Book Review – Wine Wars by Mike Veseth

I recently put up a post about the wine book that I had started reading at the time and it dawned on me that I should probably put up a short review of it and the ideas contained within it. I tried to do all of that but completely left out the word “short.” So here it is, my impressions of “Wine Wars” by Mike Veseth.

My local library (in the Wine Capital of Canada) occasional contains some interesting books on wine. This book was not in the usual section that I frequent. It was out on display in the business section of the stacks and it had the word “wine” on it. Sold.

My first impression on beginning to read was that this was written to be a lecture. There are many trite, “teacher-voice” expressions and turns of phrases in many of the chapter conclusions that make this book seem like either a condescending diatribe or a clichĂ©d, but fun and easy read. The final paragraph of Chapter 5, The Masters of Wine ends with the following; “How will the story end? It’s too soon to draw any conclusions. We need to go back on the road and investigate how wine works in the other key markets. Fasten your safety belts – we are in for a bumpy ride.” Cue the brass section. Ending a chapter like seems more fitting for a teenage mystery novel and a little shallow at times especially considering the weight of the concepts in this book.

But Mr. Veseth is an economics professor, an award-winning one, and probably a very entertaining one whose classes I’d probably quite enjoy. If I had to guess, I’d say that his writing style is probably quite similar to his speaking style and that reading the book aloud would probably make many of the paragraphs like these more appropriate given the rhetorical pace of an orated lecture. The part of me that studied media finds it extremely interesting when one medium’s use (words spoken out loud to an audience) are translated to another medium (printed words read in a book) with little or no adaptation. Very interesting things can happen, not necessarily “good” or “bad.” More like “effective” or “ineffective.” (Which is a more effective use of the medium to convey drama – a staged play filmed using one camera or an edited, multi-camera, drama like CSI or Law and Order?)

To be honest, economics has never really interested me in any way and I’ve always found that is its strict adherents had a view of the world that placed more value in money than I was comfortable with. I clearly remember a group project in my Geography of Economic Activity course from university where a fellow student was convinced that the best way of producing our assigned product was to move the manufacturing to Mexico because the labour costs were so much smaller there than in Canada. It wasn’t the numbers I took issue with (there was no way to argue that) but rather the thought process that assumes that the only actual cost was purely a financial one, ignoring any of the social costs (job losses in Canada, paltry wages for workers, bad working conditions, etc). To my fellow student, those things just didn’t register as an issue when it made perfect sense financially.

However, when wine is involved, everything becomes more interesting. Regardless of viewpoints on economics then or now, this book brings up all kinds of perspectives on the wine world as it is now (or at least in 2011) including issues that we see here in BC. Throughout the book, Veseth uses the visual of the “wine wall”, the sometimes massive array of shelves in stores where wine is displayed to customers, to illustrate his points in each chapter. It’s a strong image since anyone who has shopped for wine will have encountered this wall at some point. Even people more comfortable with their wine knowledge (wine experts) have faced it as a wide-eyed novice at some point in their lives.

According to Veseth, your own view on wine will determine which kinds of wines you prefer and where on the “wine wall” you will be shopping. Are you a “Martian” (after Martin Ray, who purchased Paul Masson in 1935 and believe in the best wine no matter the cost) or a “Wagnerian” (after Baltimore journalist Philip Wagner’s assertion that wine should be an “affordable part of everyday life”)? The conflict between these two views of wine are evident in some way in almost every wine review or discussion. A Martian would never think of purchasing Blue Nun or Two-Buck Chuck. Likewise, a Wagnerian would never even consider shelling out more than $15 or $20 for a bottle of wine, not matter how special the occasion. Veseth sees Wagnerians as the market for the globalization of wine (Two-Buck Chuck, Gallo jug wines, et al). Because that represents a significant portion of the wines on the wine wall, the Martian’s descendants Veseth calls “terroirists” are really start to feel the squeeze.

In the chapter regarding Terroir, two people are quoted at length. Terry Theise and John Nossiter, mostly by way of his film “Mondovino”. Along with examining the backgrounds of some of the people in the film, Veseth stumbles onto Nossiter’s book “Liquid Memories: Why Wine Matters” where he paraphrases the following idea.

p. 181 “Why is terroir and regional identity so important now? Because sharp divisions have caused so much pain and hardship in the past (think Europe and the two world wars). Suppressing differences and rounding off sharp corners to create a more peaceful whole has been the agenda of the last fifty years. Now we find that universalism has gone pretty far, creating the terroir-free transnational world of the European Union and we start to value what we have lost. Sharp edges seem pretty desirable now that we’ve lost them, even if they sometimes bruise or cut.

Veseth then recounts his own experience on a trip to Friuli in northeastern Italy, a place brutalized by the two world wars, where they have planted a special vineyard of peace using grapes varieties from all around the world. Interestingly, Veseth found that the wine produced from this vineyard, Vino Della Pace (Wine of Peace) wasn’t “especially distinctive” on the palate, but was memorable for its “optimistic symbolism”.

A few sentances later on p. 182, “We longed for the taste of peace when we didn’t have it. Now that we do, we find it a little bland. So we seek out terroir, even if it threatens to divide us once again.

It’s an astoundingly simple way to say something so profound and Veseth nails it perfectly. And it’s not only applicable to wine. Just think of the homogenized suburban sprawl of Levittown in the 1950’s and the orderly and structured steel-and-glass Mies van der Rohe-type towers of modern architecture that dominate the skylines of the 20th Century. Out of such chaos, we crave order and predictability.

Maybe there is more to economics than just money.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – Wine Wars by Mike Veseth

  1. Thanks for the kind words. People who know me do say that they can hear me speak when they read Wine Wars, so I think you’ve nailed my “voice” pretty well. Thanks again.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment on my first-ever book review! I very much enjoyed your book so much that I’ve added it to my next purchase at Amazon. As a recovering musician, I do appreciate books that are written in a more spoken style – I tend to ‘hear’ whatever I read. If you are ever doing wine seminars in Canada, please let me know.

      Thanks again!

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