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The Old World, EU Wine Reform and Battleground USA

In the global village, Americans like to boast that a war has never been fought on our shores; we protect our interests in other people’s backyard. Yet, there is a daily battle being waged on American turf and its combatants are vying for the hearts and minds of domestic wine consumers.  The conflict I’m talking about is marketing and advertising for the attention and –ultimately- the purchasing power of U.S. wine consumers.

Yes, the annual pat on the back we give ourselves about the U.S’ progress toward leading global wine consumption has a collateral effect. Ditto that for our annual cheerleading for wine to be the top beverage alcohol choice against beer. Because of this, other countries want their fair slice of our wine buying pie.

The most aggressive frontal marketing charge is being waged by the member states of the European Union (EU) and it affects almost all of the “Old World” wine-related communications we see in the U.S. today.

From marketing outreach with wine writers and journalists, to trade shows, PR, marketing and advertising (especially advertising), U.S. wine consumers haven’t yet seen the crest of the coming wine marketing wave all fueled by a strategic vision to reclaim what the Europeans feel is rightfully theirs –a global leadership position in prestige and sales of wine.

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They just might do it too; beating back years of floundering that was based mostly on their hubris and the status quo.

When you watch for it, you’ll begin to see the tell-tale EU flag in virtually all forms of Old World marketing here in the states– on the side of a Reunite truck doing grassroots marketing in a parking lot, in digital ads for Romanian wine, in email newsletters and, most notably, in our wine magazines – any wine magazine will suffice—including Wine & Spirits, Food & Wine, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator.

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The most current example is the October 31st issue of Wine Spectator which has nearly 50% of its full-page beverage-oriented ads dominated by EU co-funded wine advertising with an additional seven EU-sponsored quarter or 1/3 page ads.

In contrast, the number of U.S. producers advertising in the same issue? Three – Rodney Strong, Louis M. Martini and a two-page spread from Diageo.

Adam Strum, Publisher of Wine Enthusiast magazine foreshadowed this trend of EU marketing dollars in his “Top Stories of 2010” article from December of last year. In his #3 top story, he noted: “The European Union followed up the market reforms it instituted in 2008 with the promised funding: over a four-year period, well over 828 million euros ($1.16 billion) to support the marketing of European wine. We’re already seeing new styles of labels, unique media concepts and new visibility. Italy is, not surprisingly, leading the charge as the number- one exporter from Europe.”

Ironically enough, or maybe not so ironic at all, the current issue of Wine Spectator is their, “Italian Wine and Food” issue and the advertisers, predominantly, are Italian.

Yet, this marketing outreach funded by the EU isn’t limited to Italy, almost all leading wine member states of the EU including Austria, Greece, France, Portugal, Spain, and Romania have used these monies to ramp up their efforts here in the states.

Interestingly, this battle shouldn’t have the element of surprise; it has been in the works dating to 2006.  Yet, when the EU Wine Reform passed in late 2007 and was enacted in August of 2008, it hardly blipped on my wine-loving radar: It was just a collection of headlines in dire need of some context. Now, we can see the ripple effects…I can see the tangible outcome.

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What follows is a primer on the EU wine reform effort that will continue to present itself to U.S. wine consumers for at least the remainder of this decade (planning is through 2019). At the conclusion, I’ve included an overview on what I think are the possible long-term implications.

EU Wine by the Numbers

The EU is the world’s largest wine producer, consumer exporter, and importer representing 45% of the world’s wine growing areas and 62% of global wine production

Amongst EU member states (EU-27) there are 2.4 million wine producers working 8,895,793 acres (about 3.7 acres per producer) producing 4.5B gallons of wine worth $21B dollars.

The U.S. remains the leading export market for EU wine receiving 24.6% of their volume representing 30.7% of EU wine value.

EU Wine Reform Vocabulary Primer

EU-27:  Phrase for the 27 members of the European Union.  Formally established in 1993, the EU is an economic and political collective of member countries principally in Europe.

CAP:  Stands for Common Agricultural Policy.  Agriculture is the only sector of the European Union (EU) where there is a common cross-countries policy.

