Everything you always wanted to know about Chianti Classico (and lots more!)

nestoBill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savino, Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine. University of California Press, 2016.

I didn’t know much about Sicily and its wine industry until I read Bill Nesto and Frances Di Savino’s 2013 book The World of Sicilian Wine  and it really opened my eyes. I enjoyed the detailed analysis of the regions, the wineries and the wines and I especially appreciated the  economic history of the wine region and its complicated relationship with international markets. What an interest place!

I approached their new book on Chianti Classico from a different perspective. While I am no expert on Chianti and its wines, I am way more familiar with this region that Sicily. (A section in my 1990 book Mountains of Debt analyzed the fiscal history of Renaissance Florence, including their wine tax scheme.)

Would Nesto and Di Savino be able to open my eyes to this relatively familiar place in the same way as the earlier book? Yes! What an interesting book.

Eye-Opening (Literally)

One chapter literally made me rub my eyes. It was the chapter on viticulture, which is complicated in Chianti Classico as elsewhere with competing theories about the best way to train and treat the vines to get the best quality or maximize quantity.

This is not a new discussion and as evidence of this the authors cite one of the most famous works of Italian Renaissance art — the 1338-39 Lorenzetti  frescoes of the allegory of good and bad government that are found in Siena’s town hall. I have seen these images several times (the distinguished economist Robert Mundell, who taught some years before me at the Johns Hopkins Bologna Center, first drew them to my attention), but I never appreciated the full story they told.

There, within a part of the image on the effect of good government, are three different vine systems! One features narrow rows of densely planted vines. A second has rows widely spaced with interstitial crop plantings. And a third is planted in the Etruscan style with trees for the vines to climb. Fascinating.

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What is Chianti?

The over-arching question this book addresses is “what is Chianti?” Newcomer wine consumers are often confused about whether Chianti is a grape or a region, but that’s not what we are talking about here. Rather the issue, which is thoroughly examined over the course of eleven chapters, is how should the Chianti region be defined and what wines should therefore receive the Chianti designation.

Once upon a time Chianti meant the area that we now call Chianti Classico, but at several critical points the borders of the appellation were expanded to include zones called “External Chianti,” which vastly increased the volume of Chianti wine available.

Changing the borders of any appellation creates conflict (hey Mr. Champagne, I’m talking about you!). Chianti has in fact been the focus of at least several wars including a real war in the middle ages between the city-states of Florence and Siena and an economic and political war between the interests of Chianti Classico and those of External Chianti.

Nesto and Di Savino take sides in the Chianti wars, especially over the geographical boundaries and cite a previously obscure edict issued by by Medici grand duke Cosimo III in 1716 defining Chianti narrowly as Chianti Classico. They argue for a return to Cosimo’s borders, making the case that the appellations in External Chianti are now strong enough to compete without the Chianti designation. This is bound to stir up further controversy. Stay tuned.

Full of Surprisesrooster

Chianti Classico is packed with information and insights — something for all wine lovers. The early chapters introduce us to the controversies and how they (and Chianti) evolved over several centuries. Great depth and detail here. Then several chapters examine the geography, grape varieties, viticulture, wine-making and winemakers. Finally, each subzone is explored with profiles of the major wine producers that double as a wine touring guide. Cosimo’s 1716 edict appears at the end in the form of a Da Vinci Code-style mystery story.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that my favorite part of the book is the set of chapters on the economic history of Chianti, Chianti Classico and the Chianti Wars. Economic forces were unusually important in shaping this wine region over the years and Nesto and Di Savino do a masterful job turning what is obviously pain-staking research into a lively and informative narrative.

There were many surprises. I had no idea that international trade was such an important force in Chianti in the earliest years. I had no idea that Chianti was such a valuable “brand” long ago, either, or that the story of the straw covered flask bottled would be so complicated and interesting.

And I did not realize that Chianti Classico almost ceased to exist at one point in the post-WWII era when high cost producers found themselves undercut by cheap bulk Chianti wines that drove prices down to, for them, economically unsustainable prices. The story of how this happened and how the Chianti Classico producers rallied to revive their industry makes great reading.

