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Malcolm Jolley: These wines provide a quick escape to the South of France for about $30

Commentary

A few hundred metres up the hill from Château Sainte Eulalie, on a dirt and gravel track through the stony vineyards it hit us. We were a handful of international wine journalists, who after a tasting featuring a handful of local wine producers at the Château, were out to see the vines and the countryside. ‘It’ was a subtle and persistent smell coming from the direction of our shoes: garrigue!

There were weeds in the median and on the sides of the track, and as we were trudging though and on them, they released an aroma of wild herbs, mostly thyme. Red wines from the South of France are said often to mimic the smells from the wild plants that inhabit the scrubby pine hills their vines are grown on. We’d smelled and tasted garrigue before in the glass, but it was thrilling to sense it right in the place.

Madame Isabelle Coustal, our host and guide, gave a friendly Gallic shrug when we explained why we had stopped, as if to say, “Of course there’s garrigue.” Looking back downhill we could see the square Romanesque bell tower of the church in Lalivière, a picturesque ancient village whose name comes from the word for vines in the old Occitanie language. This was Languedoc.

Languedoc once nearly made half of all the wine in France and still makes about a quarter. Had there been an actual location of the metaphorical European Union Wine Lake, during the early part of this century, it would have been in Languedoc, somewhere west of the Rhône River, east of the Cobière Mountains and north of the Mediterranean Sea.

Some of France’s biggest export brands come from Languedoc AOP, though they will often carry the less site specific appellation of the region, Pays d’Oc IGP. Languedoc is a good place to make wine and has been making a lot of it for a long time. The Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) declared an edict limiting the import of the wines to the city from what is now Languedoc.

But the point of the visit to Château Sainte-Eulalie, and the walk through the vineyards of the property and its neighbours was to show my colleagues and me how Languedoc can also be small. Sainte-Eulalie is in the heart of Minervois La Livinière, one of Languedoc’s five Village Designated Appellations along with La Clape, Corbières Boutenac, Fitou and Faugères.

As there names suggest, La Livinière and Boutenac are carved out of larger appellations within Languedoc, Minervois and Corbières, respectively. La Clape is also found within the large Corbières appellation. Faugères and Fitou are their own appellations in their own right, with an eponymously named village in their centre. Looking at a map, the five village designations are more or less evenly spread over the western end of Languedoc.

Appellations and designations in France are ruled by what’s known as a Cahier des Charges, or CDC. This is a kind of constitution, whose rules are decided by the governing body of the organization of the producers who make wine under the appellation. If you are in the geographic boundaries of the appellation (which can change), then you may label your wine with the appellation’s name if, and only if, you follow the edicts of the CDC.

The framers of a given CDC tend not to be originalists. The rules are often tweaked and adjusted, especially to suit anticipated market demand. Fights over the content of the rules are common. Every appellation will have black sheep who prefer to do their own thing and make wine, or some of their wine, outside of the rules. Notwithstanding dissent, the CDC is meant to guarantee the quality of the wine of the particular place in a way that consumers can recognize.

The key to the differences between the five Languedoc Village Designated Appellations is their “encépagement,” a wonderfully unique French word. Encépagement, which is laid out in the CDC, refers to the grape varieties allowed to be used in the appellation wine and at what percentages. For the red wines of the Languedoc Villages, this mostly means the amount of Grenache (Noire), Syrah, Mourvèdre, or Carignan allowed in the blend.

Since I am paid by the word, it is tempting to enumerate the various encépagement requirements of the five villages. However, my editors have placed me under a strict word count, I am afraid there wouldn’t be much room left in this column for anything else. Suffice to say, they are complicated, and list a number of permutations and combinations of primary and secondary grapes, often with both a floor and a ceiling percentage of what can be used for each, as well as specifications of how much particular blends can be allowed per bottle.

The main purpose of the Village CDC’s seems to be to limit the amount of Carignan in the blends. Carignan was once the most planted vine in Languedoc. It was the workhorse grape, prized for it’s vitality and high yield. A field of Carignan could make a lot of not-especially flavourful wine, which was fine for farmers who were used to getting paid by a co-operative by volume and weight.

When efforts to reduce the Wine Lake began in the last decades of the 20th century, the vines the farmers pulled out first were Carignan, and when they replanted, if they stuck to the traditional grape varieties of the South of France, it would more like be fashionable Syrah, perhaps in hopes of establishing a western version of the Côtes Rotie.

The vignerons of Corbières Boutenac, often labeled simply a Boutenac, seem to have bucked this trend. They realized that old vine Carignan can make deeply dark and complex wines. Now, of course, all Carignan is likely to be more than thirty years old, so they decided the Boutenac wines would have a floor requirement of 30 percent Carignan. Even still, the Boutenac CDC won’t allow more than 50 percent Carignan in their blends, which are rounded out with Grenache and Mourvèdre, and maybe a little Syrah, depending on the producer.

Alternatively, in La Clape they celebrate Mourvèdre, but not too much and always with Syrah and Grenache. And so it goes, the wines are always a blend, Grenache (for fruit) and Syrah (for spice) will be there, and maybe Carignan, Mourvèdre, possibly Cinsault. Within the confines of the CDC, the vigneron will decide on a blend based on what they have to work with and what expresses their idea of the Village best.

