Wanted: Retail [Wine] Therapy

I know that it is not easy to make good wine. And wine can be difficult to sell, too. But apparently buying wine is even harder.

That ’70s Wine

At least that’s the word from some top wine critics. Lettie Teague’s column in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal was ostensibly about that 1970s favorite, Pouilly-Fuissé, but much of it was actually a gentle rant about the difficulty she experienced in trying to buy a few bottles for a tasting. Seems the specialist wine merchants she contacted just didn’t have much in stock. She had to work pretty hard to put together a reasonable sample.

Is it just a Pouilly-Fuissé problem? Maybe, but Teague reported much the same experience a couple of weeks ago when she tried to put together a tasting of wines  from Washington state. Teague’s merchants carried just a bottle or two of Washington wine, same as that 70’s wine. That’s all we need, they told her. No one cares, they said.

What do Washington wines have in common with the French? I used to think it was latitude but now I know — you can’t buy them in New York! (BTW word of mouth evidence suggests that Washington wines might be easier to find in New York than Teague’s article indicates.)

Mind the Gap

I know there are many factors at work here including New York’s peculiar retail wine regulations, the dollar-euro exchange rate and especially the recent “flight to safety” among wine sellers who seek to minimize inventory in a very uncertain market.

America’s byzantine interstate wine trade regulations are part of the problem, too. I’ve often looked across the pond to Britain and imagined how great it would be to have a unified wine market (without dozens of state and even local regulatory regimes). Wine is easier to sell in Britain because of this and so I’ve always thought that it was easier to buy, too. I guess I forgot my own frustrated wine buying experiences living in London a few years ago, when I tried to find interesting U.S. wines to share with British friends;  pretty much all I could find in my local drinks shop was bottom shelf generics.

I was reminded of this by one of Jancis Robinson’s recent Financial Times columns where she vented her frustration about trying to buy just a bottle or two of very good wine for dinner. You can buy vast quantities of cheap and cheerful wine as Tesco, she said, and of course you can purchase many of the finest wines on earth by the case and have it delivered to your door the next day. But what if you just want one bottle of something a notch or two above the supermarket category?

Yes, you can do it, she said, but it isn’t easy. And then she listed the five British merchants that she thinks fill the bill. Five! Ouch. “… this list is just about it – in a country of 33.4m wine drinkers,” she moaned. The gap between BOGOF Tesco and a case of Chateau Lafite is bigger than I thought! Robinson cites the increasing dominance of the big supermarket chains as a critical factor driving the specialist wine merchant out of business. Tesco, of course, is now the world’s largest wine merchant and 70% of British wine comes from a supermarket shelf.

Decanter published an article last year (in the 2009 California supplement) bemoaning the fact that so few American wines are available in the UK. Bottom and top are easy enough to find, but nothing much in the vast middle. They cited a number of factors including American winemakers’ resistance to the deep discounts needed to make export sales, high British retail margins and the incompatibility of American wine styles and British palates. Whatever the reason, it seems that British wine buyers are surprisingly under-served when it comes to America’s diverse wine array.

Why Can’t a Wine Be More Like a Book?

It occurs to me that the situation facing wine buyers today is a lot like book buying was twenty years ago. It was easy to find best sellers and trashy paperbacks. And specialist shops catered to particular interests at a price. But much of the vast book supply was very difficult for buyers to access.

And then came Amazon.com, of course. And now the world of new and used books is only a click away.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were an Amazon.com for wine? That would be one “killer app,” as they say. But I don’t think it is going to happen, at least not soon. Amazon.com announced plans to start selling wines online a couple of years ago, but nothing seems to have come of it and it is easy to see why.

Although bottled wine does share many of the attributes that made books Amazon.com’s initial target market, there are a number of discouraging negatives to consider. Wine is heavy and costly to ship compared to books.  A books doesn’t care if the weather is hot or cold while it is in transit, but your half-case of Chianti surely does. And of course there are the legal barriers that restrict interstate shipping at every turn.

I’m hoping that someone will come along with that Killer Wine App that makes fine wine buying as efficient as shopping for books, but until then I think that retail [wine] therapy will remain a source of frustration, not relief, for at least some of us.

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Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times suggests that wine books share some of the same distribution frustrations as wine. She reports a trend towards self-publication of specialist wine books.

Extreme Wines: Most Expensive Vintage?

