Two recent developments make this newsworthy: First, a blog post by British wine writer Jamie Good, noting that he comes “across people trying to control the media all the time. … Many companies clearly have a policy that no communication is released to journalists without being manicured and censored by the comms people.”
The second came during an interview with Mark Feldman, the co-author of “Grape-a-hol: How Big Business is Subverting Artisan Winemaking and the Future of Fine Wine.” The book pulls no punches, describing the wine made by the world’s biggest wine companies – the wine that most of us drink – as little better than bathtub swill.
It’s an intriguing thesis, but one very few people have heard about. Feldman says that’s because many of the writers he approached to review the book were afraid to. They told him they agreed with what Feldman and Michael Spratt wrote, but didn’t want to offend the wine companies that the book criticizes. The writers relied on those companies for samples, interview access, consulting jobs, and the like, they told him; hence, no review.
More, after the jump:
Feldman’s story did surprise me. The book’s thesis, though hard-hitting, isn’t a revelation. The increasingly popularity of mass-produced wine is one reason why we have natural wine, and why every sample and news release I get from a winery that isn’t a multi-national uses the adjective artisan to describe its product, even if they aren't especally artisan. The backlash against these kinds of wines is not new, even if “Grape-a-hol” is. Besides, why would anyone think that companies with billions and billions of dollars of revenue would care about what someone like me wrote in a book review?
But, apparently, they do. The wine business, though huge and worldwide in scope, is still very incestuous. And that means that the people involved often take criticism personally, with all of the consequences that entails (even without approving quotes). Call my grocery store wine crappy, huh? See if I ever speak to you again.
Having said that, it doesn’t excuse people from not reviewing the book for those reasons. If you don’t do book reviews, that’s one thing. But we have an obligation to write about the world, and not the world that we want.
“Grape-a-hol” describes the real world. Mike Veseth at The Wine Economist, apparently one of the few people to review it, wrote “I was prepared not to like this book because of the in-your-face (Big Business Subverts!) attitude of the subtitle. But it won me over.”
Because the authors, who own artisanal New Zealand winery Destiny Bay, make many valid points. Much industrial wine is little better than grape juice, and too many of the companies that make it are cynical at best and hypocrites at worst. See so many of the new sweet red wines. Consolidation, especially among distributors, reduces consumer choice and may well decrease quality, since big distributors want wines that sell – which may not be the same thing as quality wines.
What Feldman and Spratt overlook is that price is not the dividing line it once was. They argue that cheap wine is only good for getting drunk, and don’t realize how much cheap wine has improved in the past two decades. Not all cheap wine tastes like $10 Central Coast merlot with a cute label, and a lot of $50 wine made by small producers chasing scores isn’t much better.
The other question that goes unanswered: What do those of us drink who can’t afford $25 or more for a bottle? Do we give up wine? Do we cut back from drinking every day to two or three times a week? How does the industry attract new wine drinkers without an entry-priced product?
That's what everyone who didn’t review the book could have asked.