Flashback: Malbec & Maradona


Diego Maradona was more than just a great football player, the best of his generation by many accounts — the best ever according to some. He and his complicated life meant a great deal more to people in Argentina and around the world, so his recent death at age 60 had greater meaning, too.

This book review from 2012, which links Malbec, Argentina’s signature grape variety, with Diego Maradona, has been getting renewed attention among Wine Economist readers, so I thought I’d re-publish it as a “flashback” column today.

>>><<<

Ian Mount, The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec. Norton: 2011.

Malbec and Maradona

One of the most stunningly creative student papers I’ve received in more than 30 years as a college professor was written by a first year student enrolled in my introductory International Political Economy class. We were studying Argentina’s latest financial crisis and she analyzed the situation not just through facts and figures but rather by telling the story of Diego Maradona, the legendary soccer player who achieved great success on the global stage but succumbed to the pressures, stresses and temptations that came with it.

Maradona is always measured against Pele, the Brazilian star who is often proclaimed the greatest soccer player in history, and every talented young Argentinean forward is compared to  him (Messi is only the latest “next Maradona”). But an air of tragedy is unmistakable despite Maradona’s heroic achievements. This same air, my student wrote, hangs over Argentina’s politics and economy, and then she proceeded to analyze Argentina’s political economy history in detail in  terms of the Maradona story. It was, in both conception and execution, a brilliant analysis.

Ian Mount’s new book on Argentinean wine, The Vineyard at the End of the World, is also brilliant and in much the same way. Like my student’s paper, it can be read at several levels. It is, first and foremost, a history of the Argentinean wine industry from its roots with the Spanish explorers to its current spectacular flowering.

Although Argentina has been a major wine producer for literally centuries, it has only arrived on the global stage in the last ten years. Within Argentina its long history is heavy baggage that sometimes weighs it down. For the rest of the world, however, Argentina is a new discovery and the lack of prior experience of and attitudes toward its wines has arguably been an advantage.

Mount fills us in on the history and serious readers will appreciate the added depth this gives to the appreciation of the wines themselves. It also provides an interesting contrast to neighboring Chile and its wines, whose history is perhaps better known. But that’s only the beginning.ce1509cd596b49b050639487b3d03dcc

 Lucky Survivors

Malbec is a second theme, which is understandable because Malbec is king in Argentina right now. Malbec from Argentina has been one of the hottest product categories in the U.S. wine market is the past few years. But today’s Malbec (like Maradona) is a lucky survivor of Argentina’s booms and busts – a lot of Malbec was grubbed up during the market swings and swirls. It makes me appreciate wines (like one of our favorites, Mendel Malbec) that are made from the surviving old vine blocks.

More than anything, however, this is a history of Argentina itself told through wine, making this a book that deserves a very broad readership. Based on my previous research, I knew that Argentina’s politics and economics were reflected in the wine industry, but I didn’t know how much. Come for the Malbec, stay for the politics, economics and personal stories of those who succeeded or failed (or did both) and try to understand the country and people of Argentina.

Significantly, the book ends with a sort of Maradona moment. In terms of wine, Argentina has won the World Cup with Malbec, although the country must share the glory with international consultants (like Paul Hobbs and Michel Rolland) and foreign investors and partners (too numerous to mention). But for all its strengths the industry is still somewhat fragile, struggling to overcome the problems of the domestic wine market that it still depends upon and the domestic economy in which it is embedded.

After decades of “crisis and glory,” Mount sees a  bright future for both Malbec and Argentina. Let’s hope he’s right and the Maradona moment passes.e91c4e409ca6d78d656bc85a82fa6422

Ian Mount’s new book is a valuable addition to any wine enthusiast’s library. Mount provides a strong sense of the land and people of Argentina and the flow of history that connects them. Argentina is unique, as Mount notes early on, in that it is an Old World wine country (in terms of the nature of its wine culture) set in the New World, so that its history is broadly relevant and deeply interesting.

I studied the Argentina industry before going there last year, but Mount taught me things I didn’t know in every chapter. I love Laura Catena’s Vino Argentino for its account of the history of wine in Argentina told through the Catena family story and now I’m glad to also have The Vineyard at the End of the World for its broad sweep and detailed analysis. They are must reading for anyone with an interest in Argentina and its wines.

Book Review: Getting to Know Saké

Brian Ashcroft (with tasting notes by Takashi Eguchi), The Japanese Saké Bible (Tuttle Publishing, 2020).

Saké has always been a mystery to me. I have only been served it a couple of times and never with much in the way of introduction. Lacking background and appreciation, I have generally defaulted to beer on occasions when Saké might have been the more interesting choice.

Getting to Know You

I never got over the first hurdle. The upscale supermarket down the street (the one that I wrote about in Wine Wars) displays Saké over in the corner next to the Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Vermouth. This is not necessarily a poor organization, since Sakés are generally fortified, but there is a certain ghetto effect, too.

I was surprised when I looked closely at the Saké wall and discovered more than two dozen choices, including two craft Saké selections by Momokawa in Oregon. Lots of choices –big bottles and very small ones at all sorts of price points. And while some of the terms on the bottles were familiar enough, the language barrier was impossible to ignore.

Clearly a resource like The Saké Bible  is needed to open the door to understanding and appreciation. The book, colorfully illustrated and written in a casual, engaging way, provides a good introduction for newbies like me without ignoring the interests of  more experienced Saké drinkers.

