing. Power in the wine world shifted to those who could manage distribution long ago — with the introduction of the railroad system in France in the 19th Century.

Beyond Wine Porn

Broadbent is concerned that the corporations will destroy wine as they try to simplify it for the mass market. This is contrary to their own business interests, of course, since people pay more for distinctive products. Building a wine portfolio ladder that starts buyers in Two Buck Chuck territory and leads them up to a higher (or at least more expensive) shelf only works if wine’s diversity is preserved.

Dumbing down to create a simple flat wine world is economic suicide as much as it would be an aesthetic tragedy of the commons. But these are desperate times for some large wine businesses and desperate CEOs do desperate things, so I do not rule this out absolutely.

I guess I am more optimistic about the future than Broadbent, even if I share his concerns. I think there is a pretty large middle ground between the bland corporate wine that worries him and the spicy wine porn that troubles me. This probably suggests that the state of wine today is quite good!

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Congratulations to Michael Broadbent on his 400th Decanter column and his extraordinary life in wine.

Questionable Taste [in Wine]

A review of Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise (University of California Press, 2010).

It’s pretty easy to tell that Terry Theise isn’t an economist. The unofficial motto of economics is  degustibus non est disputandum, which is generally translated as “there’s no accounting for taste.” Taste is an individual matter, everyone is different and everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Accepting tastes as given is where economics begins.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Terry Theise is worried about where a radical idea like this might lead. He sees taste as a slippery slope. You start with degustibus and pretty soon you start thinking that all ideas of taste are equal. If all tastes are equal, then it is obvious that majority should rule and, in any case, in the marketplace majority frequently does rule.

Since the taste of the masses tends toward the least common denominator McWine taste, the train of thought that starts with degustibus ends in a train wreck of poor taste and mediocre standardized quality. Accepting taste as given (instead of constantly questioning it) means giving up on taste. Someone’s gotta do something to stop this — who ya gonna call? Terry Theise!

I met Theise at the 2008 Riesling Rendezvous conference at Chateau Ste Michelle. He organized and moderated an end-of-the-day workshop on Old World Riesling Terroir. He was as complex, intense and interesting as the 15 German and Austrian wines we tasted. These were some of the most memorable wines (Hirsch, Nikolaihof, Josef Leitz and Dönnhoff) I have ever sampled presented in flights intelligently designed to help us drill down into the idea of terroir.

Almost Too Intense

Theise was so intense, so totally into what he has doing, that there were a couple of points where I just couldn’t stand it and had to take a break outside to catch my breath. At times his propensity to extended navel-gazing (in both English and German) was more than I could take, too.  But I always came back, drawn to the wines and the strong sense of place that each displayed and to Thiese’s addictive if sometimes irritating passion.

This book has the same intense energy and the same ability to frustrate — I like it a lot in small doses. Too much at a time and I feel overwhelmed.

Much of the book is a defense of elitism regarding wine — an attitude that I term Martian (after Martin Ray) using Thomas Pinney’s terminology (see Wagnerians versus Martians). Theise wants to “remystify” wine, for example. Attempts to make wine “accessible” so that the masses can understand and appreciate it have the bad effect of dumbing down consumers and dumbing down the wine.  Don’t de-mystify, Theise argues, educate and elevate.

Curse of the Blue Nun

It’s Theise’s business to sell wines, mainly German and Austrian Rieslings and some grower Champagne, and you can appreciate why his commercial experience would cause him to resist sacrificing authenticity for accessibility.  I’ve written about how the boom in simple cheap German wines in the 1970s nearly destroyed the industry (see Curse of the Blue Nun). If it could happen to Riesling, once the undisputed Queen of white wines, it could happen to any wine. To all wines. You see the problem.

So I could practically hear Theise moaning over my should as I wrote my last blog post on the Democratization of Wine. Making wine easier and more accessible? That’s the road to Hell.

