Dirty Jobs: Extreme Wine Edition

Dirty Jobs is a popular television show where host Mike Rowe goes out and works alongside ordinary people as they earn a  living for themselves and their families and make products and services for the rest of us. The jobs are frequently dangerous and often have a high “yuck!” factor  but, as they say, it’s a dirty job and someone’s gotta  do it.

Memo to Mike: Next Time Wear a Maroon T-Shirt.

Winemaking is a Dirty Job

Mike’s done all sorts of dirty things — he’s even worked as a winemaker. Mike gets pretty dirty in this episode (click on the link to view it) although the brief clip on the Discovery Channel website is relatively clean.

One job that is apparently too dirty for the Dirty Jobs crew is research. At the end of each show Mike pleads with his audience to send in ideas for even dirtier jobs. If you don’t, he says, I’m out of a job!

Now I don’t really believe that the Dirty Jobs staff is as clueless as they say, but I think they have the right idea. The people who watch their show have a world of experience and are full of great ideas. They’d be crazy to ignore this great (and free) resource. No wonder the show is so successful.

Wine Writing is a Dirty Business, Too

This started me thinking. Wine writing is a dirty job, too, and readers of The Wine Economist are pretty smart and creative. Maybe I should exploit their expertise for the book I’m working on now.

My new book, Wine Wars will be out in June and I’m doing research for a follow-up project tentatively titled Extreme Wines that explores the world of wine from its outer limits — the best, worst, cheapest, most expensive and most outrageous wines that I can find. The idea is that the forces that are shaping wine today will show up first and maybe most clearly at the edges, so that’s where I want to go.

I’ve got a lot of ideas about what extremes would be the most interesting and I have gathered them up into a few categories:

  • Extreme Wines: Best and the Worst
  • The Fame Game: Most Famous, Most Forgotten and Most Infamous
  • Sold Out: Rarest, Most Unusual and Most Ubiquitous
  • Money Wine: Cheapest, Most Expensive, Most Profitable and Most Overpriced
  • Big and Small:  Extreme Wine by the Numbers
  • Message in a Bottle: Wine Magazines, Critics, Books and Films

Like the Dirty Jobs folks, I’m looking for a little help here, folks. Can you think of interesting categories I have left out? Do you have nominees for wines (or wine regions or types of wines) that I should include in the book? If you do, leave a comment below or send email to Mike@WineEconomist.com. Like that other Mike, I need all the help I can get.

Because writing wine books is a dirty job but, hey, someone’s gotta do it. Why not you?

The Rodney Dangerfield of Wine


Petite Sirah is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine. Like the famous comedian, this grape variety “can’t get no respect.”

For a long time nobody really knew much about Petite Sirah (PS), except the fact that it produced “the biggest, toughest, brawniest red wines in California” (according to The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries). It’s true identity was a hotly disputed mystery. DNA tests finally settled arguments about its parentage — it is the Durif grape from France, a combination of the Peloursin and Syrah varieties discovered by Dr. Francoise Durif in the 1880s when he was searching for solutions to Syrah’s powdery mildew problem.

PS: The Prohibition Grape

It never caught on in Europe, but PS was quickly embraced in California and South America, where it thrives. Many of the early California vineyards included Petite Sirah along with Zinfandel and other heat-loving varieties and it figured prominently in field blends. If you’ve tasted Ridge Lytton Springs (71% Zinfandel, 21% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane in the 2008 blend) or Frog’s Leap Napa Zin (80% Zinfandel, 19% Petite Sirah, 1% Carignane in 2008) you have some idea of what I’m talking about.

Petite Sirah took center stage during Prohibition. Most people don’t realized that wine consumption in the U.S. actually increased during “The Great Experiment,” through bootleg sales, of course, but mainly because millions of families took advantage of a loophole that allowed up to 200 gallons of legal homemade wine per household.  Rough, tough Petite Sirah grapes survived the long railroad trips necessary to get the grapes to home winemakers across the country. Bootleggers liked it, too, according to Jim Lapsley’s Bottled Poetry. Petite Sirah could make a wine so strong and deeply colored, Lapsley writes, that illegal sellers could stretch it out without fear of detection by adding up to 20% water! (I am tempted to make some sort of lame “water into wine” joke here, but it don’t want to be sacrilegious.)

So valuable was Prohibition Petite Sirah that in 1934 PS vines accounted for 4400 of Napa Valley’s 11,000 vineyard acres! The total for all of California was 7,285 acres in 1938. Petite Sirah went into decline again in the postwar years, as winemakers realized that it was not really Syrah after all as some supposed and moved in other directions. The spike in the 1960s and 1970s in the chart above is driven in part by the increase in generic jug wine sales (think Gallo Hearty Burgundy). A lot of the “Burgundy” in those blends was really Petite Sirah.

Do you see the “I can’t get no respect” angle here. Poor, misunderstood, mislabeled Petite Sirah.

But Petite Sirah is experiencing a renaissance today as a varietal wine as well as a blending component. PS vineyard acreage is up as is the number of wineries making varietal PS.  There is even a very dynamic advocacy group called PS I Love You that promotes the wine.

PS Renaissance: Why Now?

Why Petite Sirah now? Well, one reason is that it is different at a time when a lot of wines taste the same. Many of the old PS vineyards survive, so old vine PS is available, which is a special treat. Sue and I enjoyed a bottle of 2005 Arger Martucci Petite Syrah made from 140 year old Calistoga vines for our last wedding anniversary. That’s not an experience you can get with many other wine varieties.

But there is more than longevity to Petite Sirah. I asked Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores to explain the appeal and here’s what she said.

The old timers planted PS because they loved it and it happened to blend particularly well with Zinfandel.  That’s why I planted it:  a really old timer shared with me that he remembered it being planted on our property long, long ago.

I’m determined to continue making PS in an open and fruit forward style—some versions have gotten quite alcoholic and leathery  (not unlike Zinfandel) but I think that people are loving the depth and zest that the grape puts forward (sort of like Syrah +). … But in general, I think it’s a perfect wine for the rather amazing charcuterie and “all things from every animal” cuisine that’s so the rage right now.

People are discovering that it can be made without terribly extracted tannins as well so that helps the pairing—even with cheese.  At the winery–I offer guests a tasting choice–they can taste PS with a rich chocolate (70% +/-) cookie/cracker (not very sweet, nice texture) or a lovely piece of salumi. It’s kind of fun for people to delve into why aspects of each food pair well.   My main source of PS is up in Calistoga.  Dry farmed and always in need of a major taming of the crop —I love it.

A Certain Smile

Another reason for the PS Renaissance is that makers of this variety have come out of the closet, so to speak, and begun to celebrate the grape and their wine through the PS I Love You advocacy group and events like Dark & Delicious, which was held at the Rock Wall winery in Alameda, California a few weeks ago. I couldn’t attend the big tasting (I was in Argentina), so I asked my  good friend Lowell Daun to fill in for me. Here is his report.

