Money & Wine: Good, Bad & Ugly

cattivoWe are living in a golden age for wine, or at least that’s what many people (including Jancis Robinson, Matt Kramer, and Richard Hemming) have said. Never before have so many wine lovers around the world been able to enjoy so much good wine from so many places in so many styles at so many price points. If that’s not some sort of golden age, I don’t know what is.

The wine world isn’t a utopia, of course. And, like all golden ages, this one probably contains the seeds of its own eventual demise. But I think it is pretty clear that these are s good times to be a wine drinker, don’t you think?

Jefford on the Money Problem

So was I a bit shaken when I came across Andrew Jefford’s Decanter column on “Money & Wine.”  Jefford doesn’t see a golden age at all. Wine is sick, terminally ill, and the disease that is killing it is money. He writes that

“The biggest wine contaminant (far worse than sulphur) is money. I don’t know how to put it any other way. The contamination is growing worse all the time. The better the wine, tragically, the more money it contains. Fine wines are now brimfull of money.”

Ironically, having written about the devastating disease of money in Decanter on Monday, Jefford’s weekend column in the Financial Times was about a completely different devastating plague: grapevine trunk disease. Wow, wine is really sick, sick, sick.

I suppose there is a good reason why Jefford didn’t talk money to money, which he could have done by publishing his anti-money column in the FT instead of Decanter. In any case, it is clear that Jefford believes that wine is cursed. Golden age? Nonsense!

Masters of the Universe investors sweep up the best wines, pushing prices beyond the reach mere money mortals. Price becomes just a way to score the game and higher is better. Worse, I suppose are wealthy individuals who say that they are investing in fine wines but actually just want to lock them up and treasure them like Gollum’s precious ring. I have called their behavior “conspicuous non-consumption” with a nod to Thorsetin Veblen.

Jefford’s Lament

Jefford takes this whole money-wine syndrome seriously because, as a wine writer and critic, he feels that he is part of the problem. Once critics like Jefford have identified an outstanding wine, it becomes a target for those with money and pretty soon money is all that matters.

Worse, critics sometimes praise ludicrously expensive wines, presumably because they are really good, thus unintentionally reinforcing the notion that wine quality can be measured in dollars, euro, pounds, and yen. “I am guilty of this myself,” he writes, “and wholly complicit.”

One ironic result, Jefford notes, is that the wines that wine critics praise are sometimes bid up to such extraordinary prices that the critics can’t afford to buy them.

“They may briefly encounter great wines at a tasting, but they don’t own them, drink them, or develop a relationship of understanding with them in the way that wealthy wine-lovers are able to. This makes those writers, at best, outside observers of a world to which they will never belong …”

Don’t Cry for Me …

There is truth in this, I guess, but one thing that I have learned from personal experience is that pretty much no one feels sorry for wine writers. They taste wines that most people can only dream of sampling. That they cannot afford to own cases of them and have personal relationships with them doesn’t seem like a serious problem.

I am not an A-List wine critic like Jefford, but even a wine economist like me has occasional opportunities to savor great wines and have memorable wine adventures. I have learned not to speak too loudly about these experiences, however, and to write about them with care. None of my wine enthusiast friends would have any sympathy for me if I offered Jefford’s complaint as my own. Maybe Jefford’s friends are more sympathetic to his needs?

To DRC and Beyond

Tom Wark’s reaction to Jefford’s column (“Andrew Jefford and the Contamination of Wine”) acknowledged that there is a sliver of the market (fine wine, as Jefford defined it in the first quote above) where money is out of control. Top flight Bordeaux and Burgundy get lots of attention, but they are essentially irrelevant to the vast majority of wine enthusiasts. To generalize, even implicitly, from DRC and Petrus to the broader market is to misunderstand the impact of money on wine.