And yet I think Theise and I could easily find common ground (especially if we opened a bottle of Dönnhoff as we talked about it). At one point in the book Theise backs away a bit and looks at the debate about wine from a broader perspective. There are some who believe that globalization has improved wine, he says, and they are right.  And there are others who fear that globalization will ruin wine. And they are right, too.

The rise of the global market for wine has raised the floor on wine quality, but has it also lowered the ceiling? Theise knows that the rising floor doesn’t need any help to sustain itself — the market will flush out flawed wines without his assistance. But someone’s got to keep the ceiling from collapsing and those great Rieslings and other unique wines from disappearing into the McWine vat.

Revenge of the Terroirists

It’s a matter of taste, of course. You might think the rising floor is great and that the ceiling is plenty high enough. Others might disagree. Well, if we can’t agree about taste, Theise writes, at least we may be able to agree about diversity and the need to preserve a great diversity of different wines.

I agree with Theise about the rising floor and I acknowledge that markets’ rationalizing tendency. But I am more optimistic than he is. I’m optimistic because the same global markets that allow for mass-production of wine also create the opportunity for small, quirky producers to find markets for their artistic output. (Josko Gravner is a good case in point.)

It’s not either/or. The market doesn’t either destroy small producers or preserve them, it does both. Finding a healthy mix is what we need to be concerned about.

I’m also optimistic because I believe that the the active force of globalization of wine has produced a reactive force that I call terroirism in my new book (watch for it in 2011). The terroirists will keep us from forgetting about the heights wine can reach and the diversity that wine can attain, even when we find ourselves reaching for ordinary everyday wine on Tuesday night.

Terroirists are key to the diverse future of wine. And Terry Theise is the über terroirist.

Riesling’s Rising Tide

The continuing globalization of wine presents many challenges and opportunities. The opportunities are fresh in my mind because I recently attended the third Riesling Rendezvous conference – an international gathering of Riesling makers from around the world (Germany, Austria, France, Canada, Australian and New Zealand) and across the U.S. (Washington, Oregon, California, Michigan, New York and New Jersey).

It was a real love fest. Riesling is the fastest growing market segment in the United States right now and the rising tide raises all boats. There was a strong sense of good will and collective achievement.

International [Wine] Relations

The meeting was organized by Washington State’s Chateau Ste Michelle (CSM), the number one U.S. Riesling maker, and Dr. Loosen, a leading Mosel producer. Their partnership was really at the core of the event — you could see evidence of it everywhere. Loosen and CSM have collaborated for a dozen years on a number of projects, the most visible of which is Eroica, consistently one of America’s top Rieslings.

It was interesting to listen to Ernie Loosen and Bob Bertheau, CSM’s head winemaker, talk about their work together and how much they have learned from each other. There was a real sense of mutual respect and pride of accomplishment – part of the feel-good feeling.

Another of Washington’s best Rieslings is also the result of international collaboration. I’m thinking of Poet’s Leap, the wine that Germany’s Armin Diel makes with Gilles Nicault, the resident winemaker at Allen Shoup’s ambitious Long Shadows winery in Walla Walla. I got the same feeling about this collaboration from Gilles.

Eroica and Poet’s Leap are wines I recommend to my students – exceptional wines, widely distributed and  priced at around $20. Loosen & CSM and Diel & Long Shadows have made their partnerships work very well.

The Ghost of Rieslings Past

But collaboration is difficult and partnerships don’t always work out so well. This was the case with the first attempt by an international winemaker to make Riesling in Washington State. I’m talking about the great failed (and now nearly forgotten) F.W. Langguth winery experiment.

The Langguth family has been making wine in the Mosel for over 200 years. F.W. Langguth is today best known mainly for its mass market wines – it purchased the Blue Nun global brand (see  the Curse of the Blue Nun ) a few years ago and makes many of the low cost wines that fill German supermarket shelves.

Langguth became interested in international expansion in the early 1980s (two of its current brands, made in Tunisia of all places, were born in this period). The success of Washington Rieslings from Chateau Ste Michelle and other producers caught Langguth’s attention and soon plans were under way for a major investment.