If turnout is any indication, I think Petite Sirah production will have to get back to the 1970s numbers – the place was not easy to find, the weather was abysmal, tickets cost $63, yet the place was absolutely packed! I would estimate between 800 - 1000 people participated. And of the many wine tasting events I’ve attended, this group seemed more enthusiastic than any I’ve seen. And it wasn’t a “drunk-fest”, rather oenophiles whom seemed to know what they were looking for,enjoying and analyzing.

“Accidental Pairings” was my assumption upon finding some unusual wine-food combinations set throughout the Rock Wall facility. In retrospect, I think the organizers are too smart to have not had some design as to where each winery and food purveyor were located.  … Many chocolate pairings made sense, but I was surprised to find wonderful cupcakes worked with the wines, too. The most unusual food being paired with P.S., was spicy bacon and almond caramel popcorn, by HobNob Foods, set next to Tres Sabores’ pouring station. As it turned out Tres Sabores poured my favorite wines and the spicy bacon-almond-caramel popcorn was my hands-down favorite food, and they paired perfectly!!

In addition to hands-down favorite, Tre Sabores, other very interesting pourings were: Biale’s Punisher, Clayhouse, Rosenblum’s Rock Pile, Silkwood, Aver Family and Cecchetti.

Lowell did have one reservation. A health professional, he was concerned about all the purple smiles he saw at Dark & Delicious — Petite Sirah is famous for its ability to stain tooth and tongue. Is PS a threat to your tooth enamel?  Click here to read the 30 Second Wine Advisor on red wine and your teeth.

I think that all this proves that Petite Sirah really is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine — and I mean that in a good way. It may not be The Next Big Thing, but that’s not the point. Different and not to everyone’s taste, but with a large, loyal and growing fan club, that’s Petite Sirah.

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Thanks to Jo Diaz of Diaz Communications for information about the PS I Love You program and for the charts above. Thanks as well to Julie Johnson for her comments on PS and to Lowell Daun and Miller Freeman III for representing The Wine Economist at the Dark & Delicious tasting.

Extreme Wine: A Certain Idea of Malbec


One of my goals in coming to Mendoza was to add to my collection of Extreme Wine stories (yes, I’m working on another book). I was thinking that the story would be the Great Malbec Boom, one of the most extreme regional wine surges in recent years.

The Malbec boom may still make my extreme wine list, but a fellow wine economist suggested a different entry: Tempus Alba‘s  ambitious project to create an extreme wine, one that uniquely captures the essence of Malbec.  Here’s the story of Vero Malbec.

One Hundred Years of Winegrowing

The Biondolillo family has been in the winegrowing business in Mendoza for more than 100 years. This means that they have lived through booms and crises, both in the wine industry and in the Argentinean economy more generally. Aldo Biondolillo, who holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Minnesota, is the third generation to make a living this way. His sons Leonardo and Mariano are in the family business, too, and there is a very young fifth generation in the wings (if you look closely you can see their fingerprints on the wine label in the video above). Theirs is the kind of business that necessarily looks to the long run.

When Aldo began the Tempus Alba project in the 1990’s he was looking for a way for his family to continue the winegrowing tradition well into the future. He knew that they couldn’t live on grape sales alone and becoming a bulk wine producer would be a dead end road. Commodity pricing — of grapes or bulk wine — often puts an emphasis on cost more than quality – and there is always some one who will charge less.  Economic theory teaches that product differentiation is key to escaping the commodity trap. But how?

Aldo’s project is ambitious: to create not just another good Malbec, but a different idea of Malbec.

His method is to isolate the purest or perhaps just the best Malbec vines in the region from among the many different clones that have been planted here over the years. The goal is to identify the truest clones and, in the long run, to make them available to other wineries who could join a circle of producers making unique wines – unique in terms of the particular grape clones and then unique once again as expressions of their respective terroir.

In Malbec Veritas?

And so Aldo and family began, planting 800 different Malbec cuttings in the Mother Block. The 800 vines were narrowed in stages to 589 vines and then finally 20 by teams of experts. After 10 years of hard work, the project’s first commercial Malbec was made in 2007.

It is called Vero Malbec (vero is Italian for truth, although the letters are also the initials of Aldo’s grandchildren). The Biondolillo do not claim that it is the original Malbec brought over from France or The One True Malbec. It is their version of the truth, seen from their family’s particular 100 year perspective.

Everyone knows that I don’t rate wines or give tasting notes, but I found the Biondolillo’s version of the truth very appealing (as have a number of wine critics). It will be interesting to see how this wine develops over several vintages. It will be even more interesting if Aldo’s dream of a winemaking circle evolves, so that a group of Mendoza winemakers adopt the Tempus Alba clones and produce their own unique wines, perhaps along the lines of the Coro Mendocino project that I wrote about a while back. (Hmmm … they could call it Vero Mendocino!)

Our visit to Tempus Alba’s beautiful winery in Maipu was informative in several respects. First, It was interesting to see a project that is at once so scientifically ambitious (the labs and the clones)  and, through the winemakers’ circle idea, so socially progressive. Although there is a lot of plant science employed here, however, the work to narrow down the cuttings was done using nose and palate, not by sequencing grape  DNA.

I accused Aldo of being an empiricist in his search for true Malbec and someone in the group said, “Well of course … he’s an economist.” Aldo and I reacted in the same instant, “No, no, no!” we said in unison, shaking our fingers. We know that most economists are more comfortable with theories that with facts. (It is an old saying in economics, for example, that a theory cannot be refuted by facts – only by a more appealing theory will do the job). Wine theories are well and good, but it’s what’s in the bottle that really counts.

Stop and Think

I was also fascinated by the visitors to Tempus Alba. The other wineries we visited in Mendoza were fairly remote and sometimes difficult to find; most had guarded gates meant to restrict entry to those with pre-arranged tours. Tempus Alba’s winery is in the Maipu valley,  an area with lots of wineries and a good many backpacker hostels. The courtyard was filled with the rental bikes of the 20-somethings who travel from winery to winery as long as they can manage to stay upright. The action in the restaurant and on the deck overlooking the vineyard was young, lively and fun.

I’m not sure the 100+ per day biking visitors (a big wine tourist number by Mendoza standards) buy much wine, but they appear to have a great wine experience – almost a unique one it seems to me. The self-guided tour shows them the winery, teaches some viticultural science, and even exposes them to the family’s “dogma” or guiding principles. Then it is up to the sunny deck to taste the wines and have a bite to eat. Many will be untouched and just enjoy the good wine, food and company, but some will stop and think, and that seems to be the idea behind Tempus Alba’s whole approach.

Is Tempus Alba’s Vero Malbec really unique? I won’t judge the wine, but certainly the idea is completely different and a potentially important addition to the rich mosaic of  Mendoza wine.

