Malbec & Maradona: Wine and History in Argentina

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

Malbec and Maradona

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

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

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

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

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

 Lucky Survivors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another Malbec-Maradona connection: Diego Maradona is most famous for a play that has gone down in soccer history as “the Hand of God” goal.  It was in a 1986 World Cup quarterfinal match that Maradona illegally struck the ball with his hand and scored the winning goal – an offense that was clearly visible to everyone in the stadium except the officials. Must have been the Hand of God, not Maradona, I guess.

Now (or very soon depending upon the release date) there is  Hand of God wine. We tasted Hand of God from the barrel when we were in Mendoza earlier in the year and we enjoyed the wine even if Maradona had nothing to do with making it. I suppose the name honors the importance of wine and soccer to Argentinean society and the struggles that both have endured. (Maradona’s team beat England in that famous game, so I wouldn’t look for big Hand of God wine sales in the U.K. market. Just saying …)

Special thanks to Jon Staenberg (proprietor of  Hand of God) and Santiago Achaval for letting us sample this wine!

Wine Science: Better Drinking Through Chemistry

I’m always excited to read the final papers written by students in my class on “The Idea of Wine.” The students come from all corners of the university and bring with them a diverse range of skills, interests, and experiences both with wine and with academics and life generally.

Reading these papers is never tiring or boring, but that’s probably obvious. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s comment about London, a person who is tired of wine is tired of life. As in the past, I’ve picked a handful of papers from the fall semester to feature here. This time I want to focus on two themes: wine science and wine politics.

Better Living Through [Wine] Chemistry

Alex (a Math and Chemistry major) wrote an excellent survey of  “Improvements in Wine Making Through Chemistry” that argued  that “In every part of the [winemaking] process there are questions that can only be addressed using modern chemical models and knowledge.” He supported this point with several examples of detailed chemical analysis. I suspect Alex was “provoked” to write this excellent paper by the combination of the anti-scientific sentiment of the film Mondovino, which the class watched, and the very pro-science attitude of Biology PhD and Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin’s book Wine Myths and Realities, which we read.

Two papers dealt with health issues. Julie (Biochemistry) wrote on “Resveratrol: Potential Health Benefits of Red Wine” while Abby (Exercise Science)  analyzed “Moderate Intake and the Risk of CVS: Resveratrol, NO pathways and SIRT1.” Both papers took the conventional wisdom of the French “Red Wine Paradox” and examined it in detail through the lens of scientific papers and studies. I learned so much from these papers and I can’t thank Julie and Abby enough for writing them.

Frankenwine and Tropical Terroir

Fletcher wrote “Happy Halloween, Enjoy Your Glowing Wine,” an analysis of what I call the “Frankenwine” issue – the application of genetic engineering to wine. As a Business major, Fletcher was naturally interested in consumer attitudes towards GMO products and the marketing implications, but I was impressed with his more technical survey of the application of GMO technology to grapes (to deal with climate change?) and yeasts (such as the ML01 strain, which has been in use since 2003).

Mike (International Political Economy) wrote about “New Lattitdes” viticulture in “Towards a Tropical Terroir: Winemaking Lessons from Thailand.” Although the Thai wine industry is a work in progress, Mike argued that the technical lessons learned in tropical viticulture might eventually be applied to other parts of the world as climate change progresses. His paper combined science with economics and also politics in his analysis of how the AOC system might make it more difficult for Old World producers to benefit from the technical findings of Thai and Brazilian researchers. Very interesting!

Crossing Over, Breaking In

Two students wrote especially interesting papers that probed wine politics issues.  Immigration policy is a hot button political issue this  year – it seems to come up in every Presidential candidate debate. Katherine (Spanish and Art History) wrote about “Grapes of Wrath: Immigration Policy and the U.S. Wine Industry,” looking at immigration flows both in terms of U.S. agriculture generally and the wine grape industry in particular. She suggests that the wine industry would be particularly impacted by changing immigration policy

Patrick (an International Relations major) wrote “The U.S. Racialized Wine Industry: Can Latinos Break Through?”  We know that Latino migrants provide skilled labor in the vineyards – have they been successful in breaking into the cellar, becoming winemakers and winery owners? The answer is yes, but not very often. Patrick examined the structural barriers that seem to stand in the way and speculated about the future .