Langguth and local partners developed Weinbau Vineyard (now part of Sagemoor Farms) on the Wahluke Slope and built a $5 million 35,000 square foot state of the art winery in Mattawa. The winery was the second largest in the state at the time, behind only Chateau Ste Michelle’s big Woodinville facility.

A Simple Idea

The idea was simple – make German-style Rieslings in Washington State and ride the rising U.S. market tide. The first vintage (220,000 gallons) was made in 1982 and released the next year. The wines sold for $4 to $6 per bottle, equivalent to the $8 to $12 price band today. There was a heady feeling of coming success, both at Langguth and within the Washington wine industry generally, which I think was flattered and encouraged by the international attention.

It did not last long. By 1986 the bankrupt Langguth winery was being sold to Snoqualmie Vineyards, where Mike Januik and Charlie Hoppes made wine. Snoqualmie was eventually absorbed by CSM’s parent company and the gleaming stainless steel of the Langguth facility disappeared. The big building was eventually used for storage.

What went wrong? Well, as I said, collaboration is difficult and it seems that there was a great failure to communicate in this one. The wine was made in Mattawa, of course, but I understand that all the decisions were made back in the Germany. The grapes were picked early at low brix and high acid, just like in Germany where climate and geography make this necessary, even though that combination didn’t make much sense in sunny Mattawa, where longer hang times are the current norm.

Remote Control Winemaking

The technicians back at the mother ship analyzed the data – wine by the numbers — but I guess they didn’t taste the grapes, as winemakers around the world always do. So they couldn’t tell that the resulting wines were soulless (as one critic concluded) and seemed over-processed. The market was under-whelmed by the wines when they were released.

Although Langguth wines improved in the following vintages, it was already too late. The market opportunity was gone. It is too harsh to say that Langguth was the Edsel of Washington Rieslings, but that’s the general idea I get from published accounts.

No one talked about Langguth at the Riesling Rendezvous – and I don’t blame them. Why dig up old skeletons?

But I think remembering the failed Langguth experiment usefully helps us appreciate how truly exceptional these recent successful partnerships really are. Here’s to Riesling’s rising tide!

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Thanks to Chateau Ste Michelle for inviting me to participate in Riesling Rendezvous. Information for this report was drawn from Paul Gregutt’s Washington Wines & Wineries (2005), Ronald Irvine’s The Wine Project (1997) and Ronald and Glenda Holden’s Touring the Washington Wine Country (1983).

The {Wine Economics} Magnification Effect

One of my pet theories about globalization could be called “the magnification effect.” Although global markets change things for sure, often their biggest effect is to magnify or exaggerate existing trends and conditions. A Decanter report from Bordeaux provides a good example of how the Magnification Effect works.

The Law of One Price

Although people talk about “Bordeaux wine,” there has never been a “Bordeaux wine market.” The Law of One Price holds that if there is a single market there will be a single price. But it is the difference in prices that is Bordeaux’s most notable feature. Some wines from the region sell for thousands of dollars, others for a few bucks and some … well they go to the distillery for mere pennies.

This market segmentation occurs in all wine regions, but it is more noticeable in Bordeaux because these wines have always been targeted for export (the globalization element) and so price stratification is more pronounced.

Students of wine history know that Bordeaux is in fact defined by these differences. The Classification of 1855, which established a strict hierarchy of Medoc wine producers that persists to this day, was not based upon sensory evaluation, as you might expect, or critical analysis but simply on market price.

The gold's at the top ...

The Twilight Zone

Over the years, as global markets expanded, the price differentials recognized in 1855 became embedded in the market and magnified. The Decanter article illustrates the current extreme. Announced prices for 2009 are substantially higher for the 400 top-tier Bordeaux wines that are sold en primeur: up an average of 18.6% over the 2005 “vintage of the century” and 48.7% above the recession-plagued 2008 market. Good times for the top names, as Orley Ashenfelter pointed out on two occasions during the recent American Association of Wine Economists meeting at UC Davis.

