Economist Report: Bacchus to the Future?

Wine Economist readers might want to check out the current (November 30, 2013) issue of the Economist newspaper to see what they have to say about the changing (and  not so changing) world of wine. I’m talking about an article called “Bacchus to the Future” that is featured in the Technology Quarterly section of the newspaper.

The story is about technological advances in what outsiders might consider a very traditional business. Please follow the link to read the entire article. I will insert a few quotes just to tease you a bit.

Few industries are more suspicious of change than winemaking.

True, but not universally true.  My reading of wine history shows that sometimes technology is  embraced (the Gallos and Robert Mondavi are on my list of noteworthy innovators) and sometimes stubbornly resisted. Europeans were in denial for decades after phylloxera hit them. How long did they resist grafting their vines onto American rootstocks?

“Technology has vastly improved the low end,” says Tim Keller, a former winemaker at Steltzner Vineyards in Napa. “There’s no longer an excuse for making a defective wine.”

So true. I discuss  this in the chapter of Extreme Wine about the best and worst wines. Inexpensive wines might not be to your taste, but they consistently achieve a commercial standard and are unlikely to be the worst wines you will ever taste. A warm embrace of technology is part of the explanation.

Because consumers remain seduced by the notion that wine should be made by humble farmers with as little intervention as possible, fine-wine labels still try to keep their experiments under wraps. But they are quietly deploying technology in a new way: not just to make bad wine decent, or to make good wine more cheaply, but to make already-great wines greater still.

The article talks about de-alcoholization as one of the hidden technological innovations and I think most of us agree that this useful (and sometimes necessary) tool is generally kept out of sight. Other examples of widely used but invisible wine technology?  Two words: Mega Purple!

France is the undisputed global leader in wine technology. As Mr Merritt notes, the country has a greater demand for mechanisation than America because its agricultural wages are higher. And France’s reputation means that its elite winemakers, unlike those in other countries, do not have to worry about criticism from elite French winemakers.

This is a point that I haven’t considered before. Sorta makes you think, doesn’t it. And I guess that’s the point. Check out the article to see what else it has to say.

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While you are thinking, you might give some thought to holiday gifts for your wine-loving friends. You can’t go wrong with my books, Wine Wars and Extreme Wine. Just a suggestion!

The Real Dirt on the Parker Theory and Chateau Al Gore

The new issue of the Journal of Wine Economics (JWE) leads off with a fascinating article by Julian M. Alston, Kate B. Fuller, James T. Lapsley and George Soleas titled “Too Much of a Good Thing? Causes and Consequences of Increases in Sugar Content of California Wine Grapes.”  It’s the kind of wine economics research that makes me smile: rigorous, clever, relevant — and it even includes a poem! What could be better!

Demand-Side Explanations: The Parker Theory

The puzzle that the article examines is why sugar levels (measured in degrees Brix) have risen in California, taking wine alcohol levels with them. Sugar levels in white grapes grown in California increased 12% from 1980-84 to 2005-08, for example, with the average degree Brix rising from 20.7 to 23.2. Average Brix for red grape varieties increased from 22.2 degrees Brix to 24.3. Sugar levels in Cabernet Sauvignon grapes increased from 22.8 to 25.0 degrees Brix at harvest.  Higher sugar levels mean higher alcohol levels, all else being equal.

Two simple explanations are usually cited to explain the rising sugar/alcohol trend. The first is based on changes in demand. Robert Parker (and some other powerful wine critics) are said to prefer a certain style of wine that is riper. Sugar and alcohol levels have increased as wine growers have worked to produce the grapes that make the wines that most please the Golden Palate of Robert P. (or that otherwise appeal to changing consumer preferences).

Supply-Side Explanations: Chateau Al Gore

I call the second theory the “Chateau Al Gore” hypothesis because Al Gore is associated in popular culture with global climate change and that’s what this theory is about. Rising temperatures, according to this line of reasoning, produce riper grapes pushing up sugar levels, boosting alcohol.

It is pretty easy to line up facts to make a persuasive case for Chateau Al Gore. Temperatures as measured by a heat index have been rising in California, according to the article’s authors. Sugar and alcohol levels have increased, too. Although additional sugar may be welcome (the Parker principle), there are indications that producers would prefer lower levels. A good deal of wine in California is partially de-alcoholized, for example. Alcohol is removed from a portion of the vintage (using reverse osmosis or the spinning cone method I am told) and then the treated wine is blended back, reducing overall alcohol levels and allowing winemakers the opportunity to find the “sweet spot” alcohol level for their wines.

Some of the de-alcoholization may be motivated by federal taxes, which increase substantially on a per-gallon basis for wines that rise above the 14% ABV level. The extra 50 cents tax per gallon may not concern the makers of expensive wines like Screaming Eagle, but it can be a significant cost factor for bulk producters and thus worth the expense of alcohol reduction. In any case, the authors find that lower-priced grapes tend to have lower average Brix readings, which is consistent with the tax hypothesis but doesn’t prove it.

