In the wine business, history repeats itself – and we know what premiumization, overpriced wine, and consolidation mean for consumers
Premiumization, overpriced wine, and consolidation are nothing new in the wine business. Go back 80 years, and wine business history is eerily familiar. In this, some of the earliest and most influential wine critics, including Leon Adams and Frank Schoonmaker, warned the industry about the mistakes it was making.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t quote Winston Churchill here: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Schoonmaker was a wine importer and wine writer whose 1930s’ “The Complete Wine Book” might have been the first attempt to explain wine to the U.S. consumer. In 1947, in a piece for Gourmet magazine, Schoonmaker lamented what sounds a lot like what we’re seeing now:
And in the past five years we have hardly seen any real vin ordinaire (by which I mean a common, inexpensive table wine) sold in America. The humble gallon jug virtually disappeared in 1943 from our wine merchants’ shelves; instead, the undistinguished reds and whites from the mass production areas of California appeared in fancy dress at a fancy price, and elaborate advertising campaigns were launched to convince us that bottles which we used to buy reluctantly for 60 cents were suddenly worth $1.50 and were being sold us as a special favor.
In other words, $15 wine is the new $8 wine.
Adams was perhaps even more influential in his time (the end of Prohibition to the 1960s or so) than Robert Parker was in his heyday. He is usually given credit for pushing the California wine business into the 20th century; he advocated for regional wine long before there was much of it; he helped start the Wine Institute; and he wrote several of the most important wine books in U.S. history.
He also had no use for over-priced wine, and regularly urged California producers to make wine that most of us could afford:
They should be as cheap as milk. High price wines are not for daily consumption with meals. Real wine drinkers know this; most Americans still don’t.
How spooky is that quote, that it’s still so relevant today?
Adams also saw the dangers of too few wineries producing too much of the country’s wine, something he first warned about shortly after World War II. He explained this in a 1974 interview:
The point was mine, and I think it has stuck to this day, that the little wineries should be encouraged to exist. The larger the number of small wineries that operate in the United States, the safer the big wineries are from attack, legislative attack in particular. If the wine industry ever fell into the hands of only a few major factors, the wine industry and the whole cause of wine would be in trouble. It would be endangered. … The big wineries have never agreed with me about the need to foster the small wineries. … My purpose is to encourage the use of wine, to introduce the use of table wine, which local wineries can do. Moreover, it’s especially to the advantage of California to thus expand the wine market, because with the ideal grape-growing climate of this state, California wines will always be the best buys.”
I wonder: How many of the biggest California producers have ever read that?
Photo courtesy of Sedimentality blog using a Creative Commons license
This week’s wine news: Regional wine hits the mainstream again, plus the nutria may invade wine country, and wine’s role in the beginning of civilization
• Wine regions: One of the most important changes in wine has been the acceptance of local, which showed up again recently on a mainstream website called Culture CheatSheet. It lists 15 of what it calls “underrated” wine regions, and none of them are in California. But they are in New Mexico, Utah, and Iowa. “Many emerging wine countries have fewer crowds than Napa and more character than your average vacation spot,” it notes, and who am I to argue? If someone had told me, all those years ago, that our work with Drink Local would lead to this, I would have scoffed.
• Watch out for the nutria: Years ago, when I was a young newspaperman in south Louisiana, someone wanted to make a science fiction movie, “The attack of the nutria.” Turns out the guy’s idea could turn into a horror story for some in California’s wine country. The nutria, which is a rodent the size of a beaver, has taken up residence in the state’s San Joaquin Valley. And, as you probably have guessed by now, it tears up everything in its path. “Within five years, the state estimates there could be nearly a quarter million nutria chewing up California’s endangered wetlands,” reports the story. The good news is that the valley is nowhere near the state’s leading wine regions. The bad news is the nutria likes to travel. Young nutria are edible, and I have a couple of recopies from my Louisiana days if anyone in California interested.
• Wine and history: The author of a new book says wine was the “catalyst of the birth of Western civilization.” John Mahoney, in “Wine: The Source of Civilization,” suggests that at the end of the final Ice Age, humans got their first taste of wine in its crudest, natural form and were so taken with it that they gave up their nomadic lifestyle for farming. Recent analyses of Neolithic pottery dating to 6000 BC found residues of acids consistent with wine made from grapes.
A British study says we use bigger wine glasses than ever before – but do we know why we do?
A friend of mine is convinced that wine bottles hold less than they used to, insisting that she only gets two glasses from a bottle instead of the four or five of years past. It turns out my friend is onto something, though not quite in the way she thinks. It’s not that the bottles hold less, but that we’re using bigger wine glasses. Lots and lots bigger.
That’s the surprising result from a 2017 British study that found that wine glasses were one-sixth smaller in the 1700s and have gotten bigger since then. That means a full-to-the-rim glass 300 years ago was the equivalent of half a pour today – 2 ½ ounces vs. a typical 5-ounce glass of wine (or five glasses to a 750 ml bottle).
