Wine Wars: Curses, Miracles, and Revenge

Wine Wars 2011: the first books arrive.

As I explained in last week’s Wine Economist column, this is the tenth anniversary of the publication of my first book on the wine business, Wine Wars. Although the catchy title (suggested by the smart marketing people at Rowman & Littlefield) gets your attention, it is the long subtitle that outlines the book’s argument. This is a story of “the Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists.”

Here is a quick sketch of the book’s argument. I’ll return next week with thoughts about how things have changed (and how the argument has held  up) in the decade since publication.

Curse of the Blue Nun

Blue Nun was arguably the world’s first global wine brand, so it represents the argument that globalization has been a powerful force in the wine world. What’s the curse? Well Blue Nun began as a very high quality German wine but, as it and other wines like it became more successful, eventually quality suffered. Blue Nun continued to sell, but it wasn’t the same. The curse of globalization is therefore that success on the global market can be double-edged, both creating and destroying.

Globalization has brought a world of wines to our door, which is also good and bad. This is the paradox of choice. No choice is bad. It is like the old Soviet joke where everything is either mandatory or forbidden. But too much choice is bad, too, and can be a particular problem for wine. It is not unusual for upscale supermarkets to have more than 1000 different wines on the shelf at prices ranging from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. Wow! Not always easy to make sense of such an over-whelming selection.

Miracle of Two Buck Chuck

One way that many consumers react to this, the most confusing aisle in the store, is to confuse price with quality. Cheap wines must be bad. Expensive ones must be good. Clever marketers take advantage of this misconception in all sorts of ways that I discussed in the book. Hence the miracle of Two Buck Chuck. For many years Trader Joe’s stories in the U.S. sold a wine called Charles Shaw for $1.99 (do you see the two buck Chuck in that)? And millions of people who might otherwise have drifted away from the wine wall bought it and enjoyed it. TBC is an important element of the democratization of wine in America.

People think the miracle of Two Buck Chuck is its price, but let me assure you that you can make and sell a wine for $2 if you want to. In Europe I saw a wine that was one euro for a liter in tetra-pack carton. That’s equivalent to one buck Chuck! No the miracle is that consumers would buy it despite its bottom shelf price. They bought TBC because they trusted Trader Joe’s to sell good value products and then, having tried it, they trusted  Two Buck Chuck to deliver consistently. Trader Joe’s and the Bronco Wine Company that makes TBC created a powerful brand that has sold millions and millions of bottles.

Commercial brands are one way to help consumers break out of the paradox of choice by economizing on trust. You don’t have to trust the grape variety or the appellation or the vintage year. You only have to trust the brand. That simplifies things for sure. But there’s a risk. Albert Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. And that’s true of wine, too. If branding and commoditization simply wine too much and undermine its quality, then the miracle can quickly become a curse!

Revenge of the Terroirists

What is there to keep wine from becoming just another branded commodity? I am an optimist, so I proposed a counter-force that I called the revenge of the terroirists. This term, taken from the French terroir, has caused a little confusion over the years. I am sure that Wine Economist readers know what I mean, but auto-spell programs always try to correct it and there was even one case where a gentleman came to one of my talks thinking that I was speaking about terrorists and wine. Terroir. Terror. Hmmmm. Easy to see how that could happen.

In fact, some terroirists back then were terrorists, or at least they used terrorist tactics to oppose the incursion of industrial wine into the south of France. But I wasn’t counting on violence to hold back the commodification tide. No, I put my money on the dedicated few who opposed industrial wines the same way that the Slow Food movement (which I wrote about in my Globaloney books) opposes industrial food — by fostering an alternative rooted in and celebrating tradition but using the best appropriate modern practices.

Would the terroirist resistance endure? It wasn’t a sure thing then (or now either, I suppose) but I was cautiously optimistic. As the last line of the book says, I still have grape expectations.

A Trip to Napa Valley

Each of Wine Wars’s three sections ends with an invitation to taste some wines that illustrate the relevant part of the argument. The final tasting re-creates a trip that Sue and I took just as work on the book was coming to an end. We were in California for a meeting of academic wine economists at the University of California at Davis. We skipped the sessions one afternoon and drove to Napa Valley. We made three stops: a small family winery, a larger and more famous firm — Frog’s Leap — whose winemaker John Williams is world-famous for his terroirist work. We ended the day at the Robert Mondavi Winery where our academic colleagues had gathered for the conference closing banquet.

Frog’s Leap is still going strong, principles in-tact, with the next generation hard at work. That small family winery no longer exists. The wine business is hard and every year new wineries spring up while old wineries quietly fade away. Robert Mondavi is still there, of course, but it is no longer owned by the Mondavi family. They incorporated their winery in order to get resources for new projects and then lost control of it. Constellation Brands is the owner now.

The China Syndrome

The penultimate chapter of Wine Wars is called The China Syndrome and it provides an interesting perspective on how much things have changed in just ten years.  China was best known in the wine world back then as place to sell Bordeaux wines, both the iconic first growths but also lesser wines, even from questionable vintages. The Chinese couldn’t get enough Bordeaux.

Submerged under that sea of Bordeaux, however, was a growing Chinese wine industry — that’s what caught my eye. I reported on my first taste of a Chinese wine and it wasn’t very pleasant. Ashtray, coffee grounds, a whiff of urinal crust. Ugh! Bad Chinese wine was very bad indeed, as bad wine is everywhere.

But I also reported on a much different experience — a bottle of Grace Vineyards Cabernet Franc that we shared at an Open That Bottle Night dinner. Very nice indeed and it made me wonder where Chinese wine was headed (a question that continues to interest me — I’ve written  about China in each of the subsequent wine books). Not good vs bad — I was pretty sure that better wine would rise to the top. No I wondered if Chinese wine would try to copy-cat the French as wine has done in so many other places. Or would the wine industry there develop in a way that reflects its particular terroir — wine with particular Chinese characteristics?

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I do think that the overall argument of Wine Wars has help up pretty well, which is a bit of a surprise given how much has changed. What would I change if I were writing it again now? Come back next week to find out.

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