Life Among the Vinos: Making Sense of Wine’s Rival Tribes

snowThe idea that society’s big open melting pots have been replaced to a certain extent by narrow, closed tribal silos is no longer novel, but it is very important. Are we becoming a culture of isolated tribes with fundamentally different beliefs and norms? If so, wine must have its tribes, too.

Snow’s Two Cultures

C.P. Snow’s observation that the intellectual world had  divided into two tribes was shocking in 1959. His essay on “The Two Cultures” (pdf here) argued that science and humanities were increasingly alienated, speaking different languages, thinking in isolation.

Each tribe could exist on its own, I guess, but what about society? How could an increasingly technological society survive if science is not tempered and informed by values and a deeper understanding of the humanity it is meant to serve?  How can the humanities be relevant without an understanding and appreciation of science and technology? These were relevant questions and they are even more relevant today as artificial intelligence advances.

“Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding,” he wrote. “They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.”

Mutual incomprehension — that sounds familiar. Today, of course, the incomprehension is compounded by digital technologies that permit and even encourage us to only interact with “friends” within our own tribe and to read only news that reinforces our tribal dogma. We hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see.

Life Among the Econ

Axel Leijonhufvud’s 1973 essay on “Life Among the Econ” presented a serious critique of the economics profession and its tribes, the Micros and the Macros, in a satirical form. What if alien anthropologists stumbled into a university economics department, he asked? What would they see? What would they think?

The answer is not so much different from Snow’s two cultures and my idea of tribes, but Leijonhufvud focused on their beliefs or religions. The Micros idolize the supply-demand market cross and build worshipful totems (“modls”). The Macros have nothing whatsoever in common with the Micros except that they worship a Macro-cross (IS-LM) and build rather extravagant modls of their own.

“Some Econographers disagree with the bleak picture of cultural disintegration just given, pointing to the present as the greatest age of Econ Art. It is true that virtually all Econographers agree that present modlmaking has reached aesthetic heights not heretofore attained. But it is doubtful that this gives cause for much optimism. It is not unusual to find some particular art form flowering in the midst of the decay of a culture. It may be that such decay of society induces this kind of cultural “displacement activity” among talented members who despair of coping with the decline of their civilization. The present burst of sophisticated modl-carving among the Econ should probably be regarded in this light.”

historyLife Among the Vinos

Wine has its tribes, too, and many have observed that the divisions between them and mutual deafness among them are a growing concern.

I wrote about some of the Vinos tribes in my book Wine Wars.  I was inspired by Thomas Pinney’s masterful A History of Wine in America (Vol. 2: From Prohibition to the Present, University of California Press, 2005).  If you want to understand how wine in America got the way it is, this is the best general reference I have found.

Pinney devotes the last section of the book to what he sees is a fundamental battle for the idea of wine in America. It is a conflict between Wagnerians and Martians, he says.

Song of the Wine Maidens

The Wagnerians are inspired by the ideas of Philip Wagner, a Maryland journalist, viticulturist, and winemaker who was especially active in the years that bracket the Second World War. Wagner believed that wine should be an affordable part of ordinary life and a constant companion at mealtime.  Pinney writes that

Wagnerians are always delighted to have a bottle of superlative wine, but their happiness does not depend on it, nor are they so foolish as to think that only the superlative is fit to drink. Their happiness does depend upon wine each day … good sound wine will not only suffice. It is a necessary part of the daily regimen.

Wagner founded Boordy Vineyads and was well-regarded by wine people from coast to coast.  He is an important figure in the history of American wine, according to Pinney, and one whose idea of wine lives on in many forms.

Wagner promulgated his populist vision by promoting the so-called French Hybrid grape varieties on the East Coast and elsewhere. I think he wanted America to be Vineland (the name given it by the Viking explorers), a country covered with grapevines and abundant with honest, respectable wine. This is easier said than done, however, as Pinney’s history makes clear.

My Favorite Martian

Martians are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Whereas Wagner was disappointed that America lacked a mainstream wine culture, Martin Ray was upset that the standard was so low in the years following the repeal of prohibition.  He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction — wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time.  His achievement was short lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagrams, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book.

The Martian view, according to Pinney, is that “…anything less than superlative was unworthy, that no price could be too high, and that the enjoyment of wine required rigorous preparation.”

Two Ideas of Wine

The tribes of Martians and Wagnerians have two very different ideas of wine and it is a shame that one needs to choose between them, but that’s how tribes sometimes works. It seems to me that wine could and should be both a daily pleasure and an opportunity for exceptional expression. The good isn’t always the enemy of the great. But many people see it that way, including Pinney, who reveals himself to be an ardent Wagnerian and expresses concern that the Martians have won the battle for wine in America.

