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04.13.2008

Lest You Forget That Wine is Business...

As wine lovers, we all belong to a club whose entrance criteria include passion and romanticism. We return to wine again and again for its magical ability to transcend what is in the glass, and to transport us in memory and experience to both favorite and new places.

By far the most pleasurable and rewarding relationship with wine involves an affair of just these sorts of passions, blissfully ignorant of the facts which demand that wine also be understood in terms of economics, politics, and science.

Many of us are content to live in a world where there is no dichotomy between wine our treasured sustenance, and wine the commercial product. But just like a relationship that consists of only physical passion, such an understanding of wine ignores the complexity of the world, and ultimately produces an ignorance that is self defeating.

Unfortunately, I know far too many wine lovers who simply refuse to acknowledge that wine is a business first, and an art (or more accurately, a craft) only when those who practice it can actually feed their families.

Evidence of wines fundamentally commercial nature is hard to come by, especially for those who would rather pretend that winemaking exists independently of the pressures and demands of economic trends and market forces.

Which is why I was thrilled last month when Champagne (or more accurately, the INAO governing body that regulates France's appellation system) announced that they were planning to significantly increase the size of the Champagne appellation in order to be able to produce more wine and keep up with consumer demand.

Yes, that's right. The sacred, inviolable designation of what IS Champagne, and what IS NOT; the demarcations and boundaries of one of the world's greatest terroirs; the place that is synonymous with the wine that it produces -- is going to be adjusted because there are just not enough "approved" vineyards to make the amount of wine that producers think they can sell.

I can't tell you how many arguments I've gotten into with people who act like the definition of French appellations, their boundaries, and their associated rules of production, are all based upon some ancient historical truth whose wisdom should not be questioned. Such folks, if given the opportunity, would presumably laud the INAO as the just protectors of these ancient traditions and the saviors of the authenticity of French wine in the face of global pressures to compete.

Alas, the world is a bit more complicated than that, as the folks who are determining the future of Champagne demonstrate. Wine is a business, and that is as true for the small farmers growing wheat outside of Reims who will soon be able to plant the much more lucrative crop of Pinot Noir and improve their standard of living, as well as the large Champagne houses who will be able to make a few million more bottles to slake the thirst of us wine lovers.

Like my wine, I prefer reality with complexity.


Comments (13)

Tish wrote:
04.13.08 at 7:39 PM

Alder, you have stated a very logical purist's point of view. While I find the INAO decision disturbing, I would be much more upset if the AOC expansion were to be applied to a table-wine AOC. In short, I think of Champagne as more of a method wine than a place wine. After all, the Champagne way is to pick the grapes deliberately under-ripe and then let the yeasty double fermentation turn the sour base into toasty finished fizz.

The most important point regarding this decision is your overarching point, namely that wine is a business. Let's let the chips fall before condemning the move. If the Champenois can make more of their signature product without a noticeable drop in quality, then who are we to slam them. Time will tell. Always does.

And maybe this development foreshadows other decisions that will loosen the rigidity that has been holding French producers back in other ways.

Alfonso wrote:
04.13.08 at 7:46 PM

Luca Turin alleges in his book, The Secret of Scent, “The champagne you're drinking (a major brand) illegally contains traces of a perfume added to each bottle so you’ll remember it and come back.”

lagramiere wrote:
04.13.08 at 11:39 PM

While it's nice to think that some small wheat farmer will now be able to plant grapes and sell them to make Champagne, I'm pretty sure the reality is the big houses and knew this was coming for quite some time and bought up the land well before the vineyard designation was approved. That said, those wheat farmers hopefully are now better off than they were before the speculation began, so your business theme isn't at all debunked!

Funny though, just the other day I was visiting a winery in the Côtes de Ventoux, we were standing on a hillside and looking across a small valley - there was a natural visible diagonal division that ran down the hillside (due to the way the vineyards were planted), on one side of that line was Gigondas, on the other Ventoux. It seems to me that it's pretty hard to suddenly decide that one appellation ends here and another begins, especially when the notoriety of one appellation far out weighs the other.

Though I have not taken the time to study the newly ordained vineyard land, I'm sure it wasn't (or won't be) designated lightly, but politics certainly entered into it, as with all things where money and big business are concerned. And this is definitely big business.

