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What Is Wine Politics?
The year 2005 was the best of times and the worst of times in Bordeaux. While some producers' wines fetched record prices, others went to the distillery to be turned into ethanol. The unusually dry summer gave way to sufficient rain to endow the vintage with a legendary quality. Château Haut-Brion, whose wines many critics called outstanding or perfect, priced its wine at $500 a bottle. Other châteaux doubled or tripled their prices from the previous year. Wine from Château Petrus, always among the costliest, sold for $2,000 a bottle—where it could be found. Retailers in London and Los Angeles could not get enough of it.
At the same time, however, many growers in the region were going out of business. In 2005, Bordeaux had about ten thousand wine-grape growers, roughly two and a half times the total in all of the United States. But that number was down from fifteen thousand a decade earlier. Producers of nondescript wine sold under the Bordeaux regional name could not sell their wine for consumption. Instead they sold 18 million liters of it to be distilled into ethanol for use as a fuel additive.
Granted, high oil prices have stimulated a search for alternative fuels. But wine? What had gone so terribly wrong that wine bearing the Bordeaux appellation—often viewed as synonymous with quality—was distilled so that cars could run on Cabernet? In a word, politics.
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Jeff Lefevere, a wine consumer in Indianapolis, loves Sonoma Zinfandel. Whenever they are in the area, Lefevere and his wife visit A. Rafanelli, their favorite winery in the Dry Creek Valley. They would love to purchase the hard-to-find wines directly from the winery. But the winery won't send them wine. Are they debtors? Or under twenty-one? No, the reason for their blacklisting is simple: it is a felony to ship wine to residents of Indiana.
American consumers can buy computers and clothes directly from producers, cutting out the middleman. But many wine consumers must live with distributor monopolies that restrict the range of wines available. Lefevere describes the challenge in Indianapolis: because consumers "can't join wine clubs, can't ship back from wineries, can't buy off the Internet, you can't get on boutique winery mailing lists like Rafanelli—you just can't get access to a lot of the good stuff." Why is it often easier in America to buy guns, cigarettes, and pornography than it is to buy serious wine from California? In a word, politics.
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In his home in Monkton, Maryland, Robert Parker swirls, spits, and scribbles. Although he grew up in dairy country in a household without wine, he is the world's most influential wine critic. His notes and scores can send the fortunes of wineries around the world soaring or plummeting. Parker has been called both the "emperor of wine" and the "dictator of taste."
Parker's influence is so great that many wineries have styled their wines into what he calls "hedonistic fruit bombs" simply to please his palate. Why does one man's palate decide the winners and losers in the world of wine? Why are consumers at risk of confronting a sea of undifferentiated wine? In a word, politics.
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Critics and commentators widely acknowledge the importance of the growing area and winemaking style in creating what ends up in the bottle. But, more than wine consumers realize, politics matters, too. Politics determines not only which grapes grow where, what can be written on the label, which wines are exported or imported, which wines are available in local stores, and how much a wine costs, but, perhaps most important, it also affects the quality of the wine in the bottle.
In this book I follow the travels that a bottle of wine takes from the vineyard to the dining-room table. Along the way it may encounter flying winemakers, humble vignerons, dull regulators, passionate activists, and powerful critics. I tell the neglected backstory of wine, which, as with Hollywood movies, can often be more interesting than the finished product.
While touching on issues as broad as dictatorship and democracy or international relations (the effects of showdowns in the United Nations, for example), battles over the politics of wine are more often fought on the ground—sometimes literally. Where are the lines of the best growing zones drawn? Will society stigmatize wine or praise it? How can consumers buy their favorite wines or discover new ones? Is a wine "made in the vineyard," as the industry likes to claim, or is it made in the lab and tested on focus groups for its consumer appeal? At stake in these battles are not only the livelihoods of those in the industry but also the prestige and the profits of an industry whose sales reach $25 billion in the United States alone.
Although the interplay between business and government affects winemaking and wine consuming everywhere, I focus on the two leading producer nations, France and the United States, and, within them, the prestigious regions of Bordeaux and Napa. As the leading producers of the Old World and the New World, respectively, these two countries and regions serve as models of their particular styles of wine production as well as of wine governance. The divergent paths they have taken hold lessons not only for each other but also for other countries and for consumers.