Getting to Know All About You

We begin at the beginning. What is Saké? It isn’t beer even though it is brewed and it isn’t rice wine as is sometimes said. Saké is Saké. It is made with five ingredients, according to Ashcroft, but in ten thousand ways. The ingredients are rice, water, koji, yeast, and soil (so terroir is part of the story for some Saké). Koji is a fungus that breaks down the rice’s starch into sugar during the brewing process.  Each ingredient has many variables and options, adding to the product’s complexity.

I found something interesting on every page of this book. Some of my favorite parts are the chapters that trace the evolution of the Saké industry from  temple to small breweries to producers with global reach. Craft Saké is a thing now, as you might guess, and so both tradition and innovation are flourishing in Japan and around the world (Saké is brewed in Brooklyn these days — of course!).

I was also fascinated by the chapter on tasting Saké and pairing it with food as well as the detailed tasting notes for 100 top drawer products. The tasting notes encouraged me to think in terms of wine, which I found comforting. But there were some complications because Saké can be enjoyed at many different temperatures — and getting the chill right can be important.

One of my favorite tasting notes explained that a particular Saké  displayed a brightness when chilled, but evolved with syrupy apricot sweetness at warm room temperature. Served piping hot it had a mellow silkiness like milk chocolate. But in between room temp and hot was a no fly zone — “rather unpleasant” according to the notes. Interesting.

Getting to Know What to Say

The Saké Bible tells you everything you need to know about Saké in theory, but where do you begin in practice? From a practical standpoint, which of the many Sakés on the shelf is best for a newbie consumer? The cheapest? The most expensive? The one with the prettiest bottle or label? (Some of them are very attractive).

I wrote to author Brian Ashcroft for advice and he told me to begin at the beginning, just as most of us did with wine when we were starting out.

The drink itself is incredibly approachable and unintimidating. To be honest, start there. Try sake. Drink it. Don’t get bogged down. Find what you like. If you enjoy a specific type or brand, make a note and remember it for next time. But as with wine, always be willing to try more. For any food or drink, your senses are your best guide, and the more experience you have with the drink, the more you’ll appreciate the various brands and styles. The good thing is that there is lots of breathing room in how you enjoy the drink because one of the best things about sake is just how flexible it is–you can drink brews at a variety of temperatures, in different style cups and glasses, and with a range of food. Experiment. Explore. Have fun.

Have fun! That sounds like good advice. So, armed with The Saké Bible, I returned to my upscale supermarket in search of a particular style of Saké called Ginjo. Ginjo is made with highly polished rice, giving it a more delicate and refined flavor. It is good both at room temperature and chilled. Expect fruity or floral flavors.

Getting to Like You

The clerk at my store told me they sold quite a lot of Saké. My choice was a 300 ml bottle of Shirayuki Junmai Ginjyo Saké made by Konishi Brewing Co. in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, which is a historic center of Saké production. Ginjyo is the style, Junmai means that it is made with rice only in the classic tradition.

Served chilled, the nose was full of melon aromas, with melon and cream on the palate. Creamy texture. I could sense the warmth of alcohol, but no harshness. Surprising and much different from my vague memories of previous Saké experiences.

I don’t know how far I’ll go in my exploration of Saké.  I feel like I have only scratched the surface of wine and that wine not Saké is likely to be my focus for years to come. But, for me, trying to get up to speed with Saké is important because I think it might help me understand something about the barriers that wine consumers face when they start out.

Things I’m Learning About You

Think back to your first experience with wine. Unless you had a patient guide you probably stumbled over hurdles of various sorts and sizes, including vast number of choices, wide range or price points, foreign terminology, government health warnings, and the occasional need for specialized equipment just to open the bottle.

Everyone is a newbie at some point and maybe the wine industry needs to give a bit more attention to lowering hurdles for the next consumer generation. Jamie Goode recently pointed out that, for most people, the first taste of wine wasn’t a thrilling experience. How can we give newbie consumers the confidence they need to take a second sip?

Two Buck Chuck worked a miracle drawing a generation of cautious consumers into wine. Now I wonder if they might go for hard seltzer instead, which is far from a gateway to wine.

Have fun! Are there other things we can learn from the success of Saké and its growing global following? Food (or maybe drink) for thought!

>>><<<

Getting to know you? Here are the singing Lennon Sisters, just in case you didn’t catch all the musical references above. Enjoy!

Book Reviews: A Hedgehog and a Fox Walk into a Wine Bar …

So a hedgehog and a fox walk into a bar and they naturally fall into a debate about wine.

The clever fox, as anyone who has studied Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay will remember, knows many things and sees wine in terms of its complex contradictions. The hedgehog knows one big thing and returns to that again and again. The conversation ebbs and flows and many insights are revealed as the glasses are drained and refilled.

That’s the way I imagined this book review column developing although, as you will see, the plan breaks down a bit (for the better, I think) in the end.

The Fox: 50 Shades of Red

The fox in my story is Jamie Goode, the respected wine authority who frequently draws upon his science background to help us analyze and understand the world of wine. That’s what he did in his 2016 book I Taste Red: The Science of Wine Tasting.  The literature on sensory science is broad and deep and Goode does what he does better than just about anyone — he makes the science clear and applies it to questions that wine enthusiasts will find interesting and important.

