American Association of Wine Economists Conference Program

As I noted last week, the American Association of Wine Economists are meeting in Walla Walla in a few days. I thought you might be interested in the full program, including papers, authors, activities and so on. Lots of interesting wine economics topics and ideas. Enjoy

JUNE 23, 2014 Whitman College, Maxey Hall

8:00 – 9:00

REGISTRATION, Maxey Auditorium Foyer

 

 9:00 – 10:30 Room – Maxey Auditorium  Session #1A: Consumers & Markets
Chair: XXX
Richard Belzer (Regulatory Checkbook) Leveraging consumer ignorance and information search costs to maximize profits in US wine ‘Flash sales': a follow up
Linda L. Lowry, Robin Back (both University of Massachusetts, Amherst) Impact of farm winery legislation S 2582: an act relative to economic development reorganization on Massachusetts wineries
Marc Dressler (University Ludwigshafen, Germany) Exploring success factors in export management – Results of a survey on relevance in the context of the wine business and performance of German producers
Olivier Gergaud (KEDGE Business School, Bordeaux, France), Philippe Masset (Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, Switzerland) Using information about web searches to forecast auction prices of fine wines

 

 9:00 – 10:30Room – Maxey 207  Session #1B: Tourism and Economic Impact
Chair: Luigi Galletto (University of Padova, Italy)
Christopher Lucha, Gustavo Ferreira, Martha Walker (all Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg) Virginia wine tourism: a profitability analysis
Luca Rossetto, Luigi Galletto (both University of Padova, Italy) Wine tourist profiles: a comparison between two wine routes in Veneto region
Theodore Lane (Western Regional Science Association), Bill Mundy (Bill Mundy Associates) Walla Walla’s wine-based agro-industrial cluster
Martin Prokes, Kamil Prokes (both Mendel University Brno, Czech Republic) Job creation by investing in the wine sector

 

10:30 – 11:00 Coffee Break
Maxey Auditorium Foyer

 

 11:00 – 12:30Room – Maxey Auditorium  Session #2A: Coffee & FoodChair: Morten Scholer (International Trade Centre, Geneva, Switzerland)
Morten Scholer (International Trade Centre, Geneva, Switzerland) Coffee: the product, the trade and comparison with wine
Samrawit Ebabe (Jimma University, Ethiopia) Constraints to Ethiopian coffee exports from a supply chain management perspective
Peter Roberts (Emory University) Product differentiation, pricing and fair trading in specialty coffee markets
Albert I. Ugochukwu University of Saskatchewan, Jill E. Hobbs. University of Saskatchewan Food product authenticity in agri-food markets: implications for collective reputation
Bernd Frick (University of Paderborn, Germany), Olivier Gergaud (KEDGE Business School, Bordeaux, France), Laure Salais (Institut Paul Bocuse, France) The demand for restaurants in Europe

 

 11:00 – 12:30Room – Maxey 207  Session #2B: Trade and International I
Chair: XXX
Alejandro Gennari, Jimena Estrella. Xavier Brevet (both National University of Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina) Argentinean wineries’ strategies on export markets
Miguel A. Fierro, Rodrigo Romo Muñoz (both Universidad del Bío-Bío, Chile) Characterization of the Chilean bottled wine market
Cynthia Howson (University of Washington Tacoma), Pierre Ly (University of Puget Sound), Jeff Begun (University of Washington Tacoma) Grape procurement, land rights and industrial upgrading in the Chinese wine industry
Maryline Filippi (University of Bordeaux, France) Elena Garnevka (Massey University, New Zealand) Exporting wine to China from New Zealand and from France. Strategies and perspectives
 11:00 – 12:30Room – Maxey 307  Session #2C: U.S. Wine Market & Industry
Chair: XXX
Raphael Schirmer (University of Bordeaux, France) Drinking wine in the United States of America (from 1850 to the present) through the New York Public Library’s collection “What’s on the menu?”
Jon H. Hanf (Geisenheim University, Germany) Retail branding and its consequences on wine brands
Bradley Rickard (Cornell University), Olivier Gergaud (KEDGE Business School, Bordeaux, France), Hu Wenjing (Cornell University) Trade liberalization in the presence of domestic regulations: likely impacts of the TTIP on wine markets
Robert Hodgson (Fieldbrook Winery) The unimportance of terroir

 

12:30 – 14:00 Lunch Break

 

 14:00 – 15.15Room – Maxey Auditorium

 

PLENARY SESSION:
Welcome and Introduction
 Orley Ashenfelter (Princeton University)    Welcome and Introduction
     
Kevin Pogue (Whitman College)   The Terroirs of the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area
15:15 – 15:45 Coffee Break
Maxey Auditorium Foyer
 15:45 – 18:00Room – Maxey Auditorium  Session #3A: Varietals, Geography, Environment
Chair: Julian Alston (UC Davis)
Kate Fuller, Julian Alston, Olena S. Sambucci. (all UC Davis) The value of powdery mildew resistance in grapes: evidence from California
Julian Alston (UC Davis), Kym Anderson (University of Adelaide) Evolving varietal distinctiveness of US wine regions: comparative evidence from a new global database
Christopher Bitter (University of Washington, Seattle) The evolving geography of the U.S. wine industry
Luigi Galletto, Federica Bianchin, Luigino Barisan (all University of Padova, Italy), Eugenio Pomarici (University of Naples Federico II, Italy) An evaluation of a new drought-resistant rootstock in Italy
Jean-Philippe Roby (Bordeaux Science Agro, France) Viticulture of varietal wines: the dead end of terroir at the time of global warming? Case study of Burgundy
Karl Storchmann (New York University), Peter Griffin (Vanderbilt University) Climate change and vineyard prices

