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, Hugh 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 bookl 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; Piemonte, Italy; Rioja and Priorat, Spain; the Douro Valley, Portugal; and Hawks 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/.

Book Review: The Wines of South Africa

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

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

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

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

Balancing Act

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

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

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

Follow the Money

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

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

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

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

Time Has Come Today

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

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

Book Review: The Goode Guide to Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goode By the Numbers

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

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

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

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

Boring Writers Beware

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North-North versus North-South

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

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

Serious Fun

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

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

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

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know?

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

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

Back to the Big Picture

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

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

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

Wine Book Review: Adventures on the China Wine Trail

chinaCynthia Howson & Pierre Ly, Adventures on the China Wine Trail: How Farmers, Local Governments, Teachers, and Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the Wine World. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).

I remember my first taste of Chinese wine very well. My university student Brian brought a bottle of 1999 Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon back from his study abroad semester in Beijing. It didn’t really taste much like Cabernet, but it was the smell that really got me. “Ashtray, coffee grounds, urinal crust” was the tasting note I found on the internet. Exactly. Quite an experience.

The second taste was not much better. Matt, another student, found a case of Dragon’s Hollow Riesling in a Grocery Outlet store in McMinneville, Oregon. He gave me a couple of bottles that I tried (but failed) to serve at a student tasting. The smell (something rotten?) got in the way of tasting and the wine went down the drain.

I learned two things from these tastings. First, maybe my students were out to kill me! And second, Chinese wine had a long way to go.

And a long way it has come, too, in only a few years. That’s one of the messages of Cynthia Howson’s and Pierre Ly’s fast-paced new book, Adventures on the China Wine Trail. Howson and Ly, partners in life as well as wine research, might have been initially attracted to Chinese wine by its peculiar taste and unexpected existence. But as they have immersed (I nearly said marinated) themselves in the wine, the people, the geography, and the culture they have discovered so much more, which they enthusiastically share with their readers.

Adventures on the China Wine Trail works on many levels. It is in part the record of the authors’ personal journeys and it is interesting to travel with them as they lug their seemingly-bottomless wine suitcase from place to place. The authors have an amazing mastery of the detail of the people and places, food and wine. It’s almost like being there.

In fact, the book works as a travel guide as well wine journey account, providing information of where to go, what to do, where to stay, and so on. But beware: Howson and Ly aren’t your typical tourists, so while they do take us on a walk along part of the Great Wall, this is only because they took part in a wine conference quite close by. They still haven’t seen the famous Terracotta soldiers despite spending time in that region.  They couldn’t pull themselves away from the wineries. Maybe next time, they sigh.

More practical advice appears in the closing chapters. Where should you go to buy or drink excellent Chinese wine if you visit China? They have recommendations for you. And when will you be able to enjoy Chinese wines (good ones, not the drain-cleaner stuff) at home? Sooner than you think, they say.

Some of the wines are already here, including the $300 Ao Yun that Pierre bought at a Total Wine in Washington State. But that is just the iceberg’s tip and if you are reading this in London or Paris you may know that Chinese wines are no longer the shocking discovery that they were just a few years ago.

And how are the wines? They vary in quality, just like wines from any place else. But many of them (more each year) are excellent and even distinctive. I know this both because Howson and Ly tell us about the wines and also because Sue and I have been fortunate to share some of their Chinese finds — including that luxury Ao Yun.

There’s a final layer to the story that I can’t forget. Howson and Ly are both professors and serious scholars. Although the book doesn’t read like an academic treatise, it has a serious purpose. The authors began their study of the Chinese wine industry wondering where it might lead? Could wine possibly be the basis of sustainable rural economic development? Or was it an alcoholic dead end in terms of a greater purpose?

Chinese wine’s journey has been anything but simple or smooth and continues today. It will be a long time, I suspect, before we know for sure how the story will end. But as for economic development, Howson and Ly have overcome their doubts. Wine in China is the real deal, whatever specific shape it takes in the future. All the hard work of the farmers, government officials, teachers and entrepreneurs we meet in the book has succceeded in building a viable industry.

So here’s my tasting note:  Adventures on the China Wine Trail is a fast-paced journey through the world of Chinese wines that will appeal to readers who love wine, China,  travel, or who just looking a good adventure yarn. Highly recommended.

Money, Taste & Wine: Best of the Best Wine Writing 1995-2020

gourmand-best-25years-1995-2020Gourmand International has been spotlighting the best food and wine books and writing for 25 years and for this year’s big fair in Paris they are recognizing what they consider the “best of the best” of the last quarter-century.

9781442234635I am happy to announce that my book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated! has been shortlisted for the 25th anniversary best wine writing award (it previously won the 2016 best wine writing prize). Here is a quick summary of the book in case you haven’t read it yet.

