Wine Book Review: History on a Plate (and in a Glass?)

Andreas Viestad, Dinner in Rome: A History of the World in One Meal. Reaktion Books, 2022.

All roads lead to Rome, they say, so the idea of a history of the world centered in Rome is not ridiculous. And, for food writer and activist Andreas Viestad, all pathways in Rome lead to his favorite restaurant, La Carbonara, so it is the only logical place to begin.

When in Rome …

Viestad (a favorite in the Wine Economist household for his television series New Scandinavian Cooking), takes us through a meal at La Carbonara, reflecting upon the experience as the courses follow their traditional sequence.

Viestad’s stories are not as intentionally global as the “history of the world in one meal” subtitle might lead you to expect (note that this is “a” history, not “the” history). Instead he talks mainly about Rome and Romans, and then Italy and Italians, leaving it mainly to the reader to connect dots to the world-wide implications and insights.  It’s fun! You learn a lot reading this book. And you get hungry, too.

The chapters are organized around the familiar elements of the Italy meal. Bread, antipasto, oil, and salt. Pasta, pepper, meat, fire, and lemon. And wine, of course, because this is dinner and this is Italy, so of course there is wine.

The best thing I can imagine would be to share a table at La Carbonara with Viestad and work through the  phases of the meal with him, listening to the stories he tells. (There would be room for a guest — in the book he dines alone!) And then, stuffed with pleasure, we would take the stroll around Rome he describes in the final chapter, ending with a soothing/shocking scoop of intense lemon sorbetto (lemons being the last topic discussed).

Since this first-person experience is unlikely to take place, I guess the second best thing is to take up the opportunity to read this creative and interesting book.

The Problem with Wine

But there’s a problem. Taken as a food book or a history book or a cultural guide for anyone who loves Italy or Rome, it is hard to deny Dinner in Rome‘s charm. But from a wine perspective it is hard not to be disappointed.

This may be because, as I read other parts of the book, I was mentally writing the chapter I hoped Viestad would write about wine. That chapter, I thought, might mirror in some ways the chapter on pasta, which invokes the Italian idea of “the civilization of the table” that Viestad suggests might easily be confused with the idea of civilization itself.

Is there a civilization of the glass that we might raise up along with the civilization of the table? Some think so, I believe, and there is even an Italian journal devoted to the idea. It is called Civilta del Bere (the civilization of drinking). So, you see, I was thinking about a chapter that might stress the ways that wine brings people together and both shapes and reflects relationships, both at the table and in other ways.

While the chapter that Viestad writes addresses many aspects of wine, his main point is that wine is alcohol and the point of alcohol is inebriation much of the time. The idea that wine is just the local alcohol makes me sad, since I think wine has much more to offer than that, but it is a problem since there are many who have this view.  My latest book Wine Wars II finishes with a section on “Wine’s Triple Crisis,” which examines the wine = alcohol syndrome and concludes that it is a threat to the future of wine as we know it. If wine is just alcohol, who needs it? There are cheaper ways to get numb!

Civilization of the Glass

Would it be possible to write a history of the world that framed wine and the civilization of the glass in a different way? Yes, I know it is possible because it has already been done. Economist editor Tom Standage’s 2005 book A History of the World in 6 Glasses uses beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola to trace an outline of global history.

It is interesting that Standage and Viestad focus on the same places and periods when it comes to wine: ancient Greece and Rome. But Standage tells very different stories. The Greek symposium, which in Viestad is all about getting drunk, is for Standage all about philosophy and, if the alcoholic temptation of drink is there (and it is), it is a passion to be resisted and controlled — a process that we might call civilization.

As Greek trade took wine throughout the Mediterranean, Greek culture and civilization tagged along. The civilization of wine and civilization — hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Wine in Rome, in Standage’s telling, has many layers. Taste, class, power, and empire all appear. If wine were just its alcoholic component it would not have been so important. I guess I stand with Standage in my thinking about the civilization of the glass and I feel a little bit sorry for Viestad that he doesn’t find more interesting stories in his half-full glass.

Highly Recommended

I wonder — would it be possible to write a book that tried to tell a history of the world in one wineglass the way that Viestad has done with one meal? Yes, I think it might work, although you’d need to break things down a bit so that the grapes, glass, bottle, cork, and the forces that spread them around the world and then brought them all back together wineglass could tell their stories.

But deconstructing your glass of wine wouldn’t be enough, as Viestad demonstrates with his Roman dinner. You also have to consider the whole and its significance. The civilizations of the table … and the glass.

Dinner in Rome by Andreas Viestad is highly recommended. A fine addition to your food and wine bookshelf.

Wine Hits the Language Barrier

What do we talk about when we talk about wine? How does the way we talk about wine affect the way we think about it? Does the language of wine create a barrier to entry for consumers?

Last week’s Wine Economist focused on what we say about wine in terms of the information revealed on the label. The European Union is implemented new regulations that will require wine to be more like other consumer products with respect to ingredient lists and nutritional analysis.

Should the U.S. follow suit, either through regulation or via voluntary initiative? That’s a controversial question, for sure. Some worry that people will be less interested in wine if they know what’s really in the bottle. Others think it might work the other way.

Wine’s Language Barrier

But there is another concern that is in some ways even more basic — and might help account for the wine market malaise we all worry about. How does the way we talk about wine affect the way that we (and potential customers) think about it? This is the topic of a seminar that will take place in two weeks at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento. Meg Maker will moderate a panel that includes Miguel de Leon, Erica Duecy, and Alicia Towns Franken on the topic of A New Lexicon for Wine. Here’s an excerpt from the description of the panel on the Unified’s program.

