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
- Richard Sands, USA, Chairman, Constellation Brands
- Robert Parker, USA, wine critic
- Mariann Fischer Boel, Denmark, EU Commissioner for Agriculture
- Mel Dick, USA, Southern Wine & Spirits (wine distributor)
- Annette Alvarez-Peters, USA, Costco wine director
- Dan Jago, UK, Tesco wine director
- Jean-Christophe Deslarzes, Canada, President of Alcan Packaging
- Jancis Robinson, UK, wine critic, author and journalist
- Nicolas Sarkozy, France, President of France
- 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
- Pierre Pringuet, France, Pernod Ricard
- Eric de Rothschild, Chateau Lafite Rothschild
- Robert Parker, Wine Advocate
- Mel Dick, Southern Wine & Spirits
- Robert Sands, Constellation Brands
- Annette Alvarez-Peters, Costco
- Don St Pierre Jr, CEO of China-based distributor ASC
- Wu Fei , general manager of Chinese wine company Cofco wine and spirits
- Eduardo Guilisasti, Chief Executive Officer of Concha y Toro Winery
- 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.