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!

The Rodney Dangerfield of Wine


Petite Sirah is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine. Like the famous comedian, this grape variety “can’t get no respect.”

For a long time nobody really knew much about Petite Sirah (PS), except the fact that it produced “the biggest, toughest, brawniest red wines in California” (according to The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries). It’s true identity was a hotly disputed mystery. DNA tests finally settled arguments about its parentage — it is the Durif grape from France, a combination of the Peloursin and Syrah varieties discovered by Dr. Francoise Durif in the 1880s when he was searching for solutions to Syrah’s powdery mildew problem.

PS: The Prohibition Grape

It never caught on in Europe, but PS was quickly embraced in California and South America, where it thrives. Many of the early California vineyards included Petite Sirah along with Zinfandel and other heat-loving varieties and it figured prominently in field blends. If you’ve tasted Ridge Lytton Springs (71% Zinfandel, 21% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane in the 2008 blend) or Frog’s Leap Napa Zin (80% Zinfandel, 19% Petite Sirah, 1% Carignane in 2008) you have some idea of what I’m talking about.

Petite Sirah took center stage during Prohibition. Most people don’t realized that wine consumption in the U.S. actually increased during “The Great Experiment,” through bootleg sales, of course, but mainly because millions of families took advantage of a loophole that allowed up to 200 gallons of legal homemade wine per household.  Rough, tough Petite Sirah grapes survived the long railroad trips necessary to get the grapes to home winemakers across the country. Bootleggers liked it, too, according to Jim Lapsley’s Bottled Poetry. Petite Sirah could make a wine so strong and deeply colored, Lapsley writes, that illegal sellers could stretch it out without fear of detection by adding up to 20% water! (I am tempted to make some sort of lame “water into wine” joke here, but it don’t want to be sacrilegious.)

So valuable was Prohibition Petite Sirah that in 1934 PS vines accounted for 4400 of Napa Valley’s 11,000 vineyard acres! The total for all of California was 7,285 acres in 1938. Petite Sirah went into decline again in the postwar years, as winemakers realized that it was not really Syrah after all as some supposed and moved in other directions. The spike in the 1960s and 1970s in the chart above is driven in part by the increase in generic jug wine sales (think Gallo Hearty Burgundy). A lot of the “Burgundy” in those blends was really Petite Sirah.

Do you see the “I can’t get no respect” angle here. Poor, misunderstood, mislabeled Petite Sirah.

But Petite Sirah is experiencing a renaissance today as a varietal wine as well as a blending component. PS vineyard acreage is up as is the number of wineries making varietal PS.  There is even a very dynamic advocacy group called PS I Love You that promotes the wine.

PS Renaissance: Why Now?

Why Petite Sirah now? Well, one reason is that it is different at a time when a lot of wines taste the same. Many of the old PS vineyards survive, so old vine PS is available, which is a special treat. Sue and I enjoyed a bottle of 2005 Arger Martucci Petite Syrah made from 140 year old Calistoga vines for our last wedding anniversary. That’s not an experience you can get with many other wine varieties.

But there is more than longevity to Petite Sirah. I asked Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores to explain the appeal and here’s what she said.

The old timers planted PS because they loved it and it happened to blend particularly well with Zinfandel.  That’s why I planted it:  a really old timer shared with me that he remembered it being planted on our property long, long ago.

I’m determined to continue making PS in an open and fruit forward style—some versions have gotten quite alcoholic and leathery  (not unlike Zinfandel) but I think that people are loving the depth and zest that the grape puts forward (sort of like Syrah +). … But in general, I think it’s a perfect wine for the rather amazing charcuterie and “all things from every animal” cuisine that’s so the rage right now.