Robert Joseph’s Meininger’s Wine Business International column on “Is Money Ruining Wine”  broadens the discussion in several interesting ways while still retaining the fine wine focus. Yes, great wines cost more today than 50 years ago, Joseph says, but global wealth has increased at the same time. Maybe today’s doctors and lawyers can’t drink Petrus every night (or have a relationship with it, I suppose), but they can afford to taste it on occasions if they want and that’s not nothing.9781442234635

Joseph doesn’t mention it, but part of the money problem, in terms of higher price, is that interest in wine has spread around the world, so that affluent buyers in China and the U.S. seek their share. Price allocates the limited supply — more for New York and Shanghai means London gets less. That’s how markets work

It’s Complicated!

As a wine economist, I am supposed to know something about money and wine. The more I learn, the less willing I am to make bold statements as Jefford has done. There are just too many sides to consider.

That’s how I ended up writing my 2016 book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. I made a list of all the different ways that money could affect wine and then wrote this book to try to make sense of the situation. I ended up examining the good, bad, and ugly of money, taste, and wine. The book ends on a cautiously optimistic note, which is how I will end this column.

Money has many and varied effects on wine, just as it does on everything else. But wine is resilient and wine lovers are, too. Money and markets bring the world of wine to us, creating this golden age. Does the fact that the Golden Rule — he who has the gold makes the rule — is part of the golden age package (at least when it comes to fine wine) ruin everything? That’s up to you to decide.

It’s Not About the Wine

In the meantime, Jefford’s most recent Decanter column, Wine & the World, argues that money isn’t the world’s only curse — politics, culture, and environment are all being corrupted and society itself fragmented. If wine, with its privileged global status, isn’t part of the solution, Jefford argues, it is part of the problem.

The world is a messy place and Jefford’s goal seems to be to make you consider that fact and what you are doing about it with every glass of wine you drink. It’s not really about the wine, it is about you.

Heal the world — that’s a lot to ask of wine, but the healing needs to be done and wine is as good a place to start as any.

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The Wine Economist will take a brief break for the end-of-summer holiday and return in two weeks.

How to Make a Small Fortune in Wine … Story-Telling Time in Napa Valley

Sue and I are in Napa Valley, California this week to participate in the 2016 Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Resort. The symposium is a project of Meadowood Napa Valley, the Napa Valley Vintners Association and the Culinary Institute of America. The theme this year is “Taste Locally, Publish Globally.” You can read the program here.

No Joke: Writing About Wine Business

Sue is a career and writing coach and I am going try to convince the participants to think seriously about writing about the wine business as well as more conventional topics such as wine-makers, wine regions and wine tasting. My talk is called “How to Make a Small Fortune Writing about the Wine Business.” The title, as you have already guessed, it a variation of the world’s oldest wine joke, which begins “How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?”

small fortune

(In case you haven’t heard the joke (which seems unlikely) I will provide the answer at the end of this column.)

The symposium takes place in rather regal settings. The Meadowood Resort looks like a fantastic place (I’ve not visited before) and we have classes at Meadowood, the CIA Greystone facility (the historic Christian Brothers winery) and local wineries.

I have taught in many types of classrooms around the world (ask me about the Communist-era blackboards in an old university classroom building in Prague), but nothing as elegant as this!

Wine and the Dismal Science

And we are in rather illustrious company, too. Hugh Johnson and Jay McInerney are the headliners, but really all of the speakers and coaches are headliners in my book. You can see names, faces and read bios here.  My talk is sandwiched between McInerney and the New York Times’s Eric Asimov. No pressure!

I am a little bit of a fish out of water here. I am not really a wine writer (I can see some of you nodding in agreement!). I’m an economist who studies and writes about the global wine industry and most of my talks are aimed at the industry audience. Wine and the dismal science — an unexpected pairing but a very interesting one.

No Complaints!

Don’t get me wrong —  I have no complaints about being included in this wine writer group. The perks of writing about the wine business are pretty appealing, including the chance to rub elbows with these wine celebrities and to learn from them and from everyone here like the student I hope ever to be.

I think everyone will have fun at the symposium but, returning to the theme of my talk, this is real business not a holiday junket. It is business to the participants, who make their living writing about wine. And it is all business for the organizers, too, who have a strong interest in nurturing wine communication.

