Monday, September 17, 2018

Co-ops, Part 2

Co-ops are organizations of farmers created for the purpose of defraying the costs of production for their members and fairly compensating those members for the fruit of their labors.  If that is our starting point then there ought to be a realization staring us in the face.  Co-ops have to compete with sizable other entities, either the largest of private estates or more likely, with the mass marketers we have written about over and over again here.  Business being business, arrangements have to be made to ensure the flow of product to consumers and co-ops seem to have figured it out. 

Having been employed by a grocery chain store, I know what kind of supply is expected by that retail model.  The shelves are expected to be kept full.  Grand deals are struck by the chain buyer and whoever the entity is that buys that shelf space.  It's all contingent upon a steady flow of product and if you can't guarantee that, you lose your slot.

So if a co-op, either domestic or imported, is playing at that level, it has to be sizable.  For our purposes today let's look at the imports.  In Europe 25% of all wine is co-op produced.  The governments of France, Spain, and Italy all support wine co-ops resulting in 30%-60% of those countries' wine industries being co-op driven.  In specific places within those countries the co-ops clearly rule: Languedoc @ 70%, Trentino @ 80%.  In Argentina and South Africa the largest wine companies are co-ops: KWV in South Africa and Fecovita in Argentina.

How did co-ops become so strong?  Begun in the mid-eighteenth century with the support of the Roman Catholic church who shared a kindred philosophy, co-ops gradually grew in  popularity.  Lobbying may have been mutual between government and the industry.  For government: the taxing agency's job is simplified; government can shape policies (green energy, etc.); and economies can be stabilized through co-op production.  For the co-op industry?  Public financing is everywhere across Europe.

In the last post we said how the maturation of wine tastes here in America and elsewhere had driven up quality standards and that the co-ops have had to adjust to keep pace with private industry.  As a result La Marca Prosecco is now the industry leader in that category and Nicolas Feuillate is certainly in the top tier from Champagne.  Both are co-op products.

Please join us this Thursday the 20th of September after 5pm when Morgan Miller presents the acclaimed wines of Casas del Bosque of Chile.  Most recently the Wall Street Journal has declared Bosque to be the top producer in its Budget Hall of Fame.   

Monday, September 10, 2018


Historically the creation of co-ops was an effort by farmers to re-invent themselves in response to bad economic times and the exploitation of agribusiness.  The Great Depression in particular spawned both numbers and varieties of co-ops here and around the world.  For farmers, organizing was a desperate attempt to survive collectively, a "strength in numbers" appeal to vulnerable property owners whose farms in themselves were often not highly valued.

There are many different kinds of co-ops and every agricultural society on earth has some form of farming organization that manages the collective interests of the group.  What all forms of wine growing co-ops share is the pooling of the group's resources and the sharing of the cost of making and marketing their product.  Essentially what is most often collectively bought is machinery and expertise.  Unfortunately because of difficult economies and meager resources, co-ops got a reputation for making substandard products that weren't competitive with private ownership.

The most prevalent co-op model for most of the twentieth century was one that paid the farmers based on the weight of their produce and that makes sense.  Historically that is the way the business was done.  The quality of the product wasn't always primary for co-ops so the "substandard" bad rap may have been deserved.  Unfortunately not only is a bad reputation difficult to change but in the co-op case it had repercussions for the business that bought from them.  Retailers and restaurateurs became branded as substandard by their stocking of co-op wines.

For most of the twentieth century the co-op situation was what it was.  But as the wine world evolved and the co-ops took notice of the profitability that better quality production merited they too realized they had to change.  Quality had to be factored in.  That meant lower yields (less weight) but higher prices for the better grapes.  And it worked.

We were inspired to write about the subject after buying a case of fine white Italian wine.  That case came with literature that was acknowledging their co-op fruit.  It read like an apology so it was obviously bad marketing.  The case of wine was here because it was good not because of where it was sourced.  Since that purchase more high quality co-op wine has come into the store making us more confident than ever that co-op wine really is not only as good as any, it may be a better value than the estates!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018


We just read an article about the pinot family of grapes and how an unstable genome was responsible for all of the pinot varieties around today.  Supposedly because Pinot Noir is a thousand years old, over that amount of time it has spawned Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier, which are all commonly used today, and other types including an early ripening variety called Pinot Noir Precoce and a red fleshed Pinot Teinturier.

This isn't exactly breaking news for us.  A single pinot grapevine may show several different colored bunches hanging from the same branch which is evidence of mutations in real time.  Such is reality for this most intriguing of grape types.

We may have started this post with the wrong example though when you consider the Muscat (Moscato) variety.  Moscato is even older than Pinot Noir and may be responsible for the creation of 200 muscat varieties although DNA testing is showing some are probably unrelated.  Nonetheless Muscat Alexandria, Muscat Canelli, Muscat Ottonel, Black Muscat, and others can all co-exist on the shelves of your neighborhood wine shop at the same time many other muscat table grapes reside in the produce section of the local grocery store.

So how does this mutation business happen?  A quick google search reveals that mutations occur when "a gene is damaged in such a way as to alter the genetic message carried by that gene" and that change is permanent.

Since we don't have a scientific bone in our body, let's segue this discussion into changes in the wine industry itself to see where the mutations are there.  Wine may have had its beginnings in something like a hollow log before pottery was invented back in 6,000 BC, give or take a thousand years.  That wine was most likely either white or rose since those grapes were squeezed by hands (or feet) and let's be honest, the stuff probably didn't taste very good.  Manual presses enabled wine makers to extract flavors and color from grape skins and they appeared around 2000 BC.  With industrialization came machinery to really extract the good stuff and recently with information technology have come all kinds of inventions to perfect the best possible outcomes for winemakers so the everyday wines of today are qualitatively better than they were just fifty years ago.  Given the long history of wine on earth you might say the red wines we enjoy today are a very recent mutation in the long history of wine making. 

Please join us after 5pm on Thursday the 6th of September when Dustin Whiten leads us in a tasting of everyday European reds and white.  Then one week later join us as former sommelier Erik Schmitt presents a tasting of Willakenzie Oregon wines.