Wine Economist readers might want to check out the current (November 30, 2013) issue of the Economist newspaper to see what they have to say about the changing (and not so changing) world of wine. I’m talking about an article called “Bacchus to the Future” that is featured in the Technology Quarterly section of the newspaper.
The story is about technological advances in what outsiders might consider a very traditional business. Please follow the link to read the entire article. I will insert a few quotes just to tease you a bit.
Few industries are more suspicious of change than winemaking.
True, but not universally true. My reading of wine history shows that sometimes technology is embraced (the Gallos and Robert Mondavi are on my list of noteworthy innovators) and sometimes stubbornly resisted. Europeans were in denial for decades after phylloxera hit them. How long did they resist grafting their vines onto American rootstocks?
“Technology has vastly improved the low end,” says Tim Keller, a former winemaker at Steltzner Vineyards in Napa. “There’s no longer an excuse for making a defective wine.”
So true. I discuss this in the chapter of Extreme Wine about the best and worst wines. Inexpensive wines might not be to your taste, but they consistently achieve a commercial standard and are unlikely to be the worst wines you will ever taste. A warm embrace of technology is part of the explanation.
Because consumers remain seduced by the notion that wine should be made by humble farmers with as little intervention as possible, fine-wine labels still try to keep their experiments under wraps. But they are quietly deploying technology in a new way: not just to make bad wine decent, or to make good wine more cheaply, but to make already-great wines greater still.
The article talks about de-alcoholization as one of the hidden technological innovations and I think most of us agree that this useful (and sometimes necessary) tool is generally kept out of sight. Other examples of widely used but invisible wine technology? Two words: Mega Purple!
France is the undisputed global leader in wine technology. As Mr Merritt notes, the country has a greater demand for mechanisation than America because its agricultural wages are higher. And France’s reputation means that its elite winemakers, unlike those in other countries, do not have to worry about criticism from elite French winemakers.
This is a point that I haven’t considered before. Sorta makes you think, doesn’t it. And I guess that’s the point. Check out the article to see what else it has to say.
Update 17 December 2014. The date of this conference has changed — now scheduled for June 4-7, 2014.
Our friends at the European Association of Wine Economists have asked us to announce the “Call for Papers” for their upcoming annual conference. As you can see below, they are interested in broadening the academic discussion of wine economics to include scholars from other fields — a great idea! And Lyons is great location for wine and food. Interested? See details below.
For more information please click through to these websites:
Vineyard Data Quantification Society – VDQS http:// www.vdqs.net
European Association of Wine Economists – EuAWE http://www.EuAWE.org
Society for Quantification in Gastronomy – SQG http://www.gastronometrica.org.
Wine Economist reader Rob Meltzer has been searching for drinkable kosher wines (and trying to understand why he wasn’t finding them) and he has been kind enough to share his observations with me along the way. I found his methods rigorous and his analysis fascinating, so I asked him to summarize his research for publication here. Thanks to Rob for sharing his results with other Wine Economist readers!
During the past year or so, I’ve tasted nearly 90 kosher wines priced between $20-$120 from the United States, Italy, Spain, Chile and Israel. My goal has not been to find the best kosher wines, but rather to determine whether kosher wines exist which could replace non-kosher fine wines in my cellar. From my days living in Northern California, I retain my passion for California reds, but I would prefer to keep exclusively kosher wines. Equally, I wanted to determine which kosher wines I could, with clear conscience, serve to guests in my home.
There are two primary determinants of kosher wines. First, the winemaker must be Jewish. Second, all kosher wines that are served in restaurants and catered events must be “mevushal,” which means that the wine has been boiled before being bottled. If you look at a bottle of kosher wine, you will see “mevushal” specifically referenced. Fine kosher wines exclusive for home consumption can be “non-mevushal.” The “P” next to the kosher symbol denotes that the wine may also be consumed during Passover.