The best way to get to know a wine is to taste it. Another way is to talk about it. The wine industry relies on the ability of wine communicators to persuade consumers to taste, but today’s wine lexicon falls far short of its objectives.

What’s the problem with the way we talk about wine? The panel prompt outlines the problem.

For starters the vocabulary is heavily Eurocentric, reliant on metaphor and analogy unfamiliar to swaths of global wine lovers and curious newcomers. It also tends toward absolute pronouncements: “this wine is this” versus “this wine feels like this.” Formal wine education reinforces these protocols, perpetuating them for new generations of wine pros. The ever-popular numeric score says precisely zero about a wine’s aesthetic impact—even though that’s sometimes all you see. The net effect is both intimidating and gatekeeping to new wine drinkers, alienating them at a time when the industry tries to address its shrinking footprint.

Mastering the Dialect

There are of course several language of wine, not just one, as there are in most industries. There is the “inside”  language we use when talking with on- and off-premise accounts about price points and marketability. Then there is the “outside” voice we use when speaking to consumers directly along with the different dialects necessary to connect with different types of consumers such as investors, collectors, or relative beginners. One size does not fit all when it comes to the language of wine.

Language can be a plus or a minus when it comes to opening doors to wine.  Ironically, wine is not a very transparent product from the consumer point of view. It is difficult to know if what’s inside the bottle will make you happy until you taste it. But the idea of buying and opening that opaque multi-serving bottle can be intimidating, especially when prices are high relative to income and to other options.

Economists call wine an “experience good” — you won’t know if you’ll like it until you try it — hence the importance of tastings and the focus on tasting notes to simulate the tasting experience. This is why it is important to think clearly about how and what tasting notes say. Many wine consumers, I believe, are really interested in how the wine will make them feel. There are both intellectual and emotional responses, to be sure, but feeling trumps thinking for some of the people all of the time and for all of the people some of the time, don’t you think?

Tasting vs Feeling

If you ask people why they like Champagne, for example, they almost always talk about the way it makes them feel, not the details of the way it tastes. I did a tasting with some university students a few years ago and it taught me a lot. Champagne (or sparkling  wine generally) was something they all were familiar with from various family celebrations.  They knew it, liked it, and had good memories associated with it. But when they followed the usual protocols of formal tasting, they were surprised. It didn’t necessarily taste the way it had made them feel. Do you know what I mean?

Tasting notes that list a dozen or sometimes more flavors and aromas, many of them quite esoteric and requiring practice or training to detect, are only really useful to a few specialized consumers, but they are the lingua franca of wine. For a lot of people the lingo-equivalent of an emoji — expressing an emotion or feeling — would be more useful. Subjective descriptions of personality may communicate better than lists of seemingly objective properties.

Wine experts are expected to  master all the details (as this very clever video from Richard Hemming illustrates). Many wine consumers are more interested the harmonious melody than the many notes.

The Humpty Dumpty Problem

Deconstructing wine into its components (flavors and aromas in most cases) reflects a more general trend of thinking of products in terms of their parts rather than the whole. Hence the focus on lists of ingredients and nutritional elements rather than the qualities of the food or beverage itself. I call it the Humpty Dumpty problem. If we insist on breaking product experience into pieces, we can’t be sure that customers Ieven with help from the King’s horses and men) can put them together again.

For wine, as for many other products, it is actually the balance of forces and they way the whole comes together that is the key feature. In Humpty Dumpty terms, consumers are interested in the egg and we keep talking about the pieces as if they are what matters.

Given wine’s intimidating language, it is perhaps no surprise that retailers have adopted a sort of least-common denominator approach to talking about wine. I’m thinking about the “shelf talkers” that hang below wines on store shelves. Shelf talkers come in many forms, but the most common are the simplest. Many supply an expert’s numerical score (JamesSuckling.com 93, for example) while others simply announce a discounted price.

Shelf-talker language may or may not be better than nothing, but its wide use perhaps reflects the inability to speak to consumers in other ways with any consistent success.

And the Solution Is …

Wine, by its very nature, can get lost in translation and there is no simple solution to this problem. But there are steps to take to lower the barriers for current and potential wine enthusiasts. The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium’s session mentioned at the top of this column is a worthwhile beginning. We in the industry need to think critically about the languages of wine and resolve to be more effective.

And I think it is useful to consider the challenge of talking about the emotional impact of wine. In this regard I am inspired by the haiku tasting notes written by W. Blake Gray.  I find that they make me stop, think, and try to imagine the wine.

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Can it be true that the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium is only two weeks away? Hope to see you all there. I will be moderating the annual  “State of the Industry” panel on the morning of Wednesday, January 25.

Wine Economist 2022: What Were the Most-Read Stories of the Year?

2022 was a challenging year and it is understandable that many of us are focused on looking ahead to 2023. But before the bells of New Year ring, let’s take one last glance backwards to get a feeling for what Wine Economist readers were concerned about in 2022.

The table above lists the top ten posts and pages of the almost 900 articles on the Wine Economist website, ranked by number of views in 2022 through December 26. The articles marked with a blue bar were originally published this year. The rest are from the archives, which stretch back to 2007.  Aside from the home page and Mike Veseth’s profile, the most-read stories divide themselves into two groups.