[This post is part of an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.]

2009 is by most accounts the most expensive Bordeaux vintage on record. Quite an achievement during a global economic slowdown! Jancis Robinson quotes some amazing prices for the en primeur wines:

Le Pin €1,050
Ausone €800
Cheval Blanc €700
Haut-Brion, Latour €600
Lafite, Margaux, Mouton €550
Yquem €540

Other’s People’s Wine

These prices are per bottle — except that no real bottles exist yet. The 2009 vintage is still in barrel and will stay there for several more months. Since Bordeaux wines are almost always varietal blends — and since the blending won’t take place until the wine is bottled — it is fair to say that the people who are paying these big prices can’t be completely sure what they are buying. They base their purchases on … on what? On faith (in the winemakers), on trust (in the critics’ judgments) and, of course, on speculation, since much of the action at this stage is to lock up hot wines for profitable resale later.

John Maynard Keynes once compared speculators to people who bet on the results of the “people’s choice” beauty contests that were popular in his day. The trick wasn’t to pick out the most beautiful entrant, but rather to  identify the one that other people would vote for. So making the bet was a matter of guessing what other people would think other people would do and playing the odds. That’s Bordeaux en primeur in a nutshell.

How did prices rise so high with the world economy in such a fragile state? There are many theories. Here are four.

(Another) Vintage of the Century

The first theory is quite simple. 2009 was an extraordinary year and the wines are (or will be) spectacular.  Wine enthusiasts will forever regret it if they don’t purchase this vintage, even at high en primeur prices.

This theory is supported by the rave reviews of many wine critics. Perhaps it really is the vintage of the century in Bordeaux, although it must be said that vintages of the century seem to come around pretty frequently these days — their schedule is more like the World Cup than Haley’s Comet.

The China Theory

A second theory is that the high prices of these wines reflects the full emergence of Asia as a market for fine wine.  I’m not sure what to make of all the chatter I heard during the en primeur tasting circus, but the scuttlebutt is that American buyers failed to show up in the usual numbers, but they were not missed because of the demand from China, both direct purchases and London houses buying for eventual Hong Kong resale.

One fact that supports this theory is the huge gap in prices between the top trophy wines and the rest of the Bordeaux market. It is said that Asian buyers want to purchase only the best, most famous wines (rather than looking for bargains or good value further down the list). I don’t know if this stereotype is true, but the stratification in price indicates a disproportionate demand for the top wines, which is consistent with the China theory.

Auction Theory

Another article by Jancis Robinson suggests that the Bordeaux winemakers and their agents are using strategic techniques to try to boost prices, dividing them in tranches, for example, a popular practice in financial markets. Tranche is French for a slice and it is a word that moved from financial jargon to everyday use during the economic crisis, when we all learned how Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) were sold off in “slices” that allowed people to convince themselves that their sub-prime mortgage investments were safer than they turned out to be.

Bordeaux wine is sold in tranches, too, with the price of the first slice used to set the standard for the second.  This year, Robinson reports, the first tranche was ridiculously small, creating leaving excess demand and therefore forcing more buyers to weigh in for the second tranche (or risk not getting any wine), which was priced at €100 per bottle more than slice #1 in some cases.

(Wine fact: Tranche is also a winery — and a good one —  Tranche Cellars in Walla Walla.)

Cost-conscious wine drinkers can only hope that the Bordeaux merchants do not start reading the technical economics literature on auction theory, where they would likely find other ways to manipulate the market to squeeze out higher prices.

The No Theory Theory

A final theory is really no theory at all. It holds that the idea that Bordeaux 2009 (broadly defined) is the most expensive Bordeaux vintage ever is a misconception. There are about 8000 Bordeaux producers according to reports I’ve read recently and only about 400 of them take part in the en primeur market. The total production of “first wines” by these makers is surprisingly small. I think it is fair to say that 90 percent of the market’s recent attention is focused on less than 10% (by volume) of the wine produced in Bordeaux.

The prices of the top wines have gone through the roof, but what about the region as a whole? You don’t have to have a theory to appreciate the fact that the makers of ordinary Bordeaux wines do not share the status or benefits of the trophy wines and are probably feeling the pain of hard times like so many winemakers around the world.

Bordeaux 2009 might be extreme in two ways: most expensive and biggest gap between top and bottom!

