Book Review: The Wines of South Africa

gi_157779_newsimage_vcsprasset_1603936_157779_a1e0438a-e7e6-4421-b354-a406a5fa9579_0Jim Clarke, The Wines of South Africa (The Classic Wine Library) Infinite Ideas, 2020.

Conventional wisdom holds that books with titles that begin “The Wines of …” are organized around what I call the “Three Ps” of wine: the people and their history, the places (geography, climate, terroir), and the plants (most important grape varieties). Good wine books provide interesting and informative accounts of each “P,” but the best ones find a way to rise above orthodoxy to give readers a taste of what really makes a particular region special.

Jim Clarke’s book on South Africa’s wine industry does just that and it is why I recommend it to you. Clarke is U.S. marketing manager for Wines of South Africa and that puts him in an excellent position to analyze South Africa’s wine sector. It is an important book and I encourage anyone interested in South Africa or global wine to read it, but it is not (and does not try to be) definitive for two reasons. First, Clarke wisely chooses to highlight selected wineries in each region rather than trying to cover them all. Balance is key — breadth can be the enemy of depth in this as in so many things. So you will want to have a recent edition of the Platter’s Guide for maps and comprehensive coverage of working wine cellars.

The pace of change is the second limitation. History is moving at warp speed these days — have you noticed? — and it is impossible for books to keep up, even if like this one they are hot off the presses.  Clarke tells the people story though his account of the twists and turns of South Africa’s wine history, which is necessarily intertwined with the country’s history more generally. One inevitable theme here is the importance of turning points — people and events that caused conditions to suddenly change, with effects that sometimes take years to fully unfold.

Balancing Act

2020 looks to be a year of turning points for South African wine. South Africa’s wine sector has for some time been balancing uncomfortably on an economic knife’s edge.
Some producers who go for high yields are able to coax out profits in most years despite low prices in bulk wine markets. Those who restrict yields and aim for higher quality achieve it — the best of the wines are simply spectacular — but often fail to earn prices high enough to produce profits. For at least part of South African wine, quantity pays better than quality. And many wine growers in both camps fail to earn sustainable returns.

Clarks explains this situation very well and the reader can sense his optimism going into 2020. Maybe this is a turning point moment when the country’s wines will finally achieve the widespread recognition (and higher prices) they need and deserve. I am optimistic about this, too.

But 2020 has turned out not to be that kind of turning point year. Instead it has been a year of disasters — the coronavirus pandemic, the global recession, and South Africa’s harsh national policies that have twice shut down domestic wine sales and once stopped export shipments, too. Wineries on the economic margins, many still recovering from severe drought, have been hard hit. A shake-out seems  likely and some wineries that went into 2020’s recession in weak condition will have trouble coming out the other side.

Follow the Money

The problem remains profitability more than wine quality and the collapse of global tourism flows adds one more woe to the pile. South Africa is a wine tourist dream, as Clarke suggests in a brief chapter on this topic, but it will take some time for wine tourists to return to the Cape Winelands in large numbers.

Who is going to lead South Africa’s wine sector out of the perfect storm it is caught in? As Clarke’s analysis makes clear, there is no shortage of institutions and organizations that aim to lead the industry in one way or another. A lot of people  — including a new group called Save SA Wine — are working very hard to limit the current damage and build a stronger foundation for the future.

I am not an insider, so probably I am wrong, but from my outside perspective I’ve always thought that the key must be Distell, the country’s largest private wine producer. Cooperatives, which are enormously important producers in volume terms, are unlikely to be able to lead the charge to boost prices in export markets, but Distell’s interests and those of the high quality wine sector in general are more closely aligned.

If Distell with its great scale and scope doesn’t do it, I don’t know who can or will. But I keep waiting for Distell to execute a sustained and ambitious strategy and make its big move. So far I’ve been disappointed.

Time Has Come Today

Time moves quickly in a crisis. The unfortunate facts of 2020 do not diminish this book’s relevance. In fact it is even more important now for us to understand South Africa wine’s underlying strengths amid significant challenges. And it is important to understand the stories of people and history that Clarke tells so well. South Africa has experienced turning points before and moved through them, drawing upon deep wells of strength and resilience.

Clarke captures South African wine’s bright promise, which we hope will shine through the current storm clouds. Excellent book. Very readable. Highly recommended.

Allegro con Brio: Celebrating 20 Vintages of Eroica Riesling

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“Eroica” is the name given to Beethoven’s third symphony. It is a wonderful work, both elegant and powerful. And it was written to make a statement. First performed in the year 1804, it was meant to rally listeners to oppose the forces of tyranny.

“Eroica” is also the name given to Riesling wines made by a partnership between Dr. Loosen of Germany and Chateau Ste. Michelle of Washington State. “Eroica” is celebrating its 20th vintage this year, which is a good moment to think about how it began, how it developed, and what it means.

A False Start

The idea of a German-Washington Riesling nexus goes back a few years As I wrote in a 2010 Wine Economist column titled “Rielsing’s Rising Tide,” German wine producers played an important role in Washington wine’s modern development.

The Langguth family has been making wine in the Mosel for over 200 years. F.W. Langguth … became interested in international expansion in the early 1980s …  The success of Washington Rieslings from Chateau Ste Michelle and other producers caught Langguth’s attention and soon plans were under way for a major investment.

Langguth and local partners developed Weinbau Vineyard (now part of Sagemoor Farms) on the Wahluke Slope and built a $5 million 35,000 square foot state of the art winery in Mattawa. The winery was the second largest in the state at the time, behind only Chateau Ste Michelle’s big Woodinville facility.

