Monday, December 25, 2023

This is how Australians market wine (you may be surprised)

Greetings of the season:
God jul! Merry Christmas. Joyeux noël. Fröhe Weihnachten. Feliz Navidad. Buon Natale!

Each country has its own way of marketing wine to its populace. That is, there are commercial, cultural and legal arrangements that facilitate and encourage the transfer of wine from the producers to the customers. These arrangements can differ greatly between countries.

Here, I will look briefly at how the Australians appear to do it, within Australia itself.

Australian vineyard

The main arrangement is via wine brands, of course. That is, wine is aggregated into volumes that are then marketed under a single name, or label. This is the most common arrangement around the world. The wine producers sometimes create the brands themselves, and thus sell the wine direct to the customers, or they sell the wine to intermediaries, called retailers, who then sell the wine to the consumers.

However, one aspect of the Australian system does seem to differ quite considerably from many other countries. How many of these wine brands are owned by huge conglomerations? That is, there are many wine brands on the retail shelves, but not quite so many companies standing behind those brands.

The web site that contains the most detailed summary of this situation for Australia is: Who makes my wine? It was put online by The Real Review back in February 2018, and was most recently updated in December 2023. This lists which companies dominate wine retailing in Australia, and for which the ownership of their brands is often not publicly disclosed. The Real Review data are summarized below.

There are, of course, wine conglomerates in Australia, who have simply purchased other wine companies. This is widespread throughout the world, as discussed at: The 10 largest wine companies in the world. The biggest of these conglomerates in Australia are shown in this first table. The largest of these, Treasury Wine Estates, is only the fifth largest wine company globally, so there is nothing particularly out of line here.

The largest Australian wine companies

However, it addition, within Australia there are supermarket conglomerates who are (mostly) inventing wine brands out of thin air. The biggest three collections of these are shown in the second table. Note the massive number of brands (aka “bulk-shipped retailer own-labels”), compared to the first table.

Also, note that the Endeavour Group (formerly called Woolworths supermarkets) actually owns a whole series of acquired “independent” liquor retail outlets, including: Dan Murphy’s, BWS, Langton’s, Cellarmasters, Pinnacle Drinks, Jimmy Brings, and Shorty’s Liquor — these retailers may look different on the outside, but they are all pretty much the same in terms of content,

The Australian supermarket brands

So, four times as many brands are marketed in Australia by large supermarkets than are marketed by large wine companies. Indeed, back in 2016, Tyson Stelzer (Who makes my wine?) noted that:
The growth in supermarket “Buyer’s Own Brand” wines in Australia has been substantial, estimated to have mushroomed from five percent a decade ago to between 16 and 25 percent of the market today.
Do any other countries market wine in this manner? We are told that US-style marketing is being adopted elsewhere (French winemakers adopt US-style marketing to halt falling sales), and this consists of: “In Anglo-Saxon countries, they ask what the consumer wants first.” However, trying to market the Australian supermarket wines elsewhere is not a viable proposition (Australian wine is in crisis — here’s why).

Mind you, the increase in size of the Australian wine conglomerations is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, as it also will for the other world mega-companies (Consolidation moves):
Consolidation is nothing new for the wine industry, but the pace of change has accelerated in recent years as interest rates have risen, costs of labor and supplies have jumped, and demand for wine has softened.
Treasury Wine Estates, for example, is buying a substantial vineyard area in New Zealand (Treasury’s New Zealand vineyard expansion); and it has recently made United States acquisitions (The 10 most important M&A deals in drinks in 2023) — these are intended to “strengthen its global portfolio”.

The original site's front page

The Real Review site listed above is a large update of the original Who makes my wine? site (pictured here). It first appeared in the Wayback Machine on November 28, 2010. It listed “100 or so” wines for Coles and Woolworths supermarkets. It was archived last on October 4, 2015, but was gone from the web by January 10, 2016. The domain was later resurrected, and it was first archived by the Wayback Machine on February 26, 2021. I last accessed it in December 2023, when 81 brands were listed. For each wine, it has a pretty good description of the Australian Wine Regions.

Monday, December 18, 2023

The ethics of presenting the wine industry

Ethics in the wine industry is a continual topic, as a quick perusal of any wine industry news-site will show you (eg. Wine Industry Insight). It usually involves questioning the (lack of?) ethics of some (many?) people in the industry (especially with regard to tax compliance!). How big a difference is there between evading the law and breaking it?

I have not written much about wine-industry ethics in this blog. This is not from a lack of interest in the topic, but for lack of anything much to say that might be a bit different from any other wine blogger. However, a couple of events recently have changed that. So, here we go.

David and Buffalo

First, I was sent an email (thanks John Stallcup) drawing my attention to the blog of Scott Galloway (No Mercy / No Malice), and specifically the post on Firewater. You should check it out, as it is both interesting and very well written. The author does not shy away from ethics, or any other topic.

The second thing is that I finally made it to South Africa (see the photo above). This was fascinating, especially for me as a biologist — the plants and animals are unique, and it was great to see them in situ; and the landscape reminds me very much of my homeland (Australia). Moreover, my wife’s parents long ago worked for Svenskakyrkan (the Church of Sweden) as school teachers for the black children of what was then called Rhodesia. So, South Africa is pretty close to her original homeland, too.

South African vineyard

What does this have to do with the wine industry? That is simple, because I have now been to wine-lands on several continents (Australia, North America, Europe, South America); and their contrast with South Africa is, in one particular way, stark.

Vineyards in Australia, for example, are nested among the bushland (as we call it), so that the backdrop is often native eucalypt trees, etc. Vineyards in northern Europe, for example, are spread along romantic rivers with scattered medieval villages. These sorts of things are part of the image that the wine industry tries to promulgate for itself; and by and large it is accurate.

