Romania has a long wine history and a more significant contemporary wine market presence than many observers appreciate. Its fine wines seem to fly under the radar here in the United States.
Romania produces more wine than New Zealand, according to OIV statistics. So why are Kiwi wines much better known on the international scene?
Strategy is one answer. New Zealand is highly export-driven, powered by international and multinational investment, while Romanians drink much more of their own wine and export less. In fact, statistics I found suggest that Romanian spending on imports generally exceeds their wine export receipts, creating a negative wine trade balance.
Market positioning is another difference. When New Zealand was breaking into the high-margin US and UK markets 20 years ago many Romanian producers were focused on the lower-margin Russian and CIS markets. This is changing. Exports to the UK, China, and Germany among others now lead the charge. Romanian wine is on the rise.
I was pleased, therefore, to learn that a Romanian translation of my 2011 book Wine Wars has been released. It is called Războaiele Vinului, which translates as “War of Wine.” The subtitle, “The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck and the Revenge of the Terroirists” is “Blestemul Blue Nun, Miracolul Two Buck Chuck și Razboaiele Teroriștilor” in Romanian.
The Romanian Wine Wars was adapted by Catalin Paduraru and translated by Radu Rizea. Why translate Wine Wars into Romanian? Catalin believes that it is important for Romanian wine producers to better understand the global markets in which they and their wines compete. He sees Wine Wars as an approachable and understandable analysis of global wine dynamics and was willing to go to a good deal of trouble to make it available in Romania. I’m flattered by this attention and hope that Romanian wine-makers can leverage this analysis to help them gain ground in the fiercely competitive global markets.
I hope to find an opportunity to visit Romania later this year and talk about their wine wars with my Romanian readers. Cheers to you all, and especially to Catalin for all the work he put into this project.
Update. The Romanian edition of Wine Wars has been named the book of the year by an important Romanian publication.
The Future Symphony Institute has published an essay that I wrote for them titled “The Revenge of the Terroirists.” It talks about the complicated relationship between fine wine and classical music in the modern world. Because it is very brief the arguments are not fully developed, but I think you will see where I am going with it.
I invite you to click on the links above to read the essay and to learn about the Future Symphony Institute and its ambitious mission.
What Can Wine Teach Classical Music?
The idea for this essay springs from a series of conversations I have been having with Andrew Balio, the principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the executive director of the Institute. Balio’s mission is to try to help the musical world think through the economic and intellectual crises that confront classical music and to begin the process of rethinking and renewing it for the 21st century.
The website puts it this way: “Our mission is to formulate a strategy for the renaissance of live classical music and to translate that strategy into programs made freely available to everyone they may benefit.”
Balio was interested in wine because it seemed to him that the wine world had resisted some of the forces that are plaguing classical music. Not all wine is great, but there is substantial and expanding support of and interest in the practices, values and traditions associated with authentic wine and wine culture.
And the interest in fine wine is not limited to the rich or the elderly. It is a very broad movement and an expanding one. If wine can do this, he wondered, maybe classical music can do it, too.
The Terroirist Cause
I am interested in this project for three reasons. First, I see Balio and his colleagues as “terroirists” who push back against commodification and unnecessary simplification. I wrote about and championed the terroirist cause in my 2011 book Wine Wars. Second, I am a fan of classical music, especially chamber music, and I hope they will achieve their ambitious goals.
Finally, as a member of the board of trustees of a liberal arts college, I recognize that many of the issues that confront classical music organizations are similar to the challenges facing the liberal arts.
Once upon a time there was broader understanding and appreciation of the value and purpose of both classical music and liberal arts education. But for somewhat similar reasons both have become very expensive to produce and their critical role in civilization seems to have been forgotten by many.
Both sets of institutions need to rethink their business models to address the new reality, but that will not be enough. Both need to engage society in new ways that will renew understanding and appreciation without diluting or distorting the values that made them important in the first place. Both need a strong dose of terroirism combined with thoughtful and effective strategy.