The project lasted only a few years, alas, for reasons that I discuss in the 2010 column. But the winery and vineyards survived and helped accelerate the development of the Washington wine industry. Chateau Ste. Michelle, already an important Riesling producer in the 1980s, is now the largest maker of Riesling wines in the world. And Eroica is the flagship.

The James Brown of Wine

Winemaker Bob Bertheau tells the story that, on only his second day working at Chateau Ste Michelle, he found himself walking vineyards with Ernest Loosen of the famous Mosel winery Dr Loosen. Loosen was looking for a New World partner to help build global momentum for Riesling wines. I think of Loosen as the “James Brown of Wine.”  James Brown is famously “the hardest working man in show business” and Ernst Loosen works just as hard to make the world appreciate Riesling wine.

The partnership between the two companies is embodied in the friendship that developed between the two winemakers, which is easy to see and appreciate when the Riesling world gathers in Seattle every few years for Riesling Rendezvous.

Desert Island Wine

Many people are surprised when I tell them that Riesling is my desert island wine. If had to choose just one kind of wine to drink on a hypothetical remote island, it would be Riesling. Why? Because of its noble quality, of course, but more than that because of the great diversity of styles and expressions that Riesling offers. (People who dismiss it as simply sweet apparently don’t know what they are missing).  To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, a person who is bored with Riesling is bored with life.

It is appropriate, therefore, that Eroica is not just one wine but several.  In the beginning there was Eroica, an off-dry Riesling that raised the bar for Washington Riesling in terms of quality and also price. No one hereabouts was accustomed to paying more than $20 for a bottle of Washington Riesling. The fact that the wine is still around — and still commands a premium price — speaks to its ability to change perceptions.

There was a sweet wine, too. If you’ve ever had a TBA Riesling, you will understand why this was necessary.  Eroica Single Berry Select Riesling raised the bar again.  And eventually Eroica Gold appeared, made in the style of a German Gold Capsule Auslese Riesling. Richer, balanced, with a hint of Noble Rot. Delicious.

Eroica at 20 Vintages

Chateau Ste Michelle invited us to celebrate Eroica’s 20 vintages with them and sent us four Eroica wines that, along with Eroica Gold, make up the current line up. Tasting through the wines was a fascinating experience. The ice wine (Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2016 Eroica Riesling Ice Wine 266 cases, $60 SRP) was a thing apart, of course. A delicious example of a sweet wine with texture, aroma, layers of flavor, and balance. Residual sugar is 33% but of course this is beautifully balanced by lively acidity. Grapes harvested at 47 brix. Memorable experience in the same way as a fine Sauterne. I smile just thinking about it.

The other three wines are variations on the classic Eroica theme. We compared the current release (Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2018 Eroica Riesling  10,000 cases, $20 SRP) with an Eroica with some bottle age (Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2011 Eroica Riesling   60 cases, $35 SRP — Aged Eroica re-release program). Riesling can develop in wonderful ways and even a few years can make a difference. Sue preferred the freshness of the 2018, but I liked the development of the 2011. Both were delicious. Seriously, you should buy some Riesling to put down for a few years if you haven’t done this before.

The final wine (Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2016 Eroica XLC Dry Riesling 515 cases, $45 SRP) was fermented in wooden vats, aged on the lees for a year, and fermented dry. It is an idea that Loosen got from a wine his grandfather made years ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was pleased with the elegance and balance. The special treatment added nuance, but didn’t distort the fundamental Eroica characteristics. Interesting. I don’t consider Eroica a sweet wine at all, but this drier version will surprise many Riesling deniers.

The main Eroica release is widely distributed, but the Ice Wine, XLC, and Gold can be harder to find. Here is a link to the CSM Eroica store.

Beethoven’s Eroica is a masterpiece that has been a source of inspiration for more than two centuries. Eroica Riesling was meant to inspire, too, and after 20 vintages we can taste the delicious result. Allegro con brio?  Yes, indeed.

Thanks to Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr Loosen and congratulations to Ernst, Bob, David, Lynda, and everyone else who’s been in the mix for 20 vintages of Eroica Riesling.

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If you haven’t listened to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony recently, this performance is for you. The first movement is marked “allegro con brio,” of course!

 

Holiday Flashback: How the U.S. and Canada Almost Destroyed Wine

patriotic_pourThese are tough times for many people in the wine industry, especially those who depend on bar and restaurant sales for much of their income. The restrictions necessary to address the coronavirus pandemic have had many unintended consequences.

The wine industry has been shut down before and took decades to recover. But the story isn’t exactly what you might expect. This special holiday week flashback column takes us back to 2015 to tell the story of how, in very different ways, the U.S. and Canadian governments almost destroyed their respective wine industries.

The U.S. government is considering imposing 100% tariffs on some wine imports from Europe, an act that would hurt both European producers and many in the U.S. wine trade, too. The unintended consequences of acts like this are serious business.

Have a happy and safe 4th of July holiday.

Unintended Consequences: How the U.S. & Canada Almost Destroyed Wine

March 17, 2015

At one point in Kym Anderson’s new book about the Australian wine industry he reflects on what can be done to shorten that country’s current wine slump and to get things sailing again on an even keel. One of his suggestions caught my eye:

“Governments need to keep out of grape and wine markets and confine their activities to generating public goods and overcoming market failures such as the free rider problem of collecting levies for generic promotion and R&D.”

This is more than the simple Adam Smith “laissez-faire” idea. Anderson’s book clearly demonstrates the law of unintended consequences — how well-meaning government policies sometimes have had unexpectedly negative side-effects. No wonder he recommends a cautious approach to wine and grape policy.

I was reminded of this when I was researching the history of the Canadian wine industry for a recent speaking engagement in Ontario. I was struck by Canada’s experience with Prohibition in the 20th century, how it differed from the U.S. experiment, and how both ended up crippling their wine industries but in very different ways. Here’s what I learned.

