One of the last in-person wine events we attended before the coronavirus pandemic put most such activities on hold was a symposium on the wines of Italy, which I wrote about on The Wine Economist. One particularly memorable session was sponsored by the Vino Nobile de Montepulciano consorzio, which was hoping to draw attention to the region and its wines.
Chianti’s Deep Shadow
It is easy for a wine region — even a very important one like Vino Nobile — to get lost amongst famous names from across Italy and around the world. As I wrote back in 2019 …
Italy is a complex mosaic of wine regions, styles, and brands. … The big regions crowd out the smaller ones on store shelves. This is the challenge facing Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, for example. Vino Nobile is a small and distinctive appellation located about 65 km south-east of Siena. The four wines we tasted at the seminar were terrific and made me think about this region as a sort of Tuscan Stags Leap District — one of my favorite U.S. wine appellations.
But excellent wines are not necessarily enough when you need to compete with famous Chianti Classico. You need to get glasses in consumer hands and give the wine and region a distinct identity. Tourism (and not simply wine tourism) is one way to do this. Come for the history, food, and culture and learn about the wonderful wines. This seems to be part of Vino Nobile’s strategy to get out from under the shadow of its more famous neighbor and to tell a distinctive story about the region and the wines.
Hand-selling wines like Vino Nobile has been nearly impossible in the traditional sense during the pandemic, but Avignonesi, a historic Vino Nobile producer, took matters in their own hands and, with our permission, sent us samples of their wines and invited us to look more closely at what they are doing. The result was quite revealing.
Old But Not Stale
Avignonesi and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are old names, but there doesn’t seem to be anything stale about them. Indeed, dynamic is the world that comes to mind.
Biodynamic, in fact. Virginie Saverys, a successful Belgian attorney and passionate wine lover, acquired Avignonesi in 2009 and set about expanding the vineyards and converting them to biodynamics. Avignonesi is now the largest biodynamic producer in Italy. The public face of the winey in terms of its hospitality programs was upgraded as well. I hope we can visit one day to sample the wines and experiences in person. Even at this distance, however, it is hard not to be impressed with what’s been done in just a little over a decade.
The Avignonesi wines themselves do nothing to diminish the positive impression. When a package with six small sample bottles arrived we looked for an opportunity to taste through the wines with friends who share our Vino Nobile focus. When we finally found the right date we sampled the wines from a Vashon Island deck overlooking Puget Sound with a pair of bald eagles soaring above. Not Italy, but still not the worst tasting room, do you think?
The Rosso was a bright wine, fruity with nice acidity. An excellent opening act. The Vino Nobile DOCG was stunning — a terrific wine with a long complex finish. The Poggetto di Sopra was even more distinctive — truly memorable. It is the result of a project involving Avignonesi and five other Nobile producers. Each made a particular wine meant to highlight the specific qualities of the terroir. The label (see above) shows the particular vineyard blocks that produced this wine.
Taken together the three traditional wines show what is possible in Vino Nobile and make a strong case for the region even in the context of its more famous neighbors. Bravo!
But there was more. Our second flight was devoted to three of Avignonesi’s IGT wines. IGT and similar wines are increasingly important in Italy and elsewhere in Europe as winemakers seek to make distinctive wines that display both their art and their craft, but don’t follow the strict appellation script.
The first IGT wine was called Da-Di — a 100% Sangiovese vinified in terracotta vessels that were made in Tuscany from clay like the soils where the grapes were grown. No oak. No stainless steel. This was a wild wine, full of fruit and acidity, alive in the mouth. Unique. Wow. I sure didn’t see this coming.
Next came Desiderio Merlot Toscana. Merlot vines love the clay and have been grown in parts of Italy so long that locals think of it as almost a native grape. This was an intense experience from start to finish and I think it was Sue’s favorite wine of the tasting. Unexpected.
Our final IGT wine was the Grifi Toscana, a “super Tuscan” blend of just about equal amounts of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. It lived up to the “super” moniker, intense, dynamic, with the long finish that characterized all the wines.
So what are the take-aways from our experience with the Avignonesi wines? First, the quality of the IGT wines makes me even more enthusiastic about the creative potential for wines like this in Italy. Second, the stunning DOCG wines reminded me of how good traditional wines from this region can be in the right hands. Sometimes I think consumers take these wines for granted or, as noted above, mistakenly passing them by in favor of more famous appellations.
The final take-away is this. Tasting these samples was a treat. But we can’t wait until we can resume our travels and taste the wines and meet the producers in person. Soon, we hope!
