On Palate Press: When Nobels + wine = more than just festive toasts

My latest piece for Palate Press points out that last week’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has a lot more to do with sparkling wine than just being an excuse to raise a few glasses of Champagne. Dr. Ohsumi’s work on autophagy provides a lot of detail about what yeast are doing during that long aging in the bottle, and how a particularly organized form of dying means that they’re doing a lot more than you might imagine.

Find the full piece here.

Fair trade and the complicated ethics of buying wine from elsewhere

My October article for Palate Press asks: “how fair is fair-trade wine?” Data exist to help answer that question, though the data are always partial, imperfect, and from a particular point of view. Other data could point to different conclusions. The data I looked at point to some of the structures of fair-trade wine and say that they’re not doing the things that ethically-minded consumers would hope or expect them to be doing.

It’s easy to think that the wine industry isn’t like growing sugarcane or coffee or rubber. I mean, most people at most wineries are pretty well off. Some are millionaires who live in mansions and sit in the front row during Paris fashion week. If you know any winemakers or vineyard managers, they’re probably comfortably middle-class people, better if you’re in a ritzy neighborhood. But the parallels are numerous once you start looking for them. Wine isn’t known for abusing child labor, but Mexican vineyard laborers working in California routinely faint from heat exhaustion, common vineyard chemicals threaten worker health (even in heavily regulated countries like France), and “employees” are often contract workers with inconsistent incomes and poor working conditions. Many operations take excellent care of their vineyard crews*, employ a year-round team, provide job security and treat their folk with dignity, but that sort of thing isn’t universal. Fair trade’s point is that enough vineyard workers in South Africa, Argentina, and Chile (where the program is active) are bad enough off to warrant an intervention in the name of social welfare. The point of the study I describe is that fair trade has a good point, but hasn’t created an intervention that does much good.

The obvious question at the end of that whole discussion is: if I’m a wine consumer who cares about what my money does in the world, if I buy free-range chicken and organic kale and go to the farmer’s market, what should I look for when I buy wine? One easy, obvious answer is to buy local. When you’ve been to the winery and know the people who work there, it’s easier to know what you’re supporting. But that solution begs the question: if all of the free-range chicken- and organic kale-eating people buy their chardonnay from their sustainability-minded regional wineries – and maybe if the people eating pasta and canned tomato sauce from the grocery store start doing the same thing – what happens to the Argentinian wine industry? Do all of those workers end up worse off because they end up out of a job?

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Born Digital Awards shortlist

I’ve been doubly short-listed for the 2015 Born Digital Wine Awards, for a post on this blog on how to replicate a 1500 year-old wine and a piece at Palate Press on whether “hand-picked” on the label means better wine inside the bottle. The blog post may be one of the better things I’ve written: it’s silly, but perhaps it gets its point across, and (unusually for me, I know) it’s a quick read. The Palate Press piece isn’t as entertaining, but the topic is important. We glean so many of our assumptions about wine from the way it’s marketed, and so it’s easy to end up thinking things that don’t always hold water if you look at them more closely.

Thanks to the Born Digital folk for their support, and congratulations to the other finalists. It’s an excellent list, and a real pleasure to be in such good company. And while I’m still working to understand (and read through the extensive website of) the main sponsoring organization, Wine in Moderation, I certainly appreciate the sentiment.