The Real Dirt on the Parker Theory and Chateau Al Gore

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

Demand-Side Explanations: The Parker Theory

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

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

Supply-Side Explanations: Chateau Al Gore

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

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

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

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

Ceteris Paribus

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to the Root of the Problem

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

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

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

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

Sniff & Swirl Meets Bits & Bytes


Marshall: Ordinary businessman

Alfred Marshall defined economics as the study of people as they go about the ordinary business of life. People who love wine believe that it is special and they are right to a certain extent, but it is also ordinary at least in terms of some of the business functions. Herewith the first of two posts about how ordinary and extraordinary intersect in the wine business.

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Information technology (the bits and bytes of the title) has insinuated itself into almost every aspect of our daily lives — why should wine (the sniff and swirl) be any different? And indeed it is not, although most of us probably romantically wish it were otherwise.

The most obvious place where IT comes into play is in the marketing of wine. Most winemakers today try to use social media vectors such as FaceBook and Twitter to establish and nurture relationships with customers. I’ve read that the hard sell approach isn’t generally effective (readers: use the comments section below to share your experiences with this), so the focus is on soft sell.

But is it worth it? That’s the business question. Yes, it is probably a mistake to ignore social media entirely  (just as you would be crazy not to have a winery website or a website for your barber shop if that’s your business), but what’s the smart level of investment? After all, social media doesn’t create and manage itself. Someone’s got to represent the winery as host, posting content and responding to friends and followers. How much investment makes sense?

One big time winemaker friend put it this way. Which is better for the winery — a full time employee to manage social media or three full page advertisements in Wine Spectator? Wow, that’s a tough one, especially since the audiences and the nature of the impact are so different. But, from a business standpoint, that’s the sort of trade-off that must be evaluated.

It’s the same thing for QR codes. Wineries can use QR codes to enrich their story-telling to smart phone-enabled customers, which is surely an advantage, but not without some investment. The old marginal cost versus marginal revenue questions will always be there, even in the wine game.

Cloud Data Systems

Trend Micro sent me information about their SafeSync for Business cloud data system. It provides a safe, secure data storage system. What got my attention is that they featured a winery case study: Good Harbor Vineyards on Michigan’s Leelanau Pennisula.

 “As a wine maker, we are highly monitored and regularly audited by numerous government agencies. We have to keep track of everything—every bottle and every ounce has to be accounted for—from purchase through production, bottling, sale, and shipment. We were worried that someone could gain access to these records. Losing our files would be crippling in any type of audit — and these take place frequently.

This made me realize that wineries have all the business IT needs that other types of firms do, and a few more as well. I think it is interesting that a big firm like Trend Micro would make a point to feature winery applications. I wonder if small and medium sized wineries (like similar businesses generally) have lagged behind the IT cutting edge and are therefore a ripe market for upgrades. Or maybe wine is just the sort of example that makes everyone realize how important data can be.

Extraordinary Business Needs

While some parts of the wine business are not so different from any other business (with a couple of special wrinkles in the cloth just to keep things interesting), some business needs really are fairly specific to wine. Every business needs to be able to track shipments and inventory, for example, but wine’s needs often go beyond the norm.

A London to Hong Kong shipment record.

The wine business is large enough to spawn IT applicantions to meet its particular specialized needs. For example, a company called eProvenance has been formed to provide reliable detailed information about wine shipping conditions. Wine buyers, especially those at the high end of the market, now seek assurance of the quality and authenticity of their investments and their concerns extend all the way through the supply chain.

A Bordeaux to Beijing shipment record.

Your bottle of Chateau Margaux (lucky you!) won’t be the same if it has been “cooked” in an improperly handled shipping container, for example.  But how can you be sure it hasn’t been? Enter the NFC temperature sensor!

Boston, Massachusetts – December 6, 2011 – eProvenance, a Franco‐American company applying advanced technology to monitor the temperature of fine wines as they travel from wine producer to customer, has developed temperature sensors that are compatible with the Near Field Communication (NFC) protocol and can be read through wooden cases of wine. Using the NFC protocol, which makes it easy to communicate data via smartphones (like the Google Nexus S), the new eProvenance sensors can transfer the temperature history for the case of wine through a reader or smartphone to the secure eProvenance online database. Using their NFC mobile phones, consumers will be able to access the eProvenance temperature history, and thus verify the provenance of the wines they purchase.