 

 15:45 – 18:00Room – Maxey 207 Session #3B: Wine Investment
Chair: Lee Sanning (Whitman College)
Marie-Claude Pichery (Université de Bourgogne, France), Catherine Pivot (Université Jean Moulin – Lyon 3, France) Wine investment: a profitable alternative investment or simply a long-term pleasure?
Beysül Aytac, Thi Hong Van, Hoang, Cyrille Mandou (all Sup de Co Montpellier Business School, France) Wine: to drink or to invest? A study of wine as a financial asset in a French portfolio context
Philippe Masset, Jean-Philippe Weisskopf (both Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, Switzerland) Wine funds – an alternative turning sour?
Philippe Masset, Jean-Philippe Weisskopf (both  Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, Switzerland) Wine indices in practice: nicely labeled but slightly corked
Jean-Marie Cardebat (Université de Bordeaux, France), Benoît Faye, Eric Le Fur (both INSEEC Bordeaux, France), Philippe Masset (Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, Switzerland)  Is wine still an investable asset?
Benoît Faye, Eric Le Fur (both INSEEC Bordeaux, France) Dynamics of fine wine and asset prices: evidence from short- and long-run co-movements

 

 15:45 -18:00Room – Maxey 306  Session #3C: Quality and Experts IChair: XXX
Robin Golstein (Fearless Critic Media) Do more expensive things generally taste worse?
Omer Gokcekus, Clare Finnegan (both Seton Hall University) Lumping and splitting in expert ratings’ effect on wine prices
Neal Hulkower (McMinnville, OR) Information lost: the unbearable lightness of vintage charts
Ying Lou, Jing Cao, Lynne Stokes (all Southern Methodist University) Comparing measures of rater agreement for wine quality ratings
Dom Cicchetti (Yale University), Arnie Cicchetti (San Anselmo, CA) Assessing reliability when multiple judges taste a single wine
Eric Stuen, Jon Miller, Robert Stone (all University of Idaho) An analysis of consensus of prominent wine critic ratings in the US market
 19:00 – about 23.00
Conference Dinner
Long Shadows
Buses leave from Whitman College at 18:15  

 

 

JUNE 24, 2014 Maxey Hall

 

 9:00 – 10:30Room –Maxey Auditorium  Session #4A: Water, Whiskey, Wine, Food
Chair: XXX
Kevin W. Capehart (American University, Washington, DC) Fine water: a hedonic pricing approach
Ian B. Page (University of Maryland) The economics of whisky: an analysis of imperfect competition when product quality is endogenous
Kenneth Elzinga. University of Virginia, Carol Tremblay. Oregon State University, Victor Tremblay. Oregon State University Craft beer in the USA: history, scope and geography
Yohannes Yehabe (Molde University College, Norway) Assessment of weather impact on the sales of breweries in Norway: a panel data regression approach
Robert Harrington, Lobat Siahmakoun. (both University of Arkansas) Which wine and food elements drive high and low levels of perceived match?
 9:00 – 10:30Room – Maxey 207

 

Session #4B: Wine Demand
Chair:
XXX
Getnet Yitagesu (Unity University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) A principal component analysis of the demand structure of Wine. The Case of Addis Ababa
Paulina Rytkönen (Södertörn University, Sweden) Wine in a vodka country – changing consumption patterns in Sweden’s way from a rural to an industrial nation
Gary M. Thompson (Cornell University) Wine cellar optimization
Amy Holbrook, Dennis Reynolds (both Washington State University, Pullman) What effect does wine closure type have on perceptions of wine’s appearance, bouquet, Taste, and overall quality? An empirical investigation
Judit Szigeti (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hungary), Szilárd Podruzsik, Orsolya Fehér, Péter Gál (all Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary) Wine affordability for the Hungarian consumers

 

10:30 – 11:00 Coffee Break
Maxey Auditorium Foyer
 9:00 – 10:30Room – Maxey Auditorium

 

Session #5A: Quality & Experts II
Chair: XXX
Adeline Alonso Ugaglia (Bordeaux Science Agro, France), Olivier Gergaud (KEDGE Business School, Bordeaux, France) Restaurant awards and financial rewards: Michelin
Guenter Schamel (Free University of Bolzano, Italy) Points for sale? Examining the market entry of a new wine guide
Orley Ashenfelter (Princeton University), Robin Goldstein (Fearless Critic Media), Craig Riddell (University of British Columbia, Vancouver) Do expert ratings measure quality? The case of restaurant wine lists
Robert Hodgson (Fieldbrook Winery) The fallacy of wine competitions; a ten year retrospective

 

 11:00 – 12:30Room – Maxey 207

 

