Wine Politics

Tyler Colman, Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink. University of California Press, 2008.

The French have a word for it: assemblage. It is the act of blending wine from different barrels and when it works the result is full and round, delicious. Tyler Colman (a.k.a. the internet’s Dr Vino has assembled stories about the social forces that affect wine in order to round out our understanding and appreciation of this glorious  product.  It is a very readable revision of Colman’s Ph.D. dissertation on the politics of wine and I think it’s a blend that will appeal to a lot of wine enthusiasts.

The contrasts between the Old World (France, especially Bordeaux) and the New World (California, especially Napa Valley) form the book’s main axis.  Alexis de Tocqueville famously noted that a distinguishing characteristic of the young United States was the unexpected vitality of its voluntary associations. Americans didn’t look always to the state, he wrote, they worked together to solve collective  problems.  Nothing like it in France, with its strong state controls.  But wine is different, Colman explains.  Regional wine associations (like the groups behind the appellations d’origine contrôlée system ) play a strong role in France while the heavy hand of the state (the French call it dirigisme) is seen in America’s rigid regulation of wine (and alcoholic beverages in general) and the complex and cumbersome three-tier distribution system that makes it all but impossible for some wine enthusiasts to legally purchase products that are readily available just across the state line. Colman’s history of the political process that brought us to this situation makes good reading.

Green power politics is part of the blend, too, as Colman contrasts the influence of environmentalists in California with the biodynamic movement in Europe.  The politics of the palate – and the influence of wine multinationals and critics  like Robert Parker (and Dr. Vino himself?) — rounds out the final product,  Colman concludes on a upbeat note:  the relationship between wine and society here in the United States is complicated, a mixture of politics and economics, wealth and power, science, tradition, religion and environmentalism and there are a lot of problems to be solved, but he’s optimistic – we have more and better choices and a growing wine boom to push the process along.

It’s not really surprising that I would like this book.  It’s called Wine Politics but there’s a lot of wine economics here, too. You have to be a little bit of a wine nerd to want to study the political economy of wine when you could just spend your time and money sniffing, swirling and slurping and I guess I fit that profile.  The broad themes are important and there are plenty of interesting historical tidbits that you can work into conversation at your next wine tasting party.  Now, for example, I know why Two Buck Chuck, which costs $1.99 in California, sells for about a dollar more here in Washington.

Thinking critically, I would have appreciated a bit more depth on some of the topics (many of the chapters are strings of short blog-length entries) and I wish that there was a stronger central theme.  Yes, wine is affected by many social forces.  Well, so what?  A long memorable finish is something I look for in a wine … and a wine book.

Congratulations, Dr. Vino, on a successful first cuvée.  I’m looking forward to your next book, which is due out this fall.

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