How U.S. Prohibition Crippled the Wine Industry

The great experiment in Prohibition in the United States started in 1920 and lasted until 1933. The 18th Amendment outlawed the manufacture, sale or transport of intoxicating beverages, including wine. Most people assume that the wine industry collapsed as legal wine sales and consumption fell and this is partly true but not the complete story. Commercial wine production almost disappeared, but wine consumption actually boomed.

How is this possible? There were three loopholes in the wine regulations outlined in the Volstead Act. Wine could still be produced and sold for medical purposes (prescription wine?) and also for use in religious services (sacramental wine). This kept a few wineries in business but does not account for the consumption boom, which is due to the third loophole: households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for “non-intoxicating” family consumption.

Demand for wine grapes exploded as home winemaking increased (but not always for strictly non-intoxicating purposes). Total U.S. vineyard area just about doubled between 1919 and 1926! But the new plantings were not delicate varieties that commercial producers might have chosen but rather grapes chosen for their high yields,  strong markets.

Thus did Prohibition increase wine consumption in the U.S. but it also corrupted the product by turning over wine-making from trained professionals to enthusiastic  amateurs working in often unsanitary conditions. The home-produced wine sometimes had little in common with pre-Prohibition commercial products except its alcoholic content.

Americans drank more wine during Prohibition, but it was an inferior product. No wonder they dropped wine like a hot stone when Prohibition ended. That’s when the real wine bust occurred and it took decades to fully recover. Do you see the unintended consequence in this story? But wait, there’s more …

How Canadian Prohibition Crippled Its Wine Industry

Prohibition started earlier (1916) and ended earlier (1927) in Canada and took a different fundamental form. With support from temperance groups, consumption of beer and spirits (Canada’s first choice alcoholic drinks) was banned as part of war policy with the stated intent of preserving grain supplies for vital military uses. Consumption was forbidden, but production of beer and spirits was still allowed for export, which accounts for the boom in bootleg Canadian whiskey in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Neither production nor consumption of wine was included in Canada’s ban on alcohol, although wine sales were limited to the cellar door. What made wine different? Maybe grapes were not as vital to the war effort as grains, although John Schreiner cites the political influence of the United Farmer’s Party in his account of this period in The Wines of Canada. Wine became the legal alcoholic beverage of choice for Canadian consumers and production boomed. By the end of Canadian Prohibition there were 57 licensed wineries in Ontario (up from just 12) to serve the big Toronto market.

Wine sales increased 100-fold, according to Schreiner, but “It would be charitable to describe the quality of the wines being made in Ontario during this period as variable,” he writes. The market wanted alcohol and set a low standard of quality, which many producers pragmatically stooped to satisfy. No wonder wine production collapsed at the end of Prohibition as consumers went back to spirits and beer.

Unintended Consequences

Thus did government policy in both Canada and the United States create wine booms during their respective Prohibition eras, but the worst kind of booms: bad wine booms. Quality suffered as quantity surged. It is no surprise that consumers turned away from wine once other beverages were available. It took decades for these industries to recover.

Both the Canadian and U.S. wine industries are vibrant and growing today, having recovered from the crippling effects of poor quality wine. But they both are still hampered by other policies — especially regarding distribution and sales — that date back to the end of Prohibition. Economic policies can obviously have unintended effects and the shadows they cast can be long indeed.

No wonder Kym Anderson is skeptical about government interference in the Australian industry. Prohibition is an extreme case, to be sure, but such cases clearly show the unintended consequence potential that exists even with other seemingly harmless proposals. A cautious approach makes sense.

Wine Book Review: Laura Catena’s Gold in the Vineyards

catenaLaura Catena, Gold in the Vineyards: Illustrated Stories of the World’s Most Celebrated Vineyards (Catapulta Editores). Illustrated by Fernando Adorneti (Caveman).

Nicholas Catena had to make a choice. His chosen career as an economics professor? Or the family wine business,  Bodega Catena Zapata, which was threatened, along with the rest of Argentina’s wine sector, by shifting and unstable economic currents?

Prof. Catena met Robert Mondavi during a spell as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley and then made his choice. He gave up the academic life and went back to Argentina inspired by Mondavi’s determination to make New World wines as good as the best the Old World could offer.

I suppose that Prof. Catena’s daughter Laura must have faced a career choice, too, at some point. Pursue a career as a medical doctor in the United States, where she studied at Harvard and Stanford and raised a family? Or return to Argentina to advance her family’s vision of wine excellence and help guide the business through more turbulent times? Tough choice. Impossible to do both. But both is what she does. Amazing.

She is an author, too, and a good one.  Sue and I enjoyed her 2010 book Vino Argentino and took it with us on our first trip to Mendoza. We learned a lot about the development of the Argentina wine industry from this book and it helped us meet people, too, when Sue would ask winemakers to autograph the sections of the book where they appeared. Big smiles! There are even a few recipes — Dr. Catena’s chimichurri  often features (along with Mendoza Malbec) on steak night.

616jvwlqdml._ss500_Dr. Catena’s new book, Gold in the Vineyards, is very different from Vino Argentino. At first glance you wonder if it is for adults or children? The answer (typical, I suppose, for Laura Catena) is probably both. The reason this question comes up is that the book is lavishly illustrated with colorful drawings and cartoons that make it look a bit like a children’s book. And Dr. Catena tells us that she was actually inspired by the illustrated books she loved as a child.

I think this book might be a good way to introduce young people to the world of wine, but adults are the main audience and they will find plenty to enjoy (and learn) here. Each of the 12 chapters tells the story of a famous wine producer, starting with Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Tuscany’s Antinori and ending with Catena Zapata, with stops along the way that include California (Harlan Estate) and Australia (Henschke’s Hill of Grace) along with other global icons.