It’s really not that easy being green if you are a winegrower or wine maker. For a long time green wines (organic, biodynamic, sustainable and so forth) were not a very dynamic category here in the U.S. You could find them, but they were tucked away in what I call the “green ghetto” neighborhood at the supermarket, close by de-alcoholized wines, half-bottles, and other sometimes slow-selling SKUs.
Some research actually suggested that consumers were not only unwilling to pay more for organic wines, as they often do with other organic products. They actually valued them less than other wines. So many people who made organic or biodynamic wines didn’t go out of their way to advertise the fact. Much different from Europe, where “bio” wines are a strong category.
This is changing and I expect to see green wine sales grow, albeit from its current small base. The dynamic is driven by both supply and demand. On the supply side, more and more wine grape growers and producers simply want to be green — they see it as the best way to do business, especially in the long run — and want to advertise that fact and develop the market category.
Jean-Guillaume Prats, chief of the wine group at LVMH, goes further. He told the Wine Vision 2014 audience that in considering vineyard investments, if you can’t grow the grapes organically, maybe you shouldn’t grow them at all! He’s obviously focused on the luxury wine segment, but the message resonates in other parts of the market.
On the demand side I see green wines as part of a bigger movement. A friend pointed out to me that consumers who shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other upscale supermarkets simply expect that the products they find there will be organic — and are turned off if they are not. They look for organic certification everywhere else in the store. Why should wine be any different?
So things are changing, although it may take a while for the build-up of small ripples and waves to come crashing to shore. I think this is a good time to rethink green wines and the two books reviewed in this column are excellent places to begin.
Green Wine Primer
Britt and Per Karlsson write about wine from their base in Sweden and this book, which first appeared in Swedish in 2012, is a welcome green wine primer. Its scope is broad, including organic, biodynamic, sustainable and natural viticulture and winemaking. The Karlssons provide good depth and detail, covering the science, economics and regulatory politics of green wine today. Theory and practice, just what you need.
I was especially interested in the curious politics of EU organic wine regulations. Because of the desire to have one set of rules for everyone from Greece to Latvia, the compromise results can seem illogical. The limits on copper use, for example, seem driven by the need to accommodate Burgundy in a particularly bad year and so are out of balance for other parts of the EU. A regional approach would seem to make better sense here as in many other instances, but I think some of the Eurocrats are suspicious of regionalism, so illogical compromise rules.
Although there is more detail about European practices and regulations than New World activities, I found plenty to work with and the contrast of regimes helped me understand them all much better.
The book is clearly written and organized and lavishly illustrated with color photos that are both beautiful and informative. I learned something new in every chapter, but I was especially interested in the biodynamics section. The combination of thorough research and personal interviews with growers and winemakers made this material come alive for me.
Sometimes the smallest points are the most satisfying, so I was pleased to learn the origin of the numbers that are used to identify the biodynamic preparations. These preparations often raise eyebrows because they seem to represent the “voodoo” side of biodynamics — manure stuffed in cow horns, buried in the vineyard and then made into a tea to spray on the vines, for example. Why are they identified with numbers not names? Numerology?
No, it’s more about politics. The numbers (cow horn manure is Preparation 500) may have come about when the Nazis in Germany banned biodynamic agriculture, the Karlssons report. Proponents learned to speak in a numbers code to avoid detection. Who would have guessed?
The Karlssons present all this information objectively and openly question some of the most extreme claims of green wine proponents, but I don’t think you write a book like this unless you think there is something in the concept itself. In this regard I think they reflect both the times, which as I noted before now seems to favor organic products, and their location (Scandinavia is a good market for green wines).
This is a fine book and worth your attention.
Green Isn’t Easy at All
It really isn’t easy being green — not easy at all — and as much as the Karlssons give a strong sense of this in their survey, there is really nothing like a report from the front lines of the battle. John Kiger and his wife Deb own and operate Kiger Family Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, which is not a region where nature cuts the green winegrower any slack. Just the opposite in fact. At times it seems like being natural is a battle against nature itself.
Kiger’s book makes a nice pairing with the Karlssons’ because it is at once so similar in topic and yet so different in approach. Kiger’s book is clearly personal, for example. The author presents a first person account of the triumphs, failures and struggles. The book has heroes (including the Kigers and their allies) and villains, too, chief among them is oidium or powdery mildew, which is a threat to vineyards everywhere and perhaps especially in cool-climate Sonoma Valley.
Kiger becomes obsessed with powdery mildew, by his own account, and so we learn a great deal about it. This intense focus is very helpful because an organic wine farmer necessarily becomes obsessed with all the harmful fungi and harmful insets and so forth and is driven to find natural ways to combat them.
