If you stroll around London for a while you are likely to come across a scene like the one shown here. An old building with its windows bricked up. Sometimes it’s one or two windows. Sometimes they are all covered over. No sunlight gets in.
Ain’t No Sunshine …
The reason the owners decided to keep the sun out was the window tax, an attempt by 19th-century government in England and then later in Scotland to tax the rich in a manner less invasive than an income tax.
What could be better than a window tax? Big houses with many windows were indicators of wealth and simply counting the windows (with exemptions for the humble cottages of the poor) an arbitrary straight-forward way to assess tax liability.
This was an era when revenue-craving governments were willing to go to almost any length to raise funds through specific excise taxes — think about the advice to “declare the pennies on your eyes” in the Beatles tune “Taxman” (see below for music video). Rather than one big tax source, dozens of smaller excise taxes were imposed.
The Taxman Cometh
But the tax authorities didn’t count on quite how much the English hated to be taxed and, obviously, many of them were willing to wall-up their windows and contentedly sit in the dark in order to escape the despised taxman’s assessment.
This bit of fiscal history is prompted by what might be considered by some to be a new tax on sun light, but this one collected via wine instead of windows. Galileo famously said that wine is sunlight held together by water, so what better way to tax sunshine than through wine. Or at least that’s what some people are saying, according to a recent article in the Financial Times.
Britain is slowly adjusting to its post-Brexit status and part of that means transitioning away from EU rules on the taxation of alcoholic beverages. Under EU regulations, which are still in effect, still wines and fortified wines are taxed in three bands according to alcohol by volume (abv), with sparkling wines in a further higher-rate band.
Let the Sunshine In?
Britain’s chancellor has proposed a new 27-band system with the rate rising every half percent of abv. The complexity of the plan suggests high compliance costs, don’t you think, and would seem to invite a certain amount of gaming of the system. The abv of that wine in your glass may or may not be the same as the number of the label — a certain amount of rounding up or down often takes place — and this will matter more if fine-grained tax consequences are at stake.
I’ve heard that the chancellor’s office says that it is really just one band with 27 steps., not 27 bands. Good to know. I’m sure that makes compliance much simpler!
Some members of the British wine trade go further, asserting that this amounts to a “sunshine tax.” The argument is that producers in sunnier regions like Australia can’t help producing riper grapes that yield higher abv levels while wineries in cooler climates, like the Mosel, naturally produce wines with lower abv.
This is true to a certain extent, although wine producers certainly have their secret ways of increasing abv when they want to and reducing it when that makes sense. No one in California brags about de-alcoholization, for example, but people tell me it happens all the time. Part of a batch of wine goes through a process to extract alcohol, they say, and is then blended back into the tank to bring the percent of abv down.
One winemaker friend talks about using “Jesus units” to accomplish the same end more directly. This process involves water and a hose. The result turns water into lower alcohol wine. A miracle!
Australian producers are particularly upset. Australia and the UK have signed a free trade agreement which will modestly reduce tariffs on Aussie wines exported to Britain. The “Sunshine tax,” which would apply to most wines from Oz, more than offsets any advantage from the new agreement.
Let me know if you see any wineries bricking up their windows. They might do that if they don’t want the world to see how they are lowering the alcohol levels in their wine!
Laura Catena and Alejandro Vigil have written a fascinating new book about their favorite wine grape, Malbec. If you know that they are from Argentina and associated with the famous Catena Zapata winery, this connection will seem natural, since the roots of Malbec run through this territory and, I guess, through the authors, too.
Three is a number that is full of tension because it defies a casual “either/or” classification, and it is significant that Malbec MonAmour is built around a number of threes. There are, first of all, the book’s three protagonists: Catena, Vigil, and Malbec itself. They mix and relate in complicated ways over the course of the book’s 200 or so colorful pages.
Then there are the three sides of Malbec as presented here. First is Malbec’s history in France (hence “mon amour), which casts a bright light on the importance of Malbec in Bordeaux’s early development. Then comes the history in Argentina, which is a bit of a roller-coaster ride (and hence typically Argentine, if I can say that). And finally there is Malbec’s history with the Catena family, since family is paramount here.
The story itself is presented in three ways, to continue the theme. First there is the straight text, clear and well written. Illustrations — photos, charts, water-color pictures — illuminate the text and can be read on their own. Finally, super-imposed along the way is a dialogue between Catena and Vigil that puts the situation in a personal context.
The book works at several levels and becomes more detailed and technical as the story unfolds. The final sections, which examine in some depth the particular regions and vineyards in Argentina is real wine-geek stuff. Except that the scientific tension is broken by a Catena-Vigil conversation about art, music, family, and even food.
MalbecMon Amour has a lot of moving parts, Does it hold together? Sue is the resident expert on design here at The Wine Economist and she gives a positive review. The pieces fit together and make sense — rewarding to study and a pleasure as a casual read.
Malbec Mon Amour is a worthy addition to your wine bookshelf — a shelf that includes two other noteworthy works by Laura Catena: Vino Argentino and Gold in the Vineyards. Wait … does that make three books?
I was binging on YouTube videos from Kevin Zraly’s 2009 “60 Second Wine Expert” series when I stumbled upon his take on Port wine. Sue and I are fans of Port, so I was a little disappointed to see Zraly reinforce some of the attitudes that hold back the growth of the Port market. Port? Complicated to understand and you should really only think about drinking it when your kids are asleep, it is cold and snowy outside, you have a warm fire in the fireplace, and a loyal dog at your feet. That was the Zraly video’s advice on Port.
This isn’t how I think of Port and it isn’t a picture that is really helpful to Port producers who want to draw consumers into the Port experience. Maybe talking about Port in a beat-the-clock 60 second video doesn’t do it justice. What are Port producers doing to get their message out?
