Looking Back at the European Invasion of California Wine

The Beatles’ Boeing 707 landed in the USA on February 7, 1964 and pop music has never been the same. It isn’t that the British Invasion conquered American pop music as much as that a creative dynamic was accelerated. The influence can still be felt more than 50 years later.

Another invasion took place from about 1970 to 1990 when a number of Europeans made significant wine investments in the United States, stirring the creative pot in ways big and small. Last week I talked about the Skalli family’s Mondavi-inspired investment in St Supéry and the recent sale of that property to the brothers who own Chanel.  That event got me to thinking about the other invaders. Where are they now? Here are a few quick case studies.

Chandon’s French Invasion

Domaine Chandon, for example, has thrived as a sparkling wine producer and now also a maker of fine still wines.  Chandon California (1973) is part of Moët Hennessy’s  global luxury wine portfolio that also includes Newton Vineyard in Cailfornia, Chandon Argentina (1959), Chandon do BrazIl (1973), Chandon Australia (1986) and Chandon China (2013) as well as Cape Mentelle, Cloudy Bay, and other famous brands.

(Newton Vineyard is the part of the answer to one of my favorite trivia questions. What two California wineries were featured in the Japanese re-make of the film Sideways, which was set in Napa Valley? Answer: Newton and Frog’s Leap.)

Boisset Comes, Goes, Returns

Chandon was not the only French firm to invest in the California wine industry. Boisset, known today for DeLoach, Raymond, and Buena Vista wineries among others, came on the scene in the early 1980s. In fact, Boisset sold Robert Skalli  the Rutherford property on Highway 29 that became the St Supéry winery.

Boisset first entered the California market as an importer and producer in 1980. The Rutherford property was purchased in 1982 (the Victorian home you see there was used as a summer residence for a couple of years). But it was sold to Skalli in 1984  as the result of a strategic shift to focus to building the company back in France rather than expanding further into California.

Jean-Charles Boisset returned in California in 2003 with the DeLoach purchase and has gone on to become an integral part of the wine industry here with a large wine portfolio and deep local roots. He is married to Gina Gallo and the couple live in the old Robert Mondavi house.

Water to Wine: Hess Collection

Donald Hess wasn’t looking to start a winery when he came to the U.S. from Switzerland in 1978, although he ended up creating the Hess Collection vineyard and winery on  Mount Veeder and starting an international wine portfolio that now reaches out to California, Argentina and South Africa. Hess wanted to produce and sell bottled water in the U.S. and he traveled across the country looking for both a production source that appealed to him and evidence that there was a growing market for bottled water.

Having failed on both fronts when it came to water (he was obviously just ahead of his time), Hess became inspired by some of the wines he tasted and changed direction. He invested first in the vineyards high up on Mount Veeder and then took over the historic Christian Brothers winery up there, which is quite an inspiring place to visit now that Hess has strengthened and restored it after the Napa earthquake. Hess’s signature modern art collection is spectacular, too, and some of the wines we tasted were memorable indeed. 

Atlas Peak to Antica Napa Valley

As we drove the winding road to Antica Napa Valley I had that feeling of déjà vu: have I been on this road before? Impossible? Nothing much out here except Antica Napa, the Antinori family’s Napa Valley winery (the Antinori are also involved in Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Red Mountain’s Col Solare in partnership with Ste Michelle Wine Estates) and this was our first visit.

But I think I had been there before, back when it was called Atlas Peak. The winery and its famous cave system are a fascinating story. Piero Antinori first came to California in 1966, when Robert Mondavi was just starting out with his new winery. Antinori fell in love with the place and started a slow, thorough search for the right path to enter the region.  He finally found it in 1986 when he entered into agreement to purchase land for vineyards and a site for a winery in the beautiful Atlas Peak area. Antinori formed a partnership with Whitbread, Inc., the British brewer, and Christian Bizot of Bollinger Champagne, who were also keen to get a toe in the U.S. pond.

The partnership did not go quite as planned (a long story that Richard G. Peterson outlines in part in his new book The Winemaker) and in 1993 Antinori bought out the Whitbread and Bollinger shares and in 2006 renamed the operation Antica (Antinori + California) Napa Valley.  The road from 1966 to today has been as full of twists and turns as the road to the winery itself and I think it is fair to say that the journey continues with growing confidence. The Townsend Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon we tasted speaks volumes about this winery’s capacity, vision and direction.