Session #5B: Marketing
Chair: XXX
Steven Cuellar (Sonoma State University) Measuring the return to social media
Lindsey Higgins, Erica Llanos (both California Polytech, San Luis Obispo) A healthy, but confusing, indulgence? Wine consumers and the health benefits of wine
Benjamin C. Lawrence, Alex M. Susskind, Gary M.  Thompson (all Cornell University) Wine mailing lists
Jon H. Hanf, Oliver Gierig (both Geisenheim University, Germany) Discussion of an Innovative pricing strategy in the context of wine tastings

  

 11:00 – 12:30Room – Maxey 306

 

Session #5C: Industry Organization
Chair: XXX
Paulina Rytkönen (Södertörn University, Sweden) The Swedish wine industry – institutions, knowledge, temperance and regional development in an upcoming wine country
Betsy Carter (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne, Germany) The state versus the market: patterns of producer politics and the construction of status markets
Marc Dressler (University Ludwigshafen, Germany) Organizational levers on reputation and performance – An empirical analysis of German wineries
Florine Livat (KEDGE Business School, Bordeaux, France), Jean-Marie Cardebat. (University of Bordeaux, France) Are there too many appellations in Bordeaux? A renewal of the brand vs. appellation debate
12:30 – 14:00 Lunch Break
 14:00 – 15.30Room – Maxey Auditorium

 

PLENARY SESSION:
Regulation in the U.S. Wine Industry                                 
 Orley Ashenfelter    Princeton University, Princeton
Paul Beveridge   Family Wineries of Washington State, Seattle
John Hinman   Hinman & Carmichael LLP, San Francisco
Allen Shoup   Long Shadows, Walla Walla

 

15:30 – 15:45 Coffee Break
Maxey Auditorium Foyer
 15:45 – 17:15Room – Maxey Auditorium  Session #6A: Supply
Chair: XXX
Nick Vink, Theo Kleynhans, Willem Hoffmann. (Stellenbosch University, South Africa) Financing wine barrels in South Africa: the Vincorp model
Alessandro Muscio, Gianluca Nardone, Antonio Stasi (all Università degli Studi di Foggia, Italy) Perceived technological regimes: an empirical analysis of the wine industry
Lindsey Higgins. Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo Economic stochastic simulation model for small to medium sized wineries
Julien Cadot (ISG Business School, France), Adeline Ugaglia (Bordeaux Sciences Agro, France) The horizon problem in Bordeaux wine cooperatives.

  

 15:45 – 17:15Room – XXX

 

Session #6B: International & Trade II
Chair: XXX
Joachim Ewert (University of Stellenbosch, South Africa), Jon H. Hanf, Erik Schweickert. (Geisenheim University, Germany) South African Cooperatives and the challenge of product quality
Silvia Gatti (University of Bologna, Italy) Designations of origin for wines, labor and cooperatives in Emilia-Romagna between the Censuses of Agriculture 2000 and 2010
Bo Gao, James L. Seale, Zhifeng Gao (all University of Florida) U.S. import demand for wine by country of origin: a differential approach
Leo-Paul Dana (Montpellier Business School, France), Mathieu Labadan (University of Pau, France), Michael Mettrick, Agate Ponder-Sutton. (both University of Canterbury, New Zealand) Interaction among wine makers in New Zealand
17:15 – 17:30 Coffee Break
Maxey Auditorium Foyer

 

 17:30 – 18:00Room – Maxey Auditorium  PLENARY SESSION:
Upshot and Outlook
 Karl Storchmann    New York University, New York

Alejandro Gennari
 
National University of Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina

 

 19:00 – 23:00 
Dinner
Whitehouse Crawford, Walla Walla
JUNE 25, 2014 09:00 – 18:00
Tour of Walla Walla Vineyards and Wineries
Geological Guide: Kevin Pogue, Whitman College
Lunch at Basel Cellars
Buses leave from the Marcus Whitman Hotel at 9am

 

World Tour Update: VinPro and the Unified Sympoisium

The “Wine Economist World Tour” (my calendar of talks and book signings) is starting to fill up and the end of January 2014 looks like a particularly interesting couple of weeks. Lots of frequent flier miles — and maybe a bit of jet lag, too!

On January 23 I will be in Somerset West, South Africa to give the keynote at the Nedbank VinPro Information Day program. VinPro is a key service organization for 3,600 South African wine producer members. It strives to both represent the wine sector and to further its development. I’m pleased to be invited to speak to South African growers and producers at this important event.

Fast forward a few days and I will be in Sacramento, California at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, the western hemisphere’s largest wine industry gathering speaking in two of the sessions.

On Tuesday, January 28 I will be moderating an afternoon panel on “Using Data for Better Decision-Making.” The premise is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure and many in the wine industry would benefit from a more systematic approach. Here is the official description of session.

This session will explore how to use data to better understand and run your business. Presentations will include operating and financial benchmarking data and how these data can be applied to your business for improved decision making. Attendees will hear how benchmarking data are gathered and analyzed, and what it means. A winery and a grower representative will provide examples on how they started measuring various forms of data, what tools they acquired or developed, and lessons learned. They will also share best practices and identify the biggest problem areas for good data measurement and use. The session will end with key takeaways to consider in implementing better data tools for your business.

Then on Wednesday I will be one of three speakers, along with Jon Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates and Nat DiBuduo of Allied Grapegrowers of California, at the “State of the Industry” session (Extreme Wine readers will recall that I wrote about this event in Chapter 6).

