Book Review: What Can Wine and Coffee Learn from Each Other?

51wdqn2bcpyl._sx324_bo1204203200_Morten Scholer, Coffee and Wine: Two Worlds Compared. Matador/Troubador, 2018.

What can the coffee industry learn from wine (and vice versa)? That’s the question that Morten Scholer wanted to examine when he set out to write Coffee and Wine: Two Worlds Compared. It is the kind of question that gets attention here at The Wine Economist, where we search for lessons about the future of wine by looking at all sorts of other products ranging from craft beer to almond milk and beyond.

Coffee and wine are an interesting pairing. Both are global consumer goods, traded around the world for centuries. But, as Scholer points out, they differ in a hundred ways. Coffee, for example, is relatively young as an international commodity — 800 years compared to maybe 8000 years for wine.

North-North versus North-South

The most important markets for both coffee and wine are in the advanced industrialized world, as you might guess, but while a lot of wine is also produced there (Italy, France, Spain, Germany, the U.S.), coffee comes mainly from the developing world. Wine trade is thus mainly north-north (with important exceptions such as Argentina and South Africa), while coffee trade tends to be north-south.

So what can wine and coffee learn from each other? Scholer probably knows, but he wants his readers to find their own answers, which is both frustrating and engaging.  It is frustrating because it is natural to seek out an over-arching narrative to help organize and guide the reader through the dozens and dozens of topics covered. You won’t find that here.

Serious Fun

Some of the comparisons are just plain fun, as in the chapter on quality and quality control when the wine aroma wheel is set alongside a coffee tasters flavor wheel. Who knew that flavors and aromas could be so complicated and that coffee and wine could have so many sensory qualities in common?

Other comparisons are seriously revealing. I found the comparative analysis of the development of sustainability movements in coffee and wine very interesting.  Sustainability in coffee began as a top-down movement initially focused on assuring that growers received a fair return on their efforts, although a wider range of concerns are now addressed. Sustainability in wine, on the other hand, was a bottom-up movement based on grower concerns about environmental issues that has also broadened.

There are three main global sustainability programs for coffee, Scholer tells us, and almost half of world production meets these standards, although only about a third is marketed that way. In wine there are many different sustainability standards and programs reflecting the localized bottom-up origins of the movement. It is a complicated situation, Scholer argues, and he believes that sustainability standards for coffee are more complex than for wine in part because coffee has a long and complex value chain and meaningful sustainability must extend across the entire chain. Market structure really matters.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know?

Scholer’s eleven chapters take pretty much every aspect of wine and coffee and then breaks them down into comparative elements. Thus the reader moves from history to botany and agronomy, processing and quality control, patterns of trade, packaging and logistics, consumption patterns, sustainability issues, organizations and competitiions, cultural values, and finally a country-by-country side-by-side snapshort. An appendix briefly expands the book’s domain, adding cocoa, tea, and beer to the comparative mix.

Each section is peppered by boxes, charts and tables and illuminated with maps. If you are just looking for interesting tidbits, they are there on every page. Hard to put the book down.

Back to the Big Picture

But if you are looking for the answer to that big question about what wine and coffee have to say to each other, more effort is required. Scholer’s method is a bit like pointilist painting, where the image only becomes clear when you stand back a ways. What’s the big picture? Honestly, I am still working on it. Maybe one big macro answer doesn’t exist and that the insights are best appreciated at the micro level.

But I think it’s worth the effort to think about coffee and wine seriously. I tried to do that in a pair of Wine Economist columns back in 2009. My focus then was on the question of why the price difference between the cheapest and most expensive wines was so much greater than for the cheapest and costliest coffees. Wine does better than coffee in spanning the space from everyday commodity to luxury product. But, I wrote then, coffee will try to catch up and I think that’s happening today.

Scholer’s Coffee and Wine is an intriguing book. You can try to solve its riddle or just enjoy learning all about these two global industries. Either way, there’s food (and drink) for thought.

Cracking the Coffee-Wine Paradox

My last post, Starbucks and and Coffee-Wine Paradox, raised questions about the relative price of wine. We think of coffee as being expensive, especially coffee drinks at Starbucks and other gourmet espresso bars. But compared to wine they seem like a bargain.

You can get an excellent coffee drink for less than the cheapest glass of on-premises wine. And the price difference between generic coffee and the best (a factor of 16 according to a Decanter article) looks great compared to wine, where the cheapest bottle costs a couple of bucks and there’s almost no upside limit.

Coffee and wine are both simple quotidian pleasures (or should be). Why are their relative prices so different? Several readers and colleagues offered answers to this question.

Cost Plus Wine

Suggestions (click on the article link above and scroll down to the comments section) focused on cost differences . Coffee is cheaper to ship and store, for example, and as Rob Boyd pointed out coffee isn’t typically aged for years like red wine, which increases cost.

Wine is typically bottled at the source, so to speak, which also contributes to the cost difference. Weight gets added relatively early in the wine supply chain whereas coffee gains weight at the point where it is combined with water, brewed and served — a real advantage. “If coffee was brewed in Colombia and then shipped to Starbucks around the world,” Steve DeLong wrote, “the price would be astronomical.” (See note below.)

Steve also had the insight that, while Starbucks-style coffee products are pretty labor intensive to make, this cost also comes at the final stage of production, whereas wine’s high labor costs come much earlier and are magnified by multiple mark-ups in the distribution system. An additional  dollar of labor in the cellar translates to maybe $2 higher retail price for wine here in the US with our three-tier distribution system. An extra dollar of barista wage cost at the end of the coffee product chain has less of an impact on price.

