Creative Destruction

I’m just back from the Riesling Rendezvous, where I tasted more than 120 Rieslings from around the world and met the producers (I will write more about this event next week).  If there is any wine that reflects its local roots it is Riesling.  But even Riesling is affected by global market forces, which brings me back to the subject of an earlier post: glocalism, or the intersection of global and local interests and forces.

Unreserved Concern

Steve Heinoff over at the Wine Enthusiast magazine’s Unreserved blog picked up on my earlier column and expressed his concern about consultants, flying winemakers, and the homogenizing effect of global market forces generally.  I had asked the question, “Which feature will dominate – the global or the local, or will some synthesis emerge?’  Heinoff’s  answer is pretty clear:

The synthesis, I would think, is not to be desired, for, as with all syntheses, the product is mush. Nor is much more globalization of wine a good thing; we’ve already gone too far in that direction. What would benefit California is a return to local conditions. The wine world here needs something along the lines of the locovore movement in food – the practice of eating foods grown and produced locally. We need wines that show true regional and sub-regional differences, the way they once did. I’m not sure it’s going to happen, though. Are you?

An op-ed piece by by Roger Cohen posted today on the New York Times website argues that at least in some circumstances the local can survive and even thrive, although this might not be the general rule.  “Uniformity of style is one of the depressing aspects of globalization, and nowhere more so than in the wine business,” Cohen begins, noting the increasing sameness of wines (particularly red wines, which Heinoff also mentions).

But Champagne is different, he argues, and the recent decision to redraw the 1927 AOC lines will not diminish its quality or distinctiveness (even though it is widely viewed as a response to growing global demand pressure) but should, he says, by being more precise make the wines even better. “No rush to accommodate the global palate is at work here,” he writes.

The reason Champagne can resist global market forces, I suspect, is because it is a global market force.  It is certainly a global brand, as Cohen’s piece acknowledges, one that producers in other countries attempt to emulate, including Champagne producers who now make sparkling wines abroad, in the U.S. Australia, New Zealand and Argentina.

Creative Destruction

My favorite economic analysis of local-global tension is a fascinating little book by Tyler Cowen called Creative Destruction (Tyler Cowen, an economics professor, is not be be confused with Tyler Colman, the political economist who is Dr. Vino).  Cowen is particularly interested in the interaction of global and local forces in the production and consumption of creative products such as art, film and music.  I do not see it as too much of a stretch to try to apply these ideas to the art of wine.

At the end of the day Cowen is as concerned as the rest of us with the potential for global markets to destroy what wine people might call cultural terroir.  And, frighteningly, he invokes Hegel’s notion that “the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk” – somehow people don’t get wise to the threat until it is too late (something that is becoming all too clear on the climate change front).  But he resists the urge to simply assume or assert that global market forces are the only ones that matter, that they are always all-conquering and that they always destroy.

Cultural exchange is pervasive, he argues, and what we assume is authentic local culture is often actually a hybrid result of previous waves of global, international or cross-cultural influence.  Creative people are always finding ways to enliven the familiar by mixing in a bit of exotic spice. If you like fusion cuisine, well you know what I am talking about.  This effect holds for food, music and art – Cowen’s book provides many interesting examples – and so we shouldn’t be surprised that it happens in wine, too.

In the beginning at least the global-local exchange is mutually beneficial.  The global side benefits from the new creative stimulus while the local side gains from having a larger market for its cultural products.  But things get twisted around as the market interaction intensifies.

Local terroir is strengthened in some ways because the larger global market encourages a specialist market made up of well informed consumers who appreciate the nuances of the real thing.  My wife Sue, for example, is part of a global community of lace knitters who exchange information about books and patterns, ideas, techniques, tools and yarn and enjoy the conversations that go with them.  No purely local market could support such a specialized art or craft as well as a larger market does.  Globalization, by creating a wider market, allows greater specialization and so lace knitting thrives.  The small benefits from the existence of the large.

I saw this at the Riesling Rendezvous, too.  A global market may encourage production of an international style of this wine, but it also  creates a bigger market for small producers with highly distinctive wines by expanding the community of enthusiasts who appreciate, study, collect and consume them.

So globalization can create, which is good, but obviously it also can destroy.  This is especially true when market forces are unbalanced and the pressure to appeal to a large and undemanding audience is strong.  Pretty soon everyone forgets about the real character of the original product and only the debased form remains.  Lizzie Collingham’s 2006 book about globalization and Indian food, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, is perhaps the best study of this. If you were writing about wine you might call the book Chardonnay — or is that being too cynical?

Both Sides Now

I think we have to accept that there is both creation and destruction at work but also acknowledge that more than one outcome is possible. Great fusions are not always created. Worthwhile tradition is not always destroyed. The problem is to encourage creation without destroying what is really precious.  That’s possible, but it’s very hard to do.

I talked about this problem in a different context in my 2005 book Globaloney. I wrote about the Slow Food Movement and how it seems to me and many others to be a step in the right direction – drawing attention to distinctive and traditional products and processes and, by expanding their market, preserving them.  That’s the theory — that globalization can be used to undermine homogenization —  but it doesn’t always work out that way in practice, as I discovered doing fieldwork in Italy.  Here’s an excerpt from the seventh chapter of the book:

Another dinner in Umbria forced me to consider a dark side of the Slow Food movement that I had not previously noticed.  We were staying near Deruta at an agritourismo, which is a sort of farmhouse bed and breakfast.  The farm seemed to typify the Slow Food ideal.  Not only was the prosciutto made from one of the farm pigs, for example, we even knew the pig’s name [it was Timmie].  What about the Slow Food movement, I asked?  Our host shook his head.  Very bad, he said.  It can ruin everything.  When Slow Food identifies an artiginal product, like a cheese or a salami, he explained, then suddenly everyone has to have it precisely because it has been given the Slow Food stamp.  It must be the best.  So they all rush in to  buy this great thing, which of course cannot possibly meet this new demand.  The producers try, but in doing so they cut corners or make compromises and end up destroying the very qualities that they set out to preserve. That’s what my Umbrian host saw in the Slow Food movement.

And that’s how many people see global market forces in general, even if there are exceptions like Champagne.  I don’t want to end on this gloomy note, however.  The Riesling Rendezvous experience has made me cautiously optimistic. Watch this space to find out why.

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