The people who write about wine in the popular press largely appear to be Martians, who take for granted that anything under $20 a bottle is a “bargain” wine and who routinely review for their middle-class readership wines costing $30, $40, $50 and up. Even in affluent America such wines can hardly be part of a daily supper. They enforce the idea that wine must be something special — a matter of display, or of costly indulgence. That idea is strongly reinforced by the price of wine in restaurants, where a not particularly distinguished bottle routinely costs two or three times the price of the most expensive entrée on the menu.

“No wonder, Pinney concludes,” that the ordinary American, unable to understand how a natural fruit product (as wine undoubtedly is) can be sold for $50 or more a bottle, sensibly decides to have nothing to do with the mystery.” So these tribal divisions have serious consequences for the wine industry.

Wagnerians and Martians are not the wine world’s only tribes. Come back next week for my report on the Terroirist and the Naturalist tribes.

Two Cheers for Canned Wine

cansCanned wine has been around for a while, but has gained traction in just the last couple of years.  Some observers  are suspicious that it is just a fad — a flash in the pan — that won’t last for long.  If that’s true, then it is an impressive flash. Canned wine sales in the off-premises channels that the Nielsen company measures were $70 million for the 52 weeks ending June 15, 2019. That’s 69% growth for the year. In a market where growth is hard to find, canned wine is a winner.

(The graph above shows Nielsen data for sales through 4/20/2019. I see more canned wine brands and SKUs on the store shelves every week.)

What’s more, Nielsen research suggests that canned wine sales are weighted toward  younger consumers — the ones that many observers argue are so reluctant to engage with wine.  Fad or trend? I think cans are a thing although there might be some seasonality that will distort conclusions until we have more data.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Cans have many advantages when it comes to wine. Convenience is often cited and it is true that a can of wine is easy to toss into your backpack or picnic basket if you are headed out for an adventure. But cans are more than the trail mix of wine.

Michelle Williams’s Forbes column “Is the Future of Wine in the Can?”   presents an optimistic case for canned wine, giving special attention to wineries in Oregon and Texas, two regions where wine is booming, that have embraced the can.

Amber LeBeau of the Spitbucket blog argues that the traditional 750 ml wine bottle gets in the way for the growing numbers of consumers both young and old who are concerned about limiting their alcohol consumption or avoiding waste. Too much wine to consume at one time can be too much of a good thing.

Smaller bottles are one solution and cans (most of which hold about two glasses each) and premium boxed wine (where you can dispense as much or little as needed) are good solutions. Maybe that’s a reason why the two fastest-growing wine packaging categories are canned wine and premium box wine.

I appreciate the alcohol issue and the fact that smaller container fit a more sober lifestyle. But my friend  Patrick the Wine Guy has the opposite worry — that consumers won’t realize that 375 ml cans hold two glasses until it is too late and they have drained a couple of them as if they were light beer. Yikes!

There’s an App for That

Cans also have potential advantages in the world of app-based food delivery. I am not sure how many UberEats orders include a 750 ml bottle of wine in areas where that would be legal  (not many, I’m guessing), but I can see the potential for single-serve canned wines here. Simplified wine choices, convenient packaging, drop it in the delivery bag, and out the door.

Significantly, delivery orders are the fastest-growing part of the restaurant business, with some entrepreneurs setting up virtual restaurants and “ghost kitchens” focused just on delivery. Add a can of Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc to that order and you are all set.

There is a lot to like about canned wine once you get over the initial shock of the new package. But that’s nothing new. I’m sure canned beer ruffled some feathers when it first appeared. And, switching products, I’ve read that paperback books were once seen as a threat to serious book publishing.  Change is hard — even when it makes sense (Amber LeBeau’s point).

Canned wine has many advantages, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges to be confronted. Here are three problems to consider.

What Goes In Come Out

When we tell people that we are researching canned wines, they almost always ask, “how is the wine?”   Well, the wine you pour out of the can is pretty much the wine that was put into it. That is one thing that canned wine has in common with bottles and boxes of wine. If lousy wine went in, don’t expect anything better to come out.

A recent study of canned wines versus their bottled twins found no significant difference is consumer evaluation. The cans didn’t change the wines in any way that these consumers could notice.can1

Some wineries such as 14 Hands use the same wine brand for both bottle and can, so they leveraging their bottle brand reputation to promote the canned product. They need to make sure that the wine in the cans is the same as the bottles since an inferior experience would reflect on both types of packages.

Many canned wine brands are priced at the entry level ($4.99 or $5.99 per can or less) and are probably filled with inexpensive bulk wine. Some of these are better than others as you would expect.