Taylor’s Port Season
There is no particular season for Port at the Wine Economist household — different types and styles of Port lend themselves to different occasions year around. Summertime backyard meals, for example. seem to begin with our favorite White Port spritz, often featuring Taylor’s Chip Dry. Taylor’s and its parent, the Fladgate Partnership, have put all their chips on the Port market — they do not make any other styles of wine, which means they need to expand the perceived Port-drinking windows beyond Zraly’s snowy snowy night.
As you can see from their recent promotional video, Taylor’s has declared “Port season.” Fun, festive, romantic, a glass of Taylor’s LBV Port seems to make any occasion special. The trick, of course, is getting that first glass poured so that people can see what they have been missing.
New Looks and Old
They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but everyone does it all the time. You eat (and drink) with your eyes first, the ubiquitous “they” also say, so it isn’t surprising that Port producers are tweaking their packaging in many ways to try to catch consumer eyes.
Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Port is versatile and delicious — Sue like’s it with dark chocolate “cat’s tongue” treats. Symington Family Estates, which owns the Graham’s brand, has freshened-up the presentation with a redesigned bottle that tweaks the presentation in subtle ways to give a more premium look and feel.
Down the road at Taylor’s you can find both old and new packaging efforts. The new is the Chip Dry Portotonic, a White Port Spritz in a can. Pretty radical for Port! At the same time, Taylor’s has launched a series of special Reserve Port packages that invoke Port’s long history by drawing on bottle designs from the past. The most recent edition is called “The Mallet,” Here is the history behind this unexpected bottle shape.
At the beginning of the 18th century, bottles were hand blown and bulbous in shape. They could not be laid on their sides and were therefore unsuitable for long term ageing. Instead, they were used mainly to convey the wine from the wine merchant’s cask to the consumer’s table. Because bottles were expensive, they were re-used and often displayed the crest or initials of their owner.
As the 18th century progressed, bottles became taller and more cylindrical. The early bulbous ‘onion’ shape gradually evolved into a more elongated, straight-sided bottle with a longer neck. The first stage in this evolution was the appearance of the ‘mallet’ shaped bottle which had become well established in England by around 1730. Like their predecessors, the first ‘mallet’ bottles were squat in shape. Their sides were often tapered towards the shoulder rather than completely parallel. However, by around 1750, the ‘mallet’ bottle had developed a more cylindrical form. This Limited Edition bottle is inspired by the ‘mallet-cylinder’ bottle from that period, the immediate predecessor of today’s cylindrical wine bottle.
Cocktail Hour for Port
Although it is hard to top a glass of Port by itself, there is no denying that it also makes a great base for cocktails (as the White Port spritz example shows). The combination of great flavor and lower alcohol (compared with spirits) is very appealing.
Graham’s Blend No. 12 Ruby Port has been introduced to fill this market niche and it comes in this colorful bottle, which hints at the fruit flavors to be found within. The idea is to appeal to consumers who don’t drink Port but are interested in experimenting with cocktail beverages. As Vicky Symington notes,
It has been great to see people explore the Graham’s range after discovering port through the Blend Nº5 White Port, often in a port & tonic. We are confident that Blend Nº12 will also resonate with people who don’t typically drink port – be it as a delicious and approachable straight serve or mixed in a long serve.
The Classics Endure
I admire that Port can both change and endure. It adapts to satisfy each generation as it emerges, but doesn’t forget who it is. That’s something we can all appreciate.
So I wasn’t completely surprised when Sue announced her choice of a wine to pair with dessert for Thanksgiving: Sandeman 30 years old Tawny Port that we received as a gift on a visit to Porto. The back label advised to pour the wine into large glasses and let it sit a short time to allow the aromas to unfurl themselves.
Your patience will be rewarded, the label advised. And it was! Cheers to Port wine and Port lovers everywhere.
Thursday is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States and many of us will gather with family and friends for the holiday feast. If you have been invited to share Thanksgiving with others (and if you are interested enough in wine to be reading this column), then you must confront a perennial problem: what wine should you bring?
Why is the choice of a gift wine an economic problem? Well, it isn’t much of a problem if you plan to drink it all yourself. Then you should just buy what you like — but don’t expect to be invited back next year!
Since the point will be to share the wine with other guests, the choice is more difficult because just as you can’t be sure exactly what dishes will be served, you cannot be certain what wines the other guests will like the best.
There is a pretty good chance that you will experience what economists call a “deadweight loss” which is more or less where the benefit that the guests derive from your wine is less than what they’d have gained from a simple cash transfer. The story (which is possibly true) is told about the time Malcolm Forbes threw himself an extravagant birthday party where the guests were served some of the rarest, most expensive wines on the planet. Forbes went from guest to guest pouring the evening’s show-stopper wine. Finally he came to Warren Buffet. Wine? said Forbes with a smile. No thanks, Buffet replied. I’ll take the cash!
Warren Buffet understood the concept of deadweight loss and wanted nothing to do with it!
The Problem of Other People’s Money
The problem is asymmetric information. You know your own preferences and budget situation pretty well and so you have a fairly good idea of what you are giving up when you buy an expensive bottle of wine as a gift. But you don’t know the preferences of the other guests very well or whether they would prefer your wine or a simple cash payment to be spent on something else. You can’t be sure that their gain is greater than your loss.
This leads (I hope you are following along) to the conclusion that you are most efficient when you spend your own money on yourself because you can fairly well calculate both the gain and the opportunity cost. You are less efficient (in terms of deadweight loss) when spend your money on others. You are even less efficient when you spend other people’s money on yourself. And you are hopelessly inefficient when you spend others people’s money on other people. What do you think?
So it would seem like the most efficient thing to do would be to decline that dinner invitation and stay home with your wine. How sad! No wonder economics is called the “dismal science.”
It’s Not About the Wine
But here’s the notion that saves the day. Thanksgiving is not really about the wine (or the turkey or the green bean casserole), it is about the sharing. Thanksgiving is more public or communal good than private good. And so, if you do it well, the particular elements of Thanksgiving including the wine will play a secondary role to the general warmth of the shared experience.