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Update: Leo Biondolillo writes

“Answering your question of Is Tempus Alba’s Vero Malbec really unique? in my personal opinion, every wine is unique or every good wine must be unique… that is the magnificent wine world.”

Biodynamic Wine in Chile: More Questions than Answers

Regular readers of The Wine Economist know that I get a lot of insights from my students and former students.  Marina Balleria, one of my current students at the University of Puget Sound, studied in Chile in Fall 2010 and, knowing of her interest in wine and society, I invited her to write an essay for publication on The Wine Economist website.

Her article is inspired by a visit to a biodynamic winery, but Marina uses it as a springboard to comment on broader social issues. Use a wineglass as a lens to view society? Where could she get an idea like that? You can read her article, which I’ve titled “Biodynamic Wine in Chile: Who Benefits?” by scrolling to the bottom of this post.

Marina’s essay raises a number of important questions about the nature of Chile’s economic development. I’d like to use this post to address two different but related issues.

Good and Cheap: A Vicious Cycle?

The first concerns Chile’s continuing difficulty breaking out of the bargain basement of the world wine market. Chile has long been know as a country where “Prices are very low and quality is very high — the ideal arrangement from everyone’s point of view except the Chilean farmer,” according to Hugh Johnson writing 40 years ago in an early edition of his book, Wine. I think he might say the same thing about Chilean wine today.

Chile has long been cursed with a reputation for bargain wines and pressures to keep export prices low have continued and intensified even as the average quality has soared even higher. A good deal, as Johnson noted …  for everyone else! No wonder Chileans are willing to try new things, as Marina notes in her essay, since old things seem part of an endless cycle.

Organic and biodynamic wines are a rather natural thing to try. Having escaped the curse of phylloxeria, Chile can grow wine grapes on their own rootstocks. Combine this with chemical free viticultural techniques and gentle cellar practices and there is an opportunity for a nearly unique product in the world of wine.  You can’t blame the Chileans for thinking that perhaps this is a way to escape the bargain basement trap!

The question is, are wine consumers willing to pay more for these wines? Or will they see them as just Chilean wines — very good, but no need to pay a premium for them? That’s the first big question.

Biodynamics: Voo-Doo Viticulture?

Marina’s essay also raises questions about biodynamic viticulture. Biodynamics is one of the most controversial topics in wine these days and you can see why people would be skeptical that it is only a gimmick. We live in an age of science and technology and the processes of biodynamic viticulture have a medieval feel — more like alchemy than rocket science. And the results are qualitative, which is inconvenient in a quantitative age. Voo-doo viticulture? You be the judge.

And yet I know a number of very hard-headed wine makers who have embraced biodynamics, some openly and others on the sly. Caution is warranted because consumer reaction to biodynamics is still unclear. Many wine enthusiasts still don’t know what it is and some seem to have it backwards — associatiing biodynamics with GMO vines — Franken-wines!

Not Mr. Know-It-All

I admit that I am cautious about embracing biodynamics, but I try to have an open mind. It is easy to believe that we know everything there is to know about growing grapes and making wine. After all, how difficult can it be?

We have centuries of experience and tons of scientific research. If biodynamics really worked, doesn’t it make sense that we would know it by now, have irrefutable proof and everyone would be doing it? If it isn’t a proven process by now it must be hokem.

And then I remember malolactic fermentation.

Winemakers observed the process of malolactic fermentation for centuries without understanding it.  The actual scientific process is a relatively recent discovery. Before Emile Peynaud figured it out back in the 1950s and 60s, malo was kind of a voo-doo dance in the wine barrel. “Malolatic fermentation happens in the wine in the spring by sympathy with the sap rising in the vines” — that was the pre-Peynaud view according to Benjamin Lewin’s book, Wine Myths & Realities. It took several decades to tease out out what was really going on in the post-alcoholic fermentation juice and I think winemakers are still experimenting to discover the when, where, how and why of controlling it.

Just Sayin’

So I’m just saying that if it took so long to really understand malolactic fermentation, maybe it will take a little longer to figure out what’s happening (or not happening) with biodynamics (and why)  and I’m not in a hurry to make up my mind. Wine is a big world and it can probably accommodate many different religions and beliefs. Even voo doo is welcome here (or should be), if that’s what it turns out to be.

In the meantime, I can appreciate why the Chileans might even resort to voo doo to break out of their good-but-cheap-wine cycle. And I hope it works for them!

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Here is Marina’s article:

“Biodynamic Wine in Chile: Who Benefits?”

Editor’s Note: Marina Balleria, one of my students at the University of Puget Sound, studied in Chile in Fall 2010 and, knowing of her interest in wine and society, I invited her to craft an essay for publication on The Wine Economist website, which you will find below.

The essay is inspired by a visit to a biodynamic winery, but Marina uses it as a springboard to comment on broader issues. Use a wineglass as a lens to view society? Where could she get an idea like that?

Marina is studying in Morocco now — I wonder what stories wine will reveal to her there? Thanks, Marina, for this contribution to The Wine Economist.

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“Biodynamic Wine in Chile: Who Benefits?”

As you drive through the Casablanca Valley, nestled in between Santiago and the coast of Chile, you could be in Northern California. The valley is an irrigated green underneath hills of sparse shrubs and cactus. You pass a vineyard, an olive oil plant, another vineyard, and then “Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic Wine”.

The phrase “biodynamic wine” is usually met with blank stares in Chile. Perusing the supermarket aisles or the shelves of the botillerias, where most Chileans buy their wine, biodynamic is absent from the labels. In fact, most of the more conscientious wine options such as “fair-trade” and “organic” are not available to the average Chilean wine customer.

The only Chilean outside of the wine industry that I encountered who knew about the topic was Carolina Cabezas, a fiercely opinionated nurse who turned her country home into a biodynamic farm. She deemed it a heretic sect of biodynamism because wine is a poison to the body and the unholy combination is nothing but a fad. When I asked American citizen and long-time Chilean resident Glenn Aldrich, he succinctly encapsulated the Chilean business model in a single phrase: “I don’t know a thing about it, but I know that Chileans always like to do what is new and different especially if it has good marketing.”

THE BIODYNAMIC SENSATION THAT IS SWEEPING THE NATIONS

Biodynamic wine does have that. This viticulture first made a stir because of its unconventional farming practices based on the teaching of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy and of Waldorf School-fame. These include lunar calendars that decide harvest dates, “preparations” concocted of red deer bladders and yarrow and homeopathic treatments used for pest control and dispensed according to the zodiac calendar. All this is meant to create farms that are self-sustaining yet interconnected systems.

Outside of the biodynamic community, these practices are met with skepticism, as scientific proof is shoddy at best. According to a six-year study from Washington State University, biodynamic and organic grapes differed in no substantial way for any of the “physical, chemical and biological parameters tested”, upending claims to the contrary. However, biodynamic wines are being given excellent scores by testers and some recognize it as a way to preserve terroir. What it seems to come down to is that wine growers willing to meticulously grow grapes according to the lunar calendar tend to be equally detail-oriented in other aspects of wine production, resulting in finely, if bizarrely, crafted wines. In any case, biodynamic wine has received premium billing in many wine shops across the globe. Back in Chile, the wine producers have taken notice.

