Wine Book Review / North Adriatic: Three Countries, One Terroir

Paul Balke, North Adriatic: Friuli Venezia Giulia – West Slovenia – Istria – Kvarner.   Wine & Travel Atlas.  Order the book via email: paulbarolo@gmail.com

Anyone who has seen Charles & Ray Eames’s famous 1977 video of “Powers of 10” (see below) understands that the way you see the world depends in part on how you choose to look at it.

In the video an everyday scene is examined first from steadily expanding scales (rising by a power of ten each ten seconds) and then deconstructed by repeatedly drilling down (by powers of ten again). Which view is correct? Why all of them, of course, it just depends on what you are looking for.

Bigger and Smaller

One view makes things seem bigger and the other makes them seem smaller (an Alice in Wonderland situation). It is important to keep perspective along the way.

The bigger/smaller problem applies to wine in many ways. Tasting notes, for example, have for a long time focused on breaking down wine flavors and aromas into their elements, like the second part of the Eames video, which is useful enough unless you are more interested, as many consumers may be, in how it makes you feel (a higher-level perspective).  The whole, we hope, is greater than the sum of its parts, but that doesn’t always come through.

Here in the United States one trend has been to try to break the terroir of wine=-growing regions into smaller and smaller American Viticultural Areas as wineries and regions seek to communicate their distinctive features and to build solidarity among producers. But deconstructing terroir in this way is not the only story and sometimes not the best one.

Or at least that is Paul Balke’s argument in his colorful and informative book, North Adriatic, and he makes his case in a way that will remind you of the Eames film. First, he steps back repeatedly, probing what connects the people and territory of the North Adriatic, with chapters on the trans-national regional history, geography, climate, and gastronomy (this volume is meant to double as a travel guide, so food is never far from the surface!)

Central to this section of the book is Chapter 4, which is a very short essay on borders. Its purpose is to make you think about borders, fences and divisions in an age of globalization.

Down the Rabbit Hole

The book soon reverses course with very detailed chapters on the wine regions of the North Adriatic. Each chapter is an enticing rabbit hole (another Alice metaphor) full of photos, maps, facts, and analysis.

The wine regions are Colli Orientali, Collio and Brda, Isonzo, Grave, Aquileia, Karst, Vipava Valley, Istria, and Kvarner. There are also chapters on the many grape varieties and orange wines, which are very much a thing here. Wine is the focus here, but not just wine. Given the first part of the book, it is impossible to see wine without taking in elements of the broader context.

It is not a criticism to say that these chapters are so full of interesting images and ideas that it is possible to get lost. The images of chefs and their food made me hungry.  Balke intends the book to be both a reference resource and a travel guide and I think he achieves his goal. I learned something new on each page.

What you won’t find here are detailed reviews of individual wines and profiles of specific wineries. That would require another book. This one is already bursting at the seams.

>>><<<

 

The Road to Wine Wars II (and a 30% Discount Offer)

My new book Wine Wars II will be released in just a few days on July 1, 2022, and so. in the spirit of shameless self-promotion, let me remind you that you can order Wine Wars II in paperback or e-book format from Rowman & Littlefield, Amazon.com, and other online and bricks-and-mortar book sellers.

Rowman & Littlefield is offering a 30% discount on Wine Wars II publisher-direct purchases for a limited time. Scroll down to the bottom of this page for details.

Tantor Media will release the audio-book version of Wine Wars II (read by Jonathan Yen) on July 19, 2002. It will be available everywhere audio books are sold. Ten hours of fascinating stories about where global wine is going and how it got there.

A Tale of Two Glasses

Paperback, e-book, audio. Wine Wars II is everywhere!

Wine Wars II updates and extends the most important arguments I made in the original Wine Wars and then adds a new set of chapters on Wine’s Triple Crisis. Each “flight” or set of chapters ends with suggested wine tasting so you can consider the arguments using all your senses. What fun!

Here is a brief excerpt from chapter 1 “A Tale of Two Glasses” for your reading pleasure. It talks about the origins of Wine Wars and the development of Wine Wars II. I think it is interesting that the road to Wine Wars II began with a winery visit about forty years ago, when the problems facing the wine business and the economy more generally were a lot like those we confront today.

HOW I STUMBLED INTO THE WINE WARS

People often ask me how I became a wine economist, an economist who studies the global wine markets. The answer is rooted in a particular time and place. Sue and I were still newlyweds, taking a low-budget vacation in the Napa Valley back in the day when that was still possible. We were headed north on the
Silverado Trail late on our last day, pointed toward our economy motel in Santa Rosa, when we decided to stop for one last tasting.