I used to get frustrated when wine wasn’t the centerpiece of gatherings, some of which were actually organized to celebrate the wine. But then I got over it. Wine is doing its job when it makes everything else better. Don’t you agree?
This fact changes a bit how you might approach your choice of a Thanksgiving wine to share. Cost is nearly irrelevant. Picking a wine that draws undue attention to you (and your fine taste or great wealth) almost defeats the purpose. A modest wine that makes everyone smile — maybe something with bubbles? — will serve very well. And then you can concentrate on what Thanksgiving is really about.
That said, no one will complain if you bring a nice Port, Madeira, or Sauternes to savor at the end of the meal.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Enjoy the wine and the feast and most of all each other!
The Prosecco market here in the United States continues to evolve rapidly. Prosecco has surged in only a few years from a little-known type of Italian sparkling wine to the phenomenon we see today. Amazing!
Once upon a time what Prosecco that you might find on store shelves was pretty basic stuff — or it seemed that way at the time. I remember recommending Prosecco to my university students for their commencement celebrations — they’re all good, I’d tell them, you don’t have to spend more than you can afford.
They are all pretty much still good, but Prosecco is more nuanced now and I encourage friends to explore the Prosecco Pyramid, starting with DOC wines at the base, moving up to DOCG and the Rive wines, and topping out with wines from the magic mountain of Cartizze. The amazing thing is that top-tier Prosecco often costs less than baseline Champagne — something that students (and many others) can appreciate.
This year has seen the birth of Rosé Prosecco DOC — a pink blend of Glera and Pinot Nero grapes — which adds another facet of Prosecco to think about and enjoy. Recently we’ve received three sample shipments that show how the market for Italian sparklers is evolving. Here is my report.
The Prosecco Battlefield Expands
Chances are that there are many different Prosecco brands available on the shelves of your local wine shop or upscale supermarket, but odds are very good that you will find La Marca and Mionetto. They are top sellers in part because consumer enjoy the wines, but also because they are easy to find.
La Marca is an interesting case because its great success is powered by production scale and distribution muscle. We drove by the big La Marca factory a few years ago when I was giving some lectures at the famous Conegliano wine school and were suitably impressed.
La Marca is a second-level cooperative, we were told — a cooperative of cooperatives. I could be wrong but think that the smaller cooperatives make and supply the base wines, which then undergo secondary fermentation in La Marca’s big autoclaves. The result is the popular sparkling wine in the familiar bottle with the sky-blue label.
You see La Marca everywhere here in the US because it has a distribution partnership with Gallo, the world’s largest wine producer. How do I know this? Well, Gallo is so big that it has its own UPC “zip code.” Look at the UPC on the back of a bottle of La Marca and you’ll see that it begins with 85000. That’s Gallo-ville’s neighborhood. Any wine with that kind of UPC is either made by or distributed by Gallo.
La Marca and Gallo are a tough competitors, so I am interested to see how a new contestant fares in the Prosecco battleground: Ca’ Furlan Prosecco DOC. The wines are the result of a partnership between winemaker Alessandro Furlan and U.S. wine firm Regal Wine Imports. Priced at $11.99 for both the Ca’ Furlan DOC Extra Dry Cuvée Beatrice and the Ca’ Furlan Prosecco DOC Rosê Cuvée Mariana, the wines are intended to compete head-to-head with La Marca, Mionetto, and other market leaders. Plans are to import about 70,000 cases of the Prosecco and 7500 cases of the Prosecco Rosé.
We were impressed by the Cuvée Beatrice when we paired it with duck rice for dinner recently. Sue especially enjoyed the peach notes that emerged as the wine warmed up a little. Is there room in the mainstream market for another attractive Prosecco brand? Well, the market is growing so I’d say there is still time to join the party. But it is a very competitive environment — wines need to have quality, value, and strong distribution to succeed.
Celebrity Prosecco (and the No Carb Option)
Celebrity wine is a thing (a big thing, actually), so it is no surprise to discover the wine shown at the top of this column, Bellissima Prosecco DOC Brut, the new Christie Brinkley project.
The celebrity connection is modest on the bottle label (“Con Amore, Christie Brinkley”) but it is unavoidable elsewhere. “Bellissima by Christie Brinkley” proclaims the QVC.com offer, “sip and savor these pours from the celebrated model, actress, & entrepreneur.”
Shopping channels like QVC have become big time wine outlets. A search for “wine” on the QVC website brings up celebrity offerings from Christie Brinkley and Martha Stewart, a couple of Food Network celebrity chefs, and a variety of Vintage Wine Estates packages including some from Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary a.k.a. Mister Wonderful.
I try to have an open mind about celebrity wines. Sometimes the link to a famous person is more than just vino-exploitation. When NFL great Drew Bledsoe started his eponymous winery in Walla Walla, for example, it seemed to be a sincere effort to connect with the town where he grew up and much of the wine community rallied around him and his project. The wines were really good right from the start and Bledsoe has made good on his commitment to help the region grow.
So sometimes the stars align such that a celebrity wine makes good and makes sense. But this doesn’t happen all the time, so there is always a nagging suspicion that, as Kevin O’Leary might say, it’s really all about cashing in for the m-o-n-e-y.
The Bellissima line-up includes Prosecco DOC Brut and Prosecco Rosé DOC, both made with organic grapes, and white and pink “zero sugar” sparkling wines, the white made with organic Glera grapes and the pink with Pinot Grigio grapes. Organic, vegan, zero-sugar, zero-carbs, celebrity endorsement — lots of boxed ticked here and online comments suggest that some diabetic drinkers are happy to find a wine with the carb numbers they are looking for.
That got me thinking — how does a zero (less than 0.5 g/l residual sugar) wine compare with Prosecco? A typical Prosecco Extra Dry product has about 12-15 grams per liter residual sugar which translates into less than 2 grams per glass. The Bellissima Brut has 6-7 g/l or less that 1 gram of residual sugar per glass, which means a lot fewer carbs than a glass of fruit juice, for example, and only a little more than the zero-sugar products. All the Bellissima wines come in at 11.5% abv.
