WineInk: What’s the Point?
This week in the Grand Tasting courtyard at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, I sat and watched wine lovers mingle with winemakers, marketers, promoters and others who had come to pour their wares for the happy masses as the consumer wine event played out under a cobalt blue sky.
Observing the happy scene, I was struck by how something as simple as fermented juice has evolved in our culture to become a massive industry that provides jobs and lifestyles to millions worldwide. Here, at this event — a thousand miles from the great wine regions of America on the West Coast — there were perhaps 350 different wine producers displaying and pouring wines from all over the planet.
Recently in this column, I wrote about the discovery of an ancient winery just south of Tbilisi, Georgia, and what is thought to be the earliest known winery production facility on Earth. “The oldest example of the domestication of a wild-growing Eurasian grapevine solely for the production of wine,” is how researcher Stephen Batiuk of the University of Toronto described the find. Carbon dating showed that the “winery” dated back over 8,000 years. There are other archeological sites with winemaking facilities in the region that are of nearly the same age. Even before the ancient Georgians, it is conceivable that there were other civilizations fermenting fruit and making wines.
It is easy and rightful to suggest that, through the millennia, the purpose of all this winemaking — a practice that is expanding globally in this day and age — is simply about creating a product that makes us feel good. Something that brings pleasure to our senses and, depending upon our habits of consumption, adds a bit of euphoria to our souls. When you get right down to it, it’s undeniable that wine, at its basest level, exists solely to enhance the enjoyment of our lives. And that is a pretty good reason for something to exist.
For the first 5,000 years of wine history, we can assume that all wine was basically local. Oh, there was some transport of the clay jars and jugs and amphorae for military and migration purposes, but it was not until the days of the Roman Empire that wines and grape varieties began to migrate throughout Europe and usher in the emergence of the economic wine powers that we know today. The transformation to oak barrels, the creation of glass bottles and, eventually, improved transportation in the form of railroads and air travel, revolutionized wine just as semi-conductors revolutionized computers.
The result of those evolutions of technology is a global wine market that generated over $300 billion in sales in 2017, according to Zion Market Research and is expected to grow at a rate of about 5.8% annually to reach $425 billion in the next five years. That is a lot of wine. And a lot of pleasure.
At the Aspen event, one could see how an industry of that size has an impact on the economy and lives. Start with the event’s sponsor, Food & Wine magazine, which is owned by the Meredith Corporation of Des Moines, Iowa. “We focus our editorial schedule around the Aspen Food & Wine Classic,” said the magazine’s editor, Hunter Lewis, about their participation in the 37-year-old event.” There are journalists, photographers, public relations people, sales representatives, event planners and their support staffs who work for months to make an event like this work.
Then there are those who are pouring and selling wines at the Classic. “This event is my most important three days of the year,” one winemaker told me about why he attends each year. “I generate sales and create relationships that help keep us in business.” And it is not just his company that stays in business. An army of distributors, importers, wine retailers and advertisers, all of whom make their living off of the business of wine, attend the event, as well.
And that does not even include those who actually made the wines that are being poured: the vineyard workers who harvest the wines, the vintners who blend them, the people who design the labels, the people who manufacture the bottles. Yes, sitting in the courtyard it was easy to see just how impactful this 8,000-year-old industry is from a financial standpoint.
But it was also easily observable just how much fun people were having, tasting wines, toasting friends and relishing the joys of fermented fruit. It made me wonder: is wine simply about commerce, an extension of an economic entity that has evolved with the purpose of financial gain? Or is it a product for creating joy and community?
Under a blue sky with glass in hand, I could see it both ways.