The Load of Politics in the Average Glass of Wine

Why is French wine so expensive? Why is the label on a bottle of French wine so hard to understand? Why are almost all American wines from California? These are the questions Tyler Colman answers in his new book, Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink, just published this month. Colman, a.k.a. Dr. Vino of the award-winning Web site DrVino.com, spoke Wednesday at the Beard on Books event at the James Beard House.

The book focuses on France and the United States, specifically the regions of Bordeaux and the Napa Valley. Beginning with France, Colman outlines the history of the appellation d’origine contrôlée system, which was begun in 1935. The AOC system, of which now about 55% of wine production adheres, controls yield, vine density, and irrigation among other things. Ultimately the resulting wines are judged by a tasting committee, which has the power to pass or fail a wine. Passed wines are allowed to be sold under the appropriate AOC label, but failed wines can be declassified to either vin de pays, a one-varietal wine, or vin de table (table wine), which can bear no distinctive label. Interestingly, the pass rate has recently reached 99%.

As recent as 2005, wineries in the region of Bordeaux have seen tough times with more than five hundred bankruptcies per year. The difficulties result from the politics of the AOC system, which puts a ceiling on production, so that wineries are punished for bounteous harvest years. This crisis affects both low- and high-end wine production. According to the AOC system, surplus wine must be distilled into ethanol. Can you imagine running your car on Cabernet? Prince Charles recently converted his Aston Martin to run on ethanol made from surplus English wine.

According to Colman, the theme of U.S. wine production has always been overcoming challenges. Americans have been unsuccessfully trying to make wine for four hundred years, but finally succeeded only in the past forty. First the English King James I had trouble getting the colonists to grow wine because they preferred growing the more successful and profitable tobacco. Then Thomas Jefferson tried to bring wine culture to the U.S. but was unsuccessful in growing European varieties. The root of the problem was that European grapes and American grapes were two different species, vitis vinifera and vitis labrusca respectively. Vitis vinifera is better for making wine, whereas vitis labrusca is better for making jams and jellies. Plantings from the European vines were too susceptible to disease in the colonies, while the hardy American grapes made inferior wine.

The perfect climate for vitis vinifera was in California. The California Gold Rush inadvertently brought winemaking to California, increasing the population and bringing in European immigrants with an appreciation for wine. In California vitis vinifera was successfully planted and thrived in the Meditteranean-like climate until its ruination by the phylloxera epidemic arriving from france in the late-nineteenth century. Phylloxera attacked the roots of the vines, causing the plant to slowly wither away. Grafting the vitis vinifera onto phylloxera-resistant vitis labrusca rootstock proved to be the only way to stop the disease. Interestingly, more than 90% of American wine is made in California.

Later it was the temperance movement and prohibition that set back American winemaking by almost fifty years. The prohibition years between 1919 and 1933 left little for wineries, except that winemaking was still allowed for sacramental wine, medicinal purposes, and grapes were sold directly to consumers for home winemaking. All resulted in expanded acreage, but unfortunately the vines planted were vitis labrusca, which degraded the quality of wine, not to mention professional production skills suffered.

When prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, states were allowed to make their own laws about alcohol and wine. Unfortunately, the effects of prohibition are still felt today; there is still a patchwork of state laws. For example: It is a felony to ship wine to residents of Indiana. Wine can only be purchased at restaurants in Utah. And in other states, wine cannot be purchased on Sundays, or purchased in grocery stores.

While wine consumption in France has been declining because of various reasons, such as advertising bans, anti-drinking campaigns, etc., the consumption of wine in the U.S. has been rising for fifteen consecutive years. Wineries in the U.S. have seen spurred growth. By the end of this year, the U.S. will be the largest wine-consuming country in the world.

After reading this book, a glass of wine will never be the same. You will learn to be your own critic instead of depending on Robert Parker. And you will be more informed about the wine you are drinking in your glass. I know that I will be. I can attest that I no longer am afraid of French wine labels, and that I now know that most of the French wine in my measly cellar is vin de pays. I only have one bottle of AOC Bordeaux, which I will now cherish.

On July 22, Tyler Colman will be signing books at Powell’s Books, Cedar Hills Crossing in Beaverton, OR.