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.

OTBN 2021: Open That Bottle of Armenian Wine

We celebrated Open That Bottle Night (OTBN) 2021 on Saturday with a pandemic-mode Zoom gathering of the usual suspects. We shared stories, honoring the tradition, and felt good about being together even if we could not also share the particular bottles of wine we brought to the party. Next year. Fingers crossed!

Usually the wines we select for OTBN are a backward glance. They remind us of people, places, or events that live in our memories and are released when glasses are poured. This year was different. Sue and I recently received samples of wines from Armenia from Storica Wines, an Armenia wine import company.  We’ve never been to Armenia. Never tasted the wines. OTBN was our excuse to pop the first cork, look ahead not behind, and imagine a future Armenian adventure.

First Taste of Armenian Wine

Wine has a very long history in Armenia just as it does in neighboring Georgia. Armenia calls itself the “birthplace of wine,” while Georgia fancies itself the “cradle of wine.” Georgian wine, as I have written here, is getting lots of attention just now. Perhaps Armenia will be next? That’s a question we will discuss in more depth in a future column. The focus for today is our OTBN discovery.

The particular wine we opened is the Keush Origins Brut traditional method sparkling wine. It is made from native Armenian grape varieties: 60% Voskehat and 40% Khatouni. The grapes come from 60 to 100-year old ungrafted vines grown at over 5000 feet elevation in the Vayots Dzor region. Does that get  your attention. Extreme wine!  Voskehat is Armenia’s most important white grape variety and is used to make many styles of wine. Khatouni seems to be relatively rare, even in Armenia. I couldn’t find a listing in the encyclopedic Wine Grapes volume.

Wine Gets Personal

Wine is about people as much as grapes and that’s true in this case, too. The Keush Origins Brut was one of the Armenian wines highlighted by our friends Dr. Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan in their handy book Uncorking the Caucasus: Wine from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia,  so it was satisfying to imagine that we were tasting it for the first time with them.

Matt and Charine were impressed with the Keush Origins wine they tasted — it was the first release of this wine. But it is easy to tell that they were also quite taken with its maker, Vahe Keushguerian. who is profiled in the book. Keushguerian, in turn, is obviously taken with Armenia and its wine industry’s potential. They write that

Vahe is committed to reinvigorating Armenia’s wine culture. By using DNA technology to identify grapes found in abandoned monasteries and villages, then cultivating those grapes in his nursery, Vahe and his team have been rediscovering historic wine grapes and bringing them back to life.

We will have more to say about Armenian wine’s past, present, and future in a few weeks when we’ve had time to open the rest of the sample bottles.  In the meantime, what about the Keush Origins OTBN sparkling wine?

Wine’s Superpower

Well, no one comes to the Wine Economist website for wine ratings or tasting notes, but we enjoyed the Keush Origins Brut from Armenia quite a lot. Dry, of course, and mouth-filling. Easy to drink and enjoy and paired very well with cheese, meats, and Sue’s home-made focaccia. Looking forward to opening the other Armenian bottles in our small stash.

Let me close with some reflections on OTBN 2021. Open That Bottle Night 2020 was the last in-person gathering we had before everything closed down last year and distancing and isolation defined social relations. We hesitated a bit about shifting the meet- up online. A Zoom OTBN might honor the tradition, which is important to us, but it wouldn’t be the same. In the end we decided to move ahead and see what would happen.

And I am glad we did. Wine brings people together — that’s one of its superpowers — and it did so again even if we couldn’t actually share the wine, only a screen, some stories, and good company. I was surprised at how much this moved me and am grateful to our friends for making this possible.

Here’s the wine list from OTBN 2021. Thanks to Dottie and John for inventing OTBN and keeping its flame alive. Cheers!

  • Tempus Cellars 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla
  • DePonte Cellars 2014 Pinot Noir, Oregon
  • Opus One Winery 1989, Napa
  • Chengyu-Moser XV Winery, 2017 Rosé of Cabernet, Ningxia, China
  • Keush Origins Brut, Armenia

Keush Origins Brut is imported by Storica Wines. 

