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unesco world heritage siteTwo news items from the last few days pose an important question: Is the wine quality we’ve achieved through modern technology worth the cost?

Over the weekend, UNESCO announced that the vineyard sites in Burgundy and Champagne were designated as World Heritage Sites, joining the vineyards of Austria’s Wachau, Italy’s Piedmont and Hungary’s Tokaj regions, as hollowed ground possessing great cultural value. This is a great honor for these storied wine regions but is also a sign that wine has gained the kind of cultural significance that great works of art or national monuments have.

Meanwhile, Constellation Brands, the wine conglomerate, has purchased Meiomi, a producer of bulk Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, for the astounding price of $315 million. Meiomi has no vineyards—they buy their grapes from growers all over California—so there is little real estate involved in the sale. Essentially what Constellation is buying is an established brand with loyal customers who repeatedly purchase a product because it meets their expectations. Those customers have no interest in where the wine comes from or whether it expresses the character of the vineyard site in which the grapes were grown.

But as wine writer Blake Gray points out, given the pressure of the bottom line and the demands for growth which Constellation will inevitably impose on Meiomi, more and more Pinot Noir will have to be harvested probably from vineyards that can’t grow good pinot. The result will likely be a drop in quality with flaws that can be masked by making sweeter wine with more technological manipulation.

Will Meiomi’s loyal customers notice? Probably not. When you drink a lot of supermarket wine you discover that the big differences are in the branding, not in the wine; one pretty much tastes like the other except for a few rare gems. What they share is a soft mouthfeel and the absence of anything that might stand out and offend someone’s expectations. They are flawless but boring and interchangeable except for the attractive label.

So these two events illustrate two quite different approaches to wine: one in which the characteristics of geographical location are revered, the other in which location is ignored. It is obvious wherein the quality resides.

Wine writer Dr. Vino hails both events as indicators of a healthy, balanced wine culture:

The rarified and the commoditized sectors of the wine industry need each other. One cannot exist without the other. If everyone was producing high-quality vin de terroir there wouldn’t be enough to go around. And if everyone just produced blended supermarket wines, then the wine industry would never have evolved.

At the end of the day, it’s not brand versus terroir. Life, and wine, are far more complicated than that.

There is some truth to this but I don’t share Dr. Vino’s sense of balance in the wine world. Granted, most of us can’t afford quality wine as a daily drink.  But it is not at all obvious that in order to have inexpensive, drinkable wine we must have a low quality, standardized commodity.

When travelling in Italy a few years ago I was struck by how each village, indeed often each restaurant, had their own inexpensive table wine that was made locally and was quite different from the wine down the road. (The French call such wine vin ordinaire). Some of it was quite good and invariably worked with the local foods. Europe has long had distinctive wines that reflect their local regions that are nevertheless inexpensive. If they can make wines with geographical distinction inexpensively why can’t we?

The big difference is that while many of these tables wines are delicious, in bad vintages, wine quality suffered and the quality variations between bottles and barrels are substantial. Through modern winemaking methods we have made cheap wine more consistent and through efficient marketing and distribution accessible to a mass market. The brands that have capitalized on this have profited greatly. But at the cost of creating a  boring, standardized product that has no connection to place or the people who make it.

We’ve eliminated the flaws, in the name of profit and growth, but in return we have lost character. Is the tradeoff worth it? Isn’t it time to ask whether further industry consolidation is really serving consumers or investors?

Mass produced commodities don’t always give people what they want. They give people what they need and too many people lack the awareness to know the difference.

Forgive me if I don’t find these two events to be equally worthy of celebration.

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