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Malcolm Jolley: Big is beautiful again in the wine-making world

Commentary

Are we in a state of late-wine capitalism? Have the same forces of polarized wealth distribution that fuel inequality across the world finally hit the wino world? Or am I just cranky for having read through the 2023 Liv-Ex Classification?

London-based Liv-Ex is a secondary wine market. It’s where you can sell your collector desirable wine. They track their prices and bundle what got sold for what into a press release once and a while and send it to wine hacks like me, which in this case would be a successful public relations exercise if a secondary wine market existed in this country.

Because of provincial liquor laws, there is largely no secondary wine market in Canada: you buy and it’s yours forever—unless you or your heirs give it to charity in exchange for a tax receipt, which is kind of the ultimate government insult added to injury. Alberta is, as always, the free market exception.

There are not a lot, but there are always a few wines on the list that I have tasted in the last few years. The pleasure of recognition I experience from seeing those wines on the list is quickly diminished by the realization that a case of them would cost more than the airfare to get me to the winery that made them.

Early in my career as a food and wine journalist, I interviewed Janice Robinson. Even then, almost twenty years ago, she bemoaned that the great wines of the world were only being tasted by super critics like her or the ultra-rich. The consolation though, she argued, was that the general quality of wine had improved so much that the average consumer had never had it so good. I thought of it as a kind of wino social contract.

I worry lately that that social contract has been unwound. In law school, I was taught that a contract is essentially a meeting of the minds. I worry that in 2023, between wine producers and consumers, we may have collectively lost our minds. There is an increasing gap between what it costs to make a decent bottle of wine and what a consumer can reasonably pay.

Wine costs money to make, especially if you’re a small, family-owned producer making it where you grow it. There is the high cost of wine country real estate, but even if that doesn’t have to be serviced, all the other significant inputs are precisely the things that make the news about inflation: energy, labour, and whatever interest rates are applied on the capital investment in expensive machinery and facilities.

When interest rates were low and money was cheap, those costs were manageable and wine consumers had money in their pockets. Decent wine at $20, even $15, was plentiful. Then, the pandemic hit, causing supply chain shortages while demand peaked from thirsty people stuck at home with little to spend their money on. Then, the pandemic was over and the real party started and demand truly peaked, not just at home but out at restaurants that sold even more expensive wine.

Now that the party is over, interests are high, and cash is expensive, we’re likely in for a painful correction. That sounds good for consumers, but it’s probably not great if it means fewer producers. And a price stabilization will take time as the trade tries to recoup sunk costs.

Still, there are strategies to find value and save money during this new normal. One might be: big is beautiful. If the last twenty years in the wine world have been largely about the ascendency of smaller boutique producers, maybe the next few years will see a resurgence of interest in larger wine-making operations.

This idea struck me while I cycled through several bottles of the 2021 Acheri Barbera Langhe, which is currently stocked at my local Ontario Liquor Control Board retail monopoly outlet for a very reasonable $16.95. If you can find it, look for silky grape tannins that wrap around blackberry and plum fruit bound up in a refreshing food-friendly package, while you’re congratulating yourself on a bargain from one of Piedmont’s great wine families.

Barbera was known as “the people’s wine” in Piedmont, Italy, where it dominated red wine grape plantings. But since the rise of Barolo and Barbaresco, much of the Barbera once grown in those parts has been replaced with Nebbiolo to make those pricier wines. Good for Matteo Ascheri for continuing production and doing it at a fair price.

No doubt efficiencies come with the size of Ascheri’s operation, but another factor that keeps the price down is geography. This Barbera carries the simple application of Langhe DOC. This means Ascheri could source grapes for it from a larger all over the region, rather than a designated one, like Barbera d’Alba DOC.

It also means that wines in the simple Langhe DOC appellation are not subject to as many rules as the more fancy Barbera d’Alba. Those rules typically involve time and money, as in leaving wine to age in expensive barrels. With Barbera, that’s fine. Its natural acidity and juicy fruit qualities do not require aging per se, and it’s a fun quaffer when left alone and opened after only a few years.

What’s true in Piedmont tends to be true across the wine world, especially in appellation-obsessed countries like Italy and France. Producers who can afford to—in other words, larger ones—will make simpler less “classified” wines alongside their Grand Cru or Gran Selezione ones. When times are tough, size matters.