The book’s first chapter is titled “If I’d Only Known Then What I Know Now,” which tells you that it really hasn’t been easy being green, and the last chapter is called “Truce.” which might suggest that the Kigers have come to terms with nature’s many sides. But I think it is really that they have accepted that each new year starts a new cycle of natural challenges like powdery mildew and that this struggle has value in itself in addition to the grapes and wine that are produced.
These two books make a nice pairing for your wine economics bookshelf. File them alongside Caro Feely’s books on her struggles with organic and then biodynamic winegrowing in France. Follow this link to read my review of Feely’s books. Cheers to everyone who struggles to be green — we know it’s not easy!
Here’s the obvious music for this column and the lyrics sort of apply to the green wine case, don’t you think?
Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW, Authentic Wine: toward natural and sustainable winemaking. University of California Press, 2011.
“The wine industry is at a crossroads,” write Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop in the concluding chapter of their fine new book, Authentic Wine. “Wine is a wonderful natural, authentic product. Do we emphasize this naturalness, celebrate the diversity of wine, and put our house in order by steering away from unneeded additions and manipulations? Or do we allow wine to become simply another manufactured beverage whose flavours are manipulated to match perceived consumer preferences?”
Thus do Goode and Harrop state what I have come to call the Terroirist Manifesto. It is pretty clear, when you put it this way, that our only choice is to take up arms in defense of natural, authentic wine. Going down the other road is unthinkable (and perhaps undrinkable).
Terroirist Sympathies Disclosed
Let me say up front that I am very sympathetic to the Terroirist Manifesto. Indeed, I argue in Wine Wars that “the revenge of the terroirists” is a necessary feature of the future of wine. We need terroirists to keep us (and our wine) honest.
But does it boil down to a simple choice — this way or that way? Despite my stated sympathies, I say no. Wine is not a single thing, it is many things and I think it that monolithic thinking is the wrong approach. Wine travels many roads and I don’t really see the harm if some wines are industrialized so long as that doesn’t stop other wines from taking a more arts and crafts approach. It is up to us, the consumers, to understand the difference so that the wines of the type that Goode and Harrop champion will endure and prosper.
So it would seem that I disagree with the authors, but that’s not really true. What makes this a really interesting book (and one that I recommend enthusiastically) is that Goode and Harrop argue strongly for the principle of authentic wine and then carefully instruct on the practical matter of how to get there, focusing on choices in the vineyard, the cellar and the marketplace and taking account the real world differences between high volume commercial products and small lot craft wines.
In other words, I think Goode and Harrop are really telling winemakers that they don’t have to make a big choice — wine is not really at a crossroads — because there are practical sensible ways to achieve their goals without debasing the idea of wine as a unique element of society. The key is keep the idea of authenticity in the forefront.
Natural versus Authentic Wine
So what is authentic wine? Well, even after reading the book I don’t think I can give you a precise definition. This may be by design. Apparently Goode and Harrop originally wanted to title their book Natural Wine, but then the “natural wine” movement appeared, advocating extremely limited intervention in wine making. Although its advocates argue that this is the only way to make “real wines” (remember the English “real ale” movement of a few years ago), others say that it is just a fad or an excuse for the flawed wines that result from this extreme approach.
Goode and Harrop were probably wise to duck this controversy. Although their goals may align pretty well with those of the most vocal natural wine advocates, their strategies and tactics do not. They are far too practical (a good thing in my book) and understand that no one is going to risk making a million gallons on flawed wine because they are wedded to the most extreme versions of the natural wine principle.
Goode’s fingerprints are readily recognized on many pages. A scientist, he is also author of The Science of Wine, a book that I have read from cover to cover twice and consult very frequently. The combination of emotional manifesto and reasoned analysis works very well.
So what do the authors think of biodynamic wine (the topic of last week’s post)? Biodynamics is an interesting test — a sort of enological shibboleth. You would think that biodynamics would be the ultimate natural wine, but the question is more complicated in practice. Although biodynamic wine is pretty consistent with natural wine practices in the vineyard, I think biodynamic rules actually allow some winemaking practices (sulfites, for example) that the “natural wine” proponents forbid. So biodynamic wine may be authentic, but not natural. Very strange.
Goode and Harrop devote an entire chapter to biodynamic viticulture and they offer a very readable summary of the limited academic literature on the subject. The bottom line: there doesn’t seem to be any objective evidence that biodynamics has positive effects that go beyond those available through standard organic viticulture. The cosmic “voodoo” elements may be just that and, the authors warn, they may even have negative impacts to the extent that they divert the focus from organic practices.