Both countries produce wines of outstanding quality. The notion that French wine is superior was effectively laid to rest thirty years ago, when American wines upstaged top French wines at a blind tasting in Paris. Since then, although their styles differ, both American wines and French wines have commanded stratospheric prices and received the highest scores from critics such as Robert Parker. But the trajectories of the two nations' wine industries have been dramatically different. In France, grapevines have occupied a natural place in the soil since before Roman times. Wine and France are symbolically intertwined, and that relationship transcends other social divisions. Wine was poured at Versailles as well as at peasants' tables. Americans, by contrast, have been trying to grow wine grapes for four hundred years and have only really succeeded in the past forty. And a widespread thirst for the fruits of the vine in the United States has developed only in the past fifteen years. American winemakers have had to overcome challenges from both soil and society. These legacies influence the wines we drink and will shape the future of the industry in both countries.
These separate paths are now converging. France, although still the world's most esteemed wine producer and its largest wine producer by value, has suffered setbacks. Exports have softened. Domestic sales have been crimped by the rise of antialcohol campaigns, which were a major obstacle to the development of quality wine in the United States in the early twentieth century. As a result, the French appellation system that governs the production of wine, including wines bound for the finest tables in the world as well as some of those now bound for the distillery, is being put under the microscope. At the same time America is on track to become the world's largest wine-consuming country in 2008, and wine is now being produced in all fifty states. And the notion of terroir, the French way of interpreting the characteristics of the growing area that lies at the very root of the appellation system, is being adopted and explored in the United States as well.
Looking at the two countries through the lens of the wine glass reveals paradoxes. We tend to think of France as a country whose economy is heavily regulated by the state, whereas the United States is the land of the free-market economy. Yet if that is the case, why does each of the fifty states have different rules for bringing in wine, as if each were a sovereign nation? The question is of particular importance for wine consumers outside California, where 90 percent of all American wine is made. It frustrates wine drinkers from Maryland to Montana who just want to be able to enjoy the wine of their choice. And why does France have strong and influential associations of wine producers, while in America they are weak? In his journey through mid-nineteenth-century America, Alexis de Tocqueville lavished praise on associational life in America while bemoaning the paucity of associations in his home country. Yet today, an abundance of French producers' associations may not be providing the vitality and social capital needed to improve quality sufficiently to enable their products to compete in a saturated global market for wine.
Will France be able to regain its lost luster? Are Americans doomed to drink standardized wine that is more expressive of the marketing department's recommendations than it is of the growing area? After reading this book, you may detect much more in a glass of wine than simply hints of blackberries, leather, or truffles on the palate; you will understand the convoluted path the wine took to reach you. This tale adds depth and complexity to every glass of wine by providing the story of who has tramped the grapes, both literally and metaphorically.
Chapter 2 traces the history of the wine industry in the United States and France, leading up to the crucial turning points in the 1930s that launched each country down its current path. Chapter 3 looks at the challenge of authenticating origins, the crisis facing the French wine industry, and the ways consumers may benefit from producers' pain. Chapter 4 examines the political foundation for the current laws on producing and selling alcohol in the United States as well as the changing pattern of alliances that sustains them, restricting the access of many American consumers to wines they want at prices they can afford. Chapter 5 considers questions of control: what are the effects of globally influential critics, flying winemakers, and new technologies? And what exerts the greatest influence in making the wine we find on retailers' shelves: the soil where it is grown, the winemaker, or a focus group? In a coda to the use of technology, chapter 6 looks at the increasing prevalence of "natural" winemaking, as many winemakers are turning over a new, greener leaf, prompted in part by environmental activists and in part by a blend of beliefs and marketing research. Understanding wine politics can bring the issues of yesterday and today into clearer focus and make for a more rewarding drink.CHAPTER 2
Soil and Society
Wines in France and America before 1935
France had a reputation for producing fine wines well before the modern period. Ships laden with the wines of Bordeaux were traveling to Britain, Holland, and beyond centuries before the formal classification system for French wines was established in 1855. Their fame extended to the Americas: while serving as ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson amassed a collection of French wines that he later shipped home. The challenge faced by French winemakers, then, was not how to make fine wines but rather how to maintain and protect their wines' reputation. The story of French wine from around 1850 to 1935 was one of boom and bust, brought on first by the development of the railroad and then by a phylloxera plague in the vineyards, fraud, and social upheaval. By the end of this period, the French wine market had split into two segments, a high end and a low end.
In America, by contrast, winemakers were struggling simply to produce acceptable wines. When Robert Mondavi opened his Napa Valley winery in 1966, he was in the vanguard of California winemakers seeking to produce world-class wines. American winemakers before them had battled with the natural environment, trying to coax suitable grapes to grow. When that battle was largely won, at least in California, they found themselves struggling against the powerful temperance movement over the place of alcohol in American popular culture. Without the advantages enjoyed by French producers—abundant wine-growing areas and a thirsty population—winemakers in America had a rocky start.