Each chapter tells a story in words and pictures and includes interesting infographics, too.  What do the chapters have in common? What is the moral of the story (books, especially children’s books, need to convey a message)?

Looking back through the chapters I find three threads that run through the text. The first is the power of place. Dr. Catena is a terroirist, as you will know especially from her discussion of Catena Zapata’s Adrianna Vineyard. The second thread is the power of family, because the wineries that appear here all drew strength from their family bonds.

The final thread is the power of women in wine — Dr. Catena dedicates the book to the women in her family from her great-grandmother Nicasia to her daughter Nicola. Although women do not feature prominently in the first chapter on Lafite, they are inescapable throughout the remainder of the book. Women have often struggled to gain authority and recognition in the wine industry, so this empowering message is welcome and important.

Gold in the Vineyards entertains, informs, encourages and inspires. Highly recommended for young and old alike.

Wine Book Reviews: Vino, Économie, Le Guerre & Leonardo’s Vines

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Four wine books with intertnational twists for your reading consideration.

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Alessandro Torcoli, In Vino Veritas: Praticamente tutto quello che serve sapere (davvero) sul vino. Longanesi.

Billy Joel tells us that wine is a simple thing. A bottle of white? A bottle of red? Perhaps a bottle of Rosè instead? Alessandro Torcoli wants us to know that wine is actually complicated, but not so complex that we can’t enjoy it. And that’s a good thing.

Torcoli is editor of Civiltà del Bere, a leading Italian journal of wine and culture, and an aspiring Master of Wine (there are no Italians on the current list of MWs — incredible!).

I am not fluent in Italian (or French, either — see below), but wine is a universal language and that plus some extra effort allowed me to read and enjoy Torcoli’s new book, In Vino Veritas. My efforts were well rewarded.

In Vino Veritas, as the subtitle promises, provides the reader with “pretty much everything you need to know (really) about wine,” which is to say that it is a survey of the most important topics in wine. I might be wrong, but I imagine that the book came out of Torcoli’s MW studies and represents his thoughtful reflections on the world of wine. Two things especially impressed me about this book.
First, the writing style is so fluid that it is a pleasure to read even, as I noted above, when struggling a bit with translation. Some of this is no doubt because it is written in Italian, which is a beautiful language. But it is possible to write poorly in Italian, too, so most of the credit must go to Torcoli, who is a poet as well as wine expert.

Although Torcoli’s book has global reach, analyzing both old and new world wines, it is written for an Italian audience and so uses Italy and its wines as the reference point. I didn’t realize how important the shift in perspective (from France in many cases) would be and how much it would help me understand and appreciate both Italian wines and those from other places.

This is an enticing book with much to offer both novice and professional. Highly recommended.

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Jean-Marie Cardebat, Économie du vin. La Decouverte.

Jean-Marie Cardebat is a wine economist who teaches at the University of Bordeaux. Although my French is only a little better than my Italian, I found this book accessible because it draws on both the language of wine and the lexicon of economics.

Prof. Cardebat’s book is an introduction to the economic analysis of the wine industry and successfully straddles a certain kind of line, telling economists about wine and wine people about economics without leaving either group behind.

Because of this the book’s organization is very different from that of a standard wine guide. Forget about the typical arrangement based on grape varieties and wine regions. We start instead with the determinants of the supply of wine and move to demand, the market structure, and price, drawing on relevant data and published research along the way.

The tone becomes much more analytical in the final chapter, perhaps because this is where Cardebat’s own research is most relevant. Well written and clear with many fine passages (although understandably not as poetic as Torcoli’s essays). A worthy addition to your bookshelf. You might also consider James Thornton’s American Wine Economics, for an American perspective on the topic.

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>>><<<Attilio Scienza & Serena Imazio, Sangiovese, Lambrusco, and Other Vine Stories. Positive Press.

The third book on this list is provided in English translation of the original Italian, which is helpful since its topic can be dauntingly technical.

I have had the pleasure to be on programs with Prof. Scienza in both the New York and Italy and to appreciate that he is quite a legendary figure in viticulture research. It is easy to see why.

This book analyzes the origins of and the relations between many of the most important indigenous Italian grape varieties using DNA analysis. An important topic, to be sure, but it can be quite technical and somewhat tedious for the novice like me.

So it is significant that Scienza and Imazio interweave the stories of the vines with human stories, drawing upon history and archaeology to help understand how the vines and the wines developed and how they gave us the wines and grapes of today.

One of my favorite chapters explores the family tree of Moscato and Malvasia. Along the way we are introduced to Zibibbo, which the authors compare to a sailor who has a son in every port because this somewhat obscure grape was instrumental in the evolution of so many other wine grape varieties.

We also learn about Leonardo Da Vinci’s personal vineyard in Milan, which still exists and has been somewhat miraculously reconstructed. How do they know what grapes were grown then and are therefore planted again now? Elementary, dear reader. DNA analysis — plus some human detective work that would make Sherlock Holmes proud. We can say with confidence that Leonardo favored sweet wine. Sweet wine? Perhaps that is part of the secret of the Mona Lisa’s mystical smile.

Hard to resist a book with so many fascinating insights.

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Christophe Lucand, Hitler’s Vineyards:How the French Winemakers Collaborated with the Nazis. Pen & Sword History, 2019.

Originally published in French as Le vin et le guerre (Wine and War), the English translation’s title really grabs your attention. Hitler’s Vineyards? Hard not to pull it down from the shelf to learn more.

This isn’t the first book I’ve seen about wine and World War II. One of my favorite wine books of all time is Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Donald and Petie Kladstrup. It tells the story of how French producers walked a delicate line, trying to preserve their wines and vines during the Nazi occupation. The Kladstrups are wonderful story-tellers, so this is a book that is hard to put down.