The methodology of comparison was this: first, my friends and I tasted kosher wines within specific grape types to find the best within each category of grape for red and white. Most of the tastings were “blind.” Food pairings were always the same and the food was always kosher. The “best” kosher wine in each category was then compared to a non-kosher wine in the same category. By way of example, we tasted about ten kosher sauvignon blanc wines from various countries and in various price levels, and determined that Covenant’s 2012 Red C was really most drinkable. Curiously, both the Red C and the runner-up were non-mevushal. (Red C seems to be going for a “hip” level of quasi-kosher; the label read “non-mev” instead of the usual “non-mevushal” statement.)
Red C was then compared to Honig’s Napa Valley 2012 Sauvignon Blanc. However, as drinkable as Red C was, it also did not compare well with the Honig, or other sauvignon blancs we tasted that day. (The tasting also included Domaine Serge Laloue Sancerre (France), Cloudy Bay (New Zealand) and Buitenverwachting (South Africa). The Chilean sauvignon blanc we tasted was so unremarkable it didn’t even make it to the tasting notes.
I also went to a number of public wine tastings of kosher wines. I quickly grew tired of having sub-standard product shoved at me, while the philanthropic donors who sponsored most of these events for charity rolled their eyes in ecstasy over glasses of brownish sludgy merlot at $120/bottle that would never be confused with a 2007 Duckhorn.
Failure and Success
I never did find a kosher red wine that seemed satisfactory in terms of both quality and price for the quality received. We had particularly poor luck with Israeli maker Barkan. Its Cabernet Sauvignon was an entirely undrinkable product. We tried everything from allowing it to breathe uncorked, to decanting, to the magical blender-aeration method, without any success. In fact, several of my tasters told me that Barkan normally tastes like that, and they couldn’t understand my complaint. If they are to be believed, they were regularly drinking something without complaint that tasted like vinegar. Poor quality vinegar, at that.
The best whites were non-mevushal. For what it’s worth, if I were interested in stocking only kosher wines, I wouldn’t buy non-mevushal wines, leading some to question the inclusion of non-mevushal wines in this survey. Surprisingly, the mevushal white table wines which scored consistently high in terms of quality and price-appropriateness came from Italian wine maker Bartenura. Bartenura wines aren’t great, and they won’t be replacing my Napa and Sonoma bottles any time soon. Nonetheless, since they aren’t expensive, they could easily fill out the low end of the cellar quite nicely as a sort of kosher two-buck Chuck. Several of the Spanish cavas were equally good (try En Fuego, as an example of a drinkable Spanish Cava).
An Economic Vicious Cycle
I have several observations from all this. First, boiling wine is never going to be good for the product. Red wines seem particularly vulnerable to damage. The best reds and the best whites were not boiled. Second, the hindrance to a good kosher wine industry seems to be a marketing and economics problem; the percentage of people who drink kosher wines exclusively is very, very small. If you don’t or haven’t compared kosher wines to non-kosher fine wines, you probably don’t know what you are missing and you are unlikely to demand better product. Third, since the available offerings are small, people who really want kosher wine will buy and drink what is offered. Many times, the pricier red wines were found improperly racked at wine stores, and covered with dust. I suspect that the combination of wine-making methods and poor or improper storage explains the poor table experience. I’m also assuming that the boiling precludes proper aging after bottling.
One of the challenges being confronted by kosher wine makers is to find a way to make kosher wines mevushal by some other acceptable heating method that does not damage the wine. While I think this will ultimately solve the problem, the real issue is one of economics. Rather than make a wine that will satisfy the very small market of kosher wine drinkers, the wineries should focus on making fine wines for the broader market, while incidentally achieving the kosher designation. Just as kosher food products are mixed in to the non-kosher product at supermarkets, the day needs to come when Red C is found in the California whites section, not a kosher section. If you don’t keep kosher, you don’t go to that aisle and you would never see or try the product. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t keep kosher who heads to the kosher wine section first. Enlarging the market should naturally create the capital necessary for experimentation of new methods. There is no reason why a kosher wine should not be outstanding. While the industry is moving toward that grail, it’s not there yet.
