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08.08.2006

Messages In a Bottle: The Coming Revolution

grapz.jpgThey say that bees and dogs can smell fear. Those with good noses in the wine world can smell it too; the ground that used to be so firm under our feet is starting to shift and shake. Like the enraptured leader of some doomsday cult predicting the coming apocalypse, I tell you truly: Look carefully, the signs of a wine revolution are all around us!

In the past few months, I've had a good Chenin Blanc from India and a nice Cabernet from China. The entry of these wines into the international scene is interesting enough for its proof of the broadening scope of decent winemaking around the world, not to mention the loosening of the grip that some American and Australian wine companies have on the market for low-budget wine. Its real significance, however, has to do with why someone has bothered to start making wine in either of these countries in the first place: In both China and India, wine consumption is comfortably growing at double digit percentages on a yearly or even bi-annual basis. The addition of even a fraction of their billions of legal-drinking-age consumers to the global wine market will be like dropping a garbage truck into a backyard pool.

The world will certainly need more wine consumers if France continues its dismal slide towards unprecedented low levels of wine consumption. Once the world leader in wine consumption, the French are by some measures drinking fifty percent less wine than they were in 1960. This in part has led the country nearly to the brink of a minor civil war between winegrowers (who are literally unable to feed their families anymore), the government (which doesn't have any good solutions to the problem), the national wine brokers (who have to lower the prices they pay for grapes in order to make a living), and the rich château owners of Bordeaux (who are currently getting mind-boggling sums for the excellent 2005 vintage). Bombs, Molotov cocktails, sabotage, arson and property defacement are increasingly common all over the country.

The buyers of those astronomically priced French First Growths make up the core of what we might call the "wine establishment." This block of collectors, experts and connoisseurs who have historically been a predictable, solid demographic of high-end consumption are no longer as predictable or reliable as they once were. For a long time they were content with their glossy wine magazines, happy with their online forums, faithful to their heralded critics, and willing to shell out the big bucks for the top wines of Bordeaux and California. None of these is completely true anymore. The glossy magazines are worried about retaining readership as blogs and other media outlets begin to siphon off their best customers. Several of the top online forums for wine lovers seem to be dissolving into factions that spend more time name calling than celebrating their shared community. Serious efforts to provide a democratic alternative to the scoring hegemony imposed by the major wine critics are gaining traction. And much to the amazement of the French, some people, including leading collectors, simply refuse to pay the outrageous prices asked for the top 2005 Bordeaux wines.

Of course, to speak about the wine establishment as a relatively solid, even fixed demographic is at best an oversimplification, and it obscures yet another sign of changing times. There certainly are a group of consumers, writers, critics and restaurateurs that represent the core of the wine industry. Yet every year more of the "old guard" is replaced by younger, newer consumers who might have the same financial means or level of passion, but have different expectations and attitudes about wine. Today, a thirty-four-year-old executive is buying the same high-end wines as a sixty-four-year-old one, but the ways they think about the wine, the information they have used to form their opinions and the triggers for their buying decisions are very different. While certainly not applicable to the higher end of the wine market, the influence that the movie Sideways had on wine purchasing patterns in the U.S. bears this argument out. Some of the people that dropped Merlot like a hot potato after seeing that movie are the future wine establishment, and anyone who thinks they will simply adopt the attitudes, buying habits, and reading habits of their parents has got a nasty surprise coming.

In addition to large demographic changes, hundreds of other small tremors are passing through the wine world with increasing frequency. The places and the ways that wine is made are changing rapidly. The growing biodynamic and organic movements show a shift towards a different type of viticulture that emphasizes sustainability and quality, and as we deal with the realities of rising temperatures nearly everywhere, good wine is getting easier to make in places like Bordeaux, and harder to make in places like Napa. In major American cities we are starting to see more wines not just from China and India, but from Croatia, Greece, Hungary, South America, Turkey and Romania, to name but a few countries that are appearing this week on wine lists near you.

So what? Change is happening. Change happens constantly, of course " one man's doomsday is another's minor speed bump. The difference between yet-another-in-a-series of evolutionary changes and a revolution might only be that the latter is championed by the voices of individuals as it happens. If that is true, then let these few paragraphs be a call to raise your voice and participate in a revolution, rather than just be an observer of change.

