Thursday, February 27, 2014

Where are you from?

Nowadays there is a lot of emphasis on where things originate.  Some aspects of that are good, and others less so.  For example, take wine.  The origin is so important to the consumer that the makers even protect the regional name. 
Thus port must come from the Douro region of Portugal through the famous port houses of Oporto.  (Most of them are English owned, incidentally.)  This is such a big issue that bilateral trade agreements protect it.  South Africa had to change the name of home-grown ports – made in the traditional fashion from the same cultivars - to Cape Vintage.  Similarly local sparkling wine became Cape Classique instead of champagne.  The only market where this sort of thing isn’t an issue is the US.  No one messes with the US market!  So concoctions known as White Burgundy and Red Burgundy continue to sell in US supermarkets although they have nothing to do with the glorious chardonnays and pinot noirs of Burgundy.  Does it matter?  I doubt it.  The consumers of these wines are under no apprehension that they come from France and they couldn’t care less in any case. 
What determines the issue for them is price.  Then, again, Burgundy is the English name for the French region of Bourgogne, anyway, so…

 On the other hand, it does seem reasonable that a statement like “Made in France” should be protected.  If this appears on a wine, and the wine comes from Algeria, for example, surely the consumer is being misled by false advertising?  Well, yes and no.  A significant amount of “French” wine comes from somewhere else.  The question is definition.  Does made in France mean grown in France, vinified in France, bottled in France, or all three?  The answer is no.  Some guidelines must be met for “made in France” to appear on the label, but it doesn’t mean you are buying 100% French grapes made by a French winemaker bottled in France.

In recent years much fuss has been made about “organic” foodstuffs.  It’s an odd name because the opposite would seem to be “inorganic” which would mean that it didn’t have the normal carbon bonds of the vegetation and animal worlds.  But the term is well understood.  It actually means that the foodstuff was not grown using fertilizers, pesticides, genetic modification, and so on.  Thus it is supposed to be much healthier, more natural, and more expensive.  In fact, once again it depends on where you are from.  Because consumers are so concerned about these issues, most countries have strict verification processes for a farm or winery that proclaims to be organic.  However, the rules can vary widely from country to country.  I remember visiting an organic winery (not in South Africa) and being struck by the strong stink of sulphur in the winery.  Apparently sulphur added to the wine as an antibiotic is allowed.  You just mustn’t spray it on the grapes to stop pests.  Hmmm…

So does “organic” really mean better and healthier?  The answer – according to a survey a few years ago – was yes and no.  The food was fresher, more attractive, and tasted better.  In terms of nutrition and health, there didn’t seem to be much in it.  But that’s not the point.  The consumer has an expectation and a right to expect it to be met.  In the case of wine, my (very limited) experience is that it is better.  And more expensive.  The winery is going the extra mile and that must, on average, translate into quality as well as extra cost.

Diamonds are another good example.  Diamonds have been brilliantly marketed as a rare and beautiful commodity, synonymous with love and lasting commitment.  (“Diamonds are Forever.”)  The success of the industry has much more to do with the presentation to the consumer than the difficulty of wresting precious gems from the bowels of the earth.  So when the issue of “blood diamonds” (or as the industry prefers “conflict diamonds”) became a real concern to diamond lovers, the industry realized that they were facing a real threat.  How could these symbols of love be used to fuel wars, slavery and repression?  The result was the Kimberley Process.  The ultimate answer to 'where are you from?'  Each packet of gems sold now carries a pedigree that indicates its origin and route to sale.  Only countries that subscribe to the Kimberley Process are able to certify the gems and assure consumers that the diamonds have been mined legitimately under fair working conditions and have made their way to market without the addition of any black market stones. It is a well-planned and well-managed process, and pretty well does achieve what it claims.  But like all man-made things it has its flaws.  Zimbabwe has been a signatory since its inception.

So take those origin labels on the things you buy with a pinch of salt.  And don’t be too surprised if you find some iodine mixed in with the sodium chloride.

Michael – Thursday.


  1. Cheddar cheese not being made in Cheddar, Cumberland Sausage not being from Cumberland, Chelsea Buns, Yorkshire pudding, There was a great debate over 'Scotch'. The EU has them all within its sights .... I presume the baked Alaska is safe??

  2. So, you're saying that I should take my fermented grape juice with a pinch of sodium chloride? And the truly important question is: why hasn't someone trademarked "All NaClural" for selling their salt?

  3. I wonder how much we really know about all that goes into the fertilizers used in growing organic foodstuffs? But nevertheless I'll drink to the movement, even if the cap is a twist-off...which seems to be the direction the wine industry is (slowly) headed.

    PS. Michael, sorry about the pre-publication appearance of my Saturday post. No idea why that happened.

  4. Well, I think we know very little about anything in this business! All I can say is that Caro's right - baked Alaska is safe, and Everett has a great marketing mind!

  5. Michael, I have very little direct experience to go on, but I take issue with the statement that you have "very little" experience of wine.