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Malcolm Jolley: Subtle, straightforward, and sometimes spicy: Encountering Jardìn Oculto’s Bolivian tree wines

Commentary

Jancis Robinson once called Nayan Gowda a “winemaker without portfolio” in a profile piece that tracked his prolific career as a winemaker and consultant across continents. That was in 2013, and when I met the dapper Englishman on a press trip to the Loire Valley in 2019, the man who had both at one point been a chef at The Ivy in London and then worked in IT for JP Morgan had gone back into tech as the publisher of the world’s largest winemaker job board. Except, he had one more project on his horizon: a winemaking gig in Bolivia.

The temporary job in Bolivia turned into a South American COVID lockdown and the one harvest he’d gone there to manage turned into two. Mr. Gowda seems to have put down roots at Jardín Oculto, the winery in the Cinti Valley. The name translates as “Secret Garden”. The latitude there is 20 degrees, or ten degrees closer to the equator than the normal limit for growing the vitis vinifera grape,Vitis vinifera, the common grape vine, is a species of flowering plant, native to the Mediterranean region, Central Europe, and southwestern Asia, from Morocco and Portugal north to southern Germany and east to northern Iran. There are currently between 5,000 and 10,000 varieties of Vitis vinifera grapes though only a few are of commercial significance for wine and table grape production.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitis_vinifera but the valley is in Bolivia’s high desert plains. The average elevation of the vineyards in the valley is 2,000 meters above sea level, making it cool enough, especially at night, to grow fine wine grapes in what is essentially a river oasis in arid land.

I had been following Nayan’s Bolivian winemaking and lockdown adventures by way of his Twitter account. I wondered if some strange twist of fate might get me in front of his wines at some point. Then, at the end of September, I noticed that he was posting from Turin in Northern Italy, which was precisely where I was heading the next day. A brief exchange established the good news: Nayan and Jardìn Oculto’s proprietress, María José Granier, would be at the Slow Food Terra Madre Salon del Gusto 2022—with the Jardín Oculto wines.

A few days later I bumped into Nayan at Terra Madre one morning in one of the busy tents full of regional Italian foods, where we were independently (and greedily) sampling as much cheese, salumi, and whatever else was on offer. He explained that Marìa José was on a panel discussion early that afternoon and then their wines would be part of a structured tasting that evening. When I complained that I waited too late to get tickets to the sold-out tasting, he said that was fine because he had extra bottles and would be happy to taste the three wines he had brought to Italy with me at the enoteca that afternoon. 

When I ran into Nayan Gowda, I was in the company of my Calgary colleague, the journalist Shelley Boettcher. When I introduced them and explained in vague terms what he was up to in Bolivia, Nayan brought out his phone to show us pictures of the vineyards. Except they didn’t look like any vineyards I had ever seen. The vines, planted in the 19th century by Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries, were trained to go up trees, and interplanted with all kinds of other fruits and crops. Picking the grapes requires a ladder, and the fruit that the pickers can’t reach is literally left for the birds.

María José Granier’s family, Nayan explained, are established winemakers in Bolivia but had only heard and seen San Roque, the vineyard on his screen, a few years ago. María José took on Jardín Oculto as a next-generation project in 2019 and went on Nayan’s Facebook group to find an oenologist“Oenologists are the professionals who supervise not only production in the winery but also the storage, analysis, preservation, bottling and sale of wine.” https://www.bodegasmontecillo.com/en/what-is-an-oenologist-and-how-do-you-become-one/ who wasn’t afraid to do something different. Having made wine in such exotic locations as Kazakhstan, Nayan answered the request himself. The wines we were to taste from the 2021 vintage were made after his first vintage in 2020.

We found an empty table in the outdoor seating area of the enoteca. The wine pavilion at Terra Madre was stocked with over 400 wines to taste, all from Turin’s home region of Piedmont. A few other Terra Madre delegates who were hanging out in the enoteca joined our group and we stood in a semi-circle around Nayan who introduced the wines from Jardín Oculto’s San Roque.

