Reading Up on Wine Wars with Wine Economist Mike Veseth

Back in early November, the World Affairs Council in Seattle invited University of Puget Sound professor Mike Veseth up to give a talk on the geopolitical stakes concerning…wine–which if nothing else gave participating in the post-talk wine tasting a feeling of due diligence. Membership in WAC is $60 for an individual, and in return you get invited to events like this, or, coming up in January, Dr. Steven A. Cook’s talk on “Egypt and the Arab Spring, One Year Later.”

In person, Veseth, even with a slight cold, transmitted an exuberance that illustrated why he was named “Washington Professor of the Year 2010.” I don’t want to stereotype, so let’s just say that, in a gathering of economists, Veseth would be known as the “high-energy one.” (He blogs with punny vitality at his site–read his take on the Costco initiative.) His talk that night was based on his new book, Wine Wars (Amazon), in which he discusses:

…major forces that are redrawing the world wine map: globalization, which presents wine consumers with a confusing “embarrassment of riches,” the “miracle of Two Buck Chuck,” which simplifies wine choice but threatens to over-simplify wine itself by turning it into a commodity, and the “terroirists” who Veseth hopes will save wine’s soul.

“This book will interest not only oenophiles but also general readers following the global economy or market analysis,” said Library Journal, and I’m here to vouch for the truth of that. I was interested enough by Veseth’s talk to buy the book, and there’s never a dull moment in its 225 pages. It’s being featured in Wine Spectator magazine’s “Top 100” issue and it was just named the “best American wine book of 2011 in the history category” at the Gourmand International Wine Book Awards.

Mike Veseth

Certainly if you’re a wine drinker–“oenophile” makes me visualize a trilobite-looking creature–this book provides a valuable education about what you think you’re buying, and who you’re buying it from. Veseth pulls back the curtain on an ongoing “bargain wine revolution,” talking about the provenance of Trader Joe’s beloved Two Buck Chuck, and how conglomerates without house brands have bought their way into an assortment of once-local brands.

As an economist, Veseth doesn’t feel compelled to take sides in the globalization “debate.” Wine Wars is in no small part a history book, chronicling how wine’s reach has spread for centuries: “The Romans brought wine to Britain along with their empire’s troops and religious practices, although the local wine, produced at monasteries as far north as York, could not have been very good.” Today what we have are surplus “lakes” of wine that taste just fine, if not particularly reminiscent of any patch of ground: wine for every day use.

And for everyone who sniffs at wine in Tetrapaks, Veseth reminds readers that bottles with corks were once high-tech. Now, it’s 24,000-liter, single-use plastic bladders that fill shipping containers, and allow global shipping of wine without the extra cost of shipping those heavy glass bottles. “Increasingly,” writes Veseth, “it pays to read the fine print on wine labels. […] I have seen ‘California’ wine brands that contain Pinot Noir from Chile, Northern Italy, and France.”

So there is a great deal of wine talk, yes. Veseth keeps up to date on everything wine, apparently, so he’s referring you to films like Sideways and Mondovino, and reviewing wine magazines and their critics, as much as he’s sniffing at the contents of glasses.

But if you’re into retail sociology, you’re in luck, too. Veseth deconstructs the grocery store “wine wall” for you, discussing why wines are classified as they are, why they are top or bottom shelf, who buys those wine jugs, and where those handwritten “shelf talkers” come from. On a macro scale, there’s the sociology of hard discounters, and their success and failure in different markets (Or, How Aldi Nord Became Trader Joe’s). Equally fascinating is his recounting of the struggle for Western winemaking to gain a foothold in China, in which we learn that the palate wants what it wants.

Late in the book, even climate change gets consideration. Because grapes are so sensitive to growing conditions, vineyards keep careful track of them. That’s how we know that: “Average vineyard temperatures rose between 1950 and 1999 by more than 1.5 degreees Celsius in California’s Napa Valley, Washington’s Columbia Valley, and Italy’s Chianti region, for example.” With this trend in mind, the rise of Washington’s wine industry seems to have a fair wind to thank–but winds can change direction:

It is estimated that climate change is likely to push today’s terroir toward the poles by between 280 and 500 km (about 200 to 300 miles) by 2050. The impact of climate change wont’ be as simple as just moving north, but it will be just as disruptive–perhaps even more so, since rising temperatures (and shifting latitudes) are not the whole story. Climate change also brings increasingly unstable weather patterns and longer growing seasons (more days between the last frost of spring and the first one of winter). One study indicates that the frost-free period for the North Coast region of California increased by sixty-eight days between 1949 and 2002.

But then, this is exactly why people get into wine, isn’t it? It’s one of those primordial substances that seems to have all of life life balled up inside it. Once vineyards were planted by Romans; now wine is stocked at Tesco, Wal-Mart, and Costco.