Only a couple of the canned wines we have tried so far have been “keepers” that we would drink again.  Most have been under-whelming and over-priced. Since the canning process apparently isn’t the problem, the disappointing wines that we are pouring out of the cans must have been disappointing going in, too.

Our favorite out of about a dozen we have tried so far is the C’est Le Vin Rosé from Washington State producer Barnard Griffin. The label says it is “good Washington wine that happens to be in a can,” which I think sends the right message. It’s the wine that counts. The can is just a delivery system.

No (Canned) Wine Before Its Time?

I always look at the “best by” date when I purchase milk, yogurt, and a few other grocery items. Now I have started checking for dates on cans of wine, too.

Sue and I attended a presentation about canned wine packaging technology earlier in the summer and I was interested to learn about the special lining that is the key to the can’s success. Wine’s alcohol and acid don’t get along very well with aluminum, so a special liner is needed to make the can work.

These linings are typically approved for 6 to 9 months, we were told, depending on the chemical analysis of the wine. The wine might be OK at 12 months or longer, but they are intended for shorter shelf-life situations. You really don’t want cases of canned wine to sit a warehouse for months waiting to be delivered to a retailer.

Many (but not all) of the cans I have seen have a “canned on” date or equivalent code printed on the container and from now on I am going to check that out just as I would a quart of milk and look for wines with less than 6 months or so in the can.

We tried a can of a carbonated orange-flavored white wine spritz and it was a big disappointment. It sounded refreshing  (I was hoping for an Aperol spritz kind of experience), but there was no one home, as Sue said. Not much orange. Not much wine. Plenty of bubbles. Was it the product or was it the fact that it was canned a year prior to our purchase and the can liner had failed in some way?

Confusion Corner

Wine is a famously confusing consumer category, with so many brands and varieties and with such an enormous range of retail prices. Canned wine is not much simpler based on a few retail shelves we’ve studied. There are several can sizes, for example, some sold as singles and others in packs. You’ve got to pay attention to know just how much wine you are buying and its cost per serving.

Some of the wine is labeled by grape variety, but this is less common than with bottled wine. And I don’t think I have seen a vintage date (yet) although, as noted above, the canning date may be more important. This may change if the premium canned wine trend picks up steam.

A lot of the wine is red or white or pink or bubbly. So what’s in the can, Sue asks? What variety or blend of grapes went into the red or white? What should she expect when she pops the top?

At this point, I suppose, the wines are targeting consumers who might find grape blend and vintage date TMI, but that should change if this category doesn’t fall victim to arrested development.

Two Cheers!

Canned wine isn’t going to revolutionize wine, but it seems to have the potential to evolutionize it — to help it evolve in ways that are relevant to today’s consumers. That’s worth a cheer or two in my book.

Why not three cheers? Maybe I am being stingy with my ratings, but it looks like it is still early days for wine in a can and there is a lot of headroom left in all areas including wine quality. I think canned wine has the potential to grow up in ways that will please a broader audience. When that happens, I’ll be the first to add the final cheer.

>>><<<

Thanks to Danny Brager and Genevieve Aronson of Nielsen, Michelle Williams, Amber LeBeau, and Robert Williams for their insights on canned wine. Go to WICresearch.com for updated canned wine market research.

Three Perspectives on Canada’s Okanagan Valley & Its Wine

Every time Sue and I visit the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada we find something new that makes us rethink what we thought we knew about this beautiful (and somewhat still undiscovered) wine region. Here are three perspectives taken from the field notes from our July 2019 visit for the B.C. Wine Grape Council Enology & Viticulture Conference.

#1 Follow the Money

If you drive around the long, narrow valley you cannot avoid the impression that there is a lot of recent investment in the wine sector here. So many pretty vineyards and stylish wineries, many with ambitious restaurants and hospitality venues. Where is the money coming from? And how is it being spent?

There is no simple answer to this question. There are two large players working to build the regional brand and a lot of smaller operations, some well-financed by outside money while others look like classic family wineries.

The big players are Andrew Peller Limited and Arterra Wines Canada. Peller has wineries in both Ontario (including Thirty Bench, Wayne Gretzky Estates) and British Columbia (including Calona Vineyards, Sandhill, Red Rooster). Calona Vineyards was established in 1932 at the end of Canada’s prohibition era.

As you might guess, the early focus was not exactly fine wine, but Peller has moved successfully into the quality era. Sandhill’s founding winemaker Howard Soon built a flagship brand of single-vineyard wines that seems intended to mark Peller’s path into the future.

pinArterra has a complicated history, but is headed the same direction. It was already a going business when I first encountered it years ago as Vincor, which owned a collection of  wineries in Canada and elsewhere including Hogue Cellars in Washington State and New Zealand’s Kim Crawford.

