Game Over for the Wine Game?

What’s ahead for the wine industry in 2023 and beyond? Speaking at the “State of the Industry” session at last week’s Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento, I suggested that the challenges our bvindustry faces today are not unique to wine, so perhaps we can find clues by looking outside the wine box.

The particular case I examined in the short time available was the board game industry. Board games? Yes, you know, games like Risk, Life, and Clue. Once upon a time board games were so popular that they were part of the fabric of life. Then the board game industry was battered by forces that I think are analogous to some of the headwinds we in the wine industry have experienced.

Ready Player One

The story of the fall and rise of board games is interesting if we think about it in terms of similar patterns in the wine industry. Board games (and wine) suffered four big blows in recent years. First came in the form of demographic and socio-economic change. Generations shifted — the players got both older (aging Boomers) and younger (Gen X, Gen Z), too. The faces around the table were different and the opportunities to gather together were different. That vintage Life board game box shown above isn’t what life looks like today.

Then video games hit the scene. Video games were the “craft beer” of board game industry — a competitive product that was new and innovative. Innovation was the name of the game: there was always another video game to try. Board games (and wine) were not so innovative and suffered as players looked for the next big thing.

Next came smart phones, which were sort of the hard seltzer of the board game industry. You could play games on smart phones, of course, but the fact is that “gamification” became a general strategy, as app developers sought to keep users glued to their screens (and then to track their every move). Apps that had nothing to do with video games used “gamification” techniques. If you find yourself constantly checking smartphone apps, you may be playing a game without knowing it.

A lot of the time, if I’m honest, my smartphone is sort of like the TV series Seinfeld, “a show about nothing” that I watch again and again. That’s hard seltzer to me and products like hard seltzer had sort of the same impact on wine that the smart phone had on board games.

Finally the covid pandemic struck, which hit both board games and the wine industry hard. Gathering together for board game play or to share wine in social settings were both suddenly problematic. For wine, restaurant and tasting room sales channels dried up.

Game Over for Games?

The situation for board games looked particularly bad because, if you’ve followed the story so far, you can see that a whole generation has grown up in a different game environment than before. It was hard to believe that board games could ever stage a come back. Game over for them. But they did it! Board games are back! How?

A recent Washington Post article by Jacvlyn Peiser suggests that the board game renaissance is a combination of old and new. The old virtues of board games — the social and educational elements (which I talked about in more depth in my talk) — have not really changed, but are perhaps now a bit more precious to us because we had to live without them during the pandemic. And there is also a new side in that innovative game designers are finding new ways to connect with users and their interests and needs.

But it’s the classic appeal that is the foundation of the innovative surge. The Washington Post article concludes with a comment that board games endure because they get friends and family together to share experiences and make memories. What could be better?

Everything’s Better with Wine?

Well, of course, board games are better with wine (for those of legal drinking age). Wine and social gatherings are perfect parings. There are even board games for wine enthusiasts. Did you know that there is now a special Napa Valley Monopoly edition?

How realistic is the Napa Monopoly game, which is based on Napa Valley properties in the same way that the original game was modeled on Atlantic City, New Jersey?  I checked on Amazon and the classic Monopoly was selling for $11 while the Napa version was around $44. A four-times Napa premium seems pretty realistic to me, don’t you think?

Today’s gamers haven’t given up their screens, but they have rediscovered the pleasures of in-person interactions and board game sales have benefited. That’s a good thing.

Since I used board games as a way to think about wine, this was an optimistic result. Perhaps the virtues and pleasures of wine, which have sustained it as culture and industry for thousands of years, have not suddenly lost their value, either. Perhaps, as the clouds lift, wine’s classic appeal with become even more apparent.

The Game Endures

It seems to me that the wine industry, following the board game analogy,  needs to continue to innovate, to reach out to consumers with different interests and lower specific levels of commitment than before. But in doing that, it is important not to forget the values and virtues that have made wine an enduring part of life.

It is reported that Bernard Arnault, the head of LVMH and the current holder of the “World’s Richest Man”  title, once met with Steve Jobs, the visionary creator of the Apple electronics phenomenon. Do you think people will still be buying your iPhones in 30 years, Arnault asked Jobs. Don’t know, Jobs said honestly.

Do you think people will will still drink your Dom Perignon Champagne in 30 years, Jobs asked in reply? Yes, Arnault said confidently. The wine will endure. There will be Dom Perignon for generations. Jobs agreed. So do I.

We Are All Terroirists Now: A Tale of Three Distinctive Terroirs

There is a chapter in my new book Wine Wars II: The Global Battle for the Soul of Wine that’s titled “We are all terroirists now” and makes the case that the sense of place that I call terroirism is a powerful force in the world today.

All terroirists?   Really? Terroirists (not to be confused with terrorists)? Well, I admit it might be a bit of a stretch, but how often to do find Richard Nixon, Karl Polanyi, John Maynard Keynes, and Joseph Schumpeter all referenced in a wine book? You might disagree with where I take the argument and what I have to say about wine and terroir, but I guarantee you will find the ride interesting.,

This much I think we can all agree upon. Sometimes the power of terroir is undeniable. The sense of a particular place is so strong that special wines just have to be made to serve as both tribute and showcase. Herewith three nominees for terroirist tribute.

