Sat 19 Jan 2008
The New York Times carries a fascinating and cautionary story this morning on A1 about the global cooking oil crisis. Now this doesn’t seem like such a big deal in America, where people can spend an afternoon at a gourmet food shop deciding which extra virgin olive oil they’re going to purchase, but for people in Africa, Asia and Latin America, it’s a big deal indeed.
Subsistence farmers and their families may be able to survive on the food they grow. but they have to buy the oil with which to cook that food, and the price of that oil is rapidly escalating. The production of soybeans is declining in favor of oil-producing grains and legumes more suited to bio-fuel conversion, while the deforestation that occurs in South East Asia to increase the acreage devoted to oil palm trees — the trees take eight years to mature — is resulting in the loss of habitat for indigenous peoples, orangutans and rare species of rhinos. And of course the manufacturing of palm oil requires carbon-based fuel, leading to pollution and contributing to global warming. It’s the classic spiral of over-population, industrialization, greed, poverty and hunger that leads to protest and insurrection. The story reports that “food riots have erupted in recent months in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen.”
What, you ask, do these circumstances have to do with wine?
The relevant sentences in the story, written by Keith Bradsher in Malaysia, are these: 1. “Soaring fuel prices have altered the equation for growing food and transporting it across the globe.” 2. “And all this is happening even as global climate change may be starting to make it harder to grow food in some places best equipped to do so, like Australia.”
Let’s remember that before grapes get transformed into wine that they’re an agricultural product like any other. That like any agricultural product, be it wheat, soybeans or apples, they have to be farmed and harvested and, once made into the final product, transported, often over long distances, to viable markets. Think of wine, if you will, as a method of prolonging grapes far beyond their normal shelf-life. Think, if you will, how much it costs to transport French oak to California, Argentina, Chile and Australia. And remember that the vast majority of the wine made in the world is made from grapes grown on huge farms in southern France, in California’s Central Valley, in South Eastern Australia, in Spain and Ukraine. These are not hand-tended, hand-picked and hand-crafted wines; they’re industrial products that require carbon-based fuel for their manufacture, and whatever the advocates of artisan wines may think of this mass-produced wines, millions of people around the world happily gulp them down with their dinners every night.
The point is that because of the costs associated with what will inevitably be the search for new vineyard regions as global warming makes present regions inappropriate for fine wines (or even, more drastically, any wines at all) and because of the rising costs involved in sea, air and land shipping, the price of wine at every level is going to rise significantly in the next few years. In fact, within 50 years the whole notion of wine and wine-making and its consumption may change radically, and wine connoisseurship and collecting may become as arcane as No theater, as obsolete as the sundial. Oh, yeah, ha-ha, yer right, they already are!
Global-warming chart from newscientist.com.
Vineyard image from avalonwine.com.
Image of old wine bottles is copyright jeffshanberg.com.