Cost and Price

The comments I’ve received go a long way toward unraveling the paradox. As I expected, however, most people try to solve the puzzle on the cost side — focusing on why wine costs are relatively higher than coffee costs. These are good answers, but it is important to consider the demand side, too. Everyone knows that some prices are determined by production cost, but others are dictated by what people are willing to pay.

Cost rules in highly competitive markets, where products are undifferentiated and good information is readily available. Willingness to pay is more important in imperfectly competitive markets with highly differentiated products and asymmetric information.  The markets for generic coffee and wine fall into the first category, fine wines and specialty coffees into the other.

What Will You Pay?

Why do highly-rated wines cost so much to buy? Production cost is a factor, particularly for generic coffee and wine, but it alone doesn’t explain the big price gap between the bottom shelf and the top. Fine wine and gourmet coffee cost so much because people are willing to pay these prices — and they lack the confidence to pay less in some cases because they associate lower price with lower quality (or maybe lower status).

So I think Steve Kirchner is on to something when he points to differences in marketing between coffee and wine. Gourmet coffee, Steve argues, is a relatively new phenomenon and it is certainly true that the range of choices is still limited compared to wine.

Closing the Coffee-Wine Gap

How many different coffees does your grocery store sell? Probably a few dozen at two or three price points. How many wines? Probably one or two thousand at many more price points!

Fine wine is more complicated than fine coffee and there is more uncertainty surrounding it. This makes the market more “imperfect” in the jargon of economics, and price and cost are more likely to deviate.

Will coffee producers ever catch up to their wine-making cousins? Not soon, I suspect, but I think they will close the gap!

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Note: Steve’s comment about brewing coffee and then shipping it reminds me of a story I picked up back when I did tax policy economics.

When coffee was first introduced in Great Britain, it was subject to high excise taxes intended for luxury goods. Coffee shops reacted by adding non-coffee ingredients to the brew to stretch their precious grounds. Adulterated coffee. Ugh.

The tax authorities, seeing a revenue shortfall,  responded by ordering all coffee to be brewed in designated central canteens, then transported full-strength to the shops and reheated there. Twice cooked coffee. Ugh again! More expensive, of course, and adulteration was still possible, but at least the tax was paid.

Thus did high taxation ruin Britain’s taste for coffee, which has only recently recovered thanks in part to market entry by quality sellers like Starbucks.

Starbucks and the Coffee-Wine Paradox

The Water-Diamond paradox is a classic problem in economics. Water is essential to life, but it is relatively cheap in most situations. Diamonds, on the other hand, are non-essential luxuries in most uses, yet they cost the earth compared to water. How is this possible? How can market price deviate so clearly from practical value? A tough problem. John Law, John  Locke, Copernicus and Adam Smith all tried to provide sensible answers.

In Vino Paradox

Starbucks (the Seattle-based company that sells coffee with a side of lifestyle) presents us with a similar puzzle today. I call it the coffee-wine paradox in honor of the original problem.

Starbucks has started selling wine. Not at branded Starbucks stores, but at three experimental “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea” shops in Seattle.  As near as I can tell they have not yet begun to market a Starbucks wine (the image here, courtesy of Google Image Search, is apparently bogus), but who knows what will happen in the future?

I know a number of coffee bars here in the Pacific Northwest that double as wine bars and authentic espresso bars in Italy nearly always serve alcoholic beverages including wine. Starbucks knows how to sell branded goods. Connect the dots. Maybe there is Starbucks Pinot Grigio in your future?

So what is the paradox? Well, the joke is that Starbucks coffee products are very expensive. You know what I mean — the mythical four dollar caffè latte? But when you compare Starbucks coffee to wine, it looks like coffee is unbelievable cheap. Thinking in terms of absolute price both wine and coffee cost a lot but, as in the water-diamond problem, their relative prices seem totally out of line. Why is wine so expensive compared to coffee and why is coffee so darn cheap?

Pulling the Supply Chain

Coffee cheap? Well, consider what a diagram of the global supply chain for a Starbucks latte would look like. The high tech espresso machine is usually Italian-made. The milk is probably a local product and the labor likewise, but the coffee and flavorings such as chocolate and vanilla come from all over the world and pass through many processes and middleman hands on their way to you.

Wine, by contrast, is the simplest of products. It practically makes itself. Even with the notorious three-tier distribution system here in the US, it is a whole lot easier to get wine into your glass than coffee into your 20-ounce cardboard takeaway cup.

And think about the wine bar versus espresso bar experience. Servers at the wine bar retrieve the bottle and pour some in your glass.  Pretty simple. At the espresso bar, by contrast, your coffee made to order with sometimes extravagant special requests (a tall half-caff soy vanilla latte with caramel?). No doubt about it, in terms of both global sourcing and labor-intensive local production,  Starbucks coffee seems like it would be a lot more expensive to produce and serve than my mythical Starbucks wine.

So here’s the paradox. $4 for a cup of coffee (or espresso-favored coffee drink) seems impossibly expensive. Ridiculous. A joke. But $4 is impossibly cheap for a glass of decent wine these days when you are dining out. What do you think Starbucks would charge for a glass of wine? If they conform to the industry rule of thumb (and I don’t know if the 15th Avenue shops do) the price for each glass would equal the wholesale cost for the bottle. So you’d expect to pay $6 and up for fine wine (wine poured from a bottle in this context) or less if it is drawn from a bag-in-box hidden somewhere in the back room.

Generic industrial wine sells for more than a premium custom-brewed coffee product. No question about it. Wine costs too much and coffee is too cheap. Why? That’s the first part of the coffee-wine paradox.