Oregon Pinot Noir: Peaks & Valleys

A quick getaway to Portland provokes a post about Oregon wine’s highs and lows.

Cheers for All the [Peak] Years

I was browsing through the wine books at Powell’s, Portland’s famous bookstore, when I came across a used copy of  Vintage Timelines, a 1989 book by Jancis Robinson. The idea of the book was to select a group of the world’s greatest wines and examine how different vintages have evolved (and would be expected to continue to evolve) over time.  The research required Jancis to taste trough verticals of each great wine (research is such a drag!) and compare notes from previous years to create complex and quite fascinating graphical timelines.

It’s a great book for wine lovers (despite its 1989 date) and valuable to me because of the particular wines Jancis selected for the study.  No New Zealand or South African wines, for example. The recent history of their great wines was too brief in 1989 to permit long-term analysis.  Just five Australian wines made the cut (led by Penfolds Grange Hermitage, of course).  Seven California wines are listed and just one from the rest of the U.S. — David Lett’s Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve, the wine that put Oregon on the world wine map.

JR's Vintage Timeline for the Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve

There is an inscription in the book. “To Nick — Cheers for all the years — past & future. Dave Lett, Christmas 1989.”  Needless to say, I bought the book as both a research tool and a personal souvenir. It’s a good reminder of Oregon Pinot Noir’s humble origins and the high peaks it has climbed. Oregon’s wine industry is just a little over 40 years old, yet is is often  mentioned in the same breath with Burgundy because of the quality of its best Pinot Noir wines, like David Lett’s Eyrie Reserve.

Whole Foods Letdown

So I was feeling pretty good about the Oregon wine industry when I stopped off at Whole Foods, about a block away, to survey their selection of Oregon wines.  As I entered the store, however, I ran smack into a display of Oregon Pinot Noir priced at … wait for it … $9.99.  That’s about ten dollars less than the usual price for an entry level Oregon Pinot. The wine was produced by Underwood Cellars, a second label of Union Wine Company, which also makes King’s Ridge. The fruit was sourced mainly from Southern Oregon — the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys — not the Willamette Valley where Eyrie and most of the other famous Oregon Pinots are made.  The bargain price was a real shocker.

Oregon is a high cost wine production area. Even higher than  Burgundy, I think, because many of the vineyards there  have been in family hands for years and land costs are often not explicitly considered in calculating cost (an economic mistake, of course, as any Econ 101 student will tell you). That’s not the case is Oregon, where it is hard to ignore the cost of capital.

A study using 1999 data put the average cost of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir at $12.79 per bottle (see Oregon Viticulture edited by Edward H. Hellman for the details) and more recent proprietary data I have seen puts cost in the same range or higher. $9.99 might or might not be a sustainable price for a wine made from Umpqua Valley fruit, but  it certainly isn’t a  sustainable price point for Willamette Valley wine.  If the price of entry level Willamette Valley Pinot  were to reset from $20-$30 down to $10-$15 … well I think the Willamette River would bleed red ink. Click here to read a recent article from Wines & Vines about the Oregon situation.

Boom and Bust

The quality of Oregon Pinot Noir is higher than ever, I believe, but the industry’s economic health may be falling. Oregon (and New Zealand) rode the Sideways Pinot boom for several years, expanding vineyard plantings repeatedly because it seemed like the demand for this wine would never be satisfied.

Now the recession is here, Malbec is  hot, the new Pinot vineyards in Oregon, New Zealand, Chile and elsewhere are all coming into production at the same time and prices are tumbling. Bargain Pinot Noir is a fact of life for now. It will be interesting to see where the market resets when supply and demand eventually find their new balance.

In the meantime, I guess there’s only one thing to do. Drink more Pinot Noir!

Gourmet, Rachael Ray, Chardonnay Connection

1940-2009 RIP

I was trying to explain to my students the lasting importance of Robert Mondavi and I suddenly realized that Julia Child was the key. Mondavi tried to do for wine in America what Julia tried to do for food. This made me think about other parallels between our wine and food cultures — and the significance of the last issue of Gourmet magazine.

The End of Gourmet

Condé Nast announced yesterday that it was pulling the plug on Gourmet magazine, America’s signature culinary monthly since 1940. The cause of death, clearly, is the economic crisis, which has reduced advertising pages by over 30 percent. Gourmet‘s subscribers (there are nearly a million of them) will have to find something else to read on the still-cluttered Food & Lifestyles section of the newsstand. Bon Appétit (another Condé Nast title) is the obviously choice, although it is not a perfect substitute — more recipes I’m told, and less upscale travel and leisure.