The State of the Industry session will provide a comprehensive look at every aspect of the wine industry, from what’s being planted to what’s selling. This 2½ hour session features highly regarded speakers and delivers incredible value for attendees who need to understand the market dynamics of the past year and are seeking insight into the market trends that will define the year ahead.

My job will be to bring a global perspective to the discussion. It’s an honor to share the stage with Jon and Nat, who have both earned the respect of those of us in the industry. Looking forward to hearing their remarks!

Hope to see you in Cape Town or Sacramento or any of the other stops on the world tour!

Developing a Market for Chinese Wine: Tourism and Education

Here is the final post in the series on the Chinese wine industry by Cynthia Howson, Pierre Ly and Jeff Begun. It has been very revealing to see aspects of China’s wine industry through their eyes! Thanks to all three for so capably filling this space while I have been away. I hope to persuade them to give us brief reports of their future research fieldwork.

Developing a Market for Chinese Wine: Tourism and Education

by Cynthia HowsonPierre Ly and Jeff Begun

Like many sectors of Chinese economy, the wine industry is growing at breathtaking speeds and we were excited to spend a month finding out how it’s happening. Our last posts talked about how China is developing distinct terroirs and the arrival of world class wines, but there’s more to the industry than the best tasting wine. It’s not just the huge production (now 6th in the world), or the arrival of awarding winners like Jiabelan and Silver Heights. It’s the bevy of chateaux, wine museums, resorts and tourist activities that seem to be popping up faster than customers can fill them. Are there really consumers to justify the small European town at Changyu AFIP? What about the entire roads lined with just-opened wineries and resorts in Ningxia, where a long vine separates lanes and signs are shaped like wine bottles?china3a

Recently, Mike wrote about the “amenities gap” in Yakima, Washington, where some say there aren’t enough restaurants and hotels to attract visitors, but there aren’t enough tourists to attract investment. But in China, investors seem more than happy to tolerate some empty hotels and restaurants as they anticipate (and promote) future demand. Of course, each new business or infrastructure project helps provincial governments to achieve very high economic growth targets, so the environment for investment matters. But it’s not enough. The seeming promise of an insatiable and growing consumer market in China continues to draw investors from around the world. (The documentary, Red Obsession, shows a China passionate about buying and making expensive red wine and it’s easy to forget that most Chinese people never drink wine, and many others add Sprite).

An Insatiable Market? Developing a Taste for Wine

Industry experts and winemakers repeatedly told us that the Chinese consumer market is bigger than they can satisfy and it continues to grow. But, they are also concerned about marketing to average consumers, people developing a taste for wine when most still prefer spirits (baijiu) or beer and serious wine lovers tend to be biased toward imports. For the winemakers, of course, there are always concerns about a stable and consistent grape supply. High quality wine is a notoriously costly and long term investment, so it’s not surprising that young wineries are not yet profitable. The search to define a style that will distinguish a Ningxia cabernet sauvignon and the ability to coordinate wineries toward the development of appellations is still in the earliest stages. What is unusual in China is that there are resorts and wine clubs when the wines may be largely unknown or difficult to find.

Of course, many resorts and clubs are beautiful, but not yet full or profitable. The crowds have yet to arrive, but investors seem confident enough to continue building. So, what is binding construction companies, real estate moguls and foreign wine merchants in their faith in the Chinese wine market?

There is something to be said for accessing the largest market in the world. Indeed, the most famous wineries have no trouble attracting crowds for their tours and it is worth noting that the tasting at the end of the tour is not an important part of the experience. Some people skip it. Others seem to find it amusing. We appreciated the insight of one expert, who told us that when the tasting seems deemphasized, it’s probably not the best part of the tour.

The picture here is the Changyu Wine Culture Museum on a typical day. The museum is packed with tourists, attracted to the beaches of Shandong Province for the summer holidays. On another tour, we invited our taxi driver to join us. Although more of a beer drinker, he told us about the founder of Changyu Winery in 1892 and took his own pictures in the museum.   china3b

So, unlike other wine regions in the world, the infrastructure for wine tourism is appearing in China before the actual tourists. And, the tourists may be willing to come when they are not (yet) wine drinkers. We saw photo shoots with blushing brides and families learning about wine tasting, but what struck us was the number of people who were interested in wine even though they claimed not to like the taste of wine.

Of course, true connoisseurs aren’t left out. They will find wine clubs where they can not only blend their own wine, but actually pick and crush their own grapes before fermenting their own wines. Meanwhile, for families looking for something to do on the weekend, there are day trips where grandparents can play mahjong under a beautiful trellis and kids can pick grapes, run around, and at one wine chateau, they can even play drums or a game of foosball in the wine bar.   Indeed, wine tourism in China has something to offer for everyone.

Term Papers: Wine, Women, Song (and more)

I’ve been reading the final papers from my university class on The Idea of Wine and I thought I would share some of the topics with you to give you an idea how bright college-aged American students think about wine after spending a semester studying it.

Women and Wine Bars

The “wine, women and song” of this post’s title was inspired by two first-person research papers. Ali is interested in both gender issues and wine in a social setting, so it was natural that she might want to study “Women and the Wine Bar: a Tacoma Case Study.”

Ali’s paper began with academic study (the social analysis of drinking cultures), which she then applied to wine bars. Traditional bars, which feature beer and spirits, are seen by some scholars as a space to create and sustain male relationships.