2019 Wine Economist Top Ten

251626This is the time of the year to look back on 2019 and ahead to 2020. Here at Wine Economist world headquarters our contribution to the first part of this exercise involves probing the data provided by WordPress, our internet host, and seeing which weekly columns got the most attention. It’s one way to gauge what’s on readers’ minds.

The most-viewed column by far this year was Outlaw Wine? 19 Crimes Succeeds by Breaking All the Wine Marketing Rules, which first appeared in 2018.  19 Crimes is a phenomenon and, as I wrote in the column, it breaks convention in many ways and perhaps because of that it appeals to a wine market demographic that is otherwise hard to reach. Are there lessons to be learned from the 19 Crimes success story? Obviously a lot of people want to find out.

The Top Ten list is drawn from columns first published in 2019. Here they are from #1 to #10.  Take a look at the titles. Do you think they have anything in common (my answer follows)?

 

1.   Six Things to Do With Surplus Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes

2.  Global Rosé Market Q&A.

3.  Two Cheers for Canned Wine

4.  Anatomy of the Rising Import Threat to U.S. Wine

5.  Global Wine Market: Storm Clouds Gathering?

6.  The Beginning of the End of the Old World Appellation System?

7.  Is Sustainable Winegrowing Sustainable?

8. Which Wine? Navigating the Retail Wine Wall’s Fluid Map

9.  What’s Really in your Glass? Transparency, Accountability & Wine

10.  Global Wine’s Lost Decade

Interesting list, don’t you think? Several of the columns establish a problem — slack demand for wine in many markets and emerging over-supply, especially of Cabernet Sauvignon here in the U.S. What to do?

Most of the rest of the columns look for answers. There are some growing segments and categories even in a stagnant overall market. What’s hot? Who’s buying? What? Why? The columns on Rosé and wine in cans got extra attention because those were two growing markets in 2019.

I wonder what will be hot in 2020?

The Wine Economist will take a break for a couple of weeks and return in the new year with more analysis of global wine market trends. Sue and I wish all our readers health and happiness. See you in 2020!

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giftsSince this column is filed under “Shameless Self-Promotion” I would be remiss if I didn’t remind readers that wine books make great gifts: Wine Wars, Extreme Wine, Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated, and Around the World in Eighty Wines.

Note: Many Wine Economist columns are republished in Italian by Civilta del Bere, a leading Italian journal of wine and culture. Grazie mille!

Ten Years of Wine Wars

2021 marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of my first book about the business of wine, Wine Wars: the Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists.

Wine Wars was written to encourage readers to consider how market forces help shape what’s in our collective wine glass. The  book received very positive reviews upon publication and it remains popular (and, people tell me, still relevant) today. Indeed, it still occasionally shows up on Amazon.com’s Top 100 Wine Book Best-Seller list. Amazing.

The Tables Turned

The story of Wine Wars begins many years ago when Sue and I were taking a short vacation break in Napa Valley, which I describe in the book’s first chapter.  Our final tasting room stop on the final day of the trip made a lasting impression.  The weary winemaker poured the usual tasting flight and I tried to ask intelligent questions. Then I let slip that I was an economics professor and suddenly the tables turned. The winemaker had many questions, very serious questions, and he wanted answers from me.

The investments he was making in vineyards and cellar would not begin to pay off for years. What was going to happen to the interest rates on his loans and to the economy and wine market? Wine economics to him wasn’t an abstract academic exercise. Economic factors conditioned the kind of wine he could make if the monetary stars aligned or what he would be forced to do if they did not. It was an unexpectedly intense experience that made me appreciate that economic analysis could make a useful contribution to the wine industry.

Globalization vs. Terroir

My first stab at writing about wine economics was a chapter called “Globalization vs Terroir” in my 2005 book Globaloney: Unravelling the Myths of Globalization (still available in the  updated 2010 edition called Globaloney 2.0: The Crash of 2008 and the Future of Globalization).

I wrote Globaloney in reaction to the popular idea that globalization is a homogenizing one-size-fits-all phenomenon — think Coca-Cola-ization or McDonalds-ization. The book is a collection of case studies of how globalization has unfolded in different ways in different countries and industries.