The Future Symphony Institute seems like one place where this might happen. I hope my brief essay will help the Future Symphony Institute as it launches a series of articles examining ways that wine can inform classical music and help move it back to center stage.
The illustration above is from a poster created by the Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra that uses the language of wine to talk about their music. That’s a great idea that works both ways. Haven’t you heard a wine described as “harmonious?”
My recent trip to Portugal was eye-opening and will be the subject of Wine Economist columns for the next few weeks. I was invited to speak at a wine industry gathering held in association with a Portuguese wine festival called Essência Do Vinho at the historic Palacio dal Bolsa in Porto. I will paste the program at the end of this post.
The conference was organized by ACIBEV (Associação dos Comerciantes e Industriais de Bebidas Espirituosas e Vinhos or Portugal’s Association of Traders and Producers of Spirits and Wine) which is an organization intended to help Portuguese producers work together on a wide range of issues of common interest.
Can Portugal Wine the Wine Wars?
The program was called “Pode Portugal Ganhar a Guerra do Vinho?” or “Can Portugal Win the Wine Wars.” My job was both easy and hard, Easy because I’ve spoken many times about Wine Wars, my 2011 book on the economic forces shaping the global wine industry. But also difficult because I didn’t know very much about the Portuguese wine business when I agreed to give the talk and so I had to kick into student exam-cram mode.
I worked very hard to learn all I could before getting on the plane, but I knew that most of my education would be on-the-spot, talking with the people there. I also needed to consider the rest of the program, particularly the speaker who would go before me, Susana García Dolla, Vice Secretary General of Spanish Wine Federation (FEV) and a representative of the pan-European group Wine in Moderation. (Susana gave a fantastic talk!)
So I framed my remarks carefully and tried to leverage my fresh perspective on the wines of Portugal into something of value to the audience. There were a lot of messages, as Paul Symington noted in his commentary following my remarks, and I don’t think I pushed some them far enough in some cases (as he pointedly did because of his mastery of the issues in Portugal). I thought you might be interested in one piece of the lecture that several people said they especially appreciated.
Wine Wars: Know Which War? Which Opponent?
The wine wars that I talk about in Wine Wars are the three economic forces that I see as shaping global wine: the push forces of globalization (the Curse of the Blue Nun) and the growing power of brands (the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck) and the push-back forces that seek to preserve and protect wine’s special place in life (the Revenge of the Terroirists).
Portugal is part of that war, I told my audience. The Portuguese practically invented globalization and are famous for global wine brands (Port is a powerhouse brand, for example, and Portuguese mass market branded wines such as Lancers and Mateus are famous). I could tell the whole Wine Wars story as a Portuguese story with very little effort. But that’s not the only wine war.
I quickly sketched several other wine wars that are important to understand. If you talk about a wine war to wine producers, they naturally think of the war in terms of the battle for sales and shelf space — the war that pits one winery against another. This seems like the critical battlefield, I think, because it is the most immediate one. But you can win in that arena and still lose the bigger contest if you ignore the other wars.
The Drinks War
Wine is also fighting what you might call the beverage war or the drinks war. In part because of globalization and the rise of branded wines and in part because of other factors (changing demographics prime among them), wine is increasingly seen as part of the “drinks” category of consumer goods that includes beer, cider and spirits. You can see this as part of the democratization of wine (which is good) or a symptom that wine is losing its special place in the marketplace (not so good).
The fact of the drinks war changes things because now the real opponents are not other wine producers, they are the makers of other alcoholic and even some non-alcoholic beverages. Your old enemy is now your best potential ally and the strategies that might have worked in wine vs wine battles are of little use. Wine vs beer, wine vs cider, wine vs spirits — those are the fights that matter now.
The new emphasis on innovation in wine (the topic of next week’s column) is driven in part by the drinks war and the need to confront innovative new challengers with new strategies.
The War Against Wine
The war against wine is part of the rising anti-alcohol movement in Europe and elsewhere around the world. We think of wine as the drink of moderation, but alcohol is alcohol to these activists, and so they seek to tax it, regulate it, restrict it, and generally discourage its sale, marketing and consumption.