The study was conducted by health researchers and appeared in a British medical journal, so it focused on the effects of too much drinking. In this, say the authors, the evolution of bigger wine glasses might be related to alcoholism and binge drinking (the latter a particular problem in Britain). If the glass is bigger, aren’t we going to drink more?
The authors are careful not to go much further, emphasizing that “greater affordability, availability, and marketing of alcohol products, and more liberal licensing. …” has led to increased drinking in the last 75 years. We’d also have to know alcoholism rates starting in the 1700s, plus wine consumption (gin, in fact, was the British drink of choice in the late 17th and early 18th centuries). And then we would still need to figure out a way to correlate that data to begin to understand if there is a relationship between excess drinking and bigger wine glasses.
The missing link
I doubt that link exists, given the often astonishing levels of drinking in the pre-industrial West. What’s more interesting is why glass sizes increased, something else the study doesn’t do much with. One reason was technology – the development of lead crystal n the late 17th century made it possible to produce less fragile and larger glasses, while the discovery of the Pyrex process in the late 19th century made even bigger glasses common.
In addition, what’s the relationship between improved wine quality and larger glasses? Bigger glasses allow us to better appreciate the wine’s flavors and aromas. Who knew that was necessary – or even possible – given the poor quality of most wine until the beginning of the 20th century?
Finally, how could the authors overlook the role of capitalism, which not coincidentally took root in 18th century Britain? Perhaps the reason for bigger wine glasses is as simple as marketing. The rise of capitalism and industrialization meant there were more and more rich people who wanted to show off their new wealth, and what better way to do that than with fancy wines served in fancy glasses? Isn’t that one of the joys of capitalism? That someone will always be around to sell us things we don’t really need, and that especially applies to wine glasses.
Graphic courtesy of The Guardian, using a Creative Commons license
This week’s wine news: The history of wine may be older than we think, plus Alaska Airlines offers free wine shipping and Canadians enjoy bootlegged wine
• Very, very old: Scientists have discovered wine residue in clay pots more than 5,000 years old. If it is wine, will force archaeologists to reconsider how long we’ve been making and drinking wine. This discovery, in caves under the Monte Kronio volcano in Sicily (along with a similar find in the republic of Georgia), means wine use may be a couple of thousand years older than believed. Even more amazing, the wine in the caves may have been part of a complex system of international trade, bringing copper goods to Sicily in exchange for wine. And without the three-tier system, too.
• Free shipping: Who knew airline free wine shipping would be a draw? But Alaska Airlines thinks it is, part of their “Wine Flies Free” program. Those of us who travel to wine regions served by Alaska, which includes parts of California and the Pacific Northwest, can check a case of wine without paying the fee. You have to belong to the airline’s frequent flyer program, but that’s about the only condition save whether your state allows it.
• Not in my province: Canadians, who usually seem more sensible about these things, are embroiled in a trade war over wine and oil. The province of Alberta, which has the oil, wants to build a pipeline through neighboring British Columbia, which has the wine but doesn’t want the pipeline. The premier of Alberta has imposed an embargo on B.C. wine until the latter allows the pipeline. In other words, much U.S.-style foolishness – and even someone trying to make money off the embargo. The Calgary Herald reports that a luxury wine tour company, Butiq Escapes, is offering a “B.C. Wine Smuggling Escape for Albertans,” complete with private jet to fly you to B.C. wine country.
2,600-year-old inscription offers view of ancient Hebrew wine world without three-tier, wine scores, and restaurant markups
We tend to forget, given the foolishness that consumes the post-modern wine business, that wine is nothing new. I always tell my El Centro students that the French wine industry dates to the 12th century; one reason Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine was for her dowry, which included Bordeaux’s vineyards.
So I was both pleased and not surprised to see that Hebrew soldiers, stationed in a fortress in the ancient kingdom of Judah around 600 BC, included wine in a supply requisition. Researchers found the request on a pottery shard discovered in 1965, and used advances in imaging techniques to decipher what had not been legible for the past 52 years.
The supply request, addressed to a quartermaster, included information about paying for supplies, as well as making sure the soldiers had enough flour, oil, and wine. In other words, not that much different than one of today’s supermarkets ordering from its distributor.
The shard inscription, however, left several key questions unanswered:
• How did the wine trade survive without the three-tier system? Is this one explanation for the Babylonian conquest of Judah, which occurred around the time the inscription was written?
• How did the quartermaster determine wine quality? The deciphered inscription, just 17 words, doesn’t include wine scores or tasting notes. Again, was the failure to include these another key to Judah’s destruction?
• Also missing: any information about wine pricing and markups. Did the Judah military buy at wholesale, or was it forced to pay restaurant-style markups? If so, did the latter and its exorbitant costs bankrupt the military and lead to the country’s downfall?