Jerry Lockspeiser is enthralled by the wine business insights of Mike Veseth

Mike Veseth is an unusual academic. Professor emeritus of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, and an economist who studies global wine markets, he writes about wine business issues with a down to earth populist ease that Nigel Farage would be proud of. His enthusiastic, chatty style resembles a conversation over a glass of Merlot in a wine bar. He makes his subject highly accessible and clearly loves this world.

Veseth writes The Wine Economist blog and is the author of two books that look at the ‘big picture’– Wine Wars published in 2011 and the more recent Extreme Wine.

Like the film Mondovino, Wine Wars seeks to describe and analyse the pros and cons of globalisation on wine. Its subtitle “The Curse of the Blue Nun, The Miracle of Two Buck Chuck and the Revenge of the Terroirists” symbolise the three forces Veseth sees powering the wine world. He uses them to structure the book.

The first is the historic descent into low quality and low price; the second is McWine, epitomised by $1.99 Charles Shaw in Trader Joe’s, aka Two Buck Chuck, standardised drinkable wines still at low prices and made successful by consumers’ trust in the supermarkets that sell them; the third is real wine with soul, meaning and place, the many David’s fighting back against McWine’s Goliath.

Wine Wars takes us through the global wine business landscape highlighting many issues at play. He sees wine as a broad church, the future undetermined as the different forces to battle it out.

Extreme Wine has an even longer subtitle “Searching the world for the best, the worst, the outrageously cheap, the insanely overpriced and the undiscovered”. The idea nods to the likes of Malcolm Gladwell in its notion that “what we see at the extreme is just a more intense reflection of what is happening everywhere”.

Veseth runs through a lot of interesting topics in his easy and upbeat ‘come with me on a journey of exploration’ style but the ‘extreme wine’ device doesn’t work for me. It just gets in the way of generally interesting content. The more it goes on the more it seems like a shock horror marketing device to sell the book.

A chapter on ‘The Fame Game’ gives engaging introductions to Champagne as a luxury good, the story behind the top wines of Bordeaux, the Austrian anti-freeze scandal, the fake Jefferson bottles, and some wine styles that used to be famous and are now forgotten. Using fame as an umbrella to connect otherwise unconnected topics doesn’t do much for understanding them, any more than bracketing together Silvio Berlusconi, Pharrell Williams and Frank Lampard because they are all performers.

 “Extreme Wine Boom and Busts” is an interesting chapter with stories on the USA, France, Argentina and Australia which concludes “And so I guess it is time to confess that there is nothing very extreme about booms and busts in the wine world….it is clear that boom and busts are part of business as usual in the wine industry”. Quite. The chapters on wine celebrity, movies and tourism are all a good read despite the superfluous and slightly irritating attempt to fit them into the extreme device.  

Extreme Wine sometimes reads like a collection of his blogs strung together by rather tenuous links. His discursive style may not please the more studious reader and the key points could be made more succinctly.  But no matter, the strength of both books lies in the ‘popular wine economics’ approach and they fill a real gap in a readable and informative way.

These are good introductions for students and those not experienced in wine business issues. There are useful insights for us old shire horses of the trade too. His speech to the Nederburg Auction on the challenges and opportunities South African wine faced in America is a mini masterclass.  For encouraging us to stop looking at our shoe laces and focus on the big picture he deserves many readers.

* Wine Wars and Extreme Wine by Mike Veseth are published by Rowman & Littlefield


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