Wine and the Dry January Syndrome

January is just around the corner and that means Dry January, the month when many people pause to assess their alcohol consumption. If a lot of people have been indulging as much during the covid pandemic as their social media feeds suggest, Dry January could be particularly traumatic this time around.

Not Just January Any More

But it is a mistake to think of the interest in low- and no-alcohol beverages as being strictly seasonal. The  marketing gurus at Heineken beer haven’t invested a fortune promoting Heineken 0.0 because they are looking for a short-term January sales bump. There are lots of reasons for consumers to seek out alcohol-free alternatives and the beer industry, always on the lookout for growing market niches in a fairly stagnant category, has responded with gusto.

If you don’t believe this, take a trip to the beer aisle of your local upscale supermarket. You might be surprised by the number of low/no abv products you find there and the range of styles. When I first explored this question in a Wine Economist column earlier this year I was impressed by a number of German products that had real beer flavor without the abv that usually goes with it.

My favorite among the half-dozen products I tried was Dry Hopped Clausthaler. It ticked the boxes for me: single serving container, affordable price, and it tasted so authentic that I didn’t miss the alcohol.  Very impressive. I’ve got some in the fridge now.

Another appealing product that I stumbled upon is All Out non-alcoholic stout by Athletic Brewing Company. It’s an oatmeal stout and it tastes like an oatmeal stout — very satisfying. Because it is non-alcoholic, the usual nutritional information is provided on the can. Ingredients: Water, malt, oats, wheat, hops, yeast. 90 calories per can. If you like oatmeal stout, you’ll like this, too.

Beer makers have an advantage over wine producers in that they can produce many different batches of beer over the course of the year. Winemakers generally have one shot and that’s it. So seasonal beer products are available and for the winter months Clausthauler made a non-alcoholic holiday beer, Santa Clausthaler (Santa Claus-thaler — get it?) shown above dressed in miniature Santa hats.  It is a 50-50 blend of their non-alcoholic beer with a cranberry cinnamon drink. Interesting! Kinda reminds me of mulled wine.

Fear of Missing Out

My earlier column on Dry January worried that wine was missing out on the low/no abv beverage trend. I know there are good wine products out there, but I don’t see the same investment in this category that the beer industry has made. Every bar or restaurant that I visited (when such visits were possible) had a non-alcoholic beer option available. None had non-alcoholic wine.

So what I am looking for? Single serving container is important. Affordability is important, too. And a non-alcoholic wine needs to remind me of wine as much as the best of these non-alcoholic beers remind me of beer.

A new product that seems like a step in the right direction is called H2/Heart Sonoma Soft Seltzer, which comes in  Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Rosé flavors. Although the target is non-alcoholic seltzer, not wine, these carbonated drinks contain de-alcoholized wine and grape juice, too.

Sue and I received samples of the sparkling Pinot and Rosé flavors. Sue thought that the Pinot tasted like Black Cherry soda and didn’t see it as a wine substitute at all. The Rosé tasted like sparkling raspberry lemonade to me and, while I can’t say it especially reminded me of Rosé wine, I think I would be happy with this sparkler in my glass at some future post-covid holiday party. Festive, refreshing, enjoyable.

So clearly some people are hard at work bringing wine to the low/no abv party and that’s a good thing because I think this market niche is only going to grow. I’d like to think that wine can play in this arena because I suspect there are many people like me who sometimes want a high-quality low/no abv option, but would like to stick with wine.

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That’s it for 2020. The Wine Economist will be back in 2021. Happy Holidays to all.

Flashback: Malbec & Maradona


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

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

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

Malbec and Maradona

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

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

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

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

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

 Lucky Survivors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wine Innovation: Lessons from Portugal

Innovation is a hot topic in the wine industry these days. While some wine brands can depend upon their traditional markets, messages and products, many producers find themselves under increasing attack from “the crafts” — craft beer, craft cider and craft spirits.

One advantage that these alcoholic alternatives seem to possess is the heightened ability to adapt, evolve and excite — to innovate in various ways that keep customers coming back to see what’s new.

How wine got in this situation is a long story that I will tell another time and whether wine should even enter the innovation wars is something that is hotly debated. Some new wine products have been criticized as “pop wines” that debase and therefore threaten the whole product category — not a view that I endorse, but I can understand the concern behind it.

So I was very interested in looking at innovation during my visit to Portugal and I found it in many different forms. I thought you might be interested in a little of what I discovered.

Port: No Wine Before Its Time

Port, which is arguably Portugal’s signature wine, is an example of a wine category that is both timeless and highly innovative.  Timeless in the sense that Port wines have in many ways remained much the same for several centuries. White Ports, Ruby Ports, Tawny Ports — in fundamental respects these are the same today as they were 100 or 200 years ago. Almost nothing is as traditional as Port, with its stenciled bottles and historic brands.

This is a plus and also a minus. The plus of course is brand recognition — only Champagne was a stronger brand than Port from a name recognition standpoint. But it’s a minus, too, because that brand, like Sherry, is wrongly associated with one-note sweet wines. Like Rodney Dangerfield, they sometimes don’t get the respect they deserve.