Ignore the glossy magazines! Read a wine blog! Drink what you like! Buy on the recommendation of someone you trust, not on some critic's double digit score! Try new varietals, new appellations, new countries! Treat wine like part of everyday life, not as a collectible luxury! Join me in celebrating as the brick walls of the old school crack and fall apart, to be replaced with something new.

Like many participants in revolutions over the years, we don't know for sure what the result will be. Perhaps we must simply believe in the virtue of change for its own sake. In the absence of certainty, but in a mood of optimism, we should all co-opt the attitude I saw on an old construction worker's bumper sticker years ago: "Everyone has to believe in something. I believe I'll have another glass of wine." Drink to the revolution!


This article originally appeared in The Gilded Fork.

Comments (17)

Josh wrote:
08.08.06 at 11:55 PM

Great article.

I'm surprised though. A night after having dinner with Eric Asimov I would have thought your views would have been skewed more francophilic and mainstream. ;)

Kudos!

David wrote:
08.09.06 at 6:18 AM

I read the article with curiosity. I am not sure that I have seen the same tendency on the Italian market.

With my very limited understanding of winemaking I do know that it will be many generations before new countries are able to produce a quality wine, the US still has a long way to go.

Does this mean that they will not sell alot of wine, no. Simply that over time quality wines will always win. Sideways is an example of US mentality, that is superficial, follow the fad, of the masses but I can assure you that there are many here who understand wine and do not change their palate because of some ad campaign or the whims of some film.

I, like you, say let's drink to it!

EnergyGuru wrote:
08.09.06 at 7:16 AM

Do you think the addition of new areas of supplies but also scores of new wine drinkers will affect prices of wine coming out of the established producers? Will the new increased supply or demand win out?

Alder wrote:
08.09.06 at 9:47 AM

Energy Guru,

I don't think the entry of more entry-level drinkers will affect the prices of the established producers at first (in fact many of those that server the lower-end of the market may be able to better stay in business because of it) but eventually some of those entry-level consumers will be interested in higher end wines, of which there will always be a finite amount. It's pretty safe to say that higher-end wine prices will continue to rise.

Alder wrote:
08.09.06 at 10:24 AM

David,

You are incorrect about the production of "quality" wine in new countries, unless you are talking about wines in the $50 plus price category. Some of the wine coming out of China and India is already very high quality. Not sure what you mean by "the US has a long way to go," but if you are implying that the US still is not producing "high quality" wines you must either be prejudiced or have little experience with them.

Glad to hear the Italians aren't silly enough to stop drinking a certain varietal just because some movie says it sucks!

David wrote:
08.09.06 at 12:10 PM

Alder - Quality and preference is a very personal thing and much is based on the range of wines one is exposed to. While I am not just limiting to 50$ bottle wines (there are some marvelous local wines at 20 Euro) the 50$ breakpoint would be considered the entry level for more serious wines.

When I talk about quality, I am really saying that US, and many of the Australians work on quantity, consistency, and price points while great wines are passion, competence, and a good growing season.

Most large producers and new producers popping up all over the place are following the science of wine making, microfiltration, industrial yeasts, wood chips and designer wines. Yes they produce some good, or even great tasting wines, eliminate eventual cloudiness and residuals but can hardly be considered in the same category as medium and above wines made with natural yeasts and more artisan methods.

I have had the opportunity to taste some Chinese and Indian wines at the fairs and while they may do very well in their home country I do not see them as gaining market penetration in South America, Europe, Africa, or North America.

France is having a very difficult time with their wine industry for international political reasons that cut 40 billion US $ out of their export market.

I did not mean to be contentious, simply to offer a different perspective on the same data and I still sustain: Quality always wins over Quantity.

Alder wrote:
08.09.06 at 1:15 PM

David,

Actually in my book quality is the LEAST subjective/personal aspect of wine. There is a HUGE difference between a high quality wine and a great wine -- but I guess for you they are the same thing.

Regardless, even against your criteria for a great wine "passion, competence, and a good growing season" (and I'll throw in a sense of place and fantastic raw fruit) America (and Australia) are both making wines that can be considered great.