By comparing globalization of basketball and soccer, fast food and slow food, second-hand clothes and fine wine, I tried to make the case that globalization reflects its terroir and that people sometimes have more ability than many acknowledge to shape it.

Globaloney gave me the opportunity to study the global wine industry and to travel to New Zealand to learn more about that country’s unlikely rise as a global wine powerhouse. Kiwi wine really is the “mouse that roared,” if you know what I mean.

Open Source Research

I wanted to learn more and my next step, which wouldn’t have been possible just a few years before, was to start this blog, The Wine Economist. I sensed that the best way to sharpen my thinking wouldn’t be to just attend academic conference and write journal articles. Using the web, I could try out ideas in a public space and get feedback from smart people around the world and in every corner of the global wine industry.

At about the same time I gratefully seized the opportunity to teach a university class on “The Idea of Wine” that traced wine from dirt to vine to cellar to market and all around the world. Nothing forces you to get your thoughts in order like the necessity of explaining them to others (in this case a diverse collection of very smart university seniors).

The result of this clear thinking attempt was Wine Wars. I enjoyed writing this book, but I wasn’t really sure if anyone would want to read it. So I was surprised and delighted when it found an enthusiastic audience. Wine business people tell me that it helps them connect the dots of what they do with the rest of the product chain.  Wine students find that it fills in the business-side gaps in their preparation in an interesting way (a surprising number of Masters of Wine have cited it as a resource).

Wine consumers seem to like it too, since it adds a new dimension to their favorite beverage. Wine is good, but wine and a story — even an economic story — is better yet. It has been used as a text in a wide range of university classes including international business, international relations, and globalization studies.

Wine Wars has been followed by three more wine books. Since Wine Wars focused on the mainstream wine markets, for example, Extreme Wine (2013) explored the edges, where change often happens first.

Ten Years After

Money, Taste, and Wine (2015) asked the question “how does wine change when there is money involved?” and answered it in as many ways as I could find. Finally, Around the World in Eighty Wines (2017, paperback 2020) tries to understand the source of wine’s fascination by taking a Jules Verne-inspired wine-fueled adventure that mirrors our own “Wine Economist World Tour” wild ride traveling the world to speak at wine industry events.

Both Wine Wars and Around the World in Eighty Wines have been published in translation (Romanian and Russian respectively with a Portuguese edition of Eighty Wines pending). The blog and books have received many awards including best wine blog, best wine book, and best wine writing.  Incredible that all this should evolve from that Napa tasting long ago.

A lot has changed in the economy and the wine world in these ten years. How has the argument I made in Wine Wars held up?  Come back next week to find out.

Back to the Future of Armenian Wine

The mission of Boston-based Storica Armenian Wines is to introduce U.S. consumers to the pleasures of Armenian wine and they seem to be off to a good start.

Just last week, for example, Wine Bible author Karen MacNeil‘s Instagram #TasteWithKaren webinar featured Vahe Keushguerian, founder of Keush wines, for a tasting of three of his Armenian traditional method sparkling wines. One of them, the Keush Origins, was our Open That Bottle Night 2021 wine. A delightful wine from an unexpected source, made from indigenous grapes that we’d never before experienced. A great introduction to Armenian wine.

Armenia’s Deep Roots

We are only now getting to know Armenian wine a little but, but already I can see that this is a topic full of fascinating puzzles and paradoxes. Wine in Armenia is both very old and very new.  Landlocked Armenia’s latitude is a bit too low, but its high elevation compensates and creates a sort of grape vine Eden. It is impossible to prove, of course, but Armenia just might be the place where Vine Zero was born, the ultimate source of the vitis vinifera grapes that fill most modern wine bottles today. The oldest known evidence of a working winery was found here.

Armenia’s neighbor Georgia shares some of this history and sometimes calls itself “the cradle of wine” (Armenians like to say they are the “birthplace of wine”) and I rather naively assumed that, because we have visited Georgia and tasted many of their wines, that this might give me a head start in understanding Armenia and its wines. But that’s not how it worked out at all.