Vincor was purchased by Constellation Brands, which both developed the wineries and expanded the distribution network to include other Constellation wines. Constellation sold the Vincor operations (retaining Kim Crawford, of course, part of its continuing effort to redefine its business model) to the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan in 2016.

The resulting firm, Arterra, still distributes some of the Constellation wines including Woodbridge by Mondavi, Ruffino, and Kim Crawford, as well as wines from its iconic Canadian wineries including Jackson-Triggs, Sumac Ridge, Inniskillin, Nk’Mip Cellars (in  partnership with the Osoyoos Indian Band), and See Ya Later Ranch.

Large wine companies always draw suspicion because of their ability to throw their weight (money) around. But I think they are useful because they can have the breadth and scale to promote the regional brand better than other groups with fewer resources can do.

sevenThe Okanagan has benefited from several waves of outside investment in vineyards and wineries over the past 25 years. City money from Vancouver, oil money (now in shorter supply) from Alberta. Chinese-Canadian and mainland Chinese investment, too.

Our group stopped at Le Vieux Pin on the Black Sage Road near Oliver. The winery’s owners are Iranian. Their talented French winemaker,  Severine Pinte, crafts wines that are all about elegance and balance and it is easy to fall in love with them, especially over an improvised lunch of gourmet deli-sandwiches. Mary McDermott, one of our hosts and the winemaker at Chinese-owned Township 7, brought her delicious sparkling wine to complete the feast

Perhaps the most exciting new project we saw is Phantom Creek Estates.  Bai Jiping and his family are investing C$50 million in vineyards and C$50 million in a showstopper winery on the Black Sage Bench. The vineyard was already well known (it supplied grapes for Sandhill) and now the big facility on the hill, with its 120 seat restaurant and hospitality space, is nearing completion. When it opens in September (by appointment only during the phase-in) it will provide a destination winery in the south of the valley to book-end famous Mission Hill in the north.

#2 Creative Destruction

Climate change is an issue here as it is almost everywhere else in the wine world, and it may provide an interesting “Back to the Future” moment for this region. Hybrid grape varieties dominated here until the 1990s, when increased import competition fueled by the NAFTA trade agreement forced growers to upgrade their plantings.

Not all the hybrids were removed, however, and one of the questions during the Q&A session was whether there was any future for these grapes and the wines that are made from them? The knee jerk answer would be no — not much  market value in these vines any more. Better to move on to more consumer-friendly vinifera vines. But this might be a rush to judgement.

2359-sperling-vineyards-sperling-vineyards-old-vines-f-2017-27258The day before we attended a talk by Greg Jones, the world’s foremost viticultural climatologist, on the impact of climate change on wine around the world and in British Columbia. One of the points he made was that hardy hybrids can be very useful because of their ability to span a range of climate conditions (compared with the more narrow growing windows of some vinifera grape varieties).

That thought was in my mind at lunch the next day when someone said that Sperling Vineyards was pouring their Old Vines Foch Reserve, made from vines planted in the 1960s. We already had the delicious Sperling Old Vines Riesling in our glasses (vines planted int he 1970s in the same vineyard as today’s Tantalus), so we snagged more glasses and tasted the Foch.

It was terrific. Different, as hybrids are, juicy, aromatic. Nothing like the last Maréchal Foch I tasted years ago, benefiting no doubt from improved vineyard and cellar practices. And maybe climate change, too? Dunno.

The Sperling Foch is exceptional and it is dangerous to generalize from exceptional cases, but it made me reconsider the viability of hybrids. Given climate change threats, I said in my reply to the question, maybe we need to change the way we think about hybrids — something that is happening in Europe according to a recent Decanter article.

Are hybrids the bad old days to be forgotten or are they part of our heritage that we need to remember and maybe turn to once again? Hybrids aren’t the answer to climate change– there isn’t any one answer — but maybe they can be part of the adjustment process.

vanessa#3 The Undiscovered Country

There is a lot going on in the Okanagan Valley, but it is just one of nine designated wine regions in British Columbia. There are smaller but active wine groups on Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, the Fraser Valley, the Kootenays, Lillocet, Thompson Valley, Shuswap, and the Similkameen Valley.

The Similkameen Valley is next on our list. Rugged, rocky terroir — not much of what you might call dirt in some places for a vine to take root. And it’s warm, too — more heat units than Napa. When Howard Soon retired from Sandhill (and collected the Order of Canada honor) he linked up with Vanessa Vineyards so that he could explore the possibilities of this  unusual terroir.

