Eight Flavors of American Wine? Reflections on Sarah Lohman’s New Book

51svceuoerl-_ac_us160_Sarah Lohman, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Sue and I have been reading Eight Flavors, a fascinating new book by Sarah Lohman about food products that have transformed the American palate. Once exotic, now they are ubiquitous. Can’t imagine American cuisine without them.

This Changes Everything?

Lohman passes on coffee, chocolate and a few other “usual suspects,” she says, because they have been examined in great depth by other authors. Fair enough. So what are her eight flavors?  They are: Black Pepper, Vanilla (which replaced rose water as a flavoring), Chili Powder, Curry Powder, Soy Sauce, Garlic, MSG (the umami flavor), and the most recent addition, Sriracha

Each chapter presents the history of the flavor along with elements of Lohman’s  personal investigation and a handful of recipes, too. In its approach and deft writing syle Eight Flavors reminds me of another of my favorite food books, Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. rogue_sriracha_stout__32156-1423592442-451-416High praise!

The story of Sriracha is particularly interesting to me because I have watched as this product and its intense flavor have moved from “ethnic” to mainstream right before my eyes. Once upon a time I found Sriracha mainly at Vietnamese restaurants, but now it is everywhere: in ketchup, potato chips and popcorn, jerky, candy canes, lip balm, cans of baked beans, a special Big Mac sauce, and even craft beer (the Rogue brewery makes a Sriracha hot stout beer). Amazing.

Readers are treated to a personal tour of the huge California factory where Sriracha is made, which is also amazing. What’s the next big flavor? There are several possibilities, but Lohman thinks that pumpkin spice might become flavor number nine.

I haven’t seen Sriracha wine yet, but I suppose it is only a matter of time.There is a version of Sriracha from Colorado that is flavored with Ravenswood Zinfandel! Searching the web I discovered someone who added Sriracha to a glass of red wine (not a total success) and an innovative wine-Sriracha pairing event (looks like it sold out).

What About Wine?

Eight Flavors got me thinking (which usually means trouble) about wine. Are there eight flavors that have entered the world of wine and transformed it the way that chili powder and soy sauce have changed food in America? Not particular wines or wine brands (although it is difficult not to think that way), but flavors associated with the wines?

Here are a few half-baked ideas that I have come up with to get things started. I invite you to comment on my choices and to suggest wine flavors of  your own.

Lemonade. This flavor is suggested by the great success of Gallo’s Thunderbird wine in the 1950s. Thunderbird took flight when a Gallo salesman noticed customers adding lemon drink mix to white port, giving it a fruit flavor that appealed to the American palate of that generation and was so successful that it provided a solid financial foundation for Gallo’s growth. Although Thunderbird fell out of fashion in most areas, the market for fruit-flavored wines has hung around in various forms (Google “fruit-flavored wines” and you will see what I mean). You might think of the many Sangria-style wines as falling into this category, too. Authentic Sangria shows that fruit flavoring done right can be delicious indeed.

Red Coke.  Cola drinks are typically sweet, with balancing acidity, a nice fizz, and served ice cold. Riunite Lambrusco was developed to be “red coke” for the American market — sweetish, fizzy, low in alcohol. It was for many years the best-selling imported wine in America. Riunite on ice, that’s nice — or at least that’s what millions of consumers said. If you are of a certain age you might remember Cold Duck wine, which is still produced under the André California Champagne label. (Canadian readers might recall “Baby Duck” wine.) This cold, soft flavor, or something like it, can be found in a  host of “chill-able” red wines today.

Butterscotch. I am sure you have already guessed that I am talking about a particular style of Chardonnay that partly fueled the Chard boom, then fell out of favor, and is now experiencing a renaissance in some circles. Buttery, slightly sweetish with lashings of oak, this was the taste of the 80s and 90s. That flavor transformed wine more than you might think. It helped introduce Americans to inexpensive Australian wines, for example, and it created a revolution in American vineyards. Fifty years ago there were only a few hundred acres of Chardonnay vines is all of California. Now it is probably the most-planted white wine grape and Chardonnay outsells all other varietal wines, red or white (although Cabernet Sauvignon is catching up).412bv6vgcoxl-_sx258_bo1204203200_

Silver fizz. After reading science editor turned wine writer Jamie Goode’s new book I Taste Red  I have come to understand that taste is complicated — it is hard to separate color, texture, aroma and flavor. They are all mixed together and it is probably impossible (or at least counter-productive) to deconstruct them the way that wine tasting notes often do. With this mind, I want to propose “silver fizz” as a flavor — the flavor of Prosecco and wines like it, which are sweeping through the wine world today much as Siracha has done over in food world. Is the secret the way that Prosecco (or Cava? or Champagne?) tastes, or how it makes you feel? And does it even matter which it is?