And it is a minus because the traditional Port wine styles are exercises in patience in a very impatient world. Tawny Ports must be held by the maker until they are mature in 10, 20 or even 40 years. That’s a lot of time to wait with the investment time clock running. Vintage Ports need time, too, but this time the buyer is expected to patiently wait for the wine to mature.

Time is Port’s friend because of what they do together in terms of the quality of the final product but, from an economic and market standpoint, time is also an inconvenient enemy and seemed to limit Port’s potential in the postwar years.

The answer to the time problem was an innovation that appeared in 1970, when Taylor Fladgate released their  1965 Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port.  LBV has the character of Vintage Port but is ready to drink when released, not 20 years later. It was not quite the Chateau Cash Flow killer app of the wine world, but it certainly breathed new life into the Port market at a moment when this was especially welcome. Some say that LBV saved the Port industry and I think this might be true.

Colorful Port

Red and white are the traditional colors of Port, but recently some makers have innovated to try to get the attention of younger consumers who have as little interest in their notion of grandfather’s Port as they do in their stereotype of granny’s Cream Sherry. Croft Pink Port and Quinta de Noval Black Port are examples of this innovative trend.

Pink Port is made in a Rosé style, with less skin contact and therefore fewer grippy tannins than Ruby Port. The Croft website is fully of cocktail ideas so perhaps this is a Pink Martini killer wine? Richard Hemmings, writing on the JancisRobinson.com website, makes the wine sound like an excellent option for the many Moscato lovers in your life.

97g/l RS, 4.2g/l TA. Raspberry juice, bubblegum, pink apples and fresh strawberries. Sweet and full on the palate, good concentration. Well balanced and smooth, creamy texture with a mouth-watering burst of fruit on the finish. Very good, not massively complex but a worthy product. (RH)

Noval Black is more traditional in style and color, with more of the tannins than the Pink. Less complex than my favorite LBVs, but interesting. I agree with the website’s chocolate pairing suggestions, although I haven’t tried any of the cocktail-type recipes. Here is Hemmings’ take on Noval Black:

Ruby reserve in style, with an average age of 2-3 years old. Aimed at younger consumers, as the flashy website attests! Fruity, jammy, figs and dates. Sweet and supple, with a glacé cherry flavour and a simple, satisfying style. (RH)

Product versus Process Innovation

So far I have focused on product innovation but I haven’t mentioned process innovation and that is a mistake ,as I learned from a winemaker during my stay in Porto.

George Sandeman of the famous Port & Sherry family invited me to taste through the Ferreira line of wines and Ports and of course the Sandeman Ports. How could I resist? Even better, we would be joined by Luis Sottomayor, Porto Ferreira’s award-winning winemaker.

The bottles and glassware filled the big table as we began to taste through the Casa Ferreirinha wines then the Ferreira and Sandeman Ports. The wines were eye-opening. From the most basic wines selling for just a few Euro on up to the super-premium products they were well-balance, distinctive and delicious. Not all the Portuguese wines that make it to the US market have these qualities.

I have a star in my notebook next to the entry for the Casa Ferreirinha Vinha Grande Red 2010, for example. A blend of classic Portuguese grape varieties from two Douro regions, it spent twelve months in second the third use oak. Easy drinking, soft tannins, nice finish, classy, well-made. Cost? About Euro 10. in the home market or $19.99 in the US.

“Delicious” I wrote next to the note for the Casa Ferreirinha Quita Da Leda Red, which comes from an estate vineyard just 1 kilometer from the Spanish border. It is the product of a small winery located within the company’s larger facility. Spectacular wine, special terroir, I wrote. US price is $64.99 and worth it.

As we tasted through the Ports I started to talk about innovation — Pink, Black and so on. Sottomayor stopped me in my tracks. If you want to really understand innovation in Portugal, he said, you have to look beyond new products to the work that is being done to improve the process in the vineyard and the cellar. This is where the real gains are, as seen in the table wines I had just tasted and the Ports I was about to sample.

Taste this LBV, Sottomayor said. The LBVs we make today are of the same quality as the Vintage Ports we made 15 years ago. And the Vintage Ports are that much better, too.  New products are part of the story of Portuguese wine innovation, but improved winegrowing and winemaking are just as important now and probably more important in the long run. Lesson learned!

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I came away from the tasting described above both richer and poorer. Richer because Sottomayor’s lesson about innovation will save me some money — as much as I enjoy Vintage Port and will continue to buy it, I now have LBV centered on my radar screen and it sells for a good deal less.

And poorer? Well, Sandeman and Sottomayor set up a little experiment for me, first letting me taste their 10-year old Tawny Ports and then the 20-year-olds. We like the 20s, George Sandeman said, because you can taste where they’ve been (the 10-year old wines) and also where they are going  (the 40-year old Tawny that I tasted next). The tension between youth and old age makes the 20-year old Tawny particularly interesting, he said.

And I am sad to say that I could taste exactly what he was describing. Sad? Yes, because 20-year old Tawny costs a good deal more than the 10 and for the rest of my life I am going to be paying that extra sum!

