Book Review: Riesling Rediscovered

John Winthrop Haeger, Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry. University of California Press, 2016.

John Winthrop Haeger’s new book is a worthy addition to a growing bookshelf on Riesling wines, including Stuart Pigott’s recent Riesling: Best White Wine on Earth. It is a thorough, rigorous and quite fascinating analysis of Riesling’s world, focusing on dry Riesling production in the Northern Hemisphere.

How Riesling Is Like Bach

Dry Riesling reminds me of J.S. Bach. Both Bach and Riesling are clean and precise without sacrificing a certain deep emotional engagement. And both invite serious study. If you enjoy Riesling (or Bach?) and have a nerdy interest in where it comes from, how it is made, and who is making it, this book is for you.

Riesling Rediscovered is split into two sections, but not Old World and New World as you might expect. The second half is a detailed examination of some of the main Riesling vineyards and producers in Germany, Austria, France (Alsace), Italy (Alto Adige), Canada (Ontario and British Columbia), and the United States (Washington, Oregon, and California).

These profiles, the result of extensive on-site research, are unusually detailed and informative — perfect for the reader who wants to drill down into a particular region or maker’s story.

The book’s first half provides a rather elegant examination of the Riesling experience, with chapter-length analyses of history, sweet and dry wine styles, production methods, the importance of clones, and Riesling habitats in the Old World and the New.

chateau-ste-michelle-dry-riesling-2013-bottleThe Sweet and the Dry

At the center of the book are several interesting issues. The first involves style. When you say Riesling to people they will often respond quickly that it is sweet and indeed for many decades Riesling was known and even treasured for its sweetness. Spectacular sweet Rieslings were at one point the most valuable and sought after wines in the world.

And then things began to change, even in Germany and Austria. Now it is the case that most Riesling wines around the world are dry and sweet Riesling is the exception. The rediscovery of Riesling as an elegant dry wine is one of the book’s important points.

Riesling’s reputation for sweetness, however, has been slower to change than the wines themselves, which is a problem for those who would like to see this wine’s domain expand. Consumers are too often surprised that what they pour from the bottle doesn’t match their expectations — either “too sweet” if they expect a dry wine or “too sour” if they expect something sweet.

The United States is a special case in this regard. The U.S. is not just the largest wine market in the world by total sales, it is also an important actor in Riesling. The U.S. is the second largest Riesling producer by volume after Germany, for example, and it is also home to the largest-selling Riesling wine in the world.

That would be Chateau Ste Michelle’s Columbia Valley Riesling from Washington State, which may also be one of the world’s great Riesling bargains. I have sometimes purchased this wine for less than $6 per bottle, a ridiculously low price given the quality.

Wine drinkers in the United States made the move away from sweet and fortified wines surprisingly late, but today by and large they prefer dry wines (the recent Moscato and Sweet Red phenomena notwithstanding). When it comes to Riesling, however, they talk dry but like to drink on the sweet (or “off dry”) side. Chateau Ste Michelle’s off-dry Columbia Valley wine vastly outsells its Dry Riesling twin.

And so the U.S. is the odd one out in world Riesling, according to Haeger — the last line of resistance in the movement from sweet to dry.The rediscovery of Riesling as a dry wine is still gaining momentum here.

Elephant in the Room?

I enjoyed Riesling Rediscovered quite a lot and learned something new on every page. I look forward to diving into the details again and again in the years ahead. But as big and tightly packed as this book is, the world of Riesling is bigger still. It obviously isn’t possible analyze every important vineyard or producer in the world (the vast Wine Atlas of Germanywhich appeared in 2014, shows how complicated this is for just a single country).

But the biggest omission — the elephant in the room — is the entire Southern Hemisphere. Any list of the most important dry Rieslings would surely include wines from Australia, for example, along with some from New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and South Africa. Australia does not even appear in Haeger’s index. Pewsey Vale Museum Reserve  “The Contours,” one of my desert island wines, is nowhere to be found.

The reason is purely practical, Haeger explains — no disrespect intended!  The world of Riesling is gloriously big and growing. Any single study has to draw the line somewhere and Haeger needed to do so here to finish this book in just five years. Haeger chooses depth over geographical breadth and that’s understandable. But I hope he has a second volume in the works!


Riesling and Bach? Am I nuts? Well, here’s what I mean.

Bach, Beethoven, Bordeaux? Classical Music & the Terroirists’ Revenge

The Future Symphony Institute has published an essay that I wrote for them titled “The Revenge of the Terroirists.” It talks about the complicated relationship between fine wine and classical music in the modern world. Because it is very brief the arguments are not fully developed, but I think you will see where I am going with it.