The winery name was very familiar, and I had high hopes for our tasting. If I had known more about wine back then, I would have recognized this as one of the wineries that kicked French butt in the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting. We pulled off the road and went in to find just the winemaker and a cellar rat at work. No fancy tasting room back then, just boards and barrels to form a makeshift bar. They stopped what they were doing and brought out a couple of glasses. If I knew more about wine back then, I would have been in awe of the guy pouring the wine, but I was pretty much in the dark. So we tasted and talked.

I started asking my amateur questions about the wine, but pretty soon the conversation turned around. The winemaker found out that I was an economics professor. Suddenly he was very interested in talking with me. What’s going to happen to interest rates? Inflation? Tax reform? He had a lot of concerns about the economy because his prestigious winery was also a business and what was happening out there in the financial markets (especially interest rates and bank credit, as I remember) had a big impact on what he could or would do in the cellar. Wineries, especially those that specialize in fine red wines, have a lot of
financial issues.

In addition to the initial investment in vineyards, winery facilities, equipment, and so forth, each year’s production ages for two or three years, quietly soaking up implicit or explicit interest cost as it waits to be released from barrel to bottle to marketplace. The wine changes as it ages, but the economy changes, too. It’s impossible to know at crush what market conditions will be like when the first bottle is sold. Wine economics is a serious concern. Few winemakers are completely insulated from the business side, and sometimes the economy can have a huge effect on what winemakers get to make (if they have the resources to stick with their vision) or have to make (if they don’t).

And so a famous winemaker taught me to think about wine in economic terms and to consider that supply and demand sometimes matter as much as climate and soil when it comes to what’s in my wineglass. I should have known.

Although my interest in wine and economics merged on that Napa day, it sat on its lees for a long time, as I waited for an opportunity to link my personal passion with my professional research agenda. The two naturally converged a few years ago when I began writing what turned out to be a four-volume series
on the global economy. My 2005 book Globaloney: Unraveling the Myths of Globalization includes a chapter called “Globalization versus Terroir,” my first attempt to write about wine economics for a general audience. Globaloney argues that complex global processes shouldn’t be reduced to a few simple
images. Globalization and food are more than just McDonald’s, for example, and globalization of wine isn’t just McWine.

The wine chapter in Globaloney gave me confidence that I had more to say about money, wine, and globalization, so I launched a website called The Wine Economist (WineEconomist.com), where I could work out my ideas in public, make connections, and develop a wine voice. After several years and nearly
200,000 words of blog posts, The Wine Economist evolved into the first edition of this book.

THE ROAD TO WINE WARS II

I wasn’t sure if anyone would want to read about the business of wine, but I was wrong. Wine Wars was warmly received by both critics and readers. It turns out that while wine is good, wine and a story is even better, and stories about the business side of wine can be very interesting. A number of wine industry readers have said that Wine Wars helped them connect the dots and see things more clearly. Consumers, who have no particular business connection, say they just like knowing the backstory of their favorite drink.

I’ve spent the last decade on the wine road speaking at wine industry conferences around the world and learning more about wine and the people who make it. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it, and apparently I am that lucky someone! I have recorded my impressions and experiences in hundreds of columns on The Wine Economist.

Wine Wars has been joined by three other books that continue my analysis of global wine: Extreme Wine (2013); Money, Taste, and Wine (2015); and Around the World in Eighty Wines (2017). Wine Wars celebrated its tenth birthday in 2021, and that occasion made me stop and think (as round-number birthdays sometimes do).

The powerful forces that I identify in Wine Wars are still important, but they’ve changed in ways both big and small. Environmental and demographic shifts, for example, re now much more clearly understood as wine industry challenges. There is a lot to think about and to write about. And so I have written this new book, Wine Wars II, which updates the first edition and extends its argument to address wine’s global crisis.

In a way, this journey has brought me back to that dark cellar on the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley, the great wines we sampled that day, and my “aha!” moment when I realized that wine and economics are a perfect pairing. I’ve learned much more about wine and wine economics, and I appreciate now more than ever the many challenges that the world of wine faces. But I remain an optimist, as I show in this book. I still have grape expectations.

 

Wine Book Review: Britain, Imperialism, and the Wine World They Created

Jennifer Regan-Lefebvre, Imperial Wine: How the British Empire Made Wine’s New World. University of California Press, 2022.

Imperial Wine is a serious academic study of how imperial economic, political, and social relations between Great Britain and three of its colonies — South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand — shaped their wine industries and New World wine more generally from the time of the first plantings through to today.

This is an argument that I am glad to see examined in depth. In my books Wine Wars and the forthcoming Wine Wars II I nominate Great Britain as the center of the wine universe, so powerful, I think, is its influence on wine and the wine trade.