No Escaping It

Wine is inescapable in Georgia. It is integral to the national identity. Home-production is so important that it has taken a while for commercially produced wine, most of it aimed for export markets in the former Soviet state markets, to attract a critical mass of local consumers.  Georgia is now investing to develop new markets in China, Europe, and North America in order to reduce their dependence on former-Soviet state exports.

Wine grapes are inescapable in Armenia, as near as I can tell from my research, but wine maybe not so much until quite recently. The World Atlas of Wine estimates at more than 80% of wine grape production goes to make brandy, the national drink.

The wine sector is relatively small, according to this source, with about 50 wineries in 2018, 30 of which only appeared in the last ten years, driven in part by investment from members of the vast international Armenian diaspora and technical “flying winemaker” expertise.

Armenia’s wine past is a mixed bag, as I’ll explain below, but its future is simply irresistible according to winemaking superstar Alberto Antonini. He rates his Zorah project in Armenia (along with his Otrona project in Argentine Patagonia) as the most interesting opportunities in today’s wine world.

Stalin Did It

Why was there so little attention to wine in its birthplace? It is complicated, of course, but one line of reasoning traces the situation back to Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Soviet system was all about exploiting the efficiencies of division of labor to generate maximum output with scarce resources. Thus was Georgia (Stalin’s birthplace and source of his favorite wine) selected to supply wine for the Soviet bloc while Armenia was assigned to specialize brandy production despite the fact that good wine was made in both countries.

That Armenian brandy is excellent and has been compared favorably to Cognac might make Stalin’s policy credible, but the impact on Armenia’s wine sector remains. The production and market structures established in the Soviet era have been slow to change, but change they have and the wines that Storica is introducing to the U.S. market is part of the story.

Terroirist’s Territory

Sue and I enjoyed our OTBN selection of Keush Origins sparkling wine, a traditional method blend of indigenous grape varieties: Voskehat, the most-planted white grape, and Khatoun Kharji, a grape variety that is rare even in Armenia. Sourced from 60-100 year old vines planted at 1800 meters above sea level. An extreme wine with character and finesse. It was an impressive start our Armenia research.

Next in line was Zulal Voskehat 2019, a dry white wine with medium body, good balance, and a very interesting finish, which evolved as we enjoyed the wine with pasta primavera. Vineyards planted on volcanic soils at 1400 meters in the Vayots Dzor region near the Azerbaijani border supplied the grapes for this wine.

Zulal, which means “pure” in Armenian, is a project founded in 2017 by Vahe Keushguerian’s daughter, Aimee Keushguerian. The focus is on indigenous grape varieties and own-rooted vines so old that they pre-date the Soviet era. They are, I suppose, a pure expression of Armenia’s wine past but made using modern cellar practices. It is part of a movement to bring wine back to the center of Armenian culture.

Areni, named for its home village in Vayots Dzor where evidence of the world’s oldest known winery facility was discovered, is said to be Armenia’s signature grape variety and, based on our sample bottle of Zulal Areni 2018, it is a sound choice. Grapes from vines at 1400-1750 meters elevation (wow!) were vinified in stainless steel to produce a fresh, medium-bodied red wine that one tasting note placed somewhere between Pinot Noir and Sangiovese, although I think it is something all its own. We enjoyed the spice and plummy flavors, which went especially well with our dinner of chicken and sautéed spinach with peanut sauce. A keeper for sure.

There is a Zulal Areni Reserve, which is aged for a year in used Caucasian and French oak, that we are setting aside to share with our Armenian-American friends Z and G. It will be a great pleasure, when the pandemic clouds have finally passed, to share with them this is wine as well as a Keush Blanc de Blanc traditional method sparkler. I am confident it will be worth the wait.

Armenian wine has a lot to offer and these first tastes are just the beginning. The Keush and Zulal wines are a fascinating introduction to the Armenian wine renaissance.

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WorldWineRegions.com has created a fascinating website with interactive maps of the world’s wine regions. Here is a link to the map of Areni in Vayots Dzor. Zoom in and out to see both the vineyard areas and the overall terrain.

Rediscovering Ruchè, One of Italy’s “Invisible” Wines

rucheThe coronavirus pandemic has paused The Wine Economist’s usual travel and speaking schedule and while I don’t miss the chaos of international air travel I do miss the opportunity to meet interesting new people and the chance to discover wines made from indigenous grape varieties that often don’t get the attention they deserve.