CMO for Wine:  Stands for Common Market Organization for Wine.  The CMO regulates and strives to maintain balance of the European wine market under the umbrella of the CAP.

CMO Wine Reform:  Large-scale, EU-wide effort, led by former European Union agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel.  Interchangeable with, “EU Wine Reform.”

Member States:  A reference to the 27 member countries of the EU.  If a country is a part of the EU they are a, “Member state.”

Market Intervention:  The process through which the CMO for Wine, with a fixed annual budget of $1.7B (US dollars equivalent), paid for the disposal of excess wine.  This disposal of wine accounted for over 60% of their annual budget or approximately $678M.  Prior to reform, 15% of wine production in the EU was disposed of every year.

Third Country Markets:  Generally, a country outside of the EU where export and marketing is conducted.  Examples of leading third country markets include the U.S., Canada, China and Russia.

National Envelopes:  Funding allocation from the CMO for Wine to EU member states for their support programs.  Up to 50% of the support programs funding can be used for promotion in third country markets.  The balance is used for country wine industry infrastructure support and services.  National envelopes are funded from a re-allocation of the monies in the wine reform, principally from market intervention.

Planting rights:  The ability for a wine producer to plant vines. Currently prohibited until 2015 and left to the discretion of EU member states from 2016 – 2018

Grubbing up:  The process through which farmers who aren’t economically viable from a quality or scale perspective are financially incented to remove their vines and farm another commodity.  Grubbing up, in conjunction with limitations on planting rights, is intended to balance the EU wine market.  Thereafter, producers are presumed to be planting new vines based on market viability.

The Impetus for EU Wine Reform

In the years leading up to the 2006 reform announcement, a number of large trends finally converged on the traditionally hidebound EU member states making the act of doing nothing more dangerous than changing with the times.

Over the course of the last 25 years, declining consumption in the South of Europe, coupled with an explosion in production and imports from the US, South Africa, Chile, Australia and New Zealand led to a narrowing of the gap between European exports versus imports leading to declining domestic market share.  This was exacerbated by increasing consumption in the North of Europe where consumers in many non-EU member countries took a liking to New World wines, adding insult to injury.

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Besides wanting to keep a wine trade balance (if not maintain a leading margin), The EU had fundamental industry issues to deal with.  Notably, 40% of EU wine production was classified as “table” wine and 60% was “quality” wine with regional origin.  But, overall, 15% of that total wine production was being destroyed on an annual basis because it was unsellable, including some “quality” wine.  Because there were so many EU wine producers farming just an average of 3.7 acres, the producers had become reliant on subsidies while continuing to create a product for which there wasn’t a market that required government “market intervention.”  To say the least, the fact that destroying wine represented 60% of the CMO annual budget was a palpable problem.

The EU Wine Reform Objective in a Nutshell

Align a wine program that increases the competitiveness of the EU’s wine producers, strengthens the reputation of EU wine as the best in the world, recovers legacy markets and wins new markets in the EU and worldwide.

Decrease over-production by eliminating budget expenditure on destroying wine

Re-allocate the money formerly spent on destroying wine on marketing wine to increase growth

Pull up 432K acres of vines by financially incenting vineyard owners

Place a moratorium on new plantings until the end of 2015 and give member states the ability to extend that through 2018

Align towards a systemic quality orientation with origin of place

Simplify labeling allowing for varietal designation

The Net-Net on EU Wine Reform Changes

Mission accomplished, so far.  A lot of credit needs to go to the former Agricultural Commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel for having the strength of vision and constitution to get the EU reform done in the first place.  The old question of, “How do you eat an elephant?” is apropos.  EU wine reform was a process that took nearly three years from first public notice to enactment in August of 2008.

As of today, grubbing up vineyards is over-subscribed based on the 432K acre goal.  Planting rights, when re-enabled in 2016 or thereafter will allow quality-oriented producers to plant based on market demand, and, well, the third country marketing is happening apace.

Yet, the real question is:  What does this mean for U.S. wine business and consumers? 

The Implications of EU Wine Reform

Clearly, the U.S. and North America with Canada is target #1 for the EU.  We have an active wine culture that is growing unabated and the most disposable income of any country in the world.  China and Russia trail a close second as their middle-class economies and wine interest is also growing. 