As you can see from the two temperature tracks above, not all wine shipments are treated with the care they deserve (and their buyers probably expect), so the tracking data can be very important. And now data can be collected in the warehouse as well as the shipping container for longer time periods, another way to ascertain quality.

With a 15‐year battery life, the new 2G (second generation) eProvenance sensors can be embedded in the wooden wine case to provide continuous, long‐term temperature monitoring, which creates a record of provenance over time that adds to the value of the wine. eProvenance customers can choose either to convert the temperature data into a provenance rating or simply share the data, allowing the importer or customer to make their own judgment about the temperature conditions.

The Opus One Story

Opus One is taking the logical next step in the use of IT, according to the press release from eProvenance — combining story-telling and temperature tracking at the single-bottle level.

Presenting at WineFuture Hong Kong 2011, David Pearson of Opus One said, “Starting with our 2008 vintage, we have an NFC tag on each bottle under the back label, which connects consumers to a video of our winemaker. Now we envision adding an eProvenance sensor inside each case to monitor the temperature for 15 years, allowing consumers with an NFC phone to read the entire temperature history with one click. The potential to connect with our consumers and to safeguard their wine is tremendous.”

I’m not sure if Alfred Marshall liked wine, but I’m pretty sure he would like the wine business today for its combination of ordinary and exceptional business practices.

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Thanks to eProvenance for giving me permission to use the temperature charts above. Thanks to Ken B. for the suggestion that provoked the “ordinary business” blog posts.

Wine Science: Better Drinking Through Chemistry

I’m always excited to read the final papers written by students in my class on “The Idea of Wine.” The students come from all corners of the university and bring with them a diverse range of skills, interests, and experiences both with wine and with academics and life generally.

Reading these papers is never tiring or boring, but that’s probably obvious. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s comment about London, a person who is tired of wine is tired of life. As in the past, I’ve picked a handful of papers from the fall semester to feature here. This time I want to focus on two themes: wine science and wine politics.

Better Living Through [Wine] Chemistry

Alex (a Math and Chemistry major) wrote an excellent survey of  “Improvements in Wine Making Through Chemistry” that argued  that “In every part of the [winemaking] process there are questions that can only be addressed using modern chemical models and knowledge.” He supported this point with several examples of detailed chemical analysis. I suspect Alex was “provoked” to write this excellent paper by the combination of the anti-scientific sentiment of the film Mondovino, which the class watched, and the very pro-science attitude of Biology PhD and Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin’s book Wine Myths and Realities, which we read.

Two papers dealt with health issues. Julie (Biochemistry) wrote on “Resveratrol: Potential Health Benefits of Red Wine” while Abby (Exercise Science)  analyzed “Moderate Intake and the Risk of CVS: Resveratrol, NO pathways and SIRT1.” Both papers took the conventional wisdom of the French “Red Wine Paradox” and examined it in detail through the lens of scientific papers and studies. I learned so much from these papers and I can’t thank Julie and Abby enough for writing them.

Frankenwine and Tropical Terroir

Fletcher wrote “Happy Halloween, Enjoy Your Glowing Wine,” an analysis of what I call the “Frankenwine” issue – the application of genetic engineering to wine. As a Business major, Fletcher was naturally interested in consumer attitudes towards GMO products and the marketing implications, but I was impressed with his more technical survey of the application of GMO technology to grapes (to deal with climate change?) and yeasts (such as the ML01 strain, which has been in use since 2003).

Mike (International Political Economy) wrote about “New Lattitdes” viticulture in “Towards a Tropical Terroir: Winemaking Lessons from Thailand.” Although the Thai wine industry is a work in progress, Mike argued that the technical lessons learned in tropical viticulture might eventually be applied to other parts of the world as climate change progresses. His paper combined science with economics and also politics in his analysis of how the AOC system might make it more difficult for Old World producers to benefit from the technical findings of Thai and Brazilian researchers. Very interesting!