At this time last year, for example,  we were visiting Sardinia and Friuli, two regions of Italy that are especially known for their indigenous wine grapes. Some of these wines are pretty readily available here in the U.S. — Cannonou di Sardegna is a good example. You can find good examples if you look around at bit. But others are much too local to get much outside distribution — you sometimes need to go to the source to try them. Vermentino di Gallura and Carignano del Sulcis are examples, also from Sardinia, of wonderful wines that you may not easily find.

Discovering Invisible Wines

These intensely local wines are a special treat and I wrote about them in a chapter called “Invisible Wines” in my book Extreme WineI cited three wines from Italy — Pignoletto from the vineyards around Bologna, Lacrima di Morro d”Alba from Marche, and Ruchè di Castagnolo Monferrato in Piemonte.

As I wrote on The Wine Economist in 2011, we discovered Ruchè (prndounced ROO-kay) by accident. We were attending the annual regional culinary fair in Moncalvo, a hill town half an hour north of Asti. Thirteen “pro loco” civic groups from throughout the region set up food and wine booths in the central square and sold their distinctly local wares to an enthusiastic luncheon crowd. As I reported then,

“I had never heard of Ruchè and honestly didn’t know what it might be until I happened upon the stand of the Castagnole Monferrato group. They were cooking with Ruchè , marinating fruit in Ruchè and selling it by the glass — they were obviously very proud of their local wine. I had to try it and it was great. Suddenly I saw Ruchè everywhere (a common experience with a new discovery) and enjoyed a bottle at dinner in Asti that  night. “Like Nebbiolo,” Jancis Robinson writes, “the wine is headily scented and its tannins imbue it with an almost bitter aftertaste.”

Tenuta Montemagno

Sue and I were excited to re-live our Ruchè discovery when we were contacted by Tenuta Montemagno and offered the opportunity to taste their two Ruchè wines, Nobilis and Invictus. Sue prepared a special meal (see note below) and we pulled the corks.  The Nobilis brought back many memories. A juicy, light bodied red wine, it had the distinctive aroma of roses and the mix of red fruit and warm spices on the palate. It was great with Sue’s signature veal meatballs.

And then  came Invictus, made from riper grapes, vinified dry (2g/l compared to 1 g/l for Nobilis) with a bit more alcohol (15.5% versus 15%).  A fuller wine, Invictus is what I call a philosopher’s wine — something you might want to sit with for a while so you can appreciate how it develops in the glass.  Recognizably Ruchè, but a different experience.  Fascinating. Memorable.

No one comes to The Wine Economist for tasting notes, but here is a video note that captures some of what we found special about these wines. Watch closely and you will see that this seasoned reviewer is surprised (at one point nearly at a loss for words) at what’s in his glass and is keen to learn more. That’s Ruchè.

Tenuta Montemagno is devoted to the tradition of these wines in addition to their Grignolino, Barbera D’Asti, and Barolo reds.  The white wines include Sauvignon and Timorasso, another  indigenous grape variety that I need to learn more about the next time we are in the neighborhood. But maybe I won’t have to wait that long. The winery is working to get its products into wider distribution in the U.S. market and I hope they succeed so that more people can discover their “invisible wine.”

The Priest Did It

Today Ruchè is nearly invisible — you won’t find it unless you make an effort. But it could have been much worse. Like some other indigenous varieties, Ruchè fell from favor and was on the road to commercial extinction. It was saved starting in the 1960s by one man: the parish priest.

As Ian D’Agata explains in the chapter on Ruchè in his recent book Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs, Don Giacomo Cauda, Castagnole Monferato’s town priest, was obsessed with Ruchè, studied it, collected specimens from scattered small plots,  and promoted Ruchè as the region’s signature wine. Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato received DOC recognition in 1987 and was elevated to DOCG in 2010, putting it up among the elite of the Italian wine world. A long climb from near-extinction to the summit in just 50 years.