A Factor of Sixteen

A second aspect of the coffee-wine paradox is revealed in the November 2009 issue of Decanter magazine in a short but very interesting article on coffee. It seems that coffee, like wine, comes in all sorts of variations from cheap bulk product to the equivalent of vineyard-designated grand cru coffee cuvées (if that isn’t stacking the adjectives a bit too high).

Coffee connoisseurs will pay enormous sums to get the finest, rarest coffees. Decanter quotes the price of the winning coffee from a recent international competition at £13 per 250 grams of roasted beans or roughly 40 U.S. dollars per pound. On a per-cup basis, according to the article, the top coffee sells for about sixteen times the most humble Cup of Joe. That’s a pretty high premium to have the best instead of the simply pretty good.

Consider the corresponding wine ratio. If we take Two Buck Chuck as our Nescafé equivalent, the most expensive wine on the market would cost $32 in California (where Two Buck Chuck really costs $1.99) and $48 dollars per bottle nearly everywhere else in America. But this is ridiculous. The most expensive wines cost much more than this. If you read the wine magazines you frequently encounter prices of hundreds and even thousands of dollars for the finest, rarest wines. The coffee factor is sixteen from bottom to top. The wine factor, by comparison, is fifty, sixty, a hundred, even more.

What is the solution to the coffee-wine paradox? Why does wine seem to cost so much more than coffee despite the factors that would seem to raise coffee’s cost? And why do the best wines cost so much more, in relative terms, than the best coffees? What’s your answer? Watch this space for mine!

Wine Book Review: Adventures on the China Wine Trail

chinaCynthia Howson & Pierre Ly, Adventures on the China Wine Trail: How Farmers, Local Governments, Teachers, and Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the Wine World. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).

I remember my first taste of Chinese wine very well. My university student Brian brought a bottle of 1999 Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon back from his study abroad semester in Beijing. It didn’t really taste much like Cabernet, but it was the smell that really got me. “Ashtray, coffee grounds, urinal crust” was the tasting note I found on the internet. Exactly. Quite an experience.

The second taste was not much better. Matt, another student, found a case of Dragon’s Hollow Riesling in a Grocery Outlet store in McMinneville, Oregon. He gave me a couple of bottles that I tried (but failed) to serve at a student tasting. The smell (something rotten?) got in the way of tasting and the wine went down the drain.

I learned two things from these tastings. First, maybe my students were out to kill me! And second, Chinese wine had a long way to go.

And a long way it has come, too, in only a few years. That’s one of the messages of Cynthia Howson’s and Pierre Ly’s fast-paced new book, Adventures on the China Wine Trail. Howson and Ly, partners in life as well as wine research, might have been initially attracted to Chinese wine by its peculiar taste and unexpected existence. But as they have immersed (I nearly said marinated) themselves in the wine, the people, the geography, and the culture they have discovered so much more, which they enthusiastically share with their readers.

Adventures on the China Wine Trail works on many levels. It is in part the record of the authors’ personal journeys and it is interesting to travel with them as they lug their seemingly-bottomless wine suitcase from place to place. The authors have an amazing mastery of the detail of the people and places, food and wine. It’s almost like being there.

In fact, the book works as a travel guide as well wine journey account, providing information of where to go, what to do, where to stay, and so on. But beware: Howson and Ly aren’t your typical tourists, so while they do take us on a walk along part of the Great Wall, this is only because they took part in a wine conference quite close by. They still haven’t seen the famous Terracotta soldiers despite spending time in that region.  They couldn’t pull themselves away from the wineries. Maybe next time, they sigh.

More practical advice appears in the closing chapters. Where should you go to buy or drink excellent Chinese wine if you visit China? They have recommendations for you. And when will you be able to enjoy Chinese wines (good ones, not the drain-cleaner stuff) at home? Sooner than you think, they say.

Some of the wines are already here, including the $300 Ao Yun that Pierre bought at a Total Wine in Washington State. But that is just the iceberg’s tip and if you are reading this in London or Paris you may know that Chinese wines are no longer the shocking discovery that they were just a few years ago.

And how are the wines? They vary in quality, just like wines from any place else. But many of them (more each year) are excellent and even distinctive. I know this both because Howson and Ly tell us about the wines and also because Sue and I have been fortunate to share some of their Chinese finds — including that luxury Ao Yun.

There’s a final layer to the story that I can’t forget. Howson and Ly are both professors and serious scholars. Although the book doesn’t read like an academic treatise, it has a serious purpose. The authors began their study of the Chinese wine industry wondering where it might lead? Could wine possibly be the basis of sustainable rural economic development? Or was it an alcoholic dead end in terms of a greater purpose?

Chinese wine’s journey has been anything but simple or smooth and continues today. It will be a long time, I suspect, before we know for sure how the story will end. But as for economic development, Howson and Ly have overcome their doubts. Wine in China is the real deal, whatever specific shape it takes in the future. All the hard work of the farmers, government officials, teachers and entrepreneurs we meet in the book has succceeded in building a viable industry.

So here’s my tasting note:  Adventures on the China Wine Trail is a fast-paced journey through the world of Chinese wines that will appeal to readers who love wine, China,  travel, or who just looking a good adventure yarn. Highly recommended.

Got Wine? Is It Time for a Generic Wine Promotion Campaign?

 

I’ve had several conversations recently that circled back to the idea that the wine industry should invest in a generic promotion campaign. You know what I mean. Not “Got Milk?” (maybe the most celebrated generic promotion of all time), but something along the lines of “Got Wine?” or “Got California Wine?” depending on who’s talking.

“Got Wine?” is too copy-cat to work, of course. You can come up with something better if you give it some thought. But you get the idea.

Subsidy Wars?

One argument for generic promotion of wine is based on the realization that wine isn’t connecting with new, younger consumers the way we hoped or expected. If we want consumers to have a particular image of wine (or of the wine-drinker identity), maybe we should be more proactive in shaping perceptions.  Laissez-faire isn’t working so well. Let’s do something.