First up was the 2021 Vischoqueña Blanc de Noir. Vischoqueña is an “indigenous grape”, in so far as it’s not found outside of this particular area of Bolivia. Nayan is trying to figure out its parentage and where it may have come from, but for now it’s a bit of a mystery. Blanc de Noir refers to the technique of making a white wine from red (or black) grapes. It’s most often used for sparkling wines, though Jardín Oculto’s version is a still wine.

Nayan explained, as we swirled, that Vischoqueña typically makes an oddly aromatic red wine, so his intention with the white version was to make a more straightforward “linear” sipper where the fruit was left to “do its thing”. It was lovely, crisp, and mineral with citrus and tart McIntosh apple notes. An aperitif wine that brought water to the mouth.

Next up was the 2021 Moscatel de Alejandría. Muscat of Alexandria is the most common version of this aromatic white grape, which was spread around the Mediterranean, including their kingdom in Spain, by the Moors who prized it as a table grape. Often made in a sweet style, it’s not always my favourite. So I was very pleased to find that Nayan and María José’s wine was subtle in white flower aromatics and lime citrus and a slightly bitter dandelion finish.

Our last Bolivian tree wine was Jardín Oculto’s red, the 2021 Negra Criolla, made from the single Los Membrillos vineyard. When one thinks of South American reds, it is hard not to imagine warm-climate, powerful, and big fruit wines from Bolivia’s southern neighbours.

The Negra Crollia, made with the Spanish grape that is often called Criolla Chica in Argentina, País in Chile, and Mission in California, was light-footed and a little spicy. Red cherry notes underlay a touch of smokiness and seasoning of pepper. When I gave my pepper note to María José, she laughed and said that the vineyard included a pink pepper tree.

Production is still very small at Jardín Oculto, hampered still by the pandemic and supply chain crisis. But Nayan Gowda and the Granier family are forging on and looking for export markets, even just for pride of placement. Canadian importers take notice: the market for Bolivian ladder-picked, old-vine tree wine is wide open.

Sean Speer: Central bankers need a lesson in humility

Commentary

Last week former U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke (along with two other economists) was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for his 1980s research on bank runs and the systemic risk that they pose for the overall economy. 

Of the 92 laureates since the prize was established in 1969, Bernanke is a unique awardee because he’s not merely a research economist. He actually put his research into practice in response to the global financial crisis during his tenure as America’s top central banker. 

The implications of his research and lasting influence from his eight-year term (2006-2014) at the Federal Reserve are currently the subject of some debate. On one hand, his use of extraordinary policies including quantitative easing and zero-bound interest rates to stabilize the economy during the crisis are credited with staving off a far-worse economic disruption. On the other hand, there’s a growing view that it normalized these policy tools and inadvertently turned the Federal Reserve into something of a “fiscal policymaker” in the subsequent decade including, most recently, in the context of the pandemic. 

The current spike in inflation has led to a debate about the relative role of this sustained period of loose monetary policy and what has come to be described by his critics as the “Bernanke bubble.” (For informative analysis on the causes and sources of high inflation, Hub readers should check out University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe’s previous Hub articles on the subject.) 

Bernanke’s award—especially in a context in which his ideas and record are the subject of new, real-time scrutiny—had me recently thinking of the prize’s ninth recipient, Friedrich Hayek, and his famous Nobel lecture in 1974. 

Hayek was a heterodox economist whose deep attachment to classical liberalism (he famously wrote an essay entitled, “Why I’m not a conservative”) situated him as more of a moral philosopher than a hard-core econometrician. His Nobel lecture, which reflected a theme that was common throughout his career, was entitled “The Pretence of Knowledge.” 

Its brilliant exposition of the limits of human knowledge in general and the explanatory power of economics in particular is a much-needed rejoinder to the overconfidence and overreach of the Bernankean generation and its offspring. 