The Oxford Companion to Wine reports that there were about 100 hectares (247 acres) of Ruchè in all of Italy in 2010. Not a lot, but a viable amount that I hope will grow. Now the challenge is to assure the economic success of Ruchè and invisible wines like it, which is why I encourage you to seek them out, both at home and when you (eventually) travel. You will enjoy the experience, of course, and help support local wines.

Thanks to Tenuta Montemagno for providing Nobilis and Invictus for us to taste for this column. I hope Sue and I can visit you in person once the pandemic crisis has passed.

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These wines really want to be paired with food and so Sue made one of my favorite dishes which, although it comes from a different region of Italy, proved to be an excellent match. A few years ago we spent an entire day cooking and eating with Bologna’s famous Simili sisters  (see this New York Times article by William Grimes about these celebrated chefs). They had closed their cooking school and were experimenting with personal classes in their apartment. Try the Tenuta Montemagno wines with the Simili sisters’ veal meatballs in Port sauce.

Second Thoughts about the Wine Wizards of Oz

The Wizards of Oz” (see below) appeared on The Wine Economist a dozen years ago in  February 2008. It looked to Australia for insights about what might be ahead for the wine industry. I’d forgotten all about this old column until it started getting  “hits” recently, which caused to me give in another look.

The basic idea was that what’s happening in the global wine market sometimes happens in Australia first or most clearly. I think this might have been one inspiration for my book Extreme Wine, which argues that the best place to see the future of wine is at the edges, where change is happening fast, not in the more stable center.

Re-reading this column makes me think how quickly things change (Fosters?) and how much some things persist. Do you think the argument stands the test of time? I am not sure how far I would push it now and maybe I pushed it too far then, too, but the climate change and ecological limits analysis still seems timely.

Let me know what you think in the comments section below (or tell me in person if you are attending the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento). Here’s the 2008 column as it appeared then.

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The Wizards of Oz (February 19, 2008)

20_australian_wine_industry_segments.jpgWhen I think about the future of the global wine market, my thoughts frequently stray to Australia because that’s where I see so many current trends originating or being most effectively exploited.

Export driven marketing strategy? That’s Australia. Branded varietal wines? Everyone talks about Gallo and Constellation brands, but who has done it better than [Yellow Tail]? Foreign market penetration?  The Aussies again, replacing the French as the strongest competitor in the British market and a strong presence in the United States.

Australia even wins the prize for the most sophisticated national wine strategy. Click on the image above to see a representation of the latest Australia wine strategy, which divides the market into twenty (20!) key segments where Aussie wines can compete.

Australia’s Boom and Bust

No doubt about it, if you want to learn about wine economics and integrated wine business, you should look to Australia. But that doesn’t mean that all is well down under. As I have written in previous posts, Australia has experienced a roller-coaster of wine market problems. First it was the problem of over-supply, which pushed prices down to unsustainable levels. And then, just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, they did and the early signs of wine shortages began to appear, which caused me to declare that the era of cheap wine was coming to an end. In each of these cases, trends that I see in many places now were first apparent in Oz. No wonder that I’m starting to view Australia as my leading indicator of global wine market trends.

This makes the news in Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times particularly sobering (not a good word for wine lovers). Robinson’s article suggests that Australia has hit ecological limits to the production of cheap wine. Water is scarce and expensive and this means that the cost (and therefore price) of bulk wines like [Yellow Tail] must rise — from A$0.40 in 2006 to A$1 in 2007 according to the article. That’s not quite a leap from unsustainable to unaffordable (the A$ is about 91 US cents today), but it presents a completely different business model. More to the point, however, the price rises exist because costs are high and the product is in short supply. Robinson is optimistic that Australian winemakers can compete and even thrive in the new market environment, but adjustment won’t be easy.

Robinson reports that Fosters has started sourcing some of its Lindeman’s brand from its vineyards in Chile (for the British market) and South Africa (in the U.S.). This continues the practice we have seen in the U.S. for some time for short-supply Pinot Noir. U.S. brands like Pepperwood Grove and Redwood Creek frequently contain Chilean and French wines respectively. Now, Robinson reports

There is much talk, though not much evidence, of basic bulk wine being imported into Australia from southern Europe, South Africa and South America to fill the so-called “casks” (boxed wine) and the cheapest bottles and flagons for the bottom end of the domestic market, prioritising export markets for such inexpensive Australian wine as the brand owners can afford. Australia has swung from famine to feast and back to famine in terms of its wine supply recently and bulk wine imports are nothing new. I remember encountering a director of one of Australia’s largest wine companies looking very shifty round the back of some fermentation vats at Concha y Toro outside Santiago de Chile in the mid-1990s.