The first are stories about powerful brands and what makes them so durable, with a focus on 19 Crimes, Mateus Rosé, and Blue Nun. What do these wines have in common? Not very much, except of course for the lessons to be learned from the success of their brands. Will we still be talking about 19 Crimes in 30 or 40 years? I guess we will  have to hang around and see!

The other major theme, no surprise given this newsletter’s focus, is the state of the global economy and its impact on the wine industry. Readers were worried about inflation, global trade, and wine industry consolidation. Will these concerns persist in 2023? Will new worries come to the fore? Or will good news stories dominate?

That’s all she wrote for 2022, Wine Economist fans. See you in 2023!

Flashback: The Scrooge Report on Holiday Wine Gifts

Here is a Flashback Wine Economist column, which was published ten years ago on December 24, 2012.  Much has changed, but this still seems relevant today. Cheers!

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No wonder economics is called the “dismal science” — sometimes our rigorous analysis threatens to spoil everyone’s fun.

Take holiday gift-giving, for example. The conventional wisdom is that “it is better to give than to receive” and while there is some merit in this if everyone gives (so that everyone receives), I think you can probably see the collective action problem here. Only an economist (or maybe an excitable child) would point out that, strictly from a material accumulation point of view, there are real advantages in being on the receiving end!

A Badly Flawed Process

But it gets worse because some economists suggest that it may be better not to bother with gifts at all. Don’t give gifts, give cash. Or, better yet, keep the cash and spend it on yourself. Gift-giving itself is a badly flawed process. This Scroogish sentiment is in part the result of Joel Waldfogel’s famous article on “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.” Waldfogel concluded that Christmas, for all its merriment, was actually welfare-reducing because recipients do not generally place a value on gifts that is as high as their cost. They end up receiving stuff they would never have purchased with their own money.

The cost of giving gifts exceeds the benefits, so gift giving is an economic drain. Dismal, huh?  Here’s how it works.

Your aunt paid $50 for the sweater that she gave you. How much would you have paid for it? $50? $45? $40? Well, the fact is that you had the option of buying it for $50 and didn’t, therefore you must not have valued it at the full amount. So its value to you is probably  less than what your aunt paid. But how much less?

Economists seem to agree that the best case scenario is that there is about a 10 percent average loss in gift-giving, which I call the “Santa Tax,” although the “yield” as reported by survey respondents varies a good deal. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend more than $550 billion on holiday gifts in 2012. If the deadweight loss rate is just 10 percent, that would be a $50+ billion Santa Tax this year. Yikes!

There are many problems with this way of calculating holiday giving gains and losses. It is pleasing to give gifts, of course, and this should be taken into account. But how much would you be willing to pay for the pleasure?  And would your pleasure have been less if you had just given cash? The efficiency loss might be less with a cash gift, but perhaps the pleasure of giving (and thus the incentive to give) would be diminished, too.

Santa Tax Wine Edition

Then we can argue about the size of the Santa Tax. Is 10 percent about right … or do you suspect (as I do) that it might be much higher, especially when you are buying gifts for people who are much older or younger or who have very different tastes or needs from your own? Have you ever received a gift that was 100 percent deadweight loss? If you are honest you probably have. But it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it? How big a Santa tax is too much?

Which brings us to the wine part of the problem. Doesn’t it seem like the Santa tax is probably even larger for wine gifts than for many other things? Most of us have experienced the deadweight loss when a bottle of wine that we’ve paid good money for doesn’t turn out to be worth what we’ve spent. So it is no surprise that the loss rate might be even worse when other people are doing the buying (and giving) for us.

Giving wine as a gift is risky (unless it is someone you know very well) because there are so many different choices and individual tastes differ so much. There are lots and lots of good wine  gift choices, of course, but it is easy to get caught in the Santa tax trap. I’m sure that a lot of holiday wine gifts miss the mark badly.

Maybe that’s why wine enthusiasts receive so many “wine gizmo” gifts instead of wine — but those gadgets are subject to the Santa Tax, too.  The New York Times‘s William Grimes recently complained about this problem.

Across the land, Christmas trees spread their fragrant branches over packages containing monogrammed Slankets, electric golf-ball polishers and toasters that emblazon bread slices with the logo of your favorite N.F.L. team.

But for some reason, the culture of wine and spirits provides especially fertile ground for misbegotten concepts like these. Year after year, it yields a bumper crop of inane but highly giftable innovations like wineglass holders that clip onto party plates, leather beer holsters and octobongs, the most efficient method yet devised for eight college students to consume a keg’s worth of beer simultaneously.

Tyler Colman, writing on his Dr Vino blog, singled out gifts of fancy automated corkscrews for particular criticism. You can probably think of some high Santa tax wine paraphernalia that you’ve either given or received yourself.

Beyond the Octobong: Wine Economist Gift Guide

OK, I suppose the octobong is out, but some of the wine gizmos that Grimes reviews in the article are sort of weirdly fascinating. I guess I can see why they are given as gifts (even though you might never spend your own money on them). So where does that leave us when it comes to wine gifts?

My first bit of advice is simple: don’t give a bottle of wine to friends or relations, share it with them. There is something about a shared experience that transcends a simple commodity transfer. (From a technical economics standpoint, I think sharing adds  some “public goods” elements to the deadweight loss equation that can cushion the Santa Tax loss). Trust me, from an economic theory standpoint, sharing is the way to go.

