Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Wine Book Club #5: Wine Politics

By the end of Tyler Colman's excellent book, Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink, I could only come to one conclusion: it's a miracle that we are able to find anything at all that is decent to drink.

Welcome to the 5th Edition of the Wine Book Club, the online book club for wine lovers who also like to read. I'm the host for this month's event, and for my theme I was inspired by the season. What better way to celebrate September and October than to read a book written by a genuine PhD (September is back to school month) about wine and politics (we are in the midst of an election)? This idea was even more appealing given that the author may be better known to those of you who read wine blogs as Dr. Vino, the award-winning wine blogger.

Colman's book compares the way that politics has shaped wine culture in France and America. One of the most striking things about the story he tells here is that, along with politics, there are two other "P"s that have played an equally active a role in determining what you drink: phylloxera, the louse that destroyed grape vines all over the world in the 1870s; and Robert Parker, the critic who began telling us what we should drink in the 1970s. Phylloxera, it turns out, led to such a collapse in the worldwide wine business that it opened the door to greater governmental control and intervention as people sought to limit fraud, graft, corruption, and lost income. And Parker helped people to wade through seas of indifferent wine with misleading labels at a time when Americans were still drinking like it was Prohibition and they'd rather mainline the hard stuff than drink a glass of wine with dinner. The ripples he sent out from his one-man business in Monkton, Maryland in the 1970s now threaten to engulf us in wave after wave of homogeneous wine made to please Parker's influential palate.

I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about wine history, but I was surprised again and again by the nuggets of historical lore and sharp analysis that Colman includes here. Lately, I've been wondering why we don't buy wine in bulk here in the US like they do virtually everywhere else in the world. Turns out it's due to a combination of Prohibiton (and the resulting patchwork of legislation) and something called the Office of Price Administration that was established in World War II. Until then, wine was shipped in tanker trucks and on the rails to 1500 bottling facilities studded all over the country. And thus the enormous carbon footprint of wine began!

Colman's message is sobering, even though his book is a delight to read with its clear prose and fluid style. The bottom line is this: when money, egos, and bureaucracy collide--as they do in the wine business--it becomes almost impossible to do what is best for consumers, the environment, and the winemakers themselves. With everybody taking a cut in wine sales, from the bottle makers to the distributors to the retailers to the government, it really is astonishing that anyone bothers to make wine at all. And in case you're thinking the situation is better in France, let me assure you it isn't--it's just different.

If you enjoy Colman's blog, you are in for a treat since this book is written in the same direct, engaging style as his blog posts. The book has great graphic features (like a comparison of how politics shapes French and American wine blog labels) and informative sidebars that offer the reader opportunities to pause and consider the issues from a fresh perspective.

I highly recommend this book, especially if you find yourself wondering why you don't know what grape is in a French bottle of wine, or why it is that an American wine is labeled "Cabernet Sauvignon" when 25% of the grapes in it are Syrah. The answer to both questions is simple. Wine Politics. After reading this book, you'll never think about the relationship between the two in the same way again.

Tyler Colman's Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink was published by the University of California Press, who sent a copy of the book to me for review. It retails for $27.50, but you can buy it on Amazon.com for $18.15.

If you are participating in this month's online club, please leave comments and/or links to your own posts below. You can also leave links at the Wine Book Club site, or on our mirror site on Shelfari.


Dale Cruse said...

Dr. Debs, I really must get into this group. What's the next book you're reading?

Richard A. said...

Here is my review of Wine Politics


Taster B said...

Oh no, I just realize the conference and the book club have the same acronym! Anyway, I really am enjoying Tyler's book too, and I'll have my book club post up by tonight!

Kori said...

Thanks for hosting! This was an interesting read. Here's a link to my post:


It was a pleasure to meet you at the conference this past weekend. I look forward to our next opportunity to visit.

Christianne said...

Here's my review. Enjoyed participating!


Frank Morgan said...

Fitting book for the month - great choice! First WBC post...


Jim said...

A wee bit late with mine, but hopefully I can sneak it in here:


Thanks for hosting!