Lucand’s detailed historical analysis of wine during the Nazi Occupation of France is fascinating, too. Nazi forces purchased truly enormous quantities of French wine from all regions and of all qualities at prices well above the market and shipped it all back to Germany. The money to buy the wine came from the exorbinate fees that Germany charged the French government for the costs of occupation. So French money bought French wine for German drinkers.

Although I am sure the wine producers had mixed emotions about these transaction, the fact is that the high-priced sales were welcome since large stocks had built up in the pre-war years. And, Lucand tells us, the occupiers worked to improve vineyard operations in order to keep the wine flows going.

When the clouds of war finally cleared, Lucand explains, the French wine industry was transformed from an inward-looking business to an export-oriented giant. Fascinating. Detailed, well-written, and controversial, Lucand’s history of France and its wine during the Nazi Occupation is an unexpected treat.

Second Thoughts about the Wine Wizards of Oz

The Wizards of Oz” (see below) appeared on The Wine Economist a dozen years ago in  February 2008. It looked to Australia for insights about what might be ahead for the wine industry. I’d forgotten all about this old column until it started getting  “hits” recently, which caused to me give in another look.

The basic idea was that what’s happening in the global wine market sometimes happens in Australia first or most clearly. I think this might have been one inspiration for my book Extreme Wine, which argues that the best place to see the future of wine is at the edges, where change is happening fast, not in the more stable center.

Re-reading this column makes me think how quickly things change (Fosters?) and how much some things persist. Do you think the argument stands the test of time? I am not sure how far I would push it now and maybe I pushed it too far then, too, but the climate change and ecological limits analysis still seems timely.

Let me know what you think in the comments section below (or tell me in person if you are attending the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento). Here’s the 2008 column as it appeared then.

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The Wizards of Oz (February 19, 2008)

20_australian_wine_industry_segments.jpgWhen I think about the future of the global wine market, my thoughts frequently stray to Australia because that’s where I see so many current trends originating or being most effectively exploited.

Export driven marketing strategy? That’s Australia. Branded varietal wines? Everyone talks about Gallo and Constellation brands, but who has done it better than [Yellow Tail]? Foreign market penetration?  The Aussies again, replacing the French as the strongest competitor in the British market and a strong presence in the United States.

Australia even wins the prize for the most sophisticated national wine strategy. Click on the image above to see a representation of the latest Australia wine strategy, which divides the market into twenty (20!) key segments where Aussie wines can compete.

Australia’s Boom and Bust

No doubt about it, if you want to learn about wine economics and integrated wine business, you should look to Australia. But that doesn’t mean that all is well down under. As I have written in previous posts, Australia has experienced a roller-coaster of wine market problems. First it was the problem of over-supply, which pushed prices down to unsustainable levels. And then, just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, they did and the early signs of wine shortages began to appear, which caused me to declare that the era of cheap wine was coming to an end. In each of these cases, trends that I see in many places now were first apparent in Oz. No wonder that I’m starting to view Australia as my leading indicator of global wine market trends.

This makes the news in Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times particularly sobering (not a good word for wine lovers). Robinson’s article suggests that Australia has hit ecological limits to the production of cheap wine. Water is scarce and expensive and this means that the cost (and therefore price) of bulk wines like [Yellow Tail] must rise — from A$0.40 in 2006 to A$1 in 2007 according to the article. That’s not quite a leap from unsustainable to unaffordable (the A$ is about 91 US cents today), but it presents a completely different business model. More to the point, however, the price rises exist because costs are high and the product is in short supply. Robinson is optimistic that Australian winemakers can compete and even thrive in the new market environment, but adjustment won’t be easy.

Robinson reports that Fosters has started sourcing some of its Lindeman’s brand from its vineyards in Chile (for the British market) and South Africa (in the U.S.). This continues the practice we have seen in the U.S. for some time for short-supply Pinot Noir. U.S. brands like Pepperwood Grove and Redwood Creek frequently contain Chilean and French wines respectively. Now, Robinson reports

There is much talk, though not much evidence, of basic bulk wine being imported into Australia from southern Europe, South Africa and South America to fill the so-called “casks” (boxed wine) and the cheapest bottles and flagons for the bottom end of the domestic market, prioritising export markets for such inexpensive Australian wine as the brand owners can afford. Australia has swung from famine to feast and back to famine in terms of its wine supply recently and bulk wine imports are nothing new. I remember encountering a director of one of Australia’s largest wine companies looking very shifty round the back of some fermentation vats at Concha y Toro outside Santiago de Chile in the mid-1990s.

Ecological Limits?

Now the problem here is not that the Australians are passing off foreign wines as their own. The wines I have seen have been clearly labeled and the few cases I know about where winemakers have tried to fool the public (some years ago in New Zealand, as I recall) ended badly for the dishonest producers. They were punished pretty severely in the marketplace when their tricks were revealed.

No, my concern goes more to the heart of the problem. Maybe Australia’s ecological constraints are a short term problem that will disappear. Maybe it is an Australian problem with no implications beyond the land of Oz. Maybe ready supply from Australia wannabe producers in South America, South Africa and Europe will always be there to fill the gap.

But that’s a lot of maybes and economists are trained to get nervous when it’s maybe this and maybe that. We know that the effect of climate change on the wine industry is real. And we know — or at least I think I know — that Australia has often been a good indicator of emerging trends in global wine. If this is the case, then we are indeed about to enter a new wine world, one where the natural constraints on wine production may be about to become as important as marketing strategies.

Wine Book Review: Back to the Future? Strong, Sweet & Dry

9781789141528Becky Sue Epstein, Strong, Sweet & Dry: A guide to Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira and Marsala. Reaktion Books, November 2019.

