Revenge of the Terroirists

The Wine Economist

EDITOR’S NOTE: The author’s book Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists is highly recommended for the psychographic insights it contains that potentially describe an important place for classical music in today’s market. We hope that you will look for it in our bookstore.

The connections between wine and music run unexpectedly deep. It isn’t just that many wine lovers are music lovers, too. The brilliant “postmodern” California winemaker Clark Smith has experimented with wine and music “pairings,” demonstrating that certain wines taste better when accompanied by particular tunes. Inexpensive Glen Ellen Chardonnay, he says, is especially tasty if you sip it along with the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”

I used to be a skeptic about this connection until Smith put on some music and asked me to taste a particular wine and then changed the music on me mid-sip. The taste of the wine turned from sweet to bitter right there in my mouth. It really did. How is this possible? One answer comes from sensory science research. It seems that there are parts of the brain that are particularly involved in appreciating wine and these overlap to a certain extent with the music appreciation areas. Change one element and you can sometimes change the other. Incredible.

Just because the sensory appreciation of music and wine are connected in this way doesn’t mean that there is necessarily much to learn about music by studying wine or vice versa, but sometimes I am struck by certain parallels. In one chapter in my 2013 book Extreme Wine, for example, in trying to understand the changing market status of the great red wines of Bordeaux, I ended up viewing the situation through the lens of grand opera. Once upon a time, I argued, opera was an integral element of the common culture. The composers, the arias, the singers – they were all part of everyday life: when someone whistled a tune in the subway or tuned into a radio program on Saturday, opera was there or at least nearby.

Bordeaux once occupied a similarly commanding height in the world of wine. But, of course, things changed. Opera and Bordeaux both became very expensive and associated with elites. Meanwhile competition grew fierce, especially as new generations emerged who did not automatically conform to the older norms. China kept Bordeaux in its exalted position for a while longer, as Suzanne Mustacich writes in her wonderful new book Thirsty Dragon, but now it seems that the interest has turned from Bordeaux the wine to Bordeaux the tourist experience, and Chinese investors are snapping up lesser estates to refashion into flashy destination resorts.

“Is Bordeaux still relevant?,” I asked in Extreme Wine. And I’ve decided that it is,

but in the peculiar way that opera is still relevant. Opera no longer informs us about music (or culture) generally as it once did. Opera is about opera now, and that is good enough. And Bordeaux is (just?) Bordeaux.

These are just my observations and since I am an only an economist who studies the wine industry I don’t expect that others who know more about music and culture will agree with them. But hopefully they show how I am how trying to use music to understand wine.

Does this rather pessimistic view of opera and Bordeaux apply to wine and classic music more generally? No. When I tilt my perspective just a bit, the outline of an optimistic future for great music emerges.

Fifty years ago it would have been easy to doubt the future of fine wine in America. A thin film of great Burgundy and Bordeaux wines floated on an American sea that was dominated by unsophisticated, industrial wines. Thunderbird, a high-octane lemon-flavored fortified wine, powered the rise of Gallo to its position as the nation’s – and now the world’s – largest wine producer. The best-selling imported wine of all time in the U.S. market was custom-crafted to appeal to mass market American tastes. Have you tried it? Riunite Lambrusco was created to be the “Red Coke” – fizzy, a bit sweet, low in alcohol and irresistible to American consumers. As the advertisements once proclaimed, if you haven’t tried Riunite you don’t know what you are missing, so you might want to pick up a bottle and unscrew the cap (a Riunite innovation among imports when it was introduced).

Most of the wines that guided America out of the wilderness of the Prohibition were commercial products, crafted to please the existing market rather than to elevate American tastes. And yet, while those mass market beverages are still with us, the market momentum has shifted dramatically and unexpectedly towards more sophisticated wines. Data from the Nielsen Company’s surveys of off-premises wine sales tell this story. The market for inexpensive generic wine is still large, but sales are falling in every price category below $9. Meanwhile sales are increasing in higher priced categories, with a 14+ percent increase in wines priced at $15-$20 and more than 7 percent rise in sales of wines costing about $20. The wines that American buyers increasingly seek today are in a different world from the Thunderbird of days past. They are more sophisticated and the best of them proudly reflect the great traditions of winemaking. How did we get here from there? How did wine escape, at least in part, from an industrial wasteland and begin the journey to return to its roots?

