Wine Wars: Curses, Miracles, and Revenge

Wine Wars 2011: the first books arrive.

As I explained in last week’s Wine Economist column, this is the tenth anniversary of the publication of my first book on the wine business, Wine Wars. Although the catchy title (suggested by the smart marketing people at Rowman & Littlefield) gets your attention, it is the long subtitle that outlines the book’s argument. This is a story of “the Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists.”

Here is a quick sketch of the book’s argument. I’ll return next week with thoughts about how things have changed (and how the argument has held  up) in the decade since publication.

Curse of the Blue Nun

Blue Nun was arguably the world’s first global wine brand, so it represents the argument that globalization has been a powerful force in the wine world. What’s the curse? Well Blue Nun began as a very high quality German wine but, as it and other wines like it became more successful, eventually quality suffered. Blue Nun continued to sell, but it wasn’t the same. The curse of globalization is therefore that success on the global market can be double-edged, both creating and destroying.

Globalization has brought a world of wines to our door, which is also good and bad. This is the paradox of choice. No choice is bad. It is like the old Soviet joke where everything is either mandatory or forbidden. But too much choice is bad, too, and can be a particular problem for wine. It is not unusual for upscale supermarkets to have more than 1000 different wines on the shelf at prices ranging from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. Wow! Not always easy to make sense of such an over-whelming selection.

Miracle of Two Buck Chuck

One way that many consumers react to this, the most confusing aisle in the store, is to confuse price with quality. Cheap wines must be bad. Expensive ones must be good. Clever marketers take advantage of this misconception in all sorts of ways that I discussed in the book. Hence the miracle of Two Buck Chuck. For many years Trader Joe’s stories in the U.S. sold a wine called Charles Shaw for $1.99 (do you see the two buck Chuck in that)? And millions of people who might otherwise have drifted away from the wine wall bought it and enjoyed it. TBC is an important element of the democratization of wine in America.

People think the miracle of Two Buck Chuck is its price, but let me assure you that you can make and sell a wine for $2 if you want to. In Europe I saw a wine that was one euro for a liter in tetra-pack carton. That’s equivalent to one buck Chuck! No the miracle is that consumers would buy it despite its bottom shelf price. They bought TBC because they trusted Trader Joe’s to sell good value products and then, having tried it, they trusted  Two Buck Chuck to deliver consistently. Trader Joe’s and the Bronco Wine Company that makes TBC created a powerful brand that has sold millions and millions of bottles.

Commercial brands are one way to help consumers break out of the paradox of choice by economizing on trust. You don’t have to trust the grape variety or the appellation or the vintage year. You only have to trust the brand. That simplifies things for sure. But there’s a risk. Albert Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. And that’s true of wine, too. If branding and commoditization simply wine too much and undermine its quality, then the miracle can quickly become a curse!

Revenge of the Terroirists

What is there to keep wine from becoming just another branded commodity? I am an optimist, so I proposed a counter-force that I called the revenge of the terroirists. This term, taken from the French terroir, has caused a little confusion over the years. I am sure that Wine Economist readers know what I mean, but auto-spell programs always try to correct it and there was even one case where a gentleman came to one of my talks thinking that I was speaking about terrorists and wine. Terroir. Terror. Hmmmm. Easy to see how that could happen.

In fact, some terroirists back then were terrorists, or at least they used terrorist tactics to oppose the incursion of industrial wine into the south of France. But I wasn’t counting on violence to hold back the commodification tide. No, I put my money on the dedicated few who opposed industrial wines the same way that the Slow Food movement (which I wrote about in my Globaloney books) opposes industrial food — by fostering an alternative rooted in and celebrating tradition but using the best appropriate modern practices.

Would the terroirist resistance endure? It wasn’t a sure thing then (or now either, I suppose) but I was cautiously optimistic. As the last line of the book says, I still have grape expectations.

A Trip to Napa Valley

Each of Wine Wars’s three sections ends with an invitation to taste some wines that illustrate the relevant part of the argument. The final tasting re-creates a trip that Sue and I took just as work on the book was coming to an end. We were in California for a meeting of academic wine economists at the University of California at Davis. We skipped the sessions one afternoon and drove to Napa Valley. We made three stops: a small family winery, a larger and more famous firm — Frog’s Leap — whose winemaker John Williams is world-famous for his terroirist work. We ended the day at the Robert Mondavi Winery where our academic colleagues had gathered for the conference closing banquet.

Frog’s Leap is still going strong, principles in-tact, with the next generation hard at work. That small family winery no longer exists. The wine business is hard and every year new wineries spring up while old wineries quietly fade away. Robert Mondavi is still there, of course, but it is no longer owned by the Mondavi family. They incorporated their winery in order to get resources for new projects and then lost control of it. Constellation Brands is the owner now.

