Bookshelf: Global demons

The battle between the march of globalisation and local values is nowhere better illustrated than in this wine-making saga

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

The transformation of the world's wine industry has been among the most remarkable examples of globalisation in practice. Supermarket shelves the world over are testimony to an amazing rebirth of wine from previously overlooked regions. Recent films such as Sideways and Jonathan Nossiter's documentary Mondovino have proved unexpected smashes. Whatever temperature you serve it at, wine is hot right now.

So Olivier Torres' new book (new at least to the Anglophone world - it was published in France last year) is a welcome and timely study. The Wine Wars is a bulletin from the battlefields of globalisation, the story of how some proud people from the provinces of France fought off what might have been seen in some quarters as the inevitable march of global capital.

Torres, who is assistant professor at the University of Montpellier (ERFI-GREG) and associate researcher at EM Lyon, tells the story of the unsuccessful attempt by Robert Mondavi Winery, a multinational vineyard in the Napa Valley, California, to establish a French subsidiary in the Languedoc, in a village called Aniane. It is a tale that involves grubby local politics, populism, classic French obduracy and even a few wild boar huntsmen. More importantly, it bears out the author's thesis that in an era of the 'McDonaldisation' of culture, as one French commentator puts it, the local remains at least as important as the global.

The book revolves around the crucial but ultimately untranslatable French word terroir. Terroir is the territory, the earth, the locality, the area, the culture that surrounds you. Wine is shaped by its terroir. You can see immediately how this concept resists the trend to globalisation. Wine-makers, in particular, guard their terroir jealously.

"Space is a dimension that has been widely neglected by management, often to the advantage of time, that noble dimension in strategic analysis," Torres writes. "We nevertheless persist in believing that proximity, taken in its multiple and ambivalent sense, is the primary dimension for business management. Management of the 'senses' always precedes that of 'numbers'. The Mondavi affair is the perfect illustration."

France is wrestling with globalisation, and in many ways coming off badly.

There is fear, unhappiness and suspicion at what the French call le capitalisme sauvage. In this context, the Mondavi/Aniane partnership was quite possibly doomed from the outset. When Michael Mondavi, son of the eponymous founder, declared: "In 10 or 15 years, it would be fantastic to make wine on planet Mars", Aime Guibert, owner of the Daumas Gassac vineyard, replied that he was "attached to every square yard of this land that he knows so well".

In 2001 the Mondavi group wanted to go global. "In order to be considered a truly global firm, I believe it is essential that we develop and produce the world's greatest wines in the world's best vineyards, without taking notice of countries or borders," said Mondavi. And not everyone in the locality was opposed to the project.

As the head of the co-operative said: "We urgently need the support of a group of Mondavi's renown. We small producers are still committed to high-output production, which is a sector that is going downhill because of the competition from all over the world. The arrival of Mondavi offers us financial assistance to move into the realm of quality vinification, thus giving us access to a worldwide sales network."

But Guibert was undaunted. Mondavi's wine tastes "like yoghurt", he said.

"We will all become Latinos, like their employees on the vines in California." The new communist mayor and the wild boar hunters chased Mondavi out of town, metaphorically speaking.

This is a highly instructive tale, says Torres. "The demonisation of globalisation has a two-fold effect: by fighting against what comes from afar, it strengthens the privileges of what is close by. Hence the paradox: in a globalised economy, lasting competitive advantages are increasingly found in highly localised elements (knowledge, relationships and learning) that distant competitors are unable to reproduce."

And in October 2004, the biter was bit: Mondavi was taken over by Constellation Brands for $1.3 billion. The family firm was no more. The great achievement of Torres' book is that you cannot be quite sure at the end whether Mondavi or Guibert had the right idea. Perhaps things would be clearer if you read it with a nice glass of wine in your hand.

The Wine Wars: the Mondavi affair, globalisation and terroir, Olivier Torres, Palgrave Macmillan, £55, ISBN: 0-230-00210-2, will be published on 23 June 2006.

- Stefan Stern is a management columnist at the Financial Times.

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