But there are thousands of wine producers in Bordeaux and times are very hard for many who are not in the top tier. Decanter reports that

…  the official price paid by merchants for a tonneau (900 litres, or the equivalent of 1,200 bottles sold in bulk) of AOC Bordeaux red has dropped to around €600 per barrel – less than the ex-chateau price for a single bottle of any of the top wines.  Most producers report that actual transaction fees are dropping as low as €500 per tonneau. Bernard Fargues, president of Syndicate of Bordeaux (which represents over half of the regions’ 8,000 winemakers, all producing AOC Bordeaux and AOC Bordeaux Superieur) told decanter.com that around 90% of his members were in difficulty, with at least 50% suffering serious financial problems.

If my math is right, some Bordeaux wines have fallen into the Two Buck Chuck danger zone while others have risen to … to what? The Twilight Zone!

This magnification effect has become global, as was readily apparent at a symposium on “Outlook and Issues for the World Wine Market” held in association with the Davis meetings. Speakers emphasized the widening market segmentation. Bulk wines (wines that sell for less than $5 per bottle equivalent and often for much less) have developed a truly global market in part, as several speakers noted, because bulk wine buyers aren’t particularly interested in terroir — they basically don’t care where their wine comes from, only what that it has a familiar taste and doesn’t cost very much.

Somewhere vs. Nowhere at Trader Joe’s

I noticed this on a recent visit to Trader Joe’s where a new line of Two Buck Chuck has appeared — Charles Shaw International wines, sourced from Australia’s surplus wine lake and selling for the same low price as the original product. I don’t imagine that anyone will refuse to buy it because it is “international” rather than from the San Joaquin Valley like the rest of the Two Buck Chuck lineup.

Bulk wine prices are deeply depressed because of this mass global market, squeezing out inefficient producers (or those who don’t benefit from government subsidies of one sort or another). Profits per acre in the San Joaquin Valley (where most of California’s bulk winegrapes are grown) is down to $200 acre — an amount so low that growers are switching to other crops such as walnuts and almonds where the global competition situation is more favorable. One grower who attended the symposium talked of leaving fruit on the vine for the first time in 25 years.

If the market for bulk wines is global, I guess you could say that the premium wine market is “international.” Buyers do care about where these wines come from and so global sourcing is not an option. This exposes producers to a different set of risks and rewards. Australian winemakers, for example, find themselves victim of the strong Australian dollar. China’s huge needs for Australian minerals has driven the currency up and helped price Australian premium wines out of their traditional market niches.

The Law of Yuan Price

(The exchange rate obviously affects the bulk wine market, too, and is one factor in Australia’s excess capacity in that market segment. The exchange rate depresses price both directly, by raising export costs, and indirectly as unsold premium wines are diverted to low-price bulk wine markets.)

Wines at the very top of the pyramid also face challenges, but they are different from those of bulk wine and premium wine. Globalization is a positive benefit to top-flight Bordeaux, for example, because it means that Hong Kong and Chinese buyers can be found to replace (or apparently more than replace) declining buyer interest elsewhere.

Decanter recently published their first Chinese language Bordeaux report — a clear indication of the expanding global market and a suggestion that the Magnification Effect has not yet reached its peak.

Money, Music, War and Wine

I’ve just finished reading final papers from The Idea of Wine class I teach at the University of Puget Sound. These essays remind me that wine really  is a liberal art and a natural element of an enlightened education.

Jean-Robert Pitte is right (and the French government is wrong) — wine has a place in the college curriculum.

The Greeks realized this centuries ago. They defined a  symposium as a discussion over wine! What could be better?  Herewith thumbnail sketches of three student papers that suggest the many ways that wine and liberal arts education intersect.

Wine and the Hard Life

Since this is The Wine Economist I’ll start with a paper by an economics student. “The Postwar Decline of the Old World Consumer” addresses the question of why per capita wine consumption in “Old World” countries has fallen so rapidly over the last 50 years. This falling demand is a key factor in the continuing global wine glut and especially the EU’s notorious wine lake. David, the author, turned the question around: why, he wondered, was consumption so high in the first place?