Australia and New Zealand were British colonies that developed wine industries that were shaped to a great extent by the ebb and flow of trade with the United Kingdom. Although South Africa and its wine industry have roots in Dutch colonial trade, the decades under British rule had powerful effects.

It is a fascinating study, but I admit that I struggled at times because I really wanted this to be a book about wine first and foremost and the author is really focused on imperialism, with wine used as a lens. I think that authors earn the right to define their works, so I cannot really complain. This is a story that can be told several ways.

Most people will be surprised at the poor reputation of Australian wines in the UK market in the early post WWII period, for example, given how popular they are today. There are many ways to demonstrate this, but the author highlights a lame Monty Python joke that compares and aroma of Aussie wine to the smell of an Aborigine’s armpit, which invites a discussion of imperial racist attitudes in the post-colonial era.

“Some wine lovers might protest that colonialism is a distant historical footnote to the history of wine, and that dredging up colonial history is a buzzkill, a weary intrusion on our enjoyment of wine,” the author writes in the concluding chapter, suggesting that she’s run into people like me before. “Can’t we just enjoy a glass of wine without someone introducing controversy?  Is colonial history designed to make wine lovers feel guilty?” Imperial Wine, the author argues, makes the case that ignoring the history of wine distorts our understanding of both it and the complicated processes that have shaped it.

Fair point. Understanding the forces that conditioned what is in your wine glass, how it is made, and who it is made for deepens the wine experience, don’t you think? And that includes the forces of empire and the long shadow that they cast.

The author’s deep dives into historical documents drew me in again and again. During World War II, for example, Old World wine pretty much disappeared from store shelves, replaced for the most part by “colonial wines” from South Africa, Australia, and Algeria (not a British colony, but a colony nonetheless).  The author traces changing wartime wine patterns though a study of the detailed records of the King’s College off-license store, called the buttery, which provided wine for fellows and sold it to students. Algerian red wine and South African sherry sold well to penny-pinching students, who would turn their backs on colonial wine after the war in favor of the French wines returned to the market.

Imperial Wine teaches wine enthusiasts about the role of empire in shaping the wine world of the past, present, and probably the future, too. And it teaches students of imperialism that the influence of those forces continues even in something as seemingly simple as a glass of wine.

Interesting. Well-written. Thought-provoking. I learned a lot. Did Imperial Wine change the way I think about wine? Yes, at least a bit. Well worth your consideration.

>>><<<

Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham is one of my favorite books about cultural globalization. Imperialism is a strong force in this account (which includes historical recipes at the end of each chapter). I was reminded of Curry when I noticed that Collingham wrote one of the cover blurbs for Imperial Wine. 

Wine Book Review: Grassroots Perspectives on Portuguese Wine

Simon J. Woolf and Ryanb Opaz, Foot Trodden, Portugal and the Wines that Time Forgot. Interlink Books, 2021.

Portugal is having a much-deserved moment at present. For a long time Portugal wasn’t really on the radar for most people. The situation was so bad that some folks couldn’t find Portugal on a map — I saw a headline that proclaimed Portugal as a Mediterranean destination! It was enough to make Henry the Navigator cry!

Portugal Discovered

Now Portugal is high on the list of popular destinations for travelers of all stripes. Many of our friends have visited Portugal as tourists, for example, one has bought property there and is moving permanently, and another is seeking Portuguese citizenship.

What is the attraction? The people, their culture, food, wine, climate — the list goes on and on. The question isn’t so much why people love Portugal as what took them so long to discover it!

You can say pretty much the same thing about Portuguese wine.  For a long time the wines of Portugal have been sort of filed away a couple of niches. Port and Madeira? Check! Vinho Verde? Check! Lancers and Mateus? Check! Check!

But the world of Portuguese wines beyond the niche categories was essentially uncharted territory. What would it take for get wine drinkers to try Portuguese wines from unfamiliar regions made with unfamiliar grape varieties? It seemed like an impossible challenge.

Portuguese Charm Prevails

But the challenge is being met these days and Portuguese wine sales have been strong in the United States market, due in part to the popularity of Portugal as a travel destination, but also the rising profile of the country and its people more generally. Portugal has become a little bit like Italy in the sense that warm feelings about the place encourage consumers to give the wines a foot in the door, which is all they really need.

Walking into Costco recently, for example, I was met by a giant haystack wine display right by the entrance featuring colorful bottles of wine labeled simply “Portugal Red Blend” from the Lisboa region. It is an honest red wine, not too complicated, and a very good value. Shoppers happily filled their giant shopping carts. Would that have happened five years ago?

