One of my goals in coming to Mendoza was to add to my collection of Extreme Wine stories (yes, I’m working on another book). I was thinking that the story would be the Great Malbec Boom, one of the most extreme regional wine surges in recent years.
The Malbec boom may still make my extreme wine list, but a fellow wine economist suggested a different entry: Tempus Alba‘s ambitious project to create an extreme wine, one that uniquely captures the essence of Malbec. Here’s the story of Vero Malbec.
One Hundred Years of Winegrowing
The Biondolillo family has been in the winegrowing business in Mendoza for more than 100 years. This means that they have lived through booms and crises, both in the wine industry and in the Argentinean economy more generally. Aldo Biondolillo, who holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Minnesota, is the third generation to make a living this way. His sons Leonardo and Mariano are in the family business, too, and there is a very young fifth generation in the wings (if you look closely you can see their fingerprints on the wine label in the video above). Theirs is the kind of business that necessarily looks to the long run.
When Aldo began the Tempus Alba project in the 1990’s he was looking for a way for his family to continue the winegrowing tradition well into the future. He knew that they couldn’t live on grape sales alone and becoming a bulk wine producer would be a dead end road. Commodity pricing — of grapes or bulk wine — often puts an emphasis on cost more than quality – and there is always some one who will charge less. Economic theory teaches that product differentiation is key to escaping the commodity trap. But how?
Aldo’s project is ambitious: to create not just another good Malbec, but a different idea of Malbec.
His method is to isolate the purest or perhaps just the best Malbec vines in the region from among the many different clones that have been planted here over the years. The goal is to identify the truest clones and, in the long run, to make them available to other wineries who could join a circle of producers making unique wines – unique in terms of the particular grape clones and then unique once again as expressions of their respective terroir.
In Malbec Veritas?
And so Aldo and family began, planting 800 different Malbec cuttings in the Mother Block. The 800 vines were narrowed in stages to 589 vines and then finally 20 by teams of experts. After 10 years of hard work, the project’s first commercial Malbec was made in 2007.
It is called Vero Malbec (vero is Italian for truth, although the letters are also the initials of Aldo’s grandchildren). The Biondolillo do not claim that it is the original Malbec brought over from France or The One True Malbec. It is their version of the truth, seen from their family’s particular 100 year perspective.
Everyone knows that I don’t rate wines or give tasting notes, but I found the Biondolillo’s version of the truth very appealing (as have a number of wine critics). It will be interesting to see how this wine develops over several vintages. It will be even more interesting if Aldo’s dream of a winemaking circle evolves, so that a group of Mendoza winemakers adopt the Tempus Alba clones and produce their own unique wines, perhaps along the lines of the Coro Mendocino project that I wrote about a while back. (Hmmm … they could call it Vero Mendocino!)
Our visit to Tempus Alba’s beautiful winery in Maipu was informative in several respects. First, It was interesting to see a project that is at once so scientifically ambitious (the labs and the clones) and, through the winemakers’ circle idea, so socially progressive. Although there is a lot of plant science employed here, however, the work to narrow down the cuttings was done using nose and palate, not by sequencing grape DNA.
I accused Aldo of being an empiricist in his search for true Malbec and someone in the group said, “Well of course … he’s an economist.” Aldo and I reacted in the same instant, “No, no, no!” we said in unison, shaking our fingers. We know that most economists are more comfortable with theories that with facts. (It is an old saying in economics, for example, that a theory cannot be refuted by facts – only by a more appealing theory will do the job). Wine theories are well and good, but it’s what’s in the bottle that really counts.
Stop and Think
I was also fascinated by the visitors to Tempus Alba. The other wineries we visited in Mendoza were fairly remote and sometimes difficult to find; most had guarded gates meant to restrict entry to those with pre-arranged tours. Tempus Alba’s winery is in the Maipu valley, an area with lots of wineries and a good many backpacker hostels. The courtyard was filled with the rental bikes of the 20-somethings who travel from winery to winery as long as they can manage to stay upright. The action in the restaurant and on the deck overlooking the vineyard was young, lively and fun.