In fact the more I think about it the more I believe that sharing rather than giving is the key. Sharing a bottle of wine rather than just giving it may seem a bit selfish and is certainly more expensive (since time as well as money are involved) but sharing changes the game from transaction to relationship and this seems to me to be the essence of both the holidays themselves and wine, too.

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P.S. Since this Flashback report is filed under “Shameless Self-Promotion,” let me suggest that any (or maybe all) of my wine books make great gifts. Share them with friends and family and then gather over glasses of wine to talk about what you have learned.

Unexpected Pleasures: Pink Sparkling Wines for the Holidays

The winter holidays are a great time for wine lovers — food, fun, friends, and family. Just add wine and stir!  What could be better? But, as I wrote last year, it is possible to over-think holiday wine and, if not ruin the fun, at least not get the most from the season’s opportunities.

Sometimes it is best to start down a promising path and let fortune be your guide. That’s what Sue and I did over the recent Thanksgiving holiday and I thought I would share our story with you here.

All in the Family: Champagne Mangin

The question of what wine to have with our Thanksgiving feast was solved when our friend Philippe Jeanty introduced us to Champagne Mangin et Fils, wines made by his nephew Cedric Mangin and now imported by Jack Edwards Collection.  Jeanty is a famous chef and we knew that if his nephew’s wines were as distinctive and delicious as the cuisine at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, our little celebration would be in good hands.

Well, the wines are distinctive. The first thing that got our attention was the fact that all four Mangin wines (Brut, Brut nature, Rosé, and Millésime) are made from 100% Pinot Meunier, something I can’t remember seeing very often before. Pinot Meunier is like the bass player in a jazz trio — holding everything together in the background while the other musicians (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) take the spotlight. But under the right circumstances (think Charles Mingus), Pinot Meunier can really swing.

You will occasionally find Pinot Meunier still wines and they are worth seeking out — our cellar holds examples from Graziano in Mendocino County and The Eyrie in the Williamette Valley. Jason Lett, who made The Eyrie wine, says that Pinot Meunier is like a crazy uncle — you never know for sure what he is going to do! I also remember sampling a still Pinot Meunier from barrel with Joel Burt at Domain Chandon in Yountville (which some of you will recognize as another Jeanty connection).

So the Champagne Mangin wines are distinctive, but which one should we choose? Well, we didn’t over-think the question this time. The Brut Rosé is such a beautiful color, we just had to pop the cork! And we were not disappointed. From first sip to last, with food and without, it was amazing, both on the nose and in the mouth. What a great way to begin the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend. It would be impossible to top the Brut Rosé, but perhaps we could try something equally unexpected?

North and South

And so, on the second night of Thanksgiving we tried a variation on the pink bubble theme and opened a bottle of Valdo Floral label Rosé Brut. Valdo Spumante, based in Valdobbiadene and imported by Taub Family Selections, is a well-known Prosecco producer, but this isn’t a Prosecco wine. Prosecco is made from the Glera grape and Prosecco Rosé adds Pinot Noir for color.

The Valdo Floral label wine, however, is a blend of 25% Glera with 75% Nerello Mascalese, a red grape usually associated with Sicily. Blending wine from north and south to make a pink spumante — what a totally crazy idea? How in the world would someone ever think of doing that?

But, well, it really works. The wine was pretty and delicious. Not floral, we thought (that’s the label, not the wine) but sparkling and flavorful. More than up to the job. A real surprise (or, to me honest — another surprise coming right after the Champagne Mangin).

Raboso Rules

Things were going rather well, so we decided to continue down the path of sparkling, pink wines with an unexpected twist. This led us to “Il Rosa” Spumante Brut from Sommariva, a Prosecco producer in Conegliano (imported by Kermit Lynch).

The wine was delicious and showed clearly that light color doesn’t mean light aroma and flavor. What’s the twist? Well, this is a Rosé from the land of Prosecco, but it isn’t a Prosecco Rosé because it is made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Raboso grape wine. Raboso?

Raboso Veronese and Raboso Piave are red wine grape varieties that, according to Wine Grapes, make tough, tannic still wines, but are also useful in sparkling wines.  Tough on its own, but potentially delicate in the right blend (and in the right hands, I suspect).

I was introduced to Raboso over dinner in Conegliano a few years ago. It was before Prosecco Rosé DOC was approved. The wine was a blend of Glera and Raboso and it was delicious — a great introduction to the grape. I fully expected the pink DOC blend, when it was approved, would include Raboso, but Pinot Noir was the choice.

So this blend of Pinot Noir and Raboso was doubly unexpected, and it was another great experience, bringing our Thanksgiving celebration to a successful conclusion.

I asked Sue to compare the wines and she said she liked them all — each was surprising in its own way and delivered in terms of aroma and flavor. But the Champagne Mangin was her favorite. Maybe it was the color or perhaps the exotic aromas. Something very special.

Where will this road lead us next? Well, we have many paths to explore, including other wines by these producers (especially hard to resist the temptation to pop the corks of the other Champagne Magnin wines). The holiday wine experience has been great so far this year. We resolve not to over-think our next step as we move closer to the new year!

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Special thanks to Philippe Jeanty for introducing us to his nephew’s wonderful wines. Cheers!

Portuguese Native Wine Grapes and the New Age of Discovery

One of the wonderful things about wine is its ability to surprise and delight — there are always new wines made with unusual wine grapes and from unexpected places to enjoy. A person who is bored with wine, given this great discovery potential, is bored with life!

Portuguese explorers were at the forefront of the “Age of Discovery” that opened the world to economic and cultural exchange. Portugal’s impact on global trade was astonishing considering that it is and was a relatively small country hanging on Europe’s western-most edge.