Ecological Limits?

Now the problem here is not that the Australians are passing off foreign wines as their own. The wines I have seen have been clearly labeled and the few cases I know about where winemakers have tried to fool the public (some years ago in New Zealand, as I recall) ended badly for the dishonest producers. They were punished pretty severely in the marketplace when their tricks were revealed.

No, my concern goes more to the heart of the problem. Maybe Australia’s ecological constraints are a short term problem that will disappear. Maybe it is an Australian problem with no implications beyond the land of Oz. Maybe ready supply from Australia wannabe producers in South America, South Africa and Europe will always be there to fill the gap.

But that’s a lot of maybes and economists are trained to get nervous when it’s maybe this and maybe that. We know that the effect of climate change on the wine industry is real. And we know — or at least I think I know — that Australia has often been a good indicator of emerging trends in global wine. If this is the case, then we are indeed about to enter a new wine world, one where the natural constraints on wine production may be about to become as important as marketing strategies.

Now in Paperback: Extreme Wine

The paperback edition of my 2013 book Extreme Wine has been released, taking its place with the hardback, e-book and audio-book versions. Now there is really no excuse for not having a copy of Extreme Wine with you wherever you are!

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but people do it all the time, which is why wine producers give so much attention to their label designs. Extreme Wine‘s paperback design is even more attractive than the hardback — there is something about the way the colors come through on the paperback that makes the package “pop.”

Lighter, less expensive and even more beautiful — Extreme Wine paperback has it all. Talk about shameless self-promotion!

Wine Book Review: Rethinking Wine Market Perspectives

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.

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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.

The New Wine Wars

We are celebrating  the tenth anniversary of the publication on my book Wine Wars here at Wine Economist world headquarters and I want to use this opportunity to reflect on how the wine world has changed since 2011. As I explained in last week’s column, Wine Wars is organized around a trio of strong forces that together (along with other factors, of course) shape the wine sector and many other industries, t00.  In very simple terms …

Globalization drives change. Commodification is a commercial response to these disruptive forces. Together globalization and commodification provoke grass-roots reactions that I call “the revenge of the terroirists.”  I think the framework still applies. But things have indeed changed. Here are some notes.

Wine and Globalization

Globalization continues to be a driving force in the world wine sector. Indeed, I think it is safe to say that more different wines from more different places are now available to more different consumers than at any point in history. World wine is truly an embarrassment of riches! Wherever we have travelled in the world of wine we’ve met producers anxiously seeking new opportunities.

But while the globalization pulse remains strong, there have been important qualitative and quantitative shifts. The first is that the fundamental nature of the market has changed from positive-sum to something much closer to zero-sum. As I was writing Wine Wars the world wine market had just come to the end of an era of expanding global wine consumption. I am not sure any of us where really aware of this sea change at the time. It was easy to blame the down-tick in consumption on the global financial crisis. But the recovery up-tick didn’t follow.

As this OIV graph shows, in place of rising year-on-year global wine consumption, we  entered what I have called global wine’s lost decade. (The most recent OIV data, which will be released later today, show dramatic further consumption decline in 2019 and 2020.) Global wine consumption reached a high plateau and flat-lined. Demand bumped up and down a bit from year to year, but that rising trend line that was so powerful before had vanished.

This doesn’t mean that wine demand was flat everywhere, of course. Among the major markets, structural demand declines in the old world — Spain, France, and Italy — was offset by rising demand in some new world markets, especially China (from a low base) and the United States (slow growth, but still growth).  I profiled what were then the three most important wine markets in Wine Wars: the UK, Germany, and the United States. Today you would need to add China to that list. In Wine Wars I speculated about what the rise of China might mean and some readers wondered why I even asked the question. There are still plenty of questions about China and wine, especially since recently sharp declines in both production and consumption in China ,but no one seriously doubts its importance any more.