Thanks to all my “Idea of Wine” students for their great work, both during the semester and on the final papers. A note to students who have signed up for the Spring 2012 class: the Fall students have set the bar pretty high!

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My policy with student papers is that they belong to the students not me, so I do not post them on-line. If you’d like to get a copy, send me an email and I’ll try to put you in touch with the particular students, who may or may not choose to share their work.

On Champagne: Keynes or Adam Smith?

John Maynard Keynes loved Champagne. When asked if he had any regrets in life he admitted to only one. I regret that I did not drink more Champagne, he said.

He even applied economic analysis to Champagne. Looking for ways to increase revenue from the bar at the Cambridge theatre where his ballerina wife Lydia Lopokova often danced (Keynes subsidized the theatre, so he had an interest in its “liquidty”), he studied the cross elasticity of demand between ordinary and premium Champagnes and proposes a novel plan to increase total expenditures by altering prices.

Raising the relative price of the cheaper stuff would make the more expensive tipple seem a better deal, he said, and increase total revenues. I don’t know if the author of Essays in Persuasion was able to persuade the bar manager to go along with the experiment.

Adam Smith, Terroirist

There is no indication that Adam Smith was fond of Champagne or even gave it much thought. Perhaps this was because of the difference in time and place relative to Keynes, but I think it might be because Smith was a terroirist. He believed in the idea of terroir and wrote in the Wealth of Nations that the wine grape was particularly sensitive to local growing conditions. He noted that certain famous Bordeaux wines earned a terroir premium in the marketplace.

If Smith was in fact a terroirist he might shy away from Champagne because most of the Champagne wines in the market place are relatively terroir-free.  Yes, of course, they represent that terroir of the Champagne appelation. But the wines that come from the big houses are blends that come from hundreds of growers and several different vintages. The wines are made in the cellar (through the highly manipulative methode champegnoise) at least as much as they are made in the vineyard. They can be excellent luxury products to be sure, but consistency is generally valued more than terroirst local or vintage variation.

Grower Champagnes are different; Smith and Keynes would both love them. They combine all the luxury and sensuality that Keynes appreciated with Smith’s intellectual focus on local conditions. Grower Champagnes are made in teeny tiny quantities by individual Champagne winegrowers from estate fruit. They are cult wines sold by specialists like Terry Theise, who also champions high terroir Rieslings from Germany and Austria.

Popping a Fat Cork

Is there a market for luxury terroir wines like grower Champagne? This question led us to a Seattle door marked “Fat Cork” where owner Bryan Maletis imports an exclusive list of grower Champagnes and sells them directly to small but growing local and national network of Keynesian-Smith and Smithian-Keynes buyers.

Bryan is well placed to take on the grower Champagne business. He has deep experience in the wine business, most recently as brand manager for Champagne Laurent-Perrier at Winebow, the big distributor. His connection to the grower networks and understanding of the market and distributional issues are valuable assets.

Bryan led us through a terroir tasting of three grower Champagnes (see the list at the end of this post) and the differences in wine were readily apparent to me and my Champagne research unit, which includes Sue, Joyce, Bonnie, Barry and Richard. Joyce revealed herself to have both a fine palate and an exceptional ability to express herself when it comes to Champagne and it was interesting to watch Bryan and his wife Abigail analyze the particular qualities of the wines in their portfolio in order to select the perfect wine for Joyce.