People are discovering that it can be made without terribly extracted tannins as well so that helps the pairing—even with cheese.  At the winery–I offer guests a tasting choice–they can taste PS with a rich chocolate (70% +/-) cookie/cracker (not very sweet, nice texture) or a lovely piece of salumi. It’s kind of fun for people to delve into why aspects of each food pair well.   My main source of PS is up in Calistoga.  Dry farmed and always in need of a major taming of the crop —I love it.

A Certain Smile

Another reason for the PS Renaissance is that makers of this variety have come out of the closet, so to speak, and begun to celebrate the grape and their wine through the PS I Love You advocacy group and events like Dark & Delicious, which was held at the Rock Wall winery in Alameda, California a few weeks ago. I couldn’t attend the big tasting (I was in Argentina), so I asked my  good friend Lowell Daun to fill in for me. Here is his report.

If turnout is any indication, I think Petite Sirah production will have to get back to the 1970s numbers – the place was not easy to find, the weather was abysmal, tickets cost $63, yet the place was absolutely packed! I would estimate between 800 – 1000 people participated. And of the many wine tasting events I’ve attended, this group seemed more enthusiastic than any I’ve seen. And it wasn’t a “drunk-fest”, rather oenophiles whom seemed to know what they were looking for,enjoying and analyzing.

“Accidental Pairings” was my assumption upon finding some unusual wine-food combinations set throughout the Rock Wall facility. In retrospect, I think the organizers are too smart to have not had some design as to where each winery and food purveyor were located.  … Many chocolate pairings made sense, but I was surprised to find wonderful cupcakes worked with the wines, too. The most unusual food being paired with P.S., was spicy bacon and almond caramel popcorn, by HobNob Foods, set next to Tres Sabores’ pouring station. As it turned out Tres Sabores poured my favorite wines and the spicy bacon-almond-caramel popcorn was my hands-down favorite food, and they paired perfectly!!

In addition to hands-down favorite, Tre Sabores, other very interesting pourings were: Biale’s Punisher, Clayhouse, Rosenblum’s Rock Pile, Silkwood, Aver Family and Cecchetti.

Lowell did have one reservation. A health professional, he was concerned about all the purple smiles he saw at Dark & Delicious — Petite Sirah is famous for its ability to stain tooth and tongue. Is PS a threat to your tooth enamel?  Click here to read the 30 Second Wine Advisor on red wine and your teeth.

I think that all this proves that Petite Sirah really is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine — and I mean that in a good way. It may not be The Next Big Thing, but that’s not the point. Different and not to everyone’s taste, but with a large, loyal and growing fan club, that’s Petite Sirah.

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Thanks to Jo Diaz of Diaz Communications for information about the PS I Love You program and for the charts above. Thanks as well to Julie Johnson for her comments on PS and to Lowell Daun and Miller Freeman III for representing The Wine Economist at the Dark & Delicious tasting.

Argentinean Wine: Striking a Balance

Old and New at Mendel Wines

Balance is the key to great wine (and profitable wine business, too). I was reminded of this truth many times during our visit to Mendoza, where wine makers are trying to chart a course between and among several extremes:

  • Competitive export sales versus the challenging domestic market;
  • Reliable value wine sales versus potentially more profitable premium products;
  • Popular and successful Malbec versus TNGT — The (speculative and uncertain) Next Big Thing.

The key to long term success involves finding the right balance in this complex economic environment.

Thinking Global: Anabelle Sielecki

I want to use this post to consider three types of balance that I think are particularly interesting in Mendoza – the balance between crisis and opportunity,  local and international winemaking influences and the simple tension between the old and the new.  We learned about all three dimensions during our brief visit to Mendel Wines in Lujan de Cuyo.

Crisis and Opportunity

Mendel is both very old and quite new.  The vineyards are old, planted in 1928. Somehow these Malbec vines survived the ups and downs of the Argentinean economy. The winery is almost as old and has a certain decaying charm. It stands in stark contrast to Salentein, O. Fournier, the Catena Zapata pyramid and the many other starkly modernist structures that have sprung up in this part of the world.