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What will be interesting to watch is what happens AFTER this EU Wine Reform transition period (2008 – 2013).  In this period of time some CMO monies are being diverted to grubbing up.  However, thereafter, until 2019, some 2/3’s of the CMO for Wine budget is going to be allocated to national envelopes, adding to a marketing larder that is already embarrassingly rich. 

The monies will be allocated to member states based on vine-growing area, production and historical spends.  Therefore, expect to continue to see a barrage of marketing messages from EU wine leaders Italy, France and Spain (Spain has the most potential for becoming au courant, in my opinion).  Yet, it’s the other wine producing countries like Portugal, Greece and Hungary that have the most room for explosive growth. 

If, at the end of this decade, Portugal and Greece have significantly expanded positions of U.S. market share, some pockets of the wine cognoscenti might chalk it up to the zeitgeist, but we’ll know that the zeitgeist was nudged in a certain direction.

The EU Wine Reform is also fantastic for domestic wine marketing agencies and wine magazines – they now have self-identified prospects.  It doesn’t get any better than knowing where the money is.  Expect to see healthy balance sheets for years to come.  Online-based wine media, including bloggers, will likewise experience the positive benefits – warm bodies are needed for press trips, brand ambassadors will be fashioned and digital know-how leading to areas of marketing innovation will all have value against hard currency.  The dark side is that our current understanding of wine media ethics will probably also be immutably altered because where there is money, there is corruption.

Finally, perhaps the most damning indicator is the fact that the U.S. is moving into a period of wine supply balance at the same time the EU is finding balance.  If Australia gets their stuff together to get in balance at the same time that consumption is rising, well, there’s only one way out of that situation and its higher wine prices for consumers.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself… 

As I mentioned, there’s a battle being waged on American turf and the EU has to win the battle before they can win the war.  Will they win the war—the war for consumer interest and sales?  Who knows, but one thing is certain:  The end of this wine decade is going to look at lot different than it does today.

Author Note

1) All EU (€) dollar values and hectares have been converted to US dollars and acres, respectively. 

2) A significant amount of research went into this post in order to distill an unwieldy subject into something consumable (no pun intended).  If you have a question about source attribution, please leave a comment and I’ll direct you to the source if not already linked.


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Will Yellow Tail Find More Green?

Australia, a wine darling in the U.S. for most of the past 20 years, fell prey to Newton’s Law of Motion and the coloring of the bruising from the tumble down, in addition to being black and blue, is also yellow and black.

Aside from grappling with a myriad of structural industry and world currency issues, the Aussies have also had to grapple with the fact that their number two import market, the U.S., has had its wine cognoscenti turn their back on the perceived plumped up juice from Oz, a fact that was contributed to in no small measure, I believe, by the ubiquity of Yellow Tail – the inexpensive, redolently sweet, duotone in taste and packaging wine brand that grew case sales 3180% from 2001 to 2008, as reported by the New York Times.

To mix metaphors, where perception is reality, one bad apple (Or three if you count Yellow Tail category imitators as well as Robert Parker, Jr.’s legacy proclivity for Mollydooker) has spoiled the bunch, at least in the minds of wine influencers.

Tom Steffanci, President of Yellow Tail brand owner W.J. Deutsch & Sons, noted to Shanken News Daily (SND) in April, “…It’s so important that we never compromise on quality…you can’t fool consumers on quality…”  However, wine tastemakers don’t think much of the Yellow Tail quality nor are they often shopping in the $6.99 price category. 

Consequently, the brand that begat a category casts a pallor over an entire country’s wine. As one Australian wine marketing rep recently told me with a deep sigh, “This is the toughest job in the wine business.”  A job, by the way, that includes aggressively trying to market Australian wine as being borne of terroir and regionality, a job, indeed, that evokes salmon swimming upstream into the waiting maw of a hungry bear. 

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Yellow Tail’s sales have plateaued in the last two years at 8.3 million cases and recent statistics from Australian wine export reporting indicates that total Australian volume to the U.S. dropped 19% in the year ending in June.  This makes sense given that Steffanci indicated to SND that the brand represented around 40% of Australian wine sales in the U.S. 