Grassroots Portugal

Foot Trodden, the recent book by Simon J. Woolf and Ryan Opaz, comes at an opportune moment when many wine enthusiasts are thirsty to learn more about Portugal. The book is appealing in part because it approaches Portuguese wine from a different angle than many wine books.

The standard format of “Wines of XXX” books is to survey the landscape from the perspective of the grape varieties, the wines they produce, the regions where they are made, and the wineries that make them. It is essentially a top-down approach, which is appropriate for a survey volume. Richard Mayson’s The Wines of Portugal, for example, applies this template to Portugal very successfully.

Foot Trodden breaks the mold a bit by focusing on the people and their stories, letting the other elements appear as part of the human tale. This is a bottom=-up perspective, which I find especially appropriate in this case because, as I noted above, so many of the sources of Portugal’s current success are essentially grassroots characteristics.

The book is well written, the stories, which mainly focus on family wineries, are well chosen and told, and the result a feeling of the place and the challenges that wine makers faced in the past and confront today, too. Excellent book. It deserves the success and recognition it has received.

All in the Family

Because stories are the driving force here, breadth is sometimes sacrificed for depth. So, for example, we are introduced to far fewer wine makers than in the survey books and these tend to be smaller multi-generation family affairs. The big wine producing houses are mentioned, but the focus is elsewhere.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on the Alentejo, which was organized around the tradition of making wines in large clay pots called Talha.  The rise, fall, and now rise again of this tradition is very interesting and deftly connects several family wine stories. These wines certainly honor the book’s sub-title.

I was also pleased to see so much Portuguese history woven into the book’s tapestry.  It seems to me that it is impossible to understand Portuguese wine today, for example, without taking into account the long shadow case by Prime Minister Salazar’s policies and the reaction to the Carnation Revolution.

The book features many colorful photographs, which support the grassroot perspective by highlighting the families, their land, and work. There are a few missed opportunities. The one map included in the book is pretty, but doesn’t answer many questions. More is more when it comes to maps, especially in this case because they can help connect the top-down and bottom-up perspectives.

Which is the better approach — survey or grassroots? Each is useful and interesting. Why choose? More is more when it comes to perspectives on Portugal and its wine!

Wine Book Review: Rethinking Wine Market Perspectives

Giacomo Negro and Michael T Hannan with Susan Olzak, Wine Markets: Genres & Identities. Columbia University Press, 2022.

What would you think if you stumbled upon a tasting note for a familiar wine that was written by someone from a very different culture, using different terms and concepts, and set in a different frame of reference? Think of an extreme version of the Chinese wine tasting notes described in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article.

At first you might just be puzzled and scratch your head (being careful not to spill any wine), but then — if the tasting note is a good one — you’d find yourself thinking, questioning what you thought you knew about the wine, and maybe considering it in a whole new way. That was my experience in reading Wine Markets: Genres & Identities.

I come from Planet Economics, so for me a book about wine markets is a book that is rooted in supply and demand. Producers, consumers, price and quantity — these are the fundamental building blocks.

The authors of Wine Markets come from Planet Sociology, so they think about the people and their relationships as much as — or maybe more than — the wine itself. Hence the book’s subtitle: Genres & Identities. A tasting note from Planet Sociology contemplates the same reality but analyzes it in very different ways.

Chapters at the beginning and end of the book lay out the theoretical elements and the terms that go with them. Different readers will react to this material in different ways. The core of the book is a set of three case studies that all readers will agree are interesting both for their stories and for the conflicts they reveal.

The first case study is Barolo, where modernist producers confront those who follow traditional practices, creating two genres within the one appellation. One element of tension is the use of small oak barriques versus large neutral botti grandi, although it a distortion to oversimplify in this way because some noteworthy producers — including iconic modernist Angelo Gaja — use both to good effect.

Brunello is the second case study, where tension arises between those who follow tradition in using 100% Sangiovese grapes and those who favor “super Tuscan” blends that include international varieties. Finally, the authors visit Alsace, where producer identities are at least in part defined along a biodynamic – organic – sustainable – conventional viticulture spectrum. The research proceeds mainly through interviews with the producers, although there is also statistical analysis of some issues.

The stories are told in terms of wine genres, producer identities, solidarity (or lack thereof), the audiences (consumers, critics), and the markets where they all come together. A different way of thinking about wine markets indeed.

For me the Barolo case study, which was the most detailed, was also the most interesting. The Alsace case confused me — which is not necessarily a bad thing — because the authors argue in part that biodynamic producers there are driven by the desire to achieve market differentiation. My experience is very limited, of course, but I have never met a biodynamic grower who struck me as doing it for the money.