I asked Bryan about the challenges that his business faces, expecting him to start with shipping problems. But he told me that shipping isn’t an important barrier for him at this point. He has created innovative shipping containers that allow him to safely ship wine even in the hottest weather.  So check that important box. And he simply complies with all the interstate laws as best he can, accepting the constraints and pushing on.

University of Champagne

The real problem is that sparkling wine is a small part of the wine market and grower Champagne is a small part of that. People don’t drink Champagne every day, but save it for special occasions. Bryan would like to change that. And even people who have a Keynesian view of Champagne don’t necessarily know about grower Champagne, but may stick for the most part with the heavily-promoted brand names of the major houses.

It’s a marketing problem, he said, although I think it is also an educational problem (which probably makes it even worse). People won’t seek out grower Champagnes until they understand them. Once they taste them, however, I think many will be intrigued and want to probe the Champagne terroir as terroirists do for other wines.

Am I saying that, with a little education, Keynesians can embrace Adam Smith? I guess so! At least when it comes to Champagne.

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Here are the three grower Champagnes we tasted with Bryan and Abigail. Special thanks to Sue, Bonnie & Richard and Joyce & Barry for their assistance in analyzing the market for grower Champagnes. And thanks to Richard, of course, for sharing his business model with us and popping a few fat corks.

  • Perrot-Batteaux et Filles Cuvée Helix Blanc de Blancs (Bergeres-les-Vertus, Cote des Blancs)
  • Pascal Redon Brut Tradition (Trepail, Montagne de Riems)
  • Didier-Ducos Fils Brut (St. Martin d’Ablois, Valee de la Marne)

Invisible Wine … Revealed

The main theme of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man, according to one plot summary, “is the invisibility of the underdog. As the title suggests, the main character is invisible because everyone sees him as a stereotype, not as a real person. While the narrator often bemoans his state of invisibility, he comes to embrace it in the end.”

If we think of invisibility this way (and not the more literal  spooky H.G. Wells way) then I suppose that Kerner is an  Invisible Wine.

Son of Frankenwine?

Kerner is a hybrid wine grape – a cross between noble Riesling and very humble Schiava Grossa, also known as Trollinger in Germany and Vernatsch in its native Alto Adige region of Italy, where it mainly produces inexpensive everyday  red wines for local consumption.  Kerner is a relatively recent invention, first bred in 1969 according to the Oxford Companion to Wine, and named for Justinius Kerner, a 19th century poet and song-writer with a particular affinity for wine.

Justinius Kerner

Hybrid grapes have the same reputation as movie sequels. They are frequently profitable and sometimes very enjoyable, but never as good as the original. There are exceptions to this rule (both for grapes and for films) but in general the stereotype holds. Kerner is often viewed as a Riesling sequel, having many of the qualities of Riesling, but with higher yields and better frost resistance.

Critic reactions to Kerner are mixed. Jancis Robinson, like me a big Riesling fan, writes that “The large white berries produce wines commendably close to Riesling in flavour except with their own leafy aroma and slight coarser texture.” She calls it a “great success story.” Oz Clarke is less enthusiastic, writing that “It is one of the better modern crossings … which perhaps is not saying a great deal.” You see what I mean about stereotypes.

There are about 3700 hectares of Kerner in Germany, far behind Riesling (22,000 hectares), Muller Thurgau (13,000 hectares) and Sylvaner (5000) among white grape varieties but still a considerable amount. While varietal Kerner wines are made in Germany (some quite good, according to Robinson), I suspect most of the grapes are destined for “invisible” inclusion in various blends, which is what happens to hybrids.

A Different Story in Italy

Peter Baumgartner

The story is quite different in Alto Adige, that part of Italy that was Austrian before the First World War and exists today as a semi-autonomous region with both German and Italian (as well as Ladin) as official languages. This is the home of Kerner’s parent, Schiava/Vernatsch, and Kerner is embraced here for what it is, not as a Riesling sequel or substitute. The Valle Isarco (or Eisachtaler in German), which follows the Isarco river up into the Alps,  is the main Kerner region and here, freed of stereotypes, it achieves something quite special.