However, it would be just as accurate to note, for example, that the European villages were once the home-land of abject poverty; the Middle Ages were not a time to be a poor serf — servile life was no fun, and death at a young age was rampant. The Plague (or Black Death) was not something that was easy to live through. However, we do not see any of that in the modern world, so that wine tourists can focus on the romance. Focus on enjoyment, and the quality of life, is important.

Khayelitsha and vineyard

South Africa, in some ways, is another matter. Sure, there are vineyard regions that are very familiar to me from growing up in Australia, in both look and feel (although the eucalypt trees growing there are not native, but were introduced by Europeans). However, by contrast there are the vineyards around Cape Town. The massive shanty town (as an Australian would call it) south-east of Cape Town was a great shock to my bus-load of middle-class Swedish tourists. The contrast with the Kruger National Park (lions, elephants, giraffes, buffalo, etc), and the lower-middle-class servers in the tourist industry, was stark. Everyone on the bus noticed, and everyone expressed concern. Our guide, on the other hand, kept the same neutral tone as he had throughout the trip, while he explained what the government was doing about it, and planning to do.

These slums (named Khayelitsha) are possibly the third largest in the world (8 cities with the world’s largest slums), with perhaps one million residents. They are not the only slums in South Africa (List of slums in South Africa), but probably a third of Cape Town's 3.7 million residents live in its slums (The tale of two slums in South Africa). As you can imagine, Life in South African shanty towns is not easy.

The point here is that some of the vineyards of Cape Town are right next to this enormous shanty town, as shown in the photo above, and on the Google Map below (Khayelitsha is outlined, and one of the nearby vineyards is named). One cannot miss the contrast, when you are there. However you don’t see it in any of the wine-industry photos (see the second photo above).

Khayelitsha, CapeTown

For me, the wine industry and vineyards will never be the same again. I can no longer look at a village on the Rhine River, nested among the vineyards, without seeing life as it was in the Middle Ages, when the villages came into being. I ask myself: how ethical is it to only ever show the romance? The ethics of only showing this is one of omission, not commission — no-one is faking anything, but they sure as hell are leaving some things out.

I am also reminded of another much simpler, but equally notable, part of my own recent history. On 7 November 2023 it was 150 years since the Swedish parliament decided to formally allow women to attend the country’s universities, and this was duly noted in my local newspaper here in Uppsala. This historical event was way ahead of what happened in most other countries, which is a very positive aspect that Swedes are proud of. However, we should not ignore the fact that Sweden has some of the oldest universities in the world, with Uppsala University founded way back in 1477 and Lund University in 1666 (although it traces its roots back to 1425). So, which do we focus on — the later 150 years (with women) or the first 400 years (without women)? My argument is that, ethically, we should see both; but it seems to me that the wine industry would probably not do so.

[All of the photos above were taken by Susanne Stenlund.]

Monday, December 11, 2023

Health and wine, and also Coca Wine

As I have noted recently, the wine industry is certainly living in uncertain times, with regard to the health effects of alcohol (A scientist looks at alcohol and health, and is concerned). Importantly, as has been noted elsewhere, The World Health Organization is on the case (WHO shifts its alcohol narratives, and the wine industry faces new challenges). In particular, drinking alcohol is now being seen as the same as smoking tobacco (Is consuming wine really as unhealthy as tobacco?).

In response to all of this, I thought that I might cover a few of the more contradictory pieces of information that have been discussed recently. I am no expert in any of these medical discussions, so I will reference some published articles.

Cocoa wine

However, we should start with the wine industry itself. As Tom Wark has noted (Bringing the 2024 wine industry into focus):
It appears that the wine industry is just now coming around to the idea that there are some very powerful forces working to diminish the sale of wine, in the service of improving the health of the U.S. population. At the heart of this effort is the notion that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption — a message that is being promulgated by the World Health Organization.
This is serious, because the WHO carries a lot of weight. But is the WHO right in their assessment? Tom thinks not — consider this:
Most recently, WHO called for significantly increased taxes on alcohol, including wine, saying that “taxes that increase alcohol prices by 50% would help avert over 21 million deaths over 50 years and generate nearly US$17 trillion in additional revenues. This is equivalent to the total government revenue of eight of the world's largest economies in one year.”
Extreme indeed! Tom’s response is:
The American wine industry must fight this effort to demonize wine, and my sources tell me that there is in fact an effort to do just this. That effort should get off the ground in 2024.
Hall's Coca Wine

In the meantime, let’s start with this study reported in June (and published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology): More evidence moderate drinking is good for your heart. Also: a reason.
For the first time, researchers found that alcohol, in light to moderate quantities, was associated with long-term reductions in stress signaling in the brain. This impact appeared to significantly account for the reductions in heart disease risk seen in light to moderate drinkers participating in the study.
Previous epidemiological studies have suggested that light to moderate alcohol consumption (one drink per day for women and one to two drinks per day for men) is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Yet while light/moderate drinkers lowered their risk for cardiovascular disease, the study also showed that any amount of alcohol increases the risk of cancer. And at higher amounts of alcohol consumption — more than 14 drinks a week — heart attack risk started to increase while overall brain activity started to decrease (which may be associated with adverse cognitive health).

Continuing along the same line, also in June (and published in the Nutrients Journal): Study reveals that wine consumption has an inverse relationship to cardiovascular health 

In a recent study, researchers aimed to understand the association between wine consumption and cardiovascular mortality, cardiovascular disease (CVD), and coronary heart disease (CHD).
The researchers performed a systematic review and meta-analysis using longitudinal studies, including cohort and case-control studies retrieved from multiple databases, which they searched from their inception to March 2023.
This current review and meta-analysis added to the previous evidence of an inverse association between the consumption of wine and three cardiovascular events evaluated in this study.
In contrast, there was this report in June (and published in Calcified Tissue International): Heavy drinking linked to lower muscle mass — here’s what you need to know
Heavy drinking has long been associated with various health problems, including cirrhosis of the liver, cancer and heart disease. But our latest study has found that these aren’t the only issues that excess drinking can cause. We found that heavy drinkers had lower levels of muscle mass than those who didn’t drink, or drank moderately. 
Overall, people had lower amounts of muscle the more that they drank. This effect happened after about one unit of alcohol a day for men (just under a small glass of wine) and just under two units for women (the equivalent of a pint of lager).
Metcalf's Coca Wine

Wine can, of course, be made from many sources, not just grapevines. One that was once popular was coca (from the plant Erythroxylum coca), back in the 1800s (The medical history of Coca-Cola you never knew). So, on this page are advertisements for some of the better-known Coca Wines of yesteryear. There was also the milder Coca Tea, and the much less mild Cocaine.