Congratulations to George and Luis on the great ratings that their 2011 Vintage Ports have received! And thanks to them and to Joana Pais for their help and hospitality.

Anatomy of Australia’s New Wine Strategy

Click on the image to view one of the Restaurant Australia videos.

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In my last column I talked about Australian wine’s plans to re-brand itself on the global market through an integrated food-wine-tourism campaign called “Restaurant Australia.”  Delegates to Savour Australia were treated to four specially produced videos  (click on the image above to see one of them) that introduced the concept and, not coincidentally, also introduced the chefs and purveyors who would be providing some of our (delicious) meals over the next few days.

Beyond Sensory Overload

The audience seemed to pause, slightly stunned, after each video. At first I thought that it was just sensory overload. And it was. The stunning images presented on the big screen with rich surround sound was an intense experience, to be sure. The fact that we experienced it all again later, meeting the chefs, tasting the produce– that was intense too.

But now that I am back home and reflecting on the experience, I think that perhaps we also paused for a different reason. The whole purpose of our gathering was wine. We had journeyed long miles to Adelaide to see and hear Australia tell its wine story. But where’s the wine?

Yes, wine and a winemaker appeared in each video, but they seemed a bit of an add-on rather than the featured element of the message. What would happen if you left out the wine ? Nothing much else would change. Is that the way we want people to think about Australian wine — an afterthought in the grand “Restaurant Australia” concept?

Now There’s Your Problem

Obviously not — and it would be a mistake to judge the marketing campaign by a few introductory videos. But, as I thought about it, I began to recognize that it was related to a bigger problem.

One of the chapters in Extreme Wine is about wine and modern media — I call it Extreme Wine Goes to the Movies — and it concludes in part that wine’s inherent sensuousness seems to be difficult to translate to video. Yes, wine famously unlocks all the physical senses and a few of the mental ones, too. But it is an experience good. Like fly fishing and some other things you might be able to think of, its more fun to do than to watch someone else do.

That’s why there are surprisingly few films where wine plays a really central role. There are a few excellent ones (Sideways fans please put down your pitchforks!) but you’d really expect there to be far more than I found in my research. Food, on the other hand, seems to be something that video can capture very well. Does watching someone drink wine in a movie make you thirsty? Maybe. Does watching a celebrity chef eat a delicious dish make you hungry? You bet it does!

Hungry?

No doubt about it. Wine’s magic is difficult to capture on the silver screen (or that little screen on your tablet or smartphone). That’s why we have Master Chef but not Master Enologist.  There are rock stars in wine, but they don’t generally transcend the wine category the way the foodie celebrities increasingly do.

Wine Porn versus Food Porn

My foodie friends are always taking X-rated “food porn” photos of the the plates they are served at fancy restaurants. But my wino buddies generally don’t bother to snap “wine porn” images of their glasses (although I admit to some G-rated bottle/label shots myself).

Assume that I’m correct about this for a moment (or, better yet, grab a copy of Extreme Wine and read a more detailed account, which uses Sideways to show why really powerful wine films are so rare). Given video’s undeniable importance in communications today, what is wine to do? Well, one answer is to do what Australia wine seems to be doing, which is use what works (the foodie side of the campaign) to drive the message.  They call it “Restaurant Australia,” but I have a better name.

Strongest Brand in the World?

I call it The Italian Way. What region has the strongest generic wine brand? Well, here in the United States I would say that it is Italy (although France can make a claim because of Champagne’s powerful brand). Americans love everything about Italy — the food, the people, the art, the scenery, the food again, and now with the new Fiat 500, even the cars.

Americans love Italian (or sometimes Italian-style) coffee. And they love Italian wine. Just the fact that it’s from Italy gives it an automatic advantage at supermarkets, restaurants and wine shops.

It seems to me that “Restaurant Australia” aims to get Americans to love warm, friendly Australia in the same way that they have always loved warm, friendly Italy. A good idea? Yes. But not easy to do. If it was easy to achieve Italy’s reputation, everyone would do it. But it is worth trying. Australia has authenticity in its favor — it really is warm and friendly and the food and wine you can find there really are great– and that’s worth a lot.

Is it the only way to re-brand Australian wine? No — tune in next week for my report on another approach to this problem.

Restaurant Australia: Re-Branding Australia (and Australian Wine)

Click on the image to see a “Restaurant Australia” video.

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I’m back from Australia, where I spoke at Savour Australia 2013 (click here to view my presentation). The purpose of Savour Australia was to re-launch Brand Australia wine on the global market by bringing together about 700 domestic and international delegates and rolling out an integrated marketing plan that combined Australian food, wine and tourism.

Savour Australia was quite an intense and impressive global gathering and I am still trying to process all my experiences both at the conference and in independent travels (scroll down to see a brief list of extreme wine moments). I’ll be analyzing what I think I’ve learned over the next several weeks.

Food Stars, Porn Stars, Rock Stars

“Restaurant Australia” is the proposed new brand and you can perhaps best appreciate how its elements connect by clicking on the image above and watching the short video that appears. The basic idea is that food and wine have become much more important tourism drivers. Nature (think Grand Canyon) and culture (think Italian Renaissance art and architecture) are still important draws, but increasingly travelers seek out fine wines, great restaurants and cult foodie experiences. Then they become brand ambassadors, spreading the word across the internet and around the world.