We’ve tasted some of Howard’s Vanessa wines and also those from nearby Clos du Soleil and they are simply fantastic.  Similkameen Valley — must be a magical place. Can’t wait to go there.

And for the present visiting these regions is the surest way to find the wines, at least for those of us in the U.S. market. Distribution in the U.S. is limited and very hit-and-miss. I searched the Total Wine website for Romanian wine and found a dozen different wines, many of them available at the nearest store. A search for “Canada wine” turned up three Icewines ranging in price from about $25 to nearly $80 per slender bottle with only one (the most expensive, of course) available locally.

I hope things will change and some of these wines become more available here, but I don’t have to tell you that the politics of international trade are hotly contested these days. For the moment, the best way to taste and acquire these wines involves going to the source.

The good news is that a visit is richly rewarded. There are winter sports venues nearby, but the best times for wine tourism are probably spring through fall when the winery hospitality rooms are geared up for visitors. Sue and I spent a memorable early fall weekend at a lakeside resort in Summerland back in 2010. Here is a report of our wine tourism experience.

The Okanagan Valley is on the move when it comes to wine in more ways than one. It will be interesting to return in a few years to chart the changes … and sample more of these exceptional wines.

Tundra Red? Tundra White? Reimagining Wine in Canada & the Okanagan Valley

OKSue and I were recently in the Okanagan wine region of British Columbia, Canada, for a winegrowers conference. We had a great time — smart people, exciting discussions, interesting wines. Lots to see, hear, and learn.

If you haven’t visited yet, this region should be on  your wine tourism radar. The Okanagan Valley is about 5 hours by car (or a short plane flight) from Seattle or Vancouver. A bit out-of-the-way, but so are Napa and Walla Walla and that hasn’t stopped you.

Reversed New Zealand?

The Okanagan is sort of like an reversed image of New Zealand. New Zealand is a rugged island surrounded by water, oriented north to south, with constantly changing wine terroirs as you move from one place to another. Endlessly fascinating if you have the time to explore.

The Okanagan, on the other hand, is rugged land that surrounds deep lake waters oriented south to north, with constantly changing wine terroirs as you move from place to place (and one side of the lake to the other).

Great place for a casual visit, but more serious study is richly rewarded. The Okanagan even has a legendary sea monster — Ogopogo. Not sure if the Kiwis can top that.

Pinot Noir and Riesling are here in the cooler spots, a bit of Sangiovese and lots of Syrah there, Tempranillo and Cabernet around the bend, Pinot Gris in many places. Even Sauvignon Blanc, which is appropriate since some of the winemakers hail from New Zealand.

More Than You Might Think

Many of our friends are surprised that there is wine (and very good wine) in the Okanagan. When they think of British Columbia their thoughts turn to cosmopolitan Vancouver or rugged wild Vancouver Island (which has wineries, by the way). Wine? Do Canadians even make wine?

So they are surprised to learn that wine is not just a thing in Canada, it is an important thing. According to the annual industry review issue of Wine Business Monthly, there were 745 wineries in Canada at the start of 2019. British Columbia tops the table with 317 wineries followed by Ontario (242), and Quebec (130).

Since wine is made in all 50 U.S. states, you won’t be surprised to learn that Canadian wine also comes from Nova Scotia (21 wineries), New Brunswick (15), Saskatchewan (9), Alberta (5), Prince Edward Island (4) and Newfoundland & Labrador (2). Manitoba? No wineries … yet!

Changing Times

Years ago Sue and I were visiting Vancouver and tried to order an Okanagan wine from the list at an upscale restaurant. The waiter refused to take the order on account of his assessment of the wine’s low quality (we ended up with something from France as I recall). I think the wine was made from hybrid grapes, which was the norm for years and probably accounted for the waiter’s negative review.

I cannot imagine having a similar experience today. The best of the wines today are made to a high standard and local chefs are keen to pair them with their farm-to-table menus. Sue and I were fortunate to attend a promotional dinner in Seattle where B.C. chefs (plus Seattle’s iconic Tom Douglas) paired Okanagan wines with local seafood.  Terrific.

Tudra Red? Tundra White?

How you see the Canadian and British Columbia wine industries depends on your point of view. If you take the global perspective, for example, you see only Icewine, Canada’s most valuable wine export.

B.C. Icewine is so good that I think it is actually worth its high price, but it inevitably defines Canada as a cold, dark place (the grapes for Icewine are harvested in the dark of night, frozen on their vines). What else could Canada possibly produce? Tundra Red? Tundra White?

This narrow perspective is even true here in the Seattle area, not so far from the Canadian border. The sight of a B.C. wine on a store shelf (apart from Icewine) is rare indeed. We have a distorted view of Okanagan wine because, Icewine aside, production is aimed at the domestic market and exports are limited.

