Economist Report: Bacchus to the Future?

Wine Economist readers might want to check out the current (November 30, 2013) issue of the Economist newspaper to see what they have to say about the changing (and  not so changing) world of wine. I’m talking about an article called “Bacchus to the Future” that is featured in the Technology Quarterly section of the newspaper.

The story is about technological advances in what outsiders might consider a very traditional business. Please follow the link to read the entire article. I will insert a few quotes just to tease you a bit.

Few industries are more suspicious of change than winemaking.

True, but not universally true.  My reading of wine history shows that sometimes technology is  embraced (the Gallos and Robert Mondavi are on my list of noteworthy innovators) and sometimes stubbornly resisted. Europeans were in denial for decades after phylloxera hit them. How long did they resist grafting their vines onto American rootstocks?

“Technology has vastly improved the low end,” says Tim Keller, a former winemaker at Steltzner Vineyards in Napa. “There’s no longer an excuse for making a defective wine.”

So true. I discuss  this in the chapter of Extreme Wine about the best and worst wines. Inexpensive wines might not be to your taste, but they consistently achieve a commercial standard and are unlikely to be the worst wines you will ever taste. A warm embrace of technology is part of the explanation.

Because consumers remain seduced by the notion that wine should be made by humble farmers with as little intervention as possible, fine-wine labels still try to keep their experiments under wraps. But they are quietly deploying technology in a new way: not just to make bad wine decent, or to make good wine more cheaply, but to make already-great wines greater still.

The article talks about de-alcoholization as one of the hidden technological innovations and I think most of us agree that this useful (and sometimes necessary) tool is generally kept out of sight. Other examples of widely used but invisible wine technology?  Two words: Mega Purple!

France is the undisputed global leader in wine technology. As Mr Merritt notes, the country has a greater demand for mechanisation than America because its agricultural wages are higher. And France’s reputation means that its elite winemakers, unlike those in other countries, do not have to worry about criticism from elite French winemakers.

This is a point that I haven’t considered before. Sorta makes you think, doesn’t it. And I guess that’s the point. Check out the article to see what else it has to say.


While you are thinking, you might give some thought to holiday gifts for your wine-loving friends. You can’t go wrong with my books, Wine Wars and Extreme Wine. Just a suggestion!

One response

  1. I read the article in my copy. I’m feeling my age. In the late ’80s when mechanical harvesting was truly more primitive than today and pretty much universally decried by vintners (mostly those who had no experience with the machine’s product), even then, there were varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon which could be picked as cleanly as the end product of most present day sorting tables. The French in particular were against the use of harvesting machines. Then… the first pickers strike in French history occurred and funding was found to research vineyard mechanization within months. Improved machines ultimately resulted. We’re better for it, of course, as any of us who have done or manage vineyard work know. the work is hard and our labor resources are limited. However, new French machines, all driven by that strike which probably led to the now higher labor costs.
    Overall technology offers many benefits. I think the “risk” we face is the herd mentality on new technology that our society seems to have adapted (thanks Apple) where what is new is better by definition. Time and again, I see a new article of faith adopted without blind or even open testing against prior best practice. After all, if you’ve just spent $50,000+ on a smart sorting table, you’re going to use it on every lot and every lot will taste better! Likewise, the ever more widespread use of enzyme and tannin additions to create desired color and mouth-feel profiles seems to limit varietal expression. It may well be the result is “better” but individual expression is difficult to maintain when every tool is used every time by every winery. We truly do seem to be entering a period of industrial winemaking but now with the cover of improved technology in this most technological of ages.
    No wonder there is a “natural” wine back lash.

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