The winery project is quite new. Mendel is a partnership between Anabelle Sielecki and Roberto de la Mota and is the result of a balance between crisis and opportunity. When economic crisis struck Argentina ten years ago, opportunities were created for those with vision and entrepreneurial spirit. Anabelle and Roberto seized the moment and purchased these old vines and well-worn structures for their new super premium winery project.

That their impulse was timely and wise may not have been obvious at the time (crises are like that), but it is perfectly clear now. Wine Advocate named Mendel one of nine “Best of the Best” Argentinean wineries in a recent issue.[1]

Old and New

The winemaking that goes on in Mendel is also a combination of old and new. The technology is modern, of course, with stainless steel and French oak very visible. The setting, however, constantly reminds you of the past and the vineyard’s and winery’s history. Walking through the winery, for example, I was struck by the big concrete (or were they adobe?) fermenting tanks – a blast from the past for sure.

No, we don’t use them to ferment the wines anymore, Cecilia Albino told us, but we put them to good use. Peek inside. Sure enough, the tanks were filled with oak barrels full of wine aging quietly in the cool environment.

[Interestingly, I saw concrete tanks again during our visit to Achaval Ferrer.  Roberto Cipresso, the winemaker there, built the tanks because he uses them at his winery in Montalcino.]

Mendel also illustrates the balance between local and global that characterizes wine in Argentina, where much of the capital and many of the winemakers come from abroad.  Roberto de la Mota, partner and chief winemaker at Mendel, personifies this balance. Roberto is the son of  Raúl de la Mota, who is sometimes said to be Argentina’s “winemaker of the century” so important was his work in developing quality wine in this country.

Roberto naturally grew up in the wine business both here and in France, where he sought advanced training on the advice of Emile Peynaud. He was the winemaker at Terrazas, Chandon’s still wine project in Mendoza, and then at Cheval des Andes, a winery with connections to Château Cheval Blanc. I think it is fair to say that Roberto’s resume represents a balance between local and global, between deep understanding of Mendoza terroir and knowledge that perhaps only international influences can provide.

Acting Local: Roberto de la Mota

Local and Global

I asked Roberto if it was important that Mendel is an Argentinean project and not owned by a foreign multinational. Yes of course, he said, but he hesitated a bit and I think I see why. Many of the influences and markets are international, but people, vines and inspiration are  purely local. Not one or another, but intertwined, balanced.

And this thirst for a complex balance defines the future. Talking with Anabelle over coffee in Buenos Aires, she was ambitious to break into new markets – Hong Kong, China, and so forth. Anabelle is an architect — another field where global and local intersect.  She is married to Héctor Timmerman, Argentina’s Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to the United States, so her international interest comes naturally.

Meeting with Roberto at the winery in Mendoza, he was interested in learning even more about his vines and terroir so as to better develop their potential. And to bring more of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties (like Petit Verdot) into the mix.

Mendel has charted its balanced course quickly, purposefully and well.  It is a perfect illustration of both the tensions that define wine in Argentina and the potential for success if a clear but balanced path is boldly taken.


[1] The other “Best of the Best” wineries in Wine Advocate issue 192 are Achaval Ferrer, Alta Vista, Catena Zapata, Viña Cobos, Colomé Reserva, Luca, Tikal and Yacochuya.

Everything Old is New Again: Wine in Mexico & Turkey

This is the seventh  in a series of articles on wine in the BRICs and the New BRICs. Today we examine Mexico & Turkey.

Old Old and Old New

What in the world do Turkey and Mexico have in common? It is easy to generate a list of differences ranging from geography to history, language, and religion. Jim O’Neil probably included them on his list of the New BRICs because they both have relatively large populations (107 million in Mexico, 75 million in Turkey) and so substantial market potential as their middle classes expands

From a wine standpoint, Mexico and Turkey are linked by the term “oldest.” Turkey may be the oldest Old World wine producer, with evidence of wine production going back more than 6000 years. You cannot get much more “Old World” wine than Turkey, even if most people in the Old World never give Turkish wine a second thought.