This sea change should not come as a surprise. As I wrote in Wine Wars, this is an effect of the growing popularity of foodie television shows and networks, like the insanely popular international Top Chef and Master Chef series and the rise of foodie celebrities such as Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain and so on. Seriously, food stars get more exposure than porn stars and are sometimes more popular than rock stars (“rock star” being the gold standard for pop culture status).

The food’s the thing, don’t you know? The Australians are smart to realize this and to try to recast their image around it.

Shrimp on the Barbie

But they don’t start the process of re-branding with a clean slate (or clean plate, I suppose). For many people here in the United States, Australian cuisine is defined by Crocodile Dundee and Outback Steakhouse. Paul Hogan, the actor who portrayed the famous Crocodile Dundee character in the films, was featured some years ago in an Australian tourist campaign that generated the memorable line “throw another shrimp on the barbie.” Australian food (and culture generally) is warm and generous, if not particularly sophisticated according to this approach. A good image then (and Australians sure are warm and generous), but not especially useful now. The game’s changed.

For better or worse, Outback Steakhouse’s popularity has reinforced this idea of Australian food culture. Outback is a meat and potatoes kind of place, although I see they now also feature grilled chicken “on the barbie.” It’s signature menu item is a “bloomin” deep fried onion appetizer. Tasty, I bet,  but not really haute cuisine.

So the Australians have their work cut out for them and the videos we saw at Savour Australia (and the great food and wine we enjoyed there) suggest that they have both great raw materials to work with and a sophisticated understanding of the story-telling necessary to make their strategy work. Click here to view videos from Savour Australia, including four stunning chef-centered  “Restaurant Australia” themed videos.

Terroirist Revenge Strategy

I’m a big fan of this approach, as I told my Adelaide audience, because it fits very well into the analysis I presented in Wine Wars. I didn’t have Australia in mind when I wrote that book, but its argument fits the great land down under very well. Australian wine has experienced the double-edged sword of globalization and the problems of over-simplified marketing messages (these are the “Curse of the Blue Nun” and the “Miracle of Two Buck Chuck” of the book’s subtitle).

Now, I think, they need to channel their inner terroirists and tell a more sophisticated story that draws upon, to use a catch phrase of the Restaurant Australia campaign, the people, places and produce of their land. (People, place and produce is not a bad definition of terroir).

Will it work? Will “Restaurant Australia” be able to launch Australian wine on a new path? Come back next week for more analysis.

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Australia 2013: Memorable Moments

Herewith a few memorable moments from our trip, some of this will be featured in future Wine Economist columns.

  • A festive wine dinner with Australia’s First Families of Wine, an association of Australian producers who are doing their level best to change the way the world sees Australian wines.
  • A fabulous tasting of Australian wines from the Yalumba Wine Museum (I guarantee you will be jealous when you hear about the wines we sampled).
  • Wine writer and broadcaster Michael Hince and his wife Amanda  invited us to a dinner in Melbourne where they showed off wines from Victoria. It was a really spectacular demonstration. Wow! You can read Michael’s account of the wines and the dinner here.
  • Great hospitality during our time in the Barossa Valley, with memorable visits to Rockford, Torbreck, Hentley Farms and Charles Melton.
  • My wine economics colleague Kym Anderson gave us a memorable tour of his Adelaide Hills region (highlights: Ashton Hills Vineyards for the Rieslings and Pinot Noir and Hahndorf  Hill Winery for Gruner Veltliner and Blaufrankisch) and sent us to Seppeltsfield winery in Barossa, where we happily immersed ourselves in Australian wine history.
  • Tasting and talking with Peter Althaus at his Domaine A winery near historic Richmond, Tasmania (and staying at Tara’s Richmond Farmstay).
  • The fabulous family-style long-table winemaker lunches at Savour Australia. Outstanding food, wine and conversation.
  • Working (not just attending) the Wednesday “Grand Tasting”. Prue and Stephen Henschke let me pour their fabulous wines (including Hill of Grace)  for about 90 minutes so that I could see the conference and the delegates from the other side of the table.  What a treat!

Pawn Star Wine


It’s been a busy week so far. My new book Extreme Wine has just been released. Sue and I traveled to Portland, Oregon for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show where I autographed 75 copies of Extreme Wine in 75 minutes before we ran out of books.

And now Wine-Searcher.com has published my latest column on fine wine investment. Click here to read the article, which is called “Pawn Shop Solutions for Wine Investors.”

My column has an unexpected “hook:” a 2010 episode of the U.S. television show “Pawn Stars” that featured a bottle of 1921 Dom Perignon. You’ll have to read the article to get the whole story, but basically I use this example as a way to talk about how investing in wine is different, in terms of financial economics, from other types of investments. It’s an unlikely approach, but I think it works.

We so often hear about the benefits of wine investments or the problems with it in only a very general way. I’m interested in doing more serious comparative analysis, while keeping the mood light. If you’ve seen the show “Pawn Stars” you know that you can actually learn a lot of history through its often funny “reality TV” stories. My column also comments and reports on some recent trends in wine investment.