I invite you to click on the links above to read the essay and to learn about the Future Symphony Institute and its ambitious mission.

What Can Wine Teach Classical Music?

The idea for this essay springs from a series of conversations I have been having with Andrew Balio, the principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the executive director of the Institute. Balio’s mission is to try to help the musical world think through the economic and intellectual crises that confront classical music and to begin the process of rethinking and renewing it for the 21st century.

The website puts it this way: “Our mission is to formulate a strategy for the renaissance of live classical music and to translate that strategy into programs made freely available to everyone they may benefit.”

Balio was interested in wine because it seemed to him that the wine world had resisted some of the forces that are plaguing classical music. Not all wine is great, but there is substantial and expanding support of and interest in the practices, values and traditions associated with authentic wine and wine culture.

And the interest in fine wine is not limited to the rich or the elderly. It is a very broad movement and an expanding one. If wine can do this, he wondered, maybe classical music can do it, too.

The Terroirist Cause

I am interested in this project for three reasons. First, I see Balio and his colleagues as “terroirists” who push back against commodification and unnecessary simplification.  I wrote about and championed the terroirist cause in my 2011 book Wine Wars. Second, I am a fan of classical music, especially chamber music, and I hope they will achieve their ambitious goals.

Finally, as a member of the board of trustees of a liberal arts college, I recognize that many of the issues that confront classical music organizations are similar to the challenges facing the liberal arts.

Once upon a time there was broader understanding and appreciation of the value and purpose of both classical music and liberal arts education. But for somewhat similar reasons both have become very expensive to produce and their critical role in civilization seems to have been forgotten by many.

Both sets of institutions need to rethink their business models to address the new reality, but that will not be enough. Both need to engage society in new ways that will renew understanding and appreciation without diluting or distorting the values that made them important in the first place. Both need a strong dose of terroirism combined with thoughtful and effective strategy.

The Future Symphony Institute seems like one place where this might happen. I hope my brief essay will help the Future Symphony Institute as it launches a series of articles examining ways that wine can inform classical music and help move it back to center stage.


The illustration above is from a poster created by the Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra that uses the language of wine to talk about their music. That’s a great idea that works both ways. Haven’t you heard a wine described as “harmonious?”

“Wine By Numbers” and the Wine Market Data Trilemma

Readers send me email every week looking for wine economics data because they frequently get frustrated trying to find current information about wine consumption, production, prices and trade. Lots of data are collected, but it isn’t always easy to sort through and it is often available only at a cost (frequently a very high cost).

Sometimes it seems like there is a wine economics data trilemma (I talk about trilemmas in my new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated).  Researchers want the three Cs: data that is current, complete and cheap (free is even better), but it is hard to get all three.

Current and complete will cost you. Current and cheap is sometimes available, but it might not be complete. Complete and cheap, yes, but maybe a bit dated. You can probably think of examples of all three “trilemma” trade-offs.

There may not be a solution to this trilemma, but I am always looking for resources that can help fill in the gaps and I think I have found one in “Wine by Numbers,” which is provided by Il Corriere Vinicola and the Unione Italiana Vini, an association of Italian wine producers whose 500 members account for 70% of the nation’s wine.  The website explains its purpose this way

The first web magazine dedicated to the international wine trade. Data and figures of the main exporter and importer countries at a glance: Italy, France, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, Canada, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Brazil.

The data are exposed in tables and figures with details on packaged wines, bulk and sparkling, showed in volume, value and average price.

Free monthly and annual pdf publications are provided by “Wine by Numbers” and, while they don’t eliminate the trilemma issue, they are great resources for anyone wishing to know more about world wine markets.

The Great Convergence? Changing Patterns of Global Alcohol Consumption

The Economist magazine’s current issue includes a brief  article on “Booze Around the World: The Changing Demography of Drinks,” which features  this interesting info-graphic.

It is interesting to see that alcohol consumption per person (third graph) is experiencing a type of convergence in the main markets that some globalization theorists have predicted more generally due to falling income disparities among leading nations and international cultural exchanges that take place via media, immigration and tourism.

Although the graphs are about alcohol in general, this convergent pattern also true for wine, with rising consumption in the new world and falling use in the old world (including Argentina, which is an old world wine country located here in the new world).

The Economist graphs and related story raise a lot of questions. For me the most interesting thing is that, while overall alcohol consumption shows surprising stability (the first graph) the who, what when, where, how and why of consumption displays surprising change (the third graph illustrates the dramatic shift in who and where, for example).

