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Ancien Cru?

The New York Times has now published a second aromatic account of the appellation controversy that has swirled around St.-Émilion, in the Bordeaux region of France, for more than a year.  “Classified Matters,” in today’s Sunday Magazine, follows “Ruling Turns a Village of Winemakers on Itself ” from July 24.  The basic story line remains the same:  On July 1 an administrative court in France threw out the 2006 classification of wine-producing chateaux, on the objection of seven chateaux that were downgraded in 2006 from their standing in 1996.  One detailed summary of the history of the St.-Émilion classification, and its current status in light of the litigation, appears here.  One consequence of the decision is particularly striking:  Some winemakers that invested considerable resources in new and improved techniques and technology after 1996, and who were rewarded with upgraded designations in 2006, now cannot use their improved status to recoup those investments in the wine market.  More below the jump.

Given my continuing interest in how law makes and takes advantage of things, I have a counterpart interest in how law makes and takes advantage of place.  The law of appellation (“Appellation d’origine controllee,” or AOC) combines the two: Appellation designates a particular thing (a particular wine, in this instance, produced according to certain standards) that comes from a particular place; for wine, that particular place is grounded, literally, in terroir — the land and climate combination that give the grape its characteristics, and the wine much of its character.

The intriguing thing in this instance is the obviously intense anxiety in the producers’ world over the revised, 2006 appellation. Today’s Times piece notes:

THE CONTROVERSY over the St. Émilion classification is a classic village squabble, but it is a village squabble with global implications. It is a fight over who has the authority to declare quality in the wine world, a clash between 19th-century agrarian tradition and 21st-century administrative law and a sign of the growing rift between the handful of superelite vineyards in Bordeaux and the less prestigious vineyards just beneath them. It may also signal the demise of Bordeaux’s 150-year-old tradition of classification.

If that’s at least partly right — this is a fight over how the cultural meaning of wine’s place/thing combinations are made — then I wonder whether the Times frames the question correctly.  As with many features of the law of geographical designations of origin — of which the French system of AOC is mostly a part — consumers are missing from this equation, as are wine critics and other intermediaries, neither of whom, I suspect, need rely on the appellation system today to the extent that they might have once.  In theory, at least, wine quality information is readily available online.  So what if the winemakers of St.-Émilion are in crisis. Does anyone else care? Might the Bordeaux brouhaha be an example of James English’s “Economy of Prestige“: a system of prizes that fixes and structures arguments about social structure in some domain but that otherwise lacks much functionality?

The fact that others do care — and they appear to, because winemakers who were upgraded in 2006 then returned to 1996 status are furious that they cannot recoup their investments — is fascinating.  Wine-buying consumers have to rely on some marker of quality in order to make purchasing decisions.  Are they more likely to rely on French administrative law (a 19th century and early 20th century innovation); wine critics (a 20th century intermediary institution); or on the wisdom of the wine-buying crowds (21st century distributed information)?  Bordeaux winemakers appear to be banking on the proposition that the AOC’s economy of prestige extends to the wine-buying consumer as well to wine producers.