I’m not sure the 100+ per day biking visitors (a big wine tourist number by Mendoza standards) buy much wine, but they appear to have a great wine experience – almost a unique one it seems to me. The self-guided tour shows them the winery, teaches some viticultural science, and even exposes them to the family’s “dogma” or guiding principles. Then it is up to the sunny deck to taste the wines and have a bite to eat. Many will be untouched and just enjoy the good wine, food and company, but some will stop and think, and that seems to be the idea behind Tempus Alba’s whole approach.
Is Tempus Alba’s Vero Malbec really unique? I won’t judge the wine, but certainly the idea is completely different and a potentially important addition to the rich mosaic of Mendoza wine.
Update: Leo Biondolillo writes
“Answering your question of Is Tempus Alba’s Vero Malbec really unique? in my personal opinion, every wine is unique or every good wine must be unique… that is the magnificent wine world.”
Regular readers of The Wine Economist know that I get a lot of insights from my students and former students. Marina Balleria, one of my current students at the University of Puget Sound, studied in Chile in Fall 2010 and, knowing of her interest in wine and society, I invited her to write an essay for publication on The Wine Economist website.
Her article is inspired by a visit to a biodynamic winery, but Marina uses it as a springboard to comment on broader social issues. Use a wineglass as a lens to view society? Where could she get an idea like that? You can read her article, which I’ve titled “Biodynamic Wine in Chile: Who Benefits?” by scrolling to the bottom of this post.
Marina’s essay raises a number of important questions about the nature of Chile’s economic development. I’d like to use this post to address two different but related issues.
Good and Cheap: A Vicious Cycle?
The first concerns Chile’s continuing difficulty breaking out of the bargain basement of the world wine market. Chile has long been know as a country where “Prices are very low and quality is very high — the ideal arrangement from everyone’s point of view except the Chilean farmer,” according to Hugh Johnson writing 40 years ago in an early edition of his book, Wine. I think he might say the same thing about Chilean wine today.
Chile has long been cursed with a reputation for bargain wines and pressures to keep export prices low have continued and intensified even as the average quality has soared even higher. A good deal, as Johnson noted … for everyone else! No wonder Chileans are willing to try new things, as Marina notes in her essay, since old things seem part of an endless cycle.
Organic and biodynamic wines are a rather natural thing to try. Having escaped the curse of phylloxeria, Chile can grow wine grapes on their own rootstocks. Combine this with chemical free viticultural techniques and gentle cellar practices and there is an opportunity for a nearly unique product in the world of wine. You can’t blame the Chileans for thinking that perhaps this is a way to escape the bargain basement trap!
The question is, are wine consumers willing to pay more for these wines? Or will they see them as just Chilean wines — very good, but no need to pay a premium for them? That’s the first big question.
Biodynamics: Voo-Doo Viticulture?
Marina’s essay also raises questions about biodynamic viticulture. Biodynamics is one of the most controversial topics in wine these days and you can see why people would be skeptical that it is only a gimmick. We live in an age of science and technology and the processes of biodynamic viticulture have a medieval feel — more like alchemy than rocket science. And the results are qualitative, which is inconvenient in a quantitative age. Voo-doo viticulture? You be the judge.
And yet I know a number of very hard-headed wine makers who have embraced biodynamics, some openly and others on the sly. Caution is warranted because consumer reaction to biodynamics is still unclear. Many wine enthusiasts still don’t know what it is and some seem to have it backwards — associatiing biodynamics with GMO vines — Franken-wines!
Not Mr. Know-It-All
I admit that I am cautious about embracing biodynamics, but I try to have an open mind. It is easy to believe that we know everything there is to know about growing grapes and making wine. After all, how difficult can it be?
We have centuries of experience and tons of scientific research. If biodynamics really worked, doesn’t it make sense that we would know it by now, have irrefutable proof and everyone would be doing it? If it isn’t a proven process by now it must be hokem.
And then I remember malolactic fermentation.
Winemakers observed the process of malolactic fermentation for centuries without understanding it. The actual scientific process is a relatively recent discovery. Before Emile Peynaud figured it out back in the 1950s and 60s, malo was kind of a voo-doo dance in the wine barrel. “Malolatic fermentation happens in the wine in the spring by sympathy with the sap rising in the vines” — that was the pre-Peynaud view according to Benjamin Lewin’s book, Wine Myths & Realities. It took several decades to tease out out what was really going on in the post-alcoholic fermentation juice and I think winemakers are still experimenting to discover the when, where, how and why of controlling it.