There has been a lot of buzz about climate change and the future of wine recently, starting with a New York Times article on Sunday and spreading all around the web. Now there is a video to help us envision the research.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so a cool “fly-over” animation like the one at the top of this post must speak volumes (see this article about the video and the research behind it). As you circle the globe in the video, keep these color codes in mind so that you can interpret the images.
Bear in mind that forecasting is difficult, especially about the future, so projections shouldn’t be confused with fact. But quality wine grapes are sensitive to climate change as this chart from Bemjamin Lewin’s Wine Myths and Realities (see p. 79) makes clear. Relatively small changes in average temperature can have significant impacts on vineyard patterns and, as the video suggests, the impact varies in different regions.
While the dramatic changes you see in the video may not happen, they certain could. And some of the possible climate effects go beyond the sort of changes that might be mitigated by adaptations and innovations in viticultural practices.
Food for thought.
First of all let me say that I have nothing against wines that are good values. We all struggle to find wines that pass the “is it worth it?” test and Chile has for a long time been a reliable source of wines that answer this question in the affirmative.
But it is in Chile’s interest to be seen as more than just a good value supplier. So I was very interested when Wines of Chile asked me to participate in a blogger tasting stressing Chile’s terroir. I think that an emphasis on distinctive terroir is just what Chile (and Argentina and South Africa) needs to attract wine enthusiast consumers and clearly differentiate themselves from the bulk wine pack.
The Terroir Two-Step
Establishing a reputation for terroir requires two things. First, you have to actually have terroir, which is to say wines that really are reflections of particular and distinctive winegrowing regions or sites. And, second, you need to be able to communicate this to consumers. Absent the first factor it’s just marketing. Absent the second it’s an exercise in futility from a wine economics standpoint.
Wines of Chile provided us with a dozen wines (see list below) — three each Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon — and the opportunity to participate in an interactive video conference with Chilean winemakers hosted from Santiago by Fred Dexheimer (click here to view the video). I found the video conference to be very helpful and informative — the best yet! — both in terms of matching faces to wines and especially in unlocking details of the particular vineyard sites through Dexheimer’s probing questions.
Listening to the winemakers talk, it dawned on me that the rapid improvement in Chilean wines over the last decade derives from two sources. Improved winemaking is the first factor and the one that gets the most credit in discussions, but increased attention to matching particular varieties of wine grapes to particular sites is the under-rated other. This may be especially true for Carmenere, which was planted very widely back when it was mistaken for Merlot but that now is receiving more specific attention.
Taste the Terroir?
I organized two extended tastings to see if we could (1) detect the differences in terroir by tasting the wines and (2) find a terroir story in the wine marketing materials, especially the labels.
Sue and I were joined by Pierre, Cynthia, Patrick and Grant to taste the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir and by Ron and Mary for the Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon. I was especially interested in what university students Patrick (who wrote a paper on Chilean wine) and Grant (who studied abroad in Burgundy) would say about the wines. Here’s what we learned
The Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir tasting was very interesting. The wines were well chosen both to highlight differences — differences between the Chilean wines and those from other countries and differences among the wines themselves. Our reference point for New World Sauvignon Blanc is Marlborough and these wines avoided the “me-too” trap, presenting styles somewhere between New Zealand and France. Our reference point for Pinot Noir here in the Pacific Northwest is Oregon and the Chilean wines were very much darker and riper — so much so that Patrick wondered if he would recognize them as Pinot in a blind tasting.
All six of the wines at the first tasting came from cool climate sites, where altitude or ocean influences (or both) affected growing conditions. We could easily detect differences between the wines, but I will honestly say that we struggled to connect them to the variations in terroir. Some of the wines helped us a bit by providing detailed information about the viticulture on the labels, but some focused more on the winemaking rather than the terroir. This was a very successful tasting in terms of quality of the wines themselves, but it left some questions unanswered.