So biodynamics is a hoax? Well, not so fast, the authors say. The limits of the test studies are examined, as they should be, and then the chapter finishes with a set of profiles of winemakers around the world and their biodynamic biographies (this, interestingly, a thumbnail version of the approach Katherine Cole takes in her book about biodynamics in Oregon, Voodoo Vintners). Maybe it really is doodoo voodoo yoga (as I reported in my last post) after all!
Goode and Harrop can’t prove that biodynamics works, but they don’t want to dismiss it. They are sympathetic (as am I) perhaps for philosophic reasons or perhaps it is political — every movement needs a few fundamentalists to keep the party line from straying too far.
Authentic Wine: A Fork in the Road?
At the end of the day it is pretty hard to argue with the idea of Authentic Wine as presented here. This is partly because Goode and Harrop make such a strong case, but it is also because in “authentic wine” they have created a flexible concept that is narrow when they want it to be and loose when that’s what’s needed — along with a map for consumers and producers to follow so they can enjoy the benefits of authenticity without tears or fears.
Go to the fork in the road … and take it! I think it’s a step in the right direction.
In case it isn’t clear above, I recommend Authentic Wine enthusiastically. I read it in the galley stage and wrote a “blurb” that you’ll find on the back cover. I saw one critic refer to this as an “academic book” and I suppose it is — it’s published by the University of California Press. But that doesn’t mean that it is tedious and full of charts and graphs. It is actually full of people, which is a great way to tell a story. It is a serious book, but you wouldn’t be reading The Wine Economist if you didn’t already have a serious interest in wine.
Regular readers of The Wine Economist know that I get a lot of insights from my students and former students. Marina Balleria, one of my current students at the University of Puget Sound, studied in Chile in Fall 2010 and, knowing of her interest in wine and society, I invited her to write an essay for publication on The Wine Economist website.
Her article is inspired by a visit to a biodynamic winery, but Marina uses it as a springboard to comment on broader social issues. Use a wineglass as a lens to view society? Where could she get an idea like that? You can read her article, which I’ve titled “Biodynamic Wine in Chile: Who Benefits?” by scrolling to the bottom of this post.
Marina’s essay raises a number of important questions about the nature of Chile’s economic development. I’d like to use this post to address two different but related issues.
Good and Cheap: A Vicious Cycle?
The first concerns Chile’s continuing difficulty breaking out of the bargain basement of the world wine market. Chile has long been know as a country where “Prices are very low and quality is very high — the ideal arrangement from everyone’s point of view except the Chilean farmer,” according to Hugh Johnson writing 40 years ago in an early edition of his book, Wine. I think he might say the same thing about Chilean wine today.
Chile has long been cursed with a reputation for bargain wines and pressures to keep export prices low have continued and intensified even as the average quality has soared even higher. A good deal, as Johnson noted … for everyone else! No wonder Chileans are willing to try new things, as Marina notes in her essay, since old things seem part of an endless cycle.
Organic and biodynamic wines are a rather natural thing to try. Having escaped the curse of phylloxeria, Chile can grow wine grapes on their own rootstocks. Combine this with chemical free viticultural techniques and gentle cellar practices and there is an opportunity for a nearly unique product in the world of wine. You can’t blame the Chileans for thinking that perhaps this is a way to escape the bargain basement trap!
The question is, are wine consumers willing to pay more for these wines? Or will they see them as just Chilean wines — very good, but no need to pay a premium for them? That’s the first big question.
Biodynamics: Voo-Doo Viticulture?
Marina’s essay also raises questions about biodynamic viticulture. Biodynamics is one of the most controversial topics in wine these days and you can see why people would be skeptical that it is only a gimmick. We live in an age of science and technology and the processes of biodynamic viticulture have a medieval feel — more like alchemy than rocket science. And the results are qualitative, which is inconvenient in a quantitative age. Voo-doo viticulture? You be the judge.
And yet I know a number of very hard-headed wine makers who have embraced biodynamics, some openly and others on the sly. Caution is warranted because consumer reaction to biodynamics is still unclear. Many wine enthusiasts still don’t know what it is and some seem to have it backwards — associatiing biodynamics with GMO vines — Franken-wines!
Not Mr. Know-It-All
I admit that I am cautious about embracing biodynamics, but I try to have an open mind. It is easy to believe that we know everything there is to know about growing grapes and making wine. After all, how difficult can it be?
We have centuries of experience and tons of scientific research. If biodynamics really worked, doesn’t it make sense that we would know it by now, have irrefutable proof and everyone would be doing it? If it isn’t a proven process by now it must be hokem.
And then I remember malolactic fermentation.