So I’m just saying that if it took so long to really understand malolactic fermentation, maybe it will take a little longer to figure out what’s happening (or not happening) with biodynamics (and why) and I’m not in a hurry to make up my mind. Wine is a big world and it can probably accommodate many different religions and beliefs. Even voo doo is welcome here (or should be), if that’s what it turns out to be.
In the meantime, I can appreciate why the Chileans might even resort to voo doo to break out of their good-but-cheap-wine cycle. And I hope it works for them!
Here is Marina’s article:
“Biodynamic Wine in Chile: Who Benefits?”
Editor’s Note: Marina Balleria, one of my students at the University of Puget Sound, studied in Chile in Fall 2010 and, knowing of her interest in wine and society, I invited her to craft an essay for publication on The Wine Economist website, which you will find below.
The essay is inspired by a visit to a biodynamic winery, but Marina uses it as a springboard to comment on broader issues. Use a wineglass as a lens to view society? Where could she get an idea like that?
Marina is studying in Morocco now — I wonder what stories wine will reveal to her there? Thanks, Marina, for this contribution to The Wine Economist.
“Biodynamic Wine in Chile: Who Benefits?”
As you drive through the Casablanca Valley, nestled in between Santiago and the coast of Chile, you could be in Northern California. The valley is an irrigated green underneath hills of sparse shrubs and cactus. You pass a vineyard, an olive oil plant, another vineyard, and then “Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic Wine”.
The phrase “biodynamic wine” is usually met with blank stares in Chile. Perusing the supermarket aisles or the shelves of the botillerias, where most Chileans buy their wine, biodynamic is absent from the labels. In fact, most of the more conscientious wine options such as “fair-trade” and “organic” are not available to the average Chilean wine customer.
The only Chilean outside of the wine industry that I encountered who knew about the topic was Carolina Cabezas, a fiercely opinionated nurse who turned her country home into a biodynamic farm. She deemed it a heretic sect of biodynamism because wine is a poison to the body and the unholy combination is nothing but a fad. When I asked American citizen and long-time Chilean resident Glenn Aldrich, he succinctly encapsulated the Chilean business model in a single phrase: “I don’t know a thing about it, but I know that Chileans always like to do what is new and different especially if it has good marketing.”
THE BIODYNAMIC SENSATION THAT IS SWEEPING THE NATIONS
Biodynamic wine does have that. This viticulture first made a stir because of its unconventional farming practices based on the teaching of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy and of Waldorf School-fame. These include lunar calendars that decide harvest dates, “preparations” concocted of red deer bladders and yarrow and homeopathic treatments used for pest control and dispensed according to the zodiac calendar. All this is meant to create farms that are self-sustaining yet interconnected systems.
Outside of the biodynamic community, these practices are met with skepticism, as scientific proof is shoddy at best. According to a six-year study from Washington State University, biodynamic and organic grapes differed in no substantial way for any of the “physical, chemical and biological parameters tested”, upending claims to the contrary. However, biodynamic wines are being given excellent scores by testers and some recognize it as a way to preserve terroir. What it seems to come down to is that wine growers willing to meticulously grow grapes according to the lunar calendar tend to be equally detail-oriented in other aspects of wine production, resulting in finely, if bizarrely, crafted wines. In any case, biodynamic wine has received premium billing in many wine shops across the globe. Back in Chile, the wine producers have taken notice.
A GUIDED TOUR
As you take the tour in Emiliana’s Casablanca winery all of the hallmarks of biodynamic farming are carefully on display.
The tour guide gives you the standard lines about a concern for the environment and points with pride to the portable chicken coop, used for pest control. He glosses over the grittier parts of biodynamic farming, calling it “the next level of organic” and Steiner is only briefly mentioned. He does affirm that it is “actually a science” and contends that the only proof necessary is in the bottle. We pass by the deer bladders hanging out to dry and duck into the cellar where the preparations absorb the cosmic energies. Apparently, it is common for guests to burst into laughter during this portion of the tour.
