We Are All Terroirists Now

The third section of my book Wine Wars, which is celebrating its 10th birthday this  year, is called “the Revenge of the Terroirists.” As I explained in last week’s Wine Economist column, Wine Wars argues that globalization pushes the wine market forward, which is great, but one market reaction to this “creative destruction” is rationalization, which can be both good and bad.

What’s to keep wine from going off the rails and becoming just another branded consumer good? Well, it could easily happen and has happened in some cases, but I’m an optimist and, in Wine Wars, I argued that people who understand wine and appreciate what makes it different from commodity products would be a force strong enough to keep wine safe.

It’s a Wine World After All

I wasn’t the only person to see the wine market as this sort of conflict. Jonathan Nossiter’s  2004 film Mondovino took a decidedly less optimistic view of this battlefield. The forces of globalization and commodification (symbolized by the Mondavi family brand in this poster for the film), are determined and powerful. Can the first terroirist we meet in the film, Giovanni Battista Columbu, guardian of Malvasia di Bosa in Sardinia (shown here below the Mondavis) possibly stand in the way of the global market juggernaut?

If that’s the war — big vs little, money vs traditional values — then it would seem like the wine wars have already been lost. But that’s not necessarily how things have to work out.

Large wine businesses are not all the same. For one thing, only a surprisingly small proportion of wine business are public corporations with professional managements than have to answer to investors with constantly rising quarterly profits and share prices. As I have pointed out before, a great many wine businesses, even the largest of them (think Gallo!) are family firms that think in generational terms. This long term thinking doesn’t guarantee a terroirist attitude, but it at least sometimes points in that direction.

B Corps, Slow Wine

Indeed, a number of important wine businesses are benefit corporations (B-Corps for short). Oregon’s A to Z Wineworks was the first in this growing group and  Portugal’s Symington Family Estates one of the most internationally recognized. Fetzer, the California winery long known for its environmental focus, was the world’s  largest B Corp wine company … until last Friday! That’s when its parent company, Viña Concha y Toro, announced that all of its global operations had received B Corp certification. Amazing!

B Corps make no specific commitment to terroir, of course, which is natural since they can be found in all sorts of industries (the little coffee shop on the corner hereabouts is part of a B Corp operation). But the values that B Corps commit themselves to supporting are different from those of the stereotypical corporate behemoth.

I’m also encouraged by my study of the Slow Food movement. Founded in Italy but now spanning the globe, Slow Food is a grassroots counterpoint to industrial food and agriculture. It doesn’t confront global corporations directly by, for example, bombing McDonalds restaurants the way French anti-globalization protestors used to do. Slow Food instead works to identify products and practices of tradition and terroir and then seeks to promote and preserve them using the very tools of media and markets that we usually associate with industry. Slow Food uses the weapons of global capitalism against itself, an elegant irony, don’t you think?

Slow Wine is a thing, too,  and the guide to Slow Wine USA 2021 has just been released. You should check it out.

We Are All Terroirists Now

To paraphrase a comment attributed to both Milton Friedman and Richard Nixon (see note below), we are all terroirists now. Well, almost all or at least a lot more of us. The reason: climate change. Climate change is real and it is a crisis, even if we don’t treat it like a crisis (compare the reaction to the Covid global pandemic to climate change and you can see that climate isn’t given the same priority). Last year’s wildfires and this spring’s killer European frosts are reminders of the climate’s destructive volatility.

The wine business needs to take account of changing environmental conditions and, while this isn’t the same vision of terroirism that you see in Mondovino, it is a step in that direction.  More steps are needed, both to address the environmental risks and to secure the future of wine.

I’m trying to figure out where the natural wine movement fits into the revenge of the terroirists. Natural wine producers often fit the terroirist stereotype that Jonathan Nossiter established in Mondovino. In fact, Nossiter has written a book about them called Cultural Insurrection: A Manifesto for Arts, Agriculture, and Natural Wine.. Natural wine advocates in Nossiter’s telling of the story tend to define wine more narrowly than I do (something that I pointed out in reaction to Nossiter’s book), but they still contribute to the “revenge” I hope to see.

Not Exactly a Manifesto

Nossiter’s vision of wine sees a world of industrial wine versus natural wine and industrial wine needs to disappear because, well, it isn’t really wine at all. It’s just a toxic chemical concoction. A lot of people see wine in terms of a dichotomy — wine of the market versus wine of place, commercial wine versus fine wine, you get the idea. Generally they make this distinction in order to favor one type of wine — almost always the terroirist side of the equation.

My realist perspective is that there many types of wine, including high volume commercial  wines. They are all wine and each category fills a consumer niche. What is important to me is that the big doesn’t crowd out the small, that terroir wines and the terroir that produces them endures. And that consumers  understand the choices they make and their implications.

It’s a complicated situation, a fact easily illustrated by the case of Canadian billionaire Anthony von Mandl. Terroirist or not? You be the judge!

On one hand, von Mandl is the head of the company that makes Mike’s Hard Lemonade and White Claw hard seltzer. These terroir-free alco-pop beverages are insanely popular and my market research friends tell me that they are partly responsible for declining sales of inexpensive (and, it must be said, also relatively terroir-free) commodity wine.

On the other hand, however, von Mandl is the Robert Mondavi of the Okanagan Valley in Canada. He’s the founder of iconic Mission Hill Winery and, according to a recently VinePair report, is a driving force in British Columbia’s organic wine movement. Six wineries in von Mandl’s Mark Anthony Group are leading the charge, converting about 1300 acres to organic viticulture:  Mission Hill Family EstateCedarCreek Estate WineryRoad 13 VineyardsLiquidity WinesMartin’s Lane and Checkmate Artisanal Winery.

Do you appreciate irony here? White Claw money funding a terroirist revenge in the beautiful Okanagan Valley.

Whether  you think of terroirism as a broad phenomenon or a narrow reaction movement, I hope you can see its importance in the wine wars of today and the battles of tomorrow. Are we all really terroirists now? No, not really. But the I think the wine world has come a long way from the David versus Goliath world of Mondovino.

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“We are all Keynesians now” is the comment commonly attributed to Friedman and Nixon and if they were still alive they would probably repeat the saying again. I cannot think of any time in the past 40 years when fiscal policy has been more important.

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