Gourmet‘s obituary appeared everywhere — even on the front page of the New York Times. The Times made it clear that this wasn’t just a business decision (although Condé Nast assured us it was — the McKinsey consulting firm made the call). This is really the end of an era. And not a good end.

“It’s Rachael Ray’s world now,” the story declared, referring to the 30-minute-meal Food Network star; “we’re all just cooking in it.” Roll over, Julia Child (as Chuck Berry might have said) and tell Escoffier the news.

Rachel Ray Chardonnay?

Setting aside for a moment the premise of the Times article — that Gourmet defines the era — I wonder if what’s true for food in America is also true for wine? This must be a valid concern because it is he gist of the question that I’m most frequently asked by journalists — is the current slump in fine wine sales (especially wines selling for $20 or more in the shops) a temporary trend or a permanent shift in demand? Is this the end of an era for wine? When the economy perks up eventually, will people want to buy very expensive wines again? Or is the switch to cheaper, simpler wines (my made-up Rachel Ray Chardonnay) here to stay?

The question became more interesting as I read the Times article. I tried to substitute wine terms for food terms in the article and it seemed to make sense. Here’s what I mean.

The death of Gourmet [insert name of expensive wine] doesn’t mean people are cooking less [drinking less] or do not want food magazines [good wine], said Suzanne M. Grimes, who oversees Every Day With Rachael Ray, among other brands, for the Reader’s Digest Association.

“Cooking [wine drinking] is getting more democratic,” she said. “Food [wine] has become an emotional currency, not an aspiration.”

It has also become democratized via the chatty ubiquity of Ms. Ray [Gary Vaynerchuck?] and the Food Network stars. Ms. Reichl [the Gourmet editor -- insert Robert Parker or maybe Jancis Robinson] is a celebrity in the food [wine] world, but of an elite type. She [or maybe he] “is one of those icons in chief,” said George Janson, managing partner at GroupM Print, part of the advertising company WPP. But what harried cooks [budget conscious wine drinkers] want now, it seems, is less a distant idol and more a pal.

The substitution works, pretty well, don’t you think? And the McKinsey consultants surely did their job. Food and wine down the tubes. Maybe Robert Mondavi and Julia Child are both turning in their graves!

Exaggerated Rumors

But rumors of the death of both fine dining and fine wine are probably exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have said. Gourmet is an iconic brand and the fact that Condé Nast cut it rather than Bon Appetit surely does mean something. But we have to remember that print magazines themselves are an endangered species in this internet age. What information we consume and in what form are both changing very rapidly. Magazines will change rather rapidly in the next few years to remain relevant or else they’ll fade away. Gourmet isn’t the first and won’t be the last to bite the dust.

So I am not willing to declare fine wine (or the Gourmet food lifestyles) dead on the basis of this news alone. The question of whether Americans will return to their old wine-drinking habits when the recession ends remains open for now.

Note: A lot of great wine writing appeared in Gourmet over the years. Look for a future post that tries to understand the changing American wine work through the Gourmet lens.

Wine Festivals Uncorked

jancis

Jancis Robinson and Wine Economist Mike Veseth at the IPNC. Wine Festivals draw celebrity wine critics, who taste, talk, sign books, pose for photos and lend credibility to the event.

Wine festivals have become big business. So big that the Wall Street Journal publishes a guide to upcoming festivals in each Friday’s edition. Click here to see their online August festival listing.There are lots of different wine events, but I’m not talking about charity wine walkabouts here, where you make a small donation, get a few drink tickets and visit tables where random bottles of donated wine are poured. The modern wine festival is a lot more focused and sophisticated and designed to engage wine enthusiasts on a different level.

International Pinot Noir Celebration

The International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in McMinnville, Oregon is a good example of the state of the art in wine festivals today. Sue and I attended the grand tasting last Sunday (a chance to sample dozens of Pinot Noir in a beautiful but hot outdoor setting), but the real deal for serious Pinot lovers is the full three day festival. For a fee of about $900 per person (not including lodging) you spend your days in tastings, seminars and vineyard tours and your nights under the stars at grand dinners.

