“Around the World in 80 Wines” Russian Translation

russian80I was pleased to receive a package in the mail with several copies of a book that I know very well, but cannot actually read.

It’s called “Вокруг света за 80 бутылок вина.” It is the new Russian translation of my book Around the World in 80 Wines!

Cool cover, don’t you think? And everyone knows you really can judge a book by its cover! My Russian publisher’s website has more about the book, including an opportunity to browse through some of the pages, download an excerpt, and purchase either the physical or electronic edition.

Even if, like me, you don’t read Russian I think you will enjoy the clever design of the book with its many maps, wine glass circles, and random drops and splotches. What fun!

russmapI’d like to thank EKSMO Publishing House for doing such a fine job with this book and my colleagues at Rowman & Littlefield for facilitating the project.

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Our cat Mooch has been browsing the new book between naps!

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Wine Book Review: Redrawing the World Wine Map

atlasHugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine 8th edition. Mitchell Beazley, 2019.

The notion that we must redraw the world wine map comes up a lot. Climate change is redrawing the map — you’ve heard this before, haven’t you? And I’ve written about how globalization is redrawing the world wine map. And money — changing consumer patterns across the globe and among generations — is changing things, too.

The Great Convergence

The idea that we must redraw the wine map is easy to talk about, but actually doing it turns out to be devilishly difficult. But that’s the task that Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, and their team of expert collaborators set for themselves in the revisions that produced this 8th edition of The World Atlas of Wine. It’s quite an achievement.

Robinson discusses the challenge in her introduction to the weighty volume. A couple of decades ago it seemed like wine was on the path to global homogenization, she writes, with wine production everywhere converging on a few marketable varieties and even fewer popular styles. I think the rise of efficient international bulk wine transport put a premium on sameness — more market opportunities if your Chilean wine can seamlessly substitute for California or Australia juice.

Cool is Hot

I won’t say that the convergence has stopped, but there’s been a reaction to it that focuses on differences and highlights indigenous grape varieties and traditional wine-making styles. Climate change and scientific research have altered wine’s physical domain, pushing grapevines into unexpected places. Tasmania and England are hot, attracting lots of attention and investment, precisely because they are cool — cool-climate, that is.

It might once have been possible to think about wine in terms of old world and new world, but today’s map is more of a tapestry, with global elements interwoven with exciting local developments. How can this dynamic be captured in a wine atlas? There are a couple of obvious approaches and I think Johnson and Robinson have chosen the best and most difficult one for this book.

The Great Revision

So how do you redraw a world wine atlas? One approach I have seen to updating a big book makes heavy use of text boxes and call-outs. The bulk of the text gets a once-over-lightly revision, while the new material is patched into using the boxes. This makes the new material easy to spot and updating the book the next time is basically updating the boxes. This saves time and money, but the result is necessarily uneven if only because some topics need a lot of updating and others less so, but the editorial format often calls for equal numbers of box opportunities.

Much harder to do — so hard with a 400+ page book that it is almost crazy — is to rewrite everything taking the dynamic elements fully into account. That, of course, is what we have in this 8th edition. The changes are not always obvious because they have been seamlessly integrated, but they are there on every page.

Literally Redrawing the Map

Inevitably, this process means that the maps at the core of any atlas have to change. All 230 of them (!) have been updated as necessary and 20 new maps drawn (plus new 3-D maps and soil maps). Seven regions get their own entries for the first time: Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, British Columbia, St. Helena (Napa Valley), Brazil, and Uruguay. 

You might think the challenge of a 416-page atlas is to fill the space, but the reality is just the opposite. There’s an emphasis of economy and selectivity throughout. Each entry is a delicate balance of breadth versus depth and, while those with specialized interests may be frustrated, I think on the whole it works pretty well. That said, I’d love to see even more detail about China (which was allocated an addition page in this revision), since the wine world’s center of gravity is slowly shifting in that direction.

Bottom Line

The new 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine is a great achievement. Highly recommended.

Wine Book Review: Jonathan Nossiter’s Natural Wine Manifesto

insurrectionJonathan Nossiter, Cultural Insurrection: A Manifesto for Arts, Agriculture, and Natural Wine. Other Press, 2019 (previously published in French as Insurrections Culturelle by Éditions Stock, Paris, 2015).

I learned about Jonathan Nossiter’s new book just as I was writing about wine’s tribes and the group that I have dubbed the Naturalists and the Natural Wine movement they represent.

A few clicks and a few days later, Cultural Insurrection arrived and I want to review it here not so much as representative of the views of Naturalists in general, but as a personal “manifesto” of a noteworthy figure in the world of wine.