A GUIDED TOUR

As you take the tour in Emiliana’s Casablanca winery all of the hallmarks of biodynamic farming are carefully on display.

The tour guide gives you the standard lines about a concern for the environment and points with pride to the portable chicken coop, used for pest control. He glosses over the grittier parts of biodynamic farming, calling it “the next level of organic” and Steiner is only briefly mentioned. He does affirm that it is “actually a science” and contends that the only proof necessary is in the bottle. We pass by the deer bladders hanging out to dry and duck into the cellar where the preparations absorb the cosmic energies. Apparently, it is common for guests to burst into laughter during this portion of the tour.

Next is the social responsibility component—the community garden in which the rows belong to different workers, allowing the workers to harvest their own biodynamic food and sell the chickens’ eggs. Emiliana also produces olive oil and honey so the workers have employment year round. It is later revealed after gentle probing that this plan benefits about 35 workers out of the 200 or so that are employed during harvest season. The harvesters are not higher paid than at neighboring vineyards. Emiliana is a higher coveted employer however, because as with organic farming, it provides a pesticide-free workplace.

BIG BACKING, BIG EXIT

“This isn’t something we are allowed to say, but we wouldn’t exist without Concha y Toro,” our tour guide tells us after we ease into our chairs for the wine tasting.

Concha y Toro, one of the biggest producers of wine in Latin America put out a wide array of wines, some occupy the bottom shelves of Chilean liquor stores and others come with hundred-dollar price tags. Names include Casillero del Diablo, Amelia and Don Melchor. Emiliana, named for the wife of the founder, is the brand used for their sustainable lines. Emiliana went organic in 1986 and biodynamic in 1997, going through the costly certification processes for both. They proudly announce that they have the distinction of being one of the first in Latin America to do so, a testament to the not-so-friendly rivalry between Southern Cone wine producers. Concha y Toro can quietly put up the capital for ventures such as Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic wine but the both try to avoid association. Emiliana is made with eyes for the international market as 90% of its products are sold abroad with some lines produced exclusively for export. This is not uncommon for fine wines.

According to my tour guide, the grand exodus of wine from Chile is because of a lack of an endemic Chilean wine culture. Basically, there is not a sufficient domestic demand to keep luxury brand wines in the country.

I beg to differ. Here, wine is a requisite at any meal and the bottle is invariably Chilean. However, cheap wine is decent wine and incomes are limited. It is budgeting that keeps the Chileans from buying more expensive wine, not cultural disregard. Likewise, for the producers there is more to be gained by selling abroad. It is simple economics.

IN THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS

Taken as a whole, the Chilean wine industry demonstrates a larger truth of the Chilean economy.  The country’s economy is largely export-based, with a current account balance of $4.2 billion (29th in the world). Many of these exports are commodities, with the top five highest-valued export commodities being copper, fruit, fish products, paper and pulp, chemicals and, of course, wine. Winemaking is not only lucrative but can become more so as Chile’s finer wines are established, making it a sustainable industry with growth potential. To try realize this goal, Chileans are adhering to the maxim that Glen Aldrich laid out: do what is new, different and marketable.

The resulting marketing campaigns, however, depicts a Chile far removed from reality and sometimes downright contradictory. One only has to look at the certified biodynamic winery that is by definition a self-sustaining system but is employed to ship the bottles, which are not found in the home country. This is true across exported commodities. The majority of the copper of Chile is extracted by multinationals and little of the revenue goes back to the country. Only fruit deemed not fit for export is sold in Chilean supermarkets. The more left-leaning Chileans are constantly bemoaning the theft of their natural resources by evil corporations, or worse, the United States. On the other side, it is seen as a boon for the Chilean economy, which is growing at a much faster pace than

Herein lies a debate familiar to most International Political Economy students: does this time of export-driven growth create irreversible dependency on other countries and represent little more than exploitation? Or, does is this introduction into the global market economy that allows them to grow in ways that would be impossible otherwise and is only a stage in its development? I, like any indecisive student, choose option C: it depends. If Chile invests this income in the right way with education, technology and research, it could be a benefit to all. If not, the more pessimistic option could become true.

Biodynamic wine provides a test case of how Chile is pursuing its growth, with an eye for the tastes of the outside markets and little regard for what happens at home. Whether this development model is successful, sustainable and spreads throughout the social strata remains to be seen. A good indicator to watch may be what kinds of wine are served with dinner.

Sources:

The tour of Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic winery in the Casablanca Valley took place on December 27th, 2010. More information can be found at: http://www.emiliana.cl/

Interviews were conducted informally by yours truly.

Scientific research about biodynamic wine vs. organic comes to me by way of The Skeptical Inquier’s article titled “Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle” by Douglass Smith and Jesús Barquin, originally published December/November 2007. It can be accessed at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/biodynamics_in_the_wine_bottle/.

The citation for the journal article is as follows:

Moulton, G.A., and J. King. 2005. Growing wine grapes in maritime western Washington. Washington State University Extension Bulletin. WSU-NWREC, 16650 S.R. 536. Available at: http://cru.cahe.wsu.edu/CEPublications/eb2001/eb2001.pdf

Statistics on Chile’s economy are from the CIA World Fact Book, accessed January 18, 2011.

Wine Myths (and Reality)

Benjamin Lewin MW, Wine Myths and Reality. Vendage Press, 2010.

They say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (or a wine by its label?), but does weight offer any clue to quality? Some winemakers apparently think so — they put their best wines (or at least their most expensive ones) in the heaviest imaginable bottles to give them physical heft to match their presumed sensory impact.

If you take Benjamin Lewin’s latest book as a sample of one, intellectual heft and physical weight are pretty highly correlated, too. At 634 pages and 1.9 kg this is indeed a weighty tome — and a very valuable one for anyone really interested in wine.

Wine: Myths and Reality is a great book for people (like me) with a geeky interest in wine. I like it so much, in fact, that I am going to make it required reading for the students in my university class, The Idea of Wine. They may not appreciate having to carry it around in their backpacks, but I guarantee they will thank me when they sit down to read it.

DIY Master of Wine?

I was tempted to title this post “Dr. Lewin’s DIY MW.” As I was reading the book I couldn’t help thinking about the Master of Wine exams and how closely the book seems to follow the syllabus. (I found a copy of the 2008/09 syllabus on the MW website — click here to view the pdf file). I am sure that reading Dr. Lewin’s book isn’t adequate to pass the MW exam, but I think it gives you a sense of the depth of knowledge that Masters of Wine are expected to master.

The Master of Wine was invented to help educate and prepare wine professionals — people who make their living in the wine business as buyers, sellers, advisors, writers and critics. The exam’s structure reflects the need to understand not just wine but its entire commodity chain.