The festival attracted winemakers from Oregon, California, Washington, Canada, France, Austria, Australia and New Zealand — quite an international lineup in a recession year.

I’m told that about 400 people attend the big festival — many of them come back year after year — and I would guess that another 300 or so came to the grand tasting on Sunday, so the festival’s total budget must approach a  half-million dollars. More than enough to pay the expenses of wine critics and celebrities (like Jancis Robinson above).

What’s In It For Me?

It is interesting to consider what brings all these people together? Yes, yes, I know that it must ultimately be about buying and selling wine, but that doesn’t fully explain it. No wine typically changes hands at events like this and there are probably more cost effective ways to market wine, from the supplier standpoint, and cheaper ways for consumers to fill their glasses, too. So what’s really going on?

One reason winemakers travel so far to attend these festivals is to communicate with other producers and to taste and compare their wines. Although I still don’t fully understand it, I have observed a subtle kind of dialogue when winemakers taste together. Information about taste, technique and status are all transmitted in the glass. Professors go to conferences and communicate by reading papers. Winemakers go to festivals and taste each others’ wines. It is easy to see who has the more sensible approach to intra-industry communication.

I suspect that there was a lot of producer dialogue at the Pinot festival because the wines that we tasted did not have much in common except the genetic pedigree of the grapes used to make them. Although the world wine market is moving to a lingua franca based upon grape varietal labeling (Chardonnay not Chablis, Pinot Noir not Burgundy) it is very clear that wines made from Pinot Noir grapes can have extraordinarily different textures, flavors and aromas. depending upon who makes them, how and where.

The Old World naming system (based on place not varietal) sure has its merits in the wineglass where terroir is actually experienced — too bad it works so poorly in the cluttered supermarket aisle when wines are bought and sold.

I met more than one winemaker who told me basically that she came to Oregon to prove something — to prove that good Pinot Noir could be made in X  where X = Oregon, Austria, California, Australia — fill in the place — only Burgundy has nothing to prove.

Hemispheric Exchange

A good deal of business gets done whenever producers come together, as you might expect. Partnerships, consulting services, distribution agreements and so forth are frequently arranged.  The McCrone vineyard wines made by Ken Wright Cellars and Ata Rangi are a good case study of the sort of  connections that probably could only happen in face-to-face meetings at a wine festival.

Don and Carole McCrone

Don and Carole McCrone

Don McCrone is a distinguished retired politics professor turned distinguished active winegrower. His vineyard outside of Carlton, Oregon  produces amazing fruit, which winemaker Ken Wright turns into a wonderful single-vineyard bottling. Don and Carole McCrone met the  winemakers from New Zealand’s famous Ata Rangi winery at IPNC a few years ago and were encouraged by them (while tasting each others’ wines, no doubt) to scout out vineyard properties in Martinborough.

Now the McCrones spend half of the year in each hemisphere supplying grapes to both Ken Wright and Ata Rangi for “McCrone Vineyard” wines. Are there any other winegrowers with vineyard designated wines in both hemispheres? It is an extreme example of the sort of cross-fertilization that can happen behind the scenes at major wine festivals.

Relationships not Transactions

I think that the most important function of wine festivals is to establish and build relationships. I always say that wine is good, but wine and a story is better. Wine and a relationship (even a superficial one with the grower, the winemaker, or other wine enthusiasts) is best of all. Doug Tunnell, winemaker at Oregon’s Brick House, explained to me that he brings his wines to IPNC every year to maintain contact with the people who attend. I got the impression that it isn’t so much about selling wine as honoring  relationships.  I think elite makers recognize that investing in relationships with customers (and with wine critics and journalists and all the others who attend these events) pays dividends down the road. Winemaking and relationship-building both require a long-term perspective.

The fact that many people come back to IPNC year after year suggests that they value the relationships, too, both with the producers and with each other. I have written that wine always tastes best when it is shared with others who enjoy and appreciate it. This may be especially true with festivals like IPNC, which tend to attract participants who are especially focused on a particular wine or region.

What I Think I Have Learned

So here is what I think I have learned from my fieldwork at wine festivals so far, both at IPNC and elsewhere, on both sides of the table, both pouring and receiving wine.

Wine festivals aren’t really about the wine, they are about the people, the conversations and the relationships. The role of the wine is to bring the people together and to give them something to share in a way that is impossible to recreate electronically.