Two for [Opus] One 

No one remembers for sure, it is said, whether it was Mondavi who approached the Rothschilds or if it was the other way around, but whoever had the idea for a French-California partnership it proved to be a good one. The terms were simple: fifty-fifty. No one had a controlling interest, everything had to be mutually agreed.

The first Opus One wines were made in 1979 and 1980 and in 1981 a single pre-release case sold for $24,000 at the Napa Valley Wine Auction. It was the highest price ever paid for an American wine at the time and still quite a lot of money for a case of wine today. The first wines were released in 1984.

The landmark winery sits just off Highway 29 across the road from the Robert Mondavi winery where those very first wines were made. The dramatic architecture of the winery gets all the attention, but the vineyards are the important thing here.  Opus One counts part of the historic To Kalon vineyard as a key asset and component in its wine.

Constellation Brands purchased Mondavi in 2005 and inherited half ownership of Opus One. The Rothschilds considered buying out the American half interest as was their right under the founding agreement, but opted instead to keep the winery with a foot in both wine worlds. Constellation and the Rothschilds reached an agreement to remain partners while assuring the winery’s independence and integrity.

Unintended Consequences

I admit to being surprised when I learned about the Constellation side of Opus One.  I could not imagine that the Mondavi family would structure things in a way that would allow this jewel to slip away.

But things don’t always turn out the way we plan and perhaps this quick survey of the European Invasion shows just how diverse the experience has been for those who came to America in the 70s and 80s to make wine here (and for American winemakers, too).


St Supéry Winery Sale: From Algeria to California & from Skalli to Chanel

I was surprised to learn a couple of weeks ago that Robert Skalli, founder of the St Supéry winery in Rutherford, was selling his family’s iconic winery and vineyards to Chanel, the French luxury goods producer.  Press coverage such as an article in Decanter was pretty limited — not much more than the press release version of things — lots of unanswered questions in my mind.

Sue and I visited St Supéry in September (we loved the wines and the people we met) and we were told many times how committed the Skalli family was to the project, so I was caught off guard by the change in ownership. It is natural to keep quiet about a business deal until it is finally done of course, but the quick change got my attention.

All in the Families

The facts of the sale are these. Chanel owners Alain and Gérard Wertheimer,  who are said to be worth €16.6bn, have reached an agreement to pay an undisclosed sum for the winery on Highway 29 in Rutherford, the 35-acre vineyard there and the magnificent 1500-acre Dollarhide Vineyard up north in the hills.

No reason was given for the sale, although Skalli is quoted saying he happy that his winery will be run by a firm that shares his values. The Wertheimers own two wineries in Bordeaux, Château Rauzan-Ségla and Château Canon, but there is no indication that they plan to build a luxury winery portfolio. Lots of questions — why, how much, and so forth — but winery sales happen all the time and details are not always fully revealed. So why am I so curious to find out more?

I first got interested in St Supéry when I was working on my 2011 book Wine Wars. I was examining the tensions between New World and Old World ideas about wine and I came across the fascinating story of the Skalli family wine empire.

Rise and Fall of Skalli Wine Empire

Robert Skalli is the founder of the Skalli Group, a holding company that was until 2011 one of the largest producers of wines in the Languedoc.  The Skalli conglomerate made branded varietal wines  and sold them in France and around the world. Skalli sold almost all its wine interests to Boisset in 2011. Almost all? They  held on to St Supéry.

Robert Skalli’s grandparents were pied noirs, French migrants to Algeria.  Many pied noirs emigrated to Algeria starting in the 1870s, when phylloxera wiped out vineyards and grower incomes in the Languedoc. The Skallis left France in the 1930s, presumably in search of greater opportunity in Northern Africa – and they found it.

Robert-Elle Skalli, Robert Skalli’s grandfather, built an empire on grain and wine. By the time that Francis Skalli took over from his father after World War II, the family business included a huge grain operation, Rivoire et Carré with a mill in Marseilles, the number two pasta company in France, Lustucru, a vineyard in Corsica, a rice producer, Taureau Aile, and of course vineyards in Algeria.

By 1964 the Skalli vineyards in Algeria spread over 600,000 acres, which is nearly as large as all the vineyards in Languedoc today (700,000 acres, which is much less than a few years ago). This was the wine that the French négociants blended with the weaker Langudoc product to make industrial strength vin du jour and they made vast quantities of it.