Next is the social responsibility component—the community garden in which the rows belong to different workers, allowing the workers to harvest their own biodynamic food and sell the chickens’ eggs. Emiliana also produces olive oil and honey so the workers have employment year round. It is later revealed after gentle probing that this plan benefits about 35 workers out of the 200 or so that are employed during harvest season. The harvesters are not higher paid than at neighboring vineyards. Emiliana is a higher coveted employer however, because as with organic farming, it provides a pesticide-free workplace.
BIG BACKING, BIG EXIT
“This isn’t something we are allowed to say, but we wouldn’t exist without Concha y Toro,” our tour guide tells us after we ease into our chairs for the wine tasting.
Concha y Toro, one of the biggest producers of wine in Latin America put out a wide array of wines, some occupy the bottom shelves of Chilean liquor stores and others come with hundred-dollar price tags. Names include Casillero del Diablo, Amelia and Don Melchor. Emiliana, named for the wife of the founder, is the brand used for their sustainable lines. Emiliana went organic in 1986 and biodynamic in 1997, going through the costly certification processes for both. They proudly announce that they have the distinction of being one of the first in Latin America to do so, a testament to the not-so-friendly rivalry between Southern Cone wine producers. Concha y Toro can quietly put up the capital for ventures such as Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic wine but the both try to avoid association. Emiliana is made with eyes for the international market as 90% of its products are sold abroad with some lines produced exclusively for export. This is not uncommon for fine wines.
According to my tour guide, the grand exodus of wine from Chile is because of a lack of an endemic Chilean wine culture. Basically, there is not a sufficient domestic demand to keep luxury brand wines in the country.
I beg to differ. Here, wine is a requisite at any meal and the bottle is invariably Chilean. However, cheap wine is decent wine and incomes are limited. It is budgeting that keeps the Chileans from buying more expensive wine, not cultural disregard. Likewise, for the producers there is more to be gained by selling abroad. It is simple economics.
IN THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS
Taken as a whole, the Chilean wine industry demonstrates a larger truth of the Chilean economy. The country’s economy is largely export-based, with a current account balance of $4.2 billion (29th in the world). Many of these exports are commodities, with the top five highest-valued export commodities being copper, fruit, fish products, paper and pulp, chemicals and, of course, wine. Winemaking is not only lucrative but can become more so as Chile’s finer wines are established, making it a sustainable industry with growth potential. To try realize this goal, Chileans are adhering to the maxim that Glen Aldrich laid out: do what is new, different and marketable.
The resulting marketing campaigns, however, depicts a Chile far removed from reality and sometimes downright contradictory. One only has to look at the certified biodynamic winery that is by definition a self-sustaining system but is employed to ship the bottles, which are not found in the home country. This is true across exported commodities. The majority of the copper of Chile is extracted by multinationals and little of the revenue goes back to the country. Only fruit deemed not fit for export is sold in Chilean supermarkets. The more left-leaning Chileans are constantly bemoaning the theft of their natural resources by evil corporations, or worse, the United States. On the other side, it is seen as a boon for the Chilean economy, which is growing at a much faster pace than
Herein lies a debate familiar to most International Political Economy students: does this time of export-driven growth create irreversible dependency on other countries and represent little more than exploitation? Or, does is this introduction into the global market economy that allows them to grow in ways that would be impossible otherwise and is only a stage in its development? I, like any indecisive student, choose option C: it depends. If Chile invests this income in the right way with education, technology and research, it could be a benefit to all. If not, the more pessimistic option could become true.
Biodynamic wine provides a test case of how Chile is pursuing its growth, with an eye for the tastes of the outside markets and little regard for what happens at home. Whether this development model is successful, sustainable and spreads throughout the social strata remains to be seen. A good indicator to watch may be what kinds of wine are served with dinner.
The tour of Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic winery in the Casablanca Valley took place on December 27th, 2010. More information can be found at: http://www.emiliana.cl/
Interviews were conducted informally by yours truly.
Scientific research about biodynamic wine vs. organic comes to me by way of The Skeptical Inquier’s article titled “Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle” by Douglass Smith and Jesús Barquin, originally published December/November 2007. It can be accessed at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/biodynamics_in_the_wine_bottle/.
The citation for the journal article is as follows:
Benjamin Lewin MW, Wine Myths and Reality. Vendage Press, 2010.