Does Chianti Classico live up to my high expectations for it? Yes! A great book for anyone who loves Chianti or Tuscany or … wine!

“Your Wine Questions Answered” is More Than Just a Great Wine Book

51f7cvacx8l-_ac_us160_Més que un club is the motto of the Barcelona soccer team. Barcelona is more than a just soccer club, according to its ardent fans, it is a commitment to values that extend well beyond sports. During the dark years of Spain’s Franco dictatorship, supporting Barcelona was a way to make a pro-democracy (and pro-Catalonia) statement.

Més que un wine book?

Jerry Lockspeiser’s new book Your Wine Questions Answered: the 25 things wine drinkers most want to know is more than a great wine book, it is also a way to make a statement and change the world one student and one school at a time.

All the money that Lockspeiser’s book generates will go to help build primary schools in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Jerry writes that

In 2010 I visited Sierra Leone with international development charity ActionAid. Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries and education is fundamental to improving lives. When I came back from the trip I suggested to two wine business friends that we create a wine brand and give all our profits to finance the building of primary schools. We set up the Millione Foundation, created the Millione brand, sourced a lovely lightly sparkling Rosé from Italy, and set about selling it.

So far we have financed the building of five schools, educating 1500 children. The more books and wine we sell, the more schools we will build.

This is obviously a very good cause and a great way for wine book buyers to support a worthwhile initiative. As I wrote in the final chapter of Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated, sometimes wine can be more than a nice drink. Sometimes it can help change the world one cork or glass at a time. I was talking about some inspiring initiatives we saw in South Africa and now Jerry Lockspeiser extends this model from corks and glasses to books. What a great idea.

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Jerry at the book launch event at Daunt Books in London. Sold out 100 copies in an hour.

What about the book?

So what about the book?  Lockspeiser is pitching his book to wine newbies — people who like to drink wine but don’t know much about it and want to learn more without too much pain. The book works for this audience — each brief chapter answers a typical wine question in two to eight pages and ends with a “one gulp” summary.

The goal is to make new wine drinkers more confident in their choices so that they enjoy wine even more.  Jerry never talks down to the reader because, after all, everyone is a newbie at some point. Wine should make us happy and this book’s cheerful, helpful tone underlines that fact.

But Your Wine Questions Answered is not just for newbies. Jerry Lockspeiser knows wine and the wine business like the back of his hand and he knows how to talk about wine, too. Reading this book is like sitting down with Jerry and having him tell you about the world he knows so well in an informative and interesting way. This is so much more than a bluffer’s guide!

Here are a few of the chapter titles to give you an idea of the the questions that are answered here. Sometimes, as in the chapter on Cabernet Sauvignon, the initial question is just a way to open a door to larger issues (naming wines by their grape varieties, for example, as opposed to their region of origin).

  • WHAT IS CABERNET SAUVIGNON ?
  • WHY DO THEY SAY SOME WINES HAVE ‘A HINT OF GOOSEBERRIES’ ?
  • WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHAMPAGNE AND CAVA ?
  • WHY DOES FRENCH CHARDONNAY TASTE DIFFERENT TO AUSTRALIAN CHARDONNAY ?
  • HOW IS ROSÉ MADE ?
  • HOW LONG WILL WINE KEEP IN AN OPEN BOTTLE ?
  • WHY DOES  WINE COST SO MUCH ?
  • ARE HEAVILY DISCOUNTED WINES WORTH THE FULL PRICE ?
  • WHAT IS THE BEST WINE ?
  • IS IT TRUE THAT ORGANIC WINE DOESN’T GIVE YOU A HEADACHE ?
  • WHY DOESN’T THE WINE I BROUGHT BACK FROM HOLIDAY TASTE AS GOOD AT HOME ?
  • DOES IT MATTER WHAT KIND OF GLASS I DRINK WINE OUT OF ?
  • WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO CHOOSE WINE IN A RESTAURANT ?

Every chapter gave me something new to think about or a new way to think about something I thought I knew pretty well. Your Wine Questions Answered is a great wine book. But it’s really more than a great wine book because of the ambitious school project in Sierra Leone and progressive values it supports. Available at Amazon US,  Amazon UK  and Waterstones.

