The Seattle Time recently did Q&A with Mike Veseth, an economics professor at the University of Puget Sound, who specializes in international economics; subspecialty, wine economics. An award-winning teacher (he won the 2010 Washington Professor of the Year designation by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching), Veseth studies, writes and teaches wine. He runs a lively blog (wineeconomist.com) and has a recent book out: "Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists".
Here are his answers to some questions about the changing world of wine:
Q: Why did you decide to study the wine industry?
A: I teach international economics, and every single issue that comes up there shows up in wine. Wine is a great example of something that can be the same, then be transformed very quickly. I grew up in Tacoma and graduated from college in the 1970s. The whole history of Washington and Oregon wines has unfolded in the span of my adult life.
Q: Compare a retail wine shelf of the 1960s with a wine shelf of today.
A: The choices today are broader in every respect. Today we have more wine by the numbers, we have more types and styles of wines, we have wines from more and different parts of the world, and at more different price levels. There's something to be said for choosing something you like, but that has trade-offs — to experiment is to sometimes be disappointed.
Q: Why is "Two Buck Chuck," the cheap wine sold at Trader Joe's, both a good thing and a bad thing?
A: It's a good thing, as far as I'm concerned, because it has brought a lot of people into the wine market and wine culture. What do they have to lose? Two or three bucks ... many people taste it and think, I like it just fine. Then they might try other things.
The negative side is that some people think it will lead to arrested development, that people will think of Two Buck Chuck and not go any further. But if people are happy with that, I can't really criticize it.
Q: In "Wine Wars" you talk about how protectionist policies can result in bad wine. Give an example.
A: In Washington state, (until 1969) we had protective measures to keep California wines out of the state. People didn't have a comparison for what a better wine was like. Taverns were allowed to sell sweet wine of up to 18 percent alcohol content. When Washington opened up its wines to California, people could taste fine wines, and it forced Washington winemakers to move up to a better wine.
Q: In "Wine Wars" you talk about environmental impacts on the wine industry. One is the high cost of shipping in heavy glass bottles, which some producers get around by shipping wine in gigantic bladders inside oceangoing containers.
A: Yes, they're 24,000 liter bags — you can see them on my blog (www.wineeconomist.com). The international trade in wine goes more and more to these bulk shipments (the wine is later repackaged in bottles or boxes).
Q: That kind of takes the romance out of it!
A: (Laughs). Yes.
Q: The other factor is global warming. You write that most of the world's wine growing regions are between 30 and 50 degrees latitude, north and south. In the northern hemisphere global warming could shift that 300-500 miles north. Could you go out on a limb and say what this portends for Washington state?
A: It seems to me that it presents a mixed bag of effects. On the one hand, improvements to the growing season (longer) have so far tended to be positive and will be for some time. But there's also the increased variability in the seasons. A lot of Washington wine is quite susceptible to freezes.
In the good years it (climate change) will make wine even better, in the bad years it can create a lot of uncertainty. It creates extremes that can be devastating for Washington wines.