They say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (or a wine by its label?), but does weight offer any clue to quality? Some winemakers apparently think so — they put their best wines (or at least their most expensive ones) in the heaviest imaginable bottles to give them physical heft to match their presumed sensory impact.
If you take Benjamin Lewin’s latest book as a sample of one, intellectual heft and physical weight are pretty highly correlated, too. At 634 pages and 1.9 kg this is indeed a weighty tome — and a very valuable one for anyone really interested in wine.
Wine: Myths and Reality is a great book for people (like me) with a geeky interest in wine. I like it so much, in fact, that I am going to make it required reading for the students in my university class, The Idea of Wine. They may not appreciate having to carry it around in their backpacks, but I guarantee they will thank me when they sit down to read it.
DIY Master of Wine?
I was tempted to title this post “Dr. Lewin’s DIY MW.” As I was reading the book I couldn’t help thinking about the Master of Wine exams and how closely the book seems to follow the syllabus. (I found a copy of the 2008/09 syllabus on the MW website — click here to view the pdf file). I am sure that reading Dr. Lewin’s book isn’t adequate to pass the MW exam, but I think it gives you a sense of the depth of knowledge that Masters of Wine are expected to master.
The Master of Wine was invented to help educate and prepare wine professionals — people who make their living in the wine business as buyers, sellers, advisors, writers and critics. The exam’s structure reflects the need to understand not just wine but its entire commodity chain.
The first two papers deal with the production of wine.
Paper 1 will examine candidates’ knowledge and understanding of ‘Characteristics of the vine and wine’ up to and including ‘alcoholic and malolactic fermentation’.
Paper 2 will examine candidates’ knowledge and understanding of ‘Wine maturation, blending and bottling’ up to and including ‘quality assurance and quality control’.
The first half of Dr. Lewin’s book does a rather masterful job of covering the material for the this part of the exam. Clear, organized, detailed, interesting and provocative — just what the doctor (or aspiring MW) ordered.
Getting Down to Business
The third MW theory paper is on wine business, which makes sense since so many MWs are in “the trade.”
Theory Paper 3: The Business of Wine. The purpose of this unit is to assess candidates’ current knowledge and understanding of financial, commercial and marketing aspects of the international wine industry. Candidates should demonstrate the ability to apply their knowledge to a range of business situations including marketing and investment strategies, financial decision making, supplier – customer relationships and strategies for identifying and meeting consumer demand. Candidates will require a broad background knowledge of wine industry structures around the world and how these relate to one another.
I have argued in the past that the Masters of Wine program was been very important to the development of the global wine market by its efforts to create a highly trained group of industry leaders. Reading Dr. Lewin’s book you can understand why. Dr. Lewin is not quite as comprehensive in this part of his book, which is understandable since this material will be of less interest to a general audience, but his analysis of global wine market trends and issues is still very interesting and useful.
The fourth MW essay is on “contemporary issues” and I think Dr. Lewin does a great job of raising and analyzing important issues throughout the book. As someone who writes and uses textbooks all the time, I appreciate that Dr. Lewin provides us with his opinions (not playing the old “on one one hand, on the other hand” game), but he does so carefully, citing evidence after having outlined the issues clearly.
The final third of Dr. Lewin’s book is a world tour — an introduction to the regions, the wines and the relevant controversies, with special focus on Burgundy and Bordeaux, which is understandable given their place in the world of wine and especially because of Dr. Lewin’s particular interests and expertise.
Breaking with Tradition
I was initially surprised by the organization of the regional wine survey chapters. Traditionally the Old World comes first and the New World trails along behind. Dr. Lewin reverses the order. Why? I believe that it has to do with the theme of the book. The title, Wine Myths and Reality gives a strong hint of the book’s over-arching argument.
The myth is that Old World wines are unmanipulated natural products and that New World wines are highly processed industrial ouput. Dr. Lewin argues throughout the book that all wine is manipulated — how could it be otherwise? Left to itself, wine is just a stop on the liquid road to vinegar.
It is hardly surprising that Benjamin Lewin would take this stand on wine. He is a renowned cell biologist who understands better than most the role of science in wine. To dismiss “manipulation” is to ignore wine science, which seems like a foolish, ignorant attitude.