The China Syndrome

The penultimate chapter of Wine Wars is called The China Syndrome and it provides an interesting perspective on how much things have changed in just ten years.  China was best known in the wine world back then as place to sell Bordeaux wines, both the iconic first growths but also lesser wines, even from questionable vintages. The Chinese couldn’t get enough Bordeaux.

Submerged under that sea of Bordeaux, however, was a growing Chinese wine industry — that’s what caught my eye. I reported on my first taste of a Chinese wine and it wasn’t very pleasant. Ashtray, coffee grounds, a whiff of urinal crust. Ugh! Bad Chinese wine was very bad indeed, as bad wine is everywhere.

But I also reported on a much different experience — a bottle of Grace Vineyards Cabernet Franc that we shared at an Open That Bottle Night dinner. Very nice indeed and it made me wonder where Chinese wine was headed (a question that continues to interest me — I’ve written  about China in each of the subsequent wine books). Not good vs bad — I was pretty sure that better wine would rise to the top. No I wondered if Chinese wine would try to copy-cat the French as wine has done in so many other places. Or would the wine industry there develop in a way that reflects its particular terroir — wine with particular Chinese characteristics?

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I do think that the overall argument of Wine Wars has help up pretty well, which is a bit of a surprise given how much has changed. What would I change if I were writing it again now? Come back next week to find out.

Ten Years of Wine Wars

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

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

The Tables Turned

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

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

Globalization vs. Terroir

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

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

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

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

Open Source Research

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Years After

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

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

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

Book Review: The Wines of Georgia

Lisa Granik MW, The Wines of Georgia (The Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library, 2020).

The wines of Georgia are having a moment, and it is about time. Wine is very old in Georgia, the cradle of wine, but Georgian wines are relatively new on the markets here in the United States, as Georgian producers pivot from dependence on Russia and former Soviet states and work hard to develop markets in the UK, EU, US, and China.

The push into new markets comes at a difficult time because pandemic restrictions have limited travel by charismatic Georgian producers, who represent their wines so well in person, and have shuttered or crippled many restaurants where hand-selling of the wines would be very effective.

We are fortunate, therefore, to have this new book by Lisa Granik MW to spread the word and build momentum for Georgian wine in the post-covid world. Granik tells us that she’s written a reference book, which readers can dip into as needed and read in any order that pleases them. This is partly true. The second half of the book, which presents information about each specific wine region, certainly fills the reference book bill. I am very impressed by the attention to detail and deep scholarship I see here. A wonderful resource for any who wants to take a deep dive into Georgia’s wine industry.

The first half of the book, on the other hand, is a compact primer on Georgia and its wines that I’d recommend to anyone who wants to get a basic understanding of this topic. The chapter on wine culture, with its explanation of the supra wine feast tradition, was fascinating. We attended a couple of supra feasts when we visited Georgia a few years ago for a United Nations conference and Granik’s analysis helped me understand a few fine points I missed at the time.

I was especially interested in the history chapter. Georgians are proud of their long history — dating back thousands of years — but I admit that I am even more interested in the history of the Soviet days and the transition to the market economy. I was not disappointed both with the main narrative and with the detailed footnotes (which are conveniently placed where they belong — at the foot of the page, not the back of the book).

One thing that I asked when we were there, and apparently it is not an uncommon question, is why grape vines are mostly planted on valley floors in Georgia and not on the hillsides as you might expect? The answer goes back to the Soviet days. Quantity and cost were paramount and hillside vineyards did not lend themselves to machine harvest and cultivation.

The chapter on native wine grape varieties is best seen as a reference because there are so many of them that it is hard to remember the names after a while, but I enjoyed reading through the descriptions, focusing especially on the main varieties.. Granik lists the grape varieties alphabetically: white grapes from Akhaltsikhuri Tetri and Avasirkhva to Tsolikouri and red grapes from Adansuri to Usakhelouri.

Granik’s accounts of the places we visited and the people we met in Georgia rang true and went beyond what we learned while we were there. Granik is obviously a fan of Georgia and its wine, but not an uncritical booster. She doesn’t hold back in discussing problems and challenges where she finds them. Her final chapter, where she pulls together challenges and opportunities, is required reading. Highly recommended.

Portuguese Wines in the Age of Discovery

A 1971 television advertisement for Mateus Rosé invited viewers to pour themselves a glass of the popular wine and take an imaginary trip to Portugal.  I have been wishing that it was as simple as that this pandemic year when travel is general is so difficult and the idea of a trip from the U.S. to Portugal and back seems out of the question.