We were fortunate to have a private tasting of the wines of the Cantina Porduttori Valle Isarco (a.k.a Eisacktaler Kellerei) in Chiusa. Peter Baumgartner, a local banker who is the cooperative winery’s president, explained the winery’s business side (look for an upcoming post on cooperatives in this region) and guided us as we tasted the wines.

Cantina Valle Isarco specializes in white wines (Baumgartner plans to phase out the remaining reds in the portfolio): Sylvaner, Muller Thurgau, Veltliner, Traminer Aromatico, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Riesling and of course Kerner. Production is about 1 million bottles a year and the market is mainly local: 50% in Alto Adige, 40% in other parts of Italy with most of the remaining 10% exported to Germany and Switzerland. Wines are produced to hit several price points starting about about €6 for the entry level and moving up from there.

The Cantina makes four Kerner wines starting with the entry level wine (which we did not taste) and moving up through the premium Artisos series, a limited edition Sabiona Kerner (made from grapes from the Sabiona Monastery vineyards) and ending with a deliciously sweet Kerner Nectaris Passito made from late-harvest grapes left to dry and concentrate their flavors on straw mats in the manner of Amarone.

Wine Wisdom from Charles Barkley

I once heard the sports philosopher Charles Barkley say that a particular basketball player was successful because “he plays like himself” instead of trying to be someone else.  I think the Kerner wines made by the Cantina Valle Isarco are interesting (and apparently successful, too) because they “play like themselves” — they seem to be made to be themselves and not an imitation, substitute or sequel for something else.

In fact, they are among the very best white wines of Italy. Or at least that’s what the editors of the Gambero Rosso guide seem to think. My 2007 Vini d’Italia guide lists three Kerner wines (from Cantina Valle Isarco, Manfred Nössing-Hoandlhof and Abbazia di Novacella) among the 282 wines from all of Italy receiving the highest “three glasses” (tre bichierri) award. That’s a disproportionate achievement for an invisible wine from a tiny Alto Adige valley.

Kerner shows that local wines can excel if local markets embrace them and that even invisible wines can sometimes shine in the spotlight if they follow Charles Barkley’s sage advice.

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Cooperatives have a bad reputation in the wine business. Some of the worst wines in the world are made by cooperatives that favor quantity over quality. But, as we have seen here, some of the best wines are also made by cooperatives. High quality cooperatives are unusually prominent in Alto Adige. Why? How? These are questions I’ll try to answer in my next post.

Thanks to Peter Baumgartner for his generous hospitality during our visit to Cantina Valle Isarco and also at the opening reception of the AAWE meetings in Bolzano.

Is Malbec Washington’s Next Big Thing?

Celebrate! April 17 is Malbec World Day

Every year Seattle magazine publishes a list of Washington’s top wines and wineries and identifies an “emerging” wine variety to highlight and promote. This year it was Grenache and there are some great Grenache and Southern Rhone-style Grenache-blend wines made in Washington state, so I think this was a good choice. The wines we sampled at the Taste Washington Grenache seminar were delicious (see list at the end of the post).

The Big Freeze

But Grenache, as good as it can be here, is probably pretty far down the list in the search for The Next Big Thing in Washington wine. There is only a tiny bit of it planted and I don’t think there are any “old vines” left (old vine Grenache is said to produce more complex wines). Grenache was more widely planted in Washington wine’s early days, but the vines didn’t survive the hard winters that strike the Columbia Valley every few years. Now, with greater attention to vineyard location and management practices, Grenache is making a welcome comeback.

Grenache is an up-and-comer and there are great wines being made already,  but as it is probably best viewed as the Next Next or Next Next Next Big Thing until more and older vines are on line.

But what about Malbec?