Wine is all about telling stories, so how smart is it for the Napa Valley industry to invest in the story-tellers? Very smart and very forward-looking.

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OK, here is the promised punchline. How do you  make a small fortune in the wine business? You know the answer. Start with a big one!

Wine Economist Joins 2016 Professional Wine Writers Symposium Faculty

I’m pleased to report that Sue and I will be joining the faculty of the 2016 Professional Wine Writers Symposium, which will take place February 16-19, 2016 at the Meadowood Napa Valley resort. I will be speaking about the challenges and opportunities of writing about the wine business and Sue will serve as a writing and career coach, drawing upon her years of corporate communications experience and work as contributing editor of the Wine Economist.

We are honored to join this year’s distinguished faculty, which includes Hugh Johnson, Eric Asimov, Jeannie Cho Lee, Jamie Goode and … well the list goes on and on. Here’s how a press release describes the faculty.

Renowned British author and expert on wine, Hugh Johnson OBE, will deliver the industry keynote address at the 2016 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley to be held February 16-19. The Symposium is open to qualified wine, wine-food and wine-travel writers.

Other faculty members featured at the 12th annual gathering include Eric Asimov, chief wine critic for the New York Times; Jay McInerney, author and wine columnist for Town & Country; Jeannie Cho Lee MW, founder of AsianPalate.com; Ray Isle, executive wine editor, Food & Wine; Doug Frost, wine author, educator and one of only four people in the world to hold both the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier credentials; Jamie Goode, author, writer and founder of wineanorak.com; Virginie Boone, contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast; Mike Veseth, publisher of the Wine Economist; satirist Ron Washam, the HoseMaster of Wine; Esther Mobley, wine, beer and spirits writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Tilar Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot and associate professor at Colby College.

The full program for the 2016 symposium has not yet been announced, but participants can expect an intense set of lectures, meetings, discussions, writing exercises, and one-on-one coaching sessions — plus the opportunity to taste great food and wine and get to know some luminaries of the wine world. The program emphasizes three subjects: the craft of writing, career advancement and wine knowledge.

This year’s symposium marks a transition toward a fully funded fellowship model (in place of the tuition charge of previous years) thanks to the generosity of Meadowood and the Napa Valley Vintners Association. Applications for  the 30 fellowships are now being accepted with a November 1, 2015 deadline. Learn more at WineWritersSymposium.org.

Founded by Meadowood Napa Valley and the Napa Valley Vintners Association and supported by The Culinary Institute of America, the symposium brings together wine book authors and editors, wine magazine writers and critics, newspaper wine columnists, bloggers and other editorial wine content creators. Special thanks to Jim Gordon for inviting us to join the faculty for 2016.

Silver Anniversary Celebration: How Wine Has Changed Since 1989

Robert Parker, Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide (New Edition 1989-1990). Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Our friends were married in 1989 and recently celebrated their silver anniversary with a dinner party where almost all of the wines were 1989s from their cellar (plus a few bottles from their children’s birth years). What a treat! I’ll paste a photo of some  of the wines we enjoyed at the end of this post to give you an idea of what a great time we had.

1989 and All That

To paraphrase a famous football coach, wine isn’t like life, it is life, so wine and life’s celebrations are natural partners and our very small gift to the happy couple was an autographed copy of the 1989 edition of Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide.  I hope that what the book says about how wine has grown and changed over the last 25 years will inspire them to consider how their relationship has deepened and matured like a great wine!

I couldn’t part with the book without looking at it myself — just a quick glance to see what Parker wrote about and how — not the detailed analysis of the individual winery and wine entries that would yield the greatest insights. Here’s what I found.

What’s changed since 1989? Well, you won’t be surprised to know that prices have done up. Parker rates each wine with a point score out of 100 (his signature rating system) and an alphabetical price indicator. A = Inexpensive (less than $8) to E = luxury (in excess of $50).  The 1984 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon receives 96 points and a D ($25-$50) for example. The Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab cost only C ($15-$25) — I should have put some of that away!