Ali observed that wine bars attract a disproportionately female clientele and she and a friend observed the demographics of three local wine bars and the pattern of apparent relationships of the patrons. An interesting first step towards an understanding of wine, women and wine bar culture.

Music and Wine: A Harmonious Relationships

Erin, a music performance major,  added song (or music) to the mix with her study of “The Musical Palate: An Exploration of Factors Linking Wine and Music.” Her research began with Clark Smith’s famous studies of  how different musical pieces affect the perception of specific wines. Correctly paired, Smith suggests, music can improve the wine experience. I understand that a number of wineries are working with Smith in this regard.

A classically trained musician, Erin decided to see if the effect could move in the opposite direction, so she tried pairing  several different wines with iconic musical pieces to see if they might enhance the listening experience. Incredibly she found that the right wine really did add something to musical appreciation — it was something like the way turning up the base or treble knobs on a stereo can alter the sound itself, she said. Erin’s study was personal, not scientific, but like Ali’s it suggests an area ripe for further study.

Money, Taste and Retsina?

Several of my students were able to connect wine with their other academic studies in interesting ways. Joanna, for example, saw links with her Psychology class on Sensation, Perception and Action. The course description reads

This course considers the phenomena and methods of sensation, perception, and action in biological organisms. It focuses primarily on vision and audition, but with an emphasis on the general principles of how various forms of physical energy in the world are transduced and transformed to yield useful representations and purposeful behavior.

Joanna moved the focus from sight and sound to taste. Her scientific final paper, “It’s on the Tip of My Tongue: Impact of Individual Tasting Difference on Wine,” was fascinating in a geeky kind of way I really appreciate.

Kelsey also asked to write a cross-over paper that would merge her wine studies with her work in Advanced Empirical Economics. The result was “China and Bordeaux Wine Auction Prices,” which used econometric techniques to probe the timing and impact of Chinese demand on wine prices.

Crown cap from a bottle of Retsina

Many students found ways to connect wine with their personal and professional interests. Taylor had never tasted Retsina, but she was attracted to it as a cultural artifact with contemporary relevance. Her paper is titled “Retsina: An Ancient Wine with an Ongoing Impact in Greece.” I wish I could have been there to see her face when she took her first sip of Retsina — it’s always a surprise!

Business major Eben looked at the closure issue from a winery business perspective in  “A Corking Predicament: Closures of the Present, Past and Future.” Home brewer Lukas just had to write “Beer versus Wine: Switching Roles?” And Kirsten examined social media applications in “Wine on Facebook: Marketing Wine to a New Generation.”

The University of Puget Sound where I teach is a liberal arts college and it is easy to see from these paper topics why The Idea of Wine fits into the curriculum so well. Wine, with all its many forms and functions, is a clearly liberal art!

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Sorry, but I cannot distribute copies of these student papers. Anyone with an interest in a specific study can contact me at Mike@WineEconomist.com and I will try to connect you to the author.

In Vino Veritas? The Truth About Wine in Three Tastings

In vino veritas — in wine there is truth — this is one of the touchstones of the wine enthusiast world. I like the sound of this, but I admit to being a bit confused by two recent wine tastings that I organized where the wines easily fooled us (or perhaps we just fooled ourselves), but a third tasting helped put things right.

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Mary Thomas asked if I would be willing to speak at a wine tasting that she donated (along with autographed copies of Wine Wars) to the local  YWCA fund-raising auction. Yes, of course — and I knew at once what I wanted to do. A flight of red wines made by three University of Puget Sound alumni (Tom Hedges of Hedges Family Estate, Chuck Reininger of Helix and Reininger Cellars and Michael Corliss of Corliss Estates and Tranche Cellars), but first a blind tasting of white wines that figure prominently in Wine Wars.

If you’ve read Wine Wars you know that I end each flight of chapters with a wine tasting designed to explore the themes raised in the book. Three Sauvignon Blancs make up the first flight and thus inspired I put together a tasting of Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) Sauvignon Blanc from California, Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc from Napa Valley and Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.

After tasting the three wines blind in the order given above I asked the tasters to (1) name the grape variety, (2) guess the country or region of origin for each wines, (3) guess the prices and (4) choose their favorite wine from among the three. I am not a big fan of blind tastings, but this one is fun to do in a group. I thought the auction group would enjoy it (and they did).

But first I decided to try out the blind tasting on my “lab rats” — the students enrolled in my university “Idea of Wine” course. Their tasting featured the same blind first flight followed by a different set of reds — a vertical of three Phelps Creek “Le Petit” Pinot Noirs from three years with very different weather. My hypothesis was that students would have more trouble guessing the grape, terroirs and prices of the blind flight than would the more experienced wine drinkers in the auction group.

Things did not go according to plan.  After tasting the three white wines the college students were very confused and guessed all the grape varieties they could think of, but not Sauvignon Blanc. For me the signature taste of the Cloudy Bay is a giveaway — Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc — but tasted in the context of the Fume Blanc and Two Buck Chuck wines, which are so very different, nothing seemed to make sense.  The common thread that connected the three wines was difficult for these wine novices to detect.

Interestingly, the experienced auction tasters did no better than the lab rat students in this regard. This really did surprise me and I think it was the confusing context that caused the trouble. Tasting the Mondavi Fume or the Cloudy Bay by itself might yield a good guess of type of wine or place of origin, but stringing the three wines together apparently distorted the view a bit too much.