This subtext leads to an interesting question, one I’m sure the Australian wine marketing folks would also like the answer to:  Is Yellow Tail a declining brand, victim of the “Derision Decision” – the point in time where something grows to such popularity that it transcends ‘hot with cachet’ to ‘not cool,’ a victim of the cultural zeitgeist? 

Or, is Yellow Tail’s stagnant growth merely a mindshare issue alleviated by some marketing? 

The answer to that question may be an indicator to when the overall category of Australian wine sales might recover, at least from a perception perspective which can lead to a sales recovery in the upper reaches of price tiers, not anchored by their mates in the $6.99 category.

Doubtless, it’s not schadenfreude to suggest the Australian wine marketing folks might not be terribly upset if Yellow Tail shrunk from its ubiquity and, by proxy, it’s mindshare that equates to, “Australian for wine.” 

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Already, some East Coast liquor and bottle shop sales data (IRI provided by Wine Australia) shows that Australian wine priced $15.99 to $19.99 was up 24% in the fiscal year ending in June.

This rooted in reality but still hypothetical question of whether the Australian category is tethered to the relative misfortune of Yellow Tail in order to makeover perceptions is especially interesting given that 85% of every man, woman and child over the age of 21 is expected to see at least one Yellow Tail marketing message before the end of W.J. Deutsch’s fiscal year in March of 2012.

I guess we’re about to find out…

The New York Times (NYT) recently highlighted Yellow Tail’s new advertising and marketing campaign.  With a shift in positioning from the nebulously adventuresome, on the go-oriented and short-lived, “Open for Anything” to the equally nebulous, but brand reinforcing “The go-to,” Yellow Tail is attempting to incrementalize and grow their flat case sales.

Brands face this conundrum all the time in the brand growth cycle.  Explosive growth doesn’t always remain so and brands enter into an inevitable maturity phase:  Do we push growth along or innovate?  The unspoken question being, “Do we milk this sucker or do we take a left turn and try to reignite growth?”

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At least for now, Yellow Tail is taking the safe route.  In the words of Renato Reyes, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at Deutsch, as quoted in the NYT’s, he said Yellow Tail as, “The go-to” is “trying to own ‘occasionality’” and be, “the spine of (consumer) purchasing behavior.”

A look at their media mix indicates that their digital activity is skewing female with its current focus on the young female movie Bridesmaid on Facebook in addition to late night television with its young male audience and lifestyle channels that hit a broad, culturally literate, age-spanning audience.  Apparently, Yellow Tail is going for reach in trying to hit a mass segment of people that are likely wine-interested, but not wine enthusiastic (see all the creative here).

By trying to be the “spine” of wine purchasing behavior, they’re trying to create brand loyalty, notoriously difficult to achieve in wine, but akin to regular purchasers of any other consumer goods where repeatable familiarity drives business.

As Reyes noted to the NYT’s, if every Yellow Tail consumer makes a purchase, “One more time, that would represent 10 percent growth.”

Incrementalize.

In my opinion, this audience traded up a price level to Malbec and Moscato, but that’s anecdotal and definitely beside the point.

Meanwhile, an industry hangs in the balance… or does it?

Some tastemakers are coming back around to Australia as evidenced by a recent story by Jay McInerney in the Wall Street Journal where he noted in a similarly themed article about Australia’s current wine misfortune, “I’m ready and willing to revisit Australia.”

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Likewise, the Dean of working wine writers, Dan Berger, recently confronted Australian wine (mis)perceptions head-on using a “young wine blogger” as his foil (likely a Slats Grobnik-like writing device) where he made the case that the best red wines in Australia, “Are balanced and age nicely.”

So, where does this leave Australian wine that doesn’t have a kangaroo?  Is it wearing a bumblebee colored hairshirt, casually waiting for one brands decline in order to catch its next wave of momentum?  Will Yellow Tail find additional green, continuing to leave fine Australian wines in the red?  I suspect the answer is no.  But, regardless of Yellow Tail’s sales, and even if re-emergent, Newton’s Law of Motion also states that when a force is directed at an object it accelerates in proportion to and in the direction of that force. 

