On Wine Politics & New Voices

I finally had a chance to give serious face time to Tyler (Dr. Vino) Colman’s newest book: WINE POLITICS: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink. A book of this sort is so long overdue and I had been looking forward to it with such great anticipation that I nearly wet my pants when it finally arrived at my door.

I cracked it open somewhere over Nevada on my way to the National Conference of State Legislatures where a panel of industry folks moderated by Senator Sanchez from New Mexico was gong to discuss the impact of the Supreme Court decision, Granholm v. Heald. Apropos, no?

Here’s the thing: If you write about wine and don’t know the political history of the drink, you owe it to yourself and your readers to read this. If you are a lawmaker at the state level and deal with alcohol issues, you owe it to yourself and your constituents to read this book. If you are a wine lover and find yourself frustrated by the various laws that seem contrived to keep you from enjoying wine then you need to read this book.

What I was most interested in discovering was how an even handed treatment of the subject of wine politics would look and read like. I don’t deal in evenhandedness when I approach and work in this area. I’ve seen enough to know that it accomplishes nothing to give those who work the system the benefit of the doubt. But Colman, in tackling this subject, is obligated to be evenhanded. And he pulls it off quite nicely.

The very first chapter asks, "What is Wine Politics". The answer Tyler provides is telling and explains the need for such a book:

"battles over the politics of wine are more often fought on the ground—sometimes literally. Where are the lines of the best growing zones drawn? Will society stigmatize wine or praise it? How can consumers buy their favorite wines or discover new ones? Is wine ‘made in the vineyard,’ as the industry likes to claim, or is it made in the lab and tested on focus groups for its consumer appeal? At stake in these battles are not only the livelihood of those in the industry but also the prestige and the profits of an industry whose sales reach $25 billion in the United States alone."

After offering a brief history of wine in France and the United States in Chapter two we move on to the meat of the book, an examination of critical issues in the wine industry that play out in a political framework: Appellations & Quality, American coalitions for and against wine, who dictates tastes and styles of wine, and the politics of environmentalism and wine and where they meet.

Naturally, I was most interested in how Colman dealt with the issue of direct shipment of wine, an issue that has been among the most public of political wine battles in America for the past 20 years. This discussion falls into the chapter appropriately named, "Baptists and Bootleggers". The term is a reference on the one hand to the odd coalition that supported Prohibition and on the other hand to the more recent coalition of  social conservatives often driven by religious imperatives and alcohol wholesalers that demand economic protection, both of whom have no interest in, and are willing to work furiously against, allowing consumers alternative channels to access the diverse and growing number of wines available in the country beyond the sacred three-tier system.

It would have been all to easy for a lesser writer to indulge in demonization in this chapter. It would have been very easy to write unflattering things about the nasty, disingenuous and heavy handed actions of American alcohol wholesalers’ attempts to screw wine consumers and game the political system for their own economic benefit. Tyler will have none of this.

Rather, he simply lets the story of direct shipping and its political battles play out in his pages in a fairly matter of fact way.  Tyler’s reporting on how the direct shipping battles progress goes just deep enough so that we are told how and when giant wholesaler Southern Wine & Spirits first asked in response to direct shipment of wine, "Is there any way to stop this". On the other hand, his explanations of the politics of direct shipping do not descend into esoterica, a real possibility where this subject is concerned.

Every state politician in America should at least be made to read the "Baptists and Bootleggers" chapter in this book. It Tyler_colmanprovides a simple and straightforward answer to the question I think too many of them have, but don’t know the answer to, when confronted with alcohol-related legislation: "Why is this a big deal and why are consumers jamming my phone lines over a bottle of wine?"

Tyler’s book is foundational in the sense that it provides an excellent though not overwrought introduction to the critical issues that surround wine politics and the business of wine. Anyone in the business who does not know this stuff now has a resource where it is all laid out. Those wine lovers who have delved so deeply into the world of wine that they need context to satisfy their mind will also find great value in "Wine Politics".

On Tyler Colman, let me say this: If he chooses to, Tyler could make a very long career out of reporting on wine, educating both wine lovers and the industry, and writing more books on all manner of subjects revolving around wine. This is not an easy thing to do, which is my round about way of saying Tyler Coleman is among the leading pens of a new, younger generation of wine writers who will, hopefully, take those of us who grew into wine with the old guard of writers into our old age happily satisfied with the state of American wine writing and reporting.

"Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink"
By Tyler Colman
University of California Press

4 Responses

  1. Sonadora - July 28, 2008

    I’m looking forward to getting my copy as well. Your review had made me even more excited for it.

  2. Francisco - July 29, 2008

    You’re a solid book review author. Not that I have much time, but I’m now compelled to read it. Thanks for your perspective and great recommendation.

  3. Jeff - July 29, 2008

    Thanks for the review, Tom. I wanted to hear your comments before purchasing a copy. I’m off to the bookstore…

  4. swirlingnotions - August 4, 2008

    I’ve been swamped and totally out of the loop and didn’t even realize Dr. Vino had a book out (even worse, I didn’t realize he had a real name or that it was Tyler), but I love his writing and insights. Looking forward to picking it up. Thanks for the heads up!

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