Like many other pied noirs families, the Skalli eventually fled to France as a result of the Algerian war and its independence in 1962.  They settled in the Languedoc and went about rebuilding their business.  Robert Skalli entered his father’s and grandfather’s business in the 1970s and, as part of his education, studied and worked (as  a “flying intern”) with winemakers in Australia and the United States.

California Inspiration

Significantly, according to the official company history, he worked with Robert Mondavi, who introduced him to the idea of branded varietals and opened his eyes to a different vision of the wine business, one based not on the condition of supply (and the traditional practices and regulations governing production) but on demand and the development of vineyard, cellar and marketing techniques that would provide buyers with wine that they could understand, appreciate and that they would buy.

Skalli returned to France and began to organize a business to make the clean, consistent, mid-range varietal wines that he saw in California and Australia. He established partnerships with growers and cooperatives in the Languedoc, providing financing for the process of pulling out their tough old vines and replanting with market-friendly varietals like Merlot and Chardonnay. Replanting is expensive, both in direct outlays and in lost production while the vines mature.  I suppose having the backing of the profitable Skalli grain business was useful in this transformation process.

The main Skalli brand, Fortant de France, was established in 1983 to produce and market these wines both in France and in 25 foreign countries.  The Cabernet Sauvignon sold  for about six dollars a bottle back when I was doing my Wine Wars research. There was a cheaper brand, Couleurs Du Sud, sold mainly in European hypermarkets and also a kosher wine line.

Mondavi Again

The Skalli family eventually decided to concentrate on wine – the grain and pasta businesses were sold or spun off.  They had wine interests in Languedoc, the Rhone Valley, in Corsica, where they owned the largest private vineyard, and in California.   Skalli credits Mondavi with helping him make the St Supéry investment.

And in return Skalli supported Mondavi’s aborted attempt to invest in the Languedoc on the logic, I believe, that anything that Mondavi did would draw favorable attention to the Languedoc, which would benefit both family businesses.

In 2011 the Skalli family sold off their wine interests to Boisset but, significantly, retained St Supéry. This surprised me at the time and I figured that it must either signal a new direction or a special fondness for the Napa project. Now I am not sure what to think.

But it seems like the winery is probably in good hands if Chanel gives the excellent local team that Skalli developed some autonomy. Luxury goods companies are sometimes more focused on managing brands than making wine. Skalli seemed to be good at both and perhaps Chanel will take the winery to the next level. Fingers crossed for a bright future at St Supéry.


The decade from about 1975 to 1985 featured a surprising number of European wine investments in California. Sue and I have made a point to visit many of them over the last few years to find out how they have changed or developed. How have those ambitious Euopean investments of 30-40 years ago turned out?  Tune in next week for some thoughts.


The Wall Street Journal published an interesting article about Chateau Canon, one of Chanel’s French investment on November 11, 2015.  Unclear if this is  St Supéry’s future.

Book Review: Richard G. Peterson, An American Life in Wine

Richard G. Peterson, The Winemaker. Meadowlark Publishing, 2015.

I was going to title this review “A Life in American Wine,” but Richard Peterson’s autobiography is all-American through and through starting from humble Iowa origins on to university at Iowa State, a tour in the Marine Corps and then  a Masters in Food Science and PhD in Agricultural Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley (the Davis campus was not yet a reality). Quite a journey for a coal-miner’s son.

Wine was part of the story from the early days. The photo on the cover shows Peterson making his first batch of wine in Iowa. The grapes were Concord. The year was 1948. He was 17 years of age.

The Research Lab at Gallo

As he was finishing his Ph.D. in 1958 Peterson was approached to come work in a new research lab at E&J Gallo, which was at that time the third largest wine producer in the U.S. after Roma and Italian Swiss Colony. Gallo was riding high on the basis of the success of Thunderbird and they wanted scientific rigor as they worked on both developing new products and improving the quality of existing ones. In retrospect, this was probably one of the best places to be in American wine at the time as the Gallos were willing and able to put resources into wine research and development.

Reading Peterson’s account of his time at Gallo and the people and products he found there is pure pleasure. It is a very personal account, not an academic study, and it gives the best insight I know into what was happening deep inside the industry in the 1960s when the foundations for the rise of American wine were being laid.

Working with Tchelistcheff

Peterson moved his family to Napa Valley in 1968 and started a new job. Where do you suppose one goes from Gallo? It is easy to think about American wine as being sharply divided into industrial wine and craft wine, but I have always maintained that American wine is more complicated than that and Peterson’s next step proves it. After much thought and many interviews, Andre Tchelistcheff hired Richard Peterson to work with him and eventually to take his place at Beaulieu Vineyards, one of Napa’s crown jewels.