A second argument, which would support “Got California Wine?” or “Got American Wine?” is provoked by the  subsidies the European Union is giving to its member states to promote their wines in the U.S. market.

Years ago the EU used to support prices and winegrower incomes directly, but buying up surplus grapes and wine (we called the result the European Wine Lake). Now the EU has changed tactics and supports the modernization of wine production and the promotion of exports. Basically, they want the wines to be marketable and if the EU market won’t buy it all (and it won’t), then exports are promoted to avoid re-filling the dreaded lake.

This is a better approach from an economic standpoint, but you cannot blame American producers for thinking that it creates an uneven playing field. It might be better, many argue, to get the EU to stop subsidizing wine export promotion. But that would be complicated and take time. In the short run, the argument goes, generic promotion of U.S. wines might even things up a little.

Milk is All Over

Talking about wine promotion got me thinking about milk. That “Got Milk?” promotion ran for 25 years and attracted lots of attention. All sorts of celebrities posed with milk mustaches (aka moo-staches) to draw attention to milk and its broad appeal.  Everyone enjoys milk — that was the message. The Whoopi Goldberg ad was my favorite.

But, memorable as these advertisements are, they were fighting a losing battle. Increasingly, American consumers don’t follow the “Got Milk?” path.

milkI first realized this a few years ago when I heard wine economics guru Karl Storchmann talk about trends in various consumer beverages. He examined Google data about searches for wine, tea, coffee, milk, and water and concluded that  while water was rocking it, milk was fading fast. “Milk is all over,” Karl said at the time (here is a pdf of his study).

Karl wasn’t wrong. Dean Foods, America’s largest milk producer, filed for bankruptcy in November 2019.  Milk sales fell for 4 years in a row as Americans shifted to plant-based cow-milk alternatives, including oat milk and especially almond milk.

Wine vs Milk?

Got Milk? Yes. Always. But increasingly it doesn’t come from a cow.

When you think about it, what happened to milk is a little bit like what seems to be happening to wine. There are lots of new products available that compete with wine including craft beer, craft spirits, and alcoholic sparkling water.  Some of these products are popular in part because they have less alcohol than wine, addressing a health concern  in the same way that almond milk avoids a health problem for some dairy-intolerant consumers.

Is wine all over? I don’t think so. But the industry is obviously not as healthy as we’d like it to be.

So what should wine do? A generic campaign is fine, but it matters a lot who it is aimed at, what it says, and how it is organized. And someone has to pay for it. A “Got Wine?” style consumer-focused campaign isn’t the only option.

Sue and I recently attended a promotional event for Italian wine that was aimed at trade — importers, distributors, sommeliers, journalists, and various “influencers” — but not consumers themselves (there was no consumer tasting).  The product chain for wine is long and complex and there are several points where promotion can be effective.

Come back next week for thoughts on some of the issues that a “Got Wine?” push needs to take into account. In the meantime, I have discovered that there already is a GOT Wine — GOT stands for Game of Thrones!

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The chart comparing Google search term data for wine, milk, etc. is taken from Karl Storchmann, “Wine Economics.” Journal of Wine Economics 7:1 (2012), p. 3.

The video above is the very first “Got Milk?” commercial.

What’s Ahead for Wine Tourism in Mendoza? Lessons from a Rock Opera

monteviejoThe United Nations World Tourism Organization’s global wine tourism conference in Mendoza, Argentina was full of contrasts as you might expect in a high desert region that is punctuated by isolated vine-filled green oases.  The morning sessions featured conventional conference formats — speakers, panels, Powerpoint slides, dark rooms, coffee breaks (and really good simultaneous translation — thanks for that!). And then …

Hardly Working?

The afternoon and evening session moved out of the conference center and into the wineries, so that international participants could take in the landscape, marvel at the wonderful winery architecture,  appreciate the warm hospitality, sample the many winery experiences, and of course enjoy food and wine as any wine tourist would.

Does this sound like hard work? Very few of our friends feel sorry for us when we post about these experiences on Facebook, but it really is work because Sue and I are always observing and analyzing both what the wineries do (and how they do it) and the reaction from their guests.

moonshot2This was particularly interesting at the UNWTO conference because our fellow delegates were mainly tourism people who see opportunities in wine whereas Sue and I come at this more from the wine side, where tourism is one important element. The organized winery visits were interesting to us because they highlighted the tourism offerings rather than the wines themselves.

A reception at Bodega Séptima, for example, showed off its striking architecture and invited guests out to the big patio to stare at the moon and stars through telescopes while sipping wine. Wine tourism and astrological tourism combined.

A visit to Bodega Norton featured an opportunity to ride bicycles through the vineyards followed by a late lunch and then a chance to paint with wine (I saw a rabbit in the vineyard, so that was my artistic contribution). Norton’s program stresses active involvement, which is always more engaging than passive participation.

asadoThe historic buildings and ancient vines were a highlight of our asado lunch at Bodega Nieto Senetiner, where we were treated to a sensory experience organized around a Torrontes perfume and a Malbec cologne. This was interesting even though it violated the first rule of a wine tasting — don’t introduce any scents that might mask the wines’ aromas. It worked as a tourist experience, but would turn off any serious wine lover.

The Missing Link?

Sue and I enjoyed these experiences, but we noticed that something was often missing. The wineries worked very hard to show off their delightful wine tourist offerings, but they missed many opportunities to tell their stories and reinforce their brands. Perhaps this was by design because of the special character of the UNWTO audience, but it seems to me that it is always important to tell your story and build your brand.

