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Omnivorous: Oenonomics 101

"Dr. Vino" on the forces that dictate how wine is made and how it gets (or doesn't) to our table

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Tyler Colman started researching Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink while he was a graduate student in the economics department at Northwestern. The book, published in July by the University of California Press, compares the byzantine, quasi-self-governing appellation system of Bordeaux's wine growers with that of the more government-regulated Napa Valley producers and shows how those individual systems, along with other factors, determine which wines end up in stores, how much they cost, and what they taste like. Today Colman, who lives in New York City, teaches about wine at NYU and blogs about it at DrVino.com. This week he's in Chicago, teaching a class at the U. of C. and making a couple other appearances to promote Wine Politics. Simon & Schuster will publish his next book, A Year of Wine: Perfect Pairings, Great Buys, and What to Sip for Each Season, in November.

Were you a wine drinker before you started to study the political economy of wine?

When I grew up in Chicago we didn't drink wine very much. We have some horrible memories that we joke about—sparkling Catawba at Thanksgiving. When I lived in Europe—in France for a year and a half and Spain for six months—I got more into discovering local wine. But when I came back to Northwestern we had grad student get-togethers on the weekend, and it was a very international group of students, and people would bring wine from their home countries. It wasn't anything age worthy—$10 and under—but it was fun to share wines from around the world because wine's a great prism for seeing into someone's culture.

Wine was a pretty unusual subject for a graduate economics dissertation, wasn't it?

Some older student told me that you really had a pick a subject that you're into to make the long haul of the dissertation road. Political economy looks at comparative economics questions of different countries, and so the industrial sector is a common lens of analysis. All these serious things like machine tools and automobiles and semiconductors have all been thoroughly analyzed. So when I proposed a study of the wine industry in France and America, my committee, once they got over their belly laugh, said go out and research it and report back to us. Things like food and wine were really not on the agenda when I proposed this study in 1998, but now I'm pleased to say ten years later I get a lot of e-mails from grad students all over the world who are looking at food and wine projects.

You tell the famous story about Robert Mondavi punching his brother during an argument about expanding the family winery, but it seems like the history of wine production in France is far more violent than that in the U.S.

In the early 20th century there were protests over where the lines were drawn in Champagne, for example, and so they had to bring out the troops to quell the demonstrations. Fortunately, that one wasn't a bloody demonstration, but in the south of France, by contrast, there were definitely some bloody demonstrations there. People taking to the streets sort of captures the difference between wine politics in France and wine politics in America, which is that most of the politics in France occur on the production side.

Whereas in the U.S. producers don't struggle with each other, they struggle with the government, and by extension distributors?

If you want to plant gewürztraminer in Napa Valley then you're welcome to do that. If you want to irrigate your vines, you're welcome to do that. You can plant your vines at whatever density you want to. But all of that is controlled by appellations rules in France. So American producers do seem to have a freer hand on the production side. But when it comes to simply getting the wine to the consumer in the United States—which you would think would be a no-brainer in the free-market economy—it's actually incredibly difficult. It's easier to ship a case of wine from Bordeaux to Berlin than it is from Napa to Nashville. The most glaring example for Illinois consumers is the law that just went into effect in June that prevents Illinois residents from ordering wine from out-of-state retailers. So you no longer have a national market for wine in Illinois. You have an Illinois market for wine.

That law allows Illinois wineries to bypass distributors and sell directly to Illinois consumers, but it also benefits the distributors, who were losing money to out-of-state retailers but weren't necessarily motivated to get hard-to-find small-production wines in stores. You ran up against this law trying to organize a wine tasting here in Chicago, right?

We were talking about some theme ideas. And I said, well, I just did this thing on red-state and blue-state wines in Forbes, maybe that would be of interest with the election coming up. Actually, the wines were really good—I was really surprised. So I started poking around and tried to put that together, but there are basically no Arizona wines available in the Illinois market. And even the Illinois wines—major stores did not carry them. And so that again gets back to the politics of wine. Basically, [wines by small producers are] not put into the distribution channel, which means they don't appear in stores. Chicago is the third biggest metro market for wine in the U.S., and Illinois actually had 20-something wineries in 2001 and now has something on the order of 75. So people are planting grapes and making wine in Illinois and consuming wine with great passion, but the politics of wine is really stopping that from happening as much as it could."v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.

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