The more things stay the same the more they change? Perhaps! Can’t wait to see what new patterns develop in the next ten years.

Book Review: Jurafsky on The Language of Food (with implications for wine)

Dan Jurafsky, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Dan Jurafsky is a Stanford University computational linguist who is fascinated by the way we talk about food. He’s written this provocative book that tells a series of stories that mainly trace the way that the language of food changes over time and how this is related to global cultural and economic exchange.

Turkey, turkey, sushi and ketchup

One story, for example, explain how the turkey, which is native to Southern Mexico, came to be named for the country of Turkey in England and here in the U.S. while acquiring names associated with India in France and elsewhere.

Another chapter traces the origin of ketchup (or sometimes catsup) back to China and then around the world to the familiar red Heinz bottle buried in the back of your refrigerator.  Great stuff if you are interested in food, globalization, history or language.

Unsurprisingly, I was hoping to read about wine in this book and I did both directly (the origins of the social custom of the  “toast” in spiced toasted bread that was dipped in wine to improve its flavor) and indirectly (vinegar, wine’s close relative, as the unlikely global connection between sushi, the food of Japan, English fish and chips, and a host of other delicacies).

Menu Language and Economics

The most thought-provoking ideas about wine actually came from the chapter of the language of restaurant menus. Jurafsky and his colleagues were able to amass a considerable database of restaurant menus for digital analysis. The data is both broad (there are hundreds of thousands of menus on the web) and deep (the New York Public Library has a historical collection of 10,000 menus dating back to 1843). So it is possible to analyze both how the language of the menu has changed over time and how if has evolved differently for different types of restaurants.

The menus don’t just describe food, they also list prices, which makes them interesting to an economist. What types of words are most associated with higher and lower menu prices? The researchers adopted the necessary control procedures (so that they were comparing apples with apples) and here’s what they found.

Language varied by the type of restaurant. Inexpensive restaurants tended to talk about the choice they provide their customers, which I suppose makes sense. Diners understand that inexpensive cafes often offer long menus and so standardized products are the norm. Choices (eggs as you like them, for example, or a dozen different flavors of dipping sauces and salad dressings) are a way to diminish the industrial quality of the experience.

More expensive fine dining restaurants don’t stress choice and, in fact, sometimes deny choice by having chef-chosen set tasting menus (sometimes even “blind” set menus where the list of dishes is not revealed when the diner maker her order).  Instead of stressing choice, the menus focus on the particular characteristics of the food, the origins of ingredients, and the nature of the preparation. Language literally “counts” here. There is a positive correlation between average word length in the menu descriptions and the price of the item. Each one letter increase in the average word length is worth about 18 cents!

You Said a Mouthfull!

Longer words and more specific terms are associated with higher menu prices. This is correlation not causation, of course, so it isn’t necessarily true that you and I see longer words or detailed descriptions and pull out our credit cards, but it could be true that these characteristics help us justify a higher price because they seem to signal to us higher quality. If wine drinkers have trouble avoiding the assumption that higher price signals higher quality, it’s not impossible that high-end diners respond to sophisticated word play.

Interesting finding: there seems to be a “spicy” or “exotic” tax. Menu items that include these words typically carry a higher average price than similar products without this designation.

So chicken you order at Wendy’s is about choice (do you prefer grilled or fried?) and at a fine dining restaurant it is about specific qualities and longer words (spicy Palliard of vegetarian-fed Draper Valley Farm chicken with exotic accompaniments), what about casual dining restaurants that occupy a vast middle ground?

Casual dining restaurants like TGIFriday’s, Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday have a menu language all their own, stressing how the food tastes or is prepared, but in very broad general terms. Chicken is tender. Steak is juicy, Crab is … real (because you might think it could be fake crab). Interestingly, terms of this type are all associated with lower prices! It isn’t that you are thinking that tender chicken is worth less, it’s just that a higher quality place wouldn’t need to tell you that the steak is juicy or the crab is real, but a less expensive restaurant would.

Jurafsky calls these “filler words” and they are the types of things you say when you have to say something but there isn’t anything better or more specific to say. The more filler words on the menu, it seems, the less distinctive the actual food items and the lower the price. Interesting, isn’t it?

The Language of Wine

So what does this have to do with wine? Well, it seems to me that the same sort of research could be done on the language of wine, both how it has changed over the years and also the way that certain types of terms are associated with different categories of wine. I’m going to start paying more attention to wine advertising, wine label text and wine reviewer descriptions.