Book Review: Navigating Wine Business in the Napa Valley

perfectCraig and Kathryn Hall, A Perfect Score: the art, soul and business of a 21st-century winery. Center Street (Hachette): 2016.

They say that it is a mistake to judge a book by its cover and sometimes that applies to the book title, too. I was prepared not to like A Perfect Score because while the 100-point wine phenomenon is interesting, it ranks pretty far down my list of priorities. But I am glad I didn’t rush to judgement in this case because the book really grabbed my attention even if the title did not.

This is the story of how Kathryn Walt Hall, who has roots in California wine, and Craig Hall, who does not, ended up with Napa Valley vineyards, two wineries there, and ultimately with a 100-point score from Robert Parker. Although the max point score is the climax of the tale, the route there is what I found most interesting.

This book appeals to me as an intelligent account of contemporary wine business in Napa Valley. There are four elements that I want to call to your attention.

The first is the story of the struggles that occurred to purchase and develop the vineyards and wineries, with special focus on the many regulatory hurdles that need to  be overcome. Napa Valley is an extreme example of the tensions that arise when you have rapid expansion of the wine industry and booming wine tourism in the relatively compact region.

Everyone loves Napa but the needs of the wine industry have been crossing wires with lifestyle and environmental concerns for as long as I can remember and the tensions seem to get worse each year. In the meantime, property values have increased to the point that many who work in Napa cannot afford to live there, putting intense pressure on the region’s infrastructure.  Anyone who has driven Napa’s congested roads or tried to get in or out of the city at rush time will know what I mean.

The Halls’ first-person account of their attempts to navigate all these interests and concerns is required reading for anyone in the wine industry, especially those outside of the Napa bubble, as these tensions and pressure points are not going away.

The second story line that I found interesting was how a high-end Napa Valley wine producer deals with the Great Recession. Slack demand was addressed in many ways, including special pricing deals that aimed to move product without undermining the brand. Bank finance was replaced by partnership funding. And, like other wineries, the Halls moved to increase direct-to-consumer sales.

Napa Valley wine is a luxury good by most reckonings and I enjoyed the Halls’ chapters that documented the luxury and celebrity culture and rituals that have evolved, even if I find some of it a bit over the top. (Maybe someone will make a television series on Lifestyles of Rich and Famous Winemakers?)

The Napa Valley auction, which defines luxury and celebrity in the wine world and is discussed here, is good business, good fun, and a mechanism to raise millions of dollars for charity. Nice to see the various elements inter-woven.

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Finally, I took special pleasure in the story of Craig’s accidental discovery of the old Napa Valley Cooperative Winery facility and the Halls’ eventual purchase and renovation of this historic property, which combined a bit from all the topics above. I loved learning more of the history of this facility and knowing that it has been restored to productive purpose.

You may be familiar with the photo above, which shows the original  Napa Valley sign, which has appeared in so many tourist photos and postcards. If you look closely you will see a young Robert Mondavi on the far left representing C. Mondavi & Sons. Look at the list of the wineries that paid for the sign and you will see that Co-Op was another sponsor. What a lot has changed in Napa since those days!

A Perfect Score is an interesting account of Napa Valley wine industry triumphs and frustrations. A worthy addition to the wine business bookshelf.

(Republic of) Georgia on my mind: Wine tourism’s future in the “Cradle of Wine”

In a few days Sue and I will be jetting off to the Republic of Georgia for the first United Nations World Tourism Organization Global Conference on Wine Tourism.We have been trying to learn all we can about Georgia and its wine and wine tourism industries in preparation for the trip. I thought you might be interested in three of the resources we have found especially useful.

Taber’s Final Frontier

George Taber spent the best part of a year circling the globe collecting wine tourism experiences that he chronicled in an entertaining 2009 book called In Search of Bacchus.  Most of the places Taber visited would be on any globetrotter’s wine tourism map — Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany and so on — and his reporting and first person accounts are very interesting. Taber waited until the final chapter to veer off the conventional road map to visit Georgia, which he calls wine’s “final frontier.”