The title of the book — I Taste Red — teases the reader a bit. How can you taste Red? Red is a color, not a flavor. How can that be? But taste is pretty complicated (a foxy kind of thing) and, while we assume that it is all about what goes on in your mouth, sipping and slurping, the brain actually uses a lot of clues to come up with what we think of as flavor.

Sue and I have experienced this in simple but memorable terms on a couple of occasions. We put clothes-pin devices on our noses during a multi-sensory perception demonstration at The Shard in London for Wine Vision 2014, for example, and popped jelly beans into our mouths. Nothing. No taste whatsoever. Then we removed the pins and suddenly flavor overwhelmed us. Where did that come from?

On another occasion we listened to music selected by post-modern winemaking guru Clark Smith. He switched tunes while we were tasting a particular Chardonnay and the flavor of the wine changed in our mouths from sweet to bitter. Incredible. I guess the part of the brain in charge of tasting wine overlaps with the part that enjoys music and sometimes they work in harmony but other times (like this one) dissonance erupts.

Topics covered in Goode’s book include wine and the brain, wine flavor chemistry, individual differences in flavor perception, and why we like the wines we like. He even analyzes the language of wine to see if what we say about wine affects what we think and what we taste — and if cultural differences enter into the picture. This chapter reminds me of my newspaper editor friend David who, upon tasting a particularly nice wine, complained that he couldn’t fully appreciate it until he developed a richer vocabulary.

So the science of taste is pretty complicated and interesting and I recommend Jamie Goode’s book to anyone who wants to know more about it. Which brings me to the hedgehog in this story, who is Nick Jackson MW, author of the new book Beyond Flavour: The Indispensable Handbook for Blind Wine Tasting.

The Hedgehog: To Flavour … and Beyond!

Nick Jackson worked very hard to prepare for the blind tasting part of the Master of Wine exams, but he was unhappy about his progress. He was pretty good at getting the right answer, he tells us, but he wasn’t confident. He couldn’t shake the sense that he was often just guessing. Flavor was his guide and, as the fox knows, flavor is not a simple reliable thing. But what else is there to serve as a guide in identifying wines?

His ah-ha! moment came when he realized that tannins (for red wines) and acidity (for whites) were fundamental building blocks. White wines can be known by their level of acidity, for example, the type of acidity, and the shape of the acidity. Chenin Blanc, for example, has high, bracing acidity with a crescendo shape. Crescendo! Think about that.

Chardonnay, on the other hand, has a more linear acidity structure — it remains the same during the act of tasting, pulling the fruit forward with it. Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, has jagged acidity.  Think about your experiences tasting these wines. Do these descriptions make sense? Jackson provides similar analysis for tannins in red wine. Structure, in Jackson’s able hands, is a tool that reveals important wine traits — grape variety, region of origin, even vintage, with special sections on sparkling, sweet, fortified, rosé, and orange wine.

Jackson’s book is intended as a guide for wine enthusiasts who are studying for blind-tasting exams like those in the Masters of Wine program. That would seem like a pretty narrow audience, but a peek at the book’s Amazon.com page reveals strong high sales ratings and more than four dozen reader recommendation. Maybe the world of people who need to identify wines in a blind tasting situation is bigger than I thought.

Or maybe there is another reason this book is so popular. I find the focus on structure instructive and that it adds to my enjoyment of wine. I rarely taste wines blind, but I always like to think about them and acid/tannin structure adds a new dimension.

Contradictions?

I said at the beginning that the fox and hedgehog dichotomy doesn’t completely hold here and it is true. I’m not disappointed, however, because that’s actually an important point in Isaiah Berlin’s original essay. While Jamie Goode tells us all the different perspectives that science reveals about wine taste, in the end he has some doubts. All these factors are there, he says, but isn’t a person’s taste  ultimately a single thing? Does it really help to break down taste into so many pieces when the actual experience of wine is or should be a harmonious whole? The fox theorist is drawn haunted by a hedgehog ideal.

Jackson makes a convincing case for his focus on structure and his students, many of whom are studying for the MW exam, benefit and sing his praises. But, towards the end of the book, he moves beyond identifying a wine to assessing wine quality. Is this wine good? Excellent? Great? He tells us that many students struggle with moving from objective to subjective. It is a more complicated issue that needs to be approached in a different way.

A hedgehog and a fox walk into a bar and come out a few hours later understanding more than  you might guess about wine … and themselves.

Book Review: Wine & the White House

Wine and the White House: A History by Frederick J. Ryan, Jr. (White House Historical Association).

wh2President Trump doesn’t drink beverage alcohol and neither does Vice President Pence, and yet wine is a constant at White House state dinners and similar events.  What’s served is nice wine, too, according to records found in this rather fascinating new book.

A state dinner for French President Macron on April 24, 2018, for example, included Domaine Serene Chardonnay (Oregon), Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir (Oregon), and Schramsberg Cremant Demi-Sec sparkling wine (California).

Apart from the Prohibition years (when, if there was wine in the White House, it wasn’t served in public settings), wine has always been a White House staple and having your wine served at a state dinner has been the ultimate celebrity endorsement.

Wine and the White House is a big book (more than 400 pages), beautifully produced, generously illustrated, and full of information. It is not a book to read from cover to cover, but rather something to dip into and enjoy. There are wine-driven profiles of each president in one section, an examination of the White House collection of wine glasses, decanters, and other wine paraphernalia,  and even surveys of the different wine regions (and some of the producers) that have featured at White House events.