Hayek’s main thesis was that economics had in the post-WWII era assumed ambitions to think and talk about itself as a field similar to the physical sciences. These ambitions were, in his judgment, wrong. They had led to what he called “scientism”—a concerted yet misguided attempt to apply the rigour and confidence of scientific methods to the economy and society. 

He thought that this was mistaken because no model could possibly account for the complexity of the multitude of individual choices and preferences in a large, dynamic economy. As George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux summed it up in a short book on Hayek: “imagine a jigsaw puzzle of one billion pieces.” 

Hayek’s main takeaway was notwithstanding the best intentions of smart and capable technocrats to micromanage the peaks and valleys of the business cycle, we ought to be skeptical of their ability to wield the blunt tools of government policy to accentuate the upsides and circumvent the downsides. These efforts would invariably succumb to what he called the “knowledge problem.”  

Such technocratic tinkering effectively turned government policymaking into an exercise of dial-turning. Policymakers would move the policy dial in one direction to mitigate against an immediate-term problem and then would invariably have to move them in the opposite direction to inadvertent address the consequences of their initial action. The latter may even be worse for the economy and society than the former. As Hayek explained in his Nobel address: 

To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.

There’s also the invariable tendency to forget the axiom that there can be too much of a good thing. Take our current economic context. An expansionary fiscal and monetary policy may have been justified in the global financial crisis. But the failure on the part of governments and central banks to restore a more normal policy in the ensuing decade has contributed to the current bout of stagflation. Hayek’s skepticism would have made him highly alert to this risk. Bernanke, by contrast, was in hindsight too sanguine about the potential for excesses in the application of his ideas. 

This doesn’t mean that he was wrong per se. But it may mean that he overestimated the capacity of policymakers to hold the dial steady. There’s a case that in hindsight the demand-side response to the global financial crisis begot some of the policy excesses that have produced our current economic challenges. Their short-term benefits need to be weighed against the long-term by-product of renewed technocratic hubris about our ability to perfectly fine-tune the public policy dials. The wrong takeaway for many, in other words, was that we could get the upside of a stimulative policy without any of the downsides. 

The downsides shouldn’t be discounted. The massive policy shift initiated by Bernanke artificially boosted economic activity, but it also distorted capital formation and investment decisions and minimized policy trade-offs in ways that circumvented a proper conversation about the structural reforms necessary to improve the country’s economic fundamentals. 

Reading Hayek’s speech can be interpreted as a from-the-grave critique of Bernanke. It’s easy to forget that he was actually referring to circumstances in his own era. In particular, he was lamenting the consequences of the policymaking hubris that originated from the ideas of his intellectual rival John Maynard Keynes whose “general theory” was arguably a proper response to the contingent circumstances of the Great Depression but came to be interpreted by his successors as a universalized theory of the role for government in the economy. 

This “bastardized Keynesianism” abandoned Keynes’s specific insights (including for instance the idea that governments should deleverage during periods of economic growth) and instead came to simply imbue the spirit of state activism. The eventual result, which was manifesting itself as Hayek delivered his speech, was the stagflation crisis of the 1970s. 

Hayek summed up his critique of the intellectual forces that had contributed to these economic conditions as follows: 

…economists are at this moment called upon to say how to extricate the free world from the serious threat of accelerating inflation which, it must be admitted, has been brought about by policies which the majority of economists recommended and even urged governments to pursue. We have indeed at the moment little cause for pride: as a profession we have made a mess of things.

There’s a sense that we’ve made a mess of things once again. Central bankers are now trying to extricate us from the inflation problems that their own policies helped to create. The process is bound to be disruptive for households and the economy as a whole.

It ought to therefore be a lesson in the limits of our ability to turn the dials, the axiom that there can be too much of a good thing, and the ultimate need to focus on economic fundamentals. That might start with a refresher on the pretence of knowledge.