Taber had a great time in Georgia, the “Cradle of Wine,” 8000 vintages and counting. He loved the people and culture and was fascinated by the wine, reporting on the traditional wine-making process using big clay jars called Qvervi (which are buried in the earth as shown below) to ferment and store the wine until ready to drink.

Taber comments on consumption patterns as do most who write about Georgian wine. A rule of thumb, he notes, is to allow for two or three liters of wine per person at a supra banquet or celebration, where tradition requires that guests drain their glasses after each toast.

When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Georgia (see video above) he also cited high alcohol consumption and complained of frequent hangovers, although this might be Bourdain being Bourdain as much as Georgian tradition. I will let you know what I find out.

Wine Tourism as Economic Developmentqvevri1

My wine economics colleague Kym Anderson visited Georgia a few years after Taber to analyze the wine industry’s potential as an engine of economic development. His 2012 report, Georgia, Cradle of Wine: the next “new” wine exporting country? (pdf), makes good reading.

Anderson found the wine market quite segmented. Most of the large domestic demand was satisfied by basic traditional wines, a surprisingly large proportion being home-produced. Industrial production of wine for export to former Soviet countries made up a second market segment. Rising quantities of wine are made for export to other markets (including US, Canada, UK, etc), where quality expectations are different than the Russian market and production adjustments necessary.

A recent report lists Georgia’s five largest export markets as Russia, Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland although there have been substantial sales increases (albeit from a low base) to Germany, the UK, and Canada.

Anderson clearly sees potential for Georgian wine exports if industrial and agricultural upgrading continues, but he is especially interested in wine tourism, which he sees having potentially greater  impact on rural incomes and employment. Georgia’s decision to host the UNWTO program is consistent with this priority. International tourism is an important income source for Georgia and wine tourism has growth potential.

Anderson makes a number of specific recommendations for upgrading hospitality and winery facilities to make them more appealing to wine tourists. We will be interested to see what progress has been made in this regard in the short time since Anderson’s report.

Back to the Future of Winefeiring

Natural wine proponent Alice Feiring seems to have found her “tribe” in Georgia. Her 2016 book For the Love of Wine is an entertaining, informative and deeply personal account of her encounters with Georgia wine and wine-makers.

Feiring is taken by the naturalness of the Qvervi wine-making process and the dedication of those who kept this tradition alive during the long Soviet wine winter. Whereas Anderson’s concern is economic development, Feiring worries more about the soul. She sees Georgia’s past as a path to a better, more soulful future.

But she worries these traditional wines are threatened by a new foe — those US, UK, and EU markets that seem to demand “me too” wines made in an international style with lots of additives and manipulation. For Feiring, Russian communism and international capitalism are “twins separated at birth” in the sense that each destroys the essence of wine in its own way.

Feiring’s mission is to support those who seek to make high quality traditional wines. But there are problems. The Georgian domestic market for such wines with their necessarily higher price compared with home production is not large enough to support the craft industry, which means that buyers must be found in other countries.

Feiring’s tribe needs to grow to support the wines she treasures. The natural wine movement is growing in part due to her determined efforts. Perhaps wine tourism will convert visitors to natural wine (and Georgian wine) ambassadors.

That is a sip of what I’m learning and a hint of the sorts of questions we hope to explore. Georgia is definitely on my mind!

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We appreciate everyone who helped us prepare for this trip including the officials and staff at the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Administration plus Mariam Anderson, Prof. Kym Anderson, Nino Turashvili, Viktoria Koberidze, Irakli Cholobargia, George Akhalkatsi,  and Hermes Navarro del Valle.

A Sneaky Preview of a Work in Progress: “Around the World in Eighty Wines”

80daysI am busy working on the third draft of my next book, which will be released at about this time next year (lots of work left to do!). It is called Around the World in Eighty Wines and I am sure you have already guessed that it is inspired by the famous Jules Verne adventure story.