Inexpensive plonk and marketing campaigns aside, I suspect that Yellow Tail and Australian wines of character can co-exist and the real force that is starting to accelerate are the U.S. wine influencers and tastemakers, the progenitors of the, “Derision Decision,” who will soon direct their energy on the good in Australia and not their perception of the bad.

That’s a force (and trend) worth watching and one that Newton, also a wine drinker, would approve of.


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Inexplicable Edition

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

The Green Card Cometh

I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a public congratulation to Johannes Reinhardt, winemaker at Anthony Road Wine Company in Penn Yan, New York in the Finger Lakes (FLX) wine region for earning his green card.  Not that he’s waiting for my congratulations, by the way.

However, I do think it’s important to honor professional excellence, integrity and the pursuit of the American dream in a period of time when our national mood is drenched with political acrimony and institutional cynicism.

Sometimes things work out the way they should…

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First reported by Evan Dawson at the New York Cork Report in the first week of September, Reinhardt has earned his permanent worker status, a way station on the way to a permanent green card.

Reinhardt’s back-story is well chronicled in some circles (here and here) and his story is a notable chapter in Dawson’s recent book, Summer in a Glass, but it’s also the kind of workaday footnote that barely blips on the radar of the larger wine consciousness, even if it should.

The summary of a longer narrative is Reinhardt initially came to the U.S. from Germany over a decade ago, leaving his family winemaking legacy behind, to do the same on U.S. soil.  Working on a string of visas while seeking a permanent green card (a green card that has proven difficult to obtain as he faced rejection after inexplicable rejection), Reinhardt carved out an enviable leadership position in the collegial Finger Lakes winemaking community helping to elevate it to the world-class status it now enjoys for its Rieslings, while also doing the same for his employer, the aforementioned Anthony Road winery.

For those that don’t follow immigration law, which is most of us, the difference between a visa and a green card is most akin to the labor differences in between the NFL and the NBA.  In the NFL, you can get cut and lose your job at any time.  In the NBA, you have a guaranteed contract.  A green card acts as something of a guaranteed contract in the U.S. in that you’re not at-risk to have your ability to be in our country yanked or not renewed (deported). 

With permanent worker status and a green card in his future, Reinhardt can now seek citizenship should he choose to do so, or, at the least, get on with building a life in the U.S.

I sat adjacent to Johannes and next to his wife Imelda at a wine dinner in the spring of 2010 while his wines were being poured.  With just brief interaction, his meticulous work effort, charisma, collaborative spirit and genuine desire to achieve excellence as a winemaker in the Finger Lakes shone through.  I’m happy for him, his wife, and most importantly, I’m happy for wine enthusiasts who will continue to enjoy access to his fantastic wines. 

You can toast Reinhardt by buying some Anthony Road wine at the winery web site or at a New York-based online retailer (I use Marketview).

Just in time for Harvest

“It takes a lot of beer to make good wine,” as the saying goes.  Joining the Winepod, a high-end home winemaking system that was launched a few years ago, comes the WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery launched by a couple of Kiwi’s in New Zealand.  Promising craft brewery beer quality at home and priced at around US $5000, the WilliamsWarn, which includes an all-in-one tap for dispensing your brew, looks like the perfect accompaniment to the Winepod and one of the commercial grade espresso machines that are available.

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Now all I have to do is figure out how to scrape together $14,000 of disposable income to buy all three…

More information here (initiates a download of the WilliamsWarn product details sheet).

As Seen in Sommelier Journal

The July issue of the Sommelier Journal (you are a subscriber, right?  You should be…) features a blurb about a new service that allows Sommeliers to create wine clubs for their guests and consumers interested in their wine finds. 

Powered by the unimaginatively named company “Wine Club Shipment,” the firm handles all web site development, shipping and logistics and the Sommelier does what they do best – find unique and interesting wines.

Sign me up.  For two reasons, this is a fantastic service:

1)  With all of the mojo that the craft brew scene and mixologists are earning, I’m very ready for the wine world’s bright young Sommeliers to take a step forward into the limelight by curating selections.