Our tasting team did a comparison tasting of the Brut and Zero-Sugar sparkling white and we found both very drinkable. The Prosecco Brut was softer with more fruit, the Zero-Sugar was happiest paired with a charcuterie plate Sue prepared. Both seemed like they could stand on their own in the market even without a celebrity or wellness connection. Although I guess it defeats the idea of zero-sugar, I think I might like the zero-sugar wine best in a Bellini cocktail.
Italy Beyond Prosecco
If you are a fan of Formula One auto racing you will have seen that the victory celebrations now feature drivers slurping from huge bottles labeled “Ferrari.” You might assume that this is wine from the famous Ferrari racing team, but you would be wrong. Ferrari Trento is an important producer of sparkling wines in the Italian north-east and this is a reminder that there is much more to Italian sparkling wines than Prosecco.
While Prosecco is made from Glera grapes using the method of secondary fermentation in autoclaves, Trento DOC wines and Franciacorta feature familiar Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) grapes and classic secondary fermentation in the bottle.
We recently sampled Cantine Monfort Cuvée ’85 Trento DOC Brut, for example. A blend of 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Nero secondary fermentation using the classic method, it is a different animal from Prosecco and a reminder that Italy’s treasure house of wine includes a wealth of sparklers worth exploring.
Gosh, this is a delicious wine. Makes me realize I need to pay more attention in the Trento DOC wines and the other great sparkling wines Italy has to offer.
Here is an Entertainment Tonight segment about Christie Brinkley’s Prosecco. BTW I know many readers will associate Brinkley with swimsuits, so I wonder if you think the wine label, which refers to Botticelli’s famous painting of Venus, is somehow swimsuit-inspired? What do you think?
The New York Times headline warned of fears of a bottleneck recession in Germany. Other headlines in the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and elsewhere noted the impacts of production and distribution bottlenecks on specific industries.
Although the parallel is flawed, it is impossible for those of us of a certain age not to think back to the 1970s when shortages and bottlenecks created the unwelcome phenomenon of “stagflation” — a stagnant but inflationary economy.
Last week I wrote about the many bottlenecks inside the wine sector that make this a particularly interesting and difficult business. Today’s column steps back a few paces to look at the bottleneck economy itself and how its outside force impacts wine.
Yes, We Have No Bananas
The most obvious effect of bottlenecks is scarcity and higher cost. As I noted last week, ocean shipping bottlenecks both push up the cost of container shipments and result in shortages of the relevant products. Some shortages are transitory — the goods are delayed but they still eventually arrive — but other times the rising shipping cost makes delivery of the products uneconomic.
Long lines at petrol stations were a bottleneck result in the UK recently. The problem was a shortage of tanker truck drivers. There was enough gas I understand it, but too few drivers to get it where it needed to be. As soon as consumers caught a whiff of a theoretical shortage, of course, they all rushed to fill up their tanks at once, creating an actual shortage. The government has plans to mobilize some army drivers to help deal with the situation if it persists.
Boris Johnson’s administration advises that rumors that Christmas will not arrive this year due to a general shortage of lorry drivers are exaggerated. Good to know.
Bottlenecks in one sector often spread to related markets like a row of dominos falling one by one. A noteworthy case of this has happened in the UK, for example. Unseasonably slack off-shore winds this summer resulted in lower than expected electricity production from wind turbines, which shifted demand to generation plants fired by natural gas. This pushed the spot price of gas to very high levels, making the production of fertilizer suddenly uneconomic and forcing some fertilizer plants to shut down. Wind-gas-fertilizer. Got that?
Carbon dioxide is a by-product of the production of fertilizer from natural gas, so CO2 supplies fell. CO2, in turn, is important in the food industry and in wine production, too, so shortages and disruptions appear there. Thus did calm winds plus natural gas bottlenecks cause British food security to diminish.
Changing Commodity Composition
Have you been out shopping for a new or used car recently? Cars today are really computers that happen to have wheels and can haul people and their stuff. The current very serious shortage of microchips is therefore a limiting factor on the production of both autos and all other the equipment and gadgets where computer chips are needed.
Shakespeare warned that for want of a nail a kingdom was lost. If he were writing today, he might pivot to microchips and car sales. With new cars in short supply, the prices of used cars have sky-rocketed.
One side-effect of such bottlenecks is a change in the commodity composition of production. If you don’t have enough chips to produce all the cars you’d like, how do you handle it? It make sense to reduce production of low profit vehicles and reserve the chips for high profit sales, which means pickup trucks and some SUVs in the US.
Another strategy is to reserve production for key customers where there is a long term commitment and cut back on other sales. In short, the bottlenecks affect what is produced, how much, who gets it, and at what price.
The Price Also Rises
Inflation is always a concern in the bottleneck economy and you can sense how nervous economic leaders around the world are as they sort through different measures of inflation and ponder whether specific price spikes will moderate as time passes or form a critical inflationary mass that, by altering expectations, becomes self-sustaining. If economic policy-makers react to inflation fears by jamming on the brakes, stagflation could result. That’s what happened 40 years ago and there is concern that history could repeat.
Should the short-term inflation burst endure, we would normally expect higher interest rates and changing foreign exchange rates to follow. Interest rates might rise as central banks act to push prices back down, but it seems more likely to me that the market will first push interest rates higher and then central banks will follow along. Just a guess.
A combination of higher interest rates (which tend to increase currency value) and higher inflation rates (which push in the opposite direction) make forecasting exchange rate movements even more problematic than usual. The US dollar’s value has risen recently, for example, as higher interest returns seem to have overcome concerns about higher inflation. Stay tuned.
Just in Time vs Just in Case
How should wine producers react to all this news? Many will simply tune it out but, as I like to say, denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. Ignore the shifting economic sands at your own risk.
One bit of practical advice is obvious: give serious thought to how exposed your business is to the various direct and indirect bottlenecks in your sector and take appropriate action. At the very least, starting moving from just in time to just in case sourcing if you can.