I agree that the large quantity wines that are made with more industrial methods cannot be compared with wines made with natural yeasts and artisan methods. It would be stupid to even try to compare them. But this makes it clear you're missing my point. Most of the world doesn't drink "medium and above wines made with natural yeasts and more artisan methods," and most of America certainly does not.

I'm not suggesting that these fledgeling industries in India and China are going to be net exporters at all in any way that impacts the international market in the near to mid-term. On the contrary, the fact that they have successful and good quality indigenous wine industries means they will rather quickly become huge import markets which WILL have a large effect on the industry. That's the point.

Ben Bicais wrote:
08.09.06 at 2:05 PM

Alder,

I think you have hit the nail on the head regarding how "new" wine lovers are approaching the industry. For too long, I felt that the wine world was divided rigidly into two camps. On the one hand, there were people who took reviews by famous critics and glossy magazines as law. They were also trapped by their preconceived notions of which regions were the best. Therefore, they insisted they were merely smelling and tasting terroir in a corked bottle of Burgundy. On the other hand, there were those who eschewed any sort of intelligent dialogue as elitist. (i.e. the Carlos Rossi or more recently the 2 Buck Chuck drinker)

But as you say, several trends in the industry, noteably blogging, have opened up another, third way: not being too obsessed with the views of the old guard, but also not casting off any sort of evaluation as meaningless. In my opinion, this is a more sane view; it is intelligent without being pretentious. And this is why I think you are right that the wine consumer of the future will not hesitate to buy a wine from a less established region, as long as the product is high-quality.

Blair wrote:
08.09.06 at 2:11 PM

My question is how do you get a job over there. It looks like fun

David wrote:
08.09.06 at 2:19 PM

Alder - I apologize I have not read your book and picked up on a different aspect of your article than the point you are making. Perhaps, for the reasons you stated about US and Australian wines, I am too sensitive about quality and the simplier what hits the palate. I have spent many years with families producing traditional wines from Friuli to Campagna and grew to appreciate the subtleties of great wines (and grappa). I also agree that both India and China are becoming tremendous markets. Many of my friends are targeting those markets over the US, even though the US is still the #1 destination for Italian wines.

I enjoy your blog and look forward to reading more of your thoughts in the future.

Alder wrote:
08.09.06 at 7:10 PM

David,

No apology necessary -- and I should point out that I actually haven’t written a book. That was a poor choice of phrase considering our geographical differences. "In my book" is another way of saying "from my point of view." So I owe YOU and apology for that!

Alder wrote:
08.09.06 at 7:12 PM

Blair,

No idea. Try writing to some individual wineries like Sula vineyards or Great Wall Imports. How's your Mandarin?

Jean-Louis wrote:
08.10.06 at 12:27 AM

Here comes the plug: I strongly suggest you try Ajanta restaurant in Berkeley (on Solano Avenue). Prices are modest, as is the owner and the locale, but the food is heady, the service laudable AND the owner has made a point of having a substantial Indian wine selection that matches his food, ranging from supple and bold to sneaky and acid. Lunch is best time as dinners tend to be very busy; they take reservations. Full disclosure: I have no financial interest in the place.

Alfonso wrote:
08.10.06 at 4:17 PM

Alder,
I see David found you...His insights come from a very different perspective which I find quite interesting. I'm deep in the waters of the wine industry and he is on this sleek sail boat waving his white flag and a glass of prosecco, suggesting a view that is based in business and world financial markets...

Personally, I think China has better potential, in the long run, than India.
But I'll have a better idea on that next week.

Cheers!

Alder wrote:
08.11.06 at 3:01 PM

Here's a story in today's news about the potential for wine imports in India: http://www.siliconindia.com/shownewsdata.asp?newsno=32766

David wrote:
08.12.06 at 2:32 PM

Alder - If you do not mind I would like to quote you:

"the large quantity wines that are made with more industrial methods cannot be compared with wines made with natural yeasts and artisan methods. It would be stupid to even try to compare them."

and link back to your blog in an article I am writing about the wines of Friuli. You can cancel this message if you think appropriate.

Alder wrote:
08.12.06 at 3:43 PM

David, feel free, although I hope you can keep the spirit of the original context to the quote -- which was an attempt to not say that one was "better" than the other but that they simply are two totally different animals that are best evaluated on their own terms and according to their own aims.

My goal was to deliberately avoid a conversation of preference, or value, or relative importance.

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