2)  Wine clubs, in general, get a justifiably valid bad name for unloading plonk on unwitting consumers.  Anything that can stem that tide with a quality orientation is a good thing

The company web site is scant on detail, but you can get a sense for the service at the A16 wine club site.

Even a Blind Squirrel…

On the heels of my recent post called, “Palate Tuning and the Permanent Record” in which I discussed disparities in critical wine scores and the hypothetical development of a meta-database that weighs variables in critics palates to create a sort-of super wine score, comes, well, you guessed it – something pretty darn close to that.

I published my post on the 15th and then, via Lewis Perdue’s Wine Industry Insight wine news round-up on the 16th, I saw an article published on the web site Inside Toronto that details a company, WineAlign, in Ontario that has a similar concept with the twist of taking major critical reviews and overlaying that on Liquor Control Board Ontario (LCBO) wine availability in Ontario, Canada. 

It can be done in the states, but the magic is in hardcore number crunching and weighting critical palate preferences to create a meta-score that can map to an individual consumer preference reliably.

Johannes Reinhardt Photo Credit:  Morgan Dawson Photography


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Palate Tuning and the Permanent Record

I’m aware that there are at least three strata of consumers who use wine reviews (and likely many more). 

1)  People that calibrate their palate to that of a critic so they can make very informed purchase decisions.  These people are few and probably most closely aligned with Robert Parker or niche critics like Allen Meadows of Burghound or Charlie Olken of the Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine.

2)  The broad swath of consumers who use scores, perhaps with some deference to the score-giver, to make retail purchase decisions.  With these folks, all things considered equal while balanced against price, a 91 is better than an 88 so they go with the higher score on the shelf-talker.

3) Online armchair wine researchers are an emerging category of users. Searching for a wine presents a sort of blotter file like the dreaded “permanent record” of school days gone by.  Consumers use search to research wines, validate a thought, sway indecision and incent action, sometimes in conjunction with #2.

This is linked, but separate from a recent working study presented under the banner of the American Association of Wine Economists called, “The Buyer’s Dilemma – Whose Rating Should a Wine Drinker Pay Attention to?”  For a well-considered post on this topic, see Joe Roberts post at 1WineDude.

For my part, I’ve done very little wine reviewing on this site preferring instead to make any specific wine the context for bigger ideas or points I want to make (no pun intended).  However, as I’ve gotten into the groove with my Forbes.com column, where there is a much broader audience, a wine-of-the-week column does have merit and I’ve started reviewing wines with more regularity.

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Doing so is fun, but the most that I hope for is to be a part of the permanent record as noted in item #3.  I certainly don’t have visions or a desire for anything more, but just the same, doing any sort of reviewing does open a can of worms, particularly in the case of the 2009 Red Car “Trolley” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, a wine that I recently reviewed and gave four stars to – which equates to a generalized “90-94” score.  I don’t give precise numeric ratings.  If I had to, I would have given the Red Car a 92, I liked the wine – it was earthy, nuanced, layered, balanced and it required some thought to figure out, all hallmarks of a good wine.

So, consider me SHOCKED when I saw the Wine Spectator review for this very same wine and Jim Laube gave it an 81.  I was less shocked, but slightly curious when I saw that Steve Heimoff at Wine Enthusiast gave it an 86 and Stephen Tanzer gave it an 88.

Can you imagine somebody searching online for the Red Car and seeing search results that present a disparate spread along the lines of Spectator’s 81, Heimoff’s 86, Stephen Tanzer’s 88, CellarTracker’s average score of 89 and a score under the Forbes masthead of 90-94?

It would be a real WTF moment that creates more confusion instead of the consumers desired order.

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This disparity in scores brings me to my point, which is the point of the Wine Economist working paper – whose score should you listen to?  Well, Joe Roberts, rightfully so, says listen to your own palate.  However, with the preponderance of existing and emerging wine reviewers out there, combined with an ever burgeoning tsunami of information about wine online, that’s easier said than done.  The real need is for meta-aggregation of scores, a sort of super wine review database.

Neil Monnens and his Wine BlueBook represents this on some level with his monthly newsletter that aggregates wine scores for individual wines from three or more critical scores giving it a QPR rating, but this is just the tip of the iceberg compared to where information is going.