The Mythbuster Test
The story was much the same for the Carmenere and Cabernet tasting. We enjoyed the wines a great deal, especially with food (tasty pampeana empanadas), and some wines were even better on the next day. Each flight presented real differences in aroma, flavor and style, showing the diversity of Chilean wines at these price points.
Once again, however, we had mixed results in searching for the terroir connection. Some of the wine labels made a point to provide specific information about vineyard site and growing conditions, so the link between terroir and what was in the glass was quite clear. Other wines didn’t highlight terroir as much as history or winemaking techniques. A couple of the labels were printed in type so small or light that it was nearly impossible to know the marketing message (this particularly annoyed Sue, who is an inveterate label-reader). My trusty magnifying glass got a good workout trying to read the details.
Confirmed. Plausible. Busted. These are the available options on the Discovery Channel’s hit show Mythbusters. I think our tasting panel was a bit divided in reaching a verdict about Chilean terroir. At least two tasters came to a “Busted” conclusion. They just couldn’t find the link they were looking for between the wines and their terroir and their advice to Chile is “don’t give up your ‘good value’ market position.” Most of the rest of us believed that it was “Plausible” that the distinct differences between the wines was due to different terroirs, but the connection was not strong enough or clearly enough explained to arrive at a “Confirmed” conclusion.
If the terroir story is important (and I think it is if Chile is going to upgrade its market position), then the wineries need to do a better job making the connection. I think Wines of Chile has provided a very good foundation, but the individual wine brands should take better advantage of the opportunity to promote the terroir factor. The labels of the San Pedro 1865 Sauvignon Blanc and the Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere get high marks for their terroir message, although the Carmen’s tiny type was difficult to read.
The Los Vascos “Le Dix” didn’t even try to tell a terroir story — the focus was all about selecting the very best lots and blending them. But it was a terrific wine — Ron’s favorite, I think — which suggests that while terroir is important, it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the only distinguishing characteristic.
Can “terroir wines” help elevate Chile’s international wine reputation? It’s a plausible proposition, but like most initiatives the key will be execution, especially coordination between Wines of Chile and key producers to provide wine enthusiasts with a clear and consistent message.
Vina Casablanca Nimbus Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Casablanca Valley
100% Sauvignon Blanc / SRP: $12.99
San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Leyda Valley
100% Sauvignon Blanc / SRP: $19.00
Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Colchagua Valley
100% Sauvignon Blanc / SRP: $25.00
Emiliana Novas Pinot Noir 2010 Casablanca Valley
100% Pinot Noir / SRP: $19.00
Cono Sur 20 Barrels Pinot Noir 2009 Casablanca Valley
100% Pinot Noir / SRP: $32.00
Morandé Gran Reserva Pinot Noir 2009 Casablanca Valley
100% Pinot Noir / SRP: $17.99
Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere 2010 Cachapoal Valley
100% Carmenere / SRP: $22
Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere 2010 Apalta- Colchagua Valley
95% Carmenere 5% Carignan / SRP: $14.99
Koyle Royale Carmenere 2009 Colchagua Valley
85% Carmenere 8% Petit Verdot 7% Malbec / SRP: $25.99
Ventisquero Grey Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Maipo Valley
94% Cabernet Sauvignon 6% Petit Verdot / SRP: $29.00
Maquis Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Colchagua Valley
100% Cabernet Sauvignon / SRP: $19.00
Los Vascos Le Dix Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Colchagua Valley
85% Cabernet Sauvignon 10% Carmenere 5% Syrah / SRP: $64.99
The photo shows (clockwise from top left) Grant and Patrick, Cynthia and Pierre, Mike’s magnifying glass and Mary and Ron. Thanks to Sue for the photos. Thanks to Wines of Chile for the wines and supporting material. Thanks to my research assistants for their feedback on the wines and marketing strategies.
Hot, Flat, and Crowded was the title of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s bestselling 2008 book about the future of globalization (Friedman released an upgraded 2.0 version of the book in 2009 — times change, I guess).
Global climate change, the rising global middle class and population growth were the three key issues that he identified in the book, which advocated a “green revolution” that would renew America.