Embracing Dr. Lewin’s argument raises the true question — what do we want wine to be and how best can we achieve this goal? Everyone manipulates (or else makes spoiled wine) — the question is how, how much, why and to what effect? Telling the story of the New World first puts this argument in context and highlights the real issues effectively.
This is a very fine wine book — one of the best I’ve read — and certainly worth a place on your bookshelf — even if you have to reinforce it to bear the extra weight!
This book’s color illustrations — maps, photos and graphs — are simply excellent. I think one reason the book weighs so much is that it is printed on special high gloss paper to make these illustrations unusually clear and useful.
James T. Lapsley, Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era. University of California Press, 1996.
I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel with James Lapsley at a conference at UC Davis over the summer and his wity and insightful remarks made me realize that I needed to re-read his 1996 history of wine in the Napa Valley.
Lapsley is as close to a renaissance man as you are likely to meet. He’s a winemaker, historian, and wine economist who teaches in the Davis Viticulture & Enology program and runs the extension service that benefits thousands of California winegrowers by providing technical support.
Bottled Poetry follows the development of the Napa Valley wine industry from the end of Prohibition to the mid-1990s, when the foundation of Napa wine today was being built. It is the sort of book that only a winemaker/historican/economist could write and so it makes fascinating reading.
Lapsley weaves several themes into this history. The most interesting to me, as someone who drinks wine and studies wine markets but has never made wine, is the story of the low quality of most California wine was in the early post-Prohibition years and what a struggle is has been to reach the high quality standards that we take for granted today.
I am especially impressed with the role of science and technology has played in rise of wine quality. It is easy to think of technology as the enemy of terroir and I suppose sometimes it is, but much of the improvement of wine in recent years is due to improved technology and winemaking practices. White wines in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, we stored in huge redwood vats for several years before release. Fermentations were naturally hot and the use of sulfites was quite haphazard. Quality suffered.
Bottled poetry? Lapsley doesn’t make it sound like many of these wines had much poetry left in them by the time they hit the marketplace.
Many prominent Napa figures were instrumental in developing technical improvements, Andre Tchelistcheff and the Mondavi brothers among them. All the wines benefited from these innovative efforts but the improvement in white wines is especially noteworthy.
A second theme is the influence of large corporations and although Lapsley tells the story in an even-handed way, it’s clear that big money often had a corrosive effect. Several of Napa’s historic wineries were absorbed into corporate portfolios where their powerful brands were exploited even as the quality of the wines was debased.
Commercial winemaking is a delicate art. It devours capital like a hungry shark, as Lapsley notes, so deep pockets are useful and corporate funding tempting. But the profits comes only in the long run, which does not always suit the needs of businesses that must produce positive quarterly earnings reports.
Corporate ownership isn’t necessarily the kiss of death for fine wine, but the the history of Napa is filled with enough negative cases to make anyone a skeptic.
A final theme is the fundamental challenge of balancing supply and demand and this is a problem that continues today. Lapsley’s book ends on an upbeat note that I think is still appropriate 14 years after its publication. Napa Valley has grown and changed, that’s for sure, and although its problems have not disappeared its promise continues to be realized.
All in all, Bottled Poetry is a great read and a terrific addition to the wine economics history bookshelf that also includes volumes like Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America. I understand that Jim Lapsley is working on another history project — the 19th century roots of the California wine industry. Can’t wait to read it!
What’s the worst wine in the world? Not the worst type of wine, varietal or style (these are matters of taste and degustibus non est disputandum here at The Wine Economist). And let’s rule out the worst idea for a wine, too, because Miles’s dump bucket cuvée from the film Sideways(shown above) is the clear winner.
No, I’m talking about the worst professionally made (amateur efforts are another category), commercially sold wine — the wine with the most serious objective flaws that was released to the market despite its potentially reputation-ruining qualities?
Corked and Screwed
In terms of a single vintner economic impact, it was probably the 1985 David Bruce Chardonnay that George Taber talks about in his excellent book To Cork or Not to Cork?David Bruce is known today as a maker of fine Pinot Noir but back in the 1980s their Chardonnay was a big hit. A hit, that is, until the 1985 vintage was plagued by massive incidence of cork taint that almost destroyed the winery by ruining the reputation of its most important wine and effectively drove it out of the Chardonnay business.