Discovering WoW

There are more than a few reasons to wish that a Star Trek transporter could beam us down in Porto, for example. The World of Wine  (WoW) opened along the Villa Nova de Gaia                  riverside over the summer and I can’t wait to explore its many venues. Adrian Bridge and his team have transformed a collection of warehouses on the downhill side of the Taylor winery and Yeatman Hotel, creating a labyrinth of exhibits, cafes, restaurants, and shops.

Portuguese ships sailed to the four corners of the world during the great Age of Discovery. Now that world comes to Portugal and especially Porto to learn about wine.

Five “Worlds” or experiences await the visitor who is interested in (1) wine, (2) the history of Porto and the Douro, (3) planet cork, (4) chocolate, and (5) the Bridge collection of drinking implements, which spans 9000 years. I signed up for the email newsletter, since that’s about as close as I will get to Porto in 2020, and each week I receive notice of concerts, programs, and tempting offerings at the nine restaurants, bars, and cafes.  I’d leave for WoW and Porto today if I could!

Discovering Richard Mayson’s New Book

If imaginary travel is the only option, then Richard Mayson’s new book, The Wines of Portugal, is an excellent guide. Mayson knows Portugal and its wines like the back of his hand and he generously shares his knowledge.

The book is organized in the conventional way, with chapters on history, the grapes and wines, the main winemaking regions including the islands such as Madeira, plus specialized chapters on Rosé and sparkling wines. Yes, Mateus makes the book as does Lancers, because they really are important elements of Portuguese wine and its history, but if that’s how you think of Portuguese wine you have much to learn.

I found the regional chapters especially interesting and the producer profiles, though necessarily brief, more detailed and revealing than in many other “Wines of … ” books. Mayson’s Wines of Portugal is highly recommended for detailed study or a wine travel (imaginary or real) reference.

If We Can’t Go to the Wines …

If we can’t go to the wine country, then the thirst for discovery means that it will have to come to us, even though something is lost in trading places this way. We have been fortunate to be able to sample some very interesting Portuguese wines in recent weeks.

Bartholomew Broadbent has imported a bright, refreshing, and very popular Vinho Verde for a number of years (alongside his famous Port and Madeira wines) and he has recently added three new wines to the stable: Broadbent Douro Red, Broadbent Douro Reserve, and Broadbent Dao white wine. The wines are delicious, fairly-priced, in relatively wide distribution, and recommended with enthusiasm.

Portuguese wines are having a moment of discovery just now. Some consumers have never thought of them before or associate them with their parent’s Lancers and Mateus experiences. Others think inexpensive Vinho Verde or stuffy Vintage Port. But (as Mayson’s book explains, of course) there is a world of wine in Portugal’s right borders.

The new Broadbent wines are a great way to learn more about the intriguing red wines of the Douro and the bright whites of the Dao region.

Thanksgiving Discoveries

Thanksgiving was our excuse to sample four wines from the Douro that we received as gifts from friends in Porto. A  bottle of stunning  Casa Ferreirinha Quinta da Leda was perfectly paired with our festive meal. Elegant and sophisticated. We are looking forward to see how this wine develops over the next few years. It shows what the Douro is capable of at its best.

The final act was an opportunity we’d never had before — to taste cask samples of the new 2018 Vintage Port wines. Winemaker Luis Sotomayor sent us small bottles of his Offley, Sandeman, and Ferreira wines, which we tasted along with chocolate Sue bought in Porto specifically to pair with Port wine.

Yes, I know, Vintage Ports are supposed to be put down for 10 or 20 years before you carefully pull the cork. But that’s not the only time to drink them. Very young Vintage Ports have a charm of their own — a dark intensity that can be quite stunning. You really should try it especially, like me, if sometimes you just can’t wait!

The three wines showed distinct personalities immediately and they changed and developed over several nights. Sue found her favorite of the three shifted as the wines unfolded. An experience I hope to repeat!

Age of Discovery

As you can tell there is a lot to discover about Portugal and its wines and this just scratches the surface. With Mayson’s book and our Porto friends as our guides we plan to continue exploring Portugal’s wine treasure map.

We are not alone in our interest in Portugal and its wines. The most recent Nielsen data published in Wine Business Monthly, for example, shows surging sales through the measured retail channels. Portuguese wine sales measured by dollar value increased by 13.9 percent in the 52 weeks to 10/03/2020 and by an incredible 35.1% in the month of September.

Fingers crossed that travel and tourism will return to some sort of normal sometime in 2021 so that we can go back to Porto to visit the World of Wine and continue our exploration of Portugal and its wonderful wines.

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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/.