We are familiar with the war against wine in the US because we lost it so tragically in the last century. The great experiment of Prohibition pretty much destroyed the US wine industry, which has still not fully recovered.
The war against wine is perhaps the most serious battle of them all, which is why Susana’s presentation was so important. She outlined the strategies and tactics that Wine in Moderation is employing in its efforts to present the positive case for wine and to counter anti-alcohol propaganda.
Can Portugal win the wine wars? Portuguese wines are attracting a lot of positive attention these days and I think it is about time that they were recognized. But it is a tough marketplace, with competition from every corner of the wine world. Portuguese producers need to work together (which is why ACIBEV’s efforts and the Wines in Moderation project are so important) in order to complete as individual wineries more effectively.
Special thanks to George Sandeman, Eduardo Medeiros and Ana Isabel Alves of ACIBEV for their kindness and hospitality and to my discussants Paul Symington and Francisco Sousa Ferreira for their pertinent analysis.
Here is the program for the Porto event.
Can Portugal Win the Wine Wars?
10.00: Opening by Eduardo Medeiros, Administrator and Director of Bacalhôa ACIBEV Group
10h10: Presentation of Manuel Novaes Cabral, President of the Port Wine Institute
I’ve just learned that Audible.com is going to produce an audio book version of Wine Wars. They are interested in my opinion about who should read the book — what kind of voice would be best for Wine Wars?
I’m not sure, so I thought I would ask you, my readers. Should the voice be young or old? Male or female? Should the reader have an accent of some sort — British, French, Spanish, Italian? Is there a particular person’s voice that you’d like to hear?
Please use the comments section below to let me know what you think. I don’t know if Audible.com will take your advice, but if they respond to a particular comment I will send that person an autographed book (your choice of Wine Wars, Extreme Wine when it is published or Globaloney 2.0).
Columbia Gorge: Washington on the left, Oregon on the right.
Washington State produces much more wine than Oregon, but Oregon wines are sometimes easier to find outside the Pacific Northwest. That was a paradox that I discovered as I traveled around the country last year on the Wine Wars book tour and giving alumni talks for the University of Puget Sound.
The Signature Wine Advantage
One explanation for this surprising situation is that Oregon has a “signature wine” while Washington does not. When people think of Oregon they think Pinot Noir and so retailers know what to stock — Pinot Noir at various price points. But what comes to mind when you think of Washington? Nothing, the argument goes, because Washington is many things — Cabernet, Merlot, Riesling, Chardonnay, Syrah, various blends, etc. etc. — and not any one particular thing. Lacking a signature wine variety, retailers don’t know what to stock on their shelves, so they stock less, concerned that it might not sell.
This argument is over-simplified for sure and probably over-sold, too, but the signature variety issue does seems to give Oregon a bit of an advantage over Washington and has caused much hand-wringing on the north side of the Columbia River over the years.
Lucky Oregon — they’re Pinot Noir. Everyone knows who they are. Poor Washington — we’re [almost] everything, but how do we communicate that? I want to look at both sides of this dilemma over the next few weeks and see if I can shed any light on the question of how wine regions define themselves and the challenges and opportunities of the different strategies.
The Other Oregons
So let’s talk about Oregon. It is rightly known for its fine Pinot Noir wines and it highlights this fact each year at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville. The IPNC gathers Pinot-makers and Pinot-lovers from all around the world, drawing attention to the Oregon industry. It’s an intense experience — so intense that I use it as the focal point for the chapter on “Extreme Wine People” in my forthcoming book Extreme Wine.
But Oregon is not really a one note samba — it is more than Pinot Noir and more than the Willamette Valley, too. And that’s a bit of a problem, because while signature varieties like Oregon Pinot open doors to a wider market, they can also erect barriers to public recognition of other wines and regions. The wine world is very complicated and I wonder if consumers and retailers who think they finally understand Oregon (or Washington or Chile, etc. etc.) are interested in having that understanding challenged, even if the result would benefit them?