Monday, December 4, 2023

The oldest known vines, and an interview with myself

Digressive Preamble

Recently, I did an audio interview for The Wonderful World of Wine (WWW). This show is hosted by Mark Lenzi And Kim Simone, and “explores all things wine with you: trends, news, education, and so much more.” You should check it out.

Episode 249 of their series is the interview with:
David Morrison, who is a data expert in the world of wine and has been passionately writing about it for years, garnering a large following of wine enthusiasts around the globe. With his extensive knowledge and unique perspective, David has become a trusted authority in the wine data industry.

Sounds good to me! The interview recording can be found on their SoundCloud channel, and on their Youtube channel.

This follows the interview I did a year ago with Wine For Normal People, episode 424 on Youtube.

Oldest recorded vines and vineyards

At roughly the same time as this interview, I also did an online presentation for the Old Vine Conference. According to the conference agenda, David covered: “how he used the old vine registry to analyse the distribution of old vineyards around the world, and created some charts.”

On The Wine Gourd blog, I covered a lot of this material in two earlier posts:
However, there were some things that did not appear in those posts, and I cover some of this information here.

The old vine from Slovenia

Many of you will have encountered The Old Vine Registry recently, which is an ambitious plan to catalogue the world’s oldest vines as a fully searchable and updatable online database. It officially launched on June 28 2023 (Old Vine Registry launched), as: “the world’s first crowd-sourced global database of living historic vineyard sites.” Its goal is: “to create the world’s most authoritative record of these vineyards in the hopes that, through greater awareness and attention, these vineyards and the wines they produce will survive and thrive.”

There have been a number of web sites introducing the concept, but the best of them is by one of the participants, Alder Yarrow (Vinography Wine Blog): Introducing the Old Vine Registry. You should read this if you have not already done so.

There is no legal or generally agreed definition for “old” (Old vine), but the Old Vine Conference uses a minimum vine age of 35 years. So, the Registry notes that: “Vineyards that have been left to grow and thrive beyond that 35-year mark can officially be considered old.” Yarrow observes that: “We have about 2,200 records of old vine vineyards … There should be another 10,000 from around the world added by the time we’re done.”

On this age basis, most of the current data come from Portugal (822 recorded vineyards), followed by Spain (383), the United States (334), Australia (208), and France (142).

However, here I am going to be more strict than this. Below, I have summarized those records for vines that are at least 125 years old. There are currently 150 such records, which may be more than you expected, even globally. The oldest recorded vineyard is c. 600 years old (in Germany), with another three at c. 450 (Georgia, Germany, Slovenia), and one at 350 years (Italy).

The full collection of vine ages (>125) is shown in this graph. This is pretty impressive, of course; but we should note that there are actually 34 known trees with verified ages that are more than twice that of the oldest grapevine (ie. 1,200+ years) (List of oldest trees).

Graph of all vines older than 125 years

We can also look at which countries these oldest vines come from. Here is a table listing the vineyard count for each of the relevant countries.

World distribution of oldest grapevines

Note that 32% of these vines are in the United States of America, and 19% are in Australia. The New World outshines the Old World, when it comes to vineyard preservation! Not unexpectedly, all of the USA vineyards are in California. Here is a list of the vineyard count for each of the relevant counties. Note that 50% are in Sonoma county.

California distribution og oldest vineayrds

Old vines (and their vineyards) have interest both for their contribution to agricultural history and biodiversity; but they do also have other more immediate practical uses for the wine industry. For example, Enrico Marcolungo (store manager, Shrine to the Vine) sees old vines as being “one of the most effective marketing tools” there is at the moment. “It definitely adds interest to the conversation when you are recommending wine” (Wynns debate: Buyers on Coonawarra’s premium potential). Try it for yourself.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Is consuming wine really as unhealthy as tobacco?

The answer to that question that is currently being pushed by several lobby groups is: “yes”. I am not at all convinced by this answer, for several reasons that I will discuss in this post. (I am apparently not alone in this view: Why is moderate wine consumption being villainized in 2023?).

The main issue for me is that we are dealing with public health — that is, groups of people, rather than individuals. The claim is that wine is unhealthy for people as a whole. By contrast, one of the medical centers that I occasionally deal with, has as part of its stated Vision: we improve public health — one individual at a time (Swedish: förbättrar vi folkhälsan — en individ i taget). The current official medical pressure seems to be the opposite approach, for alcohol in general (WHO shifts its alcohol narratives, and the wine industry faces new challenges).

Tobacco and wine shop

Put simply, human health is a standard cost-benefit analysis. That is, for any given situation we explicitly lay out both the benefits and the costs, for everyone to be able to see and evaluate. We then compare those costs and benefits, to see how they balance each other. If the costs out-weigh the benefits then we would be best to change the situation; and if it is the other way around then we might leave things as they are. (As a practical example, see: Ag groups cheer court’s defense in science-based regulation of chlorpyrifos.)

