- Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink
Tyler Colman provides a comparative history of the modern French and North American wine industries by tracking “the travels that a bottle of wine takes from the vineyard to the dining-room table” (p. 3). [End Page 723] Wine Politics discusses the cultural, political, business, and regulatory factors that have structured and accompanied the spectacular success of this global agribusiness. Coverage runs from early nineteenth-century origins, when “quality mattered less than price” (p. 90), and through the middle years, when growers were often inclined to plant wine-grape varieties that could be used for table grapes, raisins, or juice should the demand for wine slow or deteriorate (p. 69), to current converging industrial practices and competing economies of scale. Colman’s central thesis is that in their efforts to capture greater market share, the initially dissimilar wine industries of France and North America increasingly adopted each other’s production and marketing strategies (a “global exchange of learning,” p. 147) and thereby created a more diversified global industry. An important result, he argues, is that by incorporating more diverse practices, the current wine industry fosters continued growth in existing markets and new geographies.
The interconnected stakeholders in this complex narrative include grower associations, winemaker cooperatives, lending banks, investment corporations, research and certifying institutes, liquor boards, regulatory commissions, policy makers, bootleggers, and prohibitionists (who collude to limit legal production), along with distributors, retailers, and related lobbyists. They individually, severally, and sometimes collectively address common environmental challenges (such as phylloxera and climate change), respond to diverse wine-drinking cultures, manage boom and bust commodity cycles, delineate wine classifications and identify growing zones (the Système d’appelation d’origine controlée in France and the American Viticulture Areas), adopt mechanisms for regulating quality, quantity, and price stability (from production through retail levels via carefully managed auctions, media campaigns, tastings, etc.), standardize labeling practices, promote subsidies, limit taxation, absorb surpluses, regulate contents and packaging, manage expanding and contracting markets, and coordinate pertinent marketing strategies and discourses, such as how the importance of terroir, brand name loyalty, or the art/science of wine tasting shapes their collective industrial destiny.
Within an industry dominated by publically traded global corporations such as Heublein, Coca-Cola, and Nestlé, Colman maintains that the interests of locality and consumer tastes will continue to command the attention of people who, if left to their own devices, might simply produce “one-dimensional unsophisticated, dumbed-down, monochromatic wines” (p. 115) to correspond to “small, big, red, and white barcodes” (p. 105). His three final chapters turn the reader’s attention to the role of shifting markets, increased environmental awareness, [End Page 724] converging industrial technologies, and emerging experimental practices. Colman illustrates his points through the use of several case studies. Memorable among them is the story of Yellowtail, or the Australian “900 pound Wallaby” (p. 103), a company that became a global competitor in the span of just over ten years (1994–2005) by selling 8.6 million cases of wine in the United States in 2005, compared to all of the United States’ French import of 10.5 million cases in the same year (p. 104). Setting aside the role of wine critics such as Robert Parker, marketing firms such as Enologix, and others within the wine industry engaged in shaping consumer expectations (p. 119), Colman’s research illustrates how, on the one hand, large producers can successfully deliver consistently high-quality wines that respond to consumer tastes and desires (p. 119), even when that requires intervening in the winemaking process to override the influence of terroir. He is equally cognizant, on the other hand, of the efforts of niche operations that apply new technologies (green, organic, artisanal, biodynamic, etc.), develop new conceptions of terroir (such as New Zealand’s Gimblett Gravels), and open new markets by producing new, distinctive, and even “quirky” wines.
Colman’s succinct and up-to-date...