The author, Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., is Chairman of the Board of the White House Historical Association, a perch that gives him access to important source material. He was Assistant to the President under President Reagan, the founding CEO for Politico, and is currently the Publisher and CEO of the Washington Post. 

This book was created with a diverse audience in mind. There are sections on wine basics, for example, for history buffs who might not know a lot about wine. And there are other sections to guide wine people who might not have brushed up on their American history in a while. And, of course, there is a lot of material that both wine people and history people will find new and interesting. You can pretty much open any page at random and find something you are happy to look at or read.

The chapters that I like best focus on the wines that presidents served to their guests at state dinners and similar events.  There are menus going back to 1877, for example, with relatively complete data (including reproductions of the actual menus) starting with the Eisenhower White House years. I’m interested in these documents because they give a sense of how Americans and their leaders thought about wine in the postwar years and how those attitudes evolved.

f4758b03499942eadac83252f0119173Fine wine meant European wine in the 1950s. Eisenhower’s guests were only very occasionally served anything else. A typical Eisenhower state dinner started with Dry Sack Sherry, Spain, and then moved on to  Chateau Climens Barsac, France, and what is listed as Beaune Greves Burgundy, France. Pol Roger Champagne, France, brought the evening to a close. There were variations, of course, for particular guests. German Rieslings for Chancellor Adenauer and Lafite for Winston Churchill.

The Kennedy years saw the the range of wines broaden (more Rieslings and Soave, for example), but generally within a classic old world frame. Noteworthy: increasing presence of American wine (especially Almaden and Inglenook) and I noted Lancer’s Rosé from Portugal served at a luncheon for the Danish Prime Minister. Inglenook “Pinot Chardonnay” appears several times, a reminder that Chardonnay was still little planted in California in the 1960s and often went by this now-forgotten name on bottle labels.

LBJ’s White House dinners embraced American wine wholeheartedly, a trend that has continued. It is as unusual today for an international wine to be served as it was 70 years ago to see a domestic bottle on the table. The White House wine people were ahead of consumers more generally, especially early on, in their willingness to serve American wines to important guests.

It is also interesting to note that the range of American wines, once the trend got started, rather quickly moved beyond California (although that state’s wines still dominated). White House wine selections make a statement and it seems that this is intentional at least some of the time. Can you guess which president first served Texas wine or Michigan wine? Washington and Oregon have joined California as White House regulars.

Wine and the White House is a book that it would be fun to give or to receive.  Pour a glass of fine Madeira (a wine that Jefferson bought by the pipe according to a reproduction of his inventory sheet) and enter this unique world. Wine and history pair very well indeed.

Wine Book Reviews: Three Faces of Global Wine

Here are brief reviews of three recent books that approach global wine from very different perspectives. Each makes a distinctive contribution to our understanding and appreciation of wine. Together they suggest what a complex world it is and why so many of us find it endlessly fascinating.

>><<<

https__m.media-amazon.com_images_i_41tumphtglHugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2021 (Octopus Publishing Group, 2020).

Hugh Johnson’s pocket guide to the world of wine has been a hugely popular standard reference ever since it was first published 43 years ago. Updated annually, it packs a lot of content into a compact package. The Hugh Johnson pocket wine book is required reading for consumers and trade alike.

You will find something for all interests here: a vintage guide, new wines to try in 2021 (think Austria and the Iberian Peninsula),  a survey of grape varieties, a pretty interesting primer on pairing food and wine (what do you suppose goes best with haggis?), and for the new edition a special color section on terroir.

The foundation of the book and its success is a survey of world wine organized along classical lines, which means vintages, countries and regions, the wineries, and the wines. The wineries are rated on a four-star scale with brief commentary and noteworthy wines  are singled out. Obviously it is impossible to cover every winery and every wine, so it is interesting to go through the book to see if favorite wineries made the cut or not.

newyorker_mar291976_1What does the world of wine look like from Hugh Johnson’s classic perspective? Well, it reminds me a bit of that famous Saul Steinberg New Yorker magazine cover that showed a NYC resident’s view of America.

The first thing that Johnson sees when he surveys the wine world is France, and it is hugely important. Indeed the section on France is 80 pages long, of which 20 pages are devoted to Bordeaux. By comparison Asia, which includes China, India, and Japan, has one single page. All of South America wine — Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and more — fills less than 10 pages. No doubt about it — France rules the world of wine and readers who want to understand and appreciate wine need to start there.

The United States gets about 30 pages (with individual sections for the most important wine-producing states), which is about the same as Italy even though Italy produces much more wine and has a much more complex regional wine structure. Given everything, I have no complaints that wine from my home state Washington gets only about four pages — that’s more or less the same as the space given to Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and North Africa … combined!

Is this a distorted view of the world of wine? Well, yes. But the lesson of the old New Yorker cover was that any single perspective on a complicated subject is arbitrary and distorted. Johnson’s perspective has served him and a great many others very well because, page counts aside, the detail provided in each section is quite remarkable given the compact overall format.  Your mileage may vary, of course, but I think  you’ll find Johnson’s classic viewpoint useful and interesting even if your interests aren’t exactly aligned.

This is a fascinating little book, packed full of information and insights. It you haven’t looked at a copy in a while you don’t know what you are missing.