The most intensive wine consumption in France, Spain and Italy in the early postwar years was among laborers and rural workers who expended great energy in their jobs and required high caloric intake. Rough local wine (of the sort that is in excess supply today) was a cheap source of this energy. As European economies modernized and living standards rose the demographics of wine consumption changed. Fewer people engaged in grueling hard physical labor. Life was easier, living standards higher and better nutritional options presented themselves.

Not surprisingly, as the need for wine’s cheap calories declined so did its consumption. Other factors were at work, too, but rising living standards explain an unexpectedly large proportion of the wine consumption decline.

Romantically, we Americans associate wine with the good life and wonder why Europeans would turn away from it. But for some Europeans, at least, wine was part of the hard life and they may be happy to have moved away from it. The wine world will just have to adjust.

Beethoven and Bordeaux?

Megan, a science major, wrote on “The Melody of Taste.” Her paper surveyed the literature on how your perception of wine may be affected by the music you listen to while tasting.  I found this paper very interesting in the way that it embraced both science and philoisophy. There is reason to think that wine and music might have some connection, she wrote, because “wine is an aesthetic object and drinking wine is an aesthetic experience.”  Wine and music evoke similar aesthetic responses and it is plausible that they would interact on that basis.  So far so good.

Science suggests that the link between wine and music might go deeper than this, according to Megan. Brain scan data indicate that sensory experiences from taste, odor and music “target the same areas of the brain, initiating cross-modal processing.”  One author  argues that because different types of music affect the taste of wine in particular ways, a science (or art?) of  music-wine matching (like pairing wine and cheese) might be a serious possibility.

If you want to experiment with wine and music yourself, Megan writes, try this. Buy a $5 bottle of Glenn Ellen Chardonnay. Taste it on its own and then while listening to the Beach Boys singing  “California Girls.”  I’ve provided the music here — you have to supply the wine. The Beach Boys tune apparently stimulates the right part of your brain to make this value-priced wine taste a lot better.

Megan also reports a study showing that polka-style music makes Sutter Home White Zin taste better, too. Well … of course. Anything would probably help and a polka seems just right to me.

Winemaker Clark Smith has developed a line of wines to be paired with specific musical pieces. Read more about this project at GrapeCraft Wines. I haven’t tried wine-music pairing, but I would be interested in comments from anyone who has.

Wine and War

Let me finish with politics student  Hally’s paper on “The Real Story of Unknown Lebanese Wine: A Reason to Survive,” which was provoked by a puzzle. Lebanon has a very long winemaking history and some of its wines (Chateau Musar, for example) have attracted worldwide attention. Why aren’t these excellent wines better known and more popular, Hally wanted to know?

Yes, yes, Lebanon is a long way away and not well known, but that doesn’t seem to stop other wines from unlikely places (think about New Zealand!) from reaching local markets.  The answer, Hally learned, is that sometimes wine is affected by war and peace even more than by soil and weather.

Making wine in war-torn Lebanon in recent years has presented far more than the unusual number of challenges. “For Lebanese wine makers, picking grapes and making wine is more an act of defiance against years of repressive wars and religious hatred than it is a business necessity,” Hally writes. “Wine is key to the survival of their spirit through seemingly endless years of conflict.”

Bitter Memories?

After finishing her paper, Hally reports, she was able to track down a bottle of Chateau Musar from a war-torn recent vintage when practically no wine was made or released due to the constraints of conflict.  I’m sure Hally wanted it to have a glorious taste — the triumph of wine over war, but she says it was awful. Corked, I think, from her description. Not what she wanted at all.

What makes a wine memorable? People always imagine that the great flavors and aromas are what make wines special to us, but I have my doubts. Wine is too complicated to be just about its direct sensory effects. Hard times, upbeat music and the determination to struggle through conflict — wine can reinforce these associations, too, and burn them into our memories.