The Languedoc Villages wines are worth looking for. They’ll have the name of the village somewhere on the front label. These wines are often at the higher level of bigger producers (like an “Estate Reserve”), or the product of a small, artisan winery. This is to say they are not cheap and will generally retail for $30 and up. More often worth it if you’re looking for quick escape into the garrigue of the South of France.

Sean Speer: After the Bud Light backlash, companies should consider being apolitical

Commentary

One of the biggest stories in the first half of 2023 has been the migration of cultural and political conflict to the corporate world. High-profile cases involving Bud Light, Disney and Target have dominated the news as the latest fronts in the growing politicization of virtually every facet of modern life.

What has made them so notable though isn’t that large companies have weighed into political matters—especially on the side of left-wing causes. As most conservatives will attest, that’s hardly a new development. But what’s different is that there’s been a semi-coordinated and sustained pushback in the form of boycotts and protests.

And it’s working. Bud-Light’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch, has lost more than $15 billion in its market valuation. Target’s share price has fallen by nearly one quarter since mid-May. Both companies have since abandoned the products or marketing campaigns that had precipitated the reaction. The market has seemingly spoken.

There’s been a lot of criticism of these so-called “anti-woke” campaigns. They’ve been characterized as bigoted, reactionary, and far right. As far as California governor Gavin Newsom is concerned, the companies sold out to a group of so-called “extremists.”

Although it’s quite possible that some involved in these campaigns are indeed motivated by objectionable views, the sheer numbers suggest that they cannot be dismissed as a fringe minority. Consider for instance that Bud Light has been supplanted as the top-selling beer in America for the first time in more than two decades. It’s hard to explain such a significant market change as merely the agitation of a small number of hardcore ideologues.

There have been some however who’ve argued that these consumer backlashes to corporate campaigns about identity, sexuality, and trans issues are an improper use of market power. They represent, according to this line of thinking, a “rearguard action…to block corporations from making their own decisions about how to adapt to social change.”

The problem with this argument is that it presumes that companies ought to be able to assume political positions free from any consequences. That they have no accountability to their customers, clients, or the market itself. They ought to be able to reap the upside of entering the political arena but ultimately be protected from the downside. Put more bluntly: these companies assumed that they could increasingly nod to left-wing political preferences on culture and identity and their more right-wing customers would simply acquiesce.

That’s of course not how business or politics or markets work. There are natural feedback mechanisms in a liberal, democratic, and capitalistic society. Customers can vote with their wallets. It’s arguably an even more powerful signal in the corporate world where majoritarian preferences aren’t constrained by constitutional protections for minorities. Companies must contend with the inherent tensions between liberalism, democracy, and market capitalism.

The recent string of high-profile cases suggest that major corporations have come to misread these potential trade-offs. They’ve taken for granted that their creeping politicalization is costless. The market’s definitive reaction in these cases should be viewed therefore as a useful corrective. Markets have done what markets invariably do.

They’ve reminded large companies like Bud Light and Target that their outright politicalization—particularly on contentious and unsettled matters—likely involves internalizing some costs. They can then better judge the actual consequences of their choices. The right response is to retrench from the excesses of what author and business consultant, Joseph Zamia-Lucia, calls “political capitalism.”

I interviewed him about some of these developments and how we ought to interpret them for an episode of Hub Dialogues in April 2022. I asked in particular about the feedback mechanism that would influence corporate decision-making about politics. He said:

“…whenever you take a political position, you will please some and infuriate others. When Nike took a position on Black Lives Matter, it garnered a lot of support from some people, and others were burning Nike shoes in the streets. Businesses have traditionally believed that they shouldn’t upset anybody. When you take political positions, you will inevitably upset some people….”

Markets are competitive things. The beauty about markets, if they are competitive, not monopolistic or oligopolistic, is that different corporations will take different positions that they believe in, or because they believe there are market opportunities. So, as long as we have sufficient diversity in the market, the likelihood is that different companies will take different positions.

Although he’s right that markets can act as important signals for firms judging the benefits and costs of adopting different political positions, Zamia-Lucia is wrong that the trend towards political capitalism is inexorable. There’s a counterintuitive case that the market reaction to these recent instances may actually cause firms to revert to a more apolitical position. That would be a positive development.

One of the great benefits of liberal democracy is to minimize the role of politics in our lives. It establishes democratic processes for selecting representatives and then delegates day-to-day governance to them. The rest of the constitutional model is about preserving space for people to live out their lives mostly free from political interference and even politics itself.

The places where politics pervade daily life, by contrast, tend to be totalitarian. Politics cannot be escaped there. They define how you live, what you say, and what you do. They’re totalizing.

The recent trend of politics manifesting itself in business, sports, and other non-political parts of modern life is unhealthy. It conflicts with the limited aspirations of liberal democracy and pushes us in a far worse direction. We should recommit to a more circumscribed vision of politics such that buying clothes or drinking beer isn’t an expression of one’s deepest political values.

If these recent cases help us to realize such a vision, the controversy and conflict will have ultimately been worth it. The market will have worked and our societies will be better for it.