One place where there was a significant difference between the groups was when it came to guessing the prices. The experienced auction group did much worse! How is that possible? Well, the big difference was the Two Buck Chuck. No frugal college student would offer to pay more than $12 for it in the blind tasting, but at least one member of the auction group was willing to pay $25 or more!

Why were seemingly rational people willing to pay so much for such a modest wine? Well, the quality of the Two Buck Chuck must be part of the answer. Wine drinkers of a certain age (and I include myself in this category) remember when cheap wines were really foul and Two Buck Chuck and its bargain priced siblings changed all that.  The quality may not be high (only a couple of people in the two groups picked it as their favorite of the three), but it does reach a commercial standard that actually shocked one experienced drinker who had not previously tasted a $2.49 wine.

But the real answer is again probably context. The students are used to me presenting them with wines that are just outside a student budget — wines that cost say $10 to $30. They guessed at the low end of that range, which made sense given their expectations. The auction group’s higher guess also reflected context. Who would expect to attend a charity auction tasting and be served such a simple inexpensive wine? Impossible! So it must cost a lot, the logic probably went, and I just can’t taste the difference! If true, this is a classic case of using price (or expected price) as a proxy for perceived quality.

Which was the favorite wine? The auction group was pretty much divided between the Mondavi Fume and Cloudy Bay. The students were divided, too, but Cloudy Bay received most of the votes. That Marlborough style is so distinctive — like nothing they ever had before — and in a blind tasting context it stood out to them.

What conclusion can we draw from these two tastings?  Our perception of wine is sometimes less about truth and more about  context and expectations than we might want to think. That’s not the conclusion I thought I would find when I set up this tiny experiment. Fortunately a third tasting helped balance the scale.

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The nice people at Wines of Chile sent us three Cabernet Sauvignons, which we decided to use for a small scale student tasting. Sue and I were joined by Bruce Titcomb, Eben Corliss and Ali Hoover. Ali’s attendance was based upon her study abroad experience in Chile and a paper she wrote about its wines. Bruce and Eben are enthusiastic students of geology and business respectively with a special personal connection — their parents also took classes from me back in the day.  It promised to be an interesting tasting. We began with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc (from Chile this time) and then got to work on the Cabs we were sent. Here is the list.

  • Montes Classic Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Colchagua Valley 85% Cabernet + 15% Merlot 14% abv. Typical price: around $10.
  • Santa Carolina Colchagua Estate Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (from Miraflores in Andes Foothills) 13.5% abv. Around $12.
  • Undurraga T. H. (Terroir Hunter) Alto Maipo Calbernet Sauvignon 2009 (from Picque in Andes Foothills) 14% abv. Around $20.

We sampled the three Cabs by themselves, with food (savory empanadas) and then with chocolate truffles. The wines were very different from each other and each had its moment in the spotlight. On first tasting, the Montes (the least expensive of the group) was simple, enjoyable, and fun. When Ali tasted the Santa Carolina her eyes lit up — this was Chilean wine as she knew it from her time there, she said — a reminder of her temporary South American home. The Undurraga T.H. lived up to its “Terroir Hunter” name — it was much more precise and focused.

Returning to the wines to pair then with food the Montes was a puzzle — Blake noted a strong caramel aroma when the wine had time to air out a bit.  The Santa Carolina seemed to be the best match for the empanadas just as the T.H. was the favorite on its own. Then we broke out the dark chocolate truffles and tried again. This time it was the Montes that stood out — that caramel aroma really worked with the chocolate and made a hard to beat combination.

Which wine was best? Well the T.H. was probably my personal favorite but the answer depended on how you drank it (alone, with savory food, with chocolate) and what you were searching for (for Ali that memory of her time in Chile was pretty special).

So what did we learn from our three tastings. Well, I don’t really want to argue against the idea of in vino veritas, but I do think our impressions of wine are context-sensitive — perhaps more so than we really want to admit.

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Blake, Eben and Ali at the Chilean Cabernet tasting.

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Thanks to Emily Denton of The Thomas Collective for providing  the Chilean wines for this tasting. Thanks to Blake, Eben and Ali for their help with the Chilean Cab tasting. Photos by contributing editor Sue Veseth.

Imaginary Guides to Washington Wine

Taste Washington bills itself as the nation’s largest single region wine and  food gathering. This year it was bigger and better than ever. Bigger — two days instead of one — with 225 wineries (out of the roughly 700 in the state) pouring about a thousand different wines. A great opportunity to survey Washington wine and taste food from more than 60 local restaurants.

The program was also better in a way that will make sense to Wine Economist readers. It seems to me that the Washington Wine Commission made even more of a point to help and encourage participating wineries to tell their stories and to promote their products. The pre-event messages were more focused and the two-day format meant that the wineries could give attendees more personal attention, which is key to relationship-building. This has always been the goal, of course, but I sensed an even more clearly directed effort this year, which I applaud, and I hope it pays off.

Turning the Tables

My first exposure to Taste Washington put me on the other side of the tasting table, pouring the wines of Fielding Hills Winery for my good friends Mike and Karen Wade. Although I wasn’t able to taste many other wines, I think I had the best view of the event because the people came to me — and it is meeting and talking with the people that is probably the best part (no offense to the food and wine).