Peterson stayed at Beaulieu through the sale to Heublein, leaving in 1973 and moving to an ambitious new project called The Monterey Vineyard. He stayed on as this project evolved into Taylor California Cellars with Coca Cola and then under Seagrams ownership. He moved to another ambitious new winery project, which Sue and I have recently visited. Today it is called Antica Napa, an outpost of the Antinori family in Napa Valley, but it was originally called Atlas Peak, a partnership between Whitbread, Inc., the British brewer, Christian Bizot of Bollinger Champagne and Piero Antinori.  Peterson built the elaborate cave system that we visited on our trip among other achievements here.

Gallo, Tchelistcheff, Antinori — quite a resume, don’t  you think? Peterson’s book takes the curious reader through wine science, wine history and wine business. There are several key themes. One is the importance of quality, even for inexpensive wines. This could be called “the Curse of the Thompson Seedless Grape.” A second theme deals with Peterson’s experiences working with people who know the wine industry or are willing to learn (Gallo and Coca Cola get good grades here) versus those who don’t understand wine or prefer to be ignorant (Hublein and Seagrams among others).

Bronco and Peynaud

One of my favorite parts of this book is a story that Peterson tells about some consulting work he did for Fred Franzia. Fred wanted to make sure that the Bronco winery in Ceres was doing everything right, so he paid Peterson to come around regularly and be a snooping “Big Brother” — seeing all, hearing all, and calling Bronco out if there was an issue. Peterson had contracted with Bronco for wine stocks when he ran Taylor California Cellar and he had a high regard for the winery’s quality and consistency. The attention to detail he saw on his inspections explained it all.

I was also fascinated by the brief section on Peterson’s work with Emile Peynaud. They couldn’t speak each other’s languages, but they found a way to speak wine, which I guess is a universal language. So many interesting stories here. Peterson is a lucky guy — what an interesting life!

Richard Peterson is generous with his praise and sympathetic with those who made honest mistakes, but very sharp with people and companies who tried to take unfair advantage of situations. Not everyone will be pleased with how they are portrayed in this book. It is a very personal account of American wine, told by a real insider. It is very much worth a place on your wine bookshelf.

Book Review: Tom Acitelli on How American Wine Came of Age

Tom Acitelli, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story. Chicago Review Press, 2015.

At one point when I was working on my new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated I realized that I needed to know more about how the craft beer industry developed here in the United States. So I talked with a lot of people and read a lot of articles and books on the subject.

One of my favorite references was a brisk and informative 2013 book by Tom Acitelli that he named The Audacity of Hops , an audacious play on the title of Barack Obama’s best-selling book,  The Audacity of Hope.  

Actitelli’s  beer book was useful and entertaining. It was packed full of information, but organized in an interesting way around personalities and key events. I have recommended it to several friends as a great introduction to the craft beer movement. Now Acitelli has written a wine book, too, and it fits the same profile: usefullly packed full of information and entertaining, too. I am pleased to recommend it to my friends.

An American Tale

Acitelli sets out to explain how the American wine market rose to become the largest in the world, starting more or less in the 1960s and moving on to the current vibrant wine scene.  Those 50 years are packed full of history, so it is necessary to pick and choose who and what to highlight and what factors to skip over.

The main thread will be familiar to many wine readers, drawing a line from Andre Tchelistcheff to Robert Mondavi and Mike Grgich, Jim Barnett, Warren Winiariski, and on to Randall Grahm and other familiar names. Defining moments are located in this narrative, including especially the founding of the Robert Mondavi Winery and the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting.

These stories are familiar and important, but what I found interesting was Acitelli’s ability to uncork unexpected facts and insights. It is clear that his writing ability is matched by his research skills. 

American Wine Culture

Although American Wine is the title of this book, it could have been named American Wine Culture because the story of how American attitudes toward wine changed is given at least equal treatment to the development of the wine industry itself. Thus, for example, the book begins not in a vineyard in Napa nor a cellar in Sonoma but in a restaurant in France where we meet Julia Child, the American who would  become television’s The French Chef.

Julia Child? Julia was not a particularly important shaper of American wine, but she was important in the transformation of American attitudes and behaviors about food and life, which has implications for wine. American wine would not be what it is today without the great cultural shift that Child helped lead.