My 2011 book Wine Wars plotted the evolution of American wine culture in terms of the dynamic interaction of three powerful forces. First comes globalization that benefits local wine producers by expanding their potential marketplace, which is great. But it also produces a more cluttered and competitive market environment. Consumers, once starved for choice, are now sometimes overwhelmed by it. Upscale supermarkets routinely stock more than a thousand different wine choices that range in price from a couple of bucks to more than two hundred dollars a bottle! Big box specialty stores now carry 8000 wines from every corner of the globe. The “wine wall” where enthusiasts gather to choose bottles to take home is now plagued by the Paradox of Choice. Having no choice is bad (that’s why the communist empire collapsed, according to an economics joke – because everything was either mandatory or forbidden), but too many choices can be just as troublesome.

One way that people cope with globalization and the Paradox of Choice is to try to simplify things. This explains the increasing importance of branded wines like Yellowtail from Australia and Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) from California. An effective brand allows consumers to economize on information: they do not need to know the country, region, vintage, or even grape variety they like. They just need to know what brand they have tried before and enjoyed. The problem with brands, however, is that they risk breaking what I call Einstein’s Law. Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. I think he was talking about scientific theories, but the idea applies more generally. Simplifying wine helps consumers escape the Paradox of Choice, but it risks stripping wine of the very properties that make it appealing to us in the first place. Dumbed-down wine – would you like Bud Red or Bud White? – might be a commercial success, but it wouldn’t be wine anymore, would it?

Globalization and commodification are powerful forces. They push the idea of wine toward oblivion. How can wine resist? The answer, as I wrote in Wine Wars, is that there is a third force pushing back. I call it the “revenge of the terroirists,” adapting the French word terroir which roughly translates as a sense of place. I was counting upon wine lovers who care deeply about wine and wine culture to take up the fight to preserve wine’s soul.

Although there are many ways to characterize the war for wine’s identity, I think the framework that I developed in Wine Wars is fairly useful. What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time, however, is the fact that the war isn’t just about wine. It is about everything, or at least many elements of civilized life. The forces that serve to undermine wine’s complicated existence are mirrored by similar forces at work more generally in the worlds of food, art, literature, education, and even music. Given this fact, it would seem like the terroirists’ revenge is unlikely indeed.

Unexpectedly, however, the ubiquity of the challenge seems to have strengthened the terroirists’ resolve. The yearning for a sense of connection that slick brands cannot provide is widespread and growing. I see it manifest in the world of wine as consumers who are increasingly focused on things that matter prove over and over again that they are willing to pay for products that connect them to person and place, to history and inspiration. Having grown tired of the fake, they now seek out authenticity. I know a winemaker who confesses that he just follows the market and who consequently now focuses intensely on wines that are a tangible expression of a particular time and place. He sees the future in organic wines that bring buyers closer to the earth, and closer therefore to the ultimate source of wine experience.

The terroirist revenge, a renewed commitment to authenticity, was not created by wine alone and it does not apply to wine alone either. Rather, it is a movement among the new and the young today – exactly those not brought up in the traditions of grand opera and Bordeaux, but who seek out, nevertheless, the real, the genuine, and the authentic experience. To twist a Rolling Stones lyric, they are surrounded by what they want – or what they are told they want – so they search instead for what they need. And sometimes they find it. They see Einstein’s Law broken all around them, and they choose another path.

The unexpected success of the terroirist revenge doesn’t mean that the wine wars are over, but they give us hope. And the parallel patterns in craft beer, craft spirits, and other consumer categories underlines the pattern. The emerging terroirist class wants to be challenged and they want to learn. Who knows? – perhaps they will even one day embrace Bordeaux with the same ardor as their grandparents. Perhaps they will embrace opera this way, too – and the rest of classical music movement, if they understand what it really is and what it means. I am not sure how it should be done, but the effort must be made. If it can happen in wine, it can happen elsewhere.

Not everyone is cut from terroirist cloth, but there are enough who are for this to be recognized as an important movement – and for this to be an important moment in history of wine culture. Can it be sustained? Prediction is difficult, we economists like to say, especially about the future. But the factors that have provoked the movement’s rise seem unlikely to go away. Cheers to the terroirist revenge!

About the Author

Mike Veseth is an economist who studies global wine markets. He is editor of “The Wine Economist” blog and author of more than a dozen books including “Wine Wars” (2011), “Extreme Wine” (2013) and “Money, Taste & Wine: It’s Complicated!” (2015). Mike is professor emeritus of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, where he is also a member of the Board of Trustees.  In 2010 he was named Washington Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. Veseth’s “Globaloney” was selected as a Best Business Book of 2005. “Wine Wars” was named a Best Wine Book of 2011. “The Wine Economist” was named “Best in the World” Best Wine Blog by Gourmand International in 2015. Mike is current working on his next book, “Around the World in 80 Wines.”

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