Leif Erik Sundstrom wrote:
04.14.08 at 11:59 AM

I'm simply excited at the potential for a leveling of prices in Champagne. It is easily the wine I would drink most often and in the most situations if the stuff weren't so expensive. I suppose the Champagne I prefer to drink won't necessarily get any cheaper, but one can hope it won't get much more expensive.

Kat wrote:
04.14.08 at 12:30 PM

Leif - Try something like a Blanquette de Limoux (or any Limoux, for that matter) if you're looking for something inexpensive that resembles Champagne. It's an older wine-growing region that has used the methode champignoise for a very long time.

Though I'm willing to bet prices are about to go up again due to demand, since Eric Asimov wrote a column about the region recently.

Greg wrote:
04.14.08 at 5:43 PM

Its funny, I read that the champagne region produces a lot more grapes than it is allowed to make into wine, under the rules. The result is that a lot of fruit that could produce excellent wine is turned into vinegar.
Perhaps they should just increase allowable yields.

Arnaud H wrote:
04.14.08 at 5:52 PM

I'm glad that once in a while, that old simplistic opposition between the French concept of terroir and the branding strategy of American wine companies gets debunked: an AOC is also a brand, and the French vignerons and ngociants are no stranger to marketing tricks themselves (Beaujolais Nouveau, anyone?).

I have no personal reservation if the area of the Champagne AOC is extended, as long as the added area in question shares the same traits and methods as the existing region. Now not all sparklings should be branded "champagne" as it still is the case for some cheap domestic Californian wines.

Because (Tish, I'm talking to you here :)) it designates, after all, a specific area - just like Sierra Foothills or Carneros. Anybody who visited the Champagne region can judge of its uniqueness. And that's coming from someone who also enjoys crmants de Bourgogne or d'Alsace once in a while, and, yes, California sparklings.

Debbie wrote:
04.15.08 at 9:06 AM

As a wine retailer I applaud your recognition of wine as business. Too many young people come into the wine industry thinking of it as passion more than business and there is a bottom line in wine as in any other product. It has to sell or they won't be able to keep making it. I have to sell it or I won't have a job. We have elevated wine to a sacred level that often takes some of the fun out of it and that neglects to respect the sales aspect of this business.

04.16.08 at 12:39 PM

Thank you, it's amazing to me that we are all able to enjoy suberb bottles of wine for $20 a bottle, as you pointed out, this really is a labor of love for many, but all growers consider the economics. Great blog!
Best
Lisa

1WineDude wrote:
04.17.08 at 3:23 PM

Not only is French wine a business first and foremost, I think many wine lovers would be shocked to learn just how little forethought went into the actual appellation boundaries, and the 1855 Bordeaux classification, and the St Emilion classification for that matter.

Not to say the appellation is crap - it's actually pretty good. But the execution... ah, there's the rub!

Jack wrote:
04.20.08 at 7:01 PM

Yes Champagne is a business and it is good to remember that the riots of 1911 happened because the producers in the north did not want those of the Aube added, and later on they were. Most Champagnes are blends of grapes and regions and I think there is less sanctity of terroir there than most places. I would be interested in the soil profiles and which grapes they plan on planting in the new region. Let's face it, there is a lot of Champagne out there now that is already pretty generic.

Jack wrote:
04.20.08 at 7:02 PM

Yes Champagne is a business and it is good to remember that the riots of 1911 happened because the producers in the north did not want those of the Aube added, and later on they were. Most Champagnes are blends of grapes and regions and I think there is less sanctity of terroir there than most places. I would be interested in the soil profiles and which grapes they plan on planting in the new region. Let's face it, there is a lot of Champagne out there now that is already pretty generic.

Meg wrote:
04.21.08 at 12:09 PM

Oh I do love champagne, and the more the merrier. Too many people think it only should be had at New Year's Eve parties and the like. Anytime I hear someone say, what wine should I serve?, I pipe up, "Champagne!" After reading the above, I don't think the rarefied world of the wine enthusiast understands how most people think about champagne -since they rarely drink it, they do not have a chance to learn about it. I believe, to return to the title of the article, that wine is a business, and the consumer will have the final say.

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