Here is a simple cost-benefit analysis of the personal consumption of wine and tobacco.
Smoking tobacco
• few, except stress relief
• lung cancer causing mortality
• costs for people within breathing distance
Drinking wine
• J-curve of personal health: low consumption reduces risks
• social interactions (since we don't drink alone)
• J-curve of personal health: high consumption increases risks
• social costs of drunkenness and alcoholism

The J-curve of personal health with regard to wine drinking, referred to in this table, is discussed in my recent post: A scientist looks at alcohol and health, and is concerned. Basically, low consumption seems to have somewhat of a health benefit for wine drinking, but increased consumption definitely increases the personal health risks. That is, it is better for your body to drink small amounts regularly rather than to binge drink (‘Wine math’ is trending on TikTok). In particular, people who tend to drink little and often have a longer life expectancy than do those who guzzle or those who abstain (Why do moderate drinkers live longer than abstainers?).

There seems to be very little basis here for directly comparing smoking and drinking in terms of health costs and benefits. Mind you, George F. Koob (director of the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) has suggested that: “recent research finds the health risks of alcohol outweigh any benefits.” For example, one reason for the J-curve is that alcohol seems to be protective against cardiovascular disease, while at the same time increasing the risk of death by other means, such as cancers and accidents (WHO lobbies EU lawmakers against watering down alcohol cancer risk).

Tobacco and wine sign

Nevertheless, smoking was banned in public because of a direct effect on humans even at low levels, and also on people nearby the smoker (chewing tobacco was excepted); * no such effect is know for low levels of alcohol consumption. Furthermore, given the social nature of wine drinking, the idea that banning it would have a good cost-benefit analysis is unlikely.

This has not stopped an increasing level of discussion, both ways (summarized in: Is alcohol the new tobacco?). Indeed, there have even been suggestions that the anti-alcohol lobby is taking us back in time (How much of a threat is the New Prohibitionist Movement?). These discussions are definitely worth reading. One outcome of interest is that a move towards healthier lifestyles by younger people is reducing alcohol consumption (Is Generation Z drinking less?), although apparently not in India (How do you tackle the Indian beverage alcohol market?).

Even wine label warnings should not be as dire as those for smoking. Nevertheless, some sort of label warning is probably inevitable for all alcoholic drinks, so wine-makers may need to get used to it (Concern among winemakers about potential new requirements for alcohol health warnings on bottles), just as they are now doing for other label requirements (New EU regulations for wine ingredients and nutritional labeling come into effect December 8). There are, however, potential health-warning issues for all of us (6 ways the new public health anti-alcohol warnings may affect consumers).

Associating wine and tobacco has a long history, even in the medical profession. We might, for example, remember When cigarette companies used doctors to push smoking. Even the Bollywood movies of India [Hindi cinema, based in Mumbai] associated the two: “a woman drinking wine [in Bollywood movies] was usually a vamp with a glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other, up to devious things.” So, I will end this post with two apt quotes.

First, we have George Bernard Shaw:
“A cigarette is a pinch of tobacco rolled in paper, with fire at one end and a fool at the other.”
Second, we have Robert Mondavi:
“We believe wine is the temperate, civilized, sacred, romantic mealtime beverage recommended in the Bible. It is a liquid food that has been part of civilization for 8,000 years. Wine has been praised for centuries by statesmen, scholars, poets, and philosophers. It has been used as a religious sacrament, as the primary beverage of choice for food, and as a source of pleasure and diversion. Wine is the natural beverage for every celebration:  the birth of a child, graduations, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, promotions, family gatherings, toasts between governments, and other festivities.”

* Note that vaping is an improvement, but people like me can still smell the tobacco.

Monday, November 20, 2023

The origin and diversification of cultivated grape-vines

I spent my professional life as a biological scientist in universities. I specialized in three areas:
  • fire ecology — the effects of fire (intensity, frequency, season) on the native plants of eastern Australia
  • phylogenetics — the long-term evolutionary history of plant species
  • phylogenetic data-analysis methods [see my previous blog: The genealogical world of phylogenetic networks].
It may therefore seem a bit odd that these are topics that I have rarely written about in this current blog, with respect to the wine industry, although they all apply to some extent.

This is not from lack of interest in either the phylogenetics or fire ecology of grape-vines, as I do read all of the literature when it appears. It has more to do with the fact that these are complex topics, from my point of view (e.g. the wildfire effects on the wine industry in California in 2020), and they would need to be simplified considerably if I am going to write about them for the general public (in this blog).

Today, however, I am going to try to explain a recent scientific publication about the domestication of grape-vines from their wild progenitors.

Carving, Egypt 1340 BC

The grape cultivars that we currently use in agriculture are (almost) all considered to be a single species (called Vitis vinifera; one of c. 80 species in the genus Vitis). However, their wild ancestors were grouped into a species that we call Vitis sylvestris. Sounds simple doesn’t it? However, even this is actually complicated, because some people think that there is only one species, with two subspecies (Vitis vinifera ssp. vinifera and Vitis vinifera ssp. sylvestris), rather than two separate species (Vitis vinifera and Vitis sylvestris). Don't get involved in this (technical) argument!

Concerning this topic, there was a scientific paper published earlier this year called: Dual domestications and origin of traits in grapevine evolution, published in the journal Science vol. 379 pp. 892–901. Just to give you an idea of the complexity of this particular study, there are 89 authors, from around the world. [Can you imagine trying to co-ordinate this number of people, to agree on a single publication?] The reason for this large number is that they collected 3,525 samples of wild and cultivated grape-vines (2,503 V. vinifera and 1,022 V. sylvestris), and looked in detail at the genetic makeup of each one. *

From this mass of information, a core collection of 2,448 distinctly different grape-vines (1,604 V. vinifera and 844 V. sylvestris) were studied in more detail. They did this by throwing a whole heap of complicated mathematical analyses at the data (many of which I do actually understand!), and came up with some conclusions.

Phylogeny of grape-vines

They decided that there are four distinctive genetic groups within V. sylvestris, from distinct geographic regions: Western Asia, the Caucasus, Central Europe, and the Iberian Peninsula. The first pair of these groups was designated as the eastern ecotype (Syl-E) and the second pair as the western ecotype (Syl-W).