So how do you actually taste Washington? You can roam around randomly, sniffing and swirling, but I think it is best to have a strategy. Last time around I tried to taste every Washington Malbec I could find to compare with the Argentinean wines I had tasted in Mendoza. Fascinating!

My Imaginary Guides

This year I decided to try to see Washington wine by imagining that I was new to the region but far from new to wine and looking at the state’s industry through these particular eyes. My imaginary guides? David Schildknecht and Benjamin Lewin. They weren’t there to guide my in person, but I used their recent writings to steer my path. Here’s what I think I learned.

David Schildknecht is The Wine Advocate’s new reviewer for Washington State, replacing Dr. Jay Miller who has moved on to other pursuits.  Schildknecht has written for Robert Parker’s celebrated wine journal since 1989 and I have especially appreciated his reviews of German and Austrian wines. He made two visits to Washington in 2012, literally starting from the ground up to master his new turf by touring the vineyards in the company of geologists!

Benjamin Lewin visited Washington in September 2012 to gather information for his forthcoming book Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon, the sequel to In Search of Pinot Noir. Lewin’s Washington stop was part of his project to taste Cabernet Sauvignon and Claret (or Cab blend wines) from all the most important wine regions of the world. Lewin is nothing if not ambitious and the resulting book is quite spectacular.

I admire Lewin’s sharp analytical approach and his fluid writing style and I frankly envy his skill as a wine taster. Look for a review of Claret & Cabs closer to the May 1, 2013 official publication date.

I decided to make Schildknecht and Lewin my guides since they were both essentially experiencing  Washington for the first time and because their backgrounds and approaches are so different. Surely I would get an interesting view by putting Lewin’s lens in front of one eye and Schildknecht’s in front of the other.

Consulting the Guide Books

I know what Lewin thinks because I’ve got a review copy of the book. Schildknecht’s views are not yet fully stated [and perhaps never will be — see note below — because a new reviewer was assigned to Washington on the day this post was published]. Wine Advocate has only published a selection of his reviews of individual Washington wines and wineries — an additional tranche of reviews has been promised for some time, but hasn’t yet appeared. Included in the so-far unpublished list are wineries that account for a majority of Washington wines — Chateau Ste Michelle, for example, Columbia Crest and many others.

I don’t think we will really know Schildknecht’s views until all the reviews have been released and even then it might take a few years to see how the pieces fit together. Fortunately, he has published an essay that tries to sum up his reaction to Washington and its wines and I have found that very useful (it is behind the sturdy Wine Advocate pay wall, however, so you’ll need to purchase a subscription to read it).

Lewin and Schildknecht both seem to be confused or perhaps appalled by Washington’s untidy ad hoc system of AVAs, so they mainly ignore them and focus on vineyards and wineries rather than regional designations.

The Signature Varietal Issue Once Again

David Schildknecht

 They both address the issue, which I raised last week, of a signature varietal. And while the Washington industry is officially neutral in this fight (we’ve tried signature varietals before and the results haven’t been pretty), Lewin and Schildknecht don’t hesitate to state their choices.

Washington is all about Cabernet and Merlot says Lewin (who coincidentally is writing a book about Cabernet and Merlot), although he seems to think that adding Syrah to the blend can be a good thing. It’s all about Cabernet and Syrah, says Schildknecht, although you can tell that he really wishes that he could make a stronger case for Riesling.

The problem with Washington Riesling, according to Schildknecht, is that Washington can make extremely good wines at affordable prices. You can get maybe 80-90% of the quality of top German wines for a low price (my numbers not his), so who is going to pay the substantial extra cost to get that last 10%? No one, he moans. So Washington Riesling is doomed to arrested development.

The Diversity Issue

Schildknecht also seems concerned with the division of labor in Washington wine, where wine growing is one specialization and wine making and marketing another. Most of the world’s great wine is estate wine, he says, where the two functions take place under unified control. The Washington non-estate practice of blending from different sites and different appellations to add complexity and diversity feels like a compromise to him, even when the results are very good.

Lewin is more concerned about clones. He notes that a great many of the Cabernet vines are the same or similar clones, especially the earlier plantings, so that clonal diversity is very limited in making the wine, meaning that cross-region blending is needed to add complexity to the wines.

Washington Originals

Both have nice things to say about Washington wines. Schildknecht highlights the freshness and authenticity of the wines at their best. He wonders why Washington wine makers waste their time talking in terms of Old World models when they are creating an original product. He writes that

 I have no compunction about drawing analogies to specific Old World wine types when I think these apply – and for the benefit of those (very much including yours truly) for whom these are the most familiar points of reference. But virtually all of the most exciting wines I tasted for the present report display personalities and styles whose like I haven’t encountered outside Washington, and that is precisely what their producers and promoters should wish for.

Lewin locates some of this distinctiveness in his comparison of Cabernet and Merlot. Usually, he notes, you add Cabernet to Merlot to give it depth and structure. In Washington, on the other hand, it is Merlot that is the gutsier grape and Cabernet that perhaps needs a little punching up. Maybe this is due to Washington’s distinctive growing climate (large diurnal variation, longer sun-filled days) and perhaps this accounts for Washington Merlot’s signal success in the pre-Sideways Merlot boom days.

Why Not Syrah?