To the Heights

Artesa Elevation Block Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley

The Raventós Codorníu family, famous for their excellent Cava wines, came to California to make sparkling wines and Codorníu Napa, situated in the Los Careneros district, opened to much acclaim in 1991. But there was more than bubbles on their mind and a sister winery was born in 1998 to make still wines, too. Artesa is Catalan for “handcrafted” and that focus hands-on was the guiding principle.

When it came time to think about renewing the original vineyard plantings, focused attention was drawn to one particular vineyard high on the hill — so high that it had a complex terroir all its own. It was, in fact, so elevated that it was technically in the Mount Veeder AVA. Maybe the original Pinot and Chardonnay could be replaced with Cabernet to make a really special terroirist wine?

And so the project began, with careful attention to matching specific blocks to just the right Cabernet clones. Sue and I were lucky to be able to taste the result on a video link with winemaker Ana Diogo-Draper and we were just amazed by the layers of flavor and the super-long finish. Complex, balanced, lively — what a great wine — nothing at all like the generic “Napa Valley red wine” that I have often criticized.

Artesa’s elevated Cabernet makes the terroirist case in every way. And there is more to come. When they renewed the Elevation Vineyard they also planted Tempranillo! Can’t wait to taste that, too!

The Original

Bonterra The McNab, McNab Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2020, Mendicino Country

If you look closely at the label of this wine you will see a group of sheep. The McNab Ranch, an east-to-west box canyon up in Mendocino Country, was a sheep ranch before the folks at Bonterra looked closely at its vineyard potential. It became one of the original American biodynamic vineyards and helped propel both biodynamics and Bonterra ahead.

I hesitated a bit in pulling the cork on this wine because it is a 2020 — kinda young as with all three wines discussed here — and because it is one of the last wines to be made from the original McNab vines. It’s time to renew the vineyard, my Bonterra contacts report, and it will be interesting to see what the next generation of vines produces.

The guiding principles will be the same, I’m sure, but as in the Artesa case, this is an opportunity to exploit the complexities that nature presents. I hope we have a chance, in a few years, to taste this lively, complex, fascinating wine again alongside the next generation of Bonterra McNab Ranch wines.

In the meantime, however, this McNab is the OG — an original in several respects and a fascinating vision of terroirist wine.

Show Horse

Trothe Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Horse Heaven Hills

The Andrews family have been farming the land in the Horse Heaven Hills area of Washington state for four generations. First came drylands wheat then eventually other crops and then, back in the 1970s, the first grape vines. That’s a long time ago in Washington wine terms, and it perhaps suggests the sort of generational thinking that has guided the Andrews family operations.

The Andrews were growers not winemakers, so their grapes were blended together with other grapes and turned into the wines that powered the Washington industry grow over the last several decades. At some point, the current Andrews generation probably began to wonder how wine made from the best of their grapes would compare with top wines from Washington? California? the world? It’s a natural question to ask. Only one way to find out.

And so was born the Trothe project. Ray McKee, the former head red wine maker for Chateau Ste Michelle, was brought on board to craft the wines. He had been buying the Andrews’ fruit for years and appreciated the distinctive terroir and its potential. The current release is getting a lot of deserved attention and I understand there are more wines in the tiny pipeline. It will be interesting to see what comes next as the particular terroir of the Andrews estate is explored to make Trothe wines.

Wine Book Review: History on a Plate (and in a Glass?)

Andreas Viestad, Dinner in Rome: A History of the World in One Meal. Reaktion Books, 2022.

All roads lead to Rome, they say, so the idea of a history of the world centered in Rome is not ridiculous. And, for food writer and activist Andreas Viestad, all pathways in Rome lead to his favorite restaurant, La Carbonara, so it is the only logical place to begin.

When in Rome …

Viestad (a favorite in the Wine Economist household for his television series New Scandinavian Cooking), takes us through a meal at La Carbonara, reflecting upon the experience as the courses follow their traditional sequence.

Viestad’s stories are not as intentionally global as the “history of the world in one meal” subtitle might lead you to expect (note that this is “a” history, not “the” history). Instead he talks mainly about Rome and Romans, and then Italy and Italians, leaving it mainly to the reader to connect dots to the world-wide implications and insights.  It’s fun! You learn a lot reading this book. And you get hungry, too.

The chapters are organized around the familiar elements of the Italy meal. Bread, antipasto, oil, and salt. Pasta, pepper, meat, fire, and lemon. And wine, of course, because this is dinner and this is Italy, so of course there is wine.

The best thing I can imagine would be to share a table at La Carbonara with Viestad and work through the  phases of the meal with him, listening to the stories he tells. (There would be room for a guest — in the book he dines alone!) And then, stuffed with pleasure, we would take the stroll around Rome he describes in the final chapter, ending with a soothing/shocking scoop of intense lemon sorbetto (lemons being the last topic discussed).

Since this first-person experience is unlikely to take place, I guess the second best thing is to take up the opportunity to read this creative and interesting book.

The Problem with Wine

But there’s a problem. Taken as a food book or a history book or a cultural guide for anyone who loves Italy or Rome, it is hard to deny Dinner in Rome‘s charm. But from a wine perspective it is hard not to be disappointed.

This may be because, as I read other parts of the book, I was mentally writing the chapter I hoped Viestad would write about wine. That chapter, I thought, might mirror in some ways the chapter on pasta, which invokes the Italian idea of “the civilization of the table” that Viestad suggests might easily be confused with the idea of civilization itself.

