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Malcolm Jolley: Inflation is afflicting the wine world, too—Here are three regions still delivering bang for the buck

Commentary

If I traveled to every recognized wine-producing region in the world, I’m pretty sure I could find at least one producer in each that sold a 750 ml bottle for $100 or more. How many of those bottles were “worth” $100, would be another story, but the premiumization of wine is now so widespread and entrenched that triple-digit price tags from places that made little more than bulk wine a generation ago are not unusual, even if it’s often done more to serve a vintner’s ego than actual consumer demand.

The premiumization, or deliberate inflation, of wine, especially on the level of bottles that sell at retail for $30 or more, has been accelerated by the COVID pandemic and its aftermath. First, in the periods of lockdown, fine wine consumers who had little to do and little to spend on, bought up. Then, as restrictions eased and restaurants opened back up, demand for premium wines has remained strong. At least for now.

Since the wine business very literally works on a yearly cycle, it remains to be seen whether and how the inflation crisis will affect premiumization. On one hand, producer costs have gone up and supply crisis problems keep fine wine margins low and price pressure up. On the other hand, consumers are squeezed and watching their disposable income shrink while. A recession is on the horizon. A $40 bottle of wine at home on a Friday night or a $100 bottle chosen off of a wine list may well seem a lot less affordable to many than it did a year ago.

I write this from lived experience, as they now say. I have spent the better part of 20 years writing largely about wines in the $20 zone that pass through markets like Canada once a year on an allotment to the provincial retail monopolies, or private sellers. Many of the wines that were marketed for $19.95 a year ago are coming back, in the next vintage, at $24 or $25. My favourite everyday category seems to be vapourizing.

In addition, over the last year or so I have organized a small and informal wine club with some of my neighbours. We aim for a $300 case of 12 bottles made from just six wines, so an average price of $25 a bottle, including tax, shipping, etc. If one selection is $30 a bottle, then another needs to be $20 to even out the costs. Over the past six months, making a case out of three exceptional value reds and three exceptional value whites has become increasingly difficult, and the members are complaining to me that we’re late putting the November selection together.

Still, all is not lost and there are some regions that are holding value and keeping price points low and quality high. Here are three parts of the world that I think are delivering bang for the buck in the fall of 2022. If you pass by the shelves that carry these wines and see something between, say, $15 and $25, it’s likely worth a try.

Insular Italy

It’s counterintuitive but the heat waves of global warming in Europe confer advantages to winemakers in hotter climates, since they have always had to grapple with high temperatures and the skilled ones know what to do in the vineyard and cellar to bring fresh wines out of difficult vintages. In Sardinia, that knowledge extends to the grapes planted and the island is dominated by Vermentino for white wines and Cannonau for red. Cannonau is better known as Grenache or Garnacha. These grapes were once prized in the Mediterranean for their high yields, but when farmed for quality over quantity both produce fruit-forward and fresh wines.

Similarly, Nero d’Avalo in Sicily has been widely planted since that island pivoted from sweet and bulk wine production in the last half-century. While some Sicilian reds are priced up with Barolo and Brunello, especially from cool climate Etna, even the biggest prestigious houses on the island, like Planeta, Tasca d’Almerita, or Donnafugata, have well-priced value-driven reds, often from the west end of the island. They also make very good value whites made from the indigenous grapes that used to go into Marsala, like Catarratto (analogous to Chardonnay) or Grillo (more like Sauvignon Blanc).

South Africa

The Huguenots brought Chenin Blanc to South Africa from France, but the Dutch Boers turned it into brandy and planted it just about anywhere they could. Since the South African wine industry opened up after apartheid they got very good at making it into fine wines. But the message hasn’t made it past the sommelier crowd to general consumers. So, ironically, there are some truly excellent premiumized Chenin Blanc available at prices that rival the top cru from the Loire Valley, but also very good Chenin that comes through our market for well under $20 that constantly outperform 99 percent of other whites in that price bracket.

Portugal

Portugal has always had port, but until it joined the EU in the 1980s its table wine industry was dominated by co-operatives. It’s really only since the 90’s that the Portuguese have gotten serious about fine wine, and change was even slower in the Douro Valley, where growers and producers focused on fortified wine. As it happens, the dense and complex blended red wines of the Douro that make great Vintage Port also make sophisticated dry wines that at their best balance power with elegance. As demand for Port has waned over the decades, more and more of the high-quality grapes have gone into fine wine production and prices have (mostly) stayed reasonable.

Rob Leone: Conspiracy theories are here to stay, but strengthening our institutions would blunt their damage

Commentary

From flat earthers to 9/11 truthers, the world has seen its fair share of conspiracy theories. During the past two and a half years of the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories abound with people questioning the legitimacy of the state, from both the too many restrictions flank AND from the not enough restrictions perspective. The state, simply put, could not win. That’s if you listen to the echo chambers of social media and ignore the electoral reality that most governing parties in Canada were re-elected during the pandemic. 