What do Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Marsala wines have in common? They are all fortified wines (the “strong” part of the book title). You probably have bottles of several if not all of them stashed away somewhere in the back of the wine closet, although you might not have thought about them in a while.

And they are all delicious. Time you brought them out of the closet and onto the table where they belong! Becky Sue Epstein’s entertaining and informative new book is just the nudge you need to do it.

There are two themes that run through the chapters on the different wines. The first is a classic rise, fall, rise again arc. Each wine was once the object of intense interest and widespread celebration. Then, for reasons that are sometimes the same (phylloxera vine devastation) and sometimes unique to the particular situation, interest declined and production faded away.

Now, however, these wines are enjoying a bit of a renaissance.  Back to the future! Why now? Well, this leads to the second theme. As they declined, each of the wines was reduced to a stereotype (think stuffy Port and cigars or your grandmother’s sticky sweet sherry). Now, however, there is more interest in exploring the diversity of these wines and returning to their roots.

Controversially,  there is also a trend toward using these fortified wines as the base for cocktails. Wine cocktails? OMG. How could you do that to a nice wine? Yes, I know there are purists who turn their noses up at this idea, motivated perhaps by the fear that it is a slippery slope that leads all the way down to Vintage Port and Coca Cola. Shudder!

But Epstein embraces the idea, pointing out that fortified wine cocktails are part of the history of these wines. People made cocktails a hundred years ago using whatever products were available. And fortified wines were often more readily available than Gin or Vodka, for example.  No reason why such a drink can’t be tasty. And it is probably lower in alcohol than many spirits concoctions.

sandemanSogrape, the Portuguese producer of the Sandeman wines, has embraced the old/new trend. My 2016 column on Port wine developments noted that the Sandeman Tawny Ports were packaged into new bottles designed to look at home behind the bar. What do you think? The shape is more like a whisky bottle and very different from the traditional black Port bottle with its stenciled label.

Sue and I have a strong interest in fortified wines and have been fortunate to be able to sample many of them — including some unusual ones like Commandaria from Cyprus — at the source. But for some reason we’ve never explored Vermouth. Until now.

Epstein’s chapter on Vermouth convinced us we had to learn more. So now we are working our way through the local selection and look forward to adding this wine to our travel agenda list.

Becky Sue Epstein’s Strong, Sweet & Dry inspired us and I think it will inspire you to try something new that’s also something old. Highly recommended.

Life Among the Vinos: Making Sense of Wine’s Rival Tribes

snowThe idea that society’s big open melting pots have been replaced to a certain extent by narrow, closed tribal silos is no longer novel, but it is very important. Are we becoming a culture of isolated tribes with fundamentally different beliefs and norms? If so, wine must have its tribes, too.

Snow’s Two Cultures

C.P. Snow’s observation that the intellectual world had  divided into two tribes was shocking in 1959. His essay on “The Two Cultures” (pdf here) argued that science and humanities were increasingly alienated, speaking different languages, thinking in isolation.

Each tribe could exist on its own, I guess, but what about society? How could an increasingly technological society survive if science is not tempered and informed by values and a deeper understanding of the humanity it is meant to serve?  How can the humanities be relevant without an understanding and appreciation of science and technology? These were relevant questions and they are even more relevant today as artificial intelligence advances.

“Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding,” he wrote. “They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.”

Mutual incomprehension — that sounds familiar. Today, of course, the incomprehension is compounded by digital technologies that permit and even encourage us to only interact with “friends” within our own tribe and to read only news that reinforces our tribal dogma. We hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see.

Life Among the Econ

Axel Leijonhufvud’s 1973 essay on “Life Among the Econ” presented a serious critique of the economics profession and its tribes, the Micros and the Macros, in a satirical form. What if alien anthropologists stumbled into a university economics department, he asked? What would they see? What would they think?

The answer is not so much different from Snow’s two cultures and my idea of tribes, but Leijonhufvud focused on their beliefs or religions. The Micros idolize the supply-demand market cross and build worshipful totems (“modls”). The Macros have nothing whatsoever in common with the Micros except that they worship a Macro-cross (IS-LM) and build rather extravagant modls of their own.

“Some Econographers disagree with the bleak picture of cultural disintegration just given, pointing to the present as the greatest age of Econ Art. It is true that virtually all Econographers agree that present modlmaking has reached aesthetic heights not heretofore attained. But it is doubtful that this gives cause for much optimism. It is not unusual to find some particular art form flowering in the midst of the decay of a culture. It may be that such decay of society induces this kind of cultural “displacement activity” among talented members who despair of coping with the decline of their civilization. The present burst of sophisticated modl-carving among the Econ should probably be regarded in this light.”

historyLife Among the Vinos

Wine has its tribes, too, and many have observed that the divisions between them and mutual deafness among them are a growing concern.

I wrote about some of the Vinos tribes in my book Wine Wars.  I was inspired by Thomas Pinney’s masterful A History of Wine in America (Vol. 2: From Prohibition to the Present, University of California Press, 2005).  If you want to understand how wine in America got the way it is, this is the best general reference I have found.

Pinney devotes the last section of the book to what he sees is a fundamental battle for the idea of wine in America. It is a conflict between Wagnerians and Martians, he says.

Song of the Wine Maidens

The Wagnerians are inspired by the ideas of Philip Wagner, a Maryland journalist, viticulturist, and winemaker who was especially active in the years that bracket the Second World War. Wagner believed that wine should be an affordable part of ordinary life and a constant companion at mealtime.  Pinney writes that

Wagnerians are always delighted to have a bottle of superlative wine, but their happiness does not depend on it, nor are they so foolish as to think that only the superlative is fit to drink. Their happiness does depend upon wine each day … good sound wine will not only suffice. It is a necessary part of the daily regimen.