When you say Malbec everyone thinks Argentina and, since I’ve recently returned from doing fieldwork in Mendoza, naturally so do I. But what about Washington Malbec? Seattle magazine named it their hot wine variety in 2009 and so I decided to use this year’s Taste Washington event to evaluate the Malbec status quo. (Click here to view a video of last year’s Taste Washington Malbec seminar.)

Mendoza del Norte?

Argentina makes distinctive Malbec wine and there is good reason to think Malbec might do well here in Washington, too. Mendoza and the Columbia Valley are both basically deserts (the Andes and Cascade mountains respectively provide rain shadow effects) where irrigation is a necessity. Both areas get plenty of sunlight although I think vineyard elevations are higher down south.

There are many patches of Malbec planted in AVAs from Lake Chelan to Yakima Valley to Snipes Mountain, Red Mountain and Walla Walla. Statistically Malbec is the fifth most-planted black grape variety after Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cab Franc and ahead of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Lemberger (according to Washington Wine Commission data).

The vines are relatively young, reflecting Washington’s comparative youth as a quality wine producer. Most of the wines I tasted were made with grapes from roughly 10 year old vines, but I know there have been recent plantings that should begin to appear in forthcoming wine releases.  Argentina has some old vine Malbec (80 years and more) in Luján de Cujo, but a lot of the vineyards (especially those in the Uco Valley) are about the same age as Washington’s.

When I ask Washington winemakers why they started making varietal Malbec they usually say that it was because the wine was too good to hide in a blend and, while I don’t dispute this, I suspect Argentinean Malbec’s market success did not unnoticed.

Malbec was originally planted here to use as a blending grape — Malbec is one of the five classic Bordeaux varietals along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. Seven Hills released a what I think was the first varietal Malbec (from very young vines) in 2001, but most other makers restricted it to blends until more recently.

Price and Cost Differences

If Washington and Argentina share certain aspects of geography, they differ tremendously in terms of production cost and retail price. There are precious few Washington Malbecs below the $20 price point. The most frequently observed Malbec price at Taste Washington was $28 and many more were priced above than below this figure. Reininger’s 2007 Walla Walla bottling was the highest priced Malbec on the published listing at $51 and I think that the Eliseo Silva was the cheapest at a listed $10.

Argentinean Malbecs can be found at all price points from about $10 up, but they are biggest in the sub-$20 arena. In other words, Washington and Mendoza compete in the Malbec market, but exactly not head-to-head.

Cost differences account for some of the price difference. Malbec is in short supply at the moment in Washington (only 1100 tons were crushed in 2010 compared with 31,900 of Cab Sauv). Malbec is Washington’s most expensive wine grape according to USDA average price data. Malbec cost $1,540 per ton on average in 2010, putting it ahead of Cab Franc ($1,325) and Cabernet Sauvignon ($1,297).

Malbec is in short supply in Argentina, too, but land and labor costs are a lot less there. High quality Malbec costs 5-6 pesos per kilo in Argentina these days and good quality costs 4 pesos (both figures have risen significantly in the last two years).  At an exchange rate of 4 pesos per dollar and figuring 5 pesos per kilo, that converts to about $1100+ per ton, a lot less than in Washington.

Taste Washington Malbec

There was a lot of Malbec at Taste Washington, mostly from small producers.  Nineteen wineries listed Malbec on the program but I think there may be nearly 100 different Malbecs made in this state by the 700+ large and small registered wineries.

I am not an expert wine taster (which is why you won’t find wine ratings on this website), but I sampled enough quality Malbec in Argentina to begin to understand it a little. In general I found the Malbecs at Taste Washington to be very good representations of the varietal, with well integrated oak in most cases, and able to reflect the different vineyard terroirs. I think they compete very well with the Mendoza wines in the same price ranges, which is a high complement.

My favorites, for what it is worth, were from Fidelitas, Gamache, Hamilton Cellars, Nefarious, Reininger, Saviah and William Church. Special marks go to Hamilton Cellars for making Malbec in three styles: Rose, straight Malbec and a Malbec-heavy Bordeaux blend.