Mexico is the oldest wine producer in the New World. Spanish soldiers and priests brought wine grapes with them,  The first evidence of wine production dates from 1521 (I see a 500 year anniversary celebration on the horizon). Conquistador Cortés ordered that new settlers plant grape vines (1000 vines for every 100 persons, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine), thus spreading Spain’s wine culture throughout the New World empire. Wine production in Mexico grew so successful that King Felipe II of Spain order a stop to new production in 1699 in an effort to protect Spain’s domestic wine industry.

Red and White vs Raki and Brandy

It is ironic that we don’t associate wine production with these two countries today given their deep historical roots. Turkey? It’s a Muslim country, of course, so we don’t think of alcohol or, if we do, it is raki, the fiery anise flavored drink. Mexico brings images of tequila (and wasting away in Margaritaville), beer, and perhaps Mexican brandy, the national liquor. Casa Pedro Domecq’s Presidente brand is said to be the best selling brandy in the world. Domecq is now part of the French drinks group Pernod Ricard.

Both Mexico and Turkey are important grape and wine producing nations today. Mexico produced a little over 1 million hectoliters of wine in 2007 according to OIV data — about  as about as much as New Zealand made in 2005 before its recent boom. Turkey is the world’s sixth largest table grape producer, surpassing Italy in this area, but only a small fraction of its output is made into wine. Turkey makes roughly the same amount of wine (213,000 hl) as Israel (218,000 hl).

Wine production in Mexico has fallen by almost 50% since the 1980s according to the OIV records while Turkey’s production levels have been more stable. Both Turkey and Mexico have the potential to rise up in the world wine rankings, but they each face particular challenges.

The Taste of Turkish Wine

Turkish wines can be stunningly good. Jancis Robinson’s tasting notes (from a 2009 research trip) find many peaks among wines make from international grape varieties. A Corvus Corpus 2004 received a rating of 17/20, for example. “This right bank style wine is really quite rich and full, verging on overripe. Extremely opulent and velvety.” A Robert Parker kinda wine, she said.

Ron and Mary Thomas, my senior Turkish wine correspondents, reported similar success on their 2010 tasting trip. “We found the wines of Turkey to be ubiquitous, great values, and extremely enjoyable,” they write. Among the reds they found the Syrah  wines hard to beat — some of the best Syrahs they have tasted anywhere — high praise. But the highest peak came from an unexpected source.

Our greatest discovery was the varietal called Emir.  We found it from several different producers in each area of Turkey where we stayed, most of the producers (or the fruit) located in the area we first stayed (Cappadocia—central Turkey).  This stony, flinty land produced this wonderful grape that is unlike anything I’ve tasted.  Think about a cross between a flinty sauvignon blanc from the Loire and a very dry viognier.  It had a light golden color and a very crisp finish.  Some lemony-apple notes, wonderful minerality, and pleasing to sip while it stood up well to fish and the ever-present smoky-roasted aubergine (which I had at every meal in Turkey).  This was a favorite wine we would drink anytime.  We found the same bottles to cost anywhere from about 15 Turkish Lire in the winery, to 30-90 in a restaurant (depending on the scale of the restaurant).  That’s a range of about $10 USD to $65.  We sometimes did not find it on the wine list, and started asking for it:  in all cases but one, they found a bottle in the back and presented it to us, and no matter who produced it, it was great.  It went beautifully with the bronzino in Ephesus and Istanbul, and was perfect with the stuffed zucchini flowers in Cappadocia.  Emir is king.

Indeed. And that’s part of Turkey’s problem. As the Oldest of the Old World countries, it has perhaps the richest treasury of native grape varieties. But who has heard of them, of King Emir and his court? Very few, I think, and this is problematic in a world where so many consumers are already confused by wine and have trouble mastering the basics.