Wagner founded Boordy Vineyads and was well-regarded by wine people from coast to coast.  He is an important figure in the history of American wine, according to Pinney, and one whose idea of wine lives on in many forms.

Wagner promulgated his populist vision by promoting the so-called French Hybrid grape varieties on the East Coast and elsewhere. I think he wanted America to be Vineland (the name given it by the Viking explorers), a country covered with grapevines and abundant with honest, respectable wine. This is easier said than done, however, as Pinney’s history makes clear.

My Favorite Martian

Martians are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Whereas Wagner was disappointed that America lacked a mainstream wine culture, Martin Ray was upset that the standard was so low in the years following the repeal of prohibition.  He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction — wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time.  His achievement was short lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagrams, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book.

The Martian view, according to Pinney, is that “…anything less than superlative was unworthy, that no price could be too high, and that the enjoyment of wine required rigorous preparation.”

Two Ideas of Wine

The tribes of Martians and Wagnerians have two very different ideas of wine and it is a shame that one needs to choose between them, but that’s how tribes sometimes works. It seems to me that wine could and should be both a daily pleasure and an opportunity for exceptional expression. The good isn’t always the enemy of the great. But many people see it that way, including Pinney, who reveals himself to be an ardent Wagnerian and expresses concern that the Martians have won the battle for wine in America.

The people who write about wine in the popular press largely appear to be Martians, who take for granted that anything under $20 a bottle is a “bargain” wine and who routinely review for their middle-class readership wines costing $30, $40, $50 and up. Even in affluent America such wines can hardly be part of a daily supper. They enforce the idea that wine must be something special — a matter of display, or of costly indulgence. That idea is strongly reinforced by the price of wine in restaurants, where a not particularly distinguished bottle routinely costs two or three times the price of the most expensive entrée on the menu.

“No wonder, Pinney concludes,” that the ordinary American, unable to understand how a natural fruit product (as wine undoubtedly is) can be sold for $50 or more a bottle, sensibly decides to have nothing to do with the mystery.” So these tribal divisions have serious consequences for the wine industry.

Wagnerians and Martians are not the wine world’s only tribes. Come back next week for my report on the Terroirist and the Naturalist tribes.

Napa Envy? What’s the Secret for Emerging Wine Region Success?

american_airlines_boeing_707_model_aircraft_kits_1bcd6855-5d3b-43ac-b7e9-e4ce13ea59df_largeW.W. Rostow’s famous 5-step theory of the “Stages of Economic Growth” seemed to present a blueprint for less-developed countries thirsty to move up in the global economy league table.

The key step — “take-off” — invoked the image of a powerful modern jet airliner (probably a Boeing 707 back in 1960 when the theory appeared) rising from the runway and soaring into the bright blue sky.

The reality for those who followed Rostow’s map was problematic because his analysis was based on the experience of a previous generation of soaring economies and both the conditions on the ground and the global market environment were often very different. Take-off proved frustratingly hard to achieve and the mistakes were costly both in dollars and in missed human development opportunities.

The Limits of Imitation

Sue and I have visited many emerging wine regions and they all seem to be looking for a blueprint like Rostow’s and for the jet engine that will propel their own take-off into the global wine market’s stratosphere. Everyone wants to be the next Napa (or fill in the name of your favorite successful wine region).

A lot of energy is spent (and probably wasted) trying to emulate the success of one particular emerging wine region that started to soar more than thirty years ago and hasn’t slowed down since. That region is New Zealand and the key to its take off is widely seen to be its choice of a signature grape variety to rally around — Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand’s growth is stunning, to be sure, but I argue that its take-off was the product of particular local and global conditions that are unlikely to be replicated in quite the same way today. There are also unintended consequences to consider. The stunning success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has cast a shadow over other NZ regions and wines that deserve more market attention than they typically get.

The Road Not Taken

The signature winegrape varietal take-off strategy is simple and appealing in theory, but difficult and even dangerous in practice. So what works? How do emerging wine regions get up to speed in the fast-paced global market?

My sense is that each case is special and each road different. The only common characteristic I have noticed is quality, which must be found in every bottle or glass. You only have one chance to make a first impression, they say, and reputation is always on the line. With quality much is possible, even if it is not easy or automatic. Sans quality nothing much seems to work.

But that’s a pretty vague road map, so my senses perked up when I heard Jamie Goode talk about the stages growth for new wine regions at a recent British Columbia Wine Grape Council conference and trade show in Penticton, BC.

From Surprise to Enlightenment

Goode has been just about everywhere in the wine world and based on this experience he proposed a five stage evolution (not revolution) development pattern. Surprise comes first, he said. Local winegrowers are surprised when they find themselves making halfway decent wine. Incredible! Maybe this wine thing is possible.

parisCuriosity comes next as dozens of grape varieties and wine styles appear followed by Imitation of famous wine regions and their wines. Imitation leads to Over-Confidence, in Goode’s taxonomy. I suppose this is when those “Judgement of Paris” type events are organized where you elevate your region to the same stage as Burgundy or Bordeaux.

The 1976 Paris tasting is credited with putting Napa on the world stage. If it worked for Napa, how can it fail for everyone else who tries it?

Real Confidence is Goode’s final stage and I am not sure exactly what he means by this but I know what I think it is. Know thyself. Make wines that are yours, not copies of others, that stand on their own, drawing on the practices and influences of others, but not imitating anyone else.

This is a pretty good description of how wine regions evolve, but the stages it proposes are not strictly limited to wine. I’ll bet most artists and musicians go through phases like this before they gain (if they do) the confidence to be themselves. Mozart may have been born a mature musical genius, but the rest of us have to thrash around as best we can until we figure it out.