So is Malbec Washington’s Next Big Thing? Not yet — not until there are more vines on line and Chateau Ste. Michelle or  Columbia Crest get into the market and help develop it. Interestingly, Columbia Crest’s newly-appointed chief winemaker, Juan Muñoz Oca,  is Argentinean and Columbia Crest recently released it’s first Malbec — maybe that’s a sign! I’m looking forward to finding out.

Cost is still a big issue and perhaps Washington cannot compete with Argentina at the key price points. But in terms of quality? Yes, it could happen. Malbec could be Washington’s NBT.

[Thanks to Sean Sullivan and Guillermo Banfi for help tracking down Malbec grape prices in Washington and Argentina respectively.

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Taste Washington Seminars: Washington’s Emerging Varieties: Grenache Panache
Presented by Seattle Magazine

The rising popularity of this new-to-the-Washington-scene grape variety in recent times is a boon for wine drinkers.  Seattle Magazine recognizes that Washington State’s offerings with this amazing grape are truly delicious, having awarded it Best Emerging Varietal in their 2010 Best of Washington Wine Awards. Bob Betz MW, an admitted Grenache fiend, will join Seattle Mag’s wine columnist Shannon Borg and an esteemed panel as they help you discover why our region’s Grenache offerings are fast becoming some of the New World’s most distinctive and respected.

Moderator:
Bob Betz MW (Betz Family Winery)
Panelists:
Shannon Borg (Seattle Magazine)
Brian Carter (Brian Carter Cellars)
Sara Schneider (Sunset Magazine)
Sean Sullivan (Washington Wine Report)
Wines:
2008 Milbrandt Vineyards “The Estates” Grenache, WS $25
2009 Maison Bleue “La Montagnette – Upland Vineyard” Grenache, SM $35
2008 Darby Winery “Stillwater Creek Vineyard” Grenache, CV $45
2009 Betz Family Winery “Besoleil” Grenache, YV $50
2007 Brian Carter Cellars “Byzance” Red Wine, CV $30
2008 Syncline Wine Cellars “Cuvée Elena” Red Wine, Columbia Valley $35
2008 Rôtie Cellars “Southern Blend” Red Wine, WA $35

Wine Myths (and Reality)

Benjamin Lewin MW, Wine Myths and Reality. Vendage Press, 2010.

They say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (or a wine by its label?), but does weight offer any clue to quality? Some winemakers apparently think so — they put their best wines (or at least their most expensive ones) in the heaviest imaginable bottles to give them physical heft to match their presumed sensory impact.

If you take Benjamin Lewin’s latest book as a sample of one, intellectual heft and physical weight are pretty highly correlated, too. At 634 pages and 1.9 kg this is indeed a weighty tome — and a very valuable one for anyone really interested in wine.

Wine: Myths and Reality is a great book for people (like me) with a geeky interest in wine. I like it so much, in fact, that I am going to make it required reading for the students in my university class, The Idea of Wine. They may not appreciate having to carry it around in their backpacks, but I guarantee they will thank me when they sit down to read it.

DIY Master of Wine?

I was tempted to title this post “Dr. Lewin’s DIY MW.” As I was reading the book I couldn’t help thinking about the Master of Wine exams and how closely the book seems to follow the syllabus. (I found a copy of the 2008/09 syllabus on the MW website — click here to view the pdf file). I am sure that reading Dr. Lewin’s book isn’t adequate to pass the MW exam, but I think it gives you a sense of the depth of knowledge that Masters of Wine are expected to master.

The Master of Wine was invented to help educate and prepare wine professionals — people who make their living in the wine business as buyers, sellers, advisors, writers and critics. The exam’s structure reflects the need to understand not just wine but its entire commodity chain.

The first two papers deal with the production of wine.