Much of the research for the book was completed several years ago and I wish that more of it had been updated. I also wish there was room for case studies from the New World, where appellations are more geographic indicators than prescriptive wine genres. I wonder how the social dynamic analysis would be different from Barolo and Brunello?

Finally, I appreciate this book because it has given me some new ways to think about the natural wine movement, a genre of wine where identity is both strong and hotly contested at times. I am not ready to move from Planet Economics to Planet Sociology in terms of wine market analysis, but I think we can all benefit from ideas that challenge and stimulate as this book does.

>>><<<

Gillian Tett, an anthropologist by training who reports on the world of global finance, is chair of the editorial board of the Financial Times and an advocate of the sort of cross-silo thinking discussed in this book review. You might be interested in her recent book Anthro-vision: a new way to see business and life.

Wine Book Review: Ch’ Ch’ Changing California

On California: From Napa to Nebbiolo … Wine Tales from the Golden State edited by Susan Keevil. Académie du Vin Library, 2021.

Steven Spurrier, through both word and action, has left a remarkable enduring legacy to the world of wine, including the wine book publisher Académie du Vin Library. The Library’s very ambitious wine book list collects both classic works and new contributions (including Spurrier’s own A Life in Wine) that break from the typical “Wines of ____” (fill in the country or region) mold to address a variety of topics from many personal and professional perspective.

From Bordeaux to California

On Bordeaux, a collection of essays about that famous wine region, appeared last year. Given Spurrier’s central role in the famous 1976 France vs California “Judgement of Paris” tasting, On California seems like a natural next step, officially released last week and available directly from the publisher  and via the usual sources including Amazon.com.

Much like the Library itself, On California collects classic and new perspectives on the Golden State’s wine industry. Unevenness is the typical fault of edited volumes like this one, but I have to say that the 39 essays and excerpts by 35 different authors hang together very well and make informative and enjoyable reading.

Perhaps that’s because of the strong thematic thread that runs through the volume: change. And change is everywhere here. The wine, the industry, the climate, even the history, which although quite short is now long enough that a certain amount of revision is needed. What fun to read excerpts from early essays by the likes of Hugh Johnson, Gerald Asher,  and Harry Waugh alongside some of the pioneers and shapers including Warren Winniarski, Paul Draper, and Randall Grahm. Mix in Elin McCoy, Elaine-Chukan Brown, and many others and you have a complex, balanced blend indeed.

Change and resilience — two key California characteristics — are everywhere in this book, but perhaps especially in a series of chapters that trace the challenges that California wine has faced over the years. Hugh Johnson writes about Prohibition years, Jon Bonné examines the New California that emerged from the ashes, Norm Roby charts the return of Phylloxera, Elaine Chukan Brown addresses drought, wild fire, and environmental change, and finally Clare Tooley MW tackles the threat to California wines form the rising  marijuana industry. Fascinating reading.

Here Comes The Judge  (ment)

If you connect the dots of California + Steven Spurrier + Change you inevitably arrive at the 1976 Judgement of Paris and so it is inevitable that the famous tasting appears here with both an excerpt from George Taber’s excellent book on the subject the commentary from Spurrier and others who had a hand in the wines and the event itself.

The Judgement of Paris, where wines from California were rated higher than some famous French wines by a panel of French judges, did it change everything? No, but it changed quite a lot. It certainly made French producers question their hegemony. I have argued that maybe the biggest impact was in the way it changed Americans’ attitudes about their own wines.  Suddenly there was respect after the long dark decades that followed Prohibition. The wine boom that was launched continues today.

It is interesting to speculate what California wine would look like today if France had won the 1976 competition.  I ask this question with a sense of irony because, depending upon how to look at it, the French really did win (or at least didn’t lose)! Talk about revisionist history!

Here are the average scores (out of 20 points) for the red wines. The winner was Stag’s Leap by a nose.  Stag’s Leap won if we add up and average the points, but did California win?

14.14 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973
14.09 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970
13.64 Chateau Montrose 1970
13.23 Chateau Haut-Brion 1970
12.14 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1971
11.18 Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1971
10.36 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1970
10.14 Clos Du Val Winery 1972
9.95 Mayacamas Vineyards 1971
9.45 Freemark Abbey Winery 1969

If we judge the Judgement as a team sport and not an individual competition, the conclusion changes a bit. The four French wines scored 2, 3, 4, and 6 while the California wines ranked 1, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10. Even if you throw out the two lowest-ranked California wines to make the team’s equal in size, the result seems clear: Team France gets the gold.

The points table was a little different with the white wines. Although a California wine topped the list, I think you’d have to say the team competition was pretty much a dead heat. Still an impressive showing for California.