The first two papers deal with the production of wine.

Paper 1 will examine candidates’ knowledge and understanding of ‘Characteristics of the vine and wine’ up to and including ‘alcoholic and malolactic fermentation’.

Paper 2 will examine candidates’ knowledge and understanding of ‘Wine maturation, blending and bottling’ up to and including ‘quality assurance and quality control’.

The first half of Dr. Lewin’s book does a rather masterful job of covering the material for the this part of the exam. Clear, organized, detailed, interesting and provocative — just what the doctor (or aspiring MW) ordered.

Getting Down to Business

The third MW theory paper is on wine business, which makes sense since so many MWs are in “the trade.”

Theory Paper 3: The Business of Wine.   The purpose of this unit is to assess candidates’ current knowledge and understanding of financial, commercial and marketing aspects of the international wine industry. Candidates should demonstrate the ability to apply their knowledge to a range of business situations including marketing and investment strategies, financial decision making, supplier – customer relationships and strategies for identifying and meeting consumer demand. Candidates will require a broad background knowledge of wine industry structures around the world and how these relate to one another.

I have argued in the past that the Masters of Wine program was been very important to the development of the global wine market by its efforts to create a highly trained group of industry leaders. Reading Dr. Lewin’s book you can understand why. Dr. Lewin is not quite as comprehensive in this part of his book, which is understandable since this material will be of less interest to a general audience, but his analysis of global wine market trends and issues is still very interesting and useful.

The fourth MW essay is on “contemporary issues” and I think Dr. Lewin does a great job of raising and analyzing important issues throughout the book. As someone who writes and uses textbooks all the time, I appreciate that Dr. Lewin provides us with his opinions (not playing the old “on one one hand, on the other hand” game), but he does so carefully, citing evidence after having outlined the issues clearly.

The final third of Dr. Lewin’s book is a world tour — an introduction to the regions, the wines and the relevant controversies, with special focus on Burgundy and Bordeaux, which is understandable given their place in the world of wine and especially because of Dr. Lewin’s particular interests and expertise.

Breaking with Tradition

I was initially surprised by the organization of the regional wine survey chapters. Traditionally the Old World comes first and the New World trails along behind. Dr. Lewin reverses the order. Why?  I believe that it has to do with the theme of the book. The title, Wine Myths and Reality gives a strong hint of the book’s over-arching argument.

The myth is that Old World wines are unmanipulated natural products and that New World wines are highly processed industrial ouput. Dr. Lewin argues throughout the book that all wine is manipulated — how could it be otherwise?  Left to itself, wine is just a stop on the liquid road to vinegar.

It is hardly surprising that Benjamin Lewin would take this stand on wine. He is a renowned cell biologist who understands better than most the role of science in wine. To dismiss “manipulation” is to ignore wine science, which seems like a foolish, ignorant attitude.

Embracing Dr. Lewin’s argument raises the true question — what do we want wine to be and how best can we achieve this goal? Everyone manipulates (or else makes spoiled wine) — the question is how, how much, why and to what effect? Telling the story of the New World first puts this argument in context and highlights the real issues effectively.

This is a very fine wine book — one of the best I’ve read — and certainly worth a place on your bookshelf — even if you have to reinforce it to bear the extra weight!

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This book’s color illustrations  — maps, photos and graphs — are simply excellent. I think one reason the book weighs so much is that it is printed on special high gloss paper to make these illustrations unusually clear and useful.

There’s a [Wine] App for That!

Happy New Year! I’ve just finished reading final papers from The Idea of Wine class I teach at the University of Puget Sound.  This semester several students probed the intersecting worlds of wine and technology. Here, for your consideration, are quick summaries of five papers that explore variations on this very contemporary theme.

There’s an App for That!

Anna wrote about wine Apps. Apps are creatures of the 21st century — application programs that run on smart phones, iPads and similar electronic devices. There are thousands of Apps (the iTunes App Store and Android Market are full of them) and so it is no surprise that there are wine Apps, too.

Anna discovered five basic types of Apps, which she classified as wine journals, wine glossaries, wine-food pairing programs, electronic sommeliers that provide recommendations from lists of wines and wine quizzes and games. SmartCellar is an example of a sommelier-type App — restaurants can use SmartCellar-equipped iPads instead of printed wine lists to help their guests make well-informed wine choices.

Project Genome, a Constellation Brands study, identified six distinctive groups of wine buyers ranging from Overwhelmed to Enthusiast. Anna matched wine Apps with buyer profiles and concluded that there is something for everyone. But are any of them perfect?

No. Anna imaged the perfect wine App for her — given her particular interest in wine today. No single existing App would satisfy all her needs, she concluded, but there soon will be given the pace at which new Apps appear.

QR — the New Face of Wine?

Jack wrote abut QR (Quick Response) codes. QR codes work on the same principle as Universal Product Codes, but whereas UPC codes can store 12 characters of information, QR codes hold much more.  You scan a QR using an App on your smart phone and the App uses the embedded information to direct its display. QR codes are everywhere these days, especially in advertisements. Jack reports that some new graves in Japan feature QR codes that, when scanned, show photos of the deceased. QR codes at Japanese tourist sites provide detailed visitor information.

Jack found several applications of QR codes to wine, but he thought that the potential of this technology is not yet fully exploited. QR codes in advertisements or wine labels are a way to give the consumer more information. More advanced technology — already in use in other consumer goods markets — would allow QR Apps to connect with local retailers or to interface with online communities like CellarTracker.

“The more you think about it, the more it’s clear that QR codes have the potential to change everything about wine shopping,” Jack concluded. “They are free, easy to make and will soon have an army of smartphone users” to exploit them.  Japan has been using them for 16 years, he said. Time for wine makers and buyers in the U.S. to catch up.

Wine and Social Media

Alyssa and David wrote very different papers about wine and social media. Social media refers to electronic communities that link people in flexible arrangements and allow  them to interact and to  share information of various sorts. Alyssa examined Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere to find the potential of each to forge durable wine-based interest groups.

David’s paper explored the role of the Internet (and social media)  in building or sustaining consumer communities using a very creative approach — comparing wine with beer. Beer has long been marketed as a group thing — a bunch of people get together and have a good time over a few beers. Wine’s marketing is not as consistently focused, David asserted, and the community element not so clearly developed.

This has an effect on how beer and wine build communities on the web. Beer brings community to the Internet, according to David, but wine tries to draw community from the web — an interesting point. “Every day, more and more people are being brought to wine through the Internet,” he concludes, “and lovers of wine are finally finding the community they’ve always wanted.”

Napa Valley versus Silicon Valley

Finally, Ben’s paper looked for linkages between Northern California’s two famous valleys. Not Napa and Sonoma (although that would be an interesting paper) but Napa and Silicon. What can we learn about wine, Ben asked, by looking at microchips? Quite a lot, he discovered.