Paper 1 will examine candidates’ knowledge and understanding of ‘Characteristics of the vine and wine’ up to and including ‘alcoholic and malolactic fermentation’.

Paper 2 will examine candidates’ knowledge and understanding of ‘Wine maturation, blending and bottling’ up to and including ‘quality assurance and quality control’.

The first half of Dr. Lewin’s book does a rather masterful job of covering the material for the this part of the exam. Clear, organized, detailed, interesting and provocative — just what the doctor (or aspiring MW) ordered.

Getting Down to Business

The third MW theory paper is on wine business, which makes sense since so many MWs are in “the trade.”

Theory Paper 3: The Business of Wine.   The purpose of this unit is to assess candidates’ current knowledge and understanding of financial, commercial and marketing aspects of the international wine industry. Candidates should demonstrate the ability to apply their knowledge to a range of business situations including marketing and investment strategies, financial decision making, supplier – customer relationships and strategies for identifying and meeting consumer demand. Candidates will require a broad background knowledge of wine industry structures around the world and how these relate to one another.

I have argued in the past that the Masters of Wine program was been very important to the development of the global wine market by its efforts to create a highly trained group of industry leaders. Reading Dr. Lewin’s book you can understand why. Dr. Lewin is not quite as comprehensive in this part of his book, which is understandable since this material will be of less interest to a general audience, but his analysis of global wine market trends and issues is still very interesting and useful.

The fourth MW essay is on “contemporary issues” and I think Dr. Lewin does a great job of raising and analyzing important issues throughout the book. As someone who writes and uses textbooks all the time, I appreciate that Dr. Lewin provides us with his opinions (not playing the old “on one one hand, on the other hand” game), but he does so carefully, citing evidence after having outlined the issues clearly.

The final third of Dr. Lewin’s book is a world tour — an introduction to the regions, the wines and the relevant controversies, with special focus on Burgundy and Bordeaux, which is understandable given their place in the world of wine and especially because of Dr. Lewin’s particular interests and expertise.

Breaking with Tradition

I was initially surprised by the organization of the regional wine survey chapters. Traditionally the Old World comes first and the New World trails along behind. Dr. Lewin reverses the order. Why?  I believe that it has to do with the theme of the book. The title, Wine Myths and Reality gives a strong hint of the book’s over-arching argument.

The myth is that Old World wines are unmanipulated natural products and that New World wines are highly processed industrial ouput. Dr. Lewin argues throughout the book that all wine is manipulated — how could it be otherwise?  Left to itself, wine is just a stop on the liquid road to vinegar.

It is hardly surprising that Benjamin Lewin would take this stand on wine. He is a renowned cell biologist who understands better than most the role of science in wine. To dismiss “manipulation” is to ignore wine science, which seems like a foolish, ignorant attitude.

Embracing Dr. Lewin’s argument raises the true question — what do we want wine to be and how best can we achieve this goal? Everyone manipulates (or else makes spoiled wine) — the question is how, how much, why and to what effect? Telling the story of the New World first puts this argument in context and highlights the real issues effectively.

This is a very fine wine book — one of the best I’ve read — and certainly worth a place on your bookshelf — even if you have to reinforce it to bear the extra weight!

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This book’s color illustrations  — maps, photos and graphs — are simply excellent. I think one reason the book weighs so much is that it is printed on special high gloss paper to make these illustrations unusually clear and useful.

There’s a [Wine] App for That!

Happy New Year! I’ve just finished reading final papers from The Idea of Wine class I teach at the University of Puget Sound.  This semester several students probed the intersecting worlds of wine and technology. Here, for your consideration, are quick summaries of five papers that explore variations on this very contemporary theme.

There’s an App for That!

Anna wrote about wine Apps. Apps are creatures of the 21st century — application programs that run on smart phones, iPads and similar electronic devices. There are thousands of Apps (the iTunes App Store and Android Market are full of them) and so it is no surprise that there are wine Apps, too.