Beyond that, it would be a good idea to do a quick bottleneck risk audit. How much are you exposed to potential problems? And what about your customers and suppliers? One lesson this situation teaches us is that risk anywhere in the product chain is a potential problem everywhere in the product chain.
What about the big macro risk of stagflation? I don’t see things getting that bad yet, but stagflation puts economic policymakers in a bind and none of them really has a lot of room to maneuver right now. That’s why everyone is so jumpy about the inflation threat and why the recent IMF warnings are taken seriously. As Bette Davis said, fasten your seatbelts.
Are there too many American Viticultural Areas (AVAs)? Or not enough? Herewith a modest proposal for maximizing the benefits of American wine appellations.
Whenever a list of newly-approved American Viticultural Areas is released I find myself shaking my head in disbelief. Bah humbug! You see, I’m a true dismal science Scrooge and so my first reaction is always to think about the economic value of the new designations and sub-designations.
Only a few American appellations have substantial economic value in the sense that a bottle of wine is worth more if the magic name appears than if it doesn’t. Napa is a good example of an AVA that pays.
Many if not most AVA designations add little monetary value and sometimes they might actually subtract value generally by confusing consumers who wonder what it all means and how one is different from another.
Not (Just) About Money
It took me a long time to get over my focus on money and to think about other factors. In many cases the goal of an AVA is simply identity — the desire to be something particular in a generic world. There might be a bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) in that, too. I get that. We live in the Age of Identity in many respects. Why should wine be different?
Another result if not a goal can be solidarity, since having an AVA application approved is not an easy thing and requires wine growers to work together. Once they’ve worked together to create an appellation, perhaps other opportunities to cooperate can be found, too. That’s not a trivial thing.
The role of AVAs in creating or strengthening identity and solidarity made me think of a little-known political-economy theory called the North Dakota Plan. The creator was the famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith and the idea was this. The nation-state is a good thing in part because it gives its citizens sovereignty, which is important as we now realize from the way that it is highlighted in the current UK Brexit policy debates. More states would mean more sovereignty and more benefits. OK so far?
The North Dakota Plan
But sovereignty is troublesome because one state’s sovereign actions can sometimes threaten another state’s sovereignty and, in worst case scenarios conflict and even war break out. How can the world maximize the good of sovereignty while minimizing the bad of war?
The solution, Galbraith proposed back in 1978, tongue firmly in cheek, was the North Dakota Plan. Divide the world up into dozens of nation-states each about the size and shape of North Dakota. North Dakota is more or less a rectangle, if you haven’t looked at a map recently, so the new borders wouldn’t necessarily take into account geography or demographic patterns. They’d be completely arbitrary.
There would be lots of small states — so lots of Presidents, Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, and sovereignty. But each country would be too small to have much of an army or navy, so conflict would be limited. Their focus would have to be more on how to live together, since their ability to meddle in other countries’ business would be limited.
I think I recall a variation on the theory where each country would be given one small nuclear device to deter enemies. The idea was that no one would ever use their nuke because, with it gone, they would be defenseless. Peace would reign supreme.
To the best of my knowledge no one ever took Galbraith’s modest proposal for a world of North Dakotas seriously, which is probably just as well. But it inspires me to propose my own satiric plan for American AVAs, which you can probably already guess,
North Dakota AVA System
Why not maximize the number of AVAs by covering the wine country map with hundreds and hundreds of them in arbitrary shapes and sizes. I’d shape them like pieces in a jig-saw puzzles, but you can have squares or triangles if you prefer. Each one would have a name, of course, and an identity. More AVAs, more identity, everyone is better off. What could go wrong?
Each would face a challenge, too, which would require solidarity to solve. With completely arbitrary borders — unlike the border lines today that are sometimes determined by a mixture of terroir and politics– geography could not be relied upon to make an AVA distinctive. The growers and winemakers within each block would have to work together to create a real identity — a common blend, style, or signature wine grape variety, for example. They’d have to work to make the AVA mean something because, otherwise, it would be just another meaningless, soon-forgotten shape on the map and name on the label.
The Thing About Modest Proposals
The thing about Modest Proposals is that they are not always what they seem. The most famous Modest Proposal — Jonathan Swift’s suggestion that impoverished Irish parents should eat their starving children — wasn’t intended to encourage murder or cannibalism. It was meant to shock readers into recognizing the harsh and heartless treatment of Ireland’s poor and the dire conditions they experienced. It worked, too, waking up English citizens to the reality of their government’s Ireland policies.
John Kenneth Galbraith’s North Dakota Plan probably reflected his experiences as a diplomat in the Kennedy administration (he was US Ambassador to India). He knew that big, powerful states were no guarantee of peace and prosperity — in fact, they were often just the opposite (think Cold War mutually-assured destruction). His North Dakota thought experiment flipped reality in search of a better solution to world problems.
No one would seriously consider my “North Dakota” plan for AVAs. It is ridiculous. But this is what American wine could more or less look like in 30 years if current trends persist. It won’t happen all at once, just a couple more AVAs here and there. But it will add right up all the same and then, well, there you are.
Maybe AVAs were the best way to establish identity back when there were only a few of them — remember that the very first AVA granted back in 1980 was not Napa (it came a few months later) but Augusta in Missouri. Maybe today, when the AVA count is in the hundreds, there are better paths to follow. If not, then the future could be a jig-saw puzzle world of wine.
Wine jig-saw puzzles can be quite entertaining if done right. Check out the wine and spirits puzzles that Rebecca Gibb MW has created at Bamboozled Games!
Just to show that I am not a complete Scrooge, here’s a musical tribute to names, songs, and dreams. Enjoy.
The coronavirus pandemic has paused The Wine Economist’s usual travel and speaking schedule and while I don’t miss the chaos of international air travel I do miss the opportunity to meet interesting new people and the chance to discover wines made from indigenous grape varieties that often don’t get the attention they deserve.
