How did French wine become a global commodity, the object of frenzied speculation among international investors? A French journalist tells the melancholy tale.
Now that most humans live in a world of safe drinking water, the ubiquitousness of wine as a daily drinking beverage, even for children, has disappeared, replaced by the notion of wine as a distinguished drink for adults, to augment the tastes of the food it accompanies. Who would think, then, that the French wine industry, especially the world-famous Bordeaux wine—the epitome, in many eyes, of a sophisticated, time-honored, and above-the-fray enterprise—would be draped in the black crêpe of rank commercialism? According to prominent French journalist Saporta, “Bordeaux has now become a huge business, a subject of large-scale speculation, and a worldwide brand.”
And what are the features and effects of Bordeaux having been sullied as a commodity like the shares of a global—say, telecommunications—company? First off, the author makes no bones about the shifts in theory and practice when it comes to the production of wine: “Say goodbye to the traditional family vineyard.” In reading this truly eye-opening exposé, American readers will be reminded of what has happened to the family farm here in the U.S., largely replaced by huge acreages owned by big companies that concentrate on one “product”: corn, pigs, chickens, among other crops and livestock that, together, used to constitute the American farm.
. . . a rude but, admittedly, fascinating awakening . . .
So, the most prominent aspect of Bordeaux as big business is the influx of investors from all over the world, the most recent being Chinese businessmen, who, according to this author’s statistics, have bought about 50 vineyards in the past four years. What happens when wealthy investors get involved? “Their wines become brands sold at astronomical prices” because these wines aren’t purchased for drinking “but as the external sign of wealth.” Saporta sees that winemaking will become a speculative venture that is “all about image,” and with “big investors controlling everything,” small farmers will not be able to afford to stay on their own land and continue making their own very good—and affordable—wine.
The author also tackles the knotty problem of wine classification, which these days allots points for the size of the vineyard’s parking lot and whether there’s a seminar room in the facility.
This book provides a rude but, admittedly, fascinating awakening from which we all will walk away a little bit jaded.
This review first appeared in the October 1, 2015, issue of Booklist.