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Malcolm Jolley: ‘The Platonic ideal of Old World Cabernet’: Sassicaia is a wonderful wine—if you can get it

Commentary

At a recent lunch and tasting for the wine press she hosted in Toronto, Priscilla Incisa della Rochetta described her role in the family business as “external relations”. Incisa della Rochetta was on the second stop of a four-city Canadian tour, which also included events in Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver to promote the wines from her family estate, Tenuta San Guido, in the Maremma sub-region of Tuscany that stretches east from the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Tenuta San Guido’s most famous wine is Sassicaia, one of the original Super Tuscan wines made with French grapes, that came to prominence in the 1970s.Sassicaia is made from mostly Cabernet Sauvignon (usually 85 percent or so) and Cabernet Franc grapes. The vines for Sassicaia were planted in 1942 by Priscilla’s grandfather, Mario Incisa della Rochetta, sourced from another Tuscan estate owned by a friend. 

The vines and the wine they made from them were not intended as a commercial venture. They were planted as an act of self-sufficiency and comprised just one of many components of the 500-hectare agricultural property, along with fields of wheat, olive groves, and stables to raise thoroughbred horses. The idea of selling the wines from Sassicaia came in the 1960s when some other family friends and relations—the renowned Antinoris who were beginning to develop the neighbouring Tentuta Guide al Tasso—suggested it.

The first Sassicaia to go on sale was the 1968 vintage, which was released for public consumption in 1971. Tenuta San Guido continues to release Sassicaia no sooner than three years after harvest: it’s elevated in French oak barrels (about two-thirds new) for two years, and then left to rest and pull itself together for another one. Last year the Incisa della Rochetta’s released their 50th vintage, the 2018, and this year it’s the 2019 that is due to be available in Canada this October.

Sassicaia was formerly labeled simply as table wine until the appellation of Bolgheri DOC was extended to red wines in 1994.In fact, it was awarded its own “monopole”, Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC. By then the Super Tuscans of Bolgheri, which included Ornellaia (established in 1981 by another branch of the Antinori family), made with Cabernet and Merlot grapes were in high demand, where they have stayed. This year, a bottle of the 2019 Sassicaia will cost more than $250 from the LCBO, if one was lucky enough to gain the privilege of being able to buy it.

Since Sassicaia sells out all the wines it makes, save those bottles they keep for their library, it begs the question of why Priscilla Incisa della Rochetta must manage external relations at all. Most export managers buy airplane tickets for the singular purpose of selling more wine. There is no more Sassicaia to sell, and the other wines Tenuta San Guido makes, Guidalberto (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and La Difese (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese) do just as well.

One of the reasons that Priscilla Incisa della Rochetta was in Canada, pouring wines and answering questions, is that Sassicaia is sold from the winery by allotment.The system whereby wines that are in high demand are distributed across many markets so that one or a small group of markets do not dominate sales.

Allotment protects the winery from shocks to the supply chain, which Incisa della Rochetta agreed was a lesson pertinent to the current marketplace, what with wars and lockdowns. She also agreed when I suggested that by spreading Sassicaia across the world and in front of wine enthusiasts, Tenuta San Guido was investing in the long-term value of the label. I suspect, too, that the family and winery are proud of the wine and would like as many people to try it as they can manage.

Stephen Marentette, the Ontario Sales and Marketing Director for Tenuta San Guido’s importer, Sylvestre Wines & Spirits Inc., was at the table. He explained that this year the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which sells its allotment to consumers in the province, had devised a kind of lottery that prospective buyers can subscribe to online in hopes of being able to purchase Sassicaia. He was unsure how many bottles a single buyer might be able to take home. Licensee buyers (restaurants) could purchase directly through the importing agency, but would be subject to its own allotment regime.

The wines presented that day went in escalating order of prestige, beginning with the latest release of each label. We began with the 2020 Le Difese, which Incisa della Rochetta said was, “meant to be drunk young”. First made in 2002, it’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from Bolgheri and Sangiovese from Chianti Ruffino, so is labeled simply as Toscana IGT (“wine of Tuscany”).It should be in Canada next spring for about $40 a bottle. It showed a juicy play between blackberry and cherry with lively acidity.