It is interesting to see how the world wine map has broadened in 25 years. The sections on the Wines of Western Europe is very complete, as you would expect, with France, Germany, Italy Spain and Portugal well represented.  A section on The Best of the Rest includes Australia (of course), and briefer discussions of Argentina, Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, New Zealand, Switzerland,  the UK and Yugoslavia.

It would be hard to make a list like this today without including Austria, South Africa and China. Brazil, India, Israel and several other countries would also claim a place in the lineup.

American Wines Everywhere

What about North America? Well it is there, of course (sans Canada, alas), wedged between Europe and the Rest, with about 250 pages of text compared to nearly 550 for Europe. That’s not a bad page count ratio when you consider how much more wine the Europeans produced then and how tiny the US industry was by comparison.

California got 210 of these pages followed by Oregon with about 30 pages. Parker has a particular interest in Oregon wines and is a partner with his brother-in-law at Beaux Frères (Parker does not review these wines because of understandable conflict-of-interest concerns).

I was interested to see what Parker had to say about Washington wines back in 1989, so I turned quickly to the chapter on Other American Viticultural Regions (other than California and Oregon that is). Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, — the list goes on, wine seems to be everywhere in America  — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and then finally Washington!

Washington: Lingering Doubts, Encouraging Signs

“While I still have doubts about the overall quality and potential for Washington state wines,” Parker writes on page 843, “there are some encouraging signs …”.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but probably how many wine people saw the situation at the time. California was obviously important. Oregon, too, because of its Burgundy-like prestige.

Washington? Still needed to prove itself, which I think it quickly did. Washington is now the nation’s #2 wine producer in quantity and challenges California in many areas in terms of quality and reputation. But not in 1989.

In a very brief guide to the state’s best wines, Parker found no Outstanding Chardonnays and just one excellent producer (Hogue). Arbor Crest, Columbia, Chateau Ste Michelle and Zillah Oakes made the cut as Good Producers of Chardonnay.

The best Cabernet Sauvignons? Chateau Ste Michelle’s post-1983 Reserves earned them an Outstanding recommendation. The Chateau’s regular bottling was rated Excellent along with the Columbia “Red Willow” Cab and wines from Latah Creek, Leonetti and Woodward Canyon. Six wineries received the Good score, including Quilceda Creek, which is since earned cult wine status.

While we know that Parker thought the 1985 Pinot Noir Reserve from The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon was worth an 89 score and cost a C amount, we have no numerical rating or tasting note data on any individual Washington wine at all.

Much has changed since 1989 as Parker’s book  makes clear, but a lot has stayed the same, too. Many of the great wine producers of the world have aged and developed as gracefully as the 1989 wines we had with dinner. New wineries, regions, styles and varieties have emerged. Wine was great in 1989, as Parker’s guide tells us. It is even better now, don’t you think!

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From Marco Polo to Eric Asimov: Invisible Cities, Imaginary Wines

Kublai Khan is old and tired and his empire is vast and fraying at the edges. It is impossible for him personally to  know his great domain, so he studies his atlas and sends emissaries to be his eyes and ears and bring back reports. His favorite eye-witness correspondent is Marco Polo, with whom he sits for days on end in the palace garden, turning gestures and then words into vivid images of otherwise unseen cities via the advanced technology of the human imagination.

Are the stories and the cities they represent truth or fiction? It is impossible for Kublai Khan to know for sure since they cannot easily be verified. Some of the tales are fantastic and understandably raise doubts. But they all seem to contain an ehpemeral kernel of truth, which makes the invisible cities important even if they might only be figments of the imagination.

In any case, Marco Polo advises, the truth is in the hearing, not the telling, since each listener (or reader, I suppose) will shape the words to reflect their own experiences, anxieties and desires. The same accounts, he advises Kublai, will produce entirely different images when he eventually tells them again back home in Venice.

Invisible Cities, Invisible Wines

Do you recognize this story? It is the from one of my favorite books, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972). This is a book that I have read and re-read perhaps 10 times, with those bits of truth always just beyond my reach (perhaps this is why Kublai Khan spends so much time with Marco Polo).  It is a great book, but what does it have to do with wine?