Both authors seem to wonder why Syrah isn’t more often included in Cabernet blends? Is the idea that Washington winemakers must adhere to “Bordeaux blend” orthodoxy preventing them from making the best and most interesting possible wines?

Lewin and Schildknecht are very interesting on their own and you can perhaps see that piecing them together raises some questions and starts to answer questions, too. What did I learn with the two of them as my imaginary guides to Taste Washington? Come back next week to find out.

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My comments here only scratch the surface of what Lewin and Schildknecht have to say about Washington wine, but this hopefully gives you some insight into their fresh perspective on the region’s wines. (I hope I haven’t misrepresented them in my brief summaries.)

Thanks to the Wine Appreciation Guild for letting me have a sneak peak at Benjamin Lewin’s new book. I’ll post a full review in a few weeks.

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Update 4/2/2013 An email from Wine Advocate arrived this morning announcing a new reviewer for Washington wines, Jeb Dunnuck.  It will be interesting to find out his take on Washington wine.s

Exaggerated Reports? Wine Writing and Wine Reading

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“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

This post is provoked by Andrew Jefford’s now-famous speech “The Wine Writer is Dead,” which he gave at a meeting of European wine bloggers in Izmir, Turkey last month. It’s a great speech, full of wisdom and insight — click here to read the written version on Jefford’s website.

Jefford’s title made me think of the famous scene in Mondovino (see video above) where Aimé Guibert declares that wine is dead (and cheese and fruit, too). It seems to me that Guibert’s obituary for wine was based on the fact that people try to make a living from wine in an increasingly global and competitive market environment and this changes things, although perhaps not as much as Guibert suggests since money and wine have always intermingled and it is foolish to pretend otherwise.

Jefford talks about the problem of making a living, too, and the changing writers’ market environment, but he doesn’t suggest that wine writing has lost its soul in the way that Guibert mourns the death of wine’s essence. Certainly it is difficult to earn a living writing about wine, especially with the decline in paid print-media jobs, he says. So wine writing has evolved into something broader — wine communications  — which seems to be about story telling in all its forms using all available media outlets.

“The world probably doesn’t need more writers … [but] the wine world will always …  need multi-tasking communicators …”.

I tend to agree with Jefford that telling stories about wine is much more than simply writing for print publications, but I wonder if wine writing has ever really been such a narrow and focused endeavor as he describes? He’s been at this longer than I have, so I suppose he is right, but my sense is that the his distinction between wine writing (RIP) and wine communicating is not so sharp as he suggests and that if wine writing has died it probably did so a long time ago.  In any case his point — that people who tell stories about wine should seize every opportunity to do so — is certainly well taken.http://www.twainquotes.com/exaggeration2.jpg

Is the Wine Reader Dead, Too?

I’m not really worried about whether wine writing is dead or alive. I’m more interested in wine reading, which I specifically do not define as reading about wine exclusively in paid (generally print) publications. Wine reading seems to be changing dramatically and that’s the more interesting  trend. Unsurprisingly, I tend to think about this in economic terms.

Economists who study the economics of food choice believe  that a key factor in  the growing consumption of high fat fast food is  cost — fast food is relatively cheap both in  terms of money and time, which are strong economic incentives. Even when healthier food is available and consumers understand something about nutrition the economic incentives push and pull them into the drive-through lane on the margin.

I think the economics of readership (and wine readership) works the same way. I’m not saying that writing on the internet is the intellectual equivalent of “empty calories, ” but the shift of readership from traditional print publications to electronic media is influenced by economic incentives (as well as other factors of course).

Electronic texts are obviously cheaper in terms of marginal dollar cost since most of them are available free on the web and even the electronic versions of books are often cheaper to buy than the print versions. And you can often access electronic documents in a fraction of a second rather than the minutes, hours, days or weeks that it might take to get a copy of a print publication. Fast beats slow in a time-constrained world just as cheap beats expensive when money is scarce. No wonder readership patterns are changing.

The shift is magnified by the technology associated with electronic publications — especially tablets and smartphones. I may have already told you about my university student who explained to me that he was going to do his senior year on his smart phone — all his reading and writing would be iPhone-based or not at all. He succeeded after a fact, which I found a bit shocking. Shifting from iPhone to iPad, I think he might succeed quite well today and there’s nothing shocking about it.

Follow the Money, Deep Throat Advised

Reading has always been as much affected by economics as writing. Imagine the chaos created by the introduction of paperback books in the 1930s (or read about it here).  Some observers predicted that paperbacks would be the death of the traditional book world, but in fact it seems that they ended up creating more readers and therefore more writers, too.

Follow the readers. This seems like good advice and I think it is Jefford’s’ point as well. The readers (and viewers and listeners) are shifting, responding to technological change and the altered economic incentives they confront. Writing has to do the same in order to stay relevant, and if a certain idea of wine writing (or writing in general) is a victim of the changing times I think we have to accept that and move on. Joseph Schumpeter called this sort of process creative destruction and we need to take account of what has been created as well as what is lost. Jefford understands this, although he doesn’t put it quite this way, which is why I recommend his talk to you.

It seems to me that there are probably more wine readers today than ever before in history, which is good news for wine writing, however you define it. As Mark Twain might have said, reports of its death are exaggerated.

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Paperbacks then, Kindle today?

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