Next, we moved on to two vintages of the Guidalberto blend of 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 50 percent Merlot. First, the 2020, which will come to Canada around March of next year and retail for about $60 a bottle. Incisa della Rochetta does not like Guidalberto to be described as a “second wine”, but rather “another wine”. Another beautifully balanced wine, but now with black and blue fruit lifted with a bit of Mediterranean herbal spice. Next, the 2015, whose fruit was what the British call hedgerow (raspberry and blackberry), with black currant on the finish, still very much lively and brought water to the mouth.

For the stars of the show, we tasted three vintages of Sassicaia: 2018 now in release, 2019 released last year, and 2010 to see what happens to the wine with a bit of age. I’ll cut to the chase and describe what we tasted in reverse order. The twelve-year-old Sassicaia was a kind of Platonic ideal of Old World Cabernet, very much on the order of big growth Bordeaux. Cassis and maybe a bit of cranberry on the very, very long finish. It was hauntingly good and purred like a finely tuned performance car.

The 2018 Sassicaia, was from what is considered a cooler vintage and showed a brighter, more lively style of fruit with more blackberry than currant, and maybe black cherry. Incisa della Rochetta said that she liked the wine for its lighter touch, saying it showed a “style we like to display”. Again, in lovely balance with food-friendly acid, it was still showing young with grippy tannins and promise of what is to come.

By contrast, the 2019 Sassicaia, which we had at lunch actually started with, showed more dark red, crimson fruit, and tannins that stuck a bit. But for a wine that wants age, it was still so beautifully balanced and immersive. Some wines spur conversation, others stop it. Cabernet was planted at the Sassicaia vineyard because it reminded Mario Incisa della Rochetta of Bordeaux, with its sandy and gravelly maritime soils. He wasn’t wrong; the expression of the grape is elegant yet strong. Nice wine if you can get it.

Correction: The author regrets that a previous version of this post included erroneous pricing, quoting $1,100 for a double magnum (3L) bottle of Sassicaia 2018.

Sean Speer: Concerned about economic inequality? Forget taxing the rich, we need to create more middle-class jobs

Commentary

As we try to understand the restive state of our economy and politics, the role of income inequality and the accompanying wealth gap in Western societies remains the source of considerable debate. 

Progressives contend that unequal outcomes are harming social mobility, weakening social cohesion, and contributing to the overall state of political dysfunction. Conservatives, by contrast, point to different arguments including that inequality has stabilized, or that it reflects life-cycle trends, or that it doesn’t really matter anyway. 

I’ve made versions of the latter arguments over the years. My main case has been that unequal outcomes generally aren’t a problem to be solved in a market economy and instead the goal of public policy should be to extend opportunity as broadly as possible. Policymaking attention should, in other words, be paid to fostering greater social mobility rather than trying to equalize outcomes through higher levels of redistribution. 

What if, however, both sides are somewhat right? Or, to be more precise, the truth is somewhere in the middle—namely, the middle of the labour market’s skills distribution. Let me try to explain. 

The chief problem with the Left’s inequality analysis is that it has misread causes. Its arguments tend to imply something corrupt, greedy, or systemic about the unequal outcomes in our society. This is how in large part we’ve ended up with the language of “privilege” permeating modern political discourse. It ceases to be about a question of policy trade-offs and becomes a moralistic enterprise to overturn generations of social arrangements including, in some cases, the market economy itself. 

The whole “tax-the-rich” movement therefore often seems to view higher taxes as an end in itself. Talk of “taxing billionaires out of existence” from leading progressives like Thomas Piketty is a bit of a tell. The case for confiscatory taxes is often implicitly presented as a means to equalize downward rather than as part of an overall plan to boost low-income individuals or households upwards. 

Notwithstanding the inherent flaws in these arguments, it would be a mistake to underestimate their political salience. Polling tells us that Canadians, Americans, and other Western populations broadly support higher taxes on high-income earners. 