Ben compared Annalee Saxenian’s account of the development of Silicon Valley in her book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 with James Lapsley’s history of the Napa Valley wine industry, Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era. He found rather interesting parallels between the two seemingly separate spheres of California life and concluded that Saxenian’s model of high tech regional development explains Napa’s evolution very well.

Going further, however, Ben asserts that both valleys reflect a certain regional spirit. “That this culture of creative destruction permeates as diverse of industries as IT and winemaking demonstrates the influence that a regional consciousness can have over all manners of activities that will within its physical purview.”

“In this sense,” he concludes, “Napa is a genuine reflection of its terroir …  Wine is a microcosm of our collective ties to our environment and the various techniques and technologies used to elucidate a certain character from a wine are ultimately efforts at understanding and strengthening this relationship. And in that pause given to us by that perfect glass of wine, we cannot help but feel closer to the world around us.”

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Sorry, I cannot distribute these papers directly, but if you are interested I will try to connect you with the student authors.

The BRICs: The New New World of Wine?

This is the first of a series of articles on wine markets in the BRICs. BRICs? Is that a wine term? No, although it sounds just like brix, a measure of a grape’s sugar level. Jim O’Neil of Goldman Sachs coined the term BRIC in 2001 to refer to  Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Initially many people suspected that BRIC was just a gimmick — a way to package four very dissimilar countries into an appealing acronym that would draw investor interest. If it was a strategic maneuver it was a brilliant one because of the way it captured the world’s imagination.

More than a Gimmick

“BRICs” is an attractive name for many reasons, perhaps especially because it looks and sounds like NICs — the Newly Industrialized Countries of Hong Kong, Singapore,  Taiwan and South Korea that have been so successful in the global economy.  There was some question initially about why these four particular countries were chosen (why Brazil and not Mexico, for example, and what about Turkey?) and what if anything they had in common, but the idea quickly caught on.

Today the BRICs are firmly established, as the Economist noted earlier this year in an article titled, “The BRICs: The trillion dollar club.”  The BRICs have turned into something real.  Why? According to the Economist

The BRICs matter because of their economic weight. They are the four largest economies outside the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the rich man’s club). They are the only developing economies with annual GDPs of over $1 trillion (Indonesia’s is only half that). With the exception of Russia, they sustained better growth than most during the great recession and, but for them, world output would have fallen by even more than it did. China also became, by a fraction, the world’s largest exporter.

In a recent Economist article (that included this provocative graph), Goldman’s O’Neil was asked to look ahead 25 years, from 2011 to 2036, and to speculate about the future.

One of the questions he raised was whether the BRICs would have greater total (but obviously not per capita)  income than the G-7 countries and what that might mean if they did. A good question to discuss … over a glass of BRIC wine.

The Future of BRIC Wine?

BRIC wine? Well, yes. All the BRIC countries produce wine and all are important wine markets for the future. As these economies grow, their expanding middle classes will be increasingly attractive target markets for the world’s wine makers and their wines will begin to appear on you local shop’s shelf.

China was the 6th largest wine producer in the world in 2007 according to International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) statistics, with an estimated 12 million hectoliters of wine produced (for readers who still think in “English” units, a hectoliter equals 100 liters or a little more than 11 standard nine-liter cases of wine).

By comparison, #1 Italy and #2 France produced nearly 46 million hl each in 2007 followed by Spain (34 million hl), the U.S. (20 million hl) and Argentina (15 million hl). BRIC Russia was 11th in the global wine league table, with 7.3 million hl of output followed by Brazil in 15th place with 3.5 million hl.

India does not appear in the OIV wine statistics, indicating that its wine industry is quite small at present. But India definitely is on the wine map — the omnipresent Michel Rolland even has a client there (Grover Vineyards). India is already a major producer of table grapes, with 2007 production only a little less than Chile and the U.S. combined (that’s a lot of grapes), so it is not unreasonable to suppose that higher levels of wine grape production may follow. India would be on the wine BRIC list for its potential as wine import market, of course, even if it didn’t make any wine at all.

Solving the BRIC Puzzle

Some people in the wine industry dream that the BRICs will be the solution to the problem of global over-supply. OIV estimates that 266 million hl of wine was produced in 2007 but only 249 million hl consumed,  a gap of 17 million hl or about 200 million cases. Yikes! Do the BRICs have the potential to soak up all that extra wine and bail out the global industry?

Dream on, say the experts consulted for a 2009 article in Meininger’s Wine Business International. “Are the BRIC countries going to solve the problems of oversupply in the world today? I don’t think so,” said Arend Heikbroek, associate director for beverages at Rabobank (and one of the sharpest wine analysts I know). “It’s a long-term shot,” he continued, ” it’s complicated, each market is completely different. You need to understand the risk, the dynamics, the traders, the distribution system and the legal system in each of these markets.”

Fair enough. Each BRIC is its own particular puzzle, I guess, and it is too soon to know how they will fit into the bigger puzzle of global wine.

The BRICs will be important to the future of global wine even if they aren’t a silver bullet solution to current problems. They are the new new world of wine and we need to figure out what we know about them– and we don’t know.

In this series I’ll examine each BRIC wine market in turn starting with Brazil by bringing  together and synthesizing various published reports and then try to pull things together into a summary. I hope readers with particular expertise will leave comments to help broaden and deepen the analysis. So away we go!

Getting Serious About Washington Wine

“Wine is not a serious subject. Its point is to give pleasure.” This is what Jancis Robinson says in the opening segment of her BBC series on wine.

It is pretty obvious that Paul Gregutt (author of Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide 2/e; University of California Press, 2010) didn’t get the message because he seems to take wine pretty seriously and manages to do so without sacrificing pleasure. The new edition of his book is a serious analysis of Washington wine that is seriously interesting.

Wine for Nerds?

Is there an audience for serious wine writing? Certainly Jancis Robinson must think so, despite her disclaimer, since her books and articles are so comprehensive. Gregutt knows this audience, too. When he begins chapter 4 by saying “If you are the type of person who delights in reading through every scrap of information on the back labels of wine bottles …” he must be aware that this description will apply to nearly every one of his readers, of which there are sufficient numbers to justify a second edition of this book just three years after the appearance of the first.

Gregutt’s book is unusual in that it is neither a coffee table photo album nor a wine tourism guidebook (the two most popular formats for northwest regional wine books). Rather it is a comprehensive resource for anyone interested in the continuing development of the Washington wine industry. Gregutt takes us through the history of Washington wine followed by a detailed analysis of the terroir (Washington’s AVAs), the grape varietals (with recommended producers for each wine type) and the most important vineyards (what a great idea). Then and only then does he begin a survey of wineries. The message is clear: wine is made in the vineyard before it is made in the cellar and there is a lot to know if you want to understand it.

The focus is clearly on AVAs, vineyards and wineries — the constants of Washington wine –  not individual wines that can change from vintage to vintage, although an appendix contains Gregutt’s “Top 100 Washington wine” lists for the last few years for those who want to know more specifically what to look for on shop shelves.

