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Grenache Day celebrates a grape that deserves more respect

Commentary

This coming Friday, like every third Friday in September since 2010, is International Grenache Day.

There is probably a promotional day for every product sold and Grenache Day sounds like a fake holiday dreamed up by a public relations firm eager for an excuse to peddle a client’s wares. But it’s not really, and it was conceived by a group of respected French producers and the late, and very well respected, wine writer and merchant Steven Spurrier.

They decided to celebrate the day after holding their first ever symposium on the grape in the South of France that year. Their aim was less about creating a marketing gimmick and more about reminding wine enthusiasts about a grape that often doesn’t get the attention and respect Grenachistas (like me) think it deserves. I don’t need a special day to drink Grenache or Grenache-based wines, but it’s a good excuse to recall why some of the best value reds on the shelf feature the grape, and that requires a little wine history.

Grenache is commonly the used as the short form for “Grenache Noir,” the red version of the grape that also come in Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris versions. (Like there is Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris (Grigio)). Grenache is also called different things in different places. Its origin is in Northern Spain, where it is known as Garnacha. The Spanish spread it around through the Middle Ages and Early Modern Era, when their royal houses controlled large areas of what is now Mediterranean France and much of Italy. One of those places their Garnacha was spread and took hold was Sardinia, where it is known as Cannonau, and serves as principal red grape on the island.

Grenache continued its spread around the Western Mediterranean with the colonization by the French and Spanish of North Africa in the 19th Century. And finally as far as the Western Cape of South Africa and South Australia. Colonists and settlers found Grenache vines perfect for warm, dry climates and favoured them for their rigour and high yields. In Southern Europe, after the blight of phylloxera decimated its vineyards at the turn of the last century, Grenache was a popular grape to replant with vignerons eager to make-up for years of lost production.

Unfortunately for Grenache, the characteristics that made it the darling of viticulturists for most of its history had, by the late 20th century, turned it into a bête noire among critics and consumers. Grenache became known as a grape that made cheap wine, when it wasn’t leading part of the great “wine lake” of over production in the European Union. By the 1990s even Grenache’s most famous and prestigious site of production, Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhône Valley, was engaged in an exercise of modernization and re-branding. Grenache had lost its lustre.

Outside of Europe, in South Africa, but especially in Australia, Grenache was ignored in favour of, or replanted with, another wine grape widely grown in the Rhône Valley: Syrah or, as they called it, Shiraz. Producers in the Barossa Valley who began experimenting with Rhône blends called them ‘GSM’, rather than Grenache Syrah Mourvèrdre. To be fair, GSM was likely more about clever marketing and giving consumers an easy to remember category of red wine than anything against Grenache, but the net effect did no great favours to the reputation of the grape.

And then, around the time of the first Grenache Day in 2010, things began to turn around, due in no small part to changes brought on in the 1990s. It wasn’t just Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers who were re-examining the quality of their wines, producers across the South of France, Northern Spain and Sardinia were also reconsidering their business models 30 years ago. These new ways of doing things included a shift from quantity to quality and selling wines made on the estate rather than grapes to a co-operative or large winemaker. They also included a switch from “international grapes” like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to ones traditional to Southwestern Europe, like Grenache.

It turns out that when Grenache is farmed for low yields, mostly by aggressive pruning, the quality of the wines it makes is an altogether different and better thing. It takes a while to make changes in the wine world, where time is measured in vintages. But by the second decade of the 21st century, savvy consumers, critics and sommeliers were rediscovering Grenache-based wines. The reputation of wines from the Rhône were climbing, especially among the regions around Châteauneuf, like Gigondas and Vacqueras. To the west, so too were Languedoc and Roussillon beginning to be taken seriously as fine wine producers. While wine enthusiasts looking for something different were exploring Northern Spanish wines beyond Tempranillo-based Rioja, and looking into previously overlooked centres of production like Sardinia.

Changes were also bearing fruit in the New World. The other way to lower yields is to make wine from very old vines, and after years of neglect Australian producers were discovering some very old Grenache vines, that had been planted sometimes more than a hundred years ago to make a version of fortified red wine. In South Africa, producers in up and coming regions like Swartland worked with Grenache as it suited their dry farming (no irrigation) and low intervention ethos. Grenache was coming back.