The Rivals?

The perspective shifts inside Canada, where Ontario and British Columbia are seen as strong rivals for consumer hearts, minds, and dollars. Or at least that’s the impression I got from a CBC radio interview that my Canadian friend Joel sent me a few years ago. Click here to listen (do it — really — it is hilarious). A discussion of BC vs. Ontario wines quickly degenerates into name-calling and worse. I didn’t realize that it was meant as satire until Joel clued me in.

In fact, however, Ontario and B.C. wineries have bigger enemies than each other. The challenge, in my opinion, is help make the pie larger rather than worrying about how it is divided. The Canadian market is highly regulated, especially at the provincial level, so selling wine can be as difficult as making it. This is changing, but for now the scale of most Okanagan Valley wineries is relatively small, limited to a certain extent by their cellar door and local market demand.

Take a Closer Look

Now zoom in closer to the Okanagan Valley and neighboring wine regions. What you see are confident winemakers working diligently to understand their varied terroir and take their wines and wineries to the next level.

When I first heard that local groups were busy proposing sub-appellations in the Okanagan Valley I scratched my head in puzzlement. Hardly anyone outside of Canada has even heard of the Okanagan. Shouldn’t you be building the big Okanagan Valley brand instead of dividing it into smaller and smaller regions and sub-regions with little apparent economic value?

I am still suspicious of the movement to make every wine region as complicated as a map of Burgundy terroirs, but I appreciate that local wine industry leaders feel they are ready for that next step. It seems a little crazy from my U.S. perspective, but the U.S. market isn’t (yet) extremely relevant to Okanagan producers. That could also change — some of the winemakers at the Seattle dinner were looking for U.S. importers. Fingers crossed they made the connections they were seeking.

Things are changing fast, so perhaps these perspectives will converge. Come back next week for our take on where B.C. wine is today and where it might be heading.

Napa Envy? What’s the Secret for Emerging Wine Region Success?

american_airlines_boeing_707_model_aircraft_kits_1bcd6855-5d3b-43ac-b7e9-e4ce13ea59df_largeW.W. Rostow’s famous 5-step theory of the “Stages of Economic Growth” seemed to present a blueprint for less-developed countries thirsty to move up in the global economy league table.

The key step — “take-off” — invoked the image of a powerful modern jet airliner (probably a Boeing 707 back in 1960 when the theory appeared) rising from the runway and soaring into the bright blue sky.

The reality for those who followed Rostow’s map was problematic because his analysis was based on the experience of a previous generation of soaring economies and both the conditions on the ground and the global market environment were often very different. Take-off proved frustratingly hard to achieve and the mistakes were costly both in dollars and in missed human development opportunities.

The Limits of Imitation

Sue and I have visited many emerging wine regions and they all seem to be looking for a blueprint like Rostow’s and for the jet engine that will propel their own take-off into the global wine market’s stratosphere. Everyone wants to be the next Napa (or fill in the name of your favorite successful wine region).

A lot of energy is spent (and probably wasted) trying to emulate the success of one particular emerging wine region that started to soar more than thirty years ago and hasn’t slowed down since. That region is New Zealand and the key to its take off is widely seen to be its choice of a signature grape variety to rally around — Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand’s growth is stunning, to be sure, but I argue that its take-off was the product of particular local and global conditions that are unlikely to be replicated in quite the same way today. There are also unintended consequences to consider. The stunning success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has cast a shadow over other NZ regions and wines that deserve more market attention than they typically get.

The Road Not Taken

The signature winegrape varietal take-off strategy is simple and appealing in theory, but difficult and even dangerous in practice. So what works? How do emerging wine regions get up to speed in the fast-paced global market?

My sense is that each case is special and each road different. The only common characteristic I have noticed is quality, which must be found in every bottle or glass. You only have one chance to make a first impression, they say, and reputation is always on the line. With quality much is possible, even if it is not easy or automatic. Sans quality nothing much seems to work.

But that’s a pretty vague road map, so my senses perked up when I heard Jamie Goode talk about the stages growth for new wine regions at a recent British Columbia Wine Grape Council conference and trade show in Penticton, BC.

From Surprise to Enlightenment

Goode has been just about everywhere in the wine world and based on this experience he proposed a five stage evolution (not revolution) development pattern. Surprise comes first, he said. Local winegrowers are surprised when they find themselves making halfway decent wine. Incredible! Maybe this wine thing is possible.

parisCuriosity comes next as dozens of grape varieties and wine styles appear followed by Imitation of famous wine regions and their wines. Imitation leads to Over-Confidence, in Goode’s taxonomy. I suppose this is when those “Judgement of Paris” type events are organized where you elevate your region to the same stage as Burgundy or Bordeaux.