At this time last year, for example, we were visiting Sardinia and Friuli, two regions of Italy that are especially known for their indigenous wine grapes. Some of these wines are pretty readily available here in the U.S. — Cannonou di Sardegna is a good example. You can find good examples if you look around at bit. But others are much too local to get much outside distribution — you sometimes need to go to the source to try them. Vermentino di Gallura and Carignano del Sulcis are examples, also from Sardinia, of wonderful wines that you may not easily find.
Discovering Invisible Wines
These intensely local wines are a special treat and I wrote about them in a chapter called “Invisible Wines” in my book Extreme Wine. I cited three wines from Italy — Pignoletto from the vineyards around Bologna, Lacrima di Morro d”Alba from Marche, and Ruchè di Castagnolo Monferrato in Piemonte.
As I wrote on The Wine Economist in 2011, we discovered Ruchè (prndounced ROO-kay) by accident. 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 an enthusiastic luncheon crowd. As I reported then,
“I had never heard of Ruchè and honestly didn’t know what it might be until I happened upon the stand of the Castagnole Monferrato group. They were cooking with Ruchè , marinating fruit in Ruchè 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 Ruchè 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.”
Sue and I were excited to re-live our Ruchè discovery when we were contacted by Tenuta Montemagno and offered the opportunity to taste their two Ruchè wines, Nobilis and Invictus. Sue prepared a special meal (see note below) and we pulled the corks. The Nobilis brought back many memories. A juicy, light bodied red wine, it had the distinctive aroma of roses and the mix of red fruit and warm spices on the palate. It was great with Sue’s signature veal meatballs.
And then came Invictus, made from riper grapes, vinified dry (2g/l compared to 1 g/l for Nobilis) with a bit more alcohol (15.5% versus 15%). A fuller wine, Invictus is what I call a philosopher’s wine — something you might want to sit with for a while so you can appreciate how it develops in the glass. Recognizably Ruchè, but a different experience. Fascinating. Memorable.
No one comes to The Wine Economist for tasting notes, but here is a video note that captures some of what we found special about these wines. Watch closely and you will see that this seasoned reviewer is surprised (at one point nearly at a loss for words) at what’s in his glass and is keen to learn more. That’s Ruchè.
Tenuta Montemagno is devoted to the tradition of these wines in addition to their Grignolino, Barbera D’Asti, and Barolo reds. The white wines include Sauvignon and Timorasso, another indigenous grape variety that I need to learn more about the next time we are in the neighborhood. But maybe I won’t have to wait that long. The winery is working to get its products into wider distribution in the U.S. market and I hope they succeed so that more people can discover their “invisible wine.”
The Priest Did It
Today Ruchè is nearly invisible — you won’t find it unless you make an effort. But it could have been much worse. Like some other indigenous varieties, Ruchè fell from favor and was on the road to commercial extinction. It was saved starting in the 1960s by one man: the parish priest.
As Ian D’Agata explains in the chapter on Ruchè in his recent book Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs, Don Giacomo Cauda, Castagnole Monferato’s town priest, was obsessed with Ruchè, studied it, collected specimens from scattered small plots, and promoted Ruchè as the region’s signature wine. Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato received DOC recognition in 1987 and was elevated to DOCG in 2010, putting it up among the elite of the Italian wine world. A long climb from near-extinction to the summit in just 50 years.
The Oxford Companion to Wine reports that there were about 100 hectares (247 acres) of Ruchè in all of Italy in 2010. Not a lot, but a viable amount that I hope will grow. Now the challenge is to assure the economic success of Ruchè and invisible wines like it, which is why I encourage you to seek them out, both at home and when you (eventually) travel. You will enjoy the experience, of course, and help support local wines.
Thanks to Tenuta Montemagno for providing Nobilis and Invictus for us to taste for this column. I hope Sue and I can visit you in person once the pandemic crisis has passed.
These wines really want to be paired with food and so Sue made one of my favorite dishes which, although it comes from a different region of Italy, proved to be an excellent match. A few years ago we spent an entire day cooking and eating with Bologna’s famous Simili sisters (see this New York Times article by William Grimes about these celebrated chefs). They had closed their cooking school and were experimenting with personal classes in their apartment. Try the Tenuta Montemagno wines with the Simili sisters’ veal meatballs in Port sauce.
A couple of years ago the China Alcoholic Drinks Association announced that it was working on a new wine ranking system to help guide Chinese consumers to the best wines and best values. A recent newsletter from Rob Geddes MW reports that things are moving forward quickly.
Geddes says his China sources indicate the new scale will soon become a national standard. He should know. As an important actor on the Australian wine scene — his annual book of wine ratings is the gold standard when it comes to Aussie wines — Geddes naturally spends a lot of time in China. China is Australia’s largest export market and Geddes has helped develop the market there through his tastings and seminars.
Much of the discussion about the China ratings system focuses on the fact that it uses a 10-point scale for maximum clarity rather than the 20-point or 100-point scales commonly used elsewhere. I think the real news is that this is moving toward a national rating system that would potentially assign an official score to each wine on the market taking into consideration, it is said, Chinese tastes, cuisine, and culture.
I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else in the world. I guess it is part of a movement to a wine industry and culture with distinctly Chinese characteristics. What do you think?
The new Chinese scale makes me think about wine rating systems generally. There are all sorts of scales in use. Geddes (along with South Africa’s Platter’s Guide) use a five-star system. Gambero Rosso rates Italy’s wines on a Tre Bicchieri (3-glasses) scale that mirrors Michelin’s three-star restaurant ratings. And of course Robert Parker is famous for the 100-point system he helped make so popular.
What’s the best wine rating system? Glad you asked! Here is a vintage Wine Economist column from way back in 2008 that tries to answer that very question. Cheers!
People turn to wine critics to tell them what’s really inside that expensive bottle (or that cheap one) and how various wines compare. Some critics are famous for their detailed wine tasting notes (Michael Broadbent comes to mind here) that provide comprehensive qualitative evaluation of wines, but with so many choices in today’s global market it is almost inevitable that quantitative rating scales would evolve. They simplify wine evaluation, which is what many consumers are looking for, but they have complicated matters, too, because there is no single accepted system to provide the rankings.