In my 2011 book Wine Wars I wrote that Robert Mondavi tried to do for American wine what Julia Child tried to do for American cuisine. Taken together over a long period of time and in company of many others, it was a powerful movement. The intellectual and cultural transformation of America was a necessary pre-requisite for the growth of American wine.

American Wine Beyond the Headlines

Acitelli writes that, “A few events, the coverage they engendered, and a surprisingly few individuals changed all that [U.S. wine culture].” This focus on a small number defining moments like Sideways and the Judgement of Paris, media reactions, and famous names like Parker and Mondavi helps the author tell the story, and he tells it very well and in good depth, but it is a narrower story than the one I understand.  I would nudge the breadth versus depth trade-off needle just a little bit the other way.

I’d happily trade yet another Robert Parker story, for example, for a fuller account of Oregon’s stunning emergence and how that altered both American wine itself and the idea of what wine could be in America. Oregon pioneer David Lett, alas, gets but a single mention here as one of a group of Davis boys who went north.

There are so many great tales in the rise of American wine that I wish even more of them appeared here. But it is impossible to tell every story or fully satisfy every reader and that doesn’t diminish my respect for this book , which I happily recommend to novice and expert alike  Great story-teller (Acitelli) meets great story (wine in America) — it’s a perfect pairing. Cheers!


If American Wine is the story of the last 50 years of wine in the United States as told from the outside in (stressing media, culture, international influences and reception), what would an inside-out story look like? Come back next week to find out.

The [Sometimes Slow] March of the Kiwi Terroirists

slowhorseLast week’s column looked back to the concerns about terroir and geographical designations a few years ago when Sue and I visited New Zealand to gather material for my book about globalization, Globaloney. There was frustration and anxiety about how to delimit the Kiwi vineyards and concern that things weren’t moving fast enough.

The people in Hawkes Bay were so frustrated that they took  matters in their own hands, creating and trademarking the Gimblett Gravels region! Well, the good news is that progress is at last about to be made on the policy front although the promise of progress hasn’t stopped winemakers from trying to speed things along through their own branding strategies. Here’s a quick report.

The Slow Horse Theory

My friend Woody says that justice rides a slow horse and, if that’s true, then the new Kiwi geographical indicator policy must be just indeed. It certainly has been slow in coming!

I was struck by a recent Decanter article about New Zealand geographical indicators for wine.  “Ministers said …that they would put into practice the Geographical Indications (Wine and Spirits) Registration Act – first passed as long ago as 2006 but yet to enter into force.” The  reason for the rush to get the law implemented is a concern over international competitiveness.

‘The act will set up a registration scheme for wine and spirit geographical indications, similar to the trademark registration scheme,’ said New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser.

‘Being able to register wines and spirits geographical indications here will make it easier for their users to enforce them in New Zealand.
‘It will also make it easier for our exporters to protect their geographical indications in some overseas markets.’

Since the New Zealand industry is very dependent on exports, it makes good sense to bring Kiwi practices into line with the global rules of the game.

The move was ‘warmly welcomed’ by generic body New Zealand Winegrowers, whose CEO Philip Gregan said: ‘It will equip the industry with the tools to protect its premium brand from misappropriation or misuse, as well as help secure market access in some regions.

‘It’s a big step forward for the industry.’

A Bill to amend the Act will be introduced to New Zealand’s Parliament later this year, and the Act is expected to be passed by the end of 2015.

Paul Goldsmith, New Zealand’s Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister, noted that some consumers are prepared to pay a significant premium for wines from certain New Zealand geographic regions.

“The reputation of New Zealand wines must be jealously guarded if we are to continue growing our wine exports.

“The ability to register geographical indications under the new Act will help our wine industry promote and protect its premium brand from misappropriation or misuse by overseas producers, as well as secure access in certain markets which require government-recognised geographical indications.”

Good idea. But what took so long?  I found an analysis of the situation on the Baldwins intellectual property law website which provided useful background. Apparently passing the geographic indicator act back in 2006 wasn’t enough — it is also necessary for the Governor General to issue an Order in Council, which was not done (as was the case with a previous geographical indicator act from 1994).

I have not been following this situation, so perhaps there have been very good reasons for the long delay in implementing the GI act. As I noted last week, some think that it might be premature to set down strict boundaries or worry that appellations in general have gotten out of control.  But clearly the NZ wine export sector’s needs are now being given priority. With a little luck they can begin to use the new system next year. Slow justice I suppose. I’d appreciate comments from those in New Zealand who are directly affected by the change. Are there issues here that don’t show up in the news stories?

