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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.


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