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Hope you’ll check out my column. Here’s a photo from the Portland book event. Great to see all of independent booksellers (God bless them!), publishers, authors and volunteers (bless them, too) in Portland.

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Exaggerated Reports? Wine Writing and Wine Reading

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

This post is provoked by Andrew Jefford’s now-famous speech “The Wine Writer is Dead,” which he gave at a meeting of European wine bloggers in Izmir, Turkey last month. It’s a great speech, full of wisdom and insight — click here to read the written version on Jefford’s website.

Jefford’s title made me think of the famous scene in Mondovino (see video above) where Aimé Guibert declares that wine is dead (and cheese and fruit, too). It seems to me that Guibert’s obituary for wine was based on the fact that people try to make a living from wine in an increasingly global and competitive market environment and this changes things, although perhaps not as much as Guibert suggests since money and wine have always intermingled and it is foolish to pretend otherwise.

Jefford talks about the problem of making a living, too, and the changing writers’ market environment, but he doesn’t suggest that wine writing has lost its soul in the way that Guibert mourns the death of wine’s essence. Certainly it is difficult to earn a living writing about wine, especially with the decline in paid print-media jobs, he says. So wine writing has evolved into something broader — wine communications  — which seems to be about story telling in all its forms using all available media outlets.

“The world probably doesn’t need more writers … [but] the wine world will always …  need multi-tasking communicators …”.

I tend to agree with Jefford that telling stories about wine is much more than simply writing for print publications, but I wonder if wine writing has ever really been such a narrow and focused endeavor as he describes? He’s been at this longer than I have, so I suppose he is right, but my sense is that the his distinction between wine writing (RIP) and wine communicating is not so sharp as he suggests and that if wine writing has died it probably did so a long time ago.  In any case his point — that people who tell stories about wine should seize every opportunity to do so — is certainly well taken.https://i2.wp.com/www.twainquotes.com/exaggeration2.jpg?resize=332%2C372

Is the Wine Reader Dead, Too?

I’m not really worried about whether wine writing is dead or alive. I’m more interested in wine reading, which I specifically do not define as reading about wine exclusively in paid (generally print) publications. Wine reading seems to be changing dramatically and that’s the more interesting  trend. Unsurprisingly, I tend to think about this in economic terms.

Economists who study the economics of food choice believe  that a key factor in  the growing consumption of high fat fast food is  cost — fast food is relatively cheap both in  terms of money and time, which are strong economic incentives. Even when healthier food is available and consumers understand something about nutrition the economic incentives push and pull them into the drive-through lane on the margin.

I think the economics of readership (and wine readership) works the same way. I’m not saying that writing on the internet is the intellectual equivalent of “empty calories, ” but the shift of readership from traditional print publications to electronic media is influenced by economic incentives (as well as other factors of course).

Electronic texts are obviously cheaper in terms of marginal dollar cost since most of them are available free on the web and even the electronic versions of books are often cheaper to buy than the print versions. And you can often access electronic documents in a fraction of a second rather than the minutes, hours, days or weeks that it might take to get a copy of a print publication. Fast beats slow in a time-constrained world just as cheap beats expensive when money is scarce. No wonder readership patterns are changing.

The shift is magnified by the technology associated with electronic publications — especially tablets and smartphones. I may have already told you about my university student who explained to me that he was going to do his senior year on his smart phone — all his reading and writing would be iPhone-based or not at all. He succeeded after a fact, which I found a bit shocking. Shifting from iPhone to iPad, I think he might succeed quite well today and there’s nothing shocking about it.

Follow the Money, Deep Throat Advised

Reading has always been as much affected by economics as writing. Imagine the chaos created by the introduction of paperback books in the 1930s (or read about it here).  Some observers predicted that paperbacks would be the death of the traditional book world, but in fact it seems that they ended up creating more readers and therefore more writers, too.

Follow the readers. This seems like good advice and I think it is Jefford’s’ point as well. The readers (and viewers and listeners) are shifting, responding to technological change and the altered economic incentives they confront. Writing has to do the same in order to stay relevant, and if a certain idea of wine writing (or writing in general) is a victim of the changing times I think we have to accept that and move on. Joseph Schumpeter called this sort of process creative destruction and we need to take account of what has been created as well as what is lost. Jefford understands this, although he doesn’t put it quite this way, which is why I recommend his talk to you.

It seems to me that there are probably more wine readers today than ever before in history, which is good news for wine writing, however you define it. As Mark Twain might have said, reports of its death are exaggerated.

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Paperbacks then, Kindle today?

Thanksgiving Leftovers: Black Friday Wine

It’s the time of year when wine writers give advice about what to serve with Thanksgiving dinner. The wine of choice here at The Wine Economist will probably be Pinot Noir that I received in friendly books (Wine Wars) for bottles exchanges with the winemakers themselves: a 2007 Boedecker Cellars “Athena” from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and/or a 2010 Paul Cluver Pinot Noir from Elgin in South Africa. I think they will be delicious with the traditional turkey and fixin’s.

