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Tag Archives: Big Wine

Big Wine and the search for authenticity

One of the most important changes in the California wine business over the past decade has been the rise of Big Wine and the role it has played in the growth of better quality cheap wine. It’s a story that has not been told, and why I spent a lot of time writing about it in The Cheap Wine book. Otherwise, many of us, myself included, wouldn’t be here.

It’s a subject that David Michalski of the Unversity of California-Davis handles admirably in the spring issue of Boom. It’s longish and a trifle academic in tone, but stay with it. Michalski reviews four books centered around the idea of authenticity in wine, but to get there he must explain why authenticity has become an issue. Because, before the 1980s, the very nature of wine was authenticity. French wine tasted of France, Italian of Italy, and so forth.

Then, writes Michalski, came California.

This manifesto for a new taste, one in which California figured centrally, resonated with a new generation of wine-drinkers. It was a message tailor-fit for an industry looking to reinvent itself, too, as California positioned itself in opposition to the snobbery of Old World wine. And although many of the so-called new breed wineries had close connections to the older generation, the image of California as an innovator and a challenger forever changed a trade once dominated by European markets and taste regimes. It opened wine to a wider global audience. It gave encouragement to developing wine regions across the globe. And it gave license to winemakers, even those back in Europe, to experiment with craft and science in the service of wine beauty.

This, says Michalski, is the double-edged sword of Big Wine and globalization and a result of what happened in California – cheaper wines that make wine more accessible and democratic, but by their nature lack authenticity and the terroir that is part of authenticity.

In this, he finds a middle ground that not many others have discovered, though one I share: That globalization does not mean the end of authenticity, and that it’s possible for Big Wine to co-exist with it. “A fuller study of the way terroir works in today’s economy reveals the importance of local branding within the global economy, a phenomenon scholars of consumption call glocalization,” he writes.

Yes, a crappy word, but a concept that explains a lot. It explains how Sicilian winemakers can use modern techniques developed in California to produce high-quality wine that still tastes of Sicily. It’s how Gascon wine, barely a consideration outside parts of France a decade ago, can be sold by large U.S. retailers who wouldn’t carry it unless there was a demand for it. And it helps account for local wine, which wouldn’t exist without the improvements in viticulture and enology that started in California 40 years ago.

Big Wine: 5 companies, 60 percent of sales, 200 brands

Call it serendipity. Shortly after my blog posts about Big Wine at the end of last year, a Michigan State study offered even more data about how Big Wine works and how it has changed the business.

The paper, “Concentration in the U.S. Wine Industry,” was compiled by Phil Howard, an associate professor who studies consolidation. After doing soft drinks and beer, he told me, wine was the next logical step.

“And even I was surprised by what I found,” Howard said. “Wine was much different than what I thought. If you go to the stores, it seems like you have all these choices, because the shared ownership is not very apparent. We wanted to help consumers understand what they were really buying.”

More, after the jump:

Big wine companies and wine quality, part II

This is the second of two parts looking at consolidation in the wine business and the rise of the giant producer –  a handful of which dominate the U.S. wine business. Today, advice on how to tell which multi-national made the wine you drink. The first part, which ran on Dec. 13, looked at company size and why it matters.

What do the Barefoot, Cupcake and Two-buck Chuck wines have in common? Each are labels owned by one of the largest wine companies in the country, but you can’t tell that by looking at the label.

Nowhere does it say that E&J Gallo owns Barefoot, perhaps the best-selling wine in the U.S. Or that The Wine Group makes Cupcake through its Underdog division. Or that Two-buck Chuck, the Charles Shaw wine sold at Trader Joe’s, is one of dozens of labels produced by Bronco.

That’s because there is no legal requirement to do so, and most wine companies aren’t interested in that sort of thing. So what’s a curious consumer to do? Googling the wine while standing in the store aisle isn’t the most efficient use of time. Rather, look for clues on the back label – details of which are after the jump.

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