Giacomo Negro and Michael T Hannan with Susan Olzak, Wine Markets: Genres & Identities. Columbia University Press, 2022.
What would you think if you stumbled upon a tasting note for a familiar wine that was written by someone from a very different culture, using different terms and concepts, and set in a different frame of reference? Think of an extreme version of the Chinese wine tasting notes described in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article.
At first you might just be puzzled and scratch your head (being careful not to spill any wine), but then — if the tasting note is a good one — you’d find yourself thinking, questioning what you thought you knew about the wine, and maybe considering it in a whole new way. That was my experience in reading Wine Markets: Genres & Identities.
I come from Planet Economics, so for me a book about wine markets is a book that is rooted in supply and demand. Producers, consumers, price and quantity — these are the fundamental building blocks.
The authors of Wine Markets come from Planet Sociology, so they think about the people and their relationships as much as — or maybe more than — the wine itself. Hence the book’s subtitle: Genres & Identities. A tasting note from Planet Sociology contemplates the same reality but analyzes it in very different ways.
Chapters at the beginning and end of the book lay out the theoretical elements and the terms that go with them. Different readers will react to this material in different ways. The core of the book is a set of three case studies that all readers will agree are interesting both for their stories and for the conflicts they reveal.
The first case study is Barolo, where modernist producers confront those who follow traditional practices, creating two genres within the one appellation. One element of tension is the use of small oak barriques versus large neutral botti grandi, although it a distortion to oversimplify in this way because some noteworthy producers — including iconic modernist Angelo Gaja — use both to good effect.
Brunello is the second case study, where tension arises between those who follow tradition in using 100% Sangiovese grapes and those who favor “super Tuscan” blends that include international varieties. Finally, the authors visit Alsace, where producer identities are at least in part defined along a biodynamic – organic – sustainable – conventional viticulture spectrum. The research proceeds mainly through interviews with the producers, although there is also statistical analysis of some issues.
The stories are told in terms of wine genres, producer identities, solidarity (or lack thereof), the audiences (consumers, critics), and the markets where they all come together. A different way of thinking about wine markets indeed.
For me the Barolo case study, which was the most detailed, was also the most interesting. The Alsace case confused me — which is not necessarily a bad thing — because the authors argue in part that biodynamic producers there are driven by the desire to achieve market differentiation. My experience is very limited, of course, but I have never met a biodynamic grower who struck me as doing it for the money.
Much of the research for the book was completed several years ago and I wish that more of it had been updated. I also wish there was room for case studies from the New World, where appellations are more geographic indicators than prescriptive wine genres. I wonder how the social dynamic analysis would be different from Barolo and Brunello?
Finally, I appreciate this book because it has given me some new ways to think about the natural wine movement, a genre of wine where identity is both strong and hotly contested at times. I am not ready to move from Planet Economics to Planet Sociology in terms of wine market analysis, but I think we can all benefit from ideas that challenge and stimulate as this book does.
Gillian Tett, an anthropologist by training who reports on the world of global finance, is chair of the editorial board of the Financial Times and an advocate of the sort of cross-silo thinking discussed in this book review. You might be interested in her recent book Anthro-vision: a new way to see business and life.