Marlborough Pioneer Brancott Estate

I hope the geographical indicator law, when it is finally implemented, will provide New Zealand producers with the protections and processes that they need. But in the meantime terroir grows in importance every day in the global market as upscale consumers look for markers of integrity and authenticity in everything they buy. Wines of origin designations don’t guarantee these qualities, but they are a way to signal intent to buyers.

Smart Kiwi producers are doing their best to exploit terroir both in bottle and as brands, a fact that was clear when we were invited to participate in a digital wine tasting of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc organized by Pernod Ricard’s Brancott Estate.

Brancott Estate is the pioneer Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc producer. The photo at right shows Frank Yukich planting the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc vine at the Brancott vineyard in Marlborough in 1975. If  you look closely you can see he is “fertilizing” the vine with a silver coin and irrigating it with Champagne.

The Yukich family’s company, Montana Wines, eventually changed hands and current owner Pernod Ricard rebranded it globally as Brancott Estate a few years ago. I suppose the Montana brand wine was never going to be an easy sell here in the U.S. where a wine from Montana can have more than one meaning, but Brancott Estate is a hit, hence our digital tasting.

P1090870There were five wines in the tasting flight, starting with a low alcohol Sauvignon Blanc called Flight Song and moving on to the mainstream Brancott Estate wine that is widely distributed here in the U.S. Then we climbed up the wine ladder from Stoneleigh Latitude (Stoneleigh is a sister winery to Brancott) to Brancott Estate Letter Series and ending with the Brancott Estate Chosen Rows (tiny production — not currently available in the U.S. market).

We tasted the wines in the company of Sue’s parents Mike and Gert with Brancott winemaker Patrick Materman as our virtual guide via a web link. The low alcohol Flight Song, made from early-harvest grapes, was not a favorite, but the popular Brancott Estate bottling was well received with its classic Marlborough flavors and aromas. A good reference point for the wines that followed.

The Stoneleigh Latitude Sauvignon Blanc is made from vines planted in Marlborough’s “Golden Mile,” where river rocks carpet the vineyard floor capturing the sun’s heat. Stoneleigh focuses exclusively on wines made from this one vineyard area. This wine, my favorite of the flight, displayed unexpected minerality on first taste and rich fruit when re-tasted an hour later and then the next day.

The Letter Series wine came exclusively from vines in the original Brancott vineyard (and not a regional blend) while the Chosen Rows (my second favorite) was sourced from a selection of the best rows of vines from Brancott. It was noticeably more serious and elegant — and more expensive. It’s s shame that it is made is such limited quantities because it might change some minds about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. I hope I have an opportunity to taste it again.

Strengthening Brand Marlborough

Together these wines demonstrated, just in case anyone had doubts, that Marlborough’s particular terroirs show themselves in the wines and that Pernod Ricard and the Brancott team are committed to making these wines and telling terroirist stories to go with them.

Focusing on the vineyard level with a particular brand isn’t the only way to tell the story, but it’s one way to do it until a more formal system of geographic indicators is in place. And even when sub-regional designations are improved, the vineyard-level story will be powerful and relevant.  The time is ripe for a terroirist take on New Zealand wines and producers are ready to rock and roll.


Here is a march to accompany the [slow] implementation of the New Zealand legislation. Perhaps you have heard it before?

Book Review: Oz Clarke’s History of Wine in 100 Bottles

Oz Clarke, The History of Wine in 100 Bottles: From Bacchus to Bordeaux and Beyond. Sterling Epicure, 2015.

It was a brilliant idea. Select 100 items from the massive collection of The British Museum and then present them, one at a time and in chronological order, to create “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”

Simply Irresistible

It was an instant hit with history-hungry Britain. Never have the artifacts of the British  Museum’s collection been so closely studied and appreciated by millions! And of course the use of physical objects of various sorts was perfect because, as we all know, we are living in a material world and so telling the story of civilization through material goods is simply irresistible. You can see a list of the objects here and briefly view each one in the 5 minute video below.

In another brilliant move, the organizers did not present the series on the television or the internet as you might expect but via one-hundred short  15-minute BBC Radio 4 broadcasts starting on January 18, 2010 and ending on October 22 of that year. Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, wrote and narrated all the episodes.

The combination of rich language plus fertile imagination inspired listeners to seek out information about the objects  through all available means including visits to the British Museum (which must have been one of the goals of the enterprise). Watch the video and click on the website link — maybe the hundred objects will fascinate you as they have so many others.