Wine, or really the sharing of wine,  is a personal  relational experience in an otherwise increasingly impersonal transactional world.  That people seem to appreciate this sort of experience (and seek it out, even at high monetary cost and even in a deep recession) suggests something about its scarcity, don’t you think?

Book Review: The Business of Wine

The Business of Wine (edited by Geralyn G. Brostrom and John C. Brostrom) is organized as an encyclopedia with entries from A (Airlines comes first) to Z (for Zinfandel, of course). I opened the book with two questions on my mind: Why an encyclopedia? And why another encyclopedia?

Why an encyclopedia?

This question comes up because there are a lot of different ways to tell the story of the business of wine and to organize that story. An encyclopedia, with alphabetically arranged entries of various lengths, is a peculiar choice when you think about it.

On one hand, it gives a lot of freedom to the reader to cut and paste her own story by darting back and forth among items, possibly but not necessarily hitting all the key points along the way. On the other hand it also gives the editors quite a bit of control, since they get to choose what gets in (and in which author’s account) and what and who are left out.

Does the encyclopedia format work, or would a series of essays by various experts  (the format chosen for another recent book also titled The Business of Wine) have been more useful?

Why another encyclopedia?

This question arises because we already have a really excellent encyclopedia of the business of wine — it is embedded in The Oxford Companion to Wine 3/e edited by Jancis Robinson. Although the Oxford Companion is an encyclopedia of wine in general, there is a lot of great wine economics to be found here.

This is understandable. It is difficult to think about wine without straying, intentionally or not, into wine economics. Winemaking is an art, a science and a business and you really can’t leave the business part out if you want to understand the whole process. That’s why about a third of the Masters of Wine exam deals with questions about the business of wine.

The Oxford Companion does a good job dealing with many wine economics topics. Does the new encyclopedia add something to a bookshelf that already contains the Oxford Companion?

Managing the Trade-Offs

How does the encyclopedia format work? Well, having spent some time with this book I have to say that it is an OK compromise. It is a lot more hit-and-miss than the ideal book of essays that I imagine, but apparently that book is very difficult to write because no one seems to have written it. The business of wine is very complicated and the parts of the business and the factors that affect it are both numerous and highly interconnected.

The encyclopedia format is problematic, but all the other wine business books I have read have had their problems, too. (One in particular — I won’t name it, but you probably know the one I’m talking about  —  promised a first-person account of the wine trade  but descended into something closer to a personal vendetta against professional colleagues.)

Do we need another encyclopedia – this specialized one – when the Oxford Companion already does a pretty good job covering wine economic topics? Yes, I think so, but as a supplement to the Oxford Companion not a replacement for it. I find it useful to have a book that drills down into the wine business in many cases, rather than treating it as part of a more general survey.

And some of the choices the editors have made are interesting. The Argentina entry, for example, is written by Laura Catena, VP of Bodega Catena Zappa and owner of Luca winery. And Joel Butler MW, the head of wine education at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, wrote the Washington State essay. Interesting to get these industry insider views.

Possible Improvements

My initial doubts about this new book have been overcome to a considerable extent. There are a number of ways the book could be improved, however. It seems to me that the editors might want to tinker with ratio and proportion a bit. Most encyclopedias like this divide entries into short, longer and longest (the longest being a couple of thousand works at most) and it is probably difficult to match topics and lengths. Maybe the entry on Airline wine sales could have been shorter and the discussion of Biodynamic wine a bit longer – you know what I mean. It’s a tricky business.

Most of the entries include suggestions for further reading and these are often  inadequate (as is the brief attempt at a bibliography). An encyclopedia like this is usually the introduction to a topic for readers, not the last word, so readers need to know where to go next. A little more guidance would be useful, especially for students.

And although this is an encyclopedia, I would have appreciated a longer introductory essay that tried to say something interesting about the state of the wine industry today and its challenges for the future.

Got data?

Finally, I am an economist, so I’d naturally like to see more data. Many of the entries include a good deal of data, as you would expect, and there is an appendix on “international wine data,” providing basic consumption and production information on many but not all the countries discussed in the main text. I think this could be usefully expanded to include more country-level data as well as data about international flows and time series data on prices and quantities.