What’s New?

What’s new in the second edition (and is it enough to justify replacing your copy of the first edition)? Well, there is a great deal of new material reflecting the fact that the Washington wine industry has experienced so much recent growth.  There are new AVAs, of course (Snipes Mountain and Lake Chelan) and many new wineries (now up to 650+ for the state). Gregutt has doubled the number of vineyards (a top twenty list) and wineries (about 300 in this edition), making this volume far more comprehensive in this regard than the first edition.

I’d say the additional and updated material easily justifies a new edition. And, with the way things are changing, I suppose a third edition will be needed in a few years.

One aspect of the book that is sure to be controversial is the way Gregutt has organized his analysis of the most important wineries in the state. If this were a wine tourism book, I suppose he would have organized them by regions or wine roads and provided tasting room hours and so forth. But he didn’t and that’s a good thing, since the internet is the best place to find that sort of often-updated information.

Instead, Gregutt organized the wineries into four categories, starting with “five star” superstars that both produce great wines but also provide important leadership, moving down through four stars, three stars and then a “rising stars” category.  Where you put a winery in this taxonomy is necessarily problematic, since each of us might use different criteria or weigh the same factors differently. Hence the potential for debate.

Some ratings are surely uncontroversial (Leonetti and Quilceda Creek are superstars, of course), but others are likely to generate discussion. Gregutt is interested in the wines, of course, but also the wineries’ impacts on the Washington wine industry, so the huge Chateau Ste. Michelle appears in the five star list alongside tiny Fielding Hills – each very important to the Washington industry, but in very different ways.

Hedges Family Estates and Corliss Estates (two wineries owned by University of Puget Sound graduates) receive four stars, but I think you could make a case for “promotion” to the top group. For Hedges it would be based upon its leadership in development of the Red Mountain AVA and promotion of Washington wine abroad. For Corliss, it is the single-minded commitment to the highest vision of excellence — an attempt to redefine what Washington wine can be. Four stars or five? Such questions are pleasurable recreation for wine nerds like me.

More for Wine Nerds?

The success of Gregutt’s book has me wondering what other products wine nerds might be willing to buy. Hopefully, of course, they’ll want copies of my book when it comes out in 2011, but maybe there’s an even broader market for wine nerd products.

De Long’s periodic table of wine grape varietals (see below) is a great wine nerd item. I can spend hours looking at it and thinking about the different relationships it proposes. Excellent! De Long’s regional wine maps are great, too.

And then there are wine games, like Winerd the Game shown above. Winerd has a colorful playing board (decorated with faux wine labels), 276 quiz cards and includes a blind tasting test component. Pretty nerdy and probably pretty fun, too, since it has a strong educational component and people always seem to enjoy learning about wine.

I actually have a sealed Winerd game box on my game shelf. Nerdy, yes — and I’m sure it will be fun to play when I eventually get around to it. But apparently I’d rather be drinking wine (and reading nerdy books like Paul Gregutt’s).

The {Wine Economics} Magnification Effect

One of my pet theories about globalization could be called “the magnification effect.” Although global markets change things for sure, often their biggest effect is to magnify or exaggerate existing trends and conditions. A Decanter report from Bordeaux provides a good example of how the Magnification Effect works.

The Law of One Price

Although people talk about “Bordeaux wine,” there has never been a “Bordeaux wine market.” The Law of One Price holds that if there is a single market there will be a single price. But it is the difference in prices that is Bordeaux’s most notable feature. Some wines from the region sell for thousands of dollars, others for a few bucks and some … well they go to the distillery for mere pennies.

This market segmentation occurs in all wine regions, but it is more noticeable in Bordeaux because these wines have always been targeted for export (the globalization element) and so price stratification is more pronounced.

Students of wine history know that Bordeaux is in fact defined by these differences. The Classification of 1855, which established a strict hierarchy of Medoc wine producers that persists to this day, was not based upon sensory evaluation, as you might expect, or critical analysis but simply on market price.

The gold's at the top ...

The Twilight Zone

Over the years, as global markets expanded, the price differentials recognized in 1855 became embedded in the market and magnified. The Decanter article illustrates the current extreme. Announced prices for 2009 are substantially higher for the 400 top-tier Bordeaux wines that are sold en primeur: up an average of 18.6% over the 2005 “vintage of the century” and 48.7% above the recession-plagued 2008 market. Good times for the top names, as Orley Ashenfelter pointed out on two occasions during the recent American Association of Wine Economists meeting at UC Davis.

But there are thousands of wine producers in Bordeaux and times are very hard for many who are not in the top tier. Decanter reports that

…  the official price paid by merchants for a tonneau (900 litres, or the equivalent of 1,200 bottles sold in bulk) of AOC Bordeaux red has dropped to around €600 per barrel – less than the ex-chateau price for a single bottle of any of the top wines.  Most producers report that actual transaction fees are dropping as low as €500 per tonneau. Bernard Fargues, president of Syndicate of Bordeaux (which represents over half of the regions’ 8,000 winemakers, all producing AOC Bordeaux and AOC Bordeaux Superieur) told decanter.com that around 90% of his members were in difficulty, with at least 50% suffering serious financial problems.

If my math is right, some Bordeaux wines have fallen into the Two Buck Chuck danger zone while others have risen to … to what? The Twilight Zone!

This magnification effect has become global, as was readily apparent at a symposium on “Outlook and Issues for the World Wine Market” held in association with the Davis meetings. Speakers emphasized the widening market segmentation. Bulk wines (wines that sell for less than $5 per bottle equivalent and often for much less) have developed a truly global market in part, as several speakers noted, because bulk wine buyers aren’t particularly interested in terroir — they basically don’t care where their wine comes from, only what that it has a familiar taste and doesn’t cost very much.

Somewhere vs. Nowhere at Trader Joe’s

I noticed this on a recent visit to Trader Joe’s where a new line of Two Buck Chuck has appeared — Charles Shaw International wines, sourced from Australia’s surplus wine lake and selling for the same low price as the original product. I don’t imagine that anyone will refuse to buy it because it is “international” rather than from the San Joaquin Valley like the rest of the Two Buck Chuck lineup.

Bulk wine prices are deeply depressed because of this mass global market, squeezing out inefficient producers (or those who don’t benefit from government subsidies of one sort or another). Profits per acre in the San Joaquin Valley (where most of California’s bulk winegrapes are grown) is down to $200 acre — an amount so low that growers are switching to other crops such as walnuts and almonds where the global competition situation is more favorable. One grower who attended the symposium talked of leaving fruit on the vine for the first time in 25 years.

If the market for bulk wines is global, I guess you could say that the premium wine market is “international.” Buyers do care about where these wines come from and so global sourcing is not an option. This exposes producers to a different set of risks and rewards. Australian winemakers, for example, find themselves victim of the strong Australian dollar. China’s huge needs for Australian minerals has driven the currency up and helped price Australian premium wines out of their traditional market niches.

