Every year, Jancis Robinson publishes the years exam questions to the Masters of Wine exams. I believe that these, especially the Contemporary Issues paper are a particularly excellent bellwether for what is going on in the industry at large, especially the issues that are troubling people. This years are no exception.
As you read through bare in mind that as Robinson points out while some of the questions may seem simple, "The examiners are looking for extremely detailed responses that the questions don't really hint at." I have posted the questions in a block before going through each one and briefly noting why they are important and what they signify.
Theory Paper 4 - Contemporary Issues
(one question to be answered from Section A and one from Section B)
1) Is wine becoming too industrial?
2) Does the wine industry lack innovation?
3) To what extent do you agree with the assertion that viticultural legislation does more harm than good?
4) Can the wine industry ever be socially responsible?
5) To what extent is fake wine a problem in today's wine market?
Q1) Is wine becoming too industrial?
There is nothing wrong with industrial wine. But so much industrial wine pretends not to be something else. As we have seen from the rise of the Craft Beer industry, consumers are getting bored of homogenized, boring product especially if it is insincere about where it comes from. Unfortunately for the industrial wine world more and more people are pushing back and opting for products that can walk the talk. In my blog about Hot Red Hawkes Bay I made the point that consumers, even at the lower end (although not the at the very bottom) are demanding product that tastes of what it is and where it comes from. This is also applicable to authenticity - if a brand says it is X, it better damn well be. I believe authenticity in wine will become a hot button issue in the industry and am seeing tightening demand for industrial product.
Q2) Does the wine industry lack innovation?
This is a hot button issue as well. I wrote an article for Palate Press a few years ago addressing this in relation to wine marketing, comparing it with how craft brewers behave in the market place. But the story is the same for the whole industry. Yes, there are some amazing people pushing the boundaries but by and large there is a lot of resistance to innovation to the point where many brands go to lengths to emphasize tradition, history and family. Some even make all of that up. In contrast, craft beer is amazingly good at looking after those constantly in search of new experiences. This is something I believe that the wine industry in general and brands in specific should try and do more of, everyone needs to attract more customers, especially if the old ones are beginning to die off.
Q3) To what extent do you agree with the assertion that viticultural legislation does more harm than good?
I just love how biased this question is and more or less anticipates the candidates feelings here. Most in the industry believe that viticultural legislation is outdated, at least to some degree. I think the interest in this has been renewed by an organic producer in Burgundy being fined severely for not spraying vines in the midst of a disease outbreak. It is especially true of the old world, there are silly rules about what you can plant where, how you can grow it, how you can make it and how you can package it. This ties into Q2 as much of this legislation is designed to quash innovation in favour of tradition and history. Is it all bad? No. But it is an interesting debate that manages to surface every couple of years (I think last time it was an Valpolicella producer not being able to use screw caps).
Q4) Can the wine industry ever be socially responsible?
I think this is probably the most important question that can possibly be asked about wine and I have for a long time wanted to look at it in depth. In the wine world there is a strong "it's not us" mentality about the harm caused by alcohol to the point where other sectors of the industry are heavily scapegoated. This is especially true as price tags get more expensive. Bringing up this in conversation with those in the wine trade does not make you friends. While the worst of the worst are not drinking expensive or even mid-range wine, there are many median and high decile earners with drinking problems who cause harm in public, in private and behind the wheel. I'm not saying that an industry like the RTD one does not cause more harm, only that all alcohol has the ability to cause harm and many of us ignore it. Even when faced by evidence in our own lives. And this is only one side to the social responsibility debate - labour is an issue, as is corporate responsibility and environmental sustainability.
Q5) To what extent is fake wine a problem in today's wine market?
For a second I was almost going to write this off as a problem for spoilt little rich kids, Russian oligarchs, tech billionaires, robber-barons and members of the wine illuminati. They are most adversely affected, of course, but the prevalence of wine fraud especially in less controlled markets like China is hurting all producers which in turn hurts all consumers. There are two issues here - the first and most important is less scrupulous merchants and outright fraudsters lying to the consumer about where wine comes from or who made it. I have spoken with members of the trade who were shocked at how many variations of the spelling Rothschild there were on bottle store shelves in China. These were not wines made to sell for vast sums of money but people trying to cash in on someone else's good name. It won't be long before we in NZ see the same thing happening with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Central Otago Pinot Noir. The other side is the big ticket items. Many wine critics have been caught up in this with some of the biggest names giving amazing scores to wines that were probably frauds (they may have been better than the real thing). This makes for fun reading for most of us as there just not the financial reward to start forging the wine most of us drink most of the time. But yes, it is an issue. Caveat emptor.
If you want to read more, I would also suggest Robinson's notes on the recent MW Symposium in Florence.
I've been thinking a lot about orange wine recently, and read this great post on FB by Christopher Hayes, an Aussie wine consultant, with his thoughts on the subject. I reposted it on my feed, as I believe it too is indicative of many in the industries thoughts on the subject.
Do let me know what you think in the comments. I'm sure this will rile some up!