Now I propose a reverse movement with respect to Portuguese wine and its native grape varieties. The New Age of Discovery, as I call it, calls for wine enthusiasts to take deep dives into Portugal’s many wine regions and especially to explore native wine grape varieties with unfamiliar names but intriguing flavors and unlimited potential.

Discovering Portugal Wine Diversity

Maybe that’s why Italian wines frequently appear on The Wine Economist page (although this is a global wine blog, for example, it was recently named one of the 40 best Italian wine blogs and pages). The wine map of Italy is a colorful mosaic that invites close inspection. But Italy is not alone is this regard. It is time to explore in more depth the diversity that Portugal offers.

Vini Portugal sent us three wines selected to illustrate three sides of Portuguese wine diversity. The Villa Alvor Singular Moscatel-Galego-Roxo 2020, for example, comes from the Algarve region, which is better known for sunny beaches than lush grapevines.  The Antonio Maçanita Tinta Carvalha 2020, an Alentejo wine, is made from grape varieties now quite rare, but that once dominated the region. This wine brings them back from near-extinction. Finally, the Esporão Reserva Tinto 2019 is an interesting hybrid from a famous Alentejo producer, blending indigenous grapes with international varieties such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. It tells the story of the winery and the region, too.

Unexpected Field Blend

Knowing of our interest in native grape varieties, António Graça, the head of Research and Development at Sogrape Vinhos, arranged for us to receive examples of Casa Ferreirinha Castas Escondidas, a field blend from an old vineyard at Quinta do Seixo in the Douro.

The grape varieties include such unfamiliar names as Touriga-Fêmea, Tinta Francisca, Bastardo and Marufo, which are sometimes included in Port wine blends, but rarely make themselves known in unfortified wines. Tinta Amarela, Tinto Cão, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa and vinha velha are also part of this unique blend.

Now it would be easy to dismiss a wine like this as a “kitchen sink” product made up of odds and ends, but that is clearly not the case here as you will know immediately when you taste it. It is really true that what grows together often goes together, and the combination of these wine grapes in the talented hands of Sogrape Douro winemaker Luís Sottomayor results in a distinct and delicious statement of terroir. We found the wine to be complex, balanced, and elegant with a finish that went on and on. An experience as much as a wine. Fantastic.

Quiet! Old Vines at Work

António writes that, “We have been surveying our old vineyards and inventoried all varieties present in that vineyard, plant by plant in an effort to identify the patterns of the historical field blend. This wine is the result of the knowledge we gained from that work which we extended now to other old vineyards we own in order to gain knowledge that will assist us in adapting to a warmer climate in an already warm region.”

“This has led us to develop new vines and wines using blends or single variety wines made from minority varieties, some representing less than 50 hectares as total planted acreage today. The revelation of their sensory aspects has been very reassuring. Examples are Touriga Femea (literally «female Touriga»), Tinta Francisca in the Douro, Sercialinho in Bairrada or Encruzado and Alfrocheiro in Dao.”

Portuguese winemakers have a lot of material to work with in this new age of discovery. The official wine grape registry lists 343 native varieties so far — incredible diversity for a relatively small region.

An Age for Discovery

When I first visited Portugal and began tasting wines made from the native grape varieties, I saw the unfamiliar names as an obstacle to their success on the global market. It made sense to me, I wrote, to market the wines under proprietary brands or in blends with familiar international grape varieties in order to avoid erecting another barrier to entry for consumers new to the country’s wines.

But things have changed and my opinion has changed with them. The world is re-discovering Portugal as a place to visit or live along with its history, cuisine, and of course its wine. It is the new Age of Discovery and my, but there is a lot to discover in Portuguese wine.

What’s Ahead for U.S. Wine? Searching for a Crystal Ball

We are starting to gear up for the State of the Industry session at the 2023 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium and it looks like we will have a lot to talk about. The challenges the wine industry faces are significant and this year’s expert panel (Danny Brager, Glenn Proctor, Dr. Liz Thach MW, Jeff Bitter) is well-prepared to help us navigate the wine-dark seas.

Everyone wants to know what’s in the future — what will the U.S. wine market look like a a year? Five years? Ten years? Prediction is difficult for a variety of reasons, however, not least because the wine economy is embedded in the national and global economies, which are themselves full of uncertainty these days.

Looking for a Crystal Ball

Back in the days when I was writing university-level economics textbooks I told students looking for clues about the future to consult what are called leading economic indicators. The idea is that there are a lot of economic statistics available. Some tell you what has already happened (these are the lagging indicators), some give you an idea of what’s going on right now (coincident indicators), and a few offer a glimpse of possible future trends (leading indicators).

The number of new building permits and housing starts are leading indicators, for example. Once a permit is issued or construction begun, that sets in motion a chain reaction of economic activity that extends out into the future.

Durable goods orders are another leading indicator of economic activity in general, but they speak to attitudes and expectations. Durable goods, by definition, are long-lasting and need not be re-purchased every week or month. If consumers and business increase durable goods purchases, then it suggests that they are optimistic about the future and willing to make an investment now rather than wait for the future.

One economist, famous for his mastery of esoteric details, used to focus in particular on sales of new brooms on the theory that an old broom will always do if you are concerned about future finances. Buying a new broom is therefore a clear statement of economic optimism. That makes sense when you think about brooms as a gateway durable good.