Turns out the faulty corks had been rejected as tainted by Robert Mondavi and the cork importer sold them off to David Bruce rather than having them destroyed or sent back to Portugal. A big economic hit indeed. But I need to rule out cork taint for this extreme wine competition because it is so utterly unexceptional. Virtually everyone who bottles wine with cork will experience cork taint — 3-5 percent loss is the figure usually cited.
Bad Wine Uncorked
I had the opportunity to understand what really bad wine is like last week when I attended a professional wine faults workshop organized and taught byAmy Mumma, director of the innovative World Wine Program at Central Washington University (profiled in this recent Yakima Herald-Republic article) .
Amy’s background is in biochemistry and wine business and this gives her an unusual ability to detect and analyze wine flaws and advise wineries (something that the legendary Emile Peynaud was famous for). To steal a line from Ghostbusters, Amy is the answer to the question “who ya gonna call?” when something goes wrong with your wine.
Amy led my group of about 50 wine professionals through a tasting of twelve wines that illustrated different fundamental flaws ranging from what was probably a simple shipping problem (“cooked” when its shipping container got too hot) to a palate-destroying example of a badly corked wine. When retailers are suspicious that a wine on their shelves may be faulty, they call Amy and, if the problem is bad enough, she buys the bottles for use in her classes. All of the flawed wines we sampled were purchased through normal retail channels.
Worst of the Worst
The worst wine we sampled was a real dog (no offense to canines intended). It was a Columbia Valley Merlot plagued by the thankfully rare combination of reduction, oxidation and Brettanomyces. It looked bad, smelled bad and tasted (gasp!) horrible. Certainly one of the worst wines I’ve ever tried. Why in the world would anyone put their label on this wine and send it into the marketplace to represent them?
Drawing upon her science background, Amy was able to explain to us how this awful combination of defects occurred, but the question of why anyone would try to sell it remains. Ignorance? Incompetence? Arrogance? Cash flow demands? Hard to say. Some wine flaws (like the “cooked” wine) can happen after wine leaves the maker’s control, but many of the flawed wines on retail shelves were already in bad shape when they left the warehouse. No excuse for this. Reputation is critically important in the wine business and it is established (or destroyed) one bottle at a time.
You May Not Want to Know the Answer
Amy’s class was great — she’s a wonderful teacher — and gave us a lot of useful tools for detected and understanding wine flaws and for dealing with related trade and consumer issues. Amy answered all our questions but one: who made these awful wines? She kept the makers secret, so I can’t report them here (although I have a guess concerned one particularly nasty white wine that was clouded with silky black strands of dangerous bacteria).
What’s the worst wine you’ve ever tasted, I asked Amy. You may not want to know her answer.
The worst wine ever sampled smelled and tasted like somebody urinated in a tin can of clams. Seriously. Absolutely disgusting. It was a process of putrification caused by high levels of bacteria and was a Washington State Cab Sauv. And it was at retail price in wine shops. I think some of the worst have been high levels of mercaptans or those with excessive ethyl acetate that you can’t even get near your face without your eyes watering.
I’m trying to imagine who would sell a wine like that! I wonder what consumers thought when they brought home the bottle and pulled the cork? I imagine that some of them probably thought the wine was supposed to taste like that. You can scratch that customer off your mailing list!
Watch for a future post on the World Wine Program at CWU, a unique approach to educating wine business professionals.
[Note: This post is part of an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.]
I’ve just finished reading final papers from The Idea of Wine class I teach at the University of Puget Sound. These essays remind me that wine really is a liberal art and a natural element of an enlightened education.
Jean-Robert Pitte is right (and the French government is wrong) — wine has a place in the college curriculum.
The Greeks realized this centuries ago. They defined a symposium as a discussion over wine! What could be better? Herewith thumbnail sketches of three student papers that suggest the many ways that wine and liberal arts education intersect.
Wine and the Hard Life
Since this is The Wine Economist I’ll start with a paper by an economics student. “The Postwar Decline of the Old World Consumer” addresses the question of why per capita wine consumption in “Old World” countries has fallen so rapidly over the last 50 years. This falling demand is a key factor in the continuing global wine glut and especially the EU’s notorious wine lake. David, the author, turned the question around: why, he wondered, was consumption so high in the first place?