I’m exploring how this question plays out in the “other Oregons” in two stages. We’ve just returned from a weekend of research in the Columbia Gorge AVA, to see one example of Oregon beyond Pinot Noir, and we plan to visit Southern Oregon later in the year for a different take on the situation.
The Columbia Gorge AVA, established in 2004, is a beautiful region with many excellent wines, but it is sort of trapped between two worlds. It starts near the town of Hood River, about an hour east of Portland on Interstate 84, and extends past The Dalles. The AVA runs along both sides of the Columbia River, embracing vineyards and wineries on both the Washington and Oregon shores. Is it a Washington AVA or an Oregon AVA? Both, I think, but that’s part of the “two worlds” confusion.
A typically complicated Columbia Gorge terroir.
The western end of the AVA is very much classic Oregon on both sides of the river. Like the Willamette Valley, the climate is rainy (36 inches a year on average, but as much as 50 inches at the famous Celilo Vineyard) and cooler climate grapes like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer do well here. The Chardonnays and Pinots we tasted at Phelps Creek Vineyards were distinctly and intentionally Burgundian in style, for example, and Rich Cushman’s Rieslings at Viento Wines are works of the Riesling-maker’s art. Nice wines!
Oregon to the West, Washington to the East
So the Gorge is Oregon on the west end (and on both sides of the river), but as you drive east things begin to change. By the time you reach The Dalles you’ve experienced a rain shadow effect and the average rainfall is just 10 inches! Cabernet and Merlot (Washington wine grape varieties) do really well here as do Syrah and even Zinfandel. (Watch for a future post about the 120 year-old Zinfandel vines we found!).
Washington or Oregon? It’s not so much which side of the river as which end of the AVA. But it gets even more confusing (for anyone seeking a simple identity for the wine region), because elevation and aspect are key factors, too. Winegrower Lonnie Wright (the curator of those old Zin vines), drove us to a hilltop where rows of Zinfandel vines cascaded down the south-facing slope while Pinot Noir vines streamed down the north-facing side, the Zin benefiting from the advantageous aspect while the Pinot prospered because of the elevation.
The Gorge is divided in other ways, too. While you and I might think of it in terms of wine, other crops are probably bigger business for the local landowners. You can’t imagine the acres of apples, pears and cherries we drove through on our way to the hillside vineyards. And tourism just might be a bigger industry in the long run. Fortunately these three sides of the Gorge economy mainly reinforce each other in a happy way except of course when they don’t (water rights in drier areas, for example).
Washington or Oregon? Well, as I said, both, but not a region that clearly fits into the stereotype of either state’s wine industry. Some of the wine people I met were happy to have the Oregon association since that is so clearly defined (and works quite well for the quantities of Pinot Noir grapes grown here, which often end up in Oregon appellation wines from Willamette Valley makers). But obviously it cannot encompass the great variety of terroirs, climates and grape varieties found in the Gorge.
Wine is just too darn complicated to be reduced to a single thing. Even in Oregon. Or Washington. Or wherever the Columbia Gorge is!
The paradox of the Columbia Gorge AVA is just one aspect of the increasing interwoven nature of the the Washington and Oregon wine industries (and the fact that the Columbia River actually unites these regions more than it divides them). The Walla Walla AVA also crosses the state line, of course, and many “Oregon” wineries have grapes trucked down along the river from Washington AVAs such as Horse Heaven Hills to wineries in the Gorge and the Willamette valley, where they make “Washington wines” in “Oregon” wineries — a good thing for everyone involved in my book even if it adds to the wine region identity crisis just a bit.
Thanks to Lonnie Wright (The Pines 1852) and Rich Cushman (Viento Wines) for showing us their sides of the Gorge — look for more about their projects in future posts. Thanks to Bob and Becky Morus for making our visit to Phelps Creek possible. Thanks to research assistants Bonnie Main and Richard Pichler for their expertise and enthusiasm. Thanks to contributing editor Sue Veseth for research assistance and the photos shown here.