Grenache is still coming back in the sense that there are still great deals on $20 and under Grenache-based wines, and very good ones at under $30 in 2021. Look for wines from up and coming Côtes-du-Rhône “villages” like Cairanne or Ventoux, which will almost always be Grenache dominant. Poke around the Spanish shelves for a Garnacha, which is now printed on labels as a show of pride. Australian Grenache can be a little harder to find, but look out for Yalumba’s Old Vines Grenache when and if it comes through. Grenache is too difficult to grow commercially in Niagara, but it will in Okanagan and there are a few producers there making a small amount. In any event, have a happy Grenache Day with whatever is in your glass.

Opinion: It’s no coincidence we have shortages in the most regulated sectors of our economy

Commentary

As the federal election campaign reaches its final stretch, it’s increasingly clear, based on a combination of public polling and how the party leaders have allocated their own time, resources, and attention, that housing, health care, and childcare all rank near the top of the public policy agenda

Although these three policy issues may seem quite different, they share one major commonality: they’re all cases of a persistent supply-demand gap that’s leading to shortages and in turn driving up prices or producing long wait lists.

This isn’t really supposed to happen in a market economy. Markets are supposed to act as signaling devices to transmit information between buyers and sellers in order to bring supply and demand into something approximating an equilibrium. Yet in these three policy areas — housing, health care, and childcare — the signaling device seems broken. We have more buyers than sellers and yet the market isn’t responding to increase supply to meet the demand. 

The impact can be measured in terms of supply shortages, inflated prices, or broader consequences for individuals and families. Take housing for instance. A 2021 report published by Scotiabank estimated that, based on population trends, there should have been 90,000 more homes built in Canada over the past 36 months.

Or consider childcare. A pre-pandemic study by Statistics Canada found that, while most families don’t have difficulties securing childcare, about 40 percent reported challenges related to access, affordability, or compatibility with work. That number has increased slightly in the context of COVID-19.

And, of course, health-care shortages have been top-of-mind over the past several months. Not only does Canada have a poor record on medical wait times generally, but it’s bound to get much worse as the pandemic has contributed to massive backlogs for surgical procedures and diagnostic testing in what’s been described as the “crisis behind the crisis.”

The magnitude of the supply shortages in these areas is the subject of debate (it can depend, for instance, on how one defines different types of supply) but generally there isn’t much contention that these supply-demand gaps exist or that they are manifesting themselves in ways that are harmful to the economic and social well-being of Canadians.

The real debate is what policymakers ought to do about them. At the root of the competing perspectives is differing interpretations about the source of the problem. Is it a market failure or a government failure?

A common view among policy experts and politicians is that the source of the problem is the market itself. The supply-demand disequilibrium, according to this point of view, is a result of market failure. The idea here is that the market is malfunctioning for various reasons and as a result not producing adequate supply to meet demand in housing, health care, or childcare. Governments must therefore step in and solve for the persistent supply shortages in these areas.

This is the underlying basis, for instance, for the Liberal Party’s national childcare proposal. Although politicians don’t necessarily speak in these basic economic terms, the premise of the Liberal plan is that the market won’t create enough so-called “high-quality” childcare spaces on its own and that the government must intervene with a combination of public subsidies and direct public provision to fill the gap.

The problem with this assumption is that it fails to reckon with the role that government policy has played in interfering with the market’s proper functioning in the first place. Take childcare. The economist Pierre Fortin, for instance, has described how after the introduction of $10 per day daycare in Quebec, spaces in non-subsidized care (which, together with non-centre based care, still make up the majority of spaces in the province) “understandably crumbled” as a result of the province’s intervention.

The Quebec daycare case is merely one example of a series of policies enacted by Canadian governments to intervene in the functioning of the housing, health care, and childcare markets in the name of equity, safety, and even aesthetics.

Canadians may be prepared to live with fewer rules and regulations on housing, health care, and childcare if it permits the market to function better.

