This slim little volume made a disproportionate amount of noise when it was released earlier this year, with a number of bloggers reviewing it favourably and many wine industry personnel acknowledging it as a book to make an effort to read. And indeed, it is worth the read as it brings issues regarding the wine industry, in New Zealand as well as globally, out into the open, the authors taking a clear stance on them.
The book is sub-titled ‘How big business is subverting artisan winemaking and the future of fine wine’, and that in essence is what it is all about. Michael Spratt and Mark Feldman are principals in Destiny Bay Vineyards, a small, high quality wine producer on Waiheke Island, Mike as founder and owner, with Mark the CEO of the U.S. based distribution company for the wine producing operation. They are artisan winemakers who have seen what they do being eroded by the production of ‘grape-a-hol’ by the big and industrial-sized winemakers. ‘Grape-a-hol’ is defined by the authors as ‘an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grape juice and passed off as a substitute for fine wine’. Its production they argue is preventing true artisans making and selling fine wine, the ‘grape-a-hol’ blurring the perception of maker and consumer alike. The cause is profits, margins and market share, which drives an increasing production, lowering of prices and quality, destroying any possible aspirations to quality a wine might have to fineness. Spratt and Feldman discuss the role that corporate business and tax-levying governments play in perpetuating the circumstances that operate with ‘grape-a-hol. They make absolutely clear their position on these matters, and it is, to them, black or white.
While what they say can be interpreted as being correct, many, including myself would see a considerable grey area with most of their arguments. With the premise that there is a dividing line between artisanal fine wine and ‘gape-a-hol’, there are many artisan wines which are extremely poor, and of course there are many wines made by the large multi-national firms, who do for certain make ‘grape-a-hol’, but also make superb wines that any artisan would be proud of. I suspect the delivery of the message is important to the authors, so they make the biggest impact possible. The language and ideas presented border on sensationalism and evangelism.
Spratt and Feldman grind their axe on other and associated wine industry matters. Wine writing gets a going over, as do wine judging competitions. The hot topic of biodynamics is discussed, and the now-passé subject, at least for most wine drinkers in New Zealand, of closures. And an emerging topic in the New World being how complexity is not necessarily equated to quality, Their points of view are quite valid and worthy of real consideration. And their arguments for their positions are robust. But the reality is that all the subjects discussed are far more complex than they put forward. The black and white line is where they make the call, but most informed readers will know a little more, and be able to make more moderated judgements.