I’m interested in the variety of wine rating systems and scales that wine critics employ and the controversies that surround them. This blog entry is a intended to be a brief guide for the perplexed, an analysis of the practical and theoretical difficulties of making and using wine ranking systems.
Wine Rating Scales: 100-points, 20-points, Three Glasses and More
The first problem is that different wine critic publications use different techniques to evaluate wine and different rating scales to compare them. Click on this image to see a useful comparison of wine rating systems compiled by De Long Wine (click here to download the pdf version, which is easier to read).
Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast all use a 100-point rating scale, although the qualitative meanings associated with the numbers are not exactly the same. It is perhaps not an accident that these are all American publications and that American wine readers are familiar with 100-point ratings from their high school and college classes.
In theory a 100-point system allows wine critics to be very precise in their relative ratings (a 85-point syrah really is better than an 84-point syrah) although in practice many consumers may not be able to appreciate the distinction. Significantly, it is not really a 100-point scale since 50 points is functionally the lowest grade and it is rare to see wines rated for scores lower than 70, so the scale is not really as precise as it might seem. (Any professor or teacher will tell you, there has been both grade inflation and grade compression in recent years and this applies to wine critics too, I believe.)
The 100-point scale is far from universal. The enologists at the University of California at Davis use a 20-point rating scale, as does British wine critic Jancis Robinson and Decanter, the leading global wine magazine. The 20-point scale actually corresponds to how students are graded in French high schools and universities, so perhaps that says something about its origins.
The Davis 20-point scale gives up to 4 points for appearance, 6 points for smell, 8 points for taste and 2 for overall harmony, according to my copy of The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud. The Office International du Vin’s 20-point scale has different relative weights for wine qualities; it awards 4 points for appearance, 4 for smell and 12 for taste. Oz Clarke’s 20 point system assigns 2, 6 and 12 points for look, smell and taste. It’s easy to understand how the same wine can receive different scores when different critics used different criteria and different weights.
A 20-point scale (which is often really a 10-point scale) offers less precision in relative rankings, since only whole and half point ratings are available, but this may be appropriate depending upon how the ratings are to be used. Wines rated 85, 86 and 87 on a 100-point scale, for example, might all receive scores of about 16 on a 20 point scale. It’s up to you to decide if the finer evaluative grid provides useful information.
Decanter uses both a 20-point scale and as well as simple guide of zero to five stars to rate wines, where one star is “acceptable”, two is quite good, three is recommended, four is highly recommended and five is, well I suppose an American would say awesome, but the British are more reserved. Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher (who write an influential wine column for the Wall Street Journal) also use a five point system; they rates wines from OK to Good, Very Good, Delicious and Delicious(!).
The five point system allows for less precision but it is still very useful – it is the system commonly used to rate hotels and resorts, for example. ViniD’Italia, the Italian wine guide published by Gambero Rosso, uses a three-glasses scale that will be familiar to European consumers who use the Michelin Guide’s three-star scale to rate restaurants.
Which System if Best?
It is natural to think that the best system is the one that provides the most information, so a 100-point scale must be best, but I’m not sure that’s true. Emile Peynaud makes the point that how you go about tasting and evaluating wine is different depending upon your purpose. Critical wine evaluation to uncover the flaws in wine (to advise a winemaker, for example) is different in his book from commercial tasting (as the basis for ordering wine for a restaurant or wine distributor or perhaps buying wine as an investment) which is different consumer tasting to see what you like.
Many will disagree, but it seems to me that the simple three or five stars/glasses/points systems are probably adequate for consumer tasting use while the 20- and 100-point scales are better suited for commercial purposes. I’m not sure that numbers or stars are useful at all for critical wine evaluation – for that you need Broadbent’s detailed qualitative notes. Wine critic publications often try to serve all three of these markets, which may explain why they use the most detailed systems or use a dual system like Decanter.
In any case, however, it seems to me that greater transparency would be useful. First, it is important that the criteria and weights are highlighted and not buried in footnotes. And I don’t see why a 20-point rating couldn’t be disaggregated like this: 15 (3/6/6) for a 20-point system that gives up to 4 points for appearance, 6 for smell and 10 for taste. That would tell me quickly how this wine differs from a 15 (4/3/8). Depending upon how much I value aroma in a wine and what type of wine it is, I might prefer the first “15” wine to the second.
Wine and Figure Skating?
So far I’ve focused on the practical problems associated with having different evaluation scales with different weights for different purposes, but there are even more serious difficulties in wine rating scales. In economics we learn that numerical measures are either cardinal or ordinal. Cardinal measures have constant units of measurement that can be compared and manipulated mathematically with ease. Weight (measured by a scale) and length (measured in feet or meters) are cardinal measures. Every kilogram or kilometer is the same.
Ordinal measures are different – they provide only a rank ordering. If I asked you to rate three wines from your most preferred to your least favorite, for example, that would be an ordinal ranking. You and I might agree about the order (rating wines A over C over B, for example), but we might disagree about how muchbetter A was compared to C. I might think it was a little better, but for you the difference could be profound.
To use a familiar example from sports, they give the Olympic gold medal in the long jump based upon a cardinal measure of performance (length of jump) and they give the gold medal in figure skating based upon ordinal judges’ scores, which are relative not absolute measures of performance (in the U.S. they actually call the judges’ scores “ordinals”). Figure skating ratings are controversial for the same reason wine scores are.
So what kind of judgment do we make when we taste wine — do we evaluate against an absolute standard like in the long jump or a relative one like the figure skating judges? The answer is both, but in different proportions. An expert taster will have an exact idea of what a wine should be and can rate accordingly, but you and I might only be able to rank order different wines, since our abilities to make absolute judgements aren’t well developed.
This is one reason why multi-wine social blind tasting parties almost always produce unexpected winners or favorites. The wines we like better [relative] are not always the ones we like best [absolute] when evaluated on their own.