The most intensive wine consumption in France, Spain and Italy in the early postwar years was among laborers and rural workers who expended great energy in their jobs and required high caloric intake. Rough local wine (of the sort that is in excess supply today) was a cheap source of this energy. As European economies modernized and living standards rose the demographics of wine consumption changed. Fewer people engaged in grueling hard physical labor. Life was easier, living standards higher and better nutritional options presented themselves.
Not surprisingly, as the need for wine’s cheap calories declined so did its consumption. Other factors were at work, too, but rising living standards explain an unexpectedly large proportion of the wine consumption decline.
Romantically, we Americans associate wine with the good life and wonder why Europeans would turn away from it. But for some Europeans, at least, wine was part of the hard life and they may be happy to have moved away from it. The wine world will just have to adjust.
Beethoven and Bordeaux?
Megan, a science major, wrote on “The Melody of Taste.” Her paper surveyed the literature on how your perception of wine may be affected by the music you listen to while tasting. I found this paper very interesting in the way that it embraced both science and philoisophy. There is reason to think that wine and music might have some connection, she wrote, because “wine is an aesthetic object and drinking wine is an aesthetic experience.” Wine and music evoke similar aesthetic responses and it is plausible that they would interact on that basis. So far so good.
Science suggests that the link between wine and music might go deeper than this, according to Megan. Brain scan data indicate that sensory experiences from taste, odor and music “target the same areas of the brain, initiating cross-modal processing.” One author argues that because different types of music affect the taste of wine in particular ways, a science (or art?) of music-wine matching (like pairing wine and cheese) might be a serious possibility.
If you want to experiment with wine and music yourself, Megan writes, try this. Buy a $5 bottle of Glenn Ellen Chardonnay. Taste it on its own and then while listening to the Beach Boys singing “California Girls.” I’ve provided the music here — you have to supply the wine. The Beach Boys tune apparently stimulates the right part of your brain to make this value-priced wine taste a lot better.
Megan also reports a study showing that polka-style music makes Sutter Home White Zin taste better, too. Well … of course. Anything would probably help and a polka seems just right to me.
Winemaker Clark Smith has developed a line of wines to be paired with specific musical pieces. Read more about this project at GrapeCraft Wines. I haven’t tried wine-music pairing, but I would be interested in comments from anyone who has.
Wine and War
Let me finish with politics student Hally’s paper on “The Real Story of Unknown Lebanese Wine: A Reason to Survive,” which was provoked by a puzzle. Lebanon has a very long winemaking history and some of its wines (Chateau Musar, for example) have attracted worldwide attention. Why aren’t these excellent wines better known and more popular, Hally wanted to know?
Yes, yes, Lebanon is a long way away and not well known, but that doesn’t seem to stop other wines from unlikely places (think about New Zealand!) from reaching local markets. The answer, Hally learned, is that sometimes wine is affected by war and peace even more than by soil and weather.
Making wine in war-torn Lebanon in recent years has presented far more than the unusual number of challenges. “For Lebanese wine makers, picking grapes and making wine is more an act of defiance against years of repressive wars and religious hatred than it is a business necessity,” Hally writes. “Wine is key to the survival of their spirit through seemingly endless years of conflict.”
After finishing her paper, Hally reports, she was able to track down a bottle of Chateau Musar from a war-torn recent vintage when practically no wine was made or released due to the constraints of conflict. I’m sure Hally wanted it to have a glorious taste — the triumph of wine over war, but she says it was awful. Corked, I think, from her description. Not what she wanted at all.
What makes a wine memorable? People always imagine that the great flavors and aromas are what make wines special to us, but I have my doubts. Wine is too complicated to be just about its direct sensory effects. Hard times, upbeat music and the determination to struggle through conflict — wine can reinforce these associations, too, and burn them into our memories.
Wine stimulates all our physical senses (taste, smell, touch, sight — even sound if we touch glasses in a toast). But its real power comes from the fact that it also stimulates our minds, triggering memories and inspiring thoughts. Hmmm. I should organize a symposium on that theme!