The domestic market for wine in Turkey is relatively small and its international exports are limited. Belgium is its largest international customer according to a government report (Belgium?) followed by Northern Cyprus, Germany, Britain, the USA and Japan. A local search for Turkish wine uncovered a few bottles at a Mediterranean restaurant and not much else.  As the report says, there is much work to do for Turkey to realize its great wine potential.

More Than Margaritaville

“Baja — the New California?” was the title of Jancis Robinson’s review of Mexican wine after her visit to Baja California in 2010. “I am excited about the potential for wine in Mexico,” she said. And indeed some of her tasting notes are enough to make anyone excited. Here’s what she had to say about Union de Productores Textura 1 2007 (a blend of Tempranillo, Zinfandel and Grenache): “Deep crimson. Very sweet and dusty and ripe berried. Very Mexican. Very rich. Sweet spicy then nice dry finish. There’s a real beginning, middle and end to this wine. Good refreshing stuff on the finish.”

Very Mexican! I like that. Not a me-too wine. Not all the wines are big or sweet, of course, which is just as well. Lots of variety. Lots to look for and to like.

The biggest challenge? Climate, according to Jancis. Not enough rain. And, while I’m sure she is right in the long run, I think that infrastructure is probably an even bigger short term problem.

People who taste the wines of Mexico at wineries rave about their quality. But then when they order them in restaurants in the cities they are sometimes puzzled. Is this the wine I liked so well? I wonder what’s happened to it, they ask?

The answer, in many cases, is that Mexico’s transportation system of poor roads and long rides in hot trucks has baked the freshness out of the wine and left just a  hollow shell behind. Mexico can produce excellent wines, but it must also find ways to get them to market in good condition. This is a wine problem but of course it is much more than that.  It is a symptom of a general challenge to Mexico’s continued development.

There’s a [Wine] App for That!

Happy New Year! I’ve just finished reading final papers from The Idea of Wine class I teach at the University of Puget Sound.  This semester several students probed the intersecting worlds of wine and technology. Here, for your consideration, are quick summaries of five papers that explore variations on this very contemporary theme.

There’s an App for That!

Anna wrote about wine Apps. Apps are creatures of the 21st century — application programs that run on smart phones, iPads and similar electronic devices. There are thousands of Apps (the iTunes App Store and Android Market are full of them) and so it is no surprise that there are wine Apps, too.

Anna discovered five basic types of Apps, which she classified as wine journals, wine glossaries, wine-food pairing programs, electronic sommeliers that provide recommendations from lists of wines and wine quizzes and games. SmartCellar is an example of a sommelier-type App — restaurants can use SmartCellar-equipped iPads instead of printed wine lists to help their guests make well-informed wine choices.

Project Genome, a Constellation Brands study, identified six distinctive groups of wine buyers ranging from Overwhelmed to Enthusiast. Anna matched wine Apps with buyer profiles and concluded that there is something for everyone. But are any of them perfect?

No. Anna imaged the perfect wine App for her — given her particular interest in wine today. No single existing App would satisfy all her needs, she concluded, but there soon will be given the pace at which new Apps appear.

QR — the New Face of Wine?

Jack wrote abut QR (Quick Response) codes. QR codes work on the same principle as Universal Product Codes, but whereas UPC codes can store 12 characters of information, QR codes hold much more.  You scan a QR using an App on your smart phone and the App uses the embedded information to direct its display. QR codes are everywhere these days, especially in advertisements. Jack reports that some new graves in Japan feature QR codes that, when scanned, show photos of the deceased. QR codes at Japanese tourist sites provide detailed visitor information.

Jack found several applications of QR codes to wine, but he thought that the potential of this technology is not yet fully exploited. QR codes in advertisements or wine labels are a way to give the consumer more information. More advanced technology — already in use in other consumer goods markets — would allow QR Apps to connect with local retailers or to interface with online communities like CellarTracker.