Anna discovered five basic types of Apps, which she classified as wine journals, wine glossaries, wine-food pairing programs, electronic sommeliers that provide recommendations from lists of wines and wine quizzes and games. SmartCellar is an example of a sommelier-type App — restaurants can use SmartCellar-equipped iPads instead of printed wine lists to help their guests make well-informed wine choices.

Project Genome, a Constellation Brands study, identified six distinctive groups of wine buyers ranging from Overwhelmed to Enthusiast. Anna matched wine Apps with buyer profiles and concluded that there is something for everyone. But are any of them perfect?

No. Anna imaged the perfect wine App for her — given her particular interest in wine today. No single existing App would satisfy all her needs, she concluded, but there soon will be given the pace at which new Apps appear.

QR — the New Face of Wine?

Jack wrote abut QR (Quick Response) codes. QR codes work on the same principle as Universal Product Codes, but whereas UPC codes can store 12 characters of information, QR codes hold much more.  You scan a QR using an App on your smart phone and the App uses the embedded information to direct its display. QR codes are everywhere these days, especially in advertisements. Jack reports that some new graves in Japan feature QR codes that, when scanned, show photos of the deceased. QR codes at Japanese tourist sites provide detailed visitor information.

Jack found several applications of QR codes to wine, but he thought that the potential of this technology is not yet fully exploited. QR codes in advertisements or wine labels are a way to give the consumer more information. More advanced technology — already in use in other consumer goods markets — would allow QR Apps to connect with local retailers or to interface with online communities like CellarTracker.

“The more you think about it, the more it’s clear that QR codes have the potential to change everything about wine shopping,” Jack concluded. “They are free, easy to make and will soon have an army of smartphone users” to exploit them.  Japan has been using them for 16 years, he said. Time for wine makers and buyers in the U.S. to catch up.

Wine and Social Media

Alyssa and David wrote very different papers about wine and social media. Social media refers to electronic communities that link people in flexible arrangements and allow  them to interact and to  share information of various sorts. Alyssa examined Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere to find the potential of each to forge durable wine-based interest groups.

David’s paper explored the role of the Internet (and social media)  in building or sustaining consumer communities using a very creative approach — comparing wine with beer. Beer has long been marketed as a group thing — a bunch of people get together and have a good time over a few beers. Wine’s marketing is not as consistently focused, David asserted, and the community element not so clearly developed.

This has an effect on how beer and wine build communities on the web. Beer brings community to the Internet, according to David, but wine tries to draw community from the web — an interesting point. “Every day, more and more people are being brought to wine through the Internet,” he concludes, “and lovers of wine are finally finding the community they’ve always wanted.”

Napa Valley versus Silicon Valley

Finally, Ben’s paper looked for linkages between Northern California’s two famous valleys. Not Napa and Sonoma (although that would be an interesting paper) but Napa and Silicon. What can we learn about wine, Ben asked, by looking at microchips? Quite a lot, he discovered.

Ben compared Annalee Saxenian’s account of the development of Silicon Valley in her book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 with James Lapsley’s history of the Napa Valley wine industry, Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era. He found rather interesting parallels between the two seemingly separate spheres of California life and concluded that Saxenian’s model of high tech regional development explains Napa’s evolution very well.

Going further, however, Ben asserts that both valleys reflect a certain regional spirit. “That this culture of creative destruction permeates as diverse of industries as IT and winemaking demonstrates the influence that a regional consciousness can have over all manners of activities that will within its physical purview.”

“In this sense,” he concludes, “Napa is a genuine reflection of its terroir …  Wine is a microcosm of our collective ties to our environment and the various techniques and technologies used to elucidate a certain character from a wine are ultimately efforts at understanding and strengthening this relationship. And in that pause given to us by that perfect glass of wine, we cannot help but feel closer to the world around us.”

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Sorry, I cannot distribute these papers directly, but if you are interested I will try to connect you with the student authors.

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