Vino Exceptionalism?

Four flavors — it is a start. Somehow I don’t feel like I have captured that transformative dynamic as well as Lohman did with her food flavors. Is it because my choices are poor? In that case, I would appreciate your critique and suggestions.

Or is it because wine is different? Is wine somehow more rooted in traditional methods and flavors and less able to accept or be changed by outside influences? If so, is that a good thing?

See, I told you there would be trouble. Instead of answers I seem to have questions. Typical!

Book Review: Patrick Comiskey on the Untold History of American Rhône

516ssktyc4l-_ac_us160_Patrick J. Comiskey,  American Rhône: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink. University of California Press, 2016.

“My name is Mike and I drink Syrah.” “Hi, Mike,” the members of the group reply in unison.

That’s pretty much the way the meetings begin every Thursday night when my chapter of Syrah Drinkers Anonymous convenes. Some members try to hide their Syrah-drinking habit from family and friends, only “coming out” at the meetings. Others are more open, but cautious nonetheless. Everyone remembers the terrible shaming of people who drank Merlot during the Sideways years.

A Success Story

If you take the long view, Syrah and the other Rhône wine grape varieties are an amazing success here in the U.S. and most of Patrick J. Comiskey’s terrific new book is devoted to this story. Comiskey tells his readers pretty much everything about the grapes (including the “curious case” of American Petite Sirah) and traces their long and fascinating U.S. history.

Comiskey’s account highlights key figures (Randall Grahm, Steve Edmunds, Sean Thackery, Manfred Kankl) and key producers and regions (Tablas Creek, the Walla Walla Valley) as well as the story of the influential Rhone Ranger movement.a-a-732-ds-1

Comiskey really knows his stuff — deep research is apparent here — and he writes with a fluid style, so learning about American Rhône is a real pleasure. You don’t have to like Syrah (you don’t even have to like wine!) to enjoy this book and to learn from it.

Biggest Loser

American Rhône is a success, but Syrah has the blues. The latest Nielsen Company data (as reported in Wine Business Monthly) indicate that Syrah/Shiraz sales are down 11.1 percent in the last year in the sales channels that Nielsen monitors. That’s the biggest decline of any segment and comes after several years of falling demand. (The overall U.S. wine market increased by 4.9 percent in the same period.)

Syrah/Shiraz is now just the sixth best-selling red varietal wine in the U.S. market after Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Malbec and Zinfandel. These figures cause my fellow Syrah Drinkers Anonymous members a good deal of distress, although we take comfort in the fact that Syrah is often a component in “Red Blend” and Rosé wines — two market segments that are experiencing booming growth.

What happened to Syrah/Shiraz? Well, that’s the subject of my favorite part of Comiskey’s book (the section is called “Irrational Exuberance”) where he closely examines the complicated domestic and international forces that turned Syrah’s boom into bust. People often talk about Syrah’s decline as if it were all Yellow Tail’s fault, but that’s over-simplified.

Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer predicted that Syrah would be the next big thing back in 2003, and it looked like he was right for a while until the bottom fell out of the market. Yellow Tail does figure in Comiskey’s analysis, of course, along with Southcorp/Penfolds, two Roberts (Mondavi and Parker) and, inevitably, Sideways. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book to anyone who is interested in wine market trends or history.

American Rhône is a terrific book, well-written and informative. It deserves a place on your wine bookshelf. Highly recommended.

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This is the final Wine Economist column for 2016. See you next year! In the meantime, here’s a Lone/Rhone Ranger blast from the past. Hi-yo, Silver. Away!

 

Book Review: A Dynamic New History of the French Wine Industry

12912-160Rod Phillips, French Wine: A History. University of California Press, 2016.

Many people think that history is the study of facts and I suspect that they might not be strongly attracted to a book called French Wine: A History. Another book full of facts about French wine? Oh, no!

But history is really the study of change not just facts and it’s that dynamic sense that makes history generally and Rod Phillips’ new book about French wine, so interesting and exciting. Yes, I admit that there are lots of facts here, but Phillips puts them to work telling the story of the changing world of wine, or France, and French wine.