Two of the most effective wine tourism programs we have experienced are Larkmead Vineyards in Napa Valley and Sandeman in Porto. The two wineries differ in almost every way but this: there is a clear story, which is told in several ways, and everyone you meet tells the same essential story, reinforcing the message.

A goal might be for each winery visitor to encounter the defining story three times in three different ways during a visit and to be able to share it with friends. You might call it the “Tommy” tactic (after the rock opera composed by The Who). See me, feel me, touch me, heal me. Stimulate all the visitors’ senses and touch them in a way they won’t soon forget.

The Next Step?

Perhaps this is the next step that Gabriel Fidel hinted at in his conference presentation, which encouraged the Mendoza wine tourist industry as well as the rest of  us to think beyond the current focus on creating experiences.  The facilities in Mendoza are world class and the experiences, including food pairing sessions, vineyard walks and rides (on both bikes and horses), and so forth are great, too.

All the pieces are here in Mendoza. Now the wineries and local wine tourism officials need to steal a tune from Tommy so that they all come together with the defining stories of the wineries and the region to create an total experience that resonates with visitors from around the world.

amdes

Eight Flavors of American Wine? Reflections on Sarah Lohman’s New Book

51svceuoerl-_ac_us160_Sarah Lohman, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Sue and I have been reading Eight Flavors, a fascinating new book by Sarah Lohman about food products that have transformed the American palate. Once exotic, now they are ubiquitous. Can’t imagine American cuisine without them.

This Changes Everything?

Lohman passes on coffee, chocolate and a few other “usual suspects,” she says, because they have been examined in great depth by other authors. Fair enough. So what are her eight flavors?  They are: Black Pepper, Vanilla (which replaced rose water as a flavoring), Chili Powder, Curry Powder, Soy Sauce, Garlic, MSG (the umami flavor), and the most recent addition, Sriracha

Each chapter presents the history of the flavor along with elements of Lohman’s  personal investigation and a handful of recipes, too. In its approach and deft writing syle Eight Flavors reminds me of another of my favorite food books, Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. rogue_sriracha_stout__32156-1423592442-451-416High praise!

The story of Sriracha is particularly interesting to me because I have watched as this product and its intense flavor have moved from “ethnic” to mainstream right before my eyes. Once upon a time I found Sriracha mainly at Vietnamese restaurants, but now it is everywhere: in ketchup, potato chips and popcorn, jerky, candy canes, lip balm, cans of baked beans, a special Big Mac sauce, and even craft beer (the Rogue brewery makes a Sriracha hot stout beer). Amazing.

Readers are treated to a personal tour of the huge California factory where Sriracha is made, which is also amazing. What’s the next big flavor? There are several possibilities, but Lohman thinks that pumpkin spice might become flavor number nine.

I haven’t seen Sriracha wine yet, but I suppose it is only a matter of time.There is a version of Sriracha from Colorado that is flavored with Ravenswood Zinfandel! Searching the web I discovered someone who added Sriracha to a glass of red wine (not a total success) and an innovative wine-Sriracha pairing event (looks like it sold out).

What About Wine?

Eight Flavors got me thinking (which usually means trouble) about wine. Are there eight flavors that have entered the world of wine and transformed it the way that chili powder and soy sauce have changed food in America? Not particular wines or wine brands (although it is difficult not to think that way), but flavors associated with the wines?

Here are a few half-baked ideas that I have come up with to get things started. I invite you to comment on my choices and to suggest wine flavors of  your own.

Lemonade. This flavor is suggested by the great success of Gallo’s Thunderbird wine in the 1950s. Thunderbird took flight when a Gallo salesman noticed customers adding lemon drink mix to white port, giving it a fruit flavor that appealed to the American palate of that generation and was so successful that it provided a solid financial foundation for Gallo’s growth. Although Thunderbird fell out of fashion in most areas, the market for fruit-flavored wines has hung around in various forms (Google “fruit-flavored wines” and you will see what I mean). You might think of the many Sangria-style wines as falling into this category, too. Authentic Sangria shows that fruit flavoring done right can be delicious indeed.

Red Coke.  Cola drinks are typically sweet, with balancing acidity, a nice fizz, and served ice cold. Riunite Lambrusco was developed to be “red coke” for the American market — sweetish, fizzy, low in alcohol. It was for many years the best-selling imported wine in America. Riunite on ice, that’s nice — or at least that’s what millions of consumers said. If you are of a certain age you might remember Cold Duck wine, which is still produced under the André California Champagne label. (Canadian readers might recall “Baby Duck” wine.) This cold, soft flavor, or something like it, can be found in a  host of “chill-able” red wines today.

Butterscotch. I am sure you have already guessed that I am talking about a particular style of Chardonnay that partly fueled the Chard boom, then fell out of favor, and is now experiencing a renaissance in some circles. Buttery, slightly sweetish with lashings of oak, this was the taste of the 80s and 90s. That flavor transformed wine more than you might think. It helped introduce Americans to inexpensive Australian wines, for example, and it created a revolution in American vineyards. Fifty years ago there were only a few hundred acres of Chardonnay vines is all of California. Now it is probably the most-planted white wine grape and Chardonnay outsells all other varietal wines, red or white (although Cabernet Sauvignon is catching up).412bv6vgcoxl-_sx258_bo1204203200_

Silver fizz. After reading science editor turned wine writer Jamie Goode’s new book I Taste Red  I have come to understand that taste is complicated — it is hard to separate color, texture, aroma and flavor. They are all mixed together and it is probably impossible (or at least counter-productive) to deconstruct them the way that wine tasting notes often do. With this mind, I want to propose “silver fizz” as a flavor — the flavor of Prosecco and wines like it, which are sweeping through the wine world today much as Siracha has done over in food world. Is the secret the way that Prosecco (or Cava? or Champagne?) tastes, or how it makes you feel? And does it even matter which it is?