The situation gets even more interesting, as several studies have shown, if you dig down into the judges’ individual rankings, which varied enormously from one to another in their relative scores.  The final result could have been much different, too,  if the scores were treated as ordinal rankings rather than cardinal measures that can be summed up and averaged.

Does this finding matter? No. Not now. And probably not in 1976, either. The idea that California and France could be put on the same table was radical then, so the fact of Spurrier’s tasting was enough to raise eyebrows. The discovery that some of the French tasters could not tell which was which was quite a shock. That would have been enough to jump-start the changes that were already on the way.

Thanks to Académie du Vin Library and the many authors for their hard work and insights. Change is still in the air in California and On California connects the past and present with the emerging future. Well done!

Scratching the Surface of Croatian Wine

We finally pulled the cork on that bottle of Croatian wine we’ve been saving. It was a Babić from Rak winery — a gift from Dr. Matt Horkey that we set aside to share with a particular Croatian-American friend and then, well, covid happened and lots of things, including this wine, were put on hold.

Croatian Wine Uncorked

The wine was terrific. Babić is a medium-bodied red wine with nice fruit and good balance and acidity, and a certain distinctive character. It matched up well with the sausages we served that night.

Babić is a common family name in Croatia, I’m told, but the wine less so both because Croatia produces more white than red and because another red grape, Plavac Mali, is more famous and readily available. The sources I consulted all talked about the potential of this wine when the vines are not over-cropped and the Rak wine we tasted makes a strong case. Croatia is blessed with dozens of indigenous grape varieties. Our first taste of this Croatian wine makes us thirsty to learn more about them.

Croatian Wine in Context

Croatian wines have yet to make a big dent in the U.S. wine market. A search of Total Wine’s national online inventory turned up just 9 wines in total including two Plavac Mali and a cheery cherry wine, which I think  we found at a local store a few years ago and enjoyed.

When Croatian wine comes up in conversation it is often in an unusual context. The famous California winemaker Mike Grgich, for example, was born in Croatia and many fans of his  Napa wines know that he has established a winery called Grgić Vina in his native region of Croatia.

Croatian wine also comes up in discussions of international economic relations. You probably know how protective some European regions are about their appellation designations. Don’t even think about calling your local sparkling wine a Champagne, for example. It’s a big deal because that designation is very valuable.

Prosecco is a valuable name, too, and Prosecco producers are doing their best to keep others from using it. Australia and the European Union, for example, have had fairly high-level discussions about the fact that the sparkling wines the Aussies make in the King Valley are called Prosecco. The Italians object on both principle and economic interest, as you might expect.

They have also objected to the name of a Croatian dessert wine called Prošek. It isn’t hard to tell the wines apart. Prosecco is light and sparkling, produced in vast quantities for a global market. Prošek, made from dried grapes, is sweet with a tiny total output.  The similarity in names has been a sticking point in relations between Italy and Croatia before and, as The Guardian reported last month, has become an issue once again.

Croatian Wine Touring Guides

The idea of visiting Croatia and exploring the wines in person at some point is very appealing and I already have two guide books to help me navigate the complicated wine scene. The first, which we reviewed back  in 2017, is Crackling Croatian Wine: a Visitor-Friendly Guide by Dr Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan, written as part of their Exotic Wine Travel collection.

The  second book, which was published just a few months ago, is Croatian Wine: Regions, Grapes, and History by Greg Viola. Viola is a U.S. Foreign Service Office who obviously used his time assigned to the Croatian embassy to learn as much as he could about the country and its wine scene.

First glance at these two slender paperbacks (or handy e-books) suggests that they cover much the same territory: regions, grape varieties, wineries, and so forth. Both provide tips for wine tourism in Croatia, which was a growing activity before the pandemic and is sure to return as travel opportunities re-emerge.

Having spent a little time with the books, however, I’ve come to think of them as complements, not substitutes. The authors may write about many of the same topics, but they come to Croatia from different places and look for (and see) different things.

Viola admits that he’s not a expert wine taster, for example, so his tasting notes aren’t quite as rich as those of Horkey and Tan, who have served on professional tasting juries and offer more information about particular wines and winemakers.

On the other hand, Viola provides a really strong sense of place and seems particular good at giving the local knowledge that wine tourists typically crave.  When we read Viola’s description of Brac to our friend he said “that’s it!” That’s where his family came from. There are lots of travel tips and I admit that my favorite appears in an endnote, where he advises that the island of Vis, like most of the Croatian islands,  is free of the roughly 31,000 unexploded landmines left over from the Homeland War. Good to know.

Both books are well written and interesting and, together, are offer a fun and informative introduction to Croatian wine and wine tourism. A good place to begin if, like me, you want to scratch the surface of Croatian wine.