What’s the best part of Thanksgiving? Leftovers are the best part for many of us. Hard to beat the turkey sandwich that you enjoy the next day when the cooking (and clean up) are done. And for some people the best part of Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving at all — it’s the day after, which we ominously call “Black Friday” in the United States.

Here, in the flexible spirit of the holiday, is a leftover column about Beaujolais Nouveau and  Black Friday, reprinted from The Wine Economist November 23, 2009. Enjoy!

A Wine for Today’s Thanksgiving?

Although the United States is not the only country to set aside a day for giving thanks, we like to think of Thanksgiving as our distinctive holiday. It was conceived as a day for deep reflection, but Thanksgiving has evolved into a long weekend of over-consumption and discount shopping. Some of my friends really prefer to celebrate Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when the holiday shopping season formally begins and retailers find out if they will be “in the black” for the year based upon early sales data.

If you plan an Old Time giving-thanks Thanksgiving, then [Beaujolais] Nouveau is not for you. It is not an especially thoughtful wine. It is a sorta soda pop wine; if wine were literature, my friend Patrick points out, Nouveau would be the  trashy paperback novel you read at the beach. Nothing wrong in that — everyone needs an escape once in a while.

The grapes for Nouveau are picked in late September or thereabouts and the only thing that prevents instant sale is the necessity of fermentation and the mechanics of distribution.  It’s still a bit sweet when it’s bottled and sometimes a bit fizzy, too, when it arrives with great fanfare on the third Thursday in November (a week before Turkey Day). Best served cold (like revenge!) it is the ultimate cash flow wine.

Black Friday Wine?

Nouveau is not very sophisticated, so why do the French, who otherwise are known to guard their terroirist image, bother with it? The Beaujolias producers make very nice ordinary (non-nouveau) wines; character complexity, you can have it all and for a surprisingly low price.

Ah, but that’s the problem. Sitting close to prestigious Burgundy, the Beaujolais cannot command high prices for their wines, good as they are, so they must try to make money through turnover more than markup. They churn out millions of bottles of Nouveau to pay the bills.

At the peak of the bubble in 1992 about half of all wines made in Beaujolais were Nouveau. The proportion remains high even today. Ironically, Nouveau often sells at prices as high as Beaujolais’ more serious wines because it is marketed so well. So it is hard to see why you’d want to buy it instead of the region’s other wines. It’s easy, on the other hand, to see why you’d want to sell it.

Beaujolais Nouveau, it seems, is France’s Black Friday wine! If the makers can sell their Nouveau, then maybe the bottom line for the year will be in the black. If the Nouveau market fails, well that red stain on the floor won’t be just spilled wine.

More than the Usual Urgency

Nouveau is therefore generally marketed around the world with more than the usual urgency (just as those Black Friday sales seem a little desperate at times) — and not just because young wines hit their “best by” date pretty quickly. This year things are even more stressful than usual, as you might imagine, with the economic crisis still on everyone’s minds and 10+ percent unemployment here in the United States. [Editor note: the unemployment rate is lower today than in 2009, but the weak economy is still an issue.]

Nouveau is usually distributed around the world via expensive air freight rather than more economic sea transport in part because the short time between harvest and final sale makes speed a factor. This year [2009] Nouveau was bottled in plastic for the Japanese market in part to lower shipping cost — a controversial move that may not be repeated because of its negative product image potential.

Intentionally choosing to adopt a more casual image, Boisset put all its US-bound Nouveau in screw-cap PET bottles, with a resulting 40% reduction in shipping cost. [Note: the PET bottles were not a great success with tradition-bound Thanksgiving consumers and Boisset switched to lightweight glass bottles for Nouveau in later years.]

Here’s a fun video from 2005

An American Wine?

Sweet, fizzy and packed in PET bottles — Beaujolais Nouveau sounds like the perfect wine for American consumers brought up on 2-liter jugs of fizzy-sweet Mountain Dew and Diet Coke. If you were kinda cynical, you would think Nouveau was an American wine … made in USA.

And it is, in a way. Although the wine obviously comes from France (and there is actually a long tradition of simple and fun early-release new wines in France and elsewhere), I think it is fair to say that the Nouveau phenomenon is an American invention.

W.J. Deutsch & Sons, the American distributors, really put Beaujolias in general and Nouveau in particular on the U.S. wine market map when they became exclusive distributors for Georges Duboeuf some years ago. They took this simple wine and made it a marketing event. To paraphrase an old Vulcan proverb, only Nixon could go to China and only the brilliant Deutsch family could sell Nouveau!

In fact they were so successful that they partnered with another family firm — the Casella family from Australia — and created a second wine phenomenon tailored to American tastes: Yellow Tail!

So although Nouveau is an American wine of sorts and might be perfectly crafted for this American holiday as we actually celebrate it on Friday, I’m going to pass this year (on Thursday, at least) and see if I can nurse some thoughtful reflection from my holiday glass [of Pinot Noir!] instead. Cheers, everyone! And thanks.

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Thanks to Athena and Paul for the nice wine — hope you enjoy Wine Wars!