Is there a civilization of the glass that we might raise up along with the civilization of the table? Some think so, I believe, and there is even an Italian journal devoted to the idea. It is called Civilta del Bere (the civilization of drinking). So, you see, I was thinking about a chapter that might stress the ways that wine brings people together and both shapes and reflects relationships, both at the table and in other ways.

While the chapter that Viestad writes addresses many aspects of wine, his main point is that wine is alcohol and the point of alcohol is inebriation much of the time. The idea that wine is just the local alcohol makes me sad, since I think wine has much more to offer than that, but it is a problem since there are many who have this view.  My latest book Wine Wars II finishes with a section on “Wine’s Triple Crisis,” which examines the wine = alcohol syndrome and concludes that it is a threat to the future of wine as we know it. If wine is just alcohol, who needs it? There are cheaper ways to get numb!

Civilization of the Glass

Would it be possible to write a history of the world that framed wine and the civilization of the glass in a different way? Yes, I know it is possible because it has already been done. Economist editor Tom Standage’s 2005 book A History of the World in 6 Glasses uses beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola to trace an outline of global history.

It is interesting that Standage and Viestad focus on the same places and periods when it comes to wine: ancient Greece and Rome. But Standage tells very different stories. The Greek symposium, which in Viestad is all about getting drunk, is for Standage all about philosophy and, if the alcoholic temptation of drink is there (and it is), it is a passion to be resisted and controlled — a process that we might call civilization.

As Greek trade took wine throughout the Mediterranean, Greek culture and civilization tagged along. The civilization of wine and civilization — hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Wine in Rome, in Standage’s telling, has many layers. Taste, class, power, and empire all appear. If wine were just its alcoholic component it would not have been so important. I guess I stand with Standage in my thinking about the civilization of the glass and I feel a little bit sorry for Viestad that he doesn’t find more interesting stories in his half-full glass.

Highly Recommended

I wonder — would it be possible to write a book that tried to tell a history of the world in one wineglass the way that Viestad has done with one meal? Yes, I think it might work, although you’d need to break things down a bit so that the grapes, glass, bottle, cork, and the forces that spread them around the world and then brought them all back together wineglass could tell their stories.

But deconstructing your glass of wine wouldn’t be enough, as Viestad demonstrates with his Roman dinner. You also have to consider the whole and its significance. The civilizations of the table … and the glass.

Dinner in Rome by Andreas Viestad is highly recommended. A fine addition to your food and wine bookshelf.

Wine Hits the Language Barrier

What do we talk about when we talk about wine? How does the way we talk about wine affect the way we think about it? Does the language of wine create a barrier to entry for consumers?

Last week’s Wine Economist focused on what we say about wine in terms of the information revealed on the label. The European Union is implemented new regulations that will require wine to be more like other consumer products with respect to ingredient lists and nutritional analysis.

Should the U.S. follow suit, either through regulation or via voluntary initiative? That’s a controversial question, for sure. Some worry that people will be less interested in wine if they know what’s really in the bottle. Others think it might work the other way.

Wine’s Language Barrier

But there is another concern that is in some ways even more basic — and might help account for the wine market malaise we all worry about. How does the way we talk about wine affect the way that we (and potential customers) think about it? This is the topic of a seminar that will take place in two weeks at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento. Meg Maker will moderate a panel that includes Miguel de Leon, Erica Duecy, and Alicia Towns Franken on the topic of A New Lexicon for Wine. Here’s an excerpt from the description of the panel on the Unified’s program.

The best way to get to know a wine is to taste it. Another way is to talk about it. The wine industry relies on the ability of wine communicators to persuade consumers to taste, but today’s wine lexicon falls far short of its objectives.

What’s the problem with the way we talk about wine? The panel prompt outlines the problem.

For starters the vocabulary is heavily Eurocentric, reliant on metaphor and analogy unfamiliar to swaths of global wine lovers and curious newcomers. It also tends toward absolute pronouncements: “this wine is this” versus “this wine feels like this.” Formal wine education reinforces these protocols, perpetuating them for new generations of wine pros. The ever-popular numeric score says precisely zero about a wine’s aesthetic impact—even though that’s sometimes all you see. The net effect is both intimidating and gatekeeping to new wine drinkers, alienating them at a time when the industry tries to address its shrinking footprint.

Mastering the Dialect

There are of course several language of wine, not just one, as there are in most industries. There is the “inside”  language we use when talking with on- and off-premise accounts about price points and marketability. Then there is the “outside” voice we use when speaking to consumers directly along with the different dialects necessary to connect with different types of consumers such as investors, collectors, or relative beginners. One size does not fit all when it comes to the language of wine.

Language can be a plus or a minus when it comes to opening doors to wine.  Ironically, wine is not a very transparent product from the consumer point of view. It is difficult to know if what’s inside the bottle will make you happy until you taste it. But the idea of buying and opening that opaque multi-serving bottle can be intimidating, especially when prices are high relative to income and to other options.

Economists call wine an “experience good” — you won’t know if you’ll like it until you try it — hence the importance of tastings and the focus on tasting notes to simulate the tasting experience. This is why it is important to think clearly about how and what tasting notes say. Many wine consumers, I believe, are really interested in how the wine will make them feel. There are both intellectual and emotional responses, to be sure, but feeling trumps thinking for some of the people all of the time and for all of the people some of the time, don’t you think?

Tasting vs Feeling

If you ask people why they like Champagne, for example, they almost always talk about the way it makes them feel, not the details of the way it tastes. I did a tasting with some university students a few years ago and it taught me a lot. Champagne (or sparkling  wine generally) was something they all were familiar with from various family celebrations.  They knew it, liked it, and had good memories associated with it. But when they followed the usual protocols of formal tasting, they were surprised. It didn’t necessarily taste the way it had made them feel. Do you know what I mean?

