Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Reds, Whites, and the Globalization Blues

The Yanks win again. A Napa cabernet-based wine, Ridge Montebello, finished first in the combined rankings of judges in California and London. These were wines used in the 1976 tasting, because an argument had been made then that while the Cali wines were better then they wouldn't age as well. As five New Worlders took the top five of ten positions (another finished tenth, with French grand wines finishing 6-9), and as Ridge itself moved up from fifth in 1976 to first now, that argument seems to have been put to rest.
Thirty years ago today a remarkable event occurred which in many ways foreshadowed much of the anger that consumes some (but far from all) people when the conversation turns to globalization. A Paris wine merchant named Steven Spurrier wanted to use the U.S. bicentennial to promote his store. He arranged for nine French wine experts to conduct blind taste tests of U.S. and French reds and whites on May 24, 1976. Mr. Spurrier was confident that the location of Paris combined with the all-French panel would guarantee victory for the French product.

The tasting of whites was conducted first. Stunningly, the judges awarded the top marks to an American wine, and in fact the Yanks took three of the first four positions. Breaking wine-tasting protocol, the judges were informed that they had selected U.S. wines in the white stage. Despite what might have been an extra effort to pick French wines in the red stage, an American wine won there as well. Although French wines took second through fourth places, many of them were from the elite vineyards, and the U.S. winner was the fairly run-of-the-mill Stag’s Leap. (The full results are here).

In some ways the full results of that event are still with us, and it is certainly a striking illustration of globalization’s discontents. This BBC video actually claims that the results marked the rise of modern French “economic patriotism.” Whether that is true or not, they do provide a fascinating contrast between two ways of thinking about wine. The European and particularly French view emphasizes the local characteristics of each region and the knowledge accumulated over generations by its artisans. Each wine is a unique product of unique geography, unique climate and unique local knowledge. (The French call this view of wine terroir.) The recent documentary Mondovino provides a view of this conflict that is sympathetic to traditional winemaking.)

In at least the stereotypical view of U.S. winemaking (which has been equally adopted by other new entrants to the global wine scene such as Australians and Chileans), winemaking is like the manufacture of any other product – it is a process amenable to technology, market research, cost-saving innovations and the other standard tools of modern business. And so American barrels are different from French ones, giant American corporations (the Mondavi empire, e.g.) purchases asset all over the world from local driven out by the brutal forces of global competition (i.e., by their inability to make wines that people want to buy at the price they ask), and on and on.

And so the forlorn local artisan crushed by the ruthless multinational is one of the tropes we are left with after “The Judgment of Paris,” as the 1976 event came to be known. The French wine industry has been in the cellar for many years, as tastes have shifted to the global wines. (It is unclear whether residual American anger over the French government’s actions in the runup to the war in Iraq plays any role in this.) And this slump has occurred despite the tremendous power that the French label still carries in the wine-mad country of Japan. But those global wines are global precisely because they are wines that people enjoy, even if some wine aficionados think they shouldn’t. Such emphasis on expertise acquired at great cost as the wisest course of success as opposed to the outcome of decentralized competitionis one of the most common determinants of hostility to globalization.

Another notion that those opposed to the globalization of wine reject is the role of the expert in determining tastes, particularly the inordinately influential American Robert Parker. Parker has no particular background in winemaking – he was an attorney by training for whom wine was a hobby. And yet he saw fit to assert that the traditional wine-classification system of France was obsolete, and that something more consumer-friendly was needed. Hence, the ultimate barbarism – the ranking of wines not by reputation but by tasting and grading on a 1-100 scale. Mr. Parker has built an immensely profitable empire by ranking wines throughout the world, without (he would certainly claim) fear or favor arising from any of the commercial ties to the wine world that crippled the reliability of earlier wine critics.

It is clear that there is no going back. As an admirer of Friedrich Hayek’s notion of the implicit wisdom of social tradition, I might ordinarily be expected to have some sympathy for the small European family winemaker who is unwilling to adapt with the times. But traditions should be overthrown as long as the process occurs in an evolutionary, competitive decentralized way rather than being imposed through politics. The globalization of wine is the former, and it has had the same effect as the globalization of everything else – it has dramatically improved, quality, accessibility and especially variety of the product. The number of wine drinkers is greater than it has ever been, and this will continue – driven not just by growth in the U.S. but by the penetration of wine into the massive Chinese and Indian markets. (China already has vintners, some of them not bad.) The number of types of wine and the ability to acquire it at reasonable sacrifice is simply far greater now than when wine was more or less an old-boy network controlled by rent-seeking insiders. And as for Mr. Parker, he succeeds because consumers value what he does. The elitist would attribute that to the sheeplike behavior of his average subscriber, but a more sophisticated view would note that Parker is a market-maker, able to make wine comprehensible to those without the time to invest mastering the old arcane classification systems. His rise has coincided perfectly with the rise of global wine consumption, and that is no coincidence. Wine drinkers present and future are the better for his presence, and for the globalization of the wine industry.


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