100 Bottles of Wine on the Wall

Oz Clarke takes something of the same approach to the history of wine in his new book and the result is very appealing indeed. Clarke’s challenge is to tell the story of wine in 100 short, punchy, chronologically-ordered episodes. Some of the chapters are about actual bottles as promised by the book’s title (1964, for example, is a jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy), but most are the stories of people, events or forces that shaped significantly the world of wine.

Thus 1855 is the Bordeaux Classification of that year and 1863 is Phylloxera. 1965 marks the invention of bag-in-box containers and 1976 the famous Judgement of Paris.  The story begins with the invention (or was it a discovery?) of wine in about 6000 BC and concludes with Rudy Kurniawan’s wine fraud conviction in 2014.

I think there is something here for all wine-lovers to enjoy and appreciate, although I understand that some will criticize the entries for being too brief  (more of the 2-page landscape given to each entry goes to images than to text) and others will find fault with the particular entries chosen and not.  Regarding the depth of analysis, I think you have to accept this for what it is and, like the BBC/British Museum project, see this as an invitation to further study rather than a much too brief final chapter.

Regarding the topics the Clarke included versus those left out, I think it is inevitable that people disagree about what’s most important — and maybe there’s fun in arguing about it a bit. I was pleased that many of the people, events and forces that I have written about here on The Wine Economist and in my books were important enough to be included in Clarke’s book.  I’ll gladly defer to him where we might disagree because after all it is his book not mine, but I was happy that we agree in so many areas.

For example my chapter on “Extreme Wine People” in Extreme Wine highlights a number of individuals who transformed the idea of wine in one way or another. Almost all of them make Clarke’s list including Robert Mondavi (1966), Angelo Gaja (1968). David Lett (1975) and Nicholas Catena (1994). I highlighted Montana’s Brancott Estate in Wine Wars because that’s where the first Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in Marlborough, New Zealand. Sure enough, that’s Clarke’s entry for 1983,  And world’s highest vineyards (in the Salta region of Argentina) appeared in the first chapter of Extreme Wine and as the entry for 2006 here.

Here’s a selection of other chapter entries to whet your appetite and give you a sense of the variety of topics presented: Pompeii (79 AD), Tokaji (1571), Constantia (1685), Dom Perignon (1690s). Chianti (1716), Louis Pasteur (1860), Vega Sicilia (1915), Mateus (1942), Emile Peynaud (1949), Robert Parker (1978), Canadian Ice Wine (1991) and China (2011).

The History of Wine n 100 Bottles is fun and informative — a great gift for your wine enthusiast friends and a colorful addition to any wine bookshelf.

By the way, if you are interested in projects like these, you might also want to read Tom Standage’s 2006 book A History of the World in 6 Glasses. The glasses, in chronological order, are filled with beer (in Mesopotamia and Egypt), wine (in Greece and Rome), spirits (in the Colonial Period), coffee (in the Age of Reason), tea (the British Empire) and Coca-Cola (in the American Century). There’s a seventh glass that represents the future. What does it hold? Water, of course.

My Hidden Agenda

I was keen to get a copy of Oz Clarke’s book when it was published because I’ve started work on a project that has something of the same flavor. Although  Money, Taste and Wine: It’s Complicated won’t be released until August, I’ve been at work for some time now on the next book in the series, which I’m calling Around the World in 80 Wines. Don’t you think that’s a great title? My challenge is to write a great book to go with it!

I wanted to see what Oz Clarke would do with his hundred wines and, while I can’t fault his use of the BBC/British Museum model, that’s not the way that I’m headed. Clarke and the BBC make a journey through time and I’m traveling through space — around the world, with 20 stops (chapters) and 80 wines. Some chapters search out and find a single most significant wine story wine while others reveal a treasure trove of different wines — or search and search and come up empty. How annoying!

But journey’s don’t reveal their significance all at once or in carefully measured doses. They ebb and flow like life itself and that’s what I’m going to try to capture. I’m sure that some will second-guess my choices and want more depth here and less there but, as with the BBC/British Museum’s series and Oz Clarke’s new book, I think you’ll find the result worth the effort. — fun, interesting. Maybe even irresistible!


Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Unintended Consequences: How the U.S. & Canada Accidentally Destroyed Wine

At one point in Kym Anderson’s new book about the Australian wine industry he reflects on what can be done to shorten that country’s current wine slump and to get things sailing again on an even keel. One of his suggestions caught my eye:

“Governments need to keep out of grape and wine markets and confine their activities to generating public goods and overcoming market failures such as the free rider problem of collecting levies for generic promotion and R&D.”