Methinks that if a stats wonk can assign a Quarterback rating to NFL quarterbacks, and Sagarin ratings for college football, there has to be a way to create a meta-rating database based on regression analysis that accounts for palate preferences across a wide diversity of reviewers to create a super score for a wine that acts as the ultimate arbiter.  And I won’t be surprised if, in the near future, this emerges. 

Ultimately, the ongoing debate about wine scores is for naught.  The horse has already left the barn.  A better conversation might be around shaping the future and the fact that the best answer to, “Whose Rating Should a Wine Drinker Pay Attention to?” might be, “Trust your palate,” but it might also be, “Tune your palate against the database.”


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The Lost Symbol, Quantum Mechanics and How Randall Grahm helped me Reconcile Biodynamics

By a country mile as the crow flies over a buried cow horn on the vernal equinox, Biodynamics is the subject I’m most interested in amongst a myriad of conversational issues that compete against each other in the wine business.  Yet, I’ve never been able to square with Biodynamics – the benefits or the bunkum – until now.

When Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone winery and author of the blog Biodynamics is a Hoax said in a recent interview, “It’s a fight between religion and science.  There’s no question about it.  The people that are mostly Biodynamic supporters are post-modernist skeptics of science” I paused and took it in.  Yet, I was also confused about the boundary lines that he drew.

We live in a complicated world.  It seems too tidy to draw boxes and say that BioD detractors are pragmatic and progressive in matters of viticulture who resent the piety of Biodynamic practitioners whilst the BioD folks shrug their shoulders when asked how Biodynamics works, eschewing modern day viticultural practice, gazing at a moon chart.

Meanwhile, as we’re noodling on these neat assignments, let’s also throw in secondary dubiousness with Demeter as the arbiter of standards (and depositor of checks), mix in the Biodynamic father Rudolf Steiner as an alleged charlatan and add a dash of societal convention that relies on burden of proof for outcomes. 

With this heady stew, we now have perfect assignments along with swirling sub-issues that force the interplay of capitalism, spirituality, philosophy and science that is nearly impossible to reconcile amongst even the most reasonable people.

Harrumph.

The problem-solver in me needs to transcend partisan Biodynamic views.  The facilitator in me wants to find common ground. 

I want to know the truth about Biodynamics.  Not necessarily THE TRUTH, but my own truth, a personal reconciliation even if it is: “There’s a lot in life we don’t understand and this is one of them.”

I’m okay with living in the space between so long as I’ve assigned value to the black of, “It’s a hoax” and the white of, “It’s religion.”

Why? Because unlike Smith’s assertion, there has to be more to Biodynamics than accepting the use of BioD practices as an article of faith.

Likewise, Biodynamics can’t be debunked as an article of faith, counter to science.  If so, it presumes that the base of our collective human knowledge is at an end point.  We know everything there is to know and so Biodynamics doesn’t fit because it’s not rooted with a base of empirical proof.

So, what if Biodynamics is neither religion nor science, but rather a hybrid of the two that isn’t fully understood?

After all, by its very definition, Biodynamics relates to:  the study of the effects of dynamic processes, such as motion or acceleration, on living organisms.

That’s what I’ve been exploring.  Undoubtedly, it’s not leading me to THE TRUTH, but it is leading me to a truth different than, “science” “hoax” and “religion.”

Katherine Cole’s new book Voodoo Vintners (see review) does an exceptional job of framing Biodynamics in a balanced manner, yet there’s one chapter that I found sticking with me long after finishing the book.

In Chapter Four titled, “Science … or Sci-Fi” Cole explores the emerging scientific realm of quantum mechanics – the idea that our bodies, minds and physical environment are a symbiotic elements of energy that interact and that our consciousness, our thoughts, can impact our world. Specifically, she cites a book called, The Field:  The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe by Lynne McTaggert.

The framework for Cole’s mention is the notion of “intention” in the vineyard.  The idea that, as she notes and deftly discredits in the paragraph, “The belief is that the preparations aren’t merely herbal treatments for plants; they’re carriers of the farmers’ intentions, which have been swirled into them through the powerful act of stirring.  While it isn’t a requirement for Demeter certification, intention is that little bit of witchcraft that separates the most committed practitioners from the unbelievers.”