Vino Exceptionalism?

Four flavors — it is a start. Somehow I don’t feel like I have captured that transformative dynamic as well as Lohman did with her food flavors. Is it because my choices are poor? In that case, I would appreciate your critique and suggestions.

Or is it because wine is different? Is wine somehow more rooted in traditional methods and flavors and less able to accept or be changed by outside influences? If so, is that a good thing?

See, I told you there would be trouble. Instead of answers I seem to have questions. Typical!

Practical Guide to Wine Tourism in the Republic of Georgia: UNWTO Lessons

tbilisi-001Sue and I  recently returned from the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) first Global Conference on Wine Tourism in Tbilisi, Georgia and we are still processing the experience.

One interesting feature of the conference is that the sessions weren’t confined to the usual convention center or hotel ballroom locations. The organizers boldly took the program on the road to four interesting wine tourist venues.

This experiment provided an interesting opportunity to talk about wine tourism while actually being wine tourists. Here is what I think I learned in the process.

First Impressions: A Georgian Supra

The conference opened with a gala dinner (hosted by Georgia’s Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili) at the beautiful Funicular Restaurant, which is located high on the hill overlooking Tbilisi next to the television tower. The view from the patio was spectacular (see Sue’s photo above), especially as the sun went down and the lights came up, highlighting the monuments. It felt like you could reach out and the touch the city.0a1_6242

There was good Georgian wine at the dinner, but the focus more more on Georgian food, wonderful polyphonic singers and traditional dance groups. Professor George Bagashvili was the master of ceremonies and he explained all that we were seeing and hearing. He deftly led us through the traditional series of supra toasts, but in a tourist-friendly way (without the feared requirement to drain endless glasses or horns of high-proof  chacha).

The gala dinner at the scenic restaurant was a reminder that wine tourism is first and foremost tourism and it is generally a mistake to think of it out of the context of other tourism opportunities. There will be some who will come to Georgia just for the wine, but most will be attracted by the complete package — sights, sounds, culture, people, food and so on with wine playing a larger of smaller part in each case. The dinner was a great introduction to Georgia’s best and a good lesson that wine tourism is most effective when it is embedded in the broader context.

1011 and All That

We loaded into coaches the next morning and headed east toward  Kakheti, the main wine region and the location of our first meetings. We stopped at the historic Alaverdi Monastery, were wine has been made using the traditional qvevri method since 1011.

We toured the monastery, visited the marani cellar with its qvevri vessels, and tasted one of the wines, a complex golden Rkatsiteli shown below. After the tour we adjourned to a cafe where we had coffee and cups of delicious matsoni (local yogurt) with local honey and walnuts (a fabulous combination).

The wine tourism here was seamlessly integrated into the cultural elements and featured local food products and the opportunity to purchase traditional crafts, too. A great tourist and wine tourist stop. And this is not an accident.p1110666

Georgia correctly sees tourism as an economic development opportunity, especially in rural areas like Kakheti. The Georgian government has worked to develop tourist infrastructure and marketing strategies in partnership with international development organizations including the World Bank, EBRD and USAID.

The Alaverdi Monastery is an example of how these efforts have come together successfully to leverage history, culture and wine to create real opportunities for local workers and producers while giving tourists a memorable experience.

Tunnel Vision?

If the monastery is a good example of adapting something quite old to create a wine tourism experience, our next stop showed a more contemporary touch. Khareba Winery offers a focused wine tourism experience built around a huge network of tunnels that date from Soviet days. The tunnels were reportedly built with military use in mind before eventually becoming a regional wine storage facility and now a wine tourist attraction.

Our afternoon conference session was held up at the Saperavi restaurant with its great view of the valley and then we walked down the hillside to the tunnel with its exhibits, wine tasting, and a group of polyphonic singers who filled the underground space with sound.

The tunnels are a noteworthy attraction, but there was more. A path meandered through the park-like grounds and along the way the visitor is offered the chance to bake bread in a traditional clay oven, watch chacha being made (and taste some, too), make churchikhela, which are strings of nuts dipped in concentrated grape must. A moveable feast was laid for us along with path with traditional dishes, including mountain trout and spit-roasted meat.

As at the monastery, the experience was orchestrated to create a complicated sensory experience filled with sights, sounds, smells and tastes mixed with a strong sense of Georgian culture. Wine was at the center of the experience, but there were many threads interwoven here.

A Georgian Chateaucastle

Chateau Mukhrani, the conference venue for the final day, was built in 1878 and, as the vintage image suggests, it resembles a French chateau to a certain extent. The likeness has been heightened by recent upgrades aimed at enhancing wine tourism.

The grounds and the facilities are beautiful and the wines are good, too, made mainly in the international style under the supervision of Frenchman Patrick Honef. We especially enjoyed the Reserve du Prince Saperavi that was served at the closing dinner

The reaction of some of the international conference participants was noteworthy. What is a French chateau doing here? Why isn’t this winery made along traditional Georgian lines, like the monastery, for example? The winery’s architecture, which most visitors will find appealing, was a turn-off to those seeking greater authenticity.

So why the disappointment? I think it is a example of something that I call the “globalization paradox.” We love globalization because of its ability to bring things from all around the world to our towns and cities. Good espresso, authentic wood-fired pizza, designer shops — it is great to have these things nearby creating a cosmopolitan local environment.

But there is a downside. Everyone wants these things and for the most part they get them. This means that when we travel abroad we see many of the same things we already have back home and not the quaint frozen-in-time images that we expect.