It is too soon for details, but I thought I would tease you just a bit with a pair of maps. The first map (above) is my lame attempt to plot out the route of Jules Vernes’ hero Phileas Fogg. He started in London and worked his way from east to west around the world and back to London again.

My quest, which also starts in London, is to travel the world in eighty wines, not eighty days. Each individual wine needs to represent something important about wine and the places and people and cultures that produce wine. Since there are thousands of wines in the world, you might think this is an easy task. But you would be wrong (or at least that’s the premise of the book).

Telling the story of wine and its world with just eighty bottles — that’s insane. But I think it will be fun and I promise that the readers who come with me for the ride will find much to learn, love and laugh about along with (as in the Jules Verne story) some inevitable challenges and confounding frustrations.

80winesThis map (above) is my obviously amateur attempt to plot out the route that my book seems to be taking us (books have minds of their own — sometimes it is the story not the author who calls the shots).

If you compare the two maps you will see that circumnavigating with eighty wines is obviously much more difficult than doing it in eighty days. Just look at how much more complicated our route is than Phileas Fogg’s!

My maps are terrible, but that’s OK with me because I don’t want to give away too much just yet. Maybe you can guess where the journey will take us and perhaps you can even channel some of the wines. But I guarantee some surprises even for the most clairvoyant readers!

Where would you go on this adventure? Which wines would you choose to fill the eighty spots in your wine case? What fun we will have together finding the answers and the wines to go with them!

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BBC presenter Michael Palin took on the 80 day version of this challenge in 1989. Here’s a snippet of the 7-part television series that recorded his adventures. Enjoy!

Judge & Jury Paradox: What Can Jury Duty Teach Us About Wine Markets?

juryI am out of the office for a week or two on jury duty and  the experience has unexpectedly reminded me of some important things about the world of wine.

A Jury Duty Paradox

I didn’t hesitate for a moment when the jury service summons arrived. I can find the time right now and besides it is a civic duty. I am not an expert on the law but that doesn’t seem to matter.

The idea of a jury trial is that the experts make their case and try to convince ordinary citizens like me that they are right. Some cases are decided by experts — the Supreme Court,  for example, is both judge and jury for the cases that come before it — but most justice starts (and often ends) with the judgment of a jury of peers.

I think it is a bit of a paradox, however, that I accepted the jury duty quickly but, about the same time, I declined an invitation to be on a different kind of jury — a jury of judges for an important regional wine competition. Thanks, I replied,  but I am a self-taught taster and inexperienced with these particular wines. This is a job for experts, not someone like me.

Each of these decisions makes sense on its own, but they are a bit puzzling when you put them together.Objectively, I might actually be better qualified to judge wine than a legal case. But for some reason I applied different standards in the two situations.

Why do I seem to believe that specialized knowledge is needed to serve on a large wine judging panel (where the stakes are actually very low), but expertise is not required for duty on a civil or criminal court jury where with potentially significant consequences? Seems like I’ve got my priorities backwards, doesn’t it?

The Jury of Public Opinion

But then I realized that I was missing something. Wine is actually a lot like the judicial system. While there are a few wine market cases that are decided mainly by the “Supreme Court” of experts (here I am thinking of the role of big-name critics in the en primeur market, for example), it is really the supply and demand “jury of peers” who render most verdicts.

At the end of the day for most wines, it is what the buying public thinks that matters more than the experts’ judgement. Is this a good thing? It is easy to point out that citizen juries have some disadvantages compared with expert panels, but there are advantages, too. It is important that arguments are persuasive enough to sway unbiased citizen peers. It sort of keeps us all honest, if you know what I mean.

In the same way, it is a good thing that critics don’t always reign supreme when it comes to wine markets and that most of us take their expert wine advice with a grain of salt. Wine’s most important job is to give us pleasure, as Jancis Robinson has said, and we amateurs are ourselves the best judge of that.

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(Did you notice the sneaky way I used Jancis Robinson as a kind of “expert witness” in the last paragraph?) The Wine Economist will take a brief recess until my court duties are complete. In the meantime, here’s a “judge and jury” scene from Eric Idle’s fun London Mikado production. Enjoy!