The book has a multi-dimensional organization. The nine chapters proceed chronologically starting with the beginnings to 1000 CE and ending with 1945 to the present, when Phillips argues that French wine was reinvented. Each era of history is organized according to a few dominating themes, with case studies that most effectively explore the issues. It’s an organization that works, although I would have appreciated headings within each chapter to make the outline even clearer.

Phillips apologizes in his introduction that this theme-based approach means that some regions — Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne in particular — get more attention than others, but they are the places where change is often more dramatic or apparent. He notes that any attempt to treat all the regions equally would dilute the narrative and, in my view, turn this from a dynamic history into a stale book of facts.

Wine, the wine industry, and shifting wine markets all treated here. Examples? Well, the chapter on the Middle Ages provides much to think about. The British loved a wine they called Claret, for example, which today means a dark red wine from Bordeaux. But that’s not what the term meant back in the day when it was coined.

Clairet wines came from many places besides Bordeaux and their key characteristic was that they were not dark red. They were fairly clear (compared with red wines), field blends of red and white grapes of various degrees of ripeness that were pinkish more than red. They were the default non-white wines until the 17th century, Phillips tells us, which suggests just how much French wine has changed.

That same chapter explores the changing role of wine in the French diet at the time. Wine was more than a drink, it was a very significant source of calories as the high consumption levels reported here suggest.

Factoid alert: I could not help but be a little envious when I read the list of provisions for the 1251 wedding of Alexander III of Scotland to King Henry III’s daughter Margaret: 1300 deer, 7000 hens, 170 boars, 60,000 herrings, 68,500 loaves of bread … and 96,500 liters of wine. Wow, what a feast.

A great deal has changed over the years in both the wines and their role in our lives, but it is a mistake to think that the most dramatic changes are in the long-ago past (the Middle Ages) or even the more recent past (Phylloxera in the 19th century, the rise of the appellation system in the 20th century).

My favorite chapter examines the last half-century, which Phillips suggests is a golden age of French wine. I learned a lot from his analysis of the French wine industry in the early post-war years. I was impressed by the discussion of the French-Algerian wine relationship and Algeria’s rapid decline from its position as the world’s largest wine exporter (mainly to France) to its much more marginal role in global wine today.

I was particularly interested in Phillips’ take on the changing status of wine in French society and French wine in the global market. The analysis is typically thorough and thought-provoking. He notes that the decline in per capita wine consumption in France, for example, coincides with the development of a mass market for bottled water.This, plus anti-alcohol laws and regulations, explains a lot. The decline in wine consumption has many effects including, he argues, a change in social behavior as the number of cafés licensed to sell wine and spirits has collapsed.

The more things change the more they stay the same — that’s a famous French saying, and it occurred to me several times as I was reading this book. Concerns about wine fraud and adulteration appear frequently in French history, just as I suspect they will in future histories of Chinese wine!

French Wine: A History is a fascinating book that belong’s on every wine lover’s bookshelf. Highly recommended.

Talking About My Generation: Wine Spectator Turns 40

WS111516_CoverUS.indd“Don’t look back,” Satchel Paige said, “something might be gaining on you.” That’s probably good advice in most circumstances, but sometimes it pays to glance over your shoulder to get some perspective on the present and inspiration for what’s ahead.

That’s what Wine Spectator magazine has done in their November 15, 2016 issue, which celebrates their 40th year. The very first issue was dated April 1-15, 1976.  A lot has changed since then. The magazine has changed, the wine world has changed, and we have all changed, too.

Start at the Beginning

The editors confront all this change in many interesting ways. Several illustrated features that look back at memorable wine world events and trends in each decade and provide interesting profiles of the important personalities who shaped the industry and our perception of it.

Publisher Marvin Shanken and the senior editors provide personal reflections and a gallery of covers captures the dynamic wine world through colorful images. Harvey Steiman’s contribution is an intriguing essay on “The Future of Wine.”

Although I appreciate all the essays and features, I admit that my favorite part of this issue is the reproduction of the very first Wine Spectator that is included with the magazine.  It is impossible to resist the temptation to compare the 288-page current Wine Spectator with its 11-page ancestor. A lot of the change in wine can be seen dramatically just be looking at these two publications side-by-side.