I was inspired to dig out my copy of Invisible Cities by a recent column by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov called “Why Can’t You Find That Wine?”   Asimov uses the article to respond to readers who are frustrated that the fabulous wines he often praises turn out to be nearly impossible for them to actually experience. Asimov writes that,

Often plaintive and occasionally hostile, the missives arrive regularly by email, snail mail and phone: “You have an uncanny ability to discuss wines that are difficult if not impossible to find,” one California reader wrote in June.

And this from a reader in New York: “Once again, I have wasted more than a half-hour trying (in vain) to find where in New York City to buy wines mentioned in your column.”

Asimov is sympathetic to his readers’ frustration and explains how the almost hopelessly fragmented US wine market (a lasting legacy of Prohibition) makes it nearly impossible to talk about important wines if you limit your list to only those that can be found in all the nation’s many marketplaces. (He usefully provides hints and strategies for consumers to use to track down special wines.)

My goal is to explore what I think makes wine so thrilling. I’m seeking wines that inspire, with stories to tell and mysteries, perhaps, to conceal. Sometimes deliciousness is enough. But often, the flavors and aromas are only part of what a wine conveys. It’s the rest of the message that’s so fascinating. Part of the joy is for consumers to take part in this journey and make up their own minds. It hurts when they cannot.

Many of the wines that Asimov finds inspiring are produced or imported in tiny quantities with very limited distribution. The wines are real, but for most of Asimov’s readers they might as well be imaginary since their only chance to experience them is to imagine them much as Kublai Kahn imagined Marco Polo’s cities.

The Empire of Imaginary Wines

“I fervently wish all drinkers could find what they want. I sympathize with those who can’t,” he writes, ” But the simple solution — choosing only wines that are easy to find — is worse than the problem.”  That’s because Asimov sees his mission not just to report but to elevate and inspire — to excite our imaginations and to draw attention to those who somehow through their winemaking are able to bring us a bit closer to an ephemeral kernel of truth.

Those are my words, not his, but you get the drift. And do you see how how Asimov and Marco Polo are connected? They both tell us stories about a world too vast for us to ever really know. There are, I am told, about 80,000 different wines for sale in the United States today — far too many for any of us to really know and appreciate even if they were all available to us in one easy to shop aisle., which of course they are not. They are a bit like Kublai Kahn’s vast empire (and we are a bit like him, I suppose).

Eighty thousand wines? That seems like a lot, but there are probably even more. Wine Business Monthly reports that there are about 8,000 wineries in North America and if each produced just five different wines that would account for half the total.  Could the rest of the world with its many thousands of wineries supply the rest? My goodness yes.

Imaginary Wine: A New Wine Genre?

So we really are in Kublai Khan’s position, aren’t we? The difference, I suppose, is that unlike him we are not satisfied with a glimpse of the truth to inspire us — we really want to see the invisible cities and to taste the invisible wines and won’t be satisfied until we do.

I am sure that Asimov is right — it is best for him to tell us about inspiring wines even if we can never really know them, since the accounts may inspire us even if they also frustrate us. (There is a place, however, for accounts of the visible wines, too, don’t you think?) But perhaps we need to take the next step. Asimov’s wines are real, but if we cannot taste them ourselves wouldn’t inspiring stories about fictional wines be just as good — or maybe even better?

I guess what I am asking is if there is a place the wine world for fantastically fictional descriptions of imaginary wines (and  not just those fake bottles that Rudy K produced) that would make us rethink wine the way that Marco Polo’s stories made Kublai Khan rethink his (and our) world? We could never actually taste the wines, but perhaps they might still  elevate and inspire. Life does at least sometimes imitate art!

What do you think? If you were Marco Polo describing an imaginary wine to Kublai Kahn, what would you say?

Wine Judges and their Discontents

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkwMEwenaQQ
“Do you trust me?” asks the hero in my favorite scene from the Disney cartoon Aladdin. The Princess hesitates (“What?)  as if trusting anyone is a radical idea. “Yes” she finally says and holds out her hand.

