Why the wine industry needs diversity of products

Biodiversity as a concept is as important to business as it is to the natural world, says Robert Joseph. 

Photo by Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash
Photo by Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash

Along with ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘sustainability’, biodiversity is one of those concepts almost universally acknowledged to be desirable. There are lots of creatures and plants we may not find aesthetically pleasing, but we understand that they are all part of a larger system. Killing cockroaches and pesky mosquitos may endanger some of those other more endearing creatures we like to see on Christmas cards.

I’m simplifying of course, but you know what I mean.

Biodiversity is just as relevant to businesses and industries. On environmental grounds, it might be preferable for us all to drive the same size and style of carbon-friendly vehicle, but the profitability of the automobile industry relies heavily on the sports cars, limos and, in a few cases, its investment in Formula One. 

I have recently been hosting some online interviews for the World Bulk Wine Exhibition (WBWE) and, when talking to others about these exchanges, been reminded of how many professionals like to pretend that bulk is irrelevant to them and not really worth thinking about. I’m also struck by the many discussions I’ve had with people who, if they had the power, would wish away ‘industrial’ wine and supermarkets. All wine would be organically – biodynamically? – produced by families working their own land, ideally by hand and with horses.

Again, of course, it’s not that simple. 

Over the centuries, those families historically worked land that belonged to aristocrats or the church, and the only way they had to make any money from their wine was because of the efforts of merchants who knew how to sell it.

When I lived in Burgundy in the late 1970s, even the most illustrious Grands and Premiers Crus were still mostly traded in barrels – or bulk – and bottled and sold by the negociants. Today, while many of the estates that once relied on this system bottle and distribute their own wine, plenty of very fine wine in Burgundy and across the globe travels from one business to another in containers containing more than 20 litres. In Napa, as Greg Livengood of Ciatti revealed in a WBWE talks, super-premium wineries sell some very pricy wine to their neighbours when they have too much, or too little of a particular variety. This happens in Europe too, but behind the scenes.

The combination of bulk-producing cooperatives, supermarkets and the appellation system has done more to popularise classic wine styles than anything else – and not only at the bottom end of the price scale. Industrial giants have done the same for varietal styles in the New World. And, in both cases, as an interesting 2019 paper by Rainer, Pütz and Steiner reveals, the relationships between bulk producers, bottlers and distributors have increasingly driven the availability of consistent inexpensive wines that have given consumers the confidence to pick up a bottle.

But the biodiversity of the wine industry also benefits from the ‘natural’, amber and bourbon-barrel-matured wines and dare I say it, maybe even aromatised and ‘clean’ ones. Plenty of South African grape growers have relied on French enthusiasm for peach- and strawberry-flavoured wine for their income in recent years, while I suspect that in the US there are people who are only drinking wine today because of the permission to do so given by the ‘healthy’ marketing used to promote a clean wine.

Biodiversity is always challenged when newcomers of any kind are introduced. Some new arrivals become so powerful that they threaten the survival of the established community. This is what the New World did to Europe; what supermarkets did to traditional merchants and online retailers, and what direct-to-consumer is now doing to a wide range of distributors. But competition breeds – or should breed – resilience.

The solution is not stop the clock or to eliminate any part of the system. The wine world wouldn’t have been a better place if no one had planted vines in California or the Southern hemisphere, if there were no such thing as a super-Tuscan, or if wine had never found its way into self-service retail. Plenty of keen enthusiasts began their journey into wine by popping cheap bottles of red into their shopping trolley. The disappearance of Barefoot today wouldn’t be to the advantage of amber wine, or vice versa; that’s not how biodiversity works.

Robert Joseph

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