Wine Wars on Planet Pinot

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.

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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.

Wines, Vines, War, Peace and Troops in Afghanistan

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 Wars tells 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.

Vines, War and Peace in Afghanistan

So you can understand why I was moved again recently when I read about a program that Washington State University’s Viticulture and Enology program  has developed to help U.S. troops in Afghanistan avoid conflict through a better understanding of the importance of the vine in that country.

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.

Wine Wars is Now Well Read


Well Read is a weekly book program on TVW, which is Washington State’s version of C-SPAN. Terry Tazioli is the host and Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn is a regular contributor. I was pleased to be invited to tape an interview with Terry last month and the program goes live today both on the cable channel and streaming on the web. Click on the video image above to watch the discussion.

I enjoyed making the program. Terry is a great interviewer and Mary Ann’s suggestions for further reading are on the money. What would I do different if I could do it again? Well, I guess I wouldn’t fumble so much at the end before recommending that the viewers run out and buy Washington wines (d’uh!).

And I wish I’d brought a bottle of wine with  me to share with Terry, Mary Ann and the video crew. I almost did, but for some reason I hesitated at the last minute, uncertain if it would be appropriate.  I should have just done it. What could be better than wine and a wine interview! Maybe you can correct my mistake by pouring yourself a glass to sip while you watch the interview.

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The posts are likely to be a bit shorter on The Wine Economist for the next several weeks. I’m busy working on the first draft of Extreme Wine. Thanks to everyone who sent me suggestions for extreme people, places and wine things. Now it’s up t o me to get it written.

Wine Wars: Wine Press NW Interview, Eataly NY & More

[Click here if a video does not appear above.]

I’ve been on the road quite a bit recently, speaking at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento, the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers meetings in Eastern Washington and many other places. Andy Perdue of Wine Press Northwest managed to slow me down long enough to do this interview, which I think captures very well my enthusiasm for the opportunity to speak at these events and work with such great people.

World Tour Update: Eataly NYC

The Wine Wars World Tour continues next month (see schedule at the end of this post) with trips to New York, Washington DC and Hawai’i. Most of the scheduled events are for University of Puget Sound alumni, but I’m doing a class on March 13 at Eataly in New York City that is open to the public (for a fee, of course, but read on and you’ll understand why).

I’ll be talking about Wine Wars, Dan Amatuzzi (Eataly’s Wine Director) will lead a tasting of five Italian terroirist wines and Patrick Lacey (Executive Chef of Eataly’s La Scuola) will prepare regional food pairings (tasting notes and adapted recipes will be provided). What fun! Here’s a listing of the wines and foods. Wow!  What great choices!

Wines

Monastero Suore Cistercensi “Coenobium Rusticum” 2009, Lazio
Giacomo Borgogno Barolo Riserva 1999, Piemonte
Antinori Brunello di Montalcino “Pian delle Vigne” 2006, Toscana
Argiolas “Turriga” 2006, Sardinia
Tenute Rubino Aleatico Amabile 2007 (500ml), Puglia

Menu
Puntarelle in Salsa
Due Crostini – Piemontese & Toscani
Malloreddus con Salsiccia

Wine Wars at Raymond Vineyards

We did a Puget Sound alumni event at Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley during our California trip and I thought you might be interested in Sue’s photos of the event, which try to capture the drama of the Raymond experience.  I did a book signing in the absolutely fabulous Red Room and then an alumni luncheon talk in the Crystal Cellar room. It was quite an feeling to have nearly 100 alumni seated at one long mirrored table with candlelight the only illumination, eating a fabulous meal along with great Raymond Vineyards wines.

Setting up for the luncheon

Lowering the lights

Alumni and guests dining by candelight

Book signing in the Red Room

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Thanks to Patrick Egan and his boss, Jean-Charles Boisset, for their hospitality at Raymond Vineyards and to Svetlana Matt for organizing the event. Thanks to Andy Perdue for the great interview. Thanks to Dan and Cristina at Eataly for making the New York event possible. Thanks to Sue for the photos. Thanks to you for reading The Wine Economist!

Here is the Wine Wars World Tour schedule for next month.