It’s the time of year when wine writers give advice about what to serve with Thanksgiving dinner. The wine of choice here at The Wine Economist will probably be Pinot Noir that I received in friendly books (Wine Wars) for bottles exchanges with the winemakers themselves: a 2007 Boedecker Cellars “Athena” from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and/or a 2010 Paul Cluver Pinot Noir from Elgin in South Africa. I think they will be delicious with the traditional turkey and fixin’s.
What’s the best part of Thanksgiving? Leftovers are the best part for many of us. Hard to beat the turkey sandwich that you enjoy the next day when the cooking (and clean up) are done. And for some people the best part of Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving at all — it’s the day after, which we ominously call “Black Friday” in the United States.
Here, in the flexible spirit of the holiday, is a leftover column about Beaujolais Nouveau and Black Friday, reprinted from The Wine Economist November 23, 2009. Enjoy!
A Wine for Today’s Thanksgiving?
Although the United States is not the only country to set aside a day for giving thanks, we like to think of Thanksgiving as our distinctive holiday. It was conceived as a day for deep reflection, but Thanksgiving has evolved into a long weekend of over-consumption and discount shopping. Some of my friends really prefer to celebrate Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when the holiday shopping season formally begins and retailers find out if they will be “in the black” for the year based upon early sales data.
If you plan an Old Time giving-thanks Thanksgiving, then [Beaujolais] Nouveau is not for you. It is not an especially thoughtful wine. It is a sorta soda pop wine; if wine were literature, my friend Patrick points out, Nouveau would be the trashy paperback novel you read at the beach. Nothing wrong in that — everyone needs an escape once in a while.
The grapes for Nouveau are picked in late September or thereabouts and the only thing that prevents instant sale is the necessity of fermentation and the mechanics of distribution. It’s still a bit sweet when it’s bottled and sometimes a bit fizzy, too, when it arrives with great fanfare on the third Thursday in November (a week before Turkey Day). Best served cold (like revenge!) it is the ultimate cash flow wine.
Black Friday Wine?
Nouveau is not very sophisticated, so why do the French, who otherwise are known to guard their terroirist image, bother with it? The Beaujolias producers make very nice ordinary (non-nouveau) wines; character complexity, you can have it all and for a surprisingly low price.
Ah, but that’s the problem. Sitting close to prestigious Burgundy, the Beaujolais cannot command high prices for their wines, good as they are, so they must try to make money through turnover more than markup. They churn out millions of bottles of Nouveau to pay the bills.
At the peak of the bubble in 1992 about half of all wines made in Beaujolais were Nouveau. The proportion remains high even today. Ironically, Nouveau often sells at prices as high as Beaujolais’ more serious wines because it is marketed so well. So it is hard to see why you’d want to buy it instead of the region’s other wines. It’s easy, on the other hand, to see why you’d want to sell it.
Beaujolais Nouveau, it seems, is France’s Black Friday wine! If the makers can sell their Nouveau, then maybe the bottom line for the year will be in the black. If the Nouveau market fails, well that red stain on the floor won’t be just spilled wine.
More than the Usual Urgency
Nouveau is therefore generally marketed around the world with more than the usual urgency (just as those Black Friday sales seem a little desperate at times) — and not just because young wines hit their “best by” date pretty quickly. This year things are even more stressful than usual, as you might imagine, with the economic crisis still on everyone’s minds and 10+ percent unemployment here in the United States. [Editor note: the unemployment rate is lower today than in 2009, but the weak economy is still an issue.]
Nouveau is usually distributed around the world via expensive air freight rather than more economic sea transport in part because the short time between harvest and final sale makes speed a factor. This year  Nouveau was bottled in plastic for the Japanese market in part to lower shipping cost — a controversial move that may not be repeated because of its negative product image potential.
Intentionally choosing to adopt a more casual image, Boisset put all its US-bound Nouveau in screw-cap PET bottles, with a resulting 40% reduction in shipping cost. [Note: the PET bottles were not a great success with tradition-bound Thanksgiving consumers and Boisset switched to lightweight glass bottles for Nouveau in later years.]