Frogs, Secrets & Satire: Extreme Wine Goes to the Movies


I’m working on the two chapters of Extreme Wine about wine and popular culture — celebrity wine and wine in film, television and on the web and I thought I’d share some of my discoveries with you and, as always, ask for your feedback in the Comments section below. Sideways and Bottleshock are the two best-known wine-centered films, but here are three others for your consideration.

Art Imitates Life: Grenouille d’hiver

Grenouille d’hiver means “Winter Frog” and it is the title of a short film by the director Slony Sow that was first broadcast on French television in 2011. It is making the rounds of film festivals, including Cannes;  I haven’t seen it yet except for the short trailer on YouTube. It stars Gérard Depardieu in an emotional role. “Benjamin, grower, sees his wife die in his arms following a long illness. Only one way out for him: death. But a young Japanese girl, came especially for its wine tasting, will bring it gently to mourn a series of symbols and exchange between two cultures,” according to the film’s official synopsis as quaintly translated from the French by Google.

Gérard Depardieu has played many roles in his long career – over 170 of them since he began in the 1960s according to his French Wikipedia page. He’s played everything from Cyrano the big-nosed patriot of the Edmond Rostand play to Oblex the big-nosed patriot of French cartoon fame. He’s worked with iconic directors like Francois Truffaut and won most of the top awards including the César and the Legion of Honor. He is scheduled to portray libertine French socialist politician Dominique Strauss Kahn in an upcoming film. That should be interesting!

Depardieu has played so many characters for so long that there might seem that Benjamin would be just another role. Except that the vines he stands among as he contemplates harsh fate and his own mortality are actually his own on his vineyard estate in Anjou. And I’m pretty sure the wine he sips with the young Japanese visitor, which opens the door to grief, is his too. Depardieu has owned Chateau de Tingé in the Coteau du Layon appellation since 1989. He owns the estate, which includes a 14th century castle, and oversees things generally in the way that a busy global media star can, leaving the actual winemaking to an old friend.

The film seems to be an interesting commentary on wine’s ability to store and release feelings and its power to transcend language. I’m looking forward to seeing all 18 minutes of this film when it finally becomes available.


Wine? We Have No Wine

The second film is completely different and yet manages to strike some of the same notes. I’m talking about Stanley Kramer’s 1969 The Secret of Santa Vittoria, which is based upon Robert Crichton’s best-selling novel. It stars Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi, Hardy Kruger and Sergio Franchi. The entire two-hour plus film is available on YouTube — just click on the image above to watch as much or as little as you like.

The setting is a sleepy Italian town in the closing months of World War II. The film is played as a romantic farce with town drunkard Quinn  unexpectedly elevated to mayor just as German troops approach, intending to occupy the village and seize its only important asset — more than a million bottles of the local cooperative’s wine stored in the cellar under the town hall.

With Quinn as their leader, the townspeople risk death to save themselves by saving their wine, hiding it in the old Roman caves beneath the city. This act brings the divided town together in a way that probably nothing else could do, making the deception’s ultimate victory all the more miraculous.  Great fun!

This is Spinal Corked

The third film is called Corked! and it is a 2010 satire made, like “This is Spinal Tap” and “Best in Show,” in the form of a “mockumentary.” In this case an innocent film crew shows up in the Sonoma Valley and interviews a collection of increasingly outrageous caricatures of the “usual suspects” of the wine world including a world-famous wine critic with initials RP. (The naïve wine tourists are my favorite characters.)

Documentaries tend to be uneven and so is this film — the characters who get the most screen time aren’t always the funniest or most interesting but it all comes together in the end. The romantic image that we cultivate about wine and wine making (see films above) is a bit of a fraud. It isn’t a complete fake as Corked! suggests (by definition satire needs to go over the top), but it’s not a completely noble calling, either.

Wine is about people and relationships (the point of all three films, I suppose). No wonder it is so complex. No wonder it translates so well to film.

Against the Tide: Globalization vs Italy’s Indigeneous Wines

The tide I’m talking about is the globalization of the wine market and I frequently hear that its ebb and flow bring in the main international wine grape varieties and the styles associated with them and wash out unique local wines. There is a grain of truth to this — one winemaker explained it to me this way. If I make poor but distinctive local wine and can’t sell it, I can blame international market forces (and not my own lax wine making) and just plant Merlot. Classic cop-out, he said.

This maybe true, but it isn’t the whole story. There is also the pipeline effect. Global markets create big pipelines that need to be filled and sometimes it is easier to fill them with a few standard wine varieties and styles than with hundreds of different small production wines. (The current movement to ship wines in bulk — in big 25,000 liter containers — and bottle in the consumer market reinforces this trend.)

And of course the demographic of wine consumption is changing, too (the who, what, where, when, how and why) with more new consumers who face a steep learning curve that sometimes works against wines that lie outside the mainstream. There are lots of pressures on winemakers today and globalization is certainly one of them.

Arguable Premise

But I’m not sure that the premise of the argument is correct. Although the wine market is much more global than in the past, it is still surprisingly local compared to many other industries, with most production sold in the country of origin. And although it is easy to spot increasing consolidation within the wine industry, it remains remarkably fragmented compared to most other international businesses.