This is more than the simple Adam Smith “laissez-faire” idea. Anderson’s book clearly demonstrates the law of unintended consequences — how well-meaning government policies sometimes have had unexpectedly negative side-effects. No wonder he recommends a cautious approach to wine and grape policy.

I was reminded of this when I was researching the history of the Canadian wine industry for a recent speaking engagement in Ontario. I was struck by Canada’s experience with Prohibition in the 20th century, how it differed from the U.S. experiment, and how both ended up crippling their wine industries but in very different ways. Here’s what I learned.

How U.S. Prohibition Crippled the Wine Industry

The great experiment in Prohibition in the United States started in 1920 and lasted until 1933. The 18th Amendment outlawed the manufacture, sale or transport of intoxicating beverages, including wine. Most people assume that the wine industry collapsed as legal wine sales and consumption fell and this is partly true but not the complete story. Commercial wine production almost disappeared, but wine consumption actually boomed.

How is this possible? There were three loopholes in the wine regulations outlined in the Volstead Act. Wine could still be produced and sold for medical purposes (prescription wine?) and also for use in religious services (sacramental wine). This kept a few wineries in business but does not account for the consumption boom, which is due to the third loophole: households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for “non-intoxicating” family consumption.

Demand for wine grapes exploded as home winemaking increased (but not always for strictly non-intoxicating purposes). Total U.S. vineyard area just about doubled between 1919 and 1926! But the new plantings were not delicate varieties that commercial producers might have chosen but rather grapes chosen for their high yields,  strong alcohol potential and ability to survive shipping to eastern markets.

Thus did Prohibition increase wine consumption in the U.S. but it also corrupted the product by turning over wine-making from trained professionals to enthusiastic  amateurs working in often unsanitary conditions. The home-produced wine sometimes had little in common with pre-Prohibition commercial products except its alcoholic content.

Americans drank more wine during Prohibition, but it was an inferior product. No wonder they dropped wine like a hot stone when Prohibition ended. That’s when the real wine bust occurred and it took decades to fully recover. Do you see the unintended consequence in this story? But wait, there’s more …

How Canadian Prohibition Crippled Its Wine Industry

Prohibition started earlier (1916) and ended earlier (1927) in Canada and took a different fundamental form. With support from temperance groups, consumption of beer and spirits (Canada’s first choice alcoholic drinks) was banned as part of war policy with the stated intent of preserving grain supplies for vital military uses. Consumption was forbidden, but production of beer and spirits was still allowed for export, which accounts for the boom in bootleg Canadian whiskey in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Neither production nor consumption of wine was included in Canada’s ban on alcohol, although wine sales were limited to the cellar door. What made wine different? Maybe grapes were not as vital to the war effort as grains, although John Schreiner cites the political influence of the United Farmer’s Party in his account of this period in The Wines of Canada. Wine became the legal alcoholic beverage of choice for Canadian consumers and production boomed. By the end of Canadian Prohibition there were 57 licensed wineries in Ontario (up from just 12) to serve the big Toronto market.

Wine sales increased 100-fold, according to Schreiner, but “It would be charitable to describe the quality of the wines being made in Ontario during this period as variable,” he writes. The market wanted alcohol and set a low standard of quality, which many producers pragmatically stooped to satisfy. No wonder wine production collapsed at the end of Prohibition as consumers went back to spirits and beer.

Unintended Consequences

Thus did government policy in both Canada and the United States create wine booms during their respective Prohibition eras, but the worst kind of booms: bad wine booms. Quality suffered as quantity surged. It is no surprise that consumers turned away from wine once other beverages were available. It took decades for these industries to recover.

Both the Canadian and U.S. wine industries are vibrant and growing today, having recovered from the crippling effects of poor quality wine. But they both are still hampered by other policies — especially regarding distribution and sales — that date back to the end of Prohibition. Economic policies can obviously have unintended effects and the shadows they cast can be long indeed.

No wonder Kym Anderson is skeptical about government interference in the Australian industry. Prohibition is an extreme case, to be sure, but such cases clearly show the unintended consequence potential that exists even with other seemingly harmless proposals. A cautious approach makes sense.


You can read more about both the Australian booms and busts and also Prohibition in the United States in chapter 6 of my 2013 book  Extreme Wine. Look for a review of Kym Anderson’s book in an upcoming Wine Economist column.


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