Here’s a fun video from 2005
An American Wine?
Sweet, fizzy and packed in PET bottles — Beaujolais Nouveau sounds like the perfect wine for American consumers brought up on 2-liter jugs of fizzy-sweet Mountain Dew and Diet Coke. If you were kinda cynical, you would think Nouveau was an American wine … made in USA.
And it is, in a way. Although the wine obviously comes from France (and there is actually a long tradition of simple and fun early-release new wines in France and elsewhere), I think it is fair to say that the Nouveau phenomenon is an American invention.
W.J. Deutsch & Sons, the American distributors, really put Beaujolias in general and Nouveau in particular on the U.S. wine market map when they became exclusive distributors for Georges Duboeuf some years ago. They took this simple wine and made it a marketing event. To paraphrase an old Vulcan proverb, only Nixon could go to China and only the brilliant Deutsch family could sell Nouveau!
In fact they were so successful that they partnered with another family firm — the Casella family from Australia — and created a second wine phenomenon tailored to American tastes: Yellow Tail!
So although Nouveau is an American wine of sorts and might be perfectly crafted for this American holiday as we actuallycelebrate it on Friday, I’m going to pass this year (on Thursday, at least) and see if I can nurse some thoughtful reflection from my holiday glass [of Pinot Noir!] instead. Cheers, everyone! And thanks.
Thanks to Athena and Paul for the nice wine — hope you enjoy Wine Wars!
The motto of the Olympic Games is Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher Stronger). I think the motto of the new paperback edition of Wine Wars, which has just been released, must be Smaller, Lighter, Cheaper. That makes it a poor fit for the Olympics, but maybe a good fit for your pocketbook (and an interesting option for tasting room and book store sales).
Wine Wars Hardback
Wine Wars Paperback
Wine Wars Kindle
Size: 9” x 6.3” x 1”
Size: 8.9” x 6.1” x 0.8”
Weight: 16.1 oz
Weight: 14.6 oz
List Price: $24.95
List Price: $16.95
The book is modestly smaller in its physical dimensions as any paperback would be compared with the hardback original. Incredibly, there is actually a little bit more content crammed in. I took advantage of the new edition to correct a couple of typos and then to add brief “tasting notes” at the end of several chapters. The notes update important events and comment on what how trends of changed or developed since the hardback came out in June 2011.
Cheaper is the factor that will probably get the most attention. The list price is $16.95 compared with the hardback’s $24.95 suggested price. Amazon is selling the Kindle version for a mere $9.99, which is a great price, but of course you have to buy a Kindle to read it (or download the free Kindle software or App and read it on your tablet or personal computer).
New and Improved? Well, yes — but that’s not the point (or the only point). I hope the lower price will encourage more readers to read the book or give it to their wine-loving friends.
I’m in Cape Town, South Africa this week to participate in Cape Wine 2012 and give the keynote at the Nederburg Auction. Look for my first report next week.
We are just back from the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon — what a great event! I’ll be writing about some of the things I learned in the coming weeks, but I thought I’d use this opportunity to tell you what I said there.
This year the festival organized a “University of Pinot” for the participants with an All-Star roster of wine faculty. My course was Globalization 201: The Revenge of the Terroirists and I think it was one of the few classes that didn’t involve a wine tasting. (No wine? What was I thinking? Memo to self!)
I told the class about the forces of globalization and branded wine (the Curse of the Blue Nun and the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck) that I discuss in my book Wine Wars and then I expressed my faith that the Terroirist in all of us would preserve wine’s soul. (If you have attended one of my book talks, you will have some idea of what I had to say.) Then I turned my attention to Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir is a great Wine Wars case study. It is one of the great global wine grapes. It ranks #7 on this list of the ten most planted red wine grape varities, for example, ahead of Bobal and right behind Carignan. You cannot find Pinot Noir everywhere, but in fact its domain is quite large. So all the good and bad things that happen to global wine necessarily happen to Pinot, too.