As wine economist and best-selling author Mike Veseth peels away layer after layer of the money-taste-wine story he discovers the wine buyer’s biggest mistake (which is to confuse money and taste) and learns how to avoid it, sips and swirls dump bucket wines, Treasure Island wines and toasts anything but Champagne. He bulks up with big bag, big box wines and realizes that sometimes the best wine is really a beer.

Along the way he questions wine’s identity crisis, looks down his nose at wine snobs and cheese bores, follows the money, surveys the restaurant war battleground and imagines wines that even money cannot buy before concluding that money, taste and wine might have a complicated relationship but sometimes they have the power to change the world. Money, Taste & Wine will surprise, inform, inspire and delight anyone with an interest in wine – or complicated relationships!

I admit that it warms my heart to be on a short list with authors like Steven Spurrier (see below).  And the nominees in the other categories (full pdf list here) read like Who’s Who of wine wriiting.

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Very exciting. Big thanks to Gourmand International and everyone who helped make Money, Taste, and Wine such a success.

Wine Book Reviews: Vino, Économie, Le Guerre & Leonardo’s Vines

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Four wine books with intertnational twists for your reading consideration.

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Alessandro Torcoli, In Vino Veritas: Praticamente tutto quello che serve sapere (davvero) sul vino. Longanesi.

Billy Joel tells us that wine is a simple thing. A bottle of white? A bottle of red? Perhaps a bottle of Rosè instead? Alessandro Torcoli wants us to know that wine is actually complicated, but not so complex that we can’t enjoy it. And that’s a good thing.

Torcoli is editor of Civiltà del Bere, a leading Italian journal of wine and culture, and an aspiring Master of Wine (there are no Italians on the current list of MWs — incredible!).

I am not fluent in Italian (or French, either — see below), but wine is a universal language and that plus some extra effort allowed me to read and enjoy Torcoli’s new book, In Vino Veritas. My efforts were well rewarded.

In Vino Veritas, as the subtitle promises, provides the reader with “pretty much everything you need to know (really) about wine,” which is to say that it is a survey of the most important topics in wine. I might be wrong, but I imagine that the book came out of Torcoli’s MW studies and represents his thoughtful reflections on the world of wine. Two things especially impressed me about this book.
First, the writing style is so fluid that it is a pleasure to read even, as I noted above, when struggling a bit with translation. Some of this is no doubt because it is written in Italian, which is a beautiful language. But it is possible to write poorly in Italian, too, so most of the credit must go to Torcoli, who is a poet as well as wine expert.

Although Torcoli’s book has global reach, analyzing both old and new world wines, it is written for an Italian audience and so uses Italy and its wines as the reference point. I didn’t realize how important the shift in perspective (from France in many cases) would be and how much it would help me understand and appreciate both Italian wines and those from other places.

This is an enticing book with much to offer both novice and professional. Highly recommended.

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Jean-Marie Cardebat, Économie du vin. La Decouverte.

Jean-Marie Cardebat is a wine economist who teaches at the University of Bordeaux. Although my French is only a little better than my Italian, I found this book accessible because it draws on both the language of wine and the lexicon of economics.

Prof. Cardebat’s book is an introduction to the economic analysis of the wine industry and successfully straddles a certain kind of line, telling economists about wine and wine people about economics without leaving either group behind.

Because of this the book’s organization is very different from that of a standard wine guide. Forget about the typical arrangement based on grape varieties and wine regions. We start instead with the determinants of the supply of wine and move to demand, the market structure, and price, drawing on relevant data and published research along the way.

The tone becomes much more analytical in the final chapter, perhaps because this is where Cardebat’s own research is most relevant. Well written and clear with many fine passages (although understandably not as poetic as Torcoli’s essays). A worthy addition to your bookshelf. You might also consider James Thornton’s American Wine Economics, for an American perspective on the topic.

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>>><<<Attilio Scienza & Serena Imazio, Sangiovese, Lambrusco, and Other Vine Stories. Positive Press.

The third book on this list is provided in English translation of the original Italian, which is helpful since its topic can be dauntingly technical.

I have had the pleasure to be on programs with Prof. Scienza in both the New York and Italy and to appreciate that he is quite a legendary figure in viticulture research. It is easy to see why.

This book analyzes the origins of and the relations between many of the most important indigenous Italian grape varieties using DNA analysis. An important topic, to be sure, but it can be quite technical and somewhat tedious for the novice like me.

So it is significant that Scienza and Imazio interweave the stories of the vines with human stories, drawing upon history and archaeology to help understand how the vines and the wines developed and how they gave us the wines and grapes of today.