Wine Book Review: Invisible Pignolo Revealed

Ben Little, Pignolo: Cultivating the Invisible. 2021. Available exclusively from The Morning Claret Shop.

Pignolo: Cultivating the Invisible is quite a fantastic multi-media exploration of one of Italy’s (and the world’s) nearly forgotten grape varieties. My first impression of the book was fascination — so playful, so colorful. I just had to thumb through it to discover what was on the next page. Then there was puzzlement, because I would read short passages and it wasn’t really clear what was going on.

First fascination, then puzzlement, then — finally — enlightenment. Ok, that might be too strong, but I went back and read it from the start and it all made sense.

First comes the history of Pignolo in the context of the history of its native region, Friuli Venezia Giulia in Italy’s upper right-hand corner. A really interesting explanation of how Pignolo, wine, and the region evolved. Then the history shifts a bit to author Ben Little’s personal experience with Pignolo, which started only a few years ago (2016) but developed quickly and soon involved many others. There is much of a technical nature to learn through Little’s first person reports.

And then there are the lessons that Pignolo teaches us, inspirations, meditations, not sure what to call them. But by the time you get there you are ready to slow down, let the flow carry you, and absorb them, which might not have been the case at the start. Colorful graphics act as signposts along the way.

Little’s notion that Pignolo is an invisible grape variety works. It was always there all along, you just didn’t see it. That’s how it happened for him. At first he thought that there were just a few people in Friuli growing the grapes and making wine. But once word got out that there was interest, more and more plantings and producers began to appear until there were enough to fill a room (which Little did, with a little help from Pignolo’s friends).

Pignolo might be invisible to you, too. That’s how it was for us. Did we ever taste Pignolo during our trips to Friuli? I had to think and use the ample resources of Little’s big book. We might have tasted Pignolo when we visited the Cormons cooperative, but there were so many wines there it is hard to know. Possibly when we stayed at Il Roncal. Bastianich makes an IGT blend called Calabrone, which is includes a splash of Pignolo as a key ingredient. When we didn’t have time to taste it at the winery Wayne Young wrapped up a bottle for us to take home and I’m very glad he did. Amazing.

We staying in one of the rooms at Borgo San Daniele and I remember distinctly the tasting where Mauro Mauri poured his Arbis Ròs Pignolo from magnum. What an amazing wine. I tried to get him to sell me some bottles, but it was all gone. Only that magnum was left. And the memory, too.

Our final taste of Pignolo was at Paolo Rodaro and that’s when we met Ben Little. Little was nice enough to help with some difficult translations, but you could tell even then, not too long after his Pignolo journey had begun, that his focus was on the particular wine and Rodaro’s version was especially intense and interesting. There was another connection that I only learned about by reading this book — like me, Little is a recovering student of economics and can’t resist adding his insights to the blend.

Having read Little’s book, I want to go back to Friuli and visit the small region of Rosazzo, which seems to be Pignolo’s spiritual home. Pignolo was pretty much invisible to me a few days ago, now that I see that it has been there all along, I want to ask it a few questions.

In the meantime, I couldn’t resist trying to track down a bottle of Pignolo here in the U.S. and refresh my memory. I was able to find the 2005 La Viarte Pignolo Riserva at Kermit Lynch‘s online store. We pulled  the cork and paired the wine with Caesar salad and a prime-grade dry-aged steak — clearly this was a special meal. The wine lived up to the occasion. The first glass was a bit wild, but it settled down and developed along several axes over the next two hours. Sue said that the wine really pulled itself together when the food arrived just as it was meant to do, I think.

Some wine experiences are delicious but not especially interesting — you know what you are getting. Others are interesting, but not necessary delicious — you are happy to stop after the first glass. The Pignolo was both, so it is easy to understand Little’s fascinating with it.

Pignolo: Cultivating the Invisible is a highly personal memoir of and tribute to a very distinctive grape and the people who have nurtured it as it nurtured them. More than a book, it is an experience. Highly Recommended.

Wine Book Review: Rescuing Roussillon’s Identity

Rosemary George MW, The Wines of Roussillon (The Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library, 2021)

It’s not easy to write a book about a complicated wine region like Roussillon — a place with such varied terroir and interesting history. It is especially hard when the approach is personal and intimate. But it must be nearly impossible to do this when the necessary fieldwork is interrupted by a global pandemic.

And yet Rosemary George MW has managed to do all of this and to do it really well in her newest book, which I highly recommend.

The heart of The Wines of Roussillon is a comprehensive analysis of “Who’s Who,” which takes us through Roussillon’s wine regions, visiting many of the most important producers. The winery profiles are very personal and I often had a sense that I was visiting the winemakers with George, which is a welcome feeling after months of relative isolation. Her deep knowledge of the regions and wines provides context and perspective on how things are changing and what has remained the same.