>>><<<

f28420adc2e634602079d783a8f823480a43eb91Lucia Albino Gilbert and John C. Gilbert, Women Winemakers: Personal Odysseys (Luminare Press, 2020).

The professors Gilbert view wine from a different perspective that I find particularly interesting. Wine is made by people — men and women — but not in equal proportions.  Men have traditionally dominated the winemaking field and women have only risen significantly in the last generation or so. 

The Gilberts want to understand this phenomenon and their book provides observations based on interviews with selected  leading women winemakers in California; Champagne, France; Piemonte, Italy; Rioja, Priorat, and Penèdes, Spain; the Douro Valley, Portugal; and Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.

The authors identify several waves of women winemakers in California, which allows them to see how conditions have changed over time. My reading here is that certain important individuals and networks were key to opening doors for others.

The interviews make good reading on their own as they give a sense of the barriers and opportunities that each woman confronted. The Gilberts synthesize their fieldwork results to establish four typical pathways that women have followed: family, science/agronomy, enology, and sensory analysis.  Chapter 9 summarizes advice for women who seek a career in wine.

There are lots of stories here, but the big story is simply to make these women winemakers visible — to shine a light on them — and so to inspire other women to follow in their footsteps (or maybe forge their own paths).

This is a scholarly volume, but not a stuffy or boring one. The Gilberts are careful to allow their subjects to speak for themselves as much as possible. These are important voices and the Gilberts do a great service by giving them this opportunity to be heard.

>>><<<

Anderson, K. and S. Nelgen (2020), Which Winegrape Varieties are Grown Where? A Global Empirical Picture (Revised Edition), Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. Freely available as an e-book at www.adelaide.edu.au/press/titles/winegrapes, and in Excel format at https://economics.adelaide.edu.au/wine-economics/databases.

which winegrapes

Kym Anderson and Signe Nelgen have released a new edition of their survey of global winegrape production and it is available as a free download (see link above) or for purchase in paperback from Amazon.com.  It examines  global wine through a third lens — that of the grape vine itself — and it sees a world that is changing very rapidly.

One paradox found here is this. When I survey the retail wine wall I get the sense of a greater variety of wines made from a greater variety of grape varieties. More of these wines make it to the broader market today than in the past or at least seem to be more visible.

But, as data shows here, this casual empiricism disguises the fact that grape plantings are actually becoming less diverse. More of the world’s vineyards are planted to a handful of grape varieties.

In Spain, for example, Tempranillo is the only red variety that has increased in vineyard area (and it has done so massively). All the others have decreased. As Spain has reduced its overall vineyard acreage it has also shifted to its most marketable red grape variety. Fascinating.

One of the most important new features of this book is found in Section VII, where climate data for each of 800+ winegrowing regions is provided thanks to studies by Prof. Gregory Jones. Climate change data are combined with winegrape planting statistics to estimate to what extent winegrowers are mitigating climate dynamics through their grape variety choices.

This is a big, dense book that invites casual browsing of its many clear charts and diagrams but really rewards close study of the detailed tables. The price is right for the ebook version.  You should check it out.

Book Excerpt: On the China Wine Trail

chinaI thought you might enjoy using your imagination to travel to China along with Cynthia Howson and Pierre Ly via this excerpt from their new book Adventures on the China Wine Trail: How Farmers, Local Governments, Teachers, and Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the Wine World, which won the 2020 Gourmand Awards gold medal for wine tourism books.

Many thanks to Cynthia and Pierre and to Rowman & Littlefield for giving permission for publication here. This selection is from Chapter 2: Sea, Sand, and Shandong. Enjoy!

>>><<<

It was serendipitous that we ended up on the beautiful coast of Shandong, with its sandy beaches and romantic restaurants, on Qixi, the Chinese version of Valentine’s Day. We were travelling with our colleague, Jeff, an adventurous traveler with enough Chinese to get into trouble. This is even more so since Jeff’s then wife had stayed in Seattle and no matter how much he emphasized he was married, he seemed to get quite a bit of attention. That he found himself declining offers at 4:00 a.m. in the Qixi-themed night club was to be expected. The unsolicited calls to his hotel room from would-be escorts took him by surprise. We probably also got such calls, but since we didn’t understand them, we assumed a wrong number. For us, the city of Yantai was brimming with kitsch and romance. Our hotel bathroom was adorned with stickers with cute animals and hearts. And on the bed, we found towels folded into heart-shaped kissing swans.

We made the mistake of overfilling our schedule and requesting a meeting with renowned Chinese wine journalist, Jim Sun, just as he returned from a business trip on the erstwhile romantic evening. Of course, he and his wife were incredibly gracious as he led us through a tasting to showcase some of China’s best wine regions. It was only later that we considered the couple may have better things to do than a 7:00 p.m. meeting with economists.