It’s axiomatic that these policy choices, all of which may be well-intended and even justified in and of themselves, have had the cumulative effect of interfering with the market’s ability to properly function by short-circuiting the transmission of information between buyers and sellers.

In particular, policy interventions such as stringent land-use restrictions, strict licensing requirements for childcare, and prohibitions on the use of private clinics have both muted the signaling device and blocked those who can still faintly hear it from responding by building more homes or creating more childcare spaces or carrying out more surgeries.

These are, in other words, among the most regulated parts of our economy and society and it’s no coincidence that they share a persistent supply-demand gap.

Yet, even still, it’s important to emphasize that the underlying case for these government interventions isn’t inherently wrong just because they affect availability or prices. One can reasonably agree or disagree with the arguments for these various policy choices on their own merits.

These are complicated questions after all: Should we build more homes or have more greenspace? Should we require childcare providers to be licensed or not? Should we permit more private health-care delivery or limit it to the single-payer model?

But no matter how one answers these questions, it shouldn’t be arguable that these policy choices will doubtless have effects on the market’s functioning and in turn lead to more (or less) homes, more (or less) childcare spaces, and more (or less) health-care capacity.

Just because one’s choices may lead to less supply in any of these areas still isn’t in and of itself an argument against them. It may be quite reasonable to argue that a particular policy objective (including, for instance, limiting the ratio of staff to children in a childcare setting in the name of attention and safety) ought to be paramount relative to concerns about access and affordability.

That’s the nature of politics and government in a world of trade-offs: it necessarily places certain goals above other ones and uses the levers of public policy to tilt in favour of those overriding objectives.

In order to make these decisions in an evidence-based and rigorous manner, however, policymakers must understand the inherent trade-offs and how the public thinks about them. Yet so much of the campaign debates about housing, health care, and childcare seems to neglect these trade-offs.

This matters because many of those who argued for existing interventions now want another round of policy interventions to account for the costs imposed by the previous ones. The layering of interventions on top of interventions fails to grapple with the root causes of the problem. It reflects a weird myopia where people can’t seem to see the full consequences of their policy preferences.

What’s interesting though is that polling consistently shows that housing, health care, and childcare are major areas of concerns which tells us that Canadians can indeed see them and may no longer be satisfied with these inherent trade-offs. They may be prepared to live with fewer rules and regulations on housing, health care, and childcare if it permits the market to function better and in so doing improves access and affordability.

The political parties seem to have increasingly heard this message on the housing file. The Conservatives, in particular, have committed to tie federal transit funding to provinces and municipalities liberalizing their land-use rules in order to enable more housing builds.

This is a good step. It reflects a growing recognition that the best means to addressing the country’s housing affordability challenges isn’t to tinker with demand-side supports including new tax credits or mortgage rules. It’s to free up the market to build more homes.

But the parties have been much slower to come to a similar view on health care and childcare shortages. Instead policy activists and politicians continue to assert that there’s a market failure and that’s still somehow a trump card that precludes any constructive debate about the root causes of the ongoing supply shortages in these areas and what we ought to do about them. The sole answer is invariably more spending, more intervention, and more government.

Basically, the health care and childcare policy debates are about where the housing file was five-to-ten years ago. Perhaps that’s a cause for optimism. Maybe it’s a sign that dispassion and evidence can still ultimately prevail.

It’s also possible though that both sides are correct. It’s conceivable that even in a more permissive and pluralistic policy framework that over time we could find a remaining supply-demand gap that would necessitate the types of interventions (including greater state involvement in childcare) that some are calling for in this campaign. But it’s impossible to make this judgement now given that the panoply of pre-existing interventions is obscuring our ability to see how the market would function on its own devices.

This is all to say that in the remaining days of this campaign when policy experts and politicians assert that the government needs to intervene to correct a market failure, we shouldn’t merely accept their claims. Canadians ought to push them for evidence that the real problem is a case of the market malfunctioning and not the government short-circuiting the market’s signaling device.

The root cause of the problem is usually the latter. It certainly seems the case in housing, health care, and childcare. If only our political parties could see it.