Its a Wine World After All

I know Nossiter’s previous wine works pretty well. He is the director of the 2004 film Mondovino, which I wrote about in Wine Wars and used to good effect in my university class on “The Idea of Wine.” Mondovino was a manifesto of sorts, too. It opposed commercialization and globalization and cleverly used wine to engage emotionally an audience that might not otherwise want to think about these big things.  Nossiter is also the author of a 2009 wine book titled Liquid Memories. You can ready my review here.

Cultural Insurrection is at its core a celebration of the natural wine movement and a critique of commercialization and globalization, but that fact isn’t always obvious. Early chapters analyze ancient Greek theater (Nossiter majored in Ancient Greek, he tells us), film directors and their films, the power and abuses of finance, and the power and abuses of agricultural chemical businesses. We are teased by promises of natural wine while these varied and weighty packages are unwrapped.

Puzzled, I jumped to the back of the book where I found appendices that list the films cited in the text and the directors cited in the text, but not the natural wines and their makers. So it is perhaps natural to wonder what the book is really about?

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Natural Wine?

The key, which I initially overlooked, is in the Preface where Nossiter asks us to consider natural wine as a radical metaphor for culture, art, and politics.  Culture, art, and politics are all corrupted by money and greed, a fact that he tells us is shockingly apparently in agriculture (the original culture, we are reminded). So what we are talking about when we talk about wine is not just wine. It is, well, everything. Or at least everything that really matters.

Natural wine in this context is a reaction to the social, cultural, and economic issues just cited. It is, Nossiter says several times a concrete action in opposition to a corrupt system. This statement made me think how how the natural wine movement compares with the Slow Food movement, which I wrote about in my book Globaloney 2.0. Both movements are global and oppose commercialization and commodification by presenting attractive and viable alternatives.  Wine is part of the Slow Food universe, of course — there is such a thing as Slow Wine — but not all Slow Wines would make the natural wine cut.

An important similarity is that both Slow Food and natural wine rely upon global networks to cultivate local products. The Slow Food movement aims actively to harness a global market network to oppose the abuses of global markets, which is clever indeed. Nosssiter’s idea of natural wine relies upon global networks, too, but he is uncomfortable with the role of markets despite their power to spread both natural wines and the manifesto globally.

What Makes Wine Natural?

What does it take for a wine to be natural in Nossiter’s manifesto? At one point he seems to give us a production checklist. Natural yeast — check. Left to ferment naturally — check. With no chemical additives such as sulfur — check. Winegrowing should be natural, too, of course, but exactly how is complicated. Check.

These criteria are necessary but not sufficient, however. Nossiter eventually rejects the idea that there is any sort of checklist that determines that a wine natural.  Natural wine is cultural more than technical, produced by families, in relatively small quantities, with little concern for profits. Natural wine, in other words, is what natural wine producers make. This might sound circular, but in fact I think it applies pretty well in this case. Natural wine, like terroir, may be vague in the details, at least in Nossiter’s analysis, but you will know it when you see it or meet the producer.

Tribal Rivalry

I bought Nossiter’s book looking for a personal perspective on natural wine and I got that and a lot more. I was also looking for an understanding about why the tensions between natural wine’s tribe and the rest of the wine world are so intense.  I don’t claim to have found this just because I’m not sure every natural wine proponent would endorse all of Nossiter’s manifesto.

But there is this. Clearly Nossiter rejects wine that isn’t natural by his standards, and so he dismisses the work of a lot of people who might not like to see themselves thrown in a pile that includes the worst capitalist and agrichemical abuses. He is, in a way, like some critics who dismiss natural wines generally on the basis of one or two badly flawed examples that seem to use philosophy was an excuse for poor winemaking. Easy to see how terroirists and naturalists could back each other into corners. Too bad.

More Interesting Than Delicious

So what about the book? I’d say it is more interesting than delicious, which is the way I have described some wines. The mixture of the cinema, global finance, argi-chemicals, and wine doesn’t always work for me. And I still don’t understand the relevance Nossiter’s longish digression on the difficulty of “dolly shots” in film-making. Maybe I need to read that part again.

But I think it may be wrong to read Cultural Insurrection as a book like I did. Try to experience it as a film instead — which will require some imagination and maybe a dolly shot or two. Nossiter’s famous film  Mondovino shifted around in the same way as this book. Some of my students found Mondo to be disorienting, but others went along for the ride, picking out the messages that resonated with them.

Experience the book in this way and you will certainly feel Nossiter’s anger and his yearning. And you’ll appreciate his cautiously optimistic conclusion. Glass half full? I’ll drink to that.

Terroirists vs Naturalists: Tribal Wine Wars

terroirWine has many tribes — you probably belong to one of them. Last week I wrote about the Martians, who are interested in only the best in wine and are often disappointed with what they find, and the Wagnerians, who promote a more democratic “everyday wine” vision.  They are often disappointed, too, but in different ways. You can read more about these tribes here.