His shop was in the perfect romantic space, near Yantai’s “World Wine Walk.” The pedestrian path connects the road to the crowded sunny beach and it’s lined with facades of shops named after world wine regions. A young man with a burgundy-colored shirt and black pants held his fiancée, whose red dress was a great match for the red circle shaped sign of a shop referencing wines of . . . Niagara. We never figured out why the gate that led to it was behind a giant yellow rubber duck, but this, too, was photo-worthy. In any case, Yantai is a must-see capital for a wine tourism enthusiast in China.

winewalk

Yantai’s World Wine Walk: a great place for wedding pictures

What makes the city so special? It turns out that this is where Chinese wine began, longer ago than you might think, in the late nineteenth century. When we prepared for our first China trip, we jumped straight to the index of our brand-new 2013 Lonely Planet China, and searched for the word “wine.” Of course, this was no California or France travel guide. But we were pleased to find at least one mystery wine destination: the Changyu Wine Culture Museum, in Yantai. Back when we began our China wine adventure, that was the only place the Lonely Planet sent English-speaking tourists looking for wine in the country.

Changyu was the first winery, and to commemorate this, in 1992, they built the Changyu Wine Culture Museum. Only a short walk from the waterfront, conveniently located near other top sights, bars and restaurants, the museum attracts large groups of tourists who are happy to take the guided tour and hear the story. Since then, a booming wine industry has developed in the province, including many wineries designed as attention-grabbing tourist attractions.

When Changyu opened the first modern winery in China, founder Zhang Bishi had help from an Austrian Vice Consul and winemaker, Baron Max von Babo.i It is one of the first names you learn on the tour, but it could have been someone else. When the company was founded in the early 1890s, the first foreign consultant, an Englishman who had signed a twenty-year contract, fell ill before he was due to arrive and died of a toothache gone wrong. The Dutch winemaker that followed him turned out not to be qualified. Von Babo got the job and the rest is history.ii “Babo” might ring a bell for dedicated Austrian wine enthusiasts. It is another name for KMW, the standard measurement of grape ripeness still used today to classify Austrian wines. KMW was invented by Max’s father, August Wilhelm Freiherr von Babo, an important figure of Austrian viticulture and enology.

The place was designed to promote Changyu’s brand, of course, which is well known thanks to its overwhelming market share and supermarket shelf space. But there is a clear effort to teach visitors about wine and viticulture, with details on each aspect of production. Armed with knowledge from the museum, tourists can head out of the city toward Chateau Changyu Castel, a joint venture with the Castel wine group from Bordeaux. It’s close to a popular water park and the new construction we saw in 2013 gave a sense of ever-expanding options. There is a museum component here too, but this one is a ginormous working winery. Unlike our Beijing Changyu trip, there were large buses of tour groups, exiting en masse, walking through the vineyard (“Don’t Pick!” one sign said). They took the guided tour of the winery, observing the large stainless-steel tanks and taking pictures of the long rows of oak barrels, or in front of the display riddling station for sparkling wine bottles. On the way, our taxi driver told us he didn’t drink wine, but he recited with pride how the winery got started in 1892 by Zhang Bishi. We invited him along, and he enthusiastically took even more pictures than we did.

The winery tour included a tasting in the bar with views over the vineyard, as well as a percussion set, two foosball tables, and coin-operated barrel dispensers. Families seemed to have fun with the tasting, studiously following their guide’s instructions. But tastings weren’t presented as the highlight of the tours. At the museum, the tasting was in the underground cellar, with pre-filled glasses lined up and covered with plastic wrap, leaving the white wine samples awkwardly warm. Unlike in Napa, no one came here hoping to get tipsy. As one Chinese expert told us when we asked about these tours, if the tasting is deemphasized, it’s probably not the best part. We knew that Changyu wine had won international awards, so why did they serve underwhelming wines to visitors? These museums did a good job promoting wine culture in beautiful spaces, but the wines themselves seemed to be extras on the set rather than main characters. Three years later though, on a return visit to the museum, the wines on the tour were good. Did this reflect a renewed focus on wine quality, or did we show up on a good day? Time will tell.

Changyu and wine street are just the beginning of a wine tourist route along the coast. We drove north to see where thousands of families plan their beach vacations, just a short hop from Beijing, Shanghai, and Seoul. Our hotel lobby was filled with an all-ages crowd, geared up with matching hats. The group was among two million visitors hoping to see a magical mirage at the Penglai Pavilion, one of the four great towers of China. Add glorious beaches, an ocean aquarium with dolphin shows, fresh seafood and nightlife opportunities, and you can see why investors see wine tourism dollar signs in the making.

Adventures on the China Wine Trail: How Farmers, Local Governments, Teachers, and Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the Wine World by Cynthia Howson and Pierre Ly. Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.  Reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Notes:

i His employment contract, in English, is an auction item at Christie’s. See Christie’s, “Wine in China,” Christie’s, January 16, 2014, https://www.christies.com.
ii Michael R. Godley, The Mandarin-Capitalists from Nanyang: Overseas Chinese Enterprise in the Modernisation of China 1893-1911 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Jonathan Ray, “Wine: Is China the New Chile When It Comes to Wine?,” Telegraph, January 18, 2008, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/.

Book Review: The Wines of South Africa

gi_157779_newsimage_vcsprasset_1603936_157779_a1e0438a-e7e6-4421-b354-a406a5fa9579_0Jim Clarke, The Wines of South Africa (The Classic Wine Library) Infinite Ideas, 2020.

Conventional wisdom holds that books with titles that begin “The Wines of …” are organized around what I call the “Three Ps” of wine: the people and their history, the places (geography, climate, terroir), and the plants (most important grape varieties). Good wine books provide interesting and informative accounts of each “P,” but the best ones find a way to rise above orthodoxy to give readers a taste of what really makes a particular region special.