In an interview with Fareed Zakaria (excerpted on the book’s Amazon.com home page), Friedman exlains that
There is a convergence of basically three large forces: one is global warming, which has been going on at a very slow pace since the industrial revolution; the second–what I call the flattening of the world–is a metaphor for the rise of middle-class citizens, from China to India to Brazil to Russia to Eastern Europe, who are beginning to consume like Americans. That’s a blessing in so many ways–it’s a blessing for global stability and for global growth. But it has enormous resource complications …
And lastly, global population growth simply refers to the steady growth of population in general, but at the same time the growth of more and more people able to live this middle-class lifestyle. Between now and 2020, the world’s going to add another billion people. And their resource demands–at every level–are going to be enormous. I tell the story in the book how, if we give each one of the next billion people on the planet just one sixty-watt incandescent light bulb, what it will mean: the answer is that it will require about 20 new 500-megawatt coal-burning power plants. That’s so they can each turn on just one light bulb!
Recently I’ve been thinking about the “big picture forces” that are shaping the future of wine and Friedman’s unholy trinity keeps coming to mind. If the world is becoming hot, flat and crowded, then obviously these forces will affect the world of wine, too. But what other forces are involved? What are the key wine-specific factors that should be considered when looking to the future?
After giving this question some thought, I’ve settled on a trio of trends that are inspired by Friedman’s book and in fact overlap with his list just a bit. Over the next few weeks I’ll explore the the implications of a wine world that is Tight, Fat, and Uncorked. Here is a brief introduction.
Wine markets go through the sorts of cycles that are so common with agricultural products. The Turrentine wine brokerage firm has formalized wine’s particular cycle in its famous “Wine Business Wheel of Fortune.”
The period of low and falling wine prices, which brought so many consumers into the wine market (and pushed some growers and makers out of it) has come to an end here in the U.S. and prices are on the way up. Markets have already started to tighten up and some are close to seizing up. The low price part of the cycle was unusually long (for reasons I’ll discuss in my next post) and the cycle’s tight turn may be long, too.
Tight markets will affect the whole wine supply chain and impact different parts of the market differently. We haven’t seen wine markets this tight in a while and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens.
Thick Around the Middle
Friedman’s “flat” back then referred to global competition and the mythical “level playing field” where everyone competes with everyone else. Geography didn’t matter any more, Friedman seemed to suggest, because some smart guy in Bangalore could take your job in an instant by offering to do it better or cheaper or while you are asleep. The book was really a call for America to invest in itself — in education and technology — and the flatland analogy was supposed to motivate politicians and policymakers to take action.
When Friedman says the world is flat today, he means it in the sense of flat organizations. He specifically argues that the rising middle class around the world is a powerful force for change and this I believe is not globaloney, although I wonder if he would say exactly the same thing today, with the “occupy” movement still active and the gap between the 1% and the 99% so prominent in the public mind.
The world wine market isn’t getting flat so much as fat. Even though the prices of some “1%” wines have fallen, there is still a gap big enough for the 99% to want to “occupy.” The impact of the growing global middle class will be very important in the long run. The wine market is becoming “fat” in the sense of being “thick around the middle” — middle class, middle market, middlebrow. That’s global trend #2.
Now Lose the Cork
The cork in question is a symbol of the practices and traditions associated with an aristocratic view of wine that will not be swept away but that will be joined by many other, more “democratic” practices as the era of tight and fat unfolds.
Generational transition, the adoption of wine by new global middle class consumers, the lingering impact of the economic crisis and America’s continuing recover from its Prohibition hangover will all play a part in this story.
Tight, Fat and Uncorked: if this sounds terrible for the future of wine, please relax. It’s not all bad (or good either), it won’t all happen at once or in the same way and it it’s not [just] about the wine.
I invite you to read along over the next few weeks as I try to work out these ideas in Friedman-esque style. I hope to benefit as I usually do from the comments, critiques and creative ideas of my readers.