“The more you think about it, the more it’s clear that QR codes have the potential to change everything about wine shopping,” Jack concluded. “They are free, easy to make and will soon have an army of smartphone users” to exploit them.  Japan has been using them for 16 years, he said. Time for wine makers and buyers in the U.S. to catch up.

Wine and Social Media

Alyssa and David wrote very different papers about wine and social media. Social media refers to electronic communities that link people in flexible arrangements and allow  them to interact and to  share information of various sorts. Alyssa examined Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere to find the potential of each to forge durable wine-based interest groups.

David’s paper explored the role of the Internet (and social media)  in building or sustaining consumer communities using a very creative approach — comparing wine with beer. Beer has long been marketed as a group thing — a bunch of people get together and have a good time over a few beers. Wine’s marketing is not as consistently focused, David asserted, and the community element not so clearly developed.

This has an effect on how beer and wine build communities on the web. Beer brings community to the Internet, according to David, but wine tries to draw community from the web — an interesting point. “Every day, more and more people are being brought to wine through the Internet,” he concludes, “and lovers of wine are finally finding the community they’ve always wanted.”

Napa Valley versus Silicon Valley

Finally, Ben’s paper looked for linkages between Northern California’s two famous valleys. Not Napa and Sonoma (although that would be an interesting paper) but Napa and Silicon. What can we learn about wine, Ben asked, by looking at microchips? Quite a lot, he discovered.

Ben compared Annalee Saxenian’s account of the development of Silicon Valley in her book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 with James Lapsley’s history of the Napa Valley wine industry, Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era. He found rather interesting parallels between the two seemingly separate spheres of California life and concluded that Saxenian’s model of high tech regional development explains Napa’s evolution very well.

Going further, however, Ben asserts that both valleys reflect a certain regional spirit. “That this culture of creative destruction permeates as diverse of industries as IT and winemaking demonstrates the influence that a regional consciousness can have over all manners of activities that will within its physical purview.”

“In this sense,” he concludes, “Napa is a genuine reflection of its terroir …  Wine is a microcosm of our collective ties to our environment and the various techniques and technologies used to elucidate a certain character from a wine are ultimately efforts at understanding and strengthening this relationship. And in that pause given to us by that perfect glass of wine, we cannot help but feel closer to the world around us.”

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Sorry, I cannot distribute these papers directly, but if you are interested I will try to connect you with the student authors.

Past is Prologue at Tantalus Vineyards

Past is prologue, Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, and I’ve learned that if I want to figure out  the future I first need to understand the past. That’s why we decided to visit Tantalus Vineyards on Dehart Road southeast of Kelowna, British Columbia. My investigation of the future of Canadian wine had to start at its roots.

Jane Hatch (that’s her in the video) and David Patterson showed us around the contemporary winery and hospitality facility that  opened just a few months ago (the video was made while it was still under construction).  Jane is the winery’s general manager and David its production winemaker.

Past, Present and Future

Looking down over the vineyards to the lake from the new LEED certified building with its First Nations mask decorations, it would have been easy to forget the past and just enjoy the present. But Tantalus is a place where past, present and future come together.

J.W. Hughes bought land here in 1927 and planted his Pioneer Vineyard to vitis lambrusca varietals (think Concord grapes and the like), to be sold on the table grape market. In 1930 he agreed to sell grapes to Victoria Wineries Ltd. (for $100 a ton) in what may be the first wine grape contract in Canadian history.  Commercial B.C. wine production up to that point was focused on fruit wines – loganberry wines at Victoria and apple wines at nearby Calona Wines Ltd, for example. It was a good way to use up surplus fruit.  There is no indication that the wines were of particularly high quality. Consumer expectations for wine were low and these products found buyers.

Hughes expanded his vineyard holdings and then, starting in the mid-1940s, began to sell them off to his farm managers. That’s how Martin Dulik came to own Pioneer Vineyards, which he paid for over seven years beginning in 1944 by giving Hughes half of the revenues from each harvest.