Conspiracy theories are a special category of thoughts that have permeated our regular discourse. There’s a whole anti-vaxing underworld committed to proving that we are being hosed by the likes of Bill Gates who, as some have claimed, masterminded the entire pandemic. Websites exist that discuss the vaccine as poison and some even try to track the lot numbers of the vaccine to determine whether the injection an individual received was in fact a placebo. 

On the other hand, COVID-Zero proponents created an impressive online infrastructure extolling the virtues of completely shutting down life as we know it with the purported goal of making sure nobody got a viral infection. These folks are inclined to believe that government scientists and public health officials were making politically motivated decisions rather than keeping society as safe and as free as possible without overwhelming hospital infrastructure.

Everyone knows somebody in either of these two camps. There are countless stories of families who have literally been torn apart by taking sides during the pandemic for making whatever choices they wanted to make. One side felt hurt that the other side was acting stupidly. It doesn’t matter which side I’m speaking about. The one side always thought the other side was acting irresponsibly, and the differences were so significant that they were hard to reconcile. 

The question that begs is this: why do people view the same situation so radically different?

In the book, Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing our Own and Other People’s Minds, Howard Gardner points to a few things that are important to acknowledge about the human mind. The first is that people hold on to their views because it feels psychologically safe. Our brain is preconditioned to think in terms of “us” versus “them.” We are predisposed to think about belonging to an “in” group versus an “out” group. We find attachment to what the “in” group is versus the “out” group based on feelings we develop about the situations that we are in. The “facts,” in this instance, are trivial. Emotional attachment to “belonging” is an important criterion to understand.

Ever try to get into an argument with somebody by giving them a bunch of facts of why your take is correct only to be met with a person completely unwilling to bend to the stack of evidence you have presented? While we tend to think that we are all reasonable people who reach conclusions by viewing the preponderance of evidence before us, we encounter people in our everyday lives that are polar opposite to our views who also believe that they are convinced by the preponderance of different evidence before them. We are even bound to think that if everyone was just as smart as me, they would reach the same conclusions. Yet, they don’t!

Gardner makes a different argument about the way the human mind actually works, which may help explain why people view the same situation differently. He says that we actually do not gather evidence and then make a decision based on where the information takes us.  The opposite is, in fact, true. People make an emotional decision about how they feel about a situation and then use evidence to support their perspective. 

The visceral reaction I am likely to encounter by stating this point, as I have with many points I have made during the COVID-19 pandemic, will only serve to reinforce how correct this take is.

Now that we know how the human mind works, let’s now discuss how every pandemic known to humans has been met with the most amazing conspiracy theories.  

In his book, The Psychology of Pandemics, Steven Taylor predicts much of what has transpired with the COVID-19 pandemic before it happened. He has a useful chapter on conspiracy theories that offers many reasons why conspiracy theories are prone to happen with every pandemic.

Taylor explains that disease outbreaks commonly bring about conspiracy theories because the nature of the disease is poorly understood. Taylor points to a study that looked at medically unsubstantiated conspiracy theories in the United States that found between 12 percent and 20 percent of respondents agreeing that certain conspiracy theories had validity.  

People who believe one medical conspiracy theory are predisposed to believe in other ones. That means, before the pandemic even occurred, 10-20 percent of the population was predisposed to thinking that some nefarious actors were going to be responsible for a pandemic that radically altered their lives.

The aforementioned study found that most conspiracies were fueled by a lack of faith in government institutions, suspicion of multinational corporations propagating a crisis to increase profits, large philanthropic foundations that had more than altruistic motivations, and suspicion that medical experts recommended treatment known to cause people harm.  

All of this must surely sound familiar for observers of news during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of these conspiracies are likely to continue to be part of the post-pandemic narrative of what happened during the pandemic. The facts, whatever they are, are contestable, and that is unnerving to a lot of people.

In a study of conspiracy theories on social media, several common features are evident. An important one is that those who believe in conspiracies go to great lengths to cite supposedly authoritative sources to support their views. How many times have we heard that X medical doctor said this was unsafe, hoping that we’d all somehow change our opinions? 

In addition, one of the principal perspectives is that the conspirators use stealth and disinformation to convince the masses to act in ways they otherwise would not. This makes falsification of conspiracy theories unsuccessful because those that try to debunk the conspiracies with “the facts” are considered part of the “brainwashing.”

Sadly, eliminating conspiracy theories during pandemics is virtually impossible. Understanding that they exist, and why, is important in determining how best to confront them. Changing minds is difficult, and restoring faith in institutions and information takes years to establish. The time to start work on this is now.