The Soul vs. The Market

I’m seriously behind on my magazine reading. So much that along with putting some delicate Japanese ceramics out of reach, I actually had to reduce the height of some piles before my 14-month-old niece Isabell came over and started wandering around my living room. In my mind’s eye I watched her crushed under the weight of 12 issues of Decanter, 12 issues of The Wine Spectator, and 14 issues of Wired Magazine, and it wasn’t pretty.

So anyhow, in the course of flipping through some of the stacks of dead trees in my house, I came across an absolutely lovely article on wine in the most unlikely of places: The Economist. Now I totally love the folks at the Economist — great writers, thinkers, and generally top-notch journalists all around. But the few articles on wine that I’ve seen them turn out in the last few years have been less than stellar.

Not so this article from the June 14th edition.

This piece, complete with its silly cartoon, is a fantastic, if brief, exploration of the bizarre dichotomy that seems to plague Europe when it comes to “fixing” the problems with the wine industry. As the author points out, the EU has shown itself to be fairly shrewd when it comes to developing, maintaining, and culturing the growth of the European markets with respect to the primary tenets of capitalism (leaving aside for the moment a penchant for bureaucracy which is seriously unhealthy). Yet a recent set of reforms aimed at liberalizing what has been a highly over-regulated wine industry, has gone over like the Hindenburg on May 6th, 1937. No one seems to want to allow the European wine industry to actually function as anything resembling a free market.

I’ve been beating my head against the wall for years trying to puzzle out why the French persist in such backward thinking about how to improve their lot when it comes to the global wine industry, but it turns out that they’re not alone, as the Luxembourgeois (if that’s what they’re called), the Portuguese, and the Germans all seem to be intent on maintaining outrageous levels of state subsidy for their wine industries.

Now I’m not suggesting that these reforms are a silver bullet. But it is remarkable just how loud the retching sounds are in response.

The writer for the Economist suggests that perhaps the problem is that we relate to wine not as a commodity, but as if it had a soul. The implication being that those things which are not just manufactured, but are crafted, somehow hold a different place in our hearts. I suppose an analogy might be that we don’t want market economics deciding, for instance, who got to be an artist and who didn’t, and subsequently which paintings would get hung in the Tate gallery (though there are already probably more free market effects in the art world than there are in wine).

I am a firm believer in the market, in case you couldn’t tell, and it’s incredibly difficult for me to understand how some people (including many readers of this blog) think that by lifting, shifting, or changing restrictions and regulations to allow EU states to better compete in the world market, somehow all the good wine will go away. As if allowing vintners to add acid to their wines or use a higher percentage of Merlot will suddenly cause those winemakers who are making fantastic wine (that everyone wants to buy right now) completely change their practices to produce shite that tastes like it was churned out of a Star Trek synthesizer. These people have far more integrity than that.

But I don’t hope to really convince anyone of that point of view. I’ve decided that like arguments about terroir, this issue comes down to a question of faith. The EU member states think about wine regulations like Americans think about low taxes. No one wants to make any changes until the pain of inaction becomes stronger than their belief that they have a monopoly on the truth.