A CIVILIZATION OF WINEGROWERS
Wine has come to epitomize what is good and what is French. The tradition of growing and drinking wine has led to France's designation as "the oldest daughter of Bacchus." One French writer has observed that "Latin civilization is ... a civilization of winegrowers"; another notes that "the winegrowers are to French wine what the architects are to our Cathedrals." The French have almost always led the world in their per capita consumption of wine, which peaked in 1900 at one hundred liters per year. So essential was wine to daily life that during the First World War, French soldiers received a flagon of wine along with food and weapons as standard battlefield issue.
"What does being French mean to you?" queried a survey for the monthly L'Histoire in 1987. The reply "To like good wine" came in fourth after "To be born in France," "To defend liberties," and "To speak French." One commentator called wine "perhaps ... a foundational myth of the French nation. All in all, the map of wines of France is nothing other than our national map. Wine, in short, is an integral part of French civilization." Some have further argued that wine is a "civilizing" drink and that countries that make and enjoy wine are "civilized."
Wine also has links to Christianity, particularly Catholicism. Wine and vineyards, often representing prosperity, figure more frequently in the Bible than the milk and honey of the Promised Land. In Genesis, Noah plants vines after the flood. In the New Testament, Christ's first miracle is to turn water into wine at the marriage in Cana. Wine is an essential element of the Eucharist in the Catholic mass. In a more practical expression of this link, during the Middle Ages Benedictine monks in the Loire, Burgundy, and Champagne regions maintained some of the finest vineyards in Europe. Monks and missionaries setting out to evangelize the New World brought wine as well as the word of God: the Jesuits brought vines to Peru in the seventeenth century, and the Franciscans were instrumental in the introduction of vines to California in the eighteenth century. The connection with wine was not as strong in Protestantism, where wine and alcohol have met with a more ambivalent reception.
In France, the strong association with national identity and the church has given wine a cross-class appeal. Even so, different strata of society have had different consumption patterns. Wine did not become a drink of the urban working class until the second half of the nineteenth century, when national rail networks made transportation easier. Before that, wine was a popular local drink in wine regions but a sign of wealth and status in Paris or Versailles, because only premium wines were worth the effort and cost of transporting them. The symbolic importance of wine could be summed up, with apologies to Brillat-Savarin, in the expression "Tell me what you drink, and I will tell you who you are." Indeed, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted that knowing which wine to drink was a mark of distinction, showing whether the drinker had "luxury taste" or a "taste of necessity."
Consumption patterns also vary considerably among different regions of the country. People in the north tend to drink more cider and distilled spirits, whereas those in the south drink more wine. Alcoholism in France is more common in the north, correlating with the higher consumption of spirits. Distinctive local and regional traditions of winemaking have been kept alive by wine tourism as well as by a practice of buying locally.
Wine, with a history perhaps longer than that of either spirits or beer, is traditionally not enjoyed on its own in France, but instead is mostly served with food. The classic French meal includes both wine and meat. As such, wine is considered a drink of moderation and has not (until recently) been associated with alcohol abuse, as beer and particularly spirits have been. Patterns of consumption vary by gender: men drink more than women, and men engage in more binge drinking.
Despite high levels of consumption, the history of wine and distilled spirits in France has led to the view that "wine is not alcohol." In the nineteenth century, the word alcohol referred only to beverages made by distillation. The French word l'alcool refers to the chemical substance that all fermented and distilled beverages contain, including wine. Les alcools refers only to distilled beverages, which are seen as manufactured rather than naturally produced. Thus wine, and particularly good wine, is distinguished from alcohol, although, like other spirits, it contains ethyl alcohol. Compounding this distinction is the belief that wine is good for health, whereas les alcools are widely considered harmful and the cause of debilitating dependency. Both the teetotaler (le buveur d'eau, or water drinker) and the drunkard (le soûlard) have traditionally been criticized for their extreme habits: the wine drinker, meanwhile, has been praised as a model of moderation. Even into the twentieth century, doctors administered wine to their patients to fight alcoholism.
Excerpted from Wine Politics by Tyler Colman. Copyright © 2008 Tyler Colman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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1. What Is Wine Politics?
2. Soil and Society: Wine in France and America before 1935
3. Authenticating Origins: Appellations and Quality
4. Baptists and Bootleggers: The Strange Bedfellows of American Wine
5. Who Controls Your Palate?
6. Greens, Gripes, and Grapes
7. Celebrating Diversity