Roussillon’s Identity Dilemma

One of the continuing themes — the elephant in the room that is outlined very well in a chapter on wine business in Roussillon — is identity. What is Roussillon in the broader world of wine? For older wine enthusiasts, Roussillon is an appendage — the trailing part of Languedoc-Roussillon, the term sometimes used to identify the huge vineyard area of the French south. This geographical simplification is unfair to Roussillon, however, which has a distinct character, more Catalan than French (whatever that means, since France itself is so diverse).

Sue and I only dipped our toes into Roussillon wine, food, language, and culture during a media tour a few years ago, but it was impossible to miss (and to appreciate) the differences. Roussillon’s unique character is clear and deserves to stand on its own.

And what about the wines? Well, when we were planning our trip to the area I told some friends and one of them dismissed the enterprise, saying that he hoped that we liked cheap, sweet wines, because that’s what we’d find in Roussillon. The unfavorable reference was to the Vins Doux Naturel wines that the region is known for. The wines are like Port in that their sweetness comes from sugar that remains after neutral spirits are used to prematurely stop fermentation.  Sweet wines like these were highly prized before sugar was cheap and plentiful and sweetness a glut on the market.

The wines don’t have much in common with Port apart from the method of halting fermentation, which makes sense since the grapes are different and the terroir different, too. If you haven’t tasted a Vin Doux before (or you haven’t done so recently) you might make a point of doing so now. You’ll have to search for them a little, but they are there. See what you’ve been missing.

The Sweet and the Dry

One thing Port and Vins Doux share is the ability to age and we were fortunate to taste many quite old wines during our visit. They were stunningly delicious. A wine from 1949 was especially memorable. Amazing. But not all Roussillon’s sweet wine have been amazing and my friend’s comment about “cheap, sweet wines” come from the fact that there was once a robust market for such wines to serve as aperitives that the Vins Doux once filled alongside inexpensive Sherry and Port. It was a good market, I suppose, and a pleasant drink before dinner, but it isn’t the identity that Roussillon needed or deserved. But there you are.

And now, of course, sweet wine generally is hard to sell and so sweet wine with a questionable reputation is especially problematic.  Producers in the Douro have responded to the slump of the market for sweet fortified wines by shifting to non-fortified table wines and they’ve achieved some success, albeit with considerable effort.

Rousillon producers have responded in a similar way with vin sec, which has a larger potential market than the sweet wines. But the French domestic market is not very welcoming to Roussillon dry wines, so emphasis is on developing exports. China, George tells us, became the #1 export market for both the dry and the sweet wines in 2017.  But, as good as they can be, these dry wines have not yet established a clear identity.

The Old and the New

So the elephant in the room is the problem of selling both the sweet and the dry and it seems that this issue comes up whenever George gets into a conversation with a Roussillon wine grower. The problem has had a visible impact on the region — both vineyard area and total product have declined dramatically over the last 30 years. Old identities are hard to dislodge and new ones tricky to establish in a wine world full of where much is changing at once.

I wrote about the identity problem after our visit three years ago and noted a certain refreshing optimism.

The Roussillon producers we spoke with saw old reputation as less of an issue mainly because their region is not so well-known as Languedoc. Roussillon is often lumped in with Languedoc or left out altogether. They see today’s market as an opportunity to build a strong reputation from scratch.

We enjoyed all the wines, both sweet and dry, and sensed important shifts, from older cooperative members to younger independent producers

When we arrived at Domaine de Besombes we met winemakers from the region and shared a delicious Catalan barbecue lunch. And we tasted their delicious stereotype-breaking dry red and white wines, too. Sue was particular fond of the wines made by Laurent Pratx of Serre Romani. The grandson of the man who founded the local cooperative, Pratx returned to Roussillon after working in the Rhone Valley committed to taking his wines in new, independent directions.

So a lot of factors are at work, but the problem remains to establish Roussillon’s identity in today’s environment. Tourism, George suggests, might be part of the answer (once pandemic restrictions have passed). Visitors who learn about Roussillon’s distinct identity can become ambassador’s for the wines. So there is much work to do and you can tell that George appreciates the challenge and believe that the wines are worth the effort and will succeed once they are better known and understood.

Elizabeth George’s The Wines of Roussillon is a rewarding survey of the Roussillon wine landscape and the people who are driving it ahead. Highly recommended.

>>><<<

I thought you might be interesting in this menu from a gala dinner with the winemakers during our visit to Roussillon. It was quite fantastic and showed the versatility of the Vins Doux wines.

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?

>>><<<

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.