Dulik, a Czech immigrant, managed the vineyard well and the grapes that he and his son Den produced were sold on both the wine and table grape markets. As wine production in the region expanded in the 1960s, many growers replanted to French hybrid varietals like Seyval Blanc, but Den Dulik resisted the trend, reasoning that his vitis labrusca grapes made better wine than the hybrids. He was probably right, although the wines they were went into were often the unsophisticated “pop” products that were popular at the time.

Taking the Next Step

In 1978 Dulik was persuaded to plant White Riesling and these vines are the foundation of Tantalus Old Vines Riesling that I tasted on my visit. Soon Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other vitis vinifera vines joined Riesling in Pioneer Vineyards.

Everything was in place, therefore, when Den’s daughter Susan developed a passion for wine and started making wine with the family fruit. Her project soon developed into a farmgate winery called Pinot Reach conceived with the intention of making exceptional Pinot Noir. Pinot Reach opened in 1997. Its wines, especially the  Old Vines Riesling, were soon being praised by no less than Jancis Robinson, the celebrated British wine critic.

Investor-enthusiasts Eric Savics and Eira Thomas bought the winery and vineyards from the Duliks in 2004, renaming the operation Tantalus,  and began the transformation that includes the new winery facility you’ll find there today. Tantalus’s recent development reflects two trends that I saw everywhere on our Okanagan wine tour.

Global Meets Local

The first is a growing international influence. Although the market for these wines is mainly local, the winemaking influences are decidedly global. Tantalus’s senior winemaking consultant, Jacqueline Kemp, is a New Zealand “flying winemaker,” who brings international experience to her work here. Production winemaker David Patterson is Canada-born, but he learned winemaking  in New Zealand and earned his winemaking spurs there and in Oregon and Australia.

All across the region I met winemakers and “flying interns” from around the world. In a way this continues an existing pattern, since many of the early winemakers here were immigrants who brought winemaking knowledge with them, but it is more than that. The Okanagan is now clearly part of a very intense global exchange of technical winemaking knowledge.

Talking with David about the great strides that the region’s wines have made, I brought up climate change. Surely the changing natural environment accounts for the improvement, I suggested. David disagreed. It was better winemaking, not warmer weather, that made the difference he said, and surely the international influences are part of that.

The second trend, which is seen so clearly at Tantalus, is that this global energy is clearly focused on identifying distinct local terroirs. The Tantalus team realize that theirs is an exceptional location for Riesling and Pinot Noir and they are drilling down into those vineyards and particular varietals to see what they will reveal.

The region is extremely varied in its micro-terroirs – almost anything is possible here from ice wine to Syrah and Zinfandel. But just because something can be done doesn’t mean you should do it and the race is on to find out what works best for each vineyard block.  Focus and increasing specialization are the wave of the future here.

Yes and No

So is past prologue?  Yes and no. Yes in the sense that the Okanagan wine industry wouldn’t be what it is today without the evolutionary process it’s experienced. The industry is stronger for the work of its pioneers and the legacy they created.

But no, the world has changed, is changing. With better winemaking and increased investment the true potential of  this region’s wine industry is being unlocked. The challenge now is to get the word out and then to get the wine out. I’m trying to do my part on the former, but the latter is the bigger challenge in the long run because of regulatory structures that make marketing and distribution costly and inefficient even within Canada to say nothing of international trade.

O Canada, my how you’ve changed. I’m looking forward to visiting again in a few years to see how present trends develop.

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This post owes a debt to John Scheiner’s writings, especially The Wines of Canada (Mitchell Beazley, 2005), John Scheiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide (Whitecap Books, 2006) and his British Columbia Wine Companion (Orca Books, 1997).  Scheiner’s blog and books are great resources for anyone who wants to know more about B.C. wines.

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!

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