Winemakers observed the process of malolactic fermentation for centuries without understanding it. The actual scientific process is a relatively recent discovery. Before Emile Peynaud figured it out back in the 1950s and 60s, malo was kind of a voo-doo dance in the wine barrel. “Malolatic fermentation happens in the wine in the spring by sympathy with the sap rising in the vines” — that was the pre-Peynaud view according to Benjamin Lewin’s book, Wine Myths & Realities. It took several decades to tease out out what was really going on in the post-alcoholic fermentation juice and I think winemakers are still experimenting to discover the when, where, how and why of controlling it.
So I’m just saying that if it took so long to really understand malolactic fermentation, maybe it will take a little longer to figure out what’s happening (or not happening) with biodynamics (and why) and I’m not in a hurry to make up my mind. Wine is a big world and it can probably accommodate many different religions and beliefs. Even voo doo is welcome here (or should be), if that’s what it turns out to be.
In the meantime, I can appreciate why the Chileans might even resort to voo doo to break out of their good-but-cheap-wine cycle. And I hope it works for them!
Here is Marina’s article:
“Biodynamic Wine in Chile: Who Benefits?”
Editor’s Note: Marina Balleria, one of my students at the University of Puget Sound, studied in Chile in Fall 2010 and, knowing of her interest in wine and society, I invited her to craft an essay for publication on The Wine Economist website, which you will find below.
The essay is inspired by a visit to a biodynamic winery, but Marina uses it as a springboard to comment on broader issues. Use a wineglass as a lens to view society? Where could she get an idea like that?
Marina is studying in Morocco now — I wonder what stories wine will reveal to her there? Thanks, Marina, for this contribution to The Wine Economist.
“Biodynamic Wine in Chile: Who Benefits?”
As you drive through the Casablanca Valley, nestled in between Santiago and the coast of Chile, you could be in Northern California. The valley is an irrigated green underneath hills of sparse shrubs and cactus. You pass a vineyard, an olive oil plant, another vineyard, and then “Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic Wine”.
The phrase “biodynamic wine” is usually met with blank stares in Chile. Perusing the supermarket aisles or the shelves of the botillerias, where most Chileans buy their wine, biodynamic is absent from the labels. In fact, most of the more conscientious wine options such as “fair-trade” and “organic” are not available to the average Chilean wine customer.
The only Chilean outside of the wine industry that I encountered who knew about the topic was Carolina Cabezas, a fiercely opinionated nurse who turned her country home into a biodynamic farm. She deemed it a heretic sect of biodynamism because wine is a poison to the body and the unholy combination is nothing but a fad. When I asked American citizen and long-time Chilean resident Glenn Aldrich, he succinctly encapsulated the Chilean business model in a single phrase: “I don’t know a thing about it, but I know that Chileans always like to do what is new and different especially if it has good marketing.”
THE BIODYNAMIC SENSATION THAT IS SWEEPING THE NATIONS
Biodynamic wine does have that. This viticulture first made a stir because of its unconventional farming practices based on the teaching of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy and of Waldorf School-fame. These include lunar calendars that decide harvest dates, “preparations” concocted of red deer bladders and yarrow and homeopathic treatments used for pest control and dispensed according to the zodiac calendar. All this is meant to create farms that are self-sustaining yet interconnected systems.
Outside of the biodynamic community, these practices are met with skepticism, as scientific proof is shoddy at best. According to a six-year study from Washington State University, biodynamic and organic grapes differed in no substantial way for any of the “physical, chemical and biological parameters tested”, upending claims to the contrary. However, biodynamic wines are being given excellent scores by testers and some recognize it as a way to preserve terroir. What it seems to come down to is that wine growers willing to meticulously grow grapes according to the lunar calendar tend to be equally detail-oriented in other aspects of wine production, resulting in finely, if bizarrely, crafted wines. In any case, biodynamic wine has received premium billing in many wine shops across the globe. Back in Chile, the wine producers have taken notice.
A GUIDED TOUR
As you take the tour in Emiliana’s Casablanca winery all of the hallmarks of biodynamic farming are carefully on display.
The tour guide gives you the standard lines about a concern for the environment and points with pride to the portable chicken coop, used for pest control. He glosses over the grittier parts of biodynamic farming, calling it “the next level of organic” and Steiner is only briefly mentioned. He does affirm that it is “actually a science” and contends that the only proof necessary is in the bottle. We pass by the deer bladders hanging out to dry and duck into the cellar where the preparations absorb the cosmic energies. Apparently, it is common for guests to burst into laughter during this portion of the tour.