Jim Clarke’s book on South Africa’s wine industry does just that and it is why I recommend it to you. Clarke is U.S. marketing manager for Wines of South Africa and that puts him in an excellent position to analyze South Africa’s wine sector. It is an important book and I encourage anyone interested in South Africa or global wine to read it, but it is not (and does not try to be) definitive for two reasons. First, Clarke wisely chooses to highlight selected wineries in each region rather than trying to cover them all. Balance is key — breadth can be the enemy of depth in this as in so many things. So you will want to have a recent edition of the Platter’s Guide for maps and comprehensive coverage of working wine cellars.

The pace of change is the second limitation. History is moving at warp speed these days — have you noticed? — and it is impossible for books to keep up, even if like this one they are hot off the presses.  Clarke tells the people story though his account of the twists and turns of South Africa’s wine history, which is necessarily intertwined with the country’s history more generally. One inevitable theme here is the importance of turning points — people and events that caused conditions to suddenly change, with effects that sometimes take years to fully unfold.

Balancing Act

2020 looks to be a year of turning points for South African wine. South Africa’s wine sector has for some time been balancing uncomfortably on an economic knife’s edge.
Some producers who go for high yields are able to coax out profits in most years despite low prices in bulk wine markets. Those who restrict yields and aim for higher quality achieve it — the best of the wines are simply spectacular — but often fail to earn prices high enough to produce profits. For at least part of South African wine, quantity pays better than quality. And many wine growers in both camps fail to earn sustainable returns.

Clarks explains this situation very well and the reader can sense his optimism going into 2020. Maybe this is a turning point moment when the country’s wines will finally achieve the widespread recognition (and higher prices) they need and deserve. I am optimistic about this, too.

But 2020 has turned out not to be that kind of turning point year. Instead it has been a year of disasters — the coronavirus pandemic, the global recession, and South Africa’s harsh national policies that have twice shut down domestic wine sales and once stopped export shipments, too. Wineries on the economic margins, many still recovering from severe drought, have been hard hit. A shake-out seems  likely and some wineries that went into 2020’s recession in weak condition will have trouble coming out the other side.

Follow the Money

The problem remains profitability more than wine quality and the collapse of global tourism flows adds one more woe to the pile. South Africa is a wine tourist dream, as Clarke suggests in a brief chapter on this topic, but it will take some time for wine tourists to return to the Cape Winelands in large numbers.

Who is going to lead South Africa’s wine sector out of the perfect storm it is caught in? As Clarke’s analysis makes clear, there is no shortage of institutions and organizations that aim to lead the industry in one way or another. A lot of people  — including a new group called Save SA Wine — are working very hard to limit the current damage and build a stronger foundation for the future.

I am not an insider, so probably I am wrong, but from my outside perspective I’ve always thought that the key must be Distell, the country’s largest private wine producer. Cooperatives, which are enormously important producers in volume terms, are unlikely to be able to lead the charge to boost prices in export markets, but Distell’s interests and those of the high quality wine sector in general are more closely aligned.

If Distell with its great scale and scope doesn’t do it, I don’t know who can or will. But I keep waiting for Distell to execute a sustained and ambitious strategy and make its big move. So far I’ve been disappointed.

Time Has Come Today

Time moves quickly in a crisis. The unfortunate facts of 2020 do not diminish this book’s relevance. In fact it is even more important now for us to understand South Africa wine’s underlying strengths amid significant challenges. And it is important to understand the stories of people and history that Clarke tells so well. South Africa has experienced turning points before and moved through them, drawing upon deep wells of strength and resilience.

Clarke captures South African wine’s bright promise, which we hope will shine through the current storm clouds. Excellent book. Very readable. Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Goode Guide to Wine

9780520342460Jamie Goode, The Goode Guide to Wine: a manifesto of sorts. University of California Press, 2020.

The trouble with barbecue, at least here in the United States, is that everyone has their own particular idea of what it is and should be. Regional traditions and practices about what to cook (beef, pork, lamb) and how to cook it  and even how to cut (or chop) it have strong proponents. I suspect that duels have been fought (or fistfights, at least) over what is or isn’t barbecue.

Confronted with a fine example of Texas barbecue, for example, the best that someone from North Carolina might offer is the rather weak complement, “it’s good … but it ain’t  barbecue.”

I think this problem applies anywhere people have strong opinions and so it is a wine book problem, too. “It’s good, I guess … ” someone might say or write about a new volume on French wine, “… but it’s not my idea of a book about French wine.” The author’s right to have a different idea, which might in fact be the whole point, doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.

Jamie Goode’s new book is especially likely to suffer from this problem, so I encourage you to approach it with an open mind. Goode is one of the most fascinating characters in the wine business, which is quite full of characters generally. A scientist and former science editor, he began writing about wine on the web very early in the game and has for some time supported himself though writing and speaking about wine.

Goode brings that questioning scientific mind to his work as well as humor, imagination, and a lot of energy. I tell you this from personal experience (our paths have crossed in Cape Town, Napa, Porto, and British Columbia) that spending an evening talking and drinking wine with Jamie Goode is as exciting as it is exhausting. He’s a treasure.

Goode’s long list of books define what you might think of as Goode’s barbecue. They are tightly organized and draw heavily on his scientific background. I am a fan of these books because I can always rely upon Goode to take a technical question, explain it very clearly to me, weight the evidence, and draw a conclusion.