The Law of Yuan Price

(The exchange rate obviously affects the bulk wine market, too, and is one factor in Australia’s excess capacity in that market segment. The exchange rate depresses price both directly, by raising export costs, and indirectly as unsold premium wines are diverted to low-price bulk wine markets.)

Wines at the very top of the pyramid also face challenges, but they are different from those of bulk wine and premium wine. Globalization is a positive benefit to top-flight Bordeaux, for example, because it means that Hong Kong and Chinese buyers can be found to replace (or apparently more than replace) declining buyer interest elsewhere.

Decanter recently published their first Chinese language Bordeaux report — a clear indication of the expanding global market and a suggestion that the Magnification Effect has not yet reached its peak.

Anatomy of Wine Fraud

The crime was elegant in its simplicity: create a fake 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild – the 100-point wine that recently sold at auction for a record price of more than £14,000 (for a case)  according to the July 2010 issue of  Decanter.

The perpetrator used an empty bottle of the famous wine (although it would not have been that hard to fake bottle, label, etc.) and invited several wine enthusiast friends (a.k.a. the dupes) to a social  tasting where they would have an opportunity to unintentionally authenticate the DIY Mouton. (Some of the dupes unexpectedly brought along bottles of other 100-point wines from their personal cellars to share with the group. Impressive generosity! I’m sorry I called them dupes.)

The accomplice, a winemaker known for his blending skill, created the bogus vintage from an assortment of his own Washington State (!) wines from the 1990s. Some but not all of the experts took the bait — none of them suspected a fake. Wine of the night, one confidently proclaimed, even after the fraud was revealed.

The Sting

The purpose of the fraud was not, as you might expect, to make money. As reported by Lettie Teague (the perp) in the October 2008 Food & Wine article “Wine Scams: A Counterfeiter Confesses,” the idea was to see if it was possible to fool wine experts who had tasted wines like this (and even this particular wine) many times and could, presumably, easily detect a bogus wine immediately. She actually got the authentic empty Mouton bottle the hard way — by buying a full one for $1200. Not much room for illicit profit there.

Her accomplice was Chris Camarda, maker of the highly regarded Andrew Will wines. I guess it wasn’t fraud so much as a sting operation and the trap wasn’t set for Lettie’s wine expert friends (who presumably have forgiven her by now) but rather for the whole wine industry. Beware of wine fraud!

Wine Fraud: A Global Phenomenon

Old news? Hardly! My inbox has been stuffed to overflowing recently with reports of wine fraud. We seem to be Shocked! Shocked! But I wonder why? One source estimates that five percent of wines traded in the secondary market are fakes and we know that ordinary table wines aren’t always what they appear to be either. Wine fraud isn’t difficult, even at the high end. Indeed, it is remarkably simple.  No wonder there is so much of it!   And that’s the point of this post. Here are examples from the last few weeks.

  • The U.S. has just removed  restrictions on Brunello imports, finally satisfied that wine fraud issues there have been resolved.
  • The fallout continues from the French case involving large quantities of  bogus Pinot Noir sold to Gallo as the real thing.
  • Jancis Robinson’s website recently ran a multi-part report on wine fraud in China, including examples of hopelessly inept but apparently successful wine fakes. My favorite was a bottle of “Bordeaux Port” labeled “dry red wine.”
  • Newly minted Master of Wine Rys Pender’s recent Master of Wine dissertation “Counterfeit wine — its impact on the business of wine takes stock of the damage so far.
  • Slate readers were treated to Mike Steinberger’s big article on wine fraud, including the continuing saga of “the billionaire’s vinegar.”
  • And then there is the “Cellared in Canada” controversy, which doesn’t seem to have gone away — a sort of “soft-core” version of wine fraud produced by rules that permit consumers to willingly mislead themselves.

Wine fraud seems to be everywhere. What are we to make of it?

New Wine in Old Bottles

Can you spot the fake?

Well, the first thing is to realize that this is nothing new. Wine fraud is as old as wine itself, or nearly so. Pliny the Elder complained about the amount of fake wine on the market. The Roman equivalent of Petrus was everywhere, even in the humblest tavern, he said. Who can you trust?

The familiar phrase “new wine in old bottles” is, of course, a description of wine fraud. Indeed, the contemporary European idea of wine is rooted in fraud – the AOC system was provoked in part by the prevalence of fake or adulterated wines.

Then as now, fraud is easily accomplished. Why are people like Lettie Teagues’s wine expert friends so easily fooled? It is partly a matter of interests (Upton Sinclair observed that it is impossible to get people to understand something if their paychecks require them to not understand it), partly  human nature (we all like to be experts and hate to lose face) and partly a matter of Mother Nature — wine is a living, changing thing, everyone’s palate is a bit different, and even with high tech science (carbon dating?) it’s quite difficult to really know what’s in your glass and effectively impossible to know what might be inside an unopened bottle.

And some people want to be fooled in the sense that they want that seemingly impossible trophy (or unforgettable bargain) forgetting the rule that if something is too good to be true … it is probably false. As Walter Bagehot said, “At intervals, from causes which are not to the present purpose, the money from these people – the blind capital, as we call it, of the country – is particularly craving; it seeks for some one to devour it …”. And someone generally does, whether through credit fraud, wine fraud or something else.

Money, Greed and Wine

So what is to be done? The truth, I suspect, is that we must acknowledge that wine fraud is an unavoidable part of the wine world (just as financial crises are an apparently inevitable characteristic of financial markets).  When faced with fraud in other circumstances, the first thing economists do is suggest greater transparency, but there are obvious problems with this in the case of wine. The Gallo example shows us that it is possible to create impressively realistic fake documentation while the Chinese case suggests that wine is sufficiently complex that even transparently false wines with error-filled labels will fool someone.

It would be hard to make wine more transparent in any case because some of the people with the most at stake would probably be the first to resist it. Suggestions that wine labels should include normal consumer information like you find on boxes of breakfast cereal inevitably produce a harsh reaction. Wine is above such detailed accounting (and accountability), apparently. It is as if revealing what is actually in the bottle would somehow let the genie out of it. Consumers aren’t just buying wine, they are buying mystique and lack of transparency is part of the deal. And so, I suspect, is fraud.

While I applaud efforts to punish offenders, I think we must admit that the combination of economic interests, human nature and Mother Nature will make it impossible to eliminate wine fraud. Trophy wine fakes will get all attention, no doubt, but I think that the possibility of fraud in ordinary table wine is the bigger concern — another indication of my strong Wagnerian leanings.

Chapter 4: Crisis

“At intervals, from causes which are not to the present purpose, the money from these people – the blind capital, as we call it, of the country – is particularly craving; it seeks for some one to devour it, and there is a ‘plethora’; it finds some one, and these is ‘speculation’; it is devoured, and there is ‘panic’.”

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