Some off the cuff observations are inevitable. If box wines are the vinous equivalent of fast food, then it makes sense that they would talk about convenience the same way that inexpensive restaurants talk about choice. No sense dwelling on low cost since that’s obvious. It’s the way that the product can be made to accommodate your desires that matters.

Very detailed descriptions reign at the top of the wine food chain just as they do for restaurant food — and this is perhaps because indicators of place and craftsmanship are now almost universally seen as indicators of quality and authenticity. It’s not just food or wine, it is pretty much everything that consumers look for.

Maybe this is why so many AVAs have been created in the U.S. — having an AVA associated with your wine is important to its credibility even if the consumer doesn’t really know what or where it is (and even if it doesn’t really mean very much in terms of quality or style of wine). Sue and I enjoyed a nice Vioginier recently that got my attention because it came from the Clarksburg AVA. Clarksburg? You don’t see that every day. Interesting! Gotta try it (and it was indeed interesting).

I’ve inserted an image of the back label of that Viognier above so that you can read the text. Pretty upscale messaging, don’t you think? Even the average word length is impressive.

What about the wine equivalent of casual dining — branded wines selling in the $8-$12 range?  A quick look at some labels suggests that the descriptors are just as vague (“juicy,” “delicious”) as on the casual dining menus and they probably fill the same function — fillers to provide a little (very little in some cases) textual weight when more specific terms don’t apply. Sometimes, I have noted, the labels can have very little to do with wine at all — simple but perhaps effective filler.

Robert Louis Stevenson said that wine is bottled poetry, but I think there is even more to it than that! The language of food and the language of wine seem to have something in common. Food for thought for wine marketers and consumers both!

Celebrating Malbec World Day 2015

April 17, 2015 is Malbec World Day — a great opportunity to pull the cork on a bottle of Malbec wine and to appreciate how quickly this grape variety has come to be an important part of the U.S. and global wine scene.

I have a warm spot in my heart for Malbec because it reminds me of all the nice people and great wines Sue and I encountered during our visit to Argentina a few years ago.  So many interesting experiences learning about old vine Malbec from Roberto De La Mota at Mendel winery, about Malbec -Cabernet blends at Catena and that Argentina is much more than Malbec at a special tasting arranged by Andrés Rosberg.

My appreciation of Malbec deepened when I was asked to take part in the award-winning 2011 documentary Boom Varietal: The Rise of Argentine Malbec produced by Kirk Ermish and directed by Sky Pinnick.  The economics of the Malbec story came to play a surprisingly large part in the film and so I had more screen time than I would ever have expected.

Malbec’s story is inevitably associated with Argentina, but it has become a world-wide phenomenon, breathing life into the Malbec industry back home in its native France (where it is often called Côt) and opening doors to wine-growers around the world (perhaps especially here in the Pacific Northwest).

I’ll be toasting the rise of Malbec with a glass of … what else? … Argentinean Malbec on April 17. Please join me. Cheers!

North to Alaska: On the [Wine] Road for the World Affairs Council


North to Alaska? No Ice Wine jokes, please!

I’m on the road this week, going north to Alaska to do programs for the World Affairs Council. I will be in Juneau  to talk about the global Wine Wars on February 11, 2015 at 5:00 pm at the KTOO studios. The talk is free and open to the public. I’d love to see all my Juneau friends there. I gave a talk about Globaloney there a few years ago and had a great time. 

Then it is north once more to Anchorage for a program for the Alaska World Affairs Council  It is a wine dinner event on February 12 with great food, interesting wines and some Extreme Wine stories to go with them.

The wine dinner is a fund-raiser for the World Affairs Council with tickets priced at $100 for AWAC members, $125 for non-members and $150 to sit at the VIP table with me.  I did a similar dinner in Seattle last year and it sold out and raised a lot of money for the World Affairs Council, so I have high hopes for Anchorage. I will also visit a high school in Anchorage to talk with the students about globalization and answer questions about global markets, globaloney, global wine and (wearing my professor hat) college studies.

I am a big fan of the work of local World Affairs Councils and have done several programs in the past for the groups in Seattle, Portland, Tacoma and Juneau. World Affairs Councils make that critical global-local connection, bringing global issues home and fostering international understanding. I’m proud to support their work in Alaska and across the country.


Hope you enjoy the trailer from the 1960 film “North to Alaska.” I think my visit will be exciting, but in a different way from the film. Looking for that video I stumbled upon this. What do you think?