Wine stimulates all our physical senses (taste, smell, touch, sight — even sound if we touch glasses in a toast).  But its real power comes from the fact that it also stimulates our minds, triggering memories and inspiring thoughts. Hmmm. I should organize a symposium on that theme!

Stags Leap Through the Looking Glass

This week I’m reporting on my research expedition to Napa Valley, where I attended the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association Vineyard to Vintner’s (V2V) event and ventured “through the looking glass” to consider the past, present and future of wine.

My last post ended with a question: Stags Leap was still an emerging region when I visited in 1980, but it was already attracting a great deal of attention and international investment. Would the influx of big money into the Stags Leap District destroy its great wines or would the terroirists managed to save them? Here’s what I found out.

Follow the Money

The big money certainly arrived and you can see it today in the wonderful facilities that the wineries have created.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was a tiny one-building operation when I visited there 30 years ago. Now that original structure with its oak doors is Building 1 on an expanded campus of facilities that includes a vast arched barrel room and a network of tunnels for barrel storage (I’ve heard these called wunnels — wine tunnels). Everything is sleek and custom made for entertaining clients and visitors as well as making wine.

The barrel room at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is gently curved like a barrel stave. The barrels are stacked five deep.

Warren Winiarski is responsible for these changes, but he doesn’t own Stag’s Leap any more. He sold out in 2007 to Italy’s Antinori family. I’ve read that he figured he could trust the Antinori to uphold his vision of wine.

The Antinori partnered with Ste Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE) of Washington State, who they trusted because of their successful joint venture on Red Mountain, Col Solare. (SMWE is owned by Altria, a corporation that also owns Phillip Morris and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco.)

Changing Hands

Stag’s Leap is not the only winery in the district to be acquired big business. Chimney Rock is now owned by The Terlato Wine Group, a company that owns several notable U.S. wineries and is a major force in wine distribution (they represent Gaja and Santa Margherita wines from Italy, for example).

Pine Ridge Winery, which produced its first vintage in 1978,  was acquired by the Leucadia National Corporation in 1991, which also owns Archery Summit in Oregon but is is best understood as a diversified holding company investing in manufacturing, telecommunications, oil and gas drilling gaming, entertainment and real estate activities.

So the big money did in fact come to Stags Leap and the many of the wineries they created are rather grand – as far from the simple cellar that I visited 30 years ago as can be imagined.

The Economic Factor

Dinner at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars

Economics dictated the large scale and luxurious feel of many of today’s Stags Leap District wineries. Winemaking is capital intensive, so it is important to produce in volume. Stags Leap AVA Cabernet Sauvignon (necessarily limited in supply by the AVA’s tiny size) is often therefore produced alongside higher volume “Napa Valley” wines, for example, and Chardonnays from Carneros grapes in order to get volumes up to an economic level. Nothing wrong with that.

The plush feel of the wineries themselves, with plenty of space for entertaining, events and on-site culinary staff, is a product of the practicalities of distribution. Direct sales – to cellar visitors and wine club members – yield more revenue than restaurant and retail sales that must make their way through the tortuous and costly three-tier distribution system. So it is important to build and establish direct-sale personal relationships and to provide appropriate winery facilities.

One winery’s wine club manager told me that nearly 70% of sales came through this direct channel. Wow! That’s a lot of revenue and worth a substantial investment. So it is important to both make good wine and to create a memorable winery experience. Understandable.

But what happens to the wine in the process? Is there so much focus on image and marketing that the wines themselves are an afterthought?

The Mondovino hypothesis

My answer, based on an intense weekend in Stags Leap, is that it ain’t necessarily so. Sure, we tasted a couple of wines (I won’t name the makers) that seemed like they were made to catch the attention of critics more than to capture a sense of place, but for the most part the wines we sampled seemed to be authentic variations on a Stags Leap theme. And the winemakers we talked to spoke with conviction of wine made in the vineyard, not the advertising agency.

Can big multinational money coexist with an authentic idea of wine? Yes, at least in Stags Leap. (Robert Parker goes further — he seems to think that the Antinori/Ste Michelle money and technical attention might actually restore the  faded — according to him — glory of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.)