Yet, what energy forces and “intention” distills down to is not a rejection of science, but an embrace of the most cutting edge of science.

Randall Grahm, the founder of Bonny Doon Vineyard, is quoted from his blog in the book noting, “The world of wine exists in a non-Euclidean space, and certainly partakes of the quantum universe; there are great discontinuities in what we know or imagine we know.”

With that, I made a mental note to pick-up, The Field.

Later, I read Ideal Wine by David Darlington, which covers some of the some topical area with more insight into the scientific quantum mechanics link and Biodynamics, including Steiner’s founding of the philosophical area of anthroposophy, a pre-cursor philosophy to the more scientifically-rooted, legitimized quantum mechanics.

After I purchased The Field, I noted that it had a cover blurb that said, “The author and science featured in The Lost Symbol.”

The Lost Symbol is author Dan Brown’s follow-up after the wildly successful book, The DaVinci Code.

By now I’m deep into the proverbial rabbit’s hole. The Lost Symbol is a mediocre story, but an incredible mix of historical insight, cutting edge new science in quantum mechanics and its relation to modern day man’s role in seeking spirituality.  And, unlike the DaVinci Code that took some liberties with the line between fact and fiction, Brown is quick to point out in the preface of The Lost Symbol that, “All rituals, science, artwork, and monuments in this novel are real.”

And Brown does, in fact, lean on the ideas in The Field and McTaggert’s subsequent book called, The Intention Experiment whilst the cottage industry of “decoding” The Lost Symbol books gives validation to the basis for the ideas presented.

For the two people that have read this far, all of this is pretty heady stuff and not easily explainable, which might partly account for the obfuscation in Biodynamics and wine.  You have to be really, really intellectually curious to spend the time, but here’s where I’m at and here’s my recommendation if you want to follow a similar path:

Biodynamics isn’t about science vs. religion or “post-modernist skeptics of science” as Smith put it.  The entire conversation is wrong.  It IS about science that isn’t fully understood – quantum mechanics.  In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence that science and religion are one and the same.  This may be pseudoscience to some, but, regardless, the wine and Biodynamics conversation needs to be about whether you believe in the cutting edge of science or whether you need empirical proof in the here and now.  Talking about anything else is bloviating with half-truths from ideological positions. 

Further, anybody interested in wine and trying to understand Biodynamics from a wine perspective is wasting their time by reading about Biodynamics through the lense of the agricultural practices.  Don’t spend any time on Nicolas Joly, or Monty Waldin, or any of the leaders in the field.  You’ll never get past the weird preparations and the attempt at the explanation thereof.

Instead, any attempt at understanding Biodynamics needs to come through a view of the emerging science side.  Get a notebook to take notes.  Read The Lost Symbol first.  Then, read a decoding book about The Lost Symbol.  This acts as an accessible introduction to a number of ideas.  Again, the ideas and facts are real, the story is fiction.  From there, read The Field and skim The Intention Experiment.  Then read Voodoo Vintners and Ideal Wine. 

Once this has been completed, fill in the gaps with internet research on Steiner and some of his history with Theosophy and later Anthroposophy and then wade into Google and Amazon.com searching for, “Quantum physics, God, Consciousness.”  Balance all of this with some quick searching on metaphysics to understand the delta and overlap between science, religion and philosophy.

If, after having done this, you haven’t completely confused the shit out of yourself, you’ll have gained a new enlightenment the least of which will be akin to Oliver Wendall Holmes quote, “Once the mind has been stretched by a new idea, it will never again return to its original size.”

As I mentioned earlier, when seeking a truth, I’m okay with “There’s a lot in life we don’t understand and this is one of them” and that’s where I come down on Biodynamics, but the conversation must not be framed in black and white terms.  Everybody around Biodynamics – the proponents and the detractors are operating in the gray and there is no one particular truth, but, and this is a big but, we might not be too far away from a deeper understanding.

A Partial Journey in Exploring Biodynamics:
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Other stuff to read:
The science behind The Lost Symbol

Quantum Mysticism

Institute of Noetic Sciences

Space photo credit:  Wired.com


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