Who do you trust?

I think of this scene every time I read wine reviews or wine competition results. “Do you trust me?” is the obvious question when it comes to the scores and medals that wine critics and judges award. If we do trust we are more likely to reach out our hands to make a purchase. But trust does not always come easily with a product as ironically opaque as wine.

So do we trust wine critic Aladdins and should we trust them? I raised this question a few weeks ago in my report on “The Mother of All Wine Competitions,” which is the Decanter World Wine Awards and, after surveying the issues I promised an update from the meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists in Bolzano, Italy. This is the promised report.

The session on wine judging (see details below) was very interesting in terms of the research presented, not very encouraging from a trust standpoint. Previous studies that showed that wine judges at major competitions are not very consistent in their assessments were confirmed and attempts to improve their performance have not been very successful so far, according to expert analyst Robert Hodgson. The same wine can get very different ratings from the same experienced judge. It’s hard to “trust” a gold medal despite all the effort that goes into the judging process.

The Trouble with Economists

“If you put two economists in a room, you get two opinions, unless one of them is Lord Keynes, in which case you get three opinions.” according to Winston Churchill. Hard to trust any of them when they disagree so much.

Wine critics suffer the same problem as economists, according to research by Dom and Arnie Cicchetti, who compared ratings of the 2004 Bordeaux vintage by Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker and found a considerable lack of consensus. Two famous critics produced different opinions much of the time. Hard to know what to think or who to trust. Other presentations did little to increase the audience’s confidence in wine evaluators and their judgments.

Because tastes differ, wine enthusiasts are often advised to use good old trial and error methodology to find a critic with a similar palate — and then trust that critic’s recommendations. This conventional wisdom inspired Ömer Gökçekus and Dennis Nottebaum to compare ratings by major critics with “the peoples’ palate” as represented by CellarTracker ratings. CellarTracker lists almost 2 million individual wine reviews submitted by over 150,000 members.

Point / Counter-Point

Stephen Tanzer’s ratings correlate best to the CellarTracker crowd for the sample of 120 Bordeaux 2005 wines in the research database. But, as Ömer  suggested in his presentation, it is important to remember that the data can contain a lot of noise. Clearly the CellarTracker critics are well informed — they know what Parker, Tanzer, Robinson and the rest have written about these wines and their ratings may reflect positive and negative reactions to what the big names have to say.

The researchers detected a certain “in your face, Robert Parker” attitude, for example. In cases where Parker gave a disappointing score, CellarTracker users were likely to rate it just a bit higher while giving high-scoring Parker wines lower relative ratings. CellarTracker users apparently value their independence and, at least in some cases, use their wine scores to assert it. This is an interesting effect if it holds generally, but it also introduces certain perverse biases into the data stream.

Bottom line: The research presented in Bolzano suggests that there are limits to how much we do trust and how much we should trust wine critics and judges. The power of critics to shape the world of wine may be overstated or, as Andrew Jefford notes in the current issue of Decanter, simply over-generalized. “Opinion-formers are highly significant — for a tiny segment of the wine-drinking population.” he writes. “They remain irrelevant for most drinkers.”

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AAWE Conference Session #1B: Wine Judging / Chair: Mike Veseth, University of Puget Sound

  • Robert T. Hodgson (Fieldbrook Winery), How to improve wine judge consistency using the ABS matrix
  • Dom Cicchetti (Yale U), Arnie Cicchetti (San Anselmo), As Wine Experts Disagree, Consumers’ Taste Buds Flourish: The 2004 Bordeaux Vintage
  • Ömer Gökçekus (Seton Hall U), Dennis Nottebaum (U of Münster), The buyer’s dilemma – Whose rating should a wine drinker pay attention to?
  • Jing Cao (Southern Methodist U), Lynne Stokes Southern Methodist U), What We Can Do to Improve Wine Tasting Results?
  • Giovanni Caggiano (U of Padova) Matteo Galizzi (London School of Economics, U of Brescia), Leone Leonida (Queen Mary U of London), Who is the Expert? On the Determinants Of Quality Awards to Italian Wines

Money, Power and Wine


Wine is about flavor and aroma, of course, but it’s also about money and power. Anyone who has studied the wine business knows about the money that’s at stake and the power that a few key actors have to shape the market or exploit its peculiar structure.