They also decided that there are six distinctive genetic groups within cultivated grape-vines (V. vinifera), generally from: Western Asian table grape-vines (CG1), Caucasian wine grape-vines (CG2), Muscat grape-vines (CG3), Balkan wine grape-vines (CG4), Iberian wine grape-vines (CG5), and Western European wine grape-vines (CG6). Note the distinction they make between table grapes and wine grapes.

The idea, then, is to look at the evolutionary history in terms the splitting and merging of these various genetic groups (4+6 = 10 groups) through time, and the time at which these events occurred — this is called a phylogeny. Their phylogeny is shown in the figure immediately above.

I stared at this picture for quite some time, as an expert, and eventually worked out all of what it is saying. [As we scientists like to say: I extracted all of the pertinent information.] However, I challenge you to do the same thing, yourselves; any time you have a few spare hours, have a go!

Diversification and spread of cultivated grape-vines

From your perspective, in trying to understand this, it seems like it will be easier to look at one of their other figures, to work out what the authors concluded about long-term grape-vine history. This is the map shown immediately above, which illustrates the geographic dispersal of the cultivated grape-vine groups.

Their actual description of the pattern [with my extra notes] is:
“In the Pleistocene [epoch, 200,000 to 400,000 years ago], harsh climate drove the separation of wild grape ecotypes caused by continuous habitat fragmentation. Then, domestication occurred concurrently about 11,000 years ago in Western Asia and the Caucasus to yield table [labeled CG1] and wine [labeled CG2] grapevines. The Western Asia domesticates dispersed into Europe with early farmers, introgressed [introgression = the transfer of genetic material from one species into the genome of another] with ancient wild western ecotypes, and subsequently diversified along human migration trails into muscat [CG3] and unique western wine grape [CG4—CG6] ancestries by the late Neolithic [7,000 to 8,000 years ago].”
So, there you have it — you will find that this description does actually match the pattern of arrows shown in the map, showing the origin and dispersal of the newly domesticated grape types. **

There is, of course, a lot more information in the paper than this. However, this obvious complexity is why I rarely write about such things in this blog.

* They didn’t collect new samples, but instead got them “from a dozen Eurasian germplasm and private collections”, plus previously obtained genomic data.

** Note the irony of the geographical location where the diversification starts: the Middle East. This is now the location of the biggest alcohol-related conflict that we have; see Tom Wark’s recent review of Wine and the Clash of Civilizations.

Monday, November 13, 2023

A scientist looks at alcohol and health, and is concerned

As a scientist (in my professional life), I am becoming increasingly concerned about the nature of the current attacks by health authorities on alcohol consumption. Indeed, I am personally getting to be thoroughly sick of it.

There have been a number of sensible commentaries in the wine web universe, and I will summarize (and quote)  some of them here. Much of the rest of it leaves a lot to be desired, to say the least. Here, I offer a perspective on this.

As a professional scientist, I realized during my working life that the most important thing is to protect yourself from those scientists (fortunately few) who do not themselves have a high standard. After that, things should flow smoothly regarding the accumulation of useful information. The same thing seems to be true in the wine industry.

I noted in last week’s post (It is difficult to study the effect on children of parental drinking) that many, if not most, medical experiments are simply “correlative surveys”, where we quantify two (or more) things in order to assess the degree to which they are correlated. This is not scientifically the best approach, as it does not demonstrate any causal relationships between the things measured.

I have also discussed this topic previously: Wine and health — why is there so much argument, pro and con? I have also noted that: The alleged health benefits of wine depend on who funded the research. In particular, it is important to note that one needs a big study (lots of people studied) for correlations to work, and yet the bigger is the study then the harder it is to look at the many confounding factors that will be present, which can obscure what we wish to be studying (discussed in Debate over alcohol's health effects grows).

Anyway, many of these medical claims are influencing public policy regarding wine consumption. There was a recent meeting in the wine industry to discuss this: Wine and health: Challenging the ‘No safe level’ claims. This topic was summarized as:
When wine executives gathered in Toledo, Spain, their mood could be described as “worried”. They had come to the Lifestyle, Diet, Wine & Health Congress to hear what science and medicine have to say about wine and health.
   The impetus for the gathering, organised by the Wine Information Council and FINVIN, is a growing concern about public health messaging around alcohol, which has gone from “drink in moderation” to “there is no safe level of alcohol”.
   This messaging is already having an impact. A recent Gallup study revealed that 39% of Americans now see consuming alcohol in moderation as unhealthy.
   Things are about to get even tougher for the wine sector, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) wants to see more alcohol taxes, more advertising restrictions, and even tighter restrictions on the availability of alcohol — recommendations that are already informing the EU’s policy positions.
The argument is, of course, that the health risks of alcohol outweigh any benefits. There are clearly two edges to this sword: the benefits, and the risks. Life, for all of us on a personal level, is a balance between these two things. However, whether there are social benefits and risks is actually a quite separate issue. The latter is an accumulation of individual benefits and risks.

How pervasive are the social risks? It has recently been noted (The heffalump and the alcohol czar):
In 2018, George Koob’s colleagues at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that a little over 5 percent of American adults engaged in heavy drinking in the past year, 15.5 percent engaged in moderate drinking and 45.7 percent in light drinking; 33.7 percent did not consume alcohol.
That does not seem to be too bad, to me.

The alcohol J-curve

The above picture is from: Health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption and how much you should drink: What the experts say. It shows the standard relationship that has been repeatedly shown for the effects of alcohol on individual human health, usually called a J-curve: zero consumption is associated with low health risk (there is always some risk in life!), low alcohol consumption is associated with even lower health risk, and then increased consumption (to moderate and high levels) strongly increases the risks.

In other words, a little bit of wine is actually better for you than no wine at all. This has been known for a long time, although it is repeatedly disputed. The disputes come from the fact that it is based on correlative experiments, which, as I discussed above, have limitations.