Land versus Brand

I don’t really understand why the Martians and Wagnerians can’t find common ground (Oregon’s A to Z winery says that it offers “Aristocratic wines at Democratic prices”), but the tension endures, which is how tribes work I guess. There are two more tribes that we need to discuss that, on the face of it have so much in common that they might be cousins, but that also have that tribal feeling. They are the Terroirists and the Naturalists.

I wrote about the Terroirists in my book Wine Wars. Terroirists are all about wines of place — they are protagonists in the Land versus Brand battle for the soul of wine that colors much of my analysis. Terroirists can go to shockingly unnecessary extremes to defend their turf as some French terrorist terroirists demonstrated when they sabotaged wine tanks full of cheap Spanish bulk imports. But this is the exception.

I have to admit that, even though I appreciate how important brands are in today’s crowded market, I identify pretty closely with the terroirist tribe. I look for local and single-vineyard wines, I get excited about field blends and old vines, and I seek out wines made from native and threatened grape varieties. My idea of a great day in the Napa Valley takes me to places like Tres Sabores and Robert Biale winery where other terroirists hang out. Think global but drink local — that’s a rule that I try to follow as much as possible.

The Naturals

I have friends (you know who you are) who belong to a different tribe that I guess I will call the naturalists. Their idea of wine seems to be less about where the wine comes from than how it is made. They want wines that are as close to nature as can be, with as little manipulation as possible and often, at least for the white wines, with a lot of skin contact. They hang out in natural wine bars or attend events like RAW wine, where they can contemplate natural wines from all around the world.

Sue and I have had several very positive experiences with natural wine, so I have never thought of terrorists and naturalists as opposing forces. We are big fans of Chateau Musar, for example, one of the early champions of the natural wine movement. And our visit to Georgia, the cradle of wine, exposed us some of the most natural — and quite delicious — wines on earth.

The natural wines we have tried varied, of course, but that’s true of wine generally. Some were more interesting than delicious. We were done with others after the first sip. Meh. The nature of their production didn’t overcome the problems we had with what we found in the glass.

Most of the natural wine makers we’ve encountered have been terrific, too, although I admit we met a couple of naturalists who went a bit over the top. One winemaker, for example, tried (unsuccessfully) to convince us that a “mousey” characteristic is a feature not a flaw. I checked Jamie Goode’s book Flawless and, sure enough, he says it’s a flaw. “Always bad,” according to Dr. Goode. I agree.

Wines of Place or of Style?

Both terroirists and naturalists are attracted to nature, so it seems that they should be allies in the wine wars. But the particular ideas of nature when it comes to wine don’t always match, so there is a tension. I didn’t really appreciate this until we were invited to seminar and tasting of natural wines and a question came up about wines of place (terroirist wines) versus wines of style (a reference to naturalist wines).

“Is this a wine of style or a wine of place?” asked a panel member as he swirled one of the natural wines in his glass. “Definitely a wine of style,” the wine’s maker shot back without hesitation. He makes lovely terroir-driven wines that Sue and I admire a lot, but this wine wasn’t about the vineyard, it was about the cellar, the way it was made, and perhaps the philosophy behind that technique.

Jamie Goode, who was part of the panel discussion, tried to bridge the gap between place and style. Perhaps natural wines do tell a terroir story, he said, but we are just don’t understand it yet because natural wines are so different. Maybe we need more experience in order to pick out the place when the glass in front of us contains natural wine.

The Natural Divide

This is a very sensible perspective, and I look forward to doing some research, but sometimes sensible middle grounds get over-shadowed by tribal conflicts. Jancis Robinson wrote in a recent Financial Times column  about the extreme positions some natural wine proponents take and the extreme reactions to them. Real tribal stuff. It is easy to see how things could get out of hand.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that wine has become this way.  Politics has become more tribal and more confrontational, reflecting general social attitudes.  Wine was bound to become more divided, too.

So what’s the particular problem that divides the terroirists and the naturalists?I think it has partly to do with the word “natural,” which the naturalist wine tribe seems to have claimed (or, in some cases, been labeled with). Natural is a privileged word. To say that something is natural is a powerful statement. If something is natural you almost don’t have to argue its legitimacy. It is just there, like the natural rights cited in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. No wonder Enlightenment scholars claimed it to justify their claims.

Terrorists think they are making natural wine since they seek to draw out the nature of the place where the grapes were grown. Naturalists want more. Easy to see why there is tension, but the the differences seem to cut deeper. Come back in two weeks for a wine book review that might shed some light on this question.

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.

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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.