Tasting notes that list a dozen or sometimes more flavors and aromas, many of them quite esoteric and requiring practice or training to detect, are only really useful to a few specialized consumers, but they are the lingua franca of wine. For a lot of people the lingo-equivalent of an emoji — expressing an emotion or feeling — would be more useful. Subjective descriptions of personality may communicate better than lists of seemingly objective properties.

Wine experts are expected to  master all the details (as this very clever video from Richard Hemming illustrates). Many wine consumers are more interested the harmonious melody than the many notes.

The Humpty Dumpty Problem

Deconstructing wine into its components (flavors and aromas in most cases) reflects a more general trend of thinking of products in terms of their parts rather than the whole. Hence the focus on lists of ingredients and nutritional elements rather than the qualities of the food or beverage itself. I call it the Humpty Dumpty problem. If we insist on breaking product experience into pieces, we can’t be sure that customers Ieven with help from the King’s horses and men) can put them together again.

For wine, as for many other products, it is actually the balance of forces and they way the whole comes together that is the key feature. In Humpty Dumpty terms, consumers are interested in the egg and we keep talking about the pieces as if they are what matters.

Given wine’s intimidating language, it is perhaps no surprise that retailers have adopted a sort of least-common denominator approach to talking about wine. I’m thinking about the “shelf talkers” that hang below wines on store shelves. Shelf talkers come in many forms, but the most common are the simplest. Many supply an expert’s numerical score (JamesSuckling.com 93, for example) while others simply announce a discounted price.

Shelf-talker language may or may not be better than nothing, but its wide use perhaps reflects the inability to speak to consumers in other ways with any consistent success.

And the Solution Is …

Wine, by its very nature, can get lost in translation and there is no simple solution to this problem. But there are steps to take to lower the barriers for current and potential wine enthusiasts. The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium’s session mentioned at the top of this column is a worthwhile beginning. We in the industry need to think critically about the languages of wine and resolve to be more effective.

And I think it is useful to consider the challenge of talking about the emotional impact of wine. In this regard I am inspired by the haiku tasting notes written by W. Blake Gray.  I find that they make me stop, think, and try to imagine the wine.

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Can it be true that the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium is only two weeks away? Hope to see you all there. I will be moderating the annual  “State of the Industry” panel on the morning of Wednesday, January 25.

Wine Labels and their Discontents

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but people do exactly that all the time. You probably shouldn’t judge a wine by its label, either, but in fact labels can be quite powerful by making a favorable first impression and then, once that initial sale has been made, establishing a memorable identity.

Take a few minutes to examine the range of labels the next time you are at your favorite wine retailer. Note the ones that stand out and make a positive impact and those that seem to blend into the background.

My favorite is the label for Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley. John Williams was working at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars  when he and Larry Turley started making wine in a facility that once served as a frog farm supplying San Francisco restaurants. Frog’s Leap, which sort of combines Stag’s Leap and Frog Farm, was an unlikely name for a winery, but Chuck House’s famous label design makes an indelible impression, don’t  you think? And the elegance the label suggests reflects the elegance of the wine — a perfect match. A great wine label even if you don’t know the back story.

Brussels Rules the Back Label

A lot of time and money is spent getting the front label just right (imagine how many focus groups were consulted for the 19 Crimes label and associated marketing material!), but these days the real action in around back. Starting January 1 of this year the European Union is implementing regulations to require wine labels to display some basic nutritional information and allergy alert disclosures, plus a QR code linked to full nutritional and ingredient information. Consumers who want to know what’s in the bottle will have access to that information via their smart phones.

The wine industry has long resisted pressure to provide more information about what’s in the bottle. Here in the U.S., most of the information that wine producers are required to list on their labels is actually quite negative — alcoholic content, for example, a sulfite disclosure (a negative because most people don’t understand sulfites and therefore assume that it must be problematic), and a required government health warning.

This is not much information for the legions of consumers who study the nutritional labels of other kinds of products that they purchase. A skeptical person might assume that, if the things wineries do list are negative, the things they don’t list must be event worse. W. Blake Gray has recently argued that U.S. wineries should embrace more detailed product labeling if only because the real story about nutrition and ingredients is more positive than many consumers suppose. I think Blake is probably right.

For Better (or for Worse)?

One of the wine market niches that has been growing recently is the “better for you” category that pitches its wine as being healthier than other wine products because of what it doesn’t have — sulfites, sugar, higher alcohol levels, and so forth. Buyers must imagine that other wines are packed with chemicals and as sweet as Coca Cola, and perhaps some of them are.

Sue and I found ourselves testing wines from a Prosecco producer a few months ago and were struck by the careful positioning of two of their products. One was their standard Brut Prosecco, the other a special Zero Sugar wine clearly aimed at the “better for you” market. They were nice wines, to be sure, but you can probably guess what we found when we tracked down technical sheets. The residual sugar in the two wines was essentially the same — zero — as you would expect from wines fermented to complete dryness.

Clearly the wines were aimed at different consumer groups. But does the “better for you” brand make consumers think the rest are “worse for you?” Is there a better way to shape perceptions of mainstream wine?