It is also important to emphasize here that there is not a single J-curve that fits the entire human species. The following graph is reproduced from Alcohol awareness week: The J-Curve, which summarizes the situation very well — many situations in life have different J-curves. Not only do different people have different J-curves, different groups of people do, as well.

Therefore, The J-curve isn’t one-size-fits-all: “The J-curve is everywhere, but French and Italian people (for example] can drink more safely because the beneficial effect remains longer than in Germany or the UK or in Sweden [and Finland, Norway].”

A set of J-curves

There is one other important thing that seems to often be overlooked, when thinking about the J-curve — people usually do not drink alone, unless they have some sort of alcohol problem. This point was emphasized in a recent formal study, discussed here: Wine’s biggest health benefit might be drinking with friends. To quote:
A new study suggests that drinking wine with friends offers more health benefits than drinking alone ... According to their study, published in the journal The Gerontologist, they questioned whether published studies on the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption for the elderly population could be attributed to the lifestyle adopted by these moderate drinkers rather than alcohol itself as a substance. Their theory was that moderate drinking correlated to how often respondents socialized and that this increase in social activities is what produced the positive health outcomes.
I cannot emphasize this social point enough. When I was young, I went to the pub on Friday nights with my friends. We played snooker or pool, and had a few beers. The beers were not the important part — the socializing was the important part. I now share a bottle of wine with my wife, and often with our shared friends. You get the idea: I do not drink alone. If I did, then I would probably consider myself to have a drinking problem.

Indeed, the multiple J-curves, mentioned above, may actually be different social effects, as well. After all, the effect of drinking 1 glass of wine per day is probably different from that of drinking 7 glasses (1 bottle) on the weekend only. These two scenarios would produce different J-curves for the people involved.

Glass per day

I should end with something positive. Jeff Siegel recently noted (Down to zero: Ignoring neo-Prohibitionists could prove dangerous to the wine industry):
For much of the past decade, the wine business has watched — with seemingly little interest — as health groups and national regulators took strong measures to reduce alcohol consumption around the world. Their assertion, backed up by a variety of studies, was that any drinking, even in moderation, was deadly. Those studies included a report earlier this year by the World Health Organization, as well as Irish regulators who linked drinking with cancer, and a Canadian proposal to cut safe alcohol limits from two drinks per day to two per week.
He then collated some pertinent suggestions for useful actions by people in the wine industry, to address the current attacks from some parts of the medical and political world:
  • Call out the bad science
  • Reinforce the good science
  • Offer the mainstream media another point of view
  • Take neo-Prohibitionism seriously
  • Sharpen wine’s marketing focus
  • Support transparency in labeling and ingredients
  • Position wine as the choice of moderation

Monday, November 6, 2023

It is difficult to study the effect on children of parental drinking

Everyone in the wine industry should care about the effects on children of parents’ wine consumption. For example, over-indulgence by parents should not lead to any current or future consumption problems for their children. Alternatively, wine enjoyment by parents might usefully be passed on to their children.

However, it is not easy to research this topic in any formal way. After all, we cannot do the sort of standard scientific experiment where we manipulate the world to see what effect our changes have. So, we are stuck with what are called “correlative surveys”, where we quantify both parental and child drinking, to assess the degree to which they are correlated.

Sadly, such experiments are not necessarily easy, as I discuss here.

A specific example that I will discuss here was published as: Associations between parental drinking and alcohol use among their adolescent children: Findings from a national survey of United States parent-child dyads (Michele K. Bohm and Marissa B. Esser. Journal of Adolescent Health 73: 961–964, 2023). This study examined associations between parent and child drinking using recent United States national survey data:
We analyzed responses of 740 parent—child dyads from 2020 SummerStyles and YouthStyles surveys. Parents and their adolescent children answered questions about past 30-day alcohol use ... An adult answered the first survey and, if applicable, one of their children ages 12—17 answered the same questions in the second survey.
The results are straightforward, as presented in the publication:
We estimated prevalence of adolescent drinking and explored differences by socio-demographics ... Overall, 6.6% of adolescents drank alcohol, with no significant differences by socio-demographics. Adolescents whose parents drank frequently (≥5 days/month), or binge drank, had significantly higher odds of drinking than adolescents whose parents did not drink or did not binge drink, respectively.
Unfortunately, the problem with this sort of descriptive experimental approach is that the researchers do not have any control over the sample of people surveyed. If there is any bias in the sampling of the people, then there is nothing that can be done about it. In this case, the characteristics of the sampled people are shown in this table.

Characteristics of the people sampled

A look through these numbers reveals several characteristics that are likely not representative of the overall US population:
  • two-thirds of the parents are female
  • three-quarters of the parents have some tertiary education
  • more than half of the parents earn a lot of money
  • half of the parents do not drink.
Any of these is a potential bias in the experiment, meaning that we do not know how the sample relates to the general population of people. That is, I assume that the data as presented are quite correct: but I cannot deduce what this tells me about US people in general. We need unbiased surveys if we are to be able to draw unbiased conclusions.

This does not in any way down-play the potential effects of parental drinking behavior on their children. An earlier publication (Michael Windle. Effect of parental drinking on adolescents. Life­-Stage Issues 20: 181–184, 1996) correctly noted:
It is evident that parental alcohol abuse may have a range of potential adverse effects on adolescents. Problem drinking by parents may influence role­—modeling behaviors, parent­ing skills, and marital and family relations, all of which may contribute to a host of problematic outcomes for adolescents.
Nor, of course, does this preclude any attempt to do better studies. However, this is not easy in this case. For example, a survey paper (Ingeborg Rossow, Patrick Keating, Lambert Felix & Jim McCambridge. Does parental drinking influence children’s drinking? A systematic review of prospective cohort studies. Addiction 111: 204–217, 2015) involving a search for what is often considered to be the best sort of experiment in this situation (called: prospective cohort studies) found that:
Four of the 21 included studies filled several, but not all, criteria and were assessed to have some capacity for causal inference. These four studies found some evidence that parental drinking predicted drinking behaviour in adolescent offspring. The remaining 17 studies had little or no such capacity.