The 1976 Paris tasting is credited with putting Napa on the world stage. If it worked for Napa, how can it fail for everyone else who tries it?

Real Confidence is Goode’s final stage and I am not sure exactly what he means by this but I know what I think it is. Know thyself. Make wines that are yours, not copies of others, that stand on their own, drawing on the practices and influences of others, but not imitating anyone else.

This is a pretty good description of how wine regions evolve, but the stages it proposes are not strictly limited to wine. I’ll bet most artists and musicians go through phases like this before they gain (if they do) the confidence to be themselves. Mozart may have been born a mature musical genius, but the rest of us have to thrash around as best we can until we figure it out.

Significantly, there isn’t a “take off” stage here, which I think is probably a good thing because it avoids the signature varietal dead end and other false trails. Goode’s analysis doesn’t provide much of a road map for an emerging wine region to use to plot their course, only to evaluate where they have been. But then Rostow showed us that road maps can lead to the wrong destination if the terrain has shifted, so maybe this invitation to self-analysis is as good as it gets.

Confidence Game

The stages of growth idea came up again during the Q&A session. You’ve visited British Columbia several times. Where are we in your theory? Which stage of growth best describes us?

Goode thought about this a bit. Between 4 and 5, he said. Between Over-Confidence and Real Confidence. Interesting! That made me stop and think, too. Sue and I have been to the BC wine country many times over the years. Where does the region stand today? Come back next week to find out the answer.

Wine Book Review: Ian D’Agata on Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs

Ian D’Agata, Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs. University of California Press, 2019.dagata

Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs is Ian D’Agata’s sequel to his fascinating 2014 book on the Native Wine Grapes of Italy. (Here’s a link to that book’s Wine Economist review).

D’Agata’s 2014 book was all about balancing breadth and depth by … providing both. He wanted to tell you as much as possible about as many of Italy’s native grape varieties as he could. This is an almost impossible task because of Italy’s vast wealth of indigenous grapes, but he pulled it off. What knowledge! That book sits on my bookshelf in a place of honor.

Aglianico to Zibibbo

Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs takes the next logical step and will appeal to readers like me who enjoy a deep dive into the world of Italian wine. The most important native Italian wine grapes from A (Aglianico) to Z (Zibibbo, better known as Moscato di Alessandria) and their regional and local terroirs are analyzed in detail.

Some grapes get a lot of space (Sangiovese of course) and others only a couple of pages (Pecoriino), but the entries are uniformly readable, informative, and interesting. I learned something new on every page.

Understanding Vermentino 

Sue and I recently visited Sardinia and Friuli and I wish this book had been available to help us prepare. The entry on Vermentino tells me all about the grape, of course, and about the important differences in terroir between the Vermentino di Sardinia and Vermentino di Gallura.

Then D’Agata dives deeper, explaining why a few extra days on the vine makes a big difference in the character of the Gallura wines. We tasted the difference when we visited Vigne Surrau in May and now I understand where it came from and can appreciate better its importance. It’s a detail that increases understanding and makes a difference.

There are no real tasting notes here, but each chapter includes a short list of “Benchmark Wines” that would be a great checklist for anyone studying a particular region and its wines or to add to a serious wine tourist’s agenda.

Friuli U-Turn

I was particularly interested in the entries for Friulian native wine grapes. These wines are favorites of ours because they are so delicious and distinctive.  We have just returned from this region, but now I want to turn around and go right back because D’Agata has given me so many more questions to examine, nuances to explore, and wines to taste.

D’Agata helps me appreciate that the Italian north-east is a treasure house of native wine grapes and wonderful wines. It is a region that  deserves more attention that it currently gets. D’Agata is clearly enthusiastic about this region, too. It is his terroir — the area where he spent summers growing up and to which he returns frequently.

Bravo. But …

I am grateful to the University of California Press for making these books available. Wine book publishing (along with print publishing more generally) is not especially a growth industry — a fact that my wine writer friends sadly note. Opportunities to publish fine books like this one are not abundant and UC Press has done a good job here. Bravo! And thanks.

But … while I appreciate that UC Press is keeping the lights on and making fine works like D’Agata’s books available, I wish they’d find a way to price them more like trade books than academic books, so that they can reach a wider audience.

Highly recommended.

Six Things to Do With Surplus Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes

cabThe wine grape harvest is just around the corner in California and Washington State and, while that’s a great time of the year, it will present economic challenges to some winegrowers. There’s going to be an awful lot of Cabernet Sauvignon harvested this year. Most of these grapes are contracted, but some will be looking for buyers and it might not be so easy.