But Pinot is also incredibly local. In Benjamin Lewin’s excellent book In Search of Pinot Noir, he seeks out exceptional Pinot and finds it in only a handful of places. Pinot Noir is the third most planted wine grape variety in Germany, for example, but exceptional Pinot happens only in a few valleys up North. South Africa is too hot for Pinot for the most part, but there are a few tiny niches where cold winds from the ocean currents blow in to keep Pinot alive.
I was speaking in Oregon, of course, so all the students had to do is look up to the nearby hills to understand my point. Exceptional Pinot is a creature of tiny terroirist niches.
I frequently use videos in my class on The Idea of Wine at the University of Puget Sound, so I drew upon related images for my next points.
Because Pinot is such a particular thing, a certain idea of Pinot Exceptionalism exists. Pinot is different — not ubiquitous like Merlot and Cab, no subject to the same vulgaries as other wines.
Some of the exceptionalism comes from producers (like Burgundy’s Hubert de Montille seen here in a scene from the documenary Mondovino). They see Pinot’s exceptionalism rising from the terroir itself, inspired by the finely delineated viticultural geography of Burgundy. I find that many Pinot producers feel the same way. I am no longer surprised when I see finely detailed maps of Burgundy vineyards displayed like small shrines on the walls of Pinot growers around the world.
Others see Pinot Exceptionalism in terms of the feelings and emotions that the wine inspires in those of us who drink it. I used my favorite scene from Sideways to illustrate this. This is the scene where Miles and Maya are sitting on the back porch and Maya asks Miles why he is so “into Pinot?”
Miles: I don’t know. It’s a hard grape to grow. As you know. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention and in fact can only grow in specific little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it really, can tap into Pinot’s most fragile, delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.
Miles is really talking about himself of course — he simply projects his dreams and insecurities onto Pinot Noir.Exceptional Pinot is not all the same, it is individualistic, and this allows us to identify with it and through it as Miles does here.
The fact of Pinot Exceptionalism draws us to this wine, but we should never think that we are immune from the Wine Wars battles. Ironically, it was Sideways that triggered a global Pinot boom, with all the pluses and minuses. The French Pinot scandal — thousands of liters of fake Pinot Noir were sold to U.S. buyers — indicates that Pinot People cannot take their exceptional status for granted. Note my favorite line: no American complained. Ouch!
I count on the terroirists to save the day, of course, but they face what economists call the Collective Action problem. How can you get them to work together? They are by definition individualists and they can be pretty opinionated, as this exchange from a video by Jancis Robinson illustrates.
Jancis was visited Domaine Leroy in Burgundy, tasting with Lalou Bize-Leroy herself down in the cellar. After marveling at Lalou’s wonderful wine, she pulled out a bottle of Oregon Pinot and offered up a glass.
Lalou sniffed, sipped and spat! It is OK wine, she said, technically sound. But it has no soul. Oregon mustn’t make Pinot, she said. They should make something else that is more suitable to their terroir. [And leave Pinot to our terrrior here in Burgundy, I suppose).
An understandable attitude, but hardly a way to organize a critical terroirist mass. Later in the same video one of the Oregon Pinot Pioneers makes a similar assessment about Pinot in California. Ouch! Rather than presenting a unified front, terroirists sometimes seem to be their own (and each other’s) worst enemies.
Benjamin Lewin notes a different terroirist trouble in his book. Many American Pinot makers are so obsessed with expressing micro-terroir that they undermine their region’s reputation. They make many tiny production micro-terroir wines that are so scarce that they almost do not exist because basically no one can taste them. These invisible wines may be grand cru quality, but who but a lucky few insiders will ever know? Meanwhile the more widely available wines are only village quality at best in terms the Burgundian reference, according to Lewin.
Maybe Lalou’s reaction to Jancis’s Oregon Pinot can be understood in this context. If this wine (which tastes like a village wine) is the best Oregon can do, perhaps they should try something else.
So this is why IPNC is so important. Not [just] because it is so much fun or because it is such a sensuous delight. And not just because of all the great people who make it happen.