Crossing Over, Breaking In

Two students wrote especially interesting papers that probed wine politics issues.  Immigration policy is a hot button political issue this  year – it seems to come up in every Presidential candidate debate. Katherine (Spanish and Art History) wrote about “Grapes of Wrath: Immigration Policy and the U.S. Wine Industry,” looking at immigration flows both in terms of U.S. agriculture generally and the wine grape industry in particular. She suggests that the wine industry would be particularly impacted by changing immigration policy

Patrick (an International Relations major) wrote “The U.S. Racialized Wine Industry: Can Latinos Break Through?”  We know that Latino migrants provide skilled labor in the vineyards – have they been successful in breaking into the cellar, becoming winemakers and winery owners? The answer is yes, but not very often. Patrick examined the structural barriers that seem to stand in the way and speculated about the future .

Thanks to all my “Idea of Wine” students for their great work, both during the semester and on the final papers. A note to students who have signed up for the Spring 2012 class: the Fall students have set the bar pretty high!

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My policy with student papers is that they belong to the students not me, so I do not post them on-line. If you’d like to get a copy, send me an email and I’ll try to put you in touch with the particular students, who may or may not choose to share their work.

Authentic Wine: Terroirist Manifesto and DIY Guide

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

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

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

Terroirist Sympathies Disclosed

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

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

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

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

Natural versus Authentic Wine

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

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

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

VooDoo Viticulture?

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

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

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

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

Authentic Wine: A Fork in the Road?

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

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

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

Biodynamics: The DooDoo VooDoo Yoga Effect

Katherine Cole, Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers. Oregon State University Press, 2011.

You can’t come to Oregon and speak about “green wine” as I did a couple of weeks ago without talking about biodynamic viticulture. The Willamette Valley is a hotbed of biodynamic activity; Demeter USA, the national biodynamic certification organization, is even based here. And now Katherine Cole, a writer for The Oregonian newspaper and several wine publications, has chronicled the movement in her nifty new book Voodoo Vintners.

Black Magic Burgundy

Biodynamic viticulture is controversial – do a simple Google search for the phrase “biodynamic viticulture debate” and you’ll see what I mean. Organic viticulture sort of adopts Google’s motto: Don’t Be Evil. Eliminate chemical fertilizters, sprays and so forth. Biodynamics takes a different and more proactive approach that considers vineyards the way the Gaia Hypothesis thinks of the earth, as a living organism. Just avoiding harm is not enough! If you want healthy grapes you need the entire environment to be healthy and growing, from the dirt and its microrganisms on up.

This sounds good enough, but then there are the cow horns and other unexpected elements of the system. Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture’s Austrian founder, prescribed certain treatments, sprays and practices that strike many as more black magic than agricultural science. Any recipe that begins with burying a cow horn filled with manure (that’s DooDoo) in the vineyard and involves special stirring instructions for the resulting organic tea to harness cosmic energy before it is sprayed on the vines (VooDoo?) is bound to have skeptics.

Walking the Talk with Alois

Some wine people declare that biodynamics is bogus, a hoax. Others approach the concept with almost religious reverence. We spent an hour walking the vineyard rows with Italian biodynamic guru Alois Lageder earlier this summer and the depth of his faith was hard to miss … or to resist. He’s a true evangelical biodynamic fundamentalist and there are many who share his faith.

Alois Lageder Mesmerizes Mike

So I approached Cole’s book with great interest. Would she argue for the fundamentalists like Lageder or side with the skeptics? The answer is neither – the book is organized around a set of profiles of Oregon wine people rather than a strong central argument.

As you read the book you learn about the history of biodynamics and Rudolf Steiner, its charismatic originator. And you meet some Oregon wine growers who embrace biodynamics, some who reject it, some who’ve tried it and given up and others who like the idea, but will only go part way, It’s an interesting journey because these are interesting people and Cole is a fine writer who takes us into their lives as they weigh the costs and benefits.

Biodynamics and Yoga

All very interesting … but so what? What’s the point? I kept looking for Cole’s argument and I couldn’t find it.  Then, going back through the book I discovered that I had missed the thesis, which was stated in the introduction.

For my part, I like to compare BD [biodynamics] to yoga,. It’s a way to strengthen and fortify the whole body, to ward off illness and to maintain health.  …

OK, but what about the voodoo stuff? Well, Cole writes, yoga has its mystical side, too.

Yoga is self-contained, holistic. … There is another, metaphysical, aspect to yoga that isn’t much discussed.  … It is possible to be a practitioner of yoga without buying into the spiritual side.