March 2012

Ants, Elephants and Washington Wine

I’m just back from the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers annual meetings where I gave a talk about Wine Wars and its implications for Washington wine. Wine Wars focuses on global wine markets and the forces that are shaping them — what insights can it offer for Washington wine growers?

The Confidence Game

Wine Wars argues that reputation (and the value of  your brand) is an increasingly important factor in today’s crowded and competitive marketplace. No one has to buy your wine (or to buy wine at all given the many liquid alternatives). You have to stand for something (your reputation) and your brand has to reflect and effectively communicate that to break through the market noise. I call it The Confidence Game and reputation is a key strategy. That my friends is the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck that I talk about in Wine Wars.

But reputation and brands are complicated — a pretty obvious lesson that I only really learned a couple of weeks ago when I was at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento.  My session (on The State of the Industry) examined the wine market from the global, international, national and California perspectives. After the session I was talking with a friend who has a 50,000+ case winery in Napa Valley. I think my business is important, he told me, but I today I felt like an ant in a room full of elephants.

Life in Ant-Ville

The U.S. wine industry is very large (and California dominates it, of course) but Napa Valley is just a thin stripe at the  bottom of the wine production bar graph (compared to the bigger producers elsewhere in the state) and my friend’s winery is only a small part of that. That’s ant-ville — nearly invisible — compared with elephant-land, the domain of the large scale producers and bulk wine trade (although 50,000+ cases is not at all insignificant in an absolute sense).

Washington is ant-town, too, I told my audience. (No offence intended! Ants are great creatures. They can carry many times their own weight. A colony of ants can probably strip an elephant carcass in a few hours. Ants are powerful collectively. But individually they are pretty don’t have much clout.)

Wine world ants need all the help they can get to get their brand or reputation out there. They need to have a strong private brand, of course, but they also need a strong regional brand (Napa Valley, for example) to create a reputational wave that the winery brand can ride. That’s one reason my friend’s winery is successful, even if it is just an ant in a crowded room.

Why Elephants are Different

Elephants are different these days — and it is not entirely by choice. Elephants (wineries that produce millions of cases) need strong brands, too, but increasingly they are being forced to distance themselves from regional brands such as AVAs and rely more and more on their own reputations. The reason? The emerging wine shortages that are forcing them to search far and wide for grapes and wine to fill their massive pipelines.

Years of stagnant vineyard expansion combined with rising demand have created a growing structural shortage of certain types of wine (bad news for those of us who have gotten used to deep wine discounts in the surplus years).

This is why so many wines that used to carry regional appellations are now forced to identify themselves as “California” wines. They need to blend wine from all over the state to fill their orders. Take a look at $8-$12 Zinfandels the next time you are in the supermarket and you will see what I mean.

The Logic of American Wine

“California” is a pretty broad appellation, but I am hearing rumbles from elephant land that increased use of the previously rare “American” appellation is in the cards. And expect more bulk wine imports (legally labeled to be sure) to make their way into bottles of wines you might reasonable suppose to hold All-American wine.

Is this a good thing? Well I’m not sure that it is good or bad — it’s just necessity. And I suppose it helps the ants with their stronger regional associations to differentiate themselves from the more generic elephants. But, on the other hand, the elephants’ promotion of regional brands in the past probably strengthened them, unintentionally benefiting local ants.

Since Washington wine is a teeming ant colony, it follows that it would benefit from a stronger regional brand. What is Brand Washington? Good question. (Paul Gregutt recently suggested how Brand Washington might be better promoted — click here to read his  column.)

[At this point my talk veered into a discussion of Brand Washington compared to Oregon, Napa Valley, Argentina and Chile. This part of the talk will have to wait for future Wine Economist post.]

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Another speaker joked that Ste Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE), which is by far Washington’s largest wine producer, is the state’s only elephant, but CEO Ted Baseler objected, citing the Wine Wars description of SMWE’s “string of pearls” (or chain-of-ants?) structure.

Who am I to disagree with Ted, especially since he was on the program to announce an exceptionally generous $1 million donation to help create a Wine Science Center on the Washington State University campus in wine country!

Thanks to WAWGG for inviting me to speak and special thanks to all the Wine Wars and Wine Economist readers I met at the conference.

