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Another Thought on Pouilly Fuisse

My article on Vincent Antoine and Chateau Fuisse has me thinking again about the advantages and disadvantages of AOC branding. Branding, of course, is really what the AOC system is about. It gives a group of vintners who share a geographic space and a set of norms and traditions the exclusive right to call their wines AOC "X". It works out beautifully when the marketplace determines that X = Good, and suddenly the vintners can make and sell more wine for a higher price.

The great modern day example is Sancerre. As any American wine merchant will tell you, any bottle that says "Sancerre" on it will sell very easily. It is a brand, and a very successful one. But are there downsides?

In researching the article on Chateau Fuisse, I came across something interesting. I am too young to remember this, but apparently in the 1970s Pouilly Fuisse was the Sancerre of its time. So hot was Pouilly Fuisse in the American marketplace that half of the AOC's entire production was exported here!

Guess what happened? Producers cut corners so that they could make more and more juice that they could bottle as Pouilly Fuisse. Farming became sloppy and yields rose; apparently, that flood of Pouilly Fuisse into America was filled with low quality wine.

Americans eventually noticed and they moved on. They started to drink Californian Chardonnay, and eventually Sancerre. Meanwhile, true artisans who made world class Chardonnays in the AOC -- like Chateau Fuisse -- were over-looked, and they remain vastly under-priced in today's marketplace.

Is this now happening in Sancerre? We may be seeing the start of it. There is certainly a lot of low-quality, industrially produced Sancerre out there (though this is far more commonly found in super markets than in fine wine shops). There is also a certain anti-Sancerre snobbery that has set in among wine "elites". This snobbery is already depressing the prices from great producers like Thomas Labaille and Pierre Boulay. When (and if) this snobbery starts to go mainstream (remember when the "ABC -- Anything But Chard" movement caught on?), Sancerre could be in for a rough ride ahead.

Why does this happen? It may just be a good old-fashioned collective action problem. When a company has exclusive ownership over a brand, like Apple or Coca Cola, they have a strong incentive to maintain the brand's value, by investing in product consistency and quality.  But when the brand is owned collectively -- by a bunch of vintners in Pouilly Fuisse or what have you -- it's tempting to over-crop your vines and rely on everyone else to maintain the brand's image. It's free riding. An AOC can try to impose rules to curb this activity, like yield restrictions, mandatory harvest dates and so forth, but this is subject to a highly politicized process and comes with its own set of problems that plenty of people have written about ("What? I can't harvest before September 1?  My grapes are perfect now!).

Of course, the easy answer for anyone who cares enough about wine to read this blog post is to purchase by producer rather than AOC. Hopefully, there are enough of us out there that the discipline of the marketplace will eventually overwhelm these countervailing forces. In the meantime, do take advantage of the great pricing from producers like Chateau Fuisse and Pierre Boulay!