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Tag Archives: terroir

Terroir as a brand, and not as something that makes wine taste good

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terroir as a brandDoes terroir — the idea that the place where a wine is from makes it taste a certain way and helps determine its quality — exist? This question has generated reams of cyber-ink over the past five or six years, pitting those of us who think terroir matters against those who think we’re bunch of old farts and that technology has made terroir obsolete (if it ever mattered at all).

Now, the second group has an unlikely ally, a French academic who claims terroir is a myth, and that what the wine tastes like doesn’t matter to its success in the marketplace. Rather, says Valéry Michaux, director of research at NEOMA Business School in Rouen, the “best” wines have more to do with their brand and how well producers in the same area work together to market that brand.

In one respect, this is not new. Paul Lukacs, one of the smartest people I know, has argued that terroir is a French marketing ploy dating to the 1920s. What’s different about Michaux’s approach is that it claims that a wine’s brand is more important than terroir, which is about as 21st century, post-modern, and American business an approach as possible. Especially for the French.

Michaux’s theory says that the soil and climate in Bordeaux doesn’t make Bordeaux wine great; rather, it’s the producers in Bordeaux agreeing on what the wine should taste like and presenting a common front to the world. She cites the cluster effect, seen in both sociology and economics, where disparate parts of a whole come together for a common purpose. “The presence of a strategic alliance between professionals contributes significantly to the development of a single territorial umbrella brand and thus its influence,” she writes. “A strong local self-governance is also essential for a territorial brand to exist.”

It’s like saying no one reads what I write here because it’s well-written, offers quality content, or is even especially true. Instead, they like the idea of the Wine Curmudgeon, be it my hat, my attitude, or my writing style, and I should promote the latter to be successful

Michaux’s analysis is both correct and completely off the mark, because she misses the point of terroir. Of course, terroir can be a brand. Look at what Big Wine has done with $10 pinot noir, which doesn’t often taste like pinot noir but is successfully marketed as such, or the idea of grocery store California merlot, made to be smooth and fruity and not particularly merlot-like. But the difference between cheap wine and cheap wine I recommend, the quality that makes the best cheap wine interesting, is often terroir, the traditional idea of the sense of place where the wine is from.

But to argue that Bordeaux or Burgundy or Napa makes great wine because the producers agreed to make a certain style of wine and to market it with a common approach is silly. For one thing, my dogs know more about marketing than most wineries do. But what matters more is quality, because the best wines from Bordeaux are incredible in a way that has nothing to do with a strategic alliance but with where the grapes are grown, how the grapes are turned into wine, and the region’s history and tradition. Why does cabernet sauvignon from Napa not taste like cabernet from Bordeaux? Terroir is a much better explanation than a cluster effect.

Winebits 328: Scottish wine, wine marketing, lawsuits

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Winebits 328: Scottish wine, wine marketing, lawsuits

Scottish wine for a Scottish dish, haggis

Talk about terroir: A Scottish winemaker — yes, that’s correct — says climate change has made it possible to make wine in his country. Christopher Trotter, a chef and food writer, wants to grow six acres of grapes in eastern Scotland, and says that the warmest weather in centuries will make it possible. One caveat: It’s still cooler than most of the world’s wine regions, so he has to use grapes that are cold hardy and that don’t necessarily make great wine. The article, from the Bloomberg news service, is also an excellent look at how warmer temperatures around the world will affect the wine business.

A glass of Chloe, please: The Wine Group, which gave the world Cupcake, is making another marketing play, this time with a brand called Chloe. As Robert Joseph writes, the company’s approach has nothing to do with wine per se, but with how it is sold to the public. Chloe is being marketed like jewelry or perfume, costing about one-third more than the $10 to $12 Cupcake. This is The Wine Group’s particular genius, and which is rarely seen in wine, that it can position its brands as lifestyle products and get a premium for what will almost certainly be a very ordinary bottle of Italian pinot grigio (given the quality of its other wines). But, as many have noted, the people who buy these kinds of wines aren’t buying them for what’s in the bottle.

Bring out the lawyers: The Wine Curmudgeon has always enjoyed watching companies sue each other over labels and brand names, and this one is particularly enjoyable. Beverage Digest reports that Diageo, the world’s largest drinks company, says family-owned Heaven Hill is trampling on its intellectual property in Canada with a product called Admiral Nelson spiced rum, which too closely resembles Diageo’s Captain Morgan spiced rum. How many billable hours will this require? The article discusses — seriously, I suppose — that one issue in the lawsuit will be how similar the character of Nelson, the greatest hero in British naval history, is to Morgan, who was a pirate. Sadly, wigs are no longer worn in Canadian courts, or this would be even more fun to watch.

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.

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