IPNC’s magic s that it brings terroirists together in the spirit of shared pleasure and mission. If the terroirists’ revenge is to happen, it will be because of the common purpose and spirit that gatherings like IPNC foster.
Thanks to the folks at IPNC for inviting us to participate in the University of Pinot. Thanks to our friends Susan and Scott Chambers for letting us beta-test their Davis Street Bungalow in McMinneville — perfect location for IPNC or Oregon wine tourism.
Members of the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, patrol a grape vineyard with members of the Afghan National Army in Char Shaka, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on April 28, 2011. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Justin A. Young)
I don’t really understand why wines and vines are so frequently associated with conflict.
Wine and War
Glancing at my bookshelf, for example, I find Wine & War by Don & Petie Kladstrup, which is about the Nazis in Bordeaux during the Second World War. Then there’s Wine, War & Taxes by John V.C. Nye, which examines the Anglo-French wine trade in the 19th Century. Olivier Torres’s The Wine Warstells the story of the Mondavi “invasion” of the Languedoc. (And of course there’s my own Wine Wars, which examines tensions and conflicts implicit in the globalization of the wine market.)
These are all books that show how human conflict in other areas inevitably reveals itself in wine. I guess that’s the wine-war connection.
Wine and Peace
What about wine and peace? Perhaps the most famous “peace wine” story is Vino della Pace, which is made in Cormons in Italy’s northeast corner. This region was devastated in World War I and then again in the Second World War. In a hopeful post-war gesture that I wrote about in Wine Wars, the local cooperative collected vines from all over the world and planted them in a special vineyard. They use the grapes to make Il Vino della Pace or the wine of peace.
The hope is that the people of the world can find a way to coexist as harmoniously as the grapes that make the wine in your glass. To see the vineyard and taste the wine as Sue and I did during a visit to Friuli a few years ago can be a moving experience.
Afghanistan is not an important wine-producing country, but grapes are a major crop (as they are in Iran, for example). “Forty-eight percent of the fruit-bearing land in Afghanistan is dedicated to grapes,” according to WSU. “Much of the crop is grown for personal consumption as table grapes and raisins, not for commercial use. Because most Afghan vineyards have higher rates of fungal disease, yield is typically low,” which means the grapes that survive are particularly precious.
Michelle Moyer, a WSU statewide viticulture extension specialist, has developed a presentation for the national eXtension Grape Community of Practice (GCoP) that offers troops a general introduction to vine biology, how grapes are grown, potential threats to grape production and specifics of Afghan grape production. An organization of 87 grape production professionals from 31 states and Ontario, Canada, the GCoP will distribute Moyer’s presentation to its members at universities and government agencies for their troop training efforts.
“Specific information on Afghan grape production is important for developing cultural and production sensitivity in deploying U.S. troops,” Moyer said. “Grapes are the leading horticulture crop for Afghanistan, but their production systems are not like those U.S. citizens would be accustomed to seeing.
Troops learn to be sensitive to water rights issues that might affect grape production. They also learn what an Afghan vineyard looks like, which might seem obvious but is not. The vines are not necessarily trained along the neat post and wire trellises familiar in the U.S.. Instead they are likely to grow up around the through trees, as they do in nature. Or they may be “bush” or head-trained like the vines in the photo above. Easy for an untrained eye to mistake an Afghan vineyard for something else. Troops also learn about the high market value of raisins and why farmers might be especially protective of them.
“By providing information regarding what our troops might encounter while on the ground in Afghanistan, we can reduce the likelihood of a negative impact on production for this very important crop,” she added. “This sensitivity is critical in rebuilding economic and agricultural stability that is necessary for the overall long-term stability of a country.”
Congratulations to Michelle Moyer and her colleagues for creating this innovative program that will hopefully encourage peace and understanding through viticulture.
It’s silver not gold, but it’s still an honor to receive it.
Wine Wars has received the silver medal on the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year list in the Business and Economics (Adult Nonfiction) category. Thanks to everyone who made this possible, especially my editor Susan McEachern and the team at my publisher, Rowman & Littlefield.