It is maybe a little bit disturbing to learn that Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chair, once identified sales of men’s underwear as an important leading indicator. Really? Apparently, underwear sales are pretty steady, so any blip one way or another says something significant about consumer expectations. If you want to start an interesting conversation, try asking your male friends how long it has been since they re-stocked their underwear drawer. “Why are you asking?”  People are so suspicious!

Where is Wine Headed?

There are many other recognized leading indicators for the overall economy — the yield curve, for example — but there isn’t room here today to talk about them because I’m interested in the wine industry and I wonder what statistics might be particular useful in forecasting the future of wine sales?

One approach is to use the chain-reaction theory. Where does the decision to buy more or less wine begin? What early indicator can we monitor today that will reveal something about how much wine, what kind of wine, and at what price consumers will choose in the future? Corkscrews? Well, I suppose that’s a wine-specific durable good, but I don’t think tracking corkscrew or even wine glass sales is going to help much.

Recently I stumbled upon news that I think is relevant to the “wine leading indicator” search, even if the data is not exactly what I am looking for. The news? Costco has decided not to raise its membership fees this year. Here’s why I think the Costco news could be important.

The Costco Effect

Lots of people enjoy wine and it is sold in lots of ways and places. But, as we all know, the core wine market is surprisingly narrow. When you take away the U.S. consumers who don’t consume any alcohol (about 35% according to a Wine Market Council study a few years ago) and then those who use alcohol but not wine (21%), the residual is surprisingly narrow.

While 29% of consumers buy wine a few times and month or year, the industry actually relies on a relatively small number (15%) of high frequency wine drinkers who pull corks or unscrew caps pretty much every week. The demographics of this group — and especially the high-end buyer subset — is key to the future of American wine.

If you want to know what these consumers look like, I think a good place to start is by going to your closest Costco warehouse store. I am not saying that the Costco demographic matches up perfectly with wine demand or that purchases in other sales channels are unimportant. It is just that the relatively affluent user base at Costco, the people who are willing and able to pay the $60 to $120 annual membership fee here in the United States, are a group worth watching closely. They buy lots of stuff at Costco, including a surprisingly large amount of wine given the limited number of stores.

Now you might think that tracking Costco wine sales would be good economic indicator, but it doesn’t serve our purpose here because it would be a lagging or maybe coincident economic indicator and not the forward-looking insight needed. But there is one bit of Costco data that I think it useful — and it is flashing yellow (but not yet red) right now: the annual membership fee.

Hot Dogs and Rotisserie Chickens?

Most prices at Costco rise and fall with market forces (the costs of rotisserie chickens and the hot dog meal are notable exceptions having been fixed for years). The membership fee is a critical factor at Costco. The fees themselves account for a substantial amount of the company’s net profit and the renewal rate is high — over 90 percent. Costco typically adjusts its membership fee about once every five years, according to news reports, and the last time they did was in 2017. So no one would have been surprised if a rise was announced in 2022.

But this time around the Costco gurus looked hard at their customer base … and blinked. They decided to pass on a fee increase, which could mean a lot of things but might mean that they believe even their affluent member base is feeling the economic heat. And that’s not good news for wine, since these are the customers driving the U.S. market these days.

Is this the leading indicator for wine sales I was looking for? No, it isn’t, so I am still looking. Ideas? Please let me know. In the meantime, while as a Costco member I am glad that the annual fee is frozen this time around, it will be good news for the wine trade when Costco decides that their affluent, wine-drinking patrons are secure enough to tolerate a rise in rates.

Rioja to Walla Walla: Celebrating Tempranillo Day

There are a lot of holidays that are centered around wine. The one that we most often celebrate here at Wine Economist world headquarters is Open That Bottle Night — the excuse to open special bottles for no particular reason other than to enjoy them. It comes around every year on the last Saturday in February, although you really don’t need to wait if you don’t want to.

This year we are adding Tempranillo Day to our holiday list. It’s coming right up — Thursday, November 10, 2022 — so get your corkscrews out and ready to go!

Tempranillo World on the Rise

Tempranillo is most closely associate with Spain and its famouos Rioja wines, of course, but it has become a global phenomenon according to the 2022 edition of Which Winegrape Varieties are Grown Where? by Kym Anderson and Signe Nelgen.   Tempranillo was the grape variety with largest expanded plantings during the 2000 to 2016 period of their study (see table above taken from the Anderson-Nelgen report).

The new Tempranillo plantings are concentrated in Spain, where it has become even more important than in previous years as winegrowers have upgraded their vineyards, but also Portugal and Argentina.  Australia, the United States, Chile, and even France have seen significant new plantings of this popular grape variety.

Tempranillo #1 — ahead of Cabernet, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc in the new-planting league table. Incredible. But maybe it really shouldn’t be a surprise. Tempranillo is a very versatile wine grape that can take on a number of guises depending upon where it is grown and how the wine is made.

New World Tempranillo

Tempranillo has a history in California, according to the standard reference, Wine Grapes. It was planted in the Central Valley alongside (and sometimes inter-mingled with) heat loving Zinfandel. Artesa Winery (owned by Spain’s famous Raventós Codorníu family) has recently planted Tempranillo vines in its higher-elevation estate vineyard. Sue and I are looking forward to tasting this wine when it is released.

Tempranillo gets a lot of attention here in the Pacific Northwest. Walla Walla’s cult winemaker Cayuse Vineyards has made a Tempranillo called Impulsivo since 2002 and it gets consistently rave reviews. Critic Jeb Dunnock says of the 2019 vintage that “You’re not going to find a better Tempranillo in the US, and it will stand toe to toe with the best out there,” by which I think he invites comparison with the best of Spain.  That’s quite a challenge.