Next is the social responsibility component—the community garden in which the rows belong to different workers, allowing the workers to harvest their own biodynamic food and sell the chickens’ eggs. Emiliana also produces olive oil and honey so the workers have employment year round. It is later revealed after gentle probing that this plan benefits about 35 workers out of the 200 or so that are employed during harvest season. The harvesters are not higher paid than at neighboring vineyards. Emiliana is a higher coveted employer however, because as with organic farming, it provides a pesticide-free workplace.
BIG BACKING, BIG EXIT
“This isn’t something we are allowed to say, but we wouldn’t exist without Concha y Toro,” our tour guide tells us after we ease into our chairs for the wine tasting.
Concha y Toro, one of the biggest producers of wine in Latin America put out a wide array of wines, some occupy the bottom shelves of Chilean liquor stores and others come with hundred-dollar price tags. Names include Casillero del Diablo, Amelia and Don Melchor. Emiliana, named for the wife of the founder, is the brand used for their sustainable lines. Emiliana went organic in 1986 and biodynamic in 1997, going through the costly certification processes for both. They proudly announce that they have the distinction of being one of the first in Latin America to do so, a testament to the not-so-friendly rivalry between Southern Cone wine producers. Concha y Toro can quietly put up the capital for ventures such as Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic wine but the both try to avoid association. Emiliana is made with eyes for the international market as 90% of its products are sold abroad with some lines produced exclusively for export. This is not uncommon for fine wines.
According to my tour guide, the grand exodus of wine from Chile is because of a lack of an endemic Chilean wine culture. Basically, there is not a sufficient domestic demand to keep luxury brand wines in the country.
I beg to differ. Here, wine is a requisite at any meal and the bottle is invariably Chilean. However, cheap wine is decent wine and incomes are limited. It is budgeting that keeps the Chileans from buying more expensive wine, not cultural disregard. Likewise, for the producers there is more to be gained by selling abroad. It is simple economics.
IN THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS
Taken as a whole, the Chilean wine industry demonstrates a larger truth of the Chilean economy. The country’s economy is largely export-based, with a current account balance of $4.2 billion (29th in the world). Many of these exports are commodities, with the top five highest-valued export commodities being copper, fruit, fish products, paper and pulp, chemicals and, of course, wine. Winemaking is not only lucrative but can become more so as Chile’s finer wines are established, making it a sustainable industry with growth potential. To try realize this goal, Chileans are adhering to the maxim that Glen Aldrich laid out: do what is new, different and marketable.
The resulting marketing campaigns, however, depicts a Chile far removed from reality and sometimes downright contradictory. One only has to look at the certified biodynamic winery that is by definition a self-sustaining system but is employed to ship the bottles, which are not found in the home country. This is true across exported commodities. The majority of the copper of Chile is extracted by multinationals and little of the revenue goes back to the country. Only fruit deemed not fit for export is sold in Chilean supermarkets. The more left-leaning Chileans are constantly bemoaning the theft of their natural resources by evil corporations, or worse, the United States. On the other side, it is seen as a boon for the Chilean economy, which is growing at a much faster pace than
Herein lies a debate familiar to most International Political Economy students: does this time of export-driven growth create irreversible dependency on other countries and represent little more than exploitation? Or, does is this introduction into the global market economy that allows them to grow in ways that would be impossible otherwise and is only a stage in its development? I, like any indecisive student, choose option C: it depends. If Chile invests this income in the right way with education, technology and research, it could be a benefit to all. If not, the more pessimistic option could become true.
Biodynamic wine provides a test case of how Chile is pursuing its growth, with an eye for the tastes of the outside markets and little regard for what happens at home. Whether this development model is successful, sustainable and spreads throughout the social strata remains to be seen. A good indicator to watch may be what kinds of wine are served with dinner.
The tour of Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic winery in the Casablanca Valley took place on December 27th, 2010. More information can be found at: http://www.emiliana.cl/
Interviews were conducted informally by yours truly.
Scientific research about biodynamic wine vs. organic comes to me by way of The Skeptical Inquier’s article titled “Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle” by Douglass Smith and Jesús Barquin, originally published December/November 2007. It can be accessed at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/biodynamics_in_the_wine_bottle/.
The citation for the journal article is as follows:
It’s finals week at the University of Puget Sound, so I’m thinking about the question, what wine goes best with final exams and term papers? A sweet wine, to capture the sweet taste of success? Some bubbles to celebrate finishing one set of tasks and moving on? Or maybe a bitter sweet wine, because moving on inevitably means leaving some people and relationships behind? Hard to figure how best to match a wine with all these emotions. It’s a difficult question.
Dump Bucket Drills
But I know one wine that doesn’t match up very well. My class on “The Idea of Wine” organized an informal tasting on Monday to celebrate finishing their term papers. The main project was a blind tasting of inexpensive (some were very inexpensive) Merlots. I was impressed with the students’ serious efforts to evaluate and score the wine and their recently acquired (and, for college students, somewhat unnatural) propensity to use the dump bucket.