And, to keep the momentum going, while it is easy to look at the wine wall and see acres of Cab and Chardonnay (and other “international” varieties) from all around the world, it is just as easy to note how very many distinctly local varieties are present.  It is sort of a macro-micro thing. If you look at the wine industry in terms of Rabobank’s very cool map (above) of international wine trade, it is easy to see the world defined by those big international flows, but if you look at it in terms of DeLong’s even cooler Wine Map of Italy (below), for example, the persistence of local wine markets becomes clear.

Like a Coat of Paint

We explored this global-local tension during our recent trip to Italy to attend the meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists in Bolzano. Italy is far and away the world’s largest wine exporting nation according to Global Wine Markets Statistical Compendium data, with average exports of 1,861 million liters during 2007-2009 period. France and Spain are second the third with 1,379 million liters and 1,292 million liters respectively. Australia is a distant fourth in the data set with an average of 782 million liters for the two year time period.

So, if the global tide argument holds, you would expect Italy to be covered like a layer of paint with endless hectares of international variety wine grapes. And, of course, there is a lot of Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay to be found in Italy along with other international standard varieties like Sauvignon, Riesling and Pinot Noir. But what stands out when you think about Italian wine is the success of indigenous wine  varieties and styles. Italy makes and sells international varieties, but the indigenous wines are what define it as a wine country.

Support Your Local Winemaker

Sometimes this success is driven by export markets (think about the popularity of Chianti and Sangiovese) but there are many successes that are really quite local in scope and stand as delicious counterexamples to the the incoming global tide theory. Let me give you three examples from our Italian fieldwork (Pignoletto, Lacrima di Morro and Ruché) saving a fourth case study (Kerner) for  a more detailed treatment in my next post.

Pignoletto is a dry white wine grown only in the hills outside of Bologna. “Lively, crisp, aromatic” is how Jancis Robinson describes it in her Guide to Wine Grapes. Pignoletto is distinctly Bolognese — grown there, made there and I think that every last drop of it is consumed there, too, since it goes so well with the rich local cuisine (almost as if they evolved together … which I guess they did).  It would be hard to beat the simple meal of salumi, cheese and bread that we had with a bottle of Pignoletto frizzante at Tamburini‘s wine bar in the Bologna central market.

Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is a distinctive red wine from the Marche region. Robinson describes is as “fast maturing, strangely scented.” Burton Anderson says that it is a “purple-crimson wine with … foxy berry-like odor and ripe plum flavor.” Apparently it fades very quickly, but it is distinctive and intense while it lasts.  It sure stood up to the very rich cuisine of Ferrara when we visited our friends in that city. We were fortunate that the restaurant owner guided us to this wine from the Mario Luchetti estate.

Ruché comes from the Piedmont and we stumbled upon it by accident (which I guess is how we usually stumble …). We were attending the annual regional culinary fair in Moncalvo, a hill town half an hour north of Asti. Thirteen “pro loco” civic groups from throughout the region set up food and wine booths in the central square and sold their distinctly local wares to a hungry luncheon crowd.

I had never heard of Ruché and honestly didn’t know what it might be until I happened upon the stand of the Castagnole Monferrato group. They were cooking with Ruché, marinating fruit in Ruché and selling it by the glass — they were obviously very proud of their local wine. I had to try it and it was great. Suddenly I saw Ruché everywhere (a common experience with a new discovery) and enjoyed a bottle at dinner in Asti that  night. “Like Nebbiolo,” Jancis Robinson writes, “the wine is headily scented and its tannins imbue it with an almost bitter aftertaste.” An interesting wine and a memorable discovery.

I think we all have these great “ah ha!” wine experiences when we travel so why am I making such a big deal about these three wines? Well, that’s the point really. Distinct, truly local wines are commonplace in Italy. What is in some ways the most global wine country is also perhaps the most local. Global and local exist side by side and if they don’t entirely support each other all the time, they aren’t necessarily constant, bitter enemies, either.

The key, I think, is local support of local wines and wine makers. That’s why these three wines have survived and sustained themselves.  I don’t think “me too” wines are capable of gathering local support.

Why does this come as such a surprise to us in the United States — why do we so easily swallow the idea of the unstoppable global tide. It is, I suppose, a legacy of prohibition, which destroyed many local wine cultures in the U.S. Wine today continues the difficult task of recovering from prohibition’s long lasting effects.

Are There Really Local American Wines?

So are there American wines that are local in the same sense of Pignoletto and Ruché? Sue asked that question as we drove out of the Asti Hills and headed north. I don’t know, I replied. Maybe. Petite Sirah is kind of a California cult wine, but it isn’t local in the same way as these Italian wines.

Here in Washington State we seem to have a thing for Lemberger, which sells out in the tasting rooms of the wineries that make it and seldom shows up outside the region. It’s an Austrian grape, but it has made its home here. Can you think of any other wines like this? Please leave a comment if you have a suggestion!

Perhaps we buy the global tide argument because it is so foreign to us? I think it would be interesting if we imported more than Italy’s wines — perhaps we could share their idea of really local wine, too.