If alcohol levels of wine have increased even after partial dealcoholization, this suggests that rising sugar levels must be unwanted and this notion is at least partially confirmed by preliminary data reported here that many wineries under-estimate alcohol levels on product labels. The authors have obtained access to data from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (one of the largest wine merchants in the world), which show that the average stated alcohol level of California wine exported to Ontario was 12.63 percent in the sample period while the actual level was 13.35 percent. The gap is clear, but the authors suggest that more work is needed to fully understand it. I’ll be interested to read their final report.

Ceteris Paribus

The Chateau Al Gore theory seems pretty persuasive. Ceteris paribus (holding everything else constant) it makes sense that sugar and alcohol levels would rise with average vineyard temperature. The fact that winemakers work to offset the alcohol boost and maybe fudge it a bit (within legal limits)  on the label suggests that this is a climate change event that they struggle to contain.

But ceteris is seldom really paribus in wine. Employing multi-factor regression analysis, the authors find that the rising heat index is responsible for some of the increase in sugar levels, but not all of it. Put another way, climate factors alone are not sufficient to explain the total increase in sugar and alcohol. Other factors must also be at work.

Which pushes us back to the demand-side Parker Theory, but in a  usefully complicated way. It is important to understand how much the California wine industry has changed in the last 30 years. The type of wine produced has changed, for example, with varietal wine (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon) increasing faster than production of generic wine (“Chablis,” “Burgundy”). Varietal wines accounted for 71% of California production in 2000, according to the authors, compared to just 19% in 1985.

The move upmarket required different grape varieties of higher quality from different production zones. Thus while total California wine grape production rose by 60% in the survey period, the biggest increase (+185%) was in the Delta region (including the Lodi AVA) with the North Coast (including Napa and Sonoma Valleys) increasing by 128%.  Wine grape production in the San Joaquin Valley rose but by a much smaller amount. The southern San Joaquin valley accounted for just 30% of California vineyard acreage in 2008 (down from 50% in 1981), although it still produced more than 60% of wine grape tonnage because of higher yields.

So wine grape production has increased and also shifted in terms of desired quality, price per ton, grape variety and growing location. It is perhaps not surprising that average sugar levels would change too. Much of the growth in the California wine industry has thus been associated with the demand shift towards premium and ultra-premium wines and the rising sugar levels are to some extent associated with this “grape transformation” of the American palate. Robert Parker is part of this movement although I think it would be unfair to give him all the credit or blame for the changes noted here.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

So the JWE article finds evidence for both the demand-side and supply-side theories of rising sugar levels. But wait, there is more, including rootstocks (this is the “real dirt” in the title of this post).

Phylloxera struck California starting in the mid-1980s when the supposedly Phylloxera resistant AxR#1 rootstock was found to be susceptible to this root-sucking parasite. Eventually nearly all the vines affected were grubbed up and replaced with vines grafted to different (and hopefully more resistant) rootstocks. Several winemakers have suggested to me that the new rootstocks and associated changes in viticultural practices affect grape ripening — sugar levels peak before the desired flavor profile (phenolic ripeness) has been achieved. Longer hang times are needed to get the flavors right,  leaving wine growers with the problem of too much sugar and so forth.

The rootstock hypothesis is beyond the scope of the JWE study, but it indicates how complicated it can be to explain seemingly simple questions in wine economics and how much wine remains an agricultural product after all.

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I don’t think I’ve done justice to this research so I hope you will click on the link in the first paragraph above and read the study yourself.

Authentic Wine: Terroirist Manifesto and DIY Guide

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

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

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

Terroirist Sympathies Disclosed

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

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

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

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

Natural versus Authentic Wine

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

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

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

VooDoo Viticulture?

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

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

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

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

Authentic Wine: A Fork in the Road?

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

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

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

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.

Extreme Wine: The Worst?

What’s the worst wine in the world? Not the worst type of wine, varietal or style (these are matters of taste and degustibus non est disputandum here at The Wine Economist). And let’s rule out the worst idea for a wine, too, because Miles’s dump bucket cuvée from the film Sideways (shown above) is the clear winner.

No, I’m talking about the worst professionally made (amateur efforts are another category), commercially sold wine — the wine with the most serious objective flaws that was released to the market despite its potentially reputation-ruining qualities?

Corked and Screwed

In terms of a single vintner economic impact, it was probably the 1985 David Bruce Chardonnay that George Taber talks about in his excellent book To Cork or Not to Cork? David Bruce is known today as a maker of fine Pinot Noir but back in the 1980s their Chardonnay was a big hit. A hit, that is, until the 1985 vintage was plagued by massive incidence of cork taint that almost destroyed the winery by ruining the reputation of its most important wine and effectively drove it out of the Chardonnay business.