1976 and All Thatwinespectatordebutissue

Many of my friends read Wine Spectator for its wine reviews and ratings — they start at the back of the magazine, not the front — but the 1976 issue provides very little in the way of consumer guidance. It was more of a wine trade publication, filled with news and features not wines and scores. The page one headline, for example, was “Hearings set to define ‘estate bottled’ wines,” something of more interest to industry readers than consumers.

“California wines win high awards” is the lead article on page 10 and, since it was 1976, the year of the Judgement of Paris, I expected to read about the now legendary triumph of California wines over their more famous French rivals. But the Paris tasting was on May 24, 1976 — more than a month in the future when this issue hit the streets.

The awards that Wine Spectator reported here were those given at the Oenological Institute’s International Wine Awards in London and the big California winners were Inglenook and Italian Swiss Colony, both then owned by the United Vintners. The 1972 Inglenook Petite Sirah received the highest mark of any American wine while several Italian Swiss Colony wines were awarded silver medals. Italian Swiss made no vintage-dated wines at the time, according to the article, something that set them apart from most of the wines judged in this international tasting.

It’s a Corker!

Wine Spectator today is filled with advertisements — especially the 40th anniversary issue, which features many colorful full-page tributes by industry supporters. Not many ads in the 1976 issue by comparison. My favorite is “It’s a Corker! from Paul Masson,” which highlights the real cork stopper in the “new generic magnums” of Burgundy, Chabils, and Sauterne.

Other ads promoted Concannon’s Muscat Blanc, Ambassador’s Colombard Rosé, Voltaire’s Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc (Voltaire was a Geyser Peak Winery brand), B&G, Sebastiani, and Llords & Elwood (“makers of ultra-premium, award winning champagne, table wines, sherries and port”).

Wine Spectator today features both more advertisements and very different ones. Wine ads dominate, but you will also find those bought by non-wine companies that seek to promote their lifestyle products to the affluent readership base.

Back to the Future

A lot has changed since Wine Spectator #1 and Harvey Steiman’s essay sums it up very well. Back in the day when Steiman first discovered his interest in wine the world was much simpler. Baby boomers understood that Old World trumped New World and pretty much nothing could beat France (Bordeaux for reds, Steiman writes, and Burgundy for whites).

The boomers’ challenge has been to broaden their understanding of wine (more countries and regions) and to deepen it, too, learning about more varieties and styles. We have come a long way, but Steiman thinks there is still a long way to go for us to fully appreciate,  embrace and enjoy the wonder and diversity that wine promises.

Talking About Generations

He is optimistic about the future, pinning his hopes in part on the Millennials, who are undisciplined in good ways and more open to new places, faces, and experiences. Starting from 2016 instead of 1976 and with Millennial attitudes, the sky could be the limit. Fingers crossed.

I think Steiman is right about this, but it is important to appreciate (as I am sure he does) that the generational shift is not the whole story. Generational categories sometimes hide as much as they reveal. We think of baby boomers as driving the wine boom in the U.S., for example, but don’t forget that most boomers don’t drink wine and a great many of them consume no alcohol at all. Sometimes the changing patterns within and across generational groups are as important as the differences between them.

It is important to put wine in context. The world of wine in 1976, as represented by that first issue, was pretty closed. If you look at recent Wine Spectator issues, on the other hand, you can see that it is not just wine that has changed but our idea of wine and how we relate to it, which I believe reflects changing social patterns generally, and not just about wine. For readers of Wine Spectator, wine is not just a drink but part of a sophisticated lifestyle, which is why food and travel are featured so prominently in the magazine and celebrities make frequent appearances, too.

Congratulations on Your (and Our) Success

Wine has been a success in the United States because it has become more and more relevant to the way that consumers live their lives now. As the cultural context continues to change, wine will need to find its meaning and its place. The fact, which Steiman highlights, that wine is not one thing but a great many, gives us confidence that the best days are still to come.

Congratulations to everyone at Wine Spectator for a great 40 years of telling wine’s tale. Looking forward to the next chapter in your (and our) story.

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Everything you always wanted to know about Chianti Classico (and lots more!)

nestoBill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savino, Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine. University of California Press, 2016.

I didn’t know much about Sicily and its wine industry until I read Bill Nesto and Frances Di Savino’s 2013 book The World of Sicilian Wine  and it really opened my eyes. I enjoyed the detailed analysis of the regions, the wineries and the wines and I especially appreciated the  economic history of the wine region and its complicated relationship with international markets. What an interest place!