So the way I framed my question — money, business and globalization versus terroir — was plain wrong. Money, marketing and multinationals doesn’t guarantee great wine, but it doesn’t make it impossible, either. Wine is too complicated for that.

The pessimistic Mondovino hypothesis that the wine business inevitably destroys wine itself doesn’t always hold. I’m not saying this is true everywhere, but I am quite sure that the somewhereness of Stags Leap has survived these 30 years.

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Thanks to the Stags Leap District Growers Association for inviting us to attend the Vineyard to Vintner program. Thanks as well to Russell Weiss (Silverado), Mark Smith and Jim Duane (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars), Elizabeth Vianna (Chimney Rock), Tim Dolven (Steltzner), Jeff Virnig (Robert Sinskey) and Michael Beaulac (Pine Ridge) conversations and help in various ways.

Wine Economist in Wonderland

Alice entered Wonderland by jumping down a rabbit hole. I got there by walking through this doorway.

It happened 30 years ago and inside the door I met a famous winemaker who was as interested in economics was I was in wine. The result of our chance conversation was my fascination with wine economics and, ultimately, this blog.

Through the Oak Door

This is not an ordinary door. It is made from the planks of a huge oak cask. I rediscovered it a few days ago when I visited Napa Valley to attend the annual Stags Leap District Winegrowers Vineyard to Vintner (V2V) seminar, tasting and celebration.

The Stags Leap AVA can understandably be viewed as Wonderland by wine lovers. It is famous for its distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon wines, including some of the ones that did so well in the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris commemorated in George Taber’s excellent book of that name and the more recent somewhat dubious but nearly always entertaining film, Bottle Shock.

I was in Stags Leap at the invitation of the growers association to attend the events and to consider how wine has changed in 30 years, using the terroir of this region as my test bed.

One Side Makes You Grow Larger …

It was hard to know how Stags Leap and its wines would develop when I first opened the door thirty years ago.  There were a lot of indications that the area might turn into what some critics say the whole of Napa Valley has become — the over-commercialized Disneyland of wine.

Although it was only really “discovered” as a winegrowing area in the early 1970s, a lot of money was already focused on Stags Leap when I made my first visit. Clos du Val (first vintage in 1972) was the result of a collaboration between American businessman and wine industry investor John Goelet and Bordeaux winemaker Bernard Porter. It was just the sort of thing that gives Mondovino fans screaming nightmares.

Chimney Rock Winery (1980) looks like a South African Cape Dutch estate because its founder Sheldon “Hack” Wilson made his money selling Pepsi Cola in South Africa. He was the largest volume Pepsi bottler in the world at one point, according to my copy of James Halliday’s Wine Atlas of California.

Silverado Vineyards (1981) — a beautiful winery with a beautiful view — unintentionally reinforces the Disneyland theme because the family of Walt Disney built it, starting with a vineyard purchase in 1976 and continuing today.

It was easy to imagine in 1980 that this trend would continue — and the wines would suffer — as more money flooded into the tiny Stags Leap area.

… And the Other Makes You Grow Smaller

But capital is not always blind (to paraphrase Walter Bagehot). Some of the early Stags Leap investors were the sort of people I have labeled terroirists who value wine for its somewhereness.

I suppose that Dick Steltzner would fit into this group. An experienced viticulturalist, he planted what might have been the first vineyard at the base of the Stags Leap palisade in 1965, finally making his own wine at Steltzner Vineyards in 1977.

Warren Winiarski, the guy who won the red wine competition in the 1976 Paris tasting with his Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, strikes me as a terroirist, too, although perhaps he was just a stubborn, philosophical wine perfectionist. So all the pieces were in place for a battle for the soul of Stags Leap wine.

And Now Which is Which?

Looking back to 1980, it seems like it could have gone either way. Globalization money and media creating Coca Cola wine … or the revenge of the terroirists, preserving the distinctive quality of Stags Leap.

How did the story turn out? Check back in a few days to find out what I think I learned from my fieldwork.

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