Turns out the faulty corks had been rejected as tainted by Robert Mondavi and the cork importer sold them off to David Bruce rather than having them destroyed or sent back to Portugal.  A big economic hit indeed. But I need to rule out cork taint for this extreme wine competition because it is so utterly unexceptional. Virtually everyone who bottles wine with cork will experience cork taint — 3-5 percent loss is the figure usually cited.

Bad Wine Uncorked

I had the opportunity to understand what really bad wine is like last week when I attended a professional wine faults workshop organized and taught by Amy Mumma, director of the innovative World Wine Program at Central Washington University (profiled in this recent Yakima Herald-Republic article) .

Amy’s background is in biochemistry and wine business and this gives her an unusual ability to detect and analyze wine flaws and advise wineries (something that the legendary Emile Peynaud was famous for).  To steal a line from Ghostbusters, Amy is the answer to the question “who ya gonna call?” when something goes wrong with your wine.

Amy led my group of about 50 wine professionals through a tasting of twelve wines that illustrated different fundamental flaws ranging from what was probably a simple shipping problem (“cooked” when its shipping container got too hot) to a palate-destroying example of a badly corked wine. When retailers are suspicious that a wine on their shelves may be faulty, they call Amy and, if the problem is bad enough, she buys the bottles for use in her classes. All of the flawed wines we sampled were purchased through normal retail channels.

Worst of the Worst

The worst wine we sampled was a real dog (no offense to canines intended). It was a Columbia Valley Merlot plagued by the thankfully rare combination of reduction, oxidation and Brettanomyces.  It looked bad, smelled bad and tasted (gasp!) horrible.  Certainly one of the worst wines I’ve ever tried. Why in the world would anyone put their label on this wine and send it into the marketplace to represent them?

Drawing upon her science background, Amy was able to explain to us how this awful combination of defects occurred, but the question of why anyone would try to sell it remains. Ignorance? Incompetence? Arrogance? Cash flow demands? Hard to say. Some wine flaws (like the “cooked” wine) can happen after wine leaves the maker’s control, but many of the flawed wines on retail shelves were already in bad shape when they left the warehouse. No excuse for this. Reputation is critically important in the wine business and it is established (or destroyed) one bottle at a time.

You May Not Want to Know the Answer

Amy’s class was great — she’s a wonderful teacher — and gave us a lot of useful tools for detected and understanding wine flaws and for dealing with related trade and consumer issues. Amy answered all our questions but one: who made these awful wines? She kept the makers secret, so I can’t report them here (although I have a guess concerned one particularly  nasty white wine that was clouded with silky black strands of dangerous bacteria).

What’s the worst wine you’ve ever tasted, I asked Amy. You may not want to know her answer.

The worst wine ever sampled smelled and tasted like somebody urinated in a tin can of clams.  Seriously.  Absolutely disgusting.  It was a process of putrification caused by high levels of bacteria and was a Washington State Cab Sauv.  And it was at retail price in wine shops. I think some of the worst have been high levels of mercaptans or those with excessive ethyl acetate that you can’t even get near your face without your eyes watering.

I’m trying to imagine who would sell a wine like that!  I wonder what consumers thought when they brought home the bottle and pulled the cork? I imagine that some of them probably thought the wine was supposed to taste like that. You can scratch that customer off your mailing list!

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Watch for a future post on the World Wine Program at CWU, a unique approach to educating wine business professionals.

[Note: 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.]

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.

Digital [Wine] Dreams

It is probably no surprise that the wine industry has become very interested in figuring out how to use electronic media to draw consumers into the wine market and intensify the relationship. Much of the focus so far has been on social media vectors such as Facebook and Twitter, which connect consumers and producers and facilitate conversations of various sorts.

For what it’s worth, insiders believe that CellarTracker, the online wine community and cellar management program, has had the biggest impact so far. Click here to read Jancis Robinson’s analysis from today’s Financial Times.

Wine’s digital dreams go beyond social media, however. I’m impressed with Tesco’s smart phone wine app, which I have written about before. My college class was awed when I showed them this video of the wine app in action.

Now Microsoft has developed its own touchscreen tabletop wine program for restaurants and bars to help consumers get more involved in their wine-by-the-glass choices (and to keep them entertained until their wine arrives, I suspect).

(I remember when tables like this held quarter-eating video games like PacMan. Back to the future!)

Leave it to the French, however, to really think outside the bottle and box. Here is their vision of the digital [wine] dream.

(I wonder what Sarkozy thinks of this! He seems to want to make wine less — not more — accessible.)

I think we are in the early stages of understanding which of these digital wine ideas will catch on as a way to educate and inform consumers and create a more personally satisfying and commercially successful wine experience. My guess is that we will have to explore many blind alleys before we find the right approach.

So keep your eyes open for new ideas — and pass me that little USB spigot. I want to download some Brunello.

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