Mind you, children to not necessarily copy their parents’ behavior. For example, it has recently been pointed out that the current generation of young adults do not seem to be all that keen on consuming alcohol (How is Gen Z approaching beverage alcohol?):
Younger, legal-drinking aged Gen Z consumers increasingly enjoy a very different relationship with alcohol versus older age cohorts, exhibiting rising levels of abstention, moderation, experimenting with new categories, and turning away from traditional, high-volume categories, ... although there are wide variations between individual countries.
So, it seems that the youngest generation of adults have not copied their parents’ (Millennials) drinking habits. Indeed, this blog may be coming progressively redundant. I hope not!

Monday, October 30, 2023

Viking wine, cider or mead?

According to Wikipedia:
Viking is the modern name given to seafaring people originally from Scandinavia (present-day Denmark, Norway and Sweden), who from the late 8th to the late 11th centuries raided, pirated, traded and settled throughout parts of Europe ... The Vikings had a profound impact on the early medieval history of Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, Estonia, and Kievan Rus. *
This is all very well, but what did they drink? After all, in Europe this was the Middle Ages or Medieval Period (which lasted approximately from the late 5th to the late 15th centuries). There seem to have been a couple of online articles about this topic recently; and so it is worth discussing.

Morrison tartan

Actually, this somewhat matters to my own ancestry, given that Morrison is actually a Scandinavian form of name. The ancestor from whom I inherited my surname actually migrated to Australia (where I was born) from Scotland, where there is a Morrison clan (with a tartan, as shown above). However, the Gaelic form of the name should actually be MacMorris, since that is how “son of Morris” is written in the Celtic languages. In Norway, however, the most common form is Morrison, in Denmark it is Morrisen, and in Sweden (where I now live) it is Morrisson.

So, I care what my ancestors drank. As an aside, I will also mention that originally the word “viking” (pronounced “vee-king” in Scandinavia) was a verb, not a noun, describing the raid for which the medieval Norsemen are historically best known. This is a case of the people being known to others for their actions, not their location.

Anyway, the most obvious recent article is in Swedish (Vikingarnas favoritdryck avslöjad), but is about The Vikings’ favorite drink revealed:
You might be thinking mead. When it comes to Vikings and drink, however, it is a completely different drink that dominates. The idea that the raw-barked and relatively primitive Norwegians would sip a glass of cider is perhaps not quite natural in the mouth? ... There is evidence of the production of cider already in the Roman Empire. At the same time, some claim that the Celtic Britons invented the drink, chronologically around the year 50 AD ... What we do know, however, is that the drink was already produced and sold in the 13th century in Norway. It was Cistercian monks from Great Britain who planted apples on the coast of the Hardangerfjord and taught the farmers there how to use the apples — among other things to make cider.
In Norse mythology, the goddess Idunn delivered apples to the gods to preserve their youth and immortality. The Vikings regarded apples as a treasure, and “we know that the Vikings loved to drink alcohol, and it is likely that they made something similar to cider with the apples. But the apples they had were native and not very good, so the Vikings would have used honey to sweeten it. But as soon as you add honey, it becomes mead, not cider, technically speaking,” explains Ellen Marie Naess, archaeologist at Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History. **

The BBC has also had a commentary on the topic: The rebirth of Norway's cider tradition.

Should you use a bucket or a carboy for primary fermentation?

I can confirm the modern popularity of home cider-making in Scandinavia, as well as the commercial stuff. My wife and I have made our own, as we have plenty of suitable trees. The apples are pressed at the local commercial press, which is very very busy in season. However, we are just as likely to make juice, which oodles of other people do, as well.

It is also worth noting here that cider is not necessarily dry, in taste. Indeed, Sweden's national liquor chain currently advertises 94 dry Scandinavian ciders versus 83 sweet ones.

As far as actual wine is concerned, any fruits are fair game in Scandinavia. In my own home, we regularly make wine from gooseberries and from cherries, both of which turn out well (ie. we are not embarrassed to give some of the resulting bottles to other people). These usually turn out fairly sweet (ie. not all of the sugar gets fermented), and they are therefore used as dessert wines. The same is true for the grape wines, which we can make from the very large vine on our garage. However, to my way of thinking, the wines never turn out as well as they should — the native grape-vines are, sadly, not a patch on the ones from down south.

As an aside, I will note that California has been known even to mix cider and wine: Sonoma’s co-ferments bring cider and wine together. The idea is that: “A local wine director thinks co-fermenting apples and grapes into pét-nat-style sparklers could help preserve Sonoma’s 150-year-old apple trees.” One can (as in the comment about mead, above) ask: Is this even wine? That is: “By focusing on co-ferments, hybrids and foraged ingredients, a natural wine movement is creating a more expansive and accessible definition of wine.”

Some home-made wines

Mead, as noted above, is made from honey (and water), to which is added extras ranging from fruits, grains, spices, and apparently even hops. In Viking times it was allegedly favored by the wealthy people, with one resembling the color of blood prized above all (What is Viking "Blod mjød" (Blood mead)?). Given the poor grape-growing climate, mead was clearly much more popular than wine.

In this sense, Medieval wines were being made elsewhere, while the Scandinavians were making cider and mead, and conducting raids. Some people have looked at this topic (Medieval and Renaissance wines: Taste, dietary theory, and how to choose the “right” wine [14th-16th centuries]), and come to the conclusion that: “Reconstructing the taste of wine made at the end of the Middle Ages and in the Reanaissance is a practically impossible task.” However, we do have some ideas about the topic (What was the best wine in the Middle Ages?). Sadly, these ideas “led the wine drinker to consider a dizzying variety of factors in making his choice.” So, you will not find it an easy topic, to either discuss or replicate.