Caught in the Crossfire

Global wine has changed in another important respect. Globalization in pre-Wine Wars was all about expanding international trade. Free trade agreements were the order of the day and the more of them that a country could negotiate the better. Chile was a big winner in this competition and its wine industry benefited enormously from easy access to the most important markets.

Now wine is caught in the crossfire of tariffs and trade barriers. The U.S. has imposed tariffs on some European wines, for example, and China has raised  trade restrictions on wine from both the U.S. and Australia. U.S. wine sales in China were relatively small, so the economic loss was limited, but China was Australia’s #1 export market and the pain is hard to over-state. In the meantime, the British withdrawal from the European Union — a.k.a. “Brexit is Brexit” — has thrown sand in the wheels of what was once a very efficient set of trading arrangements.

What is interesting about the new political economy of wine tariffs and trade is that it isn’t really about wine at all. Wine is simply caught in the cross-fire in other disputes. Why pick on poor innocent wine? Probably because wine has a clear identity and national association. Sanctions on wine from a particular place send a clear message. And of course with so many wines available from other places, the harm to consumers who are willing to accept substitute products is pretty limited.

Globalization is built on many complex structures including especially global communications networks, so it is easy to forget about supply chains and logistics until they break down — and that’s the most recent challenge that wine and other global goods confront. Global supply chains have recently shown themselves to be less reliable and most costly than many supposed when plans were made just a few years ago. The benefits of global reach must always be weighed against the security of local linkages. How much this trade-off has changed and to what extent it will impact the global wine sector is still to be determined.

Wine and Commodification

Commodity wine is only one side of the industry, but it has been an area of growth in the decade since Wine Wars first appeared. One way to appreciate this is to look at wine branding trends. There are many different types of brands, of course. Champagne is a brand, for example, and the producers are diligent in protecting their brand’s intellectual property. More broadly, there are collective brands (appellations, AVAs, etc.) and private brands (Mouton Cadet, Barefoot, etc.). Brands are successful when they encourage demand by providing an indicator of consistent value and quality.

As the market has become more congested, brands have become more important and evolved in interesting ways. One of the most important trends, which Wine Wars anticipated, is the rise of private label wines (which some call “exclusive label” wines in a nice bit of marketing). The maker’s brand is generally replaced or supplanted by the seller’s brand.  British supermarkets like Tesco made private label wine an important category and now it is everywhere. Here in the U.S. Costco, Walmart, and Target have their own wine brands, for example. But the phenomenon isn’t limited to large-multiple sellers. The upscale supermarket down the street (which appeared prominently in Chapter 3 of Wine Wars) is part of a small local  chain (nothing like Kroger’s vast network), but it has its own private label Champagne.

As the wine market has stagnated over all in many regions, the demand for private label wine has grown. Buyers look for value, retailers see higher margins. Growers and producers get the business they need even if they don’t control branding.  Some of these wines are very high quality. Others, of course, are drawn from lots of generic bulk wine from sources that vary from year to year and lot to lot depending upon price among other factors.

Take It To the Limit

What happens if the trend towards generic wines is taken to its logical extreme? In Wine Wars I joked (sort of) that we’d be left with Bud Red and Bud White — a threat that is more potent today with wine-in-cans gaining popularity. But I could never have imagined that we’d be staring at the specter of hard seltzer!

Wine today competes for a share of the stagnant overall beverage alcohol market. That means the growth in total wine sales need to come from other alcohol categories. And the toughest competitor in this space — the one that has been eating market share for lunch — is hard seltzer, a.k.a. flavored alcoholic fizzy water. I may be wrong, but this seems to me to be the real least common denominator threat to the idea of wine that most readers of this page likely share. Yes, I know that we’ve always had products like wine coolers, which may have served as a first step on the wine ladder. But if hard seltzer is the first step, I’m not sure what the second step might be!

Ultimately Wine Wars counted on what I called “the revenge of the terroirists” to keep wine from jumping the branded goods shark. How has that worked out? Come back next week for my thoughts.