I approached their new book on Chianti Classico from a different perspective. While I am no expert on Chianti and its wines, I am way more familiar with this region that Sicily. (A section in my 1990 book Mountains of Debt analyzed the fiscal history of Renaissance Florence, including their wine tax scheme.)

Would Nesto and Di Savino be able to open my eyes to this relatively familiar place in the same way as the earlier book? Yes! What an interesting book.

Eye-Opening (Literally)

One chapter literally made me rub my eyes. It was the chapter on viticulture, which is complicated in Chianti Classico as elsewhere with competing theories about the best way to train and treat the vines to get the best quality or maximize quantity.

This is not a new discussion and as evidence of this the authors cite one of the most famous works of Italian Renaissance art — the 1338-39 Lorenzetti  frescoes of the allegory of good and bad government that are found in Siena’s town hall. I have seen these images several times (the distinguished economist Robert Mundell, who taught some years before me at the Johns Hopkins Bologna Center, first drew them to my attention), but I never appreciated the full story they told.

There, within a part of the image on the effect of good government, are three different vine systems! One features narrow rows of densely planted vines. A second has rows widely spaced with interstitial crop plantings. And a third is planted in the Etruscan style with trees for the vines to climb. Fascinating.

1338-1340-lorenzetti-good-government-country.

What is Chianti?

The over-arching question this book addresses is “what is Chianti?” Newcomer wine consumers are often confused about whether Chianti is a grape or a region, but that’s not what we are talking about here. Rather the issue, which is thoroughly examined over the course of eleven chapters, is how should the Chianti region be defined and what wines should therefore receive the Chianti designation.

Once upon a time Chianti meant the area that we now call Chianti Classico, but at several critical points the borders of the appellation were expanded to include zones called “External Chianti,” which vastly increased the volume of Chianti wine available.

Changing the borders of any appellation creates conflict (hey Mr. Champagne, I’m talking about you!). Chianti has in fact been the focus of at least several wars including a real war in the middle ages between the city-states of Florence and Siena and an economic and political war between the interests of Chianti Classico and those of External Chianti.

Nesto and Di Savino take sides in the Chianti wars, especially over the geographical boundaries and cite a previously obscure edict issued by by Medici grand duke Cosimo III in 1716 defining Chianti narrowly as Chianti Classico. They argue for a return to Cosimo’s borders, making the case that the appellations in External Chianti are now strong enough to compete without the Chianti designation. This is bound to stir up further controversy. Stay tuned.

Full of Surprisesrooster

Chianti Classico is packed with information and insights — something for all wine lovers. The early chapters introduce us to the controversies and how they (and Chianti) evolved over several centuries. Great depth and detail here. Then several chapters examine the geography, grape varieties, viticulture, wine-making and winemakers. Finally, each subzone is explored with profiles of the major wine producers that double as a wine touring guide. Cosimo’s 1716 edict appears at the end in the form of a Da Vinci Code-style mystery story.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that my favorite part of the book is the set of chapters on the economic history of Chianti, Chianti Classico and the Chianti Wars. Economic forces were unusually important in shaping this wine region over the years and Nesto and Di Savino do a masterful job turning what is obviously pain-staking research into a lively and informative narrative.

There were many surprises. I had no idea that international trade was such an important force in Chianti in the earliest years. I had no idea that Chianti was such a valuable “brand” long ago, either, or that the story of the straw covered flask bottled would be so complicated and interesting.

And I did not realize that Chianti Classico almost ceased to exist at one point in the post-WWII era when high cost producers found themselves undercut by cheap bulk Chianti wines that drove prices down to, for them, economically unsustainable prices. The story of how this happened and how the Chianti Classico producers rallied to revive their industry makes great reading.

Does Chianti Classico live up to my high expectations for it? Yes! A great book for anyone who loves Chianti or Tuscany or … wine!

(Republic of) Georgia on my mind: Wine tourism’s future in the “Cradle of Wine”

In a few days Sue and I will be jetting off to the Republic of Georgia for the first United Nations World Tourism Organization Global Conference on Wine Tourism.We have been trying to learn all we can about Georgia and its wine and wine tourism industries in preparation for the trip. I thought you might be interested in three of the resources we have found especially useful.