That’s true. I used to do yoga exercises but I was only interested in the physical (flexibility) and mental (calm) benefits. I wasn’t looking for enlightenment.

Biodynamic viticulture in Oregon is similar to yoga at your neighborhood studio. Although it’s still a fringe phenomenon, it’s becoming increasing popular and voguish. Many winegrowers are dabbling it it. A small number are devout practitioners.

Having read the book I think Cole’s yoga analogy is a good way to describe how wine growers in Oregon relate to biodynamics — most are pragmatists and do what they think works, although a few also embrace its more mystical elements. This is a book about the people as much as (and maybe more than) the biodynamics they practice [or not]. For all its black magic, in Cole’s telling of the story, it’s still the human element that matters most.

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I enjoyed Katherine Cole’s book and I recommend it, but I still have doubts. Is biodynamics really like yoga, a healthy activity but ultimately matter of personal choice? Isn’t there any scientific evidence one way or another that can serve as a guide?

Well, there is a new book that examines biodynamics (and other green wine approaches) systematically and makes a strong argument that goes beyond bending and stretching. It’s called Authentic Wine and I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.

In the meantime, here are some Yoga exercises for wine drinkers (hint: don’t try this at home)!

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.

Bottled Poetry: Historical Perspective on Napa Wine

James T. Lapsley, Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era. University of California Press, 1996.

I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel with James Lapsley at a conference at UC Davis over the summer and his wity and insightful remarks made me realize that I needed to re-read his 1996 history of wine in the Napa Valley.

Lapsley is as close to a renaissance man as you are likely to meet.  He’s a winemaker, historian, and wine economist who teaches in the Davis Viticulture & Enology program and runs the extension service that benefits thousands of California winegrowers by providing technical support.

Bottled Poetry follows the development of the Napa Valley wine industry from the end of Prohibition to the mid-1990s, when the foundation of Napa wine today was being built. It is the sort of book that only a winemaker/historican/economist could write and so it makes fascinating reading.

Lapsley weaves several themes into this history.  The most interesting to me, as someone who drinks wine and studies wine markets but has never made wine, is the story of the low quality of most California wine was in the early post-Prohibition years and what a struggle is has been to reach the high quality standards that we take for granted today.

I am especially impressed with the role of science and technology has played in rise of wine quality. It is easy to think of technology as the enemy of terroir and I suppose sometimes it is, but much of the improvement of wine in recent years is due to improved technology and winemaking practices.  White wines in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, we stored in huge redwood vats for several years before release.  Fermentations were naturally hot and the use of sulfites was quite haphazard. Quality suffered.

Bottled poetry? Lapsley doesn’t make it sound like  many of these wines had much poetry left in them by the time they hit the marketplace.

Many prominent Napa figures were instrumental in developing technical improvements, Andre Tchelistcheff and the Mondavi brothers among them. All the wines benefited from these innovative efforts but the improvement in white wines is especially noteworthy.

A second theme is the influence of large corporations and although Lapsley tells the story in an even-handed way,  it’s clear that big money often had a corrosive effect.  Several of Napa’s historic wineries were absorbed into corporate portfolios where their powerful brands were exploited even as the quality of the wines was debased.

Commercial winemaking is a delicate art. It devours capital like a hungry shark, as Lapsley notes, so deep pockets are useful and corporate funding tempting. But the profits comes only in the long run, which does not always suit the needs of businesses that must produce positive quarterly earnings reports.

Corporate ownership isn’t necessarily the kiss of death for fine wine, but the the history of Napa is filled with enough negative cases to make anyone a skeptic.

A final theme is the fundamental challenge of balancing supply and demand and this is a problem that continues today.  Lapsley’s book ends on an upbeat note that I think is still appropriate 14 years after its publication. Napa Valley has grown and changed, that’s for sure, and although its problems have not disappeared its promise continues to be realized.

All in all, Bottled Poetry is a great read and a terrific addition to the wine economics history bookshelf that also includes volumes like Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America. I understand that Jim Lapsley is working on another history project — the 19th century roots of the California wine industry. Can’t wait to read it!

Extreme Wine: The Worst?

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

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

Corked and Screwed

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

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

Bad Wine Uncorked

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

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

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

Worst of the Worst

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

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

You May Not Want to Know the Answer

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

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

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

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

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

[Note: This post is part of an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.]

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