Book of the Year, Wine Wars Tour & Top Posts of 2011

Happy New Year, everyone! Herewith brief reports on the top Wine Economist posts of 2011, the next stops on the Wine Wars World Tour and an unexpected book of the year award.

Wine Book of the Year

I’m very pleased (and more than a little suprised)  to report that Wine Wars and Benjamin Lewin’s terrific In Search of Pinot Noir have been named wine books of the year 2011 by Paul O’Doherty, the book reviewer at JancisRobinson.com.  He writes that

From the get-go you just don’t want to put this book down, slaloming as it does informatively through economic and social history, the wine industry, the future, and observations setting the scene for the great battle between the market forces redrawing the world wine map and, as Veseth puts it, ‘the terroirists who are trying to stop them’.

O’Doherty makes the fair criticism that, like the college professor that I am, I tend to go off on occasional tangents and not always get to the point as quickly as you might like. But he spins this into a rather charming compliment:

 However, in his defence, there’s a kindly lecturing sweep to his narrative so that, if you were listening to him at the back of his economics class in college, you’d just want him to keep talking forever.

Not sure my students would vote for “forever,” although I suspect it seems like forever to them on some days. He concludes that

This is undoubtedly a fascinating read that will be a treat to most tastes and is, along with Benjamin Lewin’s In Search of Pinot Noir, one of the books of the year.

Thanks for the kind words. I am flattered by the praise and honored to be on any list that includes a book by Benjamin Lewin.

Looking Ahead: Wine Wars Tour Continues

I’m excited to see what 2012 will bring. I know I will meet more interesting people as the Wine Wars World Tour continues to unfold. Here is my current schedule for January and February.

January 2012

February 2012

Looking Back: Top Posts

2011 was a big year for the Wine Economist blog, with about 190,000 hits for an average of about 525 per day. About 1000 people “follow” the Wine Economist either through email updates that are sent out whenever a new post goes live or via the Wine Economist FaceBook page. These are small numbers compared to the most popular wine websites, but they suggest that there is a surprisingly large audience for wine economics analysis.

I thought you might be interested in the most frequently visited Wine Economist posts for the year. Here is the league table as compiled by WordPress, based on which posts on the entire Wine Economist site received the most hits.

Year’s Most Popular Wine Economist Blog Posts 2007-2011

  1. Wine’s Future: It’s in the Bag (in the Box)
  2. Cracking the Chinese Wine Market
  3. Costco and Global Wine
  4. Curse of the Blue Nun
  5. Olive Garden and the Future of American Wine
  6. What’s The Next Big Thing in Wine?
  7. Wine Distribution Bottleneck
  8. The World’s Best Wine Magazine?
  9. Argentinean Wine: A SWOT Analysis
  10. Riesling: How Sweet It Is?

The picture changes a bit when you look at number of hits for posts first published during 2011 (excluding those from previous years).

Year’s Most Popular 2011 Wine Economist posts

  1. What’s The Next Big Thing in Wine?
  2. Argentinean Wine: A SWOT Analysis
  3. It’s Official! The Wine Wars Have Begun
  4. Extreme Wine: O Canada Ice Wine
  5. The Forbes Interview: Wineries that “Get It”
  6. Sizing Up Supermarket Wine
  7. The BRICs: Russian Wine Market Report
  8. The BRICs: Surprising Wines of India
  9. The BRICs: Misunderstanding Brazilian Wine
  10. Liquid Assets: Fine Wine versus Crude Oil

At first glance it is difficult to pick out a common thread from among these posts, since they cover so many individual topics (both a strength and a weakness of this blog, I suppose). But, stepping back a ways, I think I do see a theme: change. Most of these posts examine ways that the wine world is changing, shedding old traditions, embracing new technologies, opening new markets. Certainly economics is a driving force for innovation and change in wine, so perhaps this makes sense.

On that note I wish you a Happy 2012. Can’t wait to see what happens next!

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I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped me with The Wine Economist and Wine Wars in 2011, especially during our fieldwork expeditions in Argentina and Italy. Special thanks to my university students, Patrick (“the wine guy”), research assistants Janice & Scott, Nancy & Michael, Ron & Mary, and of course #1 research assistant Sue.