Too Much Information

What would happen if a winery put complete product and nutritional information on the back label? Would consumers take one look at the calories and additives and run screaming to the beer aisle? Or would they take in the information (or not — the way they do with other types of products) and still make a purchase? Like Blake Gray, I think the information might be a plus, but at the very least it wouldn’t be much of the negative.

Why do I think this? Not because I have some special insight into consumer minds. It’s just that I have seen what has happened with Stella Rosa.

Stella Rosa is one of the fastest growing wine brands in the United States. The wines, imported from Italy, are sweetish low-alcohol products (like some of the traditional Moscato D’Asti). The alcohol is so low — as in the wine label shown here — that labeling must follow both TTB rules (sulfites, government warning, etc) and FDA rules (ingredients, nutritional info panel, etc).

This makes for a fact-filled back label, as you can see, especially when the producer also provides descriptive text (in both English and Italian), a sweetness scale (so that buyers looking for sweeter wines know what they are getting), and even a gluten-free tag. I don’t how many buyers read the label closely, but the information is there if you are interested.

Significantly, the story Stella’s back label tells is not a shocking one. The calorie and carb counts, for example, are less than for a serving of orange juice — a fact that the cautious buyer who studies this label is likely to appreciate. Sulphur dioxide is included in the list of ingredients, but labeled as an antioxidant. That takes a potential negative and gives it a positive spin.

Machiavelli’s Rule

Maybe the Stella Rosa label is a case of too much information, but it is where the regulatory road is taking wine, so you might want to give it some thought. American wine producers tend to resist calls to add information to labels, but maybe some advice from Machiavelli applies: it is better to do willingly what you will otherwise be compelled to do. And taking the initiative allows the opportunity to shape the result.

Yes, I know it is hard to change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fit it, the old saying goes. But, looking at wine sales trends, maybe the way we communicate wine is broke! More on this topic in next week’s Wine Economist newsletter.

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Speaking of bad wine labels … apparently Decanter magazine used to give awards for the worst wine labels and an Oregon winery had the distinction of winning the prize twice! Here is one of the winners (or losers, depending on your point of view), a Cabernet Sauvignon called “Chateau Mootom.” Mouton. Cows. Moo. Get it? Neither do I, but it made me smile.

Wine Economist 2022: What Were the Most-Read Stories of the Year?

2022 was a challenging year and it is understandable that many of us are focused on looking ahead to 2023. But before the bells of New Year ring, let’s take one last glance backwards to get a feeling for what Wine Economist readers were concerned about in 2022.

The table above lists the top ten posts and pages of the almost 900 articles on the Wine Economist website, ranked by number of views in 2022 through December 26. The articles marked with a blue bar were originally published this year. The rest are from the archives, which stretch back to 2007.  Aside from the home page and Mike Veseth’s profile, the most-read stories divide themselves into two groups.

The first are stories about powerful brands and what makes them so durable, with a focus on 19 Crimes, Mateus Rosé, and Blue Nun. What do these wines have in common? Not very much, except of course for the lessons to be learned from the success of their brands. Will we still be talking about 19 Crimes in 30 or 40 years? I guess we will  have to hang around and see!

The other major theme, no surprise given this newsletter’s focus, is the state of the global economy and its impact on the wine industry. Readers were worried about inflation, global trade, and wine industry consolidation. Will these concerns persist in 2023? Will new worries come to the fore? Or will good news stories dominate?

That’s all she wrote for 2022, Wine Economist fans. See you in 2023!

Flashback: The Scrooge Report on Holiday Wine Gifts

Here is a Flashback Wine Economist column, which was published ten years ago on December 24, 2012.  Much has changed, but this still seems relevant today. Cheers!

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No wonder economics is called the “dismal science” — sometimes our rigorous analysis threatens to spoil everyone’s fun.

Take holiday gift-giving, for example. The conventional wisdom is that “it is better to give than to receive” and while there is some merit in this if everyone gives (so that everyone receives), I think you can probably see the collective action problem here. Only an economist (or maybe an excitable child) would point out that, strictly from a material accumulation point of view, there are real advantages in being on the receiving end!

A Badly Flawed Process

But it gets worse because some economists suggest that it may be better not to bother with gifts at all. Don’t give gifts, give cash. Or, better yet, keep the cash and spend it on yourself. Gift-giving itself is a badly flawed process. This Scroogish sentiment is in part the result of Joel Waldfogel’s famous article on “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.” Waldfogel concluded that Christmas, for all its merriment, was actually welfare-reducing because recipients do not generally place a value on gifts that is as high as their cost. They end up receiving stuff they would never have purchased with their own money.

The cost of giving gifts exceeds the benefits, so gift giving is an economic drain. Dismal, huh?  Here’s how it works.

Your aunt paid $50 for the sweater that she gave you. How much would you have paid for it? $50? $45? $40? Well, the fact is that you had the option of buying it for $50 and didn’t, therefore you must not have valued it at the full amount. So its value to you is probably  less than what your aunt paid. But how much less?

Economists seem to agree that the best case scenario is that there is about a 10 percent average loss in gift-giving, which I call the “Santa Tax,” although the “yield” as reported by survey respondents varies a good deal. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend more than $550 billion on holiday gifts in 2012. If the deadweight loss rate is just 10 percent, that would be a $50+ billion Santa Tax this year. Yikes!

There are many problems with this way of calculating holiday giving gains and losses. It is pleasing to give gifts, of course, and this should be taken into account. But how much would you be willing to pay for the pleasure?  And would your pleasure have been less if you had just given cash? The efficiency loss might be less with a cash gift, but perhaps the pleasure of giving (and thus the incentive to give) would be diminished, too.