This has manifested in growing political action. In Canada, for instance, we’ve seen a steady set of redistributive tax reforms at the federal and provincial levels, including new and higher tax rates on high-income earners, a redistributive carbon tax and cash transfer, and new taxes on capital and now luxury goods

Yet while the Left has been wrong in how it has come to think about the causes and in turn proper responses to income inequality, I’ve come to understand in recent years that its basic insight isn’t completely incorrect. Structural changes in our labour market—namely, the relative decline in mid-skilled jobs—are far more responsible for income inequality than any nefarious actors. The decline in manufacturing employment in particular is a major factor in understanding what’s come to be called an “hourglass economy.” 

The basic idea here is that the old goods-producing economy produced a more egalitarian labour market in which most jobs were clustered in and around the middle of the skills distribution. Today’s service-based economy, by contrast, is far more bifurcated into low-paid and often low-skilled jobs in care work or personal services and high-paid and often high-skilled jobs in professional, administrative, and financial services. This labour market development is often described as “job polarization.” 

It’s been occurring across Western economies for the past 30 years or so. Canada is no exception. Between 1989 and 2019, the Canadian economy experienced a 6-percentage point decline in the relative share of mid-skilled jobs (see Figure 1). That number jumped to 7.5-percentage points in Ontario and Quebec where there was a high concentration of manufacturing employment that had historically been a significant source of middle-class opportunity.  

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

These labour market developments have major political economy implications including for the broader debate about income inequality. As the relative share of mid-skilled jobs falls, many are able to climb up the skills distribution into higher-skilled opportunities, but some invariably fall downwards into lower-skilled employment. The income consequences can be significant: those in high-skilled jobs earn almost four times more than those working in low-skilled jobs. The upshot is that we’ve ended up with a more bifurcated labour market in which unequal outcomes may be increasingly hard-wired into its structure.

A key exception to these trends over the past two decades has been natural resource employment. Research in fact shows that Canada’s job polarization has been less marked than peer jurisdictions because natural resource sectors in general and the oil and gas sector in particular have had significant labour demand for mid-skilled workers and therefore represented an “employment alternative to low-paying service jobs.”

This point cannot be overemphasized: as the labour market has gone through a process of polarization in the twenty-first century, natural resource employment has generally counteracted this trend and in so doing fortified Canada’s middle class. As University of British Columbia economist Kevin Milligan has put it: “The resource sector has contributed substantially to the good jobs that underpin middle-class resilience.” 

There are two main policy takeaways from this analysis. The first is that it should challenge the simplistic view that income inequality is caused by unjust economic forces and therefore the best policy response is greater redistribution in the tax-and-transfer system. This dominant yet wrong interpretation focuses too much on the symptoms of inequality rather than aiming to properly understand and address the underlying cause of an increasingly bifurcated labour market in which unequal outcomes are something of a natural outgrowth. 

The best means for addressing income inequality in the modern labour market is to create a new generation of middle-class opportunities in order to replace the ones that have disappeared in recent decades due to a combination of technology and trade. In simplified terms, this amounts to a “good jobs” agenda dedicated to transforming today’s low-skilled jobs into tomorrow’s mid-skilled occupations by pulling low-skilled workers up the skills ladder through education, training, and productivity-enhancing investments. The key point here is that a new generation of good jobs will ultimately derive from a mix of public and private investments in human and technological capital rather than state-led redistribution. 

The second takeaway is that policymakers should be more cognizant of the anti-inequality role played by resource-based employment in Canada’s labour market. This of course doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pursue ambitious climate policies including possibly imposing high emissions standards on resource-based companies. But it does mean that we ought to be more cognizant of the employment effects of climate policy and the extent to which it may lead to greater job polarization and in turn contribute to more inequality. 

This reckoning seems particularly important for progressives who often demand both more stringent climate policies and greater action on inequality. As Milligan has argued: “For Canadians concerned with inequality, the equalizing effect of resource development on our economy is too strong to ignore.”

The main point though is that understanding the current state of inequality through the lens of job polarization should shift the focus of our policy debates from taxing the rich to creating the next generation of good, middle-class jobs. That would be a healthy development for our economy and politics.