Ordinal and cardinal are just different, like apples and oranges (or Pinot Gris and Chardonnay). Imagine what the long jump would look like if ordinal “style points” were awarded? Imagine what figure skating would look like if the jumps and throws were rated by cardinal measures distance and hang time? No, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.
Economists are taught that it is a mistake to treat ordinal rankings as if they are cardinal rankings, but that’s what I think we wine folks do sometimes. I’ve read than Jancis Robinson, who studied Mathematics at Oxford, isn’t entirely comfortable with numeric wine ratings. Perhaps it is because she appreciates this methodological difficulty.
Lessons of the Judgment of Paris
Or maybe she’s just smart. Smart enough to know that your 18-point wine may be my 14-pointer. It’s clear that people approach wine with different tastes, tasting skills, expectations and even different taste buds, so relative rankings by one person need not be shared by others. This is true of even professional tasters, as the Judgment of Paris made clear.
The Judgment of Paris (the topic of a great book by George M. Taber – see below – and two questionable forthcoming films) was a 1976 blind tasting of French versus American wines organized (in Paris, of course) by Steven Spurrier. It became famous because a panel of French wine experts found to their surprise that American wines were as good as or even better than prestigious wines from French.
A recent article by Dennis Lindley (professor emeritus at University College London – see below) casts doubt on this conclusion, however. Read the article for the full analysis, but for now just click on the image above to see the actual scores of the 11 judges. It doesn’t take much effort to see that these experts disagreed as much as they agreed about the quality of the wines they tasted. The 1971 Mayacamas Cabernet, for example, received scores as low as 3 and 5 on a 20-point scale along with ratings as high as 12, 13 and 14. It was simultaneous undrinkable (according to a famous sommelier) and pretty darn good (according to the owner of a famous wine property). If the experts don’t agree with each other, what is the chance that you will agree with them?
Does this mean that wine critics and their rating systems are useless and should disappear? Not likely. Wine ratings are useful to consumers, who face an enormous range of choices and desperately need information, even if it is practically problematic and theoretically suspect. Wine ratings are useful commercially, too. Winemakers need to find ways to reduce consumer uncertainty and therefore increase sales and wine ratings serve that purpose.
And then, of course, there is the wine critic industry itself, which knows that ratings sell magazines and drive advertising. Wine ratings are here to stay. We just need to understand them better and use them more effectively.
This column’s title is a bit misleading. Mateus Rosé never really went away, so how can it return? But the brand is rebooting, changing with the times, which gives us an an excuse to consider this iconic Portuguese wine and the Rosé wine category it helped create.
Wine Discovery Mode
Let’s zoom back five decades to an era when U.S. consumers were in Wine Discovery mode. What were they looking for? Well, many things, but as the 1971 Mateus Rosé commercial above suggest, one side of wine’s appeal was its exotic nature. Could wine really transport you to romantic places? Of course!
Mateus Rosé is an important part of the evolution of the wine world — so important that it has its own entry in the Oxford Companion to Wine. I included this humble wine in my book Around the World in Eighty Wines. Pink, sweetish, slightly fizzy, Mateus was created by Fernando van Zeller Guedes in 1942, aimed initially at the Brazilian market, but its export domain soon reached around the world, including especially the U.S. and Great Britain.
Chilled in its distinctive dark bottle (shaped, it is said, like a WWI army flask), with the image of the Palace of Mateus prominently displayed, it was a a post-war phenomenon. I’ve read that it was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. A quick internet search yields photos of rock legend Jimi Hendrix chugging a half-bottle of Mateus. It was at one point the best-selling imported wine in the U.S. market.
Still Crazy After All These Years
Mateus sold 3.5 million cases in 1978, accounting for an incredible 40% of Portuguese wine exports. Mateus dominated the market of that day the way that Yellow Tail ruled in the 2000s. Even now, when the global wine market Mateus helped create is crowded with big brands, it sells 20 million bottles a year in 120 markets. Still crazy popular after all these years.
Today we are told that consumers want Rosé wines that are dry dry dry and pale pale pale. Classic Mateus didn’t fit that profile at all and yet the style still found an enthusiastic following. Maybe wine drinkers are more diverse in their tastes than popular opinion has it? A Portuguese friend tells me that he sneaks Mateus into blind tastings, where it surprises even professionals with its appeal.
Mars and Venus
The rebooted Mateus, branded Mateus Dry Rosé in the U.S., introduces this iconic wine to a new audience without ignoring consumers looking for a nostalgic experience. The label is silver now, with the Palace of Mateus much smaller. The packaging shows off the pink color. The bottle is clear with an elongated neck, which makes it a bit more elegant. If the old bottle was from Mars (think WWI army flask) the new bottle is from Venus, don’t you think?
Mateus Dry Rosé is made from Baga and Shiraz grapes (Baga is an indigenous Portuguese variety). It is dry according to the tech sheet — just 4 g/l of residual sugar — but fruity, so that first sip tasted sweeter to us than the rest of the glass. Sweetness is subjective, so you may find it drier or sweeter than we did.
50 Shades of Pink?
Will Mateus Dry Rosé dominate the marketplace the way the original did? No, that’s simply not possible. Too much competition — thousands and thousands of SKUs in the market these days. But it has the qualities that can make it a very successful wine brand. The color may not be the pale pale pink we are told is best, but have you looked at the Rosé section of the wine wall recently? As this photo (below) from a tasting of Loire Rosé wines suggests, there are many shades of pink on offer and different buyers will seek out different hues.
Rosé was a hot wine category going into the coronavirus crisis and if it is still hot as we exit lock down then the rebooted Mateus Dry Rosé is ready to take its place on the wine wall and in the hearts of pink wine drinkers.
Sue notes that one of the great things about Mateus back in the day was that the empty bottle made an attractive candle-holder. Hey Boomers, what did you do with your empty Mateus bottles? Just FYI you can buy vintage bottles on EBay!