Cabernet has been the top choice for new plantings for the last several years and it is easy to understand why. It is a noble grape and can make terrific wine. Consumers love it, so growers have responded enthusiastically. The problem, as has been noted here before, is that wine demand generally has slackened just as new supply is reaching the market. For a few years at least there is likely to be a surplus of Cabernet Sauvignon in many regions.

In fact, the surplus is already here, or at least that’s how I read the recent reports from Turrentine Brokerage. Turrentine data show the highest level of Cabernet on the bulk market for many years. Add the 2019 harvest to the current market and you have a problem — not for everyone, but for those who are left with unsold grapes or wine.

Econ 101 Meets Yao Ming

What do you do when you have too much Cabernet? Econ 101 suggests price adjustment — cheaper grapes, cheaper wine, and so on. But there are limits to this strategy, especially since the lower price tiers of the retail market are in decline.

Export sales are another Econ 101 solution and certainly there is an opportunity here, especially if President Trump succeeds in talking the dollar’s exchange value down. But the president’s trade wars have had an offsetting impact on wine exports.

Countries that compete with us in the export markets, notably Australia and Chile, have aggressively sought out free trade agreements to boost sales. The U.S. has recently taken the opposite strategy. U.S. wines are therefore a tough sale today in many export markets including especially China, where Australian and Chilean wines find great success.

Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball legend, has trouble selling his signature Napa Cab back home because of 93% tariffs imposed in response to the Trump administration’s policies. If Yao can’t sell Cab in China, there is not much hope for the rest of us. Export markets are unlikely to absorb very much of the surplus Cab. Other options?

Searching for alternatives, I consulted the most recent Nielsen market figures in the current issue of Wine Business Monthly and found a few ideas to consider if you find yourself holding excess Cabernet this year.

#6 Two Words: Red Blends

Red blends are a useful market category because you can blend away unfashionable or surplus grape varieties without consumers necessarily noticing what’s up. Syrah and Merlot are not as popular as they once were as varietal wines, for example, but blend them together, call the result a Red Blend, and consumers snap them up. Cabernet blends would be very competitive at the right price. This market segment is fairly large but, unfortunately according to the Nielsen data, its growth has stalled a bit this year. That means we need to think about …

#5 Three Words: Sweet Red Blends

See “Red Blends” above but add some residual sugar.  I don’t have a lot of personal experience with these wines, but I see them everywhere. 19 Crimes, which tastes sweet to me, has a successful varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, so this is not uncharted territory. Even better, why not try …

#4 Rosé of Cabernet

Rosé is the fastest growing market segment in the Nielsen table. A lot of that Rosé comes from France, to be sure, but the market is large and fluid.  Picked at the right time, Cabernet makes a nice Rosé and in fact there are a great many produced both here in the U.S. and around the world.

As I noted here earlier this year, there are tricks to the Rosé trade to consider. Rosé is not that easy to make, since color is a concern, and can be tricky to sell because consumers prefer the most recent vintage and demand seasonality is a factor, too. If you like the idea of Rosé of Cabernet, then I think you will also like …

#3 Sparkling Rosé of Cabernet 

Take two fast-growing categories — sparkling and Rosé — make the wines from Cabernet  and you are ready to go. The only thing that could be better is …

#2 Canned Sparkling Rosé of Cabernet 

… because canned wine is also a thing (watch for a report here in the near future) and it is growing fast. Have you seen all the new canned wine displays in the supermarkets? Don’t dismiss canned wine too quickly.

Canned sparkling Rosé of Cabernet leverages three hot trends to use up your excess Cab. It is a perfect storm of wine. What could be better? And while you have the mobile canning equipment hooked up, you might consider …

#1 Canned Sparkling Cabernet + Black Currant Spritz

Seriously!

I am paying more attention to the canned wine displays and one thing I note is that canned wine spritz is generally right beside the other canned wines. These seem generally to be mixtures of wine, fruit flavors, and carbonated water. They sound refreshing and they have less than half the alcohol of regular wine. A Cabernet and Black Currant spritz sounds drinkable to me on a hot day, but you might prefer blackberry or some other fruit flavor.

Since the consumer segment that is interested in low alcohol products is growing, I can see how this trend might persist.  Something to consider.

Seems Like a Stretch?

Bottom line. The U.S. industry is going to need to find uses for its  excess Cabernet Sauvignon if the potential surplus materializes. These examples are ways to take advantage of the small number of growing wine market segments. If it seems like getting Cab products into these segments is a stretch, then it shows how much more pressure there will be on the traditional product markets.

I hope the market can absorb all the Cabernet that’s coming its way. Fingers crossed.