We tasted other wines including a Chinese wine that Brian West personally hauled back from Beijing a few years ago. It was a 1999 Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon. Changyu is China’s oldest winery and a good example of a mid-market Chinese wine (I wrote about Changyu and the Chinese wine industry in The China Wine Syndrome).
I found a video review of this wine on the web (click here to view it, but be forewarned that there is some harsh language used by the reviewer) that described the wine as being all about ashtray and coffee ground flavors with aromas of urinal crust. Hard to imagine. Until you taste it, that is. The description is right on the money.
I’ve read many optimistic reports on the Chinese wine industry, mostly based on high potential production volumes and not so much on quality. The quality wasn’t there in 1999, based on this wine, but there is reason to believe that things are changing. I sure hope they are! The dump bucket got good use on this one.
Hard Heads, Soft Hearts
I’m reading my students’ final papers now – they are quite good, by the way – and I thought you might be interested in their topics. I gave them great freedom to choose topics that interested them or related to their academic majors. You can find a list of the paper titles at the end of this post.
Most people think education is about learning the right answers, and this is certainly important, but I think the more valuable skill is learning to ask the right questions, and this is true about wine. I was impressed by the creativity of the questions my students asked.
One student, a Finance major, asked why Treasury bill auctions and wine auctions have different structures and what the impacts might be? A very interesting theoretical treatment. Another student did fieldwork in three wine retailers to try to understand the actions and interactions of wine buyers and wine sellers. The result was a revealing first person account of wine consumer behavior. An economics student who grew up in Napa Valley examined issues relating to migrant labor there, combining economic theory, empirical data and personal observation very effectively.
All the papers were very interesting. My favorite title: “How corks are being screwed over” (an analysis of the cork versus screw cap debate). Imagine, I get paid to read this!
Looking at the list of paper titles, I’m struck by how many students were drawn to issues of sustainable or ethical production and consumption: organic wine, climate change, biodynamic wine, fair trade wine and so forth. In general their analysis was thorough, pointed and objective. They have “soft hearts” and “hard heads,” as Princeton Economist Alan Blinder would say. They care about social issues, but think about them critically. Blinder says (and I agree) that’s better than the other possible combinations: soft head/hard heart, soft heart/soft head or hard head and heart.
Comparative analysis of changes in Treasury auctions versus global wine auctions
An ethnographic study of wine consumer trends
Hispanic workers in California’s wine industry
Climate Change: what it means for Spanish vineyards.
Climate change and the wine industry
TetraPaks and cans: the alternative packaging of wine
Movement from niche markets to mainstream: prospects and challenges for ethical consumption in the wine market
The terroir of equality: fair trade wine
Organic wine: the beginning of redefining fine wine
Oak in Wine: an exploration into differences.
Green wine: ideas and details of sustainable wine
Wine’s historical and modern role in religion
Of vines and witchcraft: biodynamic wine
India’s wine prospects
Old world crash: wine’s changing face in the globalized market
What makes that bottle so expensive?
How corks are being screwed over
Aging wines: from barrels to bottles
Drowning in the wine lake
Wine brands: friend or foe?
Wine tourism and economic development
Bordeaux versus Burgundy: why the rivalry matters
Transitioning wine industries: assessing development strategies in the wine industry
Perhaps the most interesting trend that I have observed in wine this year is the growth of green wine. By green I mean wine that is made and marketed with attention to the environment (although vinho verde from Portugal can claim to be a green wine on other counts).
What drew my attention to the green wine movement was not the existence of organic wines — they’ve been around for a long time — but the variety of ways that winemakers are embracing sustainability and the environment as an integral part of their work.
I uncovered three sustainability initiatives while doing fieldwork in Oregon, for example. The first was the Low Input Viticulture and Enology initiative, or LIVE for short. This is an a voluntary program with about 70 certified members that, according to the website, aims …
To see the vineyard as a whole system
To create and maintain a high level quality fruit production
To implement practices that reduce reliance on synthetic chemicals and fertilizers with the goal of protecting the farmer, the environment, and communities at large
To encourage responsible stewardship of the land, maintain natural fertility and ecosystem stability
To promote sustainable farming practices that maintain biological diversity in the whole farm
I haven’t studied the LIVE program closely, but my impression is that it is an attempt to both promote sustainable vineyard practices and, at the same time, take local control of the certification process. Why create an organization like LIVE — why not just go “organic” and be certified organic? I have talked to a number of winegrowers who hesitate to seek organic certification because of the considerable expense and also because the sort of sustainable viticulture they seek to practice goes beyond the avoidance of chemicals. Regional initiatives like LIVE allow groups of growers to define sustainability in a way that is compatible with local conditions and practices and to retain local control of the process.