Significantly, there isn’t a “take off” stage here, which I think is probably a good thing because it avoids the signature varietal dead end and other false trails. Goode’s analysis doesn’t provide much of a road map for an emerging wine region to use to plot their course, only to evaluate where they have been. But then Rostow showed us that road maps can lead to the wrong destination if the terrain has shifted, so maybe this invitation to self-analysis is as good as it gets.

Confidence Game

The stages of growth idea came up again during the Q&A session. You’ve visited British Columbia several times. Where are we in your theory? Which stage of growth best describes us?

Goode thought about this a bit. Between 4 and 5, he said. Between Over-Confidence and Real Confidence. Interesting! That made me stop and think, too. Sue and I have been to the BC wine country many times over the years. Where does the region stand today? Come back next week to find out the answer.

The Trouble with Being King of the Hill

mappa-collio

For a long time Collio and its neighboring regions in Italy’s upper right-hand corner have been King of the Hill when it comes to Italian white wines. It started in the 1960s when Collio, which had long been known for its excellent hillside terroir, abolished the old share cropping system, which favored quantity over quality, and got a head start on many competitors in the adoption of modern temperature-controlled white wine fermentation practices.

Exceptional grapes were combined with winemaking techniques that preserved fruit and aromas. The results were some stunning mono-variety white wines — Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and native varieties, too — that established the region’s reputation.

The Trouble with Hills

As I noted last week, Sue and I have been coming to Collio since 2000 and the wines have gotten more and more interesting — strength built on strength. But the trouble with being King of the Hill is that you must constantly defend your position against determined competitors and this has been Collio’s challenge.

Collio’s distinctive terroir is impossible to copy, but other wine regions have worked hard to reel in Collio’s early lead in vineyard and cellar practices. Now there are excellent white wines from many regions of Italy north, south, east, and west. Some of the Vermentino di Gallura wines we tasted recently in Sardinia, for example, were absolutely world class.

And of course there are competitors from all over the world to be considered starting of course with New Zealand, which was only a fly speck on the world wine map back in the 1960s. There is a lot of competition today for the title of King of the White Wine Hill.

Grape Expectations

Collio’s challenge is ironically made more difficult today because of its focus on mono-variety wines. Pinot Grigio was easy to understand in the early days compared with wines identified by appellation. That was an advantage. But today there are Pinot Grigio (and Sauvignon and Chardonnay) wines from all over the world and the Collio brand is perhaps overshadowed in New World consumer minds, which often focus on grape variety more than region.

The focus on grape variety unexpectedly puts Collio in directly competition with New Zealand, California, Australia, France, and a host of other regions. The advantage of a hilltop position is diminished. The fact that Friulano, the region’s signature native wine grape, has been serially rebranded (Tocai, Tocai Friulano, Friulano) under orders from the intellectual property police hasn’t helped.

So Collio is facing increased competition from other parts of Italy and other parts of the world. There is also more competition within Friuli itself. We heard reports of massive new plantings out on the plains that threaten to flood the market with cheaper wines and drive down precious margins. They won’t be Collio appellation wines, but they will still compete. Yikes!

Collio Bottleneck

There are as many responses to the the increased competition as their are growers and producers. One important initiative is Collio Bianco, a signature white wine blend that producers hope can help establish the region’s brand more concretely in consumers minds. Think Collio (not just the grape varieties) for exceptional white wines .

bianco

The official definition of Collio Bianco has evolved. Once this wine was a simple field blend. Then it because a loosely regulated blend of native grape varieties that was noteworthy for its lack of distinctiveness. Kitchen sink wine, made with leftovers not used in the favored varietal bottlings.

More recently Collio Bianco was been defined as a white blend made from just about any mixture of native and international grape varieties. The idea is to give winemakers freedom to make the very best wines and have them bear the Collio label and fly the region’s flag.

A special bottle shape was created to further distinguish this wine from others on the shelf. What do you think?  The longer, thinner neck requires a special cork. Choosing this bottle (it is a voluntary program and the special bottle is not required) is a commitment to promoting the region’s brand as well as the individual producers’ products.

One Blend to Rule Them All?

Our hosts arranged for our press group to taste 24 examples of Collio Bianco. Vintages ranged from a 2013 (Primosic Klin  — it was spectacular) to several 2018s (bottled earlier than usual especially for Vinitaly and maybe not at their very best when we tasted them).

Some of the blends focused on the native grape varieties. Gradis’ciutta, for example, presented a Friulano, Malvasia, Ribolla Gialla blend.  Others producers combined native and international grapes. Venica & Venica’s Tre Vigne blended Friulano, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon. Ronco Blanchis blended Friulano, Malvasia, Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. Marco Felluga’s Molamatta combined Friulano, Pinot Bianco, and Ribolla Gialla. It was, as you might guess, a pretty interesting experience, especially since we tasted the wines blind.

The Weight

The question now is what is Collio Bianco and can it bear the weight of expectations? The wines we tasted showed high quality but, given that they come from different producers, sub-regions, and vintages using different grape combinations, we struggled to find any other defining characteristic. And I guess that was the point of the exercise. Only after the fact did I realize why the tasting was titled “Characterized by not being characterized.”

So Collio Bianco wines have quality and they are diverse. Each is a bit different from the rest and consumer experimentation is richly rewarded. This is surely something, especially since the wines from some other regions sometimes seem to all taste alike. But is it enough? I’m not sure.

The good news is that many Collio producers recognize that the challenge of being King of the Hill and they have determined that quality and distinctiveness is the right response. The region also benefits from a consorzio organization with strong leadership and, just as important, pretty good follower-ship — not something that we always find. The greatest mistake would be to rest on past accomplishments, ignoring the competition’s gains,  or to think in terms of quantity instead of quality. That’s the fast track from the top of the hill to the bottom.