Let me end on a positive note. This book exceeded my expectations and I think it is a useful reference, especially good for anyone just getting started in the study of the business of wine. And especially useful when read alongside other standard references like the Oxford Companion and Tom Stevenson’s excellent Wine Report annual series.

The Center Does Not Hold

Two recent articles in the Financial Times give a strong sense of the structural (as opposed to cyclical) forces that are transforming the world wine market.

The Age of Uncertainty

Jancis Robinson’s column in the March 21 FT is titled “Wine’s Age of Uncertainty,” echoing John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1977 book and 13-part BBC television series.”The wine world,” she writes,  “is currently every bit as riddled with uncertainty as any other.” And that sure is true. None of the quotidian constants seem to hold. Robinson writes that …

Perhaps the greatest certainty might be said to be that vines will bring forth a crop each autumn and the Bordelais will do their best to sell it the following spring. But even the Bordeaux 2008 en primeur campaign, just about to kick off, seems desperately uncertain.

London is the center of the Bordeaux trade, of course, and the prominence of Bordeaux wines among collectors has been both cause and effect of London’ rise as the nexus of global wine markets.  Now, however, this “virtuous” cycle seems to have turned inconveniently “vicious.”  London and Bordeaux seem to be collapsing together, and uncertainty creates anxiety and even fear.  Robinson searches in vain for some stabilizing force in global wine.

One would normally look to nature to offer some degree of certainty in contrast to the quicksands of commercial activity, but even the effects of the seasons seem to be less and less predictable, resulting in the increasing incidence of drought, bushfires, floods, frost and dramatic storms. These in turn have led to wine gluts and shortages, in Australia particularly, with concomitant effects on prices.

Nothing is reliable. Even our money betrays us.

These [problems] have been exacerbated by the current giddy gavotte of the world’s currencies, with particularly gloomy and inflationary effects on the price of wine in the UK. Britons are bracing themselves for the full effects of the slide of the pound on shop shelves, and it is hardly surprising that the wine trade is lobbying hard against any increase in UK excise duty. Already, pathetically few pence actually go to pay for the wine in any bottle retailing at £4.99.

These combined effects — recession, falling pound, potentially rising wine taxes — threatened Britain’s hold on its position as the leading global wine market.  But wait, it gets worse when you take into account adaptive expectations.

And then there is the general uncertainty now for any UK supermarket customer as to whether and when individual wines will be discounted. The pervasive discounting culture has lulled them into being afraid to buy any full price wine for fear of seeing it on promotion the following week.

How deep are the strains?  Robinson tries to put a happy face on the situation to end her column (“Perhaps, in wine anyway, it is not that we are more uncertain, just much better informed than we used to be,” she writes), but the evidence for something bigger at work is just too persuasive. We are better informed, but there’s more to it than that.

Drying Up

UK Loses Thirst for Bordeaux Wines” is the title of the second FT article, which appeared on March 23.  It provides more evidence of the death spiral that has seemingly ensnared London and Bordeaux.

British merchants are selling fine wine back to counterparts in Bordeaux and exporting it to Asia as domestic demand for the most expensive wine slumps and sterling weakens against the euro.

Everything seems to be be conspiring against London and Bordeaux, pushing the wine back to France and then on to Hong Kong, where a new market center has emerged now that HK’s high wine tariffs have been lifted.

Meanwhile, the price of fine wines sold in the UK has fallen by some 20 per cent since June, according to Liv-Ex.The return of wine to Bordeaux occurs as total French wine production is falling, raising fears that France is losing global market share to other producers like Italy.

And not just Italy, of course.  U.S. wine exports to Britain have quietly been increasing in the last year, overtaking France as the number one import,  as demand for French and Australian goods have slumped. It’s not all Stag’s Leap or Screaming Eagle, of course, but that’s not the point.  Every national wine market is stratified and Britain’s is not exception.

None of this is proof, of course, that London has permanently lost its place as the center of the wine world.  Maybe it really is just a cycle, where London’s falling status today will be reversed in 2010 or 2011 or whenever the heck the economic crisis ends.  But what if that doesn’t happen?  What if real structural changes are at work?

Then perhaps the center of the auction world will relocate to Hong Kong and the center of the retail wine universe will be the United States, with Costco and Trader Joe’s taking center stage. Nothing is certain — Jancis Robinson is right — and the Age of Uncertainty (Galbraith) yields uneasily to the Age of Anxiety.

More to follow.

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