When Will Wines from Asia Hit U.S. Shelves? (Hint: They’re Already Here!)

chinasaleMost people are surprised when I talk about the growing wine industry in Asia. In working on my next book  Around the World in Eighty Wines I have sampled interesting wines from China, India, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and even Bali. And I know there are more out there waiting to be discovered.

Why are people so surprised? Stereotypes are part of the answer — wine isn’t part of the way that we usually think of these countries. But availability is also important. We understand that wine is made in far-away New Zealand because we see it on store shelves. When will Asia wine arrive in the U.S. market?

Flying Below the Radar?

Asian wines are a little more visible in Europe and the U.K. Reports from Paris suggest that Chinese wines can be found in many places (perhaps reflecting in some way the boom in Chinese investment in Bordeaux) and Berry Bros. & Rudd, the London wine seller, proudly advertises its commitment to Chinese wine offerings. Sue and I enjoyed some lovely Thai wines from Monsoon Valley on our last visit there to London, too.

Asia wines are pretty much flying below the radar in the U.S., but they are here if you know where to look. I found a nice Korean raspberry wine at one local Asian market, for example, and a Chinese wine — a Changyu Cabernet — at another. A brand of Chinese wines crafted specifically for the U.S. market appeared a few years ago and made a bit of a splash, but now Dragon’s Hollow wines seem to be hard to find.

Not Sherlock Holmes
sula-sauvignon-blanc-premium-white-wine

You won’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to find wines from India if Rajeev Samant has his way. Samant is founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards and his wines are not just here, but are getting a good deal of attention. They were featured in the May 2016 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine, for example. The Sula Dindori Reserve Shiraz was named an Editors’ Choice and the Sula Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Shiraz all received ‘Best Buy’ recommendations.

Wine was probably  not high on priorities when Samant was growing up in Mumbai, but things changed when he came to the United States to attend Stanford University and work for a while in Silicon Valley. Visits to Napa Valley and wineries like Robert Mondavi left their mark.

Coming home to India, Samant accepted the challenge of reviving a family farm near Nashik. He cast about for crops that would provide higher margins and wondered if wine grapes might thrive. With help from a California flying winemaker, he learned tropical viticulture and made the necessary winery investments.

The rest, as they say, is history, but that phrase doesn’t begin to capture the challenges that Samant has faced and overcome over the last 20 years. Sula is today India’s largest winery, with capacity to both service the growing India domestic market and also make targeted export sales.

The Mondavi of Mumbai

The Stanford University alumni magazine published an article about Samant a few years ago, calling him the “Mondavi of Mumbai,” a reference to Robert Mondavi, who was also a Stanford graduate.  It was a bit of journalistic hyperbole then, but the title is not without merit today.tasting1

Samant seems to have followed the Mondavi blueprint in many ways, both in breaking new ground in wine production and promoting his products and the region through wine tourism. The Sula Vineyard winery includes attractive hospitality facilities and hosts concerts and festivals, too.

The operation is world class. Or at least that’s what the experts at The Drinks Business believe — they presented Sula with the prize for  Best Contribution to Wine and Spirits Tourism at their London awards ceremony in May.

Once the Novelty Wears Off …

The thing about wines from unexpected places is this. People will try them once just for the fun of it, but the quality and value have to be there to earn a repeat sale. Sue and I have had an opportunity to taste the Sula lineup and we think the wines pass the test.

No one comes to this URL looking for tasting notes or point scores, so I won’t give any, but the Sauvignon Blanc was particularly noteworthy. It managed to walk a fine line. It was made in an international style — clean, crisp, balanced — but it had its own character, with a rather nice finish that wasn’t Marlborough or Napa or anywhere except Nashik. Not a me-too wine, if you know what I mean, and therefore a good addition to the wine shelf.

Sula isn’t the first wine from Asia to arrive on these shores and I expect we will see more and more of them now, especially if (as I worried in a previous column) the recent UK Brexit vote makes London a less desirable wine market and more of these wines are directed our way. If that’s what happens, I guess London’s loss is our gain.

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This brief video does a good job telling the Sula story. Watch it — I think you will be surprised!