The Cayuse team also makes a remarkably delicious and well-balanced Tempranillo for their No Girls label, which Sue declared to be even better than  the Impulsivo at this stage of development when we tasted them both. The Impulsivo was very good, she said, but the No Girls was great — very memorable.

There are several others you will find in the Walla Walla, many making good use of grapes from The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. One that we found particularly interesting on our last visit was The Walls winery’s Wonderful Nightmare.

Oregon’s Other Signature Grape?

If you are telling the story of premium Tempranillo in America, a good place to start is about 40 years ago when Earl Jones began his quest to make quality Tempranillo on U.S. soil. He considered Washington and Idaho but was discouraged by the (very real) possibility of vine-killing freezing temperatures.  Jones’s path ended in an unexpected place: south-west Oregon’s Umpqua Valley and his Abacela Winery.

Abacela’s success with Spanish wine grape varieties clearly demonstrates the folly of the idea that a state or region must be defined by a particular signature grape. Oregon may be Pinot Noir to many wine enthusiasts, but that’s far from the whole story. Taste the Abacela wines and you will know what I mean.

And then there is Idaho Tempranillo. If you visit Boise, Idaho you will probably be directed to the Basque Block, a downtown area that honors the state’s active Basque community (food tip: Bar Gernika for the Solomo sandwich). Maybe that Iberian connection is one reason Tempranillo was planted some years ago in the Skyline vineyard and several wineries make a Tempranillo wine today. Look for award-winning Cinder Tempranillo and for  Fujishin Family Cellars Tempranillo, too, both from the Snake River Valley AVA.

The Tempranillo boom extends to Texas, according to Wine Grapes, and also includes regions Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland, Turkey, and Malta.  Winegrowers and wine-drinkers around the world can’t seem to resist it. Tempranillo is one of global wine’s success stories, so it is worth pulling a cork on Thursday and celebrating Tempranillo Day!

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Thanks to the crew at Bionic Wines for samples of the Cayuse and No Girls Tempranillo wines. Special thanks to Jim Thomssen for information about Tempranillo in Idaho.

Susumaniello & Beyond: Charting the Outstanding D’Addario Puglian Wines

It was the Susumaniello that first got my attention.

Our friend John Marino asked if we’d be interested in tasting the wines of Aziende Agricole D’Addario. D’Addario produces a range of wines in Puglia, which is a region we want to get to know better. Southern Italy is having a moment as consumers, having “discovered” Sicily and its wines start to probe other regions. That, and the reputation of the winery, were enough to get my attention.

Susumaniello: Old is New

But, as I examined the winery’s listings, it was the Accanto Susumaniello IGT Puglia that made me stop in my tracks. Susumaniello isn’t a wine or wine grape variety that you see very often. An old grape variety, according to Wine Grapes, my standard reference of such things, what little there is of it is planted around Brindisi. Susumaniello is mainly used as a blending grape and 100% Susumaniello wines are pretty rare. I had to try it!

But before we tasted the Susumaniello we had to get some context in terms of what Puglia has to offer, so we made a summer project of cooking meals with fresh garden ingredients to pair with D’Addario’s Casale Ciliani lineup of IGT Puglia and IGP Salento wines, which are priced in the current market “sweet spot” of about $16 (for an IGT Puglia Fiano) to about $22 (for an IGP Salento Primitivo).

Pretty in Puglia Pink

The first wine we tried, a Negroamaro Rosé, really opened our eyes. We make an effort to sample lots of different Rosé wines in the summer months and this was one of the best — maybe the very best — of 2022. A lovely, flavorful wine! Fresh, balanced, and a terrific value, too.

We enjoyed the red wines with variations on spaghetti alla Norma (this was a good year from tomatoes and eggplant in our garden). We found the Negroamaro, Malvasia, and Primitivo wines flavorful and well-balanced, with nice acidity to cut through the richness of the pasta.

Then it was time to move up to the D’Addario premium wine lineup and to finally taste the Susumaniello. And we were not disappointed. It was different, distinct, interesting and delicious. Worth waiting for, to be sure.

But, it turns out that the Susumaniello wasn’t our final destination. This wine opened the door for us to the range of D’Addario wines at the next level, priced from about $27 to $40 dollars. And, although we are still working our way through this part of the line-up, I have to say we are impressed.

A Stunning Primitivo 

The Vignalesta Primitivo di Manduria DOC, for example, was just stunning, with a finish that went on forever. What amazing wines these are, waiting to be discovered by wine enthusiasts who look beyond Italy’s “usual suspect” regions.

I asked winemaker Leonetta D’Addario to tell me the winery’s story. Well, she wrote, it began more than 100 years ago with her great-grandfather.

” At that time my family was involved in three main activities: the production of artisanal pottery from the famous Grottaglie area, trade, and agriculture. We owned fruit trees lands and we were mainly producing bulk wine. When my grandfather became a young man, in the early 1960s, also due to what it is known as the “Italian economic miracle”, he soon became one of the most important car dealers in Italy, while the other part of the family was still managing the land and producing wine.”

Focus on Old Vines

Choosing her own path, Leonetta was drawn to the land more than the auto business. Realizing that the family’s old-vine vineyards were a special resource, the family established the D’Addario winery in 2010. “I graduated at the Università degli Studi di Milano in Viticulture and Enology in 2016, writing a thesis in which I analyzed differences between 8 years old vines and 60 years old vines of Primitivo,” she writes.