* The Vikings also got to north-eastern North America (via Iceland and Greenland) 500 years before Columbus got to the Caribbean.

** Defining “wine” is not easy (Is the definition of wine changing? The push for ‘low-alcohol’ wines suggests so). In the E.U., for example, it currently must contain at least 8.5% alcohol by volume to be legally labeled as “wine”.

Monday, October 23, 2023

When is the wine industry going to wake up to itself?

I'm just a consumer who happens to write a blog about wine. Therefore, the concept of a global pool of excess wine does not affect me professionally. It does, however, concern me personally, not least because I grew up in Australia, and therefore a wine-supply problem in Australia does affect me personally. After all, this is where I first learned to appreciate good wine.

Well, recent media reports indicate that not only does the global wine industry have an excess pool, it has an excess lake. The way we are going, it will soon be an excess ocean. These metaphors seem quite apt. Clearly, the wine industry has an over–supply problem. What is to be done about it, and what is being done?

Wine lake drowning

It is ironic that a decade ago we were commenting on a lack of grapes (eg. April 2012): Winegrape shortage could last six to eight years:
After nearly 10 years of oversupply and low prices, California winegrapes and bulk wines are suddenly in a position of scarcity. Wineries are scurrying to find grapes and secure vineyard assets, while negociant wineries see their wine sources dwindling.
Well, that decade has now well and truly passed. These days, we are now getting headlines like these examples, instead:

It’s the million-litre question. what should happen to Australia’s excess wine?
Is anyone interested in buying a million litres of 2021 and 2022 Australian Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot? It tastes OK, apparently, and could be yours for just US$0.20 a litre. [However,] wine is not water, or milk or Coca Cola or even beer. Producing even the most basic red or white is harder and more susceptible to the changing climate. Selling it cheaply does little to convey that truth to the people who buy it. Instead of trying to get $200,000 for those tankfuls of excess wine, the Australian government would do better to follow the European model of funding its distillation.
DOC Rioja recommends moratorium on new vine planting
There are various reasons for these measures but the main driving force is the massive quantities of excess, unsold wine that has been accumulating since 2018. While there have been no absolute, official figures on the complete total, various people within the wine trade in Rioja have stated unverifiable figures that range from 100—150 million liters. This money has formed the base of a plan during the summer that was launched to distill excess wine, paying 0.86€/l for up to 17.5 million liters from 113 approved. Apparently some wineries had too much wine to qualify. Additionally, over 83kg million of grapes were to be purchased by the state to offset excesses from the harvest directly.
Note the two quite different payment prices in those two quotations. [Rioja gets >4 times the Australian amount!]

Struggling French winemakers may have to destroy their vintage cellars to survive
According to the local farmers' association, a fall in demand for wine has led to overproduction, a sharp fall in prices and major financial difficulties for up to one in three wine makers in the Bordeaux region. An initial European Union fund, capped at €160 million for wine destruction has been increased to €200 million by the French government.
French wine growers destroy gallons of Spanish cava in 'economic war'
French winegrowers hijacked lorries entering from Spain and dumped thousands of bottles of rosé and cava into the road to protest against what they claim is unfair competition. The French vintners said they were protesting against the unfairly low prices of foreign wine that they cannot match, leading to difficulties in selling their own products. Thousands of gallons of rosé were emptied into the street and 10,000 bottles of sparkling Spanish wine were smashed.
Global oversupply expected to continue despite below average harvest in 2023
Early estimates indicate that global wine production in 2023 will be below average for the fifth year in a row; however, it is still expected to exceed demand by around 10 per cent, as wine consumption continues its long-term decline.
Well, doesn’t that say it all? If you haven’t got the global message by now, then you probably never will get it. Look at the next graph. In most countries, production is not increasing, so that over-supply must logically involve decreasing consumption. Unless we can increase consumption, then we must also decrease production, unless we are to continue looking like idiots. If you can’t sell all of your product, then stop producing so much of it!

Global wine production by country 2011–2023. OIV,

Indeed, the above sorts of  headlines have been coming for quite some time. Even back in 2020 there was talk of excess grapes:

American wine report warns of over-supply and under-consumption
Rob McMillan in his Silicon Valley Bank 2020 State of the Wine Industry Report: “This oversupply, coupled with eroding consumer demand, can only lead to discounting of finished wine, bulk wine and grapes. U.S. wine consumers will discover unprecedented retail value in 2020 and should buy up.”
Wine prices slated to dwindle over excess grape supply, experts say
The price of wine is slated to drop this year due to an excess supply of grapes, ultimately giving wine connoisseurs something to raise a glass to.
And previously in 2021:

Wine makers see 'oversupply' as industry brave wildfires, water shortage

It is not immediately obvious to me that there has been any concerted response to these warnings. This is, of course, why we now stand where we do. Indeed, the French Agriculture Minister (Marc Fesneau) has said that the wine industry needs to “look to the future, think about consumer changes ... and adapt” (France’s destruction of surplus wine hints at an existential wine crisis). Quite why the British keep increasing their grape plantings is therefore not immediately obvious (Vineyards become the fastest growing crop in England).

Supply versus demand

This raises the obvious question: When did the over-supply (ie. over-planting) start? Well, I showed in an earlier post (using a graph) that global wine production has exceeded global consumption since way back in the early 1960s (The smallest global wine production for 55 years?). So, none of this is recent news.

As a final aside, this situation may seem to be somewhat similar to the recent drop in sales of new electric vehicles (Are EV sales declining? Electrifying the car market may be getting harder; Why EVs are piling up at dealerships in the U.S.). In this case, it is reported that we have saturated the current market for pure electric vehicles (as opposed to hybrids), and so sales of new ones have slowed down notably. However, in the case of the wine industry it is, instead, the fact that the marketplace has moved on (to other drink preferences) that has caused the slowdown in sales, not market saturation.