Globalization makes the local more diverse and interesting, but the foreign is rendered less exotic and disappointingly more like home. Sigh. Do you see how a French chateau in Georgia fits this pattern?  It definitely adds to the wine tourism experience in Georgia, even if it takes away a bit from the experience that  the seasoned international traveler may be seeking.

This video will give you a sense of Chateau Mukhrani and how it has been designed to serve as an attractive wine tourist destination. It is good to remember that wine tourists are a diverse group and a great many of them will enjoy visiting a chateau … even if they do it in Georgia, not Bordeaux.

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How did the conference’s experimental format work? As you might expect some venues worked better than others for particular purposes. And I am not sure that everyone realized that we were both discussing wine tourism and practicing it at the same time, meaning that some teaching moments were probably lost. But I applaud experiments like this and hope the organizers continue to innovate at next year’s UNWTO meeting in Mendoza, Argentina.

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A quick shout-out to George Piradashvili and the staff at Chateau Mere, where we stayed during our brief tour of Kakheti after the conference. Chateau Mere is a good example of how wine tourist infrastructure can be creatively developed to serve diverse visitor needs. Personal thanks to George for sharing his great food, fine wine, and Georgian wine business insights with us.

Flashback Friday: Malbec World Day

Wines of Argentina has designated Sunday April 17 Malbec World Day 2016. That’s only a week away, so you had better get started thinking about how you will celebrate this holiday. Please use the comments section below to share your Malbec World Day plans.

Malbec World Day is a good excuse for a Flashback Friday column since Malbec has appeared frequently in these pages in the context of the Argentinean wine industry. Malbec was, for example, the subject of an award-winning  documentary called “Boom Varietal: the Rise of Argentine Malbec”  (see video trailer above) that provided my first (and so far only) opportunity to be a supporting character in a film.

Here is a column from back in 2011 that honors all Malbec producers by revisiting Mendel Wines (a bottle of Mendel Malbec is on the short list of possibilities for our Malbec World Day celebration along with a “flashback” tribute Malbec from Colomé called Auténtico).

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Balance is the key to great wine (and profitable wine business, too). I was reminded of this truth many times during our visit to Mendoza, where wine makers are trying to chart a course between and among several extremes:

  • Competitive export sales versus the challenging domestic market;
  • Reliable value wine sales versus potentially more profitable premium products;
  • Popular and successful Malbec versus TNBT — The (speculative and uncertain) Next Big Thing.

The key to long term success involves finding the right balance in this complex economic environment.

I want to use this post to consider three types of balance that I think are particularly interesting in Mendoza – the balance between crisis and opportunity,  local and international winemaking influences and the simple tension between the old and the new.  We learned about all three dimensions during our brief visit to Mendel Wines in Lujan de Cuyo.

Crisis and Opportunity

Mendel is both very old and quite new.  The vineyards are old, planted in 1928. Somehow these Malbec vines survived the ups and downs of the Argentinean economy. The winery is almost as old and has a certain decaying charm. It stands in stark contrast to Salentein, O. Fournier, the Catena Zapata pyramid and the many other starkly modernist structures that have sprung up in this part of the world.

The winery project is quite new. Mendel is a partnership between Anabelle Sielecki and Roberto de la Mota and is the result of a balance between crisis and opportunity. When economic crisis struck Argentina ten years ago, opportunities were created for those with vision and entrepreneurial spirit. Anabelle and Roberto seized the moment and purchased these old vines and well-worn structures for their new super premium winery project.

That their impulse was timely and wise may not have been obvious at the time (crises are like that), but it is perfectly clear now. Wine Advocate named Mendel one of nine “Best of the Best” Argentinean wineries in a recent issue.[1]

Old and New

The winemaking that goes on in Mendel is also a combination of old and new. The technology is modern, of course, with stainless steel and French oak very visible. The setting, however, constantly reminds you of the past and the vineyard’s and winery’s history. Walking through the winery, for example, I was struck by the big original concrete fermenting tanks – a blast from the past for sure.

No, we don’t use them to ferment the wines anymore, Cecilia Albino told us, but we put them to good use. Peek inside. Sure enough, the tanks were filled with oak barrels full of wine aging quietly in the cool environment.

Mendel also illustrates the balance between local and global that characterizes wine in Argentina, where much of the capital and many of the winemakers come from abroad.  Roberto de la Mota, partner and chief winemaker at Mendel, personifies this balance. Roberto is the son of  Raúl de la Mota, who is sometimes said to be Argentina’s “winemaker of the [20th] century” so important was his work in developing quality wine in this country.

Roberto naturally grew up in the wine business both here and in France, where he sought advanced training on the advice of Emile Peynaud. He was the winemaker at Terrazas, Chandon’s still wine project in Mendoza, and then at Cheval des Andes, a winery with connections to Château Cheval Blanc. I think it is fair to say that Roberto’s resume represents a balance between local and global, between deep understanding of Mendoza terroir and knowledge that perhaps only international influences can provide.

Local and Global

I asked Roberto if it was important that Mendel is an Argentinean project and not owned by a foreign multinational. Yes of course, he said, but he hesitated a bit and I think I see why. Many of the influences and markets are international, but people, vines and inspiration are  purely local. Not one or another, but intertwined, balanced.

And this thirst for a complex balance defines the future. Talking with Anabelle over coffee in Buenos Aires, she was ambitious to break into new markets – Hong Kong, China, and so forth. Anabelle is an architect — another field where global and local intersect.

Meeting with Roberto at the winery in Mendoza, he was interested in learning even more about his vines and terroir so as to better develop their potential. And to bring more of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties (like Petit Verdot) into the mix.