Santa Tax Wine Edition

Then we can argue about the size of the Santa Tax. Is 10 percent about right … or do you suspect (as I do) that it might be much higher, especially when you are buying gifts for people who are much older or younger or who have very different tastes or needs from your own? Have you ever received a gift that was 100 percent deadweight loss? If you are honest you probably have. But it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it? How big a Santa tax is too much?

Which brings us to the wine part of the problem. Doesn’t it seem like the Santa tax is probably even larger for wine gifts than for many other things? Most of us have experienced the deadweight loss when a bottle of wine that we’ve paid good money for doesn’t turn out to be worth what we’ve spent. So it is no surprise that the loss rate might be even worse when other people are doing the buying (and giving) for us.

Giving wine as a gift is risky (unless it is someone you know very well) because there are so many different choices and individual tastes differ so much. There are lots and lots of good wine  gift choices, of course, but it is easy to get caught in the Santa tax trap. I’m sure that a lot of holiday wine gifts miss the mark badly.

Maybe that’s why wine enthusiasts receive so many “wine gizmo” gifts instead of wine — but those gadgets are subject to the Santa Tax, too.  The New York Times‘s William Grimes recently complained about this problem.

Across the land, Christmas trees spread their fragrant branches over packages containing monogrammed Slankets, electric golf-ball polishers and toasters that emblazon bread slices with the logo of your favorite N.F.L. team.

But for some reason, the culture of wine and spirits provides especially fertile ground for misbegotten concepts like these. Year after year, it yields a bumper crop of inane but highly giftable innovations like wineglass holders that clip onto party plates, leather beer holsters and octobongs, the most efficient method yet devised for eight college students to consume a keg’s worth of beer simultaneously.

Tyler Colman, writing on his Dr Vino blog, singled out gifts of fancy automated corkscrews for particular criticism. You can probably think of some high Santa tax wine paraphernalia that you’ve either given or received yourself.

Beyond the Octobong: Wine Economist Gift Guide

OK, I suppose the octobong is out, but some of the wine gizmos that Grimes reviews in the article are sort of weirdly fascinating. I guess I can see why they are given as gifts (even though you might never spend your own money on them). So where does that leave us when it comes to wine gifts?

My first bit of advice is simple: don’t give a bottle of wine to friends or relations, share it with them. There is something about a shared experience that transcends a simple commodity transfer. (From a technical economics standpoint, I think sharing adds  some “public goods” elements to the deadweight loss equation that can cushion the Santa Tax loss). Trust me, from an economic theory standpoint, sharing is the way to go.

In fact the more I think about it the more I believe that sharing rather than giving is the key. Sharing a bottle of wine rather than just giving it may seem a bit selfish and is certainly more expensive (since time as well as money are involved) but sharing changes the game from transaction to relationship and this seems to me to be the essence of both the holidays themselves and wine, too.

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P.S. Since this Flashback report is filed under “Shameless Self-Promotion,” let me suggest that any (or maybe all) of my wine books make great gifts. Share them with friends and family and then gather over glasses of wine to talk about what you have learned.

Unexpected Pleasures: Pink Sparkling Wines for the Holidays

The winter holidays are a great time for wine lovers — food, fun, friends, and family. Just add wine and stir!  What could be better? But, as I wrote last year, it is possible to over-think holiday wine and, if not ruin the fun, at least not get the most from the season’s opportunities.

Sometimes it is best to start down a promising path and let fortune be your guide. That’s what Sue and I did over the recent Thanksgiving holiday and I thought I would share our story with you here.

All in the Family: Champagne Mangin

The question of what wine to have with our Thanksgiving feast was solved when our friend Philippe Jeanty introduced us to Champagne Mangin et Fils, wines made by his nephew Cedric Mangin and now imported by Jack Edwards Collection.  Jeanty is a famous chef and we knew that if his nephew’s wines were as distinctive and delicious as the cuisine at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, our little celebration would be in good hands.

Well, the wines are distinctive. The first thing that got our attention was the fact that all four Mangin wines (Brut, Brut nature, Rosé, and Millésime) are made from 100% Pinot Meunier, something I can’t remember seeing very often before. Pinot Meunier is like the bass player in a jazz trio — holding everything together in the background while the other musicians (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) take the spotlight. But under the right circumstances (think Charles Mingus), Pinot Meunier can really swing.

You will occasionally find Pinot Meunier still wines and they are worth seeking out — our cellar holds examples from Graziano in Mendocino County and The Eyrie in the Williamette Valley. Jason Lett, who made The Eyrie wine, says that Pinot Meunier is like a crazy uncle — you never know for sure what he is going to do! I also remember sampling a still Pinot Meunier from barrel with Joel Burt at Domain Chandon in Yountville (which some of you will recognize as another Jeanty connection).

So the Champagne Mangin wines are distinctive, but which one should we choose? Well, we didn’t over-think the question this time. The Brut Rosé is such a beautiful color, we just had to pop the cork! And we were not disappointed. From first sip to last, with food and without, it was amazing, both on the nose and in the mouth. What a great way to begin the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend. It would be impossible to top the Brut Rosé, but perhaps we could try something equally unexpected?