Goode By the Numbers

The Goode Guide to Wine is good, someone familiar with Goode’s previous books might say, but it ain”t Goode’s barbecue. Not so tightly organized and much more personal, it is a peek into the mind of this fascinating fellow as he travels the wine world, seeking out questions, weighing evidence, making up his mind. Since the mind is constantly churning around, the book is, too. Could make you dizzy. Takes a little getting used to.

413s1trpml._sx383_bo1204203200_One way to see this is to compare the basic structure of the Goode Guide with one of Jamie Goode’s previous works, I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting WineI Taste Red divides a little over 200 pages into 10 chapters. The Goode Guide is a little shorter in length, but has 56 chapters. So you can see that each chapter is much smaller, many just a couple of pages.

I read one review that especially objected to this, saying that it looked like a bulked-up Twitter feed. I don’t see it that way. Goode’s style here reminds me a little of one of my favorite books, Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan. The content is completely different, of course, although Brautigan’s book is also a manifesto of sorts, but the short, punchy chapters drive the reader forward in both cases.

Like a conversation with the author, Goode’s ideas pile up as the discussion moves around and circles back. It’s left to the reader to sort things out sometimes, which is a responsibility I am willing to accept.

Boring Writers Beware

This is not guide to buying wine but a discussion of how to think about it. Chapters range from #1: The Heart of Authenticity to #56: Why It Matters. Good tells us that the first half of the book is aimed more at wine drinkers and the second half for the trade.  Each is a manifesto, of sorts, I suppose, but Goode undermines dogmatic notions. It’s OK to disagree with me, Goode says repeatedly, but first think about this … and this … .

Everyone who is a wine writer or works with them needs to read chapter 53, “How to succeed at wine writing by writing boring articles.” I warn you: once you’ve read insightful Goode’s account (including the insider bits) you’ll never be able to read wine articles quite the same way again.

The Goode Guide to Wine ain’t barbecue, but it’s really good. Highly recommended.

>>><<<

New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin is my authority on barbecue culture. Trillin seems to like all sorts of things that are called barbecue, but the real thing for him is found at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, Missouri.

Wine Book Review: Laura Catena’s Gold in the Vineyards

catenaLaura Catena, Gold in the Vineyards: Illustrated Stories of the World’s Most Celebrated Vineyards (Catapulta Editores). Illustrated by Fernando Adorneti (Caveman).

Nicholas Catena had to make a choice. His chosen career as an economics professor? Or the family wine business,  Bodega Catena Zapata, which was threatened, along with the rest of Argentina’s wine sector, by shifting and unstable economic currents?

Prof. Catena met Robert Mondavi during a spell as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley and then made his choice. He gave up the academic life and went back to Argentina inspired by Mondavi’s determination to make New World wines as good as the best the Old World could offer.

I suppose that Prof. Catena’s daughter Laura must have faced a career choice, too, at some point. Pursue a career as a medical doctor in the United States, where she studied at Harvard and Stanford and raised a family? Or return to Argentina to advance her family’s vision of wine excellence and help guide the business through more turbulent times? Tough choice. Impossible to do both. But both is what she does. Amazing.

She is an author, too, and a good one.  Sue and I enjoyed her 2010 book Vino Argentino and took it with us on our first trip to Mendoza. We learned a lot about the development of the Argentina wine industry from this book and it helped us meet people, too, when Sue would ask winemakers to autograph the sections of the book where they appeared. Big smiles! There are even a few recipes — Dr. Catena’s chimichurri  often features (along with Mendoza Malbec) on steak night.

616jvwlqdml._ss500_Dr. Catena’s new book, Gold in the Vineyards, is very different from Vino Argentino. At first glance you wonder if it is for adults or children? The answer (typical, I suppose, for Laura Catena) is probably both. The reason this question comes up is that the book is lavishly illustrated with colorful drawings and cartoons that make it look a bit like a children’s book. And Dr. Catena tells us that she was actually inspired by the illustrated books she loved as a child.

I think this book might be a good way to introduce young people to the world of wine, but adults are the main audience and they will find plenty to enjoy (and learn) here. Each of the 12 chapters tells the story of a famous wine producer, starting with Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Tuscany’s Antinori and ending with Catena Zapata, with stops along the way that include California (Harlan Estate) and Australia (Henschke’s Hill of Grace) along with other global icons.

Each chapter tells a story in words and pictures and includes interesting infographics, too.  What do the chapters have in common? What is the moral of the story (books, especially children’s books, need to convey a message)?

Looking back through the chapters I find three threads that run through the text. The first is the power of place. Dr. Catena is a terroirist, as you will know especially from her discussion of Catena Zapata’s Adrianna Vineyard. The second thread is the power of family, because the wineries that appear here all drew strength from their family bonds.

The final thread is the power of women in wine — Dr. Catena dedicates the book to the women in her family from her great-grandmother Nicasia to her daughter Nicola. Although women do not feature prominently in the first chapter on Lafite, they are inescapable throughout the remainder of the book. Women have often struggled to gain authority and recognition in the wine industry, so this empowering message is welcome and important.

Gold in the Vineyards entertains, informs, encourages and inspires. Highly recommended for young and old alike.

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

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

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

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

North-North versus North-South

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

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

Serious Fun

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

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

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

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know?

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

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

Back to the Big Picture

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

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

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