Taber’s Final Frontier

George Taber spent the best part of a year circling the globe collecting wine tourism experiences that he chronicled in an entertaining 2009 book called In Search of Bacchus.  Most of the places Taber visited would be on any globetrotter’s wine tourism map — Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany and so on — and his reporting and first person accounts are very interesting. Taber waited until the final chapter to veer off the conventional road map to visit Georgia, which he calls wine’s “final frontier.”

Taber had a great time in Georgia, the “Cradle of Wine,” 8000 vintages and counting. He loved the people and culture and was fascinated by the wine, reporting on the traditional wine-making process using big clay jars called Qvervi (which are buried in the earth as shown below) to ferment and store the wine until ready to drink.

Taber comments on consumption patterns as do most who write about Georgian wine. A rule of thumb, he notes, is to allow for two or three liters of wine per person at a supra banquet or celebration, where tradition requires that guests drain their glasses after each toast.

When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Georgia (see video above) he also cited high alcohol consumption and complained of frequent hangovers, although this might be Bourdain being Bourdain as much as Georgian tradition. I will let you know what I find out.

Wine Tourism as Economic Developmentqvevri1

My wine economics colleague Kym Anderson visited Georgia a few years after Taber to analyze the wine industry’s potential as an engine of economic development. His 2012 report, Georgia, Cradle of Wine: the next “new” wine exporting country? (pdf), makes good reading.

Anderson found the wine market quite segmented. Most of the large domestic demand was satisfied by basic traditional wines, a surprisingly large proportion being home-produced. Industrial production of wine for export to former Soviet countries made up a second market segment. Rising quantities of wine are made for export to other markets (including US, Canada, UK, etc), where quality expectations are different than the Russian market and production adjustments necessary.

A recent report lists Georgia’s five largest export markets as Russia, Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland although there have been substantial sales increases (albeit from a low base) to Germany, the UK, and Canada.

Anderson clearly sees potential for Georgian wine exports if industrial and agricultural upgrading continues, but he is especially interested in wine tourism, which he sees having potentially greater  impact on rural incomes and employment. Georgia’s decision to host the UNWTO program is consistent with this priority. International tourism is an important income source for Georgia and wine tourism has growth potential.

Anderson makes a number of specific recommendations for upgrading hospitality and winery facilities to make them more appealing to wine tourists. We will be interested to see what progress has been made in this regard in the short time since Anderson’s report.

Back to the Future of Winefeiring

Natural wine proponent Alice Feiring seems to have found her “tribe” in Georgia. Her 2016 book For the Love of Wine is an entertaining, informative and deeply personal account of her encounters with Georgia wine and wine-makers.

Feiring is taken by the naturalness of the Qvervi wine-making process and the dedication of those who kept this tradition alive during the long Soviet wine winter. Whereas Anderson’s concern is economic development, Feiring worries more about the soul. She sees Georgia’s past as a path to a better, more soulful future.

But she worries these traditional wines are threatened by a new foe — those US, UK, and EU markets that seem to demand “me too” wines made in an international style with lots of additives and manipulation. For Feiring, Russian communism and international capitalism are “twins separated at birth” in the sense that each destroys the essence of wine in its own way.

Feiring’s mission is to support those who seek to make high quality traditional wines. But there are problems. The Georgian domestic market for such wines with their necessarily higher price compared with home production is not large enough to support the craft industry, which means that buyers must be found in other countries.

Feiring’s tribe needs to grow to support the wines she treasures. The natural wine movement is growing in part due to her determined efforts. Perhaps wine tourism will convert visitors to natural wine (and Georgian wine) ambassadors.

That is a sip of what I’m learning and a hint of the sorts of questions we hope to explore. Georgia is definitely on my mind!

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We appreciate everyone who helped us prepare for this trip including the officials and staff at the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Administration plus Mariam Anderson, Prof. Kym Anderson, Nino Turashvili, Viktoria Koberidze, Irakli Cholobargia, George Akhalkatsi,  and Hermes Navarro del Valle.

July 4th Flashback: How the U.S. & Canada Almost Destroyed Wine

patriotic_pourIt is Independence Day here in the United States and that is all the excuse I need for this special Flashback column, which 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.

My friends always tell me to have a fifth for the Fourth, and I assume they are recommending a bottle of American wine with the required holiday menu of hot dogs, hamburgers and salads. Cheers and Happy Independence Day.

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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 alcohol potential and ability to survive shipping to eastern 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.