By Thane Peterson Not many practitioners of the dismal science can be considered wine experts. An exception is Orley Ashenfelter, a 59-year-old Princeton economics professor who's something of a wine-industry gadfly.
Over the years, he has earned the ire of industry nabobs by contending that weather -- not masterful winemakers and discerning critics -- is the main reason a particular vintage is good, great, or indifferent. Warm, sunny summers and not too much rain (especially at harvest) are crucial. For years, he has collected statistics on rainfall and temperature during the growing season in Bordeaux and Burgundy and predicted early -- and correctly -- just how good that year's wines are going to be.
At first, Ashenfelter's theories grabbed a lot of press attention. In the last three years, however, he has been uncharacteristically quiet. The economist has continued to monitor weather data and update his Web site (www.liquidasset.com), but he hasn't published his wine newsletter since 1999. Though he intends to continue the newsletter (which he calls a "hobby"), he gripes that he can't add as much value as before. He contends that prominent wine critics now pay a lot more attention to weather in making their judgments.
To me, Ashenfelter's theories are more interesting than ever. The weather in France has been balmy for two decades now (global warming at work?). Yet, wine buyers have bid up certain vintages -- notably 2000 Bordeaux futures -- to more than $1,000 per bottle. Is that really justified, since French weather is now almost always good? And if weather is so important, why not just buy wine from California or Italy, where the climate is even better?
I checked in with Ashenfelter to find some answers. Here are edited excerpts of our talk:
Q: How did you get interested in wine?
A: I had never known if [fine wine] was all a bunch of B.S., [so my wife and I] tried some older Bordeaux wines, and they were fantastic. Then I got interested in the wine-auction system. I realized that there's a way to figure out the quality of wine, and that's to look at the price at auction.
Q: And your theory works because wine-auction prices ultimately reflect the weather?
A: That's right. That's how I got onto it. I would say: Now wait a minute, 1961 Chateau Lafite costs, say, $5,000 a case, and '62 costs $2,000 a case, and '63 costs $500. So what's the difference? What's going on here? It was mainly the weather.
Q: Why is the weather so important?
A: As with any agricultural product, it determines the quality of the grapes. You can't grow oranges in Indiana. The strawberries around here aren't very good if you get too much rain in the spring. It's all weather.
[But] it's probably best to distinguish two kinds of wine. One is manufactured, bottled, and distributed in the same way as Coca-Cola. That kind of wine depends on the quality of the grapes, too. [But] the goal there is to get a homogeneous product. Nobody wants a Coke that tastes different from bottle to bottle. Then, there are a small number of wines that aspire to an exceptional quality.
Q: What are some of the instances where you have used weather data to be ahead of the wine critics?
A: Well, we declared 1989 the Vintage of the Century. The New York Times came out with that in 1990. Guess what happened? Everyone [eventually agreed] it was the vintage of the century. Then 1990 was even better, so we said it was another Vintage of the Century. Guess what happened? At first [renowned wine critic] Robert Parker said it would [only] be O.K., like the 1985s. Now, he says it's the Vintage of the Century. We've predicted it every time, and [the wine writers] all come along with us eventually.
Q: Do you think Robert Parker has too much influence?
A: No. He's a good wine writer. [But] he definitely makes mistakes, and he doesn't cover a lot of things. He can't be everywhere. Through no fault of his own, he has astounding power. He can make and break [wines] just because there's no [equally powerful] competition.
Q: What's your take on the 2000 Bordeaux, which Parker has raved about from the beginning?
A: They're outstanding wines. They're expensive, though. I would buy older wines. You can buy delicious '83s probably cheaper than you can buy the 2000s. And they're ready to drink now.
Q: What do you think about the 2001 Bordeaux vintage?
A: I have the weather data on it. Bordeaux -- summer temperature 18 degrees centigrade [about 65 degrees farenheit], harvest rain 90 millimeters, which is about 3.5 inches. That's not too bad in terms of rain, and the temperature is pretty warm. Burgundy is similar. It's not as good as 2000 but a good vintage. Of course, it would be nice if the prices were lower.
Q: But if weather is so important, why buy French wines at all? Why not just buy wines from California and other places with better climates?
A: The French wines set the market [prices], and the California guys charge just as much for wines of similar quality. The quantities of really great wine produced in California are actually quite small. So, the California guys come along and say: "Well, hell, our wines are as good as theirs, so we'll charge just as much." The answer is simple: You don't buy them because they charge too much for them. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online