North and South

And so, on the second night of Thanksgiving we tried a variation on the pink bubble theme and opened a bottle of Valdo Floral label Rosé Brut. Valdo Spumante, based in Valdobbiadene and imported by Taub Family Selections, is a well-known Prosecco producer, but this isn’t a Prosecco wine. Prosecco is made from the Glera grape and Prosecco Rosé adds Pinot Noir for color.

The Valdo Floral label wine, however, is a blend of 25% Glera with 75% Nerello Mascalese, a red grape usually associated with Sicily. Blending wine from north and south to make a pink spumante — what a totally crazy idea? How in the world would someone ever think of doing that?

But, well, it really works. The wine was pretty and delicious. Not floral, we thought (that’s the label, not the wine) but sparkling and flavorful. More than up to the job. A real surprise (or, to me honest — another surprise coming right after the Champagne Mangin).

Raboso Rules

Things were going rather well, so we decided to continue down the path of sparkling, pink wines with an unexpected twist. This led us to “Il Rosa” Spumante Brut from Sommariva, a Prosecco producer in Conegliano (imported by Kermit Lynch).

The wine was delicious and showed clearly that light color doesn’t mean light aroma and flavor. What’s the twist? Well, this is a Rosé from the land of Prosecco, but it isn’t a Prosecco Rosé because it is made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Raboso grape wine. Raboso?

Raboso Veronese and Raboso Piave are red wine grape varieties that, according to Wine Grapes, make tough, tannic still wines, but are also useful in sparkling wines.  Tough on its own, but potentially delicate in the right blend (and in the right hands, I suspect).

I was introduced to Raboso over dinner in Conegliano a few years ago. It was before Prosecco Rosé DOC was approved. The wine was a blend of Glera and Raboso and it was delicious — a great introduction to the grape. I fully expected the pink DOC blend, when it was approved, would include Raboso, but Pinot Noir was the choice.

So this blend of Pinot Noir and Raboso was doubly unexpected, and it was another great experience, bringing our Thanksgiving celebration to a successful conclusion.

I asked Sue to compare the wines and she said she liked them all — each was surprising in its own way and delivered in terms of aroma and flavor. But the Champagne Mangin was her favorite. Maybe it was the color or perhaps the exotic aromas. Something very special.

Where will this road lead us next? Well, we have many paths to explore, including other wines by these producers (especially hard to resist the temptation to pop the corks of the other Champagne Magnin wines). The holiday wine experience has been great so far this year. We resolve not to over-think our next step as we move closer to the new year!

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Special thanks to Philippe Jeanty for introducing us to his nephew’s wonderful wines. Cheers!

Where? What? Why? Interrogating Lugana DOC

The Consorzio Tutela Lugana DOC launched a major effort this fall to raise their region’s profile among consumers here in the United States. It’s a big job — Lugana’s name is not familiar to many fans of Italian white wines here in America.

Some consumers may think first of Logano not Lugana  — as in NASCAR star Joey Logano! And the market for both Italian wines and wines in general is crowded. It’s a tough market to break into.

But Lugana’s initiative is worthwhile. The wines that we have tasted so far are excellent quality, well-priced for today’s market, and have much to offer curious wine enthusiasts. Lots to talk about. But first we need to address some questions: Where? What? Why?

Where is Lugana DOC?

The Lugana DOC zone is anchored by beautiful Lake Garda in north-central Italy — a very good thing since grape vines are known to like to look at water and the lake influence is beneficial in many ways.

The eastern part of the zone is in the Veneto region, which is one reason Lugana wines are easy to find in Verona’s cafes and restaurants. If you had a nice glass of white wine at a bar in Verona it was probably Lugana, I’m told. The larger western part is in Lombardy. The DOC is diverse not just in terms of local political borders but also in terms of geography and micro-climates. Lugana has a whole lot going on!

What are the wines’ grape varieties?

Lugana DOC wines are made from the Turbiana grape variety, which is a name you might not have seen before. Turbiana, according to Ian D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, is a variant of Trebbiano di Soave, which is the source of Verdicchio, the famous white grape of Marche and — again according to D’Agata — Italy’s finest native white grape variety. Noble heritage indeed!

The thing about Turbiana/Trebbiano/Verdicchio, D’Agata says, is that it adapts so well to its specific growing conditions and, while the grape vine DNA suggests a strong linkage, the wines themselves can take on many different profiles.

Why are the wines special?

All of which helps explain why the Lugana DOC wines are worth a second look. Depending upon where the vines are planted in terms of soil types and especially elevation and distance from the lake, the resulting wines can take on many different personalities although, as Sue notes, they share a strong family resemblance.

We learned a lot about the factors that shape Lugana DOC from an unusually well-organized and informative webinar for the U.S. market, which was hosted by Alessandro Torcoli, direttore of the Italian wine journal Civiltà del bere. Each producer was given a few minutes to explain what made their wine special — what gave it the specific character found in the glass. It was sort of a pointilist experience because, taken all together, the different specific elements painted an attractive picture of the whole — of Lugana DOC.

What makes Lugana interesting to us, having learned a bit about it and tasted several wines, are its many faces. The wines are different depending upon distance from the lake, for example, and elevation, both of which are associated with differences in soil profile among other things. Some Lugana wines are made from a single vineyard, but many are blends that seek a balance of opposing forces. The Lugana Riserva wines are aged, some in tanks others in wood of various sorts, often with extended time on the lees.

Variations on a Theme

We enlisted Wine Economist Research Assistants Bonnie and Richard to help us understand the Lugana wines tasted on their own and with food (Italian meats and cheeses along with Sue’s famous minestrone soup) and the results were quite interesting. We tasted three wines and each told part of the story.