Mendel has charted its balanced course quickly, purposefully and well.  It is a perfect illustration of both the tensions that define wine in Argentina and the potential for success if a clear but balanced path is boldly taken.


[1] The other “Best of the Best” wineries in Wine Advocate issue 192 are Achaval Ferrer, Alta Vista, Catena Zapata, Viña Cobos, Colomé Reserva, Luca, Tikal and Yacochuya.

Book Review: Oz Clarke’s History of Wine in 100 Bottles

Oz Clarke, The History of Wine in 100 Bottles: From Bacchus to Bordeaux and Beyond. Sterling Epicure, 2015.

It was a brilliant idea. Select 100 items from the massive collection of The British Museum and then present them, one at a time and in chronological order, to create “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”

Simply Irresistible

It was an instant hit with history-hungry Britain. Never have the artifacts of the British  Museum’s collection been so closely studied and appreciated by millions! And of course the use of physical objects of various sorts was perfect because, as we all know, we are living in a material world and so telling the story of civilization through material goods is simply irresistible. You can see a list of the objects here and briefly view each one in the 5 minute video below.

In another brilliant move, the organizers did not present the series on the television or the internet as you might expect but via one-hundred short  15-minute BBC Radio 4 broadcasts starting on January 18, 2010 and ending on October 22 of that year. Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, wrote and narrated all the episodes.

The combination of rich language plus fertile imagination inspired listeners to seek out information about the objects  through all available means including visits to the British Museum (which must have been one of the goals of the enterprise). Watch the video and click on the website link — maybe the hundred objects will fascinate you as they have so many others.

 

100 Bottles of Wine on the Wall

Oz Clarke takes something of the same approach to the history of wine in his new book and the result is very appealing indeed. Clarke’s challenge is to tell the story of wine in 100 short, punchy, chronologically-ordered episodes. Some of the chapters are about actual bottles as promised by the book’s title (1964, for example, is a jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy), but most are the stories of people, events or forces that shaped significantly the world of wine.

Thus 1855 is the Bordeaux Classification of that year and 1863 is Phylloxera. 1965 marks the invention of bag-in-box containers and 1976 the famous Judgement of Paris.  The story begins with the invention (or was it a discovery?) of wine in about 6000 BC and concludes with Rudy Kurniawan’s wine fraud conviction in 2014.

I think there is something here for all wine-lovers to enjoy and appreciate, although I understand that some will criticize the entries for being too brief  (more of the 2-page landscape given to each entry goes to images than to text) and others will find fault with the particular entries chosen and not.  Regarding the depth of analysis, I think you have to accept this for what it is and, like the BBC/British Museum project, see this as an invitation to further study rather than a much too brief final chapter.

Regarding the topics the Clarke included versus those left out, I think it is inevitable that people disagree about what’s most important — and maybe there’s fun in arguing about it a bit. I was pleased that many of the people, events and forces that I have written about here on The Wine Economist and in my books were important enough to be included in Clarke’s book.  I’ll gladly defer to him where we might disagree because after all it is his book not mine, but I was happy that we agree in so many areas.

For example my chapter on “Extreme Wine People” in Extreme Wine highlights a number of individuals who transformed the idea of wine in one way or another. Almost all of them make Clarke’s list including Robert Mondavi (1966), Angelo Gaja (1968). David Lett (1975) and Nicholas Catena (1994). I highlighted Montana’s Brancott Estate in Wine Wars because that’s where the first Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in Marlborough, New Zealand. Sure enough, that’s Clarke’s entry for 1983,  And world’s highest vineyards (in the Salta region of Argentina) appeared in the first chapter of Extreme Wine and as the entry for 2006 here.

Here’s a selection of other chapter entries to whet your appetite and give you a sense of the variety of topics presented: Pompeii (79 AD), Tokaji (1571), Constantia (1685), Dom Perignon (1690s). Chianti (1716), Louis Pasteur (1860), Vega Sicilia (1915), Mateus (1942), Emile Peynaud (1949), Robert Parker (1978), Canadian Ice Wine (1991) and China (2011).

The History of Wine n 100 Bottles is fun and informative — a great gift for your wine enthusiast friends and a colorful addition to any wine bookshelf.

By the way, if you are interested in projects like these, you might also want to read Tom Standage’s 2006 book A History of the World in 6 Glasses. The glasses, in chronological order, are filled with beer (in Mesopotamia and Egypt), wine (in Greece and Rome), spirits (in the Colonial Period), coffee (in the Age of Reason), tea (the British Empire) and Coca-Cola (in the American Century). There’s a seventh glass that represents the future. What does it hold? Water, of course.

My Hidden Agenda

I was keen to get a copy of Oz Clarke’s book when it was published because I’ve started work on a project that has something of the same flavor. Although  Money, Taste and Wine: It’s Complicated won’t be released until August, I’ve been at work for some time now on the next book in the series, which I’m calling Around the World in 80 Wines. Don’t you think that’s a great title? My challenge is to write a great book to go with it!

I wanted to see what Oz Clarke would do with his hundred wines and, while I can’t fault his use of the BBC/British Museum model, that’s not the way that I’m headed. Clarke and the BBC make a journey through time and I’m traveling through space — around the world, with 20 stops (chapters) and 80 wines. Some chapters search out and find a single most significant wine story wine while others reveal a treasure trove of different wines — or search and search and come up empty. How annoying!

But journey’s don’t reveal their significance all at once or in carefully measured doses. They ebb and flow like life itself and that’s what I’m going to try to capture. I’m sure that some will second-guess my choices and want more depth here and less there but, as with the BBC/British Museum’s series and Oz Clarke’s new book, I think you’ll find the result worth the effort. — fun, interesting. Maybe even irresistible!

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Sorry, I couldn’t resist.