Some winemakers are going all the way when it comes to sustainability, which is what the biodynamic wine movement is all about. Biodynamic winemaking is based upon a set of agricultural theories that the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner proposed in the 1920s. The biodynamic idea is to treat the entire vineyard as a living organism and to adopt practices that promote the health of the entire structure — vines, soil, insects, and so forth. This reminds me of the famous Gaia Hypothesis that the whole earth is a living organism.
Most biodynamic practices are uncontroversial, but the use of special organic field sprays draws special attention. The sprays are made by burying cow horns full of cow manure or ground quartz in the vineyard for six months and then spraying the estate with the resulting composted product in diluted form at specific times of the day and phases of the moon. The idea is to promote microbial health and the balanced growth of the vineyard. It sounds a little like voodoo viticulture, to me, but there are plenty of good winemakers who have adopted this practice so I am going to keep my skepticism in check for now.
Several Oregon winemakers including Brick House and Cooper Mountain have gone or are going biodynamic. They join California producers including Frog’s Leap, DeLoach and Benzinger and a growing number of winemakers in Europe and around the world. I understand that many winemakers in Chile such as Emiliana Orgánico are adopting biodynamic practices, for example, both on philosophical grounds and, I suspect, in an attempt to differentiate their wines in the marketplace. (Click here to read Emiliana’s explanation of the principles of biodynamic viticulture). I haven’t tasted enough biodynamic wine to have an opinion about how the process affects the end product.
The final example from Oregon is the Carlton Winemakers’ Studio, a facility that about a dozen smaller winemakers share. This operation was designed to meet recognized environmental standards from the group up. According to the website it was …
The first winery registerd with the US Green Building Council, The Carlton Winemakers Studio was designed to be compliant with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, promoting a whole – building approach to sustainability by recognizing five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.
Some of the most intriguing environmental building materials and techniques are the following:
Earth berm / below grade walls for natural cooling
The Winemakers Studio’s strategy suggests that green wine can be good wine, good economics and good for the environment. Sustainability is obviously important in winemaking, but it doesn’t end there. A growing number of wine brands, such as French Rabbit, are embracing sustainability in wine packaging and transport. Here’s how Boisset America, the French firm that makes and markets French Rabbit (and owns biodynamic DeLoach) got into the sustainable packaging business.
Canada is a good market for wines, especially French wines, and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario is therefore a big buyer with lots of market power. As a state monopoly, the LCBO sets economic, social and environmental goals for its operations. They aim to minimize energy use and maximize recycling. LCBO challenged their wine suppliers to introduce new products to promote these goals and French Rabbit was one result. As Patrick Egan, brand manager for French Rabbit, notes
“Our real immense success was with Liquor Control Board of Ontario. They inspired the creation of French Rabbit. As a goverment entity they were interested in challenging themselves and their suppliers to reduce packaging waste. They set an ambitious goal of eliminating 10 million kilograms of packaging waste per year. There were no other wines yet available in Tetra Paks when we presented French Rabbit, and they immediately embraced the concept. FR was the most successful launch of a new brand they’ve ever had, and spawned more than 75 other wines in Tetra Pak packages since French rabbit was launched there in July 2005. The success helped the LCBO reach their packaging reduction goal some 2 years ahead of schedule. Here in the US, there are really 3 primary brands [in Tetra Paks] so far, with more on their way.
“Turns out, much of the world has been consuming wine from the Tetra Pak package for many years (you must have seen Tavernello on your travels to Italy). Our angle, our raison d’etre, for introducing a new wine in this package to North America has been the ecological benefits to the package. In the age of global warming and increasing interest in sustainability, our package has the benefits of the lowest carbon output per unit of wine sold when the full life cycle of the package is considered. Its lightweight and minimal packaging materials mean immense savings when compared to the glass bottle. So, as wineries make more and more efforts to combat global warming in the vineyards and in their energy consumption, we’ve gone the angle of actually transforming the package that wine is delivered in to consumers. Just as globalization increases choice for consumers, it also means more and more wine is shipped all over the world. Ours dramatically reduces the impact when wine is shipped, in addition to the savings generated when the package is produced and the package is recycled.”
It seems to me that the wine industry is ahead of the curve with respect to sustainability and the environment. Wine is a product of nature, after all, and there are special reasons, aesthetic, philosophical and economic, why winemakers should wish to emphasize that connection. Green wine, I predict, is here to stay.