The Pilandro, which was Sue’s favorite, is a classic representation of Lugana DOC, blending wine made from grapes from two distinctly different vineyard sitess. The wine spent 6 months ofnthe lees in steel tanks. It was complex with nice minerality — a great start to our tasting program

The Pasini San Giovani is also a two-vineyard blend — one very close to the lake and the other about 7 km away. It was a balance of power and freshness that we really enjoyed.

The Selva Sapuzzo is a different idea of Lugana — a Riserva from the 2018 vintage, it is built to age, the grapes were sourced from the oldest vines on the estate. The wine spent three years on lees in stainless tanks. This wine gives real meaning to the idea of a riserva.

We had another Lugana Riserva last night — a 2018 from Tenuta Roveglia — and were struck by its refinement and the subtle notes of hazelnut on the finish. So interesting … and great with the dinner we prepared. Lugana wasn’t on our radar at all before we started this project and now we can’t wait to pull each new cork. It makes we wonder — what else are we missing? Wine in general and Italian wine in particular has so much to discover.

We are still working our way through our selection of Lugana wines. They remind me of a vinous version of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini.   There is a lot here to explore. I hope the Lugana DOC producers are successful in their quest to introduce American consumers to these delightful wines.

Portuguese Native Wine Grapes and the New Age of Discovery

One of the wonderful things about wine is its ability to surprise and delight — there are always new wines made with unusual wine grapes and from unexpected places to enjoy. A person who is bored with wine, given this great discovery potential, is bored with life!

Portuguese explorers were at the forefront of the “Age of Discovery” that opened the world to economic and cultural exchange. Portugal’s impact on global trade was astonishing considering that it is and was a relatively small country hanging on Europe’s western-most edge.

Now I propose a reverse movement with respect to Portuguese wine and its native grape varieties. The New Age of Discovery, as I call it, calls for wine enthusiasts to take deep dives into Portugal’s many wine regions and especially to explore native wine grape varieties with unfamiliar names but intriguing flavors and unlimited potential.

Discovering Portugal Wine Diversity

Maybe that’s why Italian wines frequently appear on The Wine Economist page (although this is a global wine blog, for example, it was recently named one of the 40 best Italian wine blogs and pages). The wine map of Italy is a colorful mosaic that invites close inspection. But Italy is not alone is this regard. It is time to explore in more depth the diversity that Portugal offers.

Vini Portugal sent us three wines selected to illustrate three sides of Portuguese wine diversity. The Villa Alvor Singular Moscatel-Galego-Roxo 2020, for example, comes from the Algarve region, which is better known for sunny beaches than lush grapevines.  The Antonio Maçanita Tinta Carvalha 2020, an Alentejo wine, is made from grape varieties now quite rare, but that once dominated the region. This wine brings them back from near-extinction. Finally, the Esporão Reserva Tinto 2019 is an interesting hybrid from a famous Alentejo producer, blending indigenous grapes with international varieties such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. It tells the story of the winery and the region, too.

Unexpected Field Blend

Knowing of our interest in native grape varieties, António Graça, the head of Research and Development at Sogrape Vinhos, arranged for us to receive examples of Casa Ferreirinha Castas Escondidas, a field blend from an old vineyard at Quinta do Seixo in the Douro.

The grape varieties include such unfamiliar names as Touriga-Fêmea, Tinta Francisca, Bastardo and Marufo, which are sometimes included in Port wine blends, but rarely make themselves known in unfortified wines. Tinta Amarela, Tinto Cão, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa and vinha velha are also part of this unique blend.

Now it would be easy to dismiss a wine like this as a “kitchen sink” product made up of odds and ends, but that is clearly not the case here as you will know immediately when you taste it. It is really true that what grows together often goes together, and the combination of these wine grapes in the talented hands of Sogrape Douro winemaker Luís Sottomayor results in a distinct and delicious statement of terroir. We found the wine to be complex, balanced, and elegant with a finish that went on and on. An experience as much as a wine. Fantastic.

Quiet! Old Vines at Work

António writes that, “We have been surveying our old vineyards and inventoried all varieties present in that vineyard, plant by plant in an effort to identify the patterns of the historical field blend. This wine is the result of the knowledge we gained from that work which we extended now to other old vineyards we own in order to gain knowledge that will assist us in adapting to a warmer climate in an already warm region.”

“This has led us to develop new vines and wines using blends or single variety wines made from minority varieties, some representing less than 50 hectares as total planted acreage today. The revelation of their sensory aspects has been very reassuring. Examples are Touriga Femea (literally «female Touriga»), Tinta Francisca in the Douro, Sercialinho in Bairrada or Encruzado and Alfrocheiro in Dao.”

Portuguese winemakers have a lot of material to work with in this new age of discovery. The official wine grape registry lists 343 native varieties so far — incredible diversity for a relatively small region.

An Age for Discovery

When I first visited Portugal and began tasting wines made from the native grape varieties, I saw the unfamiliar names as an obstacle to their success on the global market. It made sense to me, I wrote, to market the wines under proprietary brands or in blends with familiar international grape varieties in order to avoid erecting another barrier to entry for consumers new to the country’s wines.

But things have changed and my opinion has changed with them. The world is re-discovering Portugal as a place to visit or live along with its history, cuisine, and of course its wine. It is the new Age of Discovery and my, but there is a lot to discover in Portuguese wine.