Leonetta worked at Epoch Estate Wines in Paso Robles before returning home to Puglia to apply what she had learned to the family estate. “We do have in our staff one of the best winemakers of Italy, Teodosio d’Apolito, she writes. “Since 2015 he has followed the Aziende Agricole D’Addario with our agronomists in the production of our wines.”

The result of this multi-generational journey are the wines that Sue and I have been enjoying.  Come for the Susumaniello. Stay for the complete lineup of distinctive, quality wines that over-deliver in every case. And don’t miss that awesome Negroamaro Rosé if you see it!

Storm Clouds Ahead for Global Wine Trade

Storm clouds are on the horizon for the global wine trade and I am worried because I can’t really say how things are going to develop in the short and medium terms.

The problem is that the disruptions are both broad and deep. They are widespread throughout the commodity chain and impact both the supply- and demand-sides of the market. It’s a lot to take in. Herewith a brief sketch of the situation as I see it today.

Storms on the Supply Side

Some of the storms on the supply side are literally storms — wind, hail, freezing temperatures in the main winegrowing regions of Europe plus drought and wildfire smoke taint elsewhere, especially California.

The increasing extreme weather impacts are unlikely to diminish and inject elements of risk and uncertainty into the supply side of the market. Some of this risk is inherent to agriculture, of course, but it seems like the factors that punctuate equilibrium are both larger and more frequent. Increasingly hard to predict what’s coming over the horizon.

Storms on the Demand Side

From a global perspective, as I explain in my recent book Wine Wars II, a small number of countries and regions (France, Italy, Spain, California) shape supply conditions and an equally small number (USA, UK, Germany, China) are key forces on the demand side.

Each of these countries if facing its own economic crisis and taken together they suggest major impacts on both global wine imports and, according to a recent IMF report, the prospects for a global recession. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon is predicting a US recession within six to nine months.

The storm clouds are somewhat different in each country but the fact that they have come together at the same time raises concerns. Inflation is both high and persistent in the US, for example, causing the Federal Reserve to double down on interest rate increases. The hope is a “soft landing” that would slow the economy enough to reduce wage growth without actually increasing joblessness and tipping the economy into recession.

This is a tough target, especially because monetary policies are subject to what are called “variable lags.” You roughly understand what will happen, but not when. Imagine driving a car with variable lags on the brakes, accelerator, and steering! In theory you might be fine but in practice you will probably end up in the ditch.

The recent declines in equity prices and widespread cooling of the housing market is another concern. A recent Rabobank report suggests that sales of super-premium wines, which seem to persist even when income takes a hit, are not immune to changes in net worth.

So it is entirely possible, following Dimon’s lead, that the US will spend 2023 with both falling income and rising prices. Some wine market niches might be little affected by this combination, but the broad market will certainly suffer.

German and UK Problems

Germany is known for its bulk wine imports, and these are likely to be squeezed by rising energy prices and falling output in its energy-dependent manufacturing sector.

What will German consumers choose: shivering in the cold while they drink their usual ration of wine? Or staying warmer but cutting back on price or quantity? I will leave the answer to you.

The UK market, which is in some ways the wine trade’s most important, will suffer higher energy bills this year and next, too. But its problems go deeper. Already more economically fragile than the other countries discussed here, it must now confront the fact that its new government seems to be both economically reckless and politically tone-deaf (an unusual combination — it is usually one or the other). So the Bank of England has had to raise interest rates even faster than expected and invoke emergency measures to prevent fire-sale losses among pension funds.

To invoke the car example once again, the UK’s drivers are stomping down on both the brake and accelerator pedals at the same time. Not a very safe situation according to most driving instructors. Jeremy Hunt, the newly appointed chancellor, signaled a big U-turn in economic policy yesterday, but much damage has already been done and fundamental problems remain. Watch for more shoes to drop.

Although there was some good wine business news in the original “mini-budget (scheduled duty increases had been postponed), the alcohol tax increases have been restored and the outlook for the wine trade is grim. Will UK consumers spend their inflation-reduced purchasing power on the higher mortgage bills that are coming soon due to rising interest rates … or will they buy wine? Once again, the answer’s up to you.

China’s Economic Bicycle

A few years ago we would have looked to China for a ray of sunlight in the global storm, both in terms of the wine trade and more generally. But not today. The Chinese economy is fragile right now, with many risks to consider, especially in the possibility that the property bubble might burst or deflate.

I have argued that the Bicycle Theory of Economic Growth applies to China. A bicycle is only really stable as long as it keeps moving forward. Once it stopes, staying upright is a real balancing act. I think China is much the same — it has to move ahead rapidly to keep its inherent contradictions from tipping it over. The property market crisis is a clear example of this. As growth has slowed, consumers are now refusing to pay their mortgage bills for housing still under construction.

Five years ago, China would have been the engine we counted upon to pull the global wine trade and, indeed, the global economy, out of its storm. Now its weakness on both fronts (covid lockdowns prevent a return to normal wine market conditions, for example) stand in the way of recover.

What Next?

What next? That’s the question on the cover of last week’s Economist newspaper. The Economist speculates that we are entering a new era of global economic policy. Hard to know where that path will lead.

What’s next for the global wine trade? The combination of demand- and supply-side storms I have outlined here make it hard to know. What next? Too soon to tell, I think. Stay tuned.