Howard Anglin: The past is not so very long ago

Commentary

It takes a lot to stop me in my tracks when I’m reading, but it happened last week in the middle of Terry Glavin’s Substack newsletter (go, subscribe). The occasion was an article about the Peel District School Board’s culling of classic literature following a review ordered by Ontario’s progressive government in the wake of “concerns about equity” back in 2019. Through a series of predictable follies, including a “diversity audit” of school libraries and the “weeding” of “dated” books, this order seems to have resulted in the removal of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl from at least one school library.

The particular line that jolted me out of my passive reading mode was this: “If she were alive today Anne Frank would be 93.” Only 93? I mean, I know that the Second World War ended in 1945 and I can do the math but…only ninety-three? I probably see someone almost that old every day. There is a not unreasonable chance that, had she survived Bergen-Belsen, Anne Frank would still be alive today. The girl who filled her diary with romantic crushes, petty jealousies, and existential fears could easily be a sweet old lady in an Amsterdam nursing home right now.

It is always good to be reminded of how close the past is. Faulkner’s line that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is usually read as a statement specific to the American South, but it’s both more personal and more universal than that. The novel in which the line appears, Requiem for a Nun, is a tough read about race, rape, and suffering, and in context the line refers ambiguously to both a person and a place, one person’s life and the life of a people, memory, and history. It says that we can’t escape the past any more than we can escape our own past. Even when we forget it, it re-emerges like an atavistic gene.

Anne Frank’s age reminds us that the Holocaust happened within a single lifetime, within living memory, as the saying goes. That is, it exists within the memory of the living, though just barely. Very soon it will live only through new lives’ experiences of old memories, which is why initiatives like the World Memory Project are so important. And it’s not just the Holocaust. The older I get, the more recent so much of what I used to think of as distant history seems, especially when measured in human lifetimes. Translated this way, the foreshortening effect can be unnerving.

Think of an 85-year-old man, long-lived but not especially so. Someone you can still talk to. No doubt you know a few. That man you know lived through all of the Second World War, and he’s still here in the flesh. Go back just one more of his lifetime and you are already well before 1867, the year of Canada’s Confederation. Go back three such lifetimes, and you are before the French and American Revolutions. Four lifetimes ago, you are before the Glorious Revolution. In only five lifetimes, you are back in the age of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England. Six, and you are before the Reformation. 

Stephen Fry has an anecdote about meeting the venerable British journalist Alistair Cooke that nicely captures this idea:

When the evening was over Alistair Cooke shook my hand goodbye and held it firmly, saying, ‘This hand you are shaking once shook the hand of Bertrand Russell.’

‘Wow!’ I said, duly impressed.

‘No, No,’ said Cooke, ‘It goes further than that. Bertrand Russell knew Robert Browning. Bertrand Russell’s aunt danced with Napoleon. That’s how close we all are to history. Just a few handshakes away. Never forget that.

The effect works with shorter timespans too. For someone my age, the attacks of 9/11 are so recent they feel, as we say, like yesterday. If I close my eyes, I can put myself right back there on the day (and not just because I was there). The twenty-two years dissolve in an instant. But at the time of 9/11, we were just three such instants from 1935: the year Hitler ordered the rebuilding of the Luftwaffe; the dust bowl year of the Great Depression; the year Alfred Dreyfus died. Just six such instants ago, six blinks of the eye, and we were fighting the Boer War.

Wars, in particular, echo down the generations. They have what economists call a long tail. As of 2019, the United States was still paying a pension to a dependent of a Civil War veteran—and pensions to more than 4,000 from the Spanish-American (1898) and Philippine-American (1899-1902) wars. When I was a boy, our neighbour, the spinster Miss Jones, was a Victorian who could remember the beginning of World War I. It’s likely that, as a boy, her father had a neighbour who similarly remembered the Battle of Waterloo. 

The advent of audio and film recording changed historical memory forever by making the past something we can experience not just vicariously but viscerally. YouTube is full of such time capsules: Civil War veterans performing the Rebel Yell; Tennyson reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade; Brahms playing one of his Hungarian Dances. The sound quality is poor and distorted by crude technology, but it’s unmistakably the sound of living people. And if you close your eyes and widen your imagination, you can be there with them.

We have photographs of Anne Frank, of course, but unfortunately no recordings. Yet I still can’t get past the idea that she could still be alive today, or banish thoughts of all the unborn children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who were snuffed out with her, but who otherwise would be walking our streets and bringing flowers to brighten her room at the nursing home. Nor should we banish such thoughts; it is good to remember. Or as Alistair Cooke reminded Stephen Fry, “Never forget.”