Every couple of years Decanter magazine publishes a list of the 50 most powerful people in the world of wine, which gives everyone an opportunity to think about how wine has changed and how those changes have altered the distribution of power.  I wrote about the 2009 Decanter Wine Power List two years ago and now the 2011 list has appeared. You can read all about it here: Decanter Wine Power List 2011.

Lewis Perdue, editor of Wine Industry Insight responded to the new Decanter rankings almost immediately, saying the list is based on “snobbery rather than power.”  Perdue writes that

Decanter’s annual “Powerful” list is based not so much on power, clout, or the ability to move markets, but on a snobbish gaze at a small self-indulgent world that is increasingly irrelevant to the vast majority of the globe’s wine drinkers.

Indeed, the wine industry’s obsession with the navel-gazing worship of sacred grapes blessed by the gods since 1855 is one key reason wine remains  a self-marginalized beverage.

Small wonder that so many people who have a real life choose to punt on haut vin’s rituals and mumbo-jumbo and order a vodka or an IPA instead.

What’s bugging Perdue? As someone who has recently asked “Is Bordeaux Still Relevant?” I can appreciate his point of view, which becomes clearer when you compare the 2011 ratings with the 2009 power list. I’ll reproduce the top tens from both years here.

2009 Wine Power List Top Ten

  1. Richard Sands, USA, Chairman, Constellation Brands
  2. Robert Parker, USA, wine critic
  3. Mariann Fischer Boel, Denmark, EU Commissioner for Agriculture
  4. Mel Dick, USA, Southern Wine & Spirits (wine distributor)
  5. Annette Alvarez-Peters, USA, Costco wine director
  6. Dan Jago, UK, Tesco wine director
  7. Jean-Christophe Deslarzes, Canada, President of Alcan Packaging
  8. Jancis Robinson, UK, wine critic, author and journalist
  9. Nicolas Sarkozy, France, President of France
  10. Pierre Pringuet, France, Pernod Ricard

The 2009 power structure reflected a certain rationalization of the wine business — by which I mean a movement towards de-mystified wine that consumers buy because they can understand it. Sands (#1) and Dick (#4) are in the business of selling and distributing wines to the masses — they are forces of democratization, if you will allow me to use this term very loosely.

Fischer Boel (#3) is the EU official who in 2009 was working on reforms to make the EU market more rational, more like the American market, so that European winemakers could compete with the Sands and Dicks of the world (and stop producing surplus wine that no one will buy).

Alvarez-Peters and  Jago (#5 and #6 respectively) are part of that system, too. Costco and Tesco are the largest wine merchants in the U.S. (Costco) and the world (Tesco); key leaders in wine’s expanding (rationalized) retail domain.

Even Robert Parker (#2) is sometimes seen as part of the wine democratization movement, at least to the extent that he has weakened the hold of Old World elites on wine criticism. His 100-point scale is often characterized by critiques as rationalization taken to an extreme. (FYI French President Sarkozy made the list at #9 because his anti-alcohol policies represented a powerful and widespread threat to the wine business.)

The 2009 ratings, in this admittedly superficial analysis, were all about how power has moved not so much to the masses as to people with an interest in selling wine to the masses by reconfiguring the structure of the wine industry to that end. You can see from the part of Perdue’s remarks that I quoted above that he is probably sympathetic with the direction the 2009 power list points (except the Sarko element, of course).