One of my favorite chapters explores the family tree of Moscato and Malvasia. Along the way we are introduced to Zibibbo, which the authors compare to a sailor who has a son in every port because this somewhat obscure grape was instrumental in the evolution of so many other wine grape varieties.

We also learn about Leonardo Da Vinci’s personal vineyard in Milan, which still exists and has been somewhat miraculously reconstructed. How do they know what grapes were grown then and are therefore planted again now? Elementary, dear reader. DNA analysis — plus some human detective work that would make Sherlock Holmes proud. We can say with confidence that Leonardo favored sweet wine. Sweet wine? Perhaps that is part of the secret of the Mona Lisa’s mystical smile.

Hard to resist a book with so many fascinating insights.

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Christophe Lucand, Hitler’s Vineyards:How the French Winemakers Collaborated with the Nazis. Pen & Sword History, 2019.

Originally published in French as Le vin et le guerre (Wine and War), the English translation’s title really grabs your attention. Hitler’s Vineyards? Hard not to pull it down from the shelf to learn more.

This isn’t the first book I’ve seen about wine and World War II. One of my favorite wine books of all time is Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Donald and Petie Kladstrup. It tells the story of how French producers walked a delicate line, trying to preserve their wines and vines during the Nazi occupation. The Kladstrups are wonderful story-tellers, so this is a book that is hard to put down.

Lucand’s detailed historical analysis of wine during the Nazi Occupation of France is fascinating, too. Nazi forces purchased truly enormous quantities of French wine from all regions and of all qualities at prices well above the market and shipped it all back to Germany. The money to buy the wine came from the exorbinate fees that Germany charged the French government for the costs of occupation. So French money bought French wine for German drinkers.

Although I am sure the wine producers had mixed emotions about these transaction, the fact is that the high-priced sales were welcome since large stocks had built up in the pre-war years. And, Lucand tells us, the occupiers worked to improve vineyard operations in order to keep the wine flows going.

When the clouds of war finally cleared, Lucand explains, the French wine industry was transformed from an inward-looking business to an export-oriented giant. Fascinating. Detailed, well-written, and controversial, Lucand’s history of France and its wine during the Nazi Occupation is an unexpected treat.

Wine Book Review: Back to the Future? Strong, Sweet & Dry

9781789141528Becky Sue Epstein, Strong, Sweet & Dry: A guide to Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira and Marsala. Reaktion Books, November 2019.

What do Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Marsala wines have in common? They are all fortified wines (the “strong” part of the book title). You probably have bottles of several if not all of them stashed away somewhere in the back of the wine closet, although you might not have thought about them in a while.

And they are all delicious. Time you brought them out of the closet and onto the table where they belong! Becky Sue Epstein’s entertaining and informative new book is just the nudge you need to do it.

There are two themes that run through the chapters on the different wines. The first is a classic rise, fall, rise again arc. Each wine was once the object of intense interest and widespread celebration. Then, for reasons that are sometimes the same (phylloxera vine devastation) and sometimes unique to the particular situation, interest declined and production faded away.

Now, however, these wines are enjoying a bit of a renaissance.  Back to the future! Why now? Well, this leads to the second theme. As they declined, each of the wines was reduced to a stereotype (think stuffy Port and cigars or your grandmother’s sticky sweet sherry). Now, however, there is more interest in exploring the diversity of these wines and returning to their roots.

Controversially,  there is also a trend toward using these fortified wines as the base for cocktails. Wine cocktails? OMG. How could you do that to a nice wine? Yes, I know there are purists who turn their noses up at this idea, motivated perhaps by the fear that it is a slippery slope that leads all the way down to Vintage Port and Coca Cola. Shudder!

But Epstein embraces the idea, pointing out that fortified wine cocktails are part of the history of these wines. People made cocktails a hundred years ago using whatever products were available. And fortified wines were often more readily available than Gin or Vodka, for example.  No reason why such a drink can’t be tasty. And it is probably lower in alcohol than many spirits concoctions.

sandemanSogrape, the Portuguese producer of the Sandeman wines, has embraced the old/new trend. My 2016 column on Port wine developments noted that the Sandeman Tawny Ports were packaged into new bottles designed to look at home behind the bar. What do you think? The shape is more like a whisky bottle and very different from the traditional black Port bottle with its stenciled label.

Sue and I have a strong interest in fortified wines and have been fortunate to be able to sample many of them — including some unusual ones like Commandaria from Cyprus — at the source. But for some reason we’ve never explored Vermouth. Until now.

Epstein’s chapter on Vermouth convinced us we had to learn more. So now we are working our way through the local selection and look forward to adding this wine to our travel agenda list.

Becky Sue Epstein’s Strong, Sweet & Dry inspired us and I think it will inspire you to try something new that’s also something old. Highly recommended.