2011 Wine Power List Top Ten

  1. Pierre Pringuet, France, Pernod Ricard
  2. Eric de Rothschild, Chateau Lafite Rothschild
  3. Robert Parker, Wine Advocate
  4. Mel Dick, Southern Wine & Spirits
  5. Robert Sands, Constellation Brands
  6. Annette Alvarez-Peters, Costco
  7. Don St Pierre Jr, CEO of China-based distributor ASC
  8. Wu Fei , general manager of Chinese wine company Cofco wine and spirits
  9. Eduardo Guilisasti, Chief Executive Officer of Concha y Toro Winery
  10. Jancis Robinson MW OBE , wine critic and author

Decanter explains the significance of its new rankings in the video I have inserted at the top of this post and also on its website:

Pierre Pringuet, CEO of ‘arguably today’s most diverse, far-reaching major wine producer’ has knocked Constellation’s Robert Sands from the number one slot.

The 60-year-old executive, number 10 in 2009’s Power List, presides over the world’s fourth biggest wine company, owner of brands from Champagne Mumm and Perrier-Jouet to Jacob’s Creek and New Zealand’s Brancott Estate.

Pernod Ricard spans both the mass-market and premium end of the global wine market, giving it ‘an enviable perspective on the rate of change currently affecting the wine world,’ Decanter argues.

In second place is Eric de Rothschild, who has looked after the diverse portfolio of Domaines Barons de Rothschild for 37 years.

He has shot up from number 20 on the basis of Chateau Lafite’s huge influence in China: ‘as the world’s premium producers blaze a trail east, it is in Lafite’s footsteps they tread.’

The 2011 rankings present a different picture of wine power. Parker, Sands and Alvarez-Peters still appear in the top 10, reflecting the continued relevance of an American idea of wine markets, but Pernod Ricard replaces Constellation Brands at the top.  Constellation was #1 in the world in 2009 and is #2 now, behind Gallo. Pernod Ricard is #4 by sales today. (Gina Gallo appears further down the list a few positions ahead of her husband, Jean-Charles Boisset — a real wine power couple!)

But the real story is about the new faces in the top 10 list. China is the emerging market powerhouse and power is shifting, Decanter is telling us, to those who can ride that tiger most successfully. Rothschild’s #2 position is all about China. His Chateau Lafite Rothschild’s soaring prices are driven by Chinese buyers who cannot seem to get enough 0f that wine, no matter how much it costs (or how likely it is to be fake!).

Assessing the Power Shifts

It certainly is the case that wine market power is shifting. The U.S. appears to be the wine market of the present (it is now the largest national wine market) although it is hard to argue with the idea that China may be the market of the future. But the future could be a long way off. Still, I understand that everyone is looking for growing markets and The Next Big Thing, which is probably why there was so much attention given my series on wine in the BRIC nations.

Britain has always had a “special relationship” with Bordeaux (one that is hundreds of years older than its U.S. link), so it is perhaps understandable that Decanter’s editors would see the world through a different lens than some of the rest of us. Power has already shifted to Asia in certain segments of the wine auction market and for some Bordeaux wines, so if we define the universe of wine this way (which is what Perdue objects to) then Decanter’s strong focus on Asia makes perfect sense. If you take a different view of what is relevant in wine today and what isn’t, then your sense of where the power lies changes.

Power to the People?

Decanter says that one message in the power list bottle is the democratization of wine. Gary Vaynerchuck, the “people’s wine critic,” makes the list  again (he ranks higher than Hugh Johnson) and “the amateur wine bloggers” make their first appearance in the #16 slot — behind Dan Jago and Gina Gallo but a couple of positions ahead of Michel Rolland.

I like the idea of recognizing the power of the internet. My university students get most of their information about wine from web sources — they don’t pay much attention to the traditional gatekeepers. But power transmitted through the web is different in nature from the ability to control wine distribution, for example. It is much like the distinction I make in my political economy courses between “hard power” and “soft power.” Both are important, but which is more effective depends on the context.

There are some wine bloggers with great influence (I wouldn’t call their efforts amateur, however), but I think Decanter missed the target here. It is probably not the bloggers who represent soft power in wine so much as the thousands of contributors to CellarTracker.com and similiar websites.  Their influence surely trickles up, although the long term impact remains (like that of China) yet to be revealed.