Sunday, 30 October 2011

They've Got It Sorted

Recently we were enjoying a delicious seafood lunch at a small harbour on the south coast of Brittany when I overheard a comment from a near-by British couple that just about summed up the wonderful, confusing contradiction of France.

In between slurping a dozen fresh oysters, munching a bit of duck paté and sipping a lovely white wine from the Loire valley the husband leaned back contentedly and pronounced to his wife, “You know, love, despite all their hang-ups the Frogs have got it (life) sorted.”

Seafood restaurant in Brittany

The minute you drive off the train that takes you under the English Channel and head south from Calais there is an indefinable sense that you are in a place where the quality of life is pretty good. Yes, the French economy is barely sputtering and the banks are in precarious shape. Yes, the welfare state model is near collapse. Yes, the maddening, sclerotic bureaucracy drives entrepreneurs out of the country. Yes, French politicians are exasperatingly hypocritical and often exaggerate their role in the world. And yes, French politics may be the last place in the world where definitions like ‘left’ and ‘right’ are actually taken seriously as terms of political debate. I keep waiting, vainly, for someone actually to define those terms in the modern political context.

But, and it is a very big but, somehow the quality of ordinary, everyday life continues at a very high level. And you don't have to be a hedge fund manager to enjoy it. Health care is good. A very good friend in London wound up taking her child to Paris for successful non-surgical treatment after doctors in Britain deemed the condition untreatable without major, risky surgery. The roads are much better than anything I have seen in the United States or the rest of Europe, and they are not blighted by huge billboards that only block whatever good scenery exists. The cultural life is rich and, unlike much of London, affordable. You don’t have to take out a second mortgage to go to a concert. The trains are the envy of the US and the rest of Europe. London – Paris is now just over two hours on the Eurostar. And it is just a few hours on the TGV (Trés Grande Vitesse) from Paris to any other city in France.

I used to get annoyed at the French attitude toward their outsized slice of the enormous European agriculture subsidies. Ignoring for a moment that much of the subsidy goes to large industrial farms, French officials would say that they are protecting a way of life that is central to France. One can almost hear 18th century theorists praising the noble agricultural life style over the supposed evils of commerce and, God forbid, manufacturing.

But the more I travel around rural France and spend time at local food markets the more I begin to think the French have a point. Of course France, like just about any country you visit these days, is filled with large supermarkets. But even theses giants have not displaced the local markets where the vast majority of the food on offer comes from less than 100 miles from the market. We were not far from Spain, but you can hear the locals comparing – unfavourably of course – the Spanish vegetables with their French counterparts. I used to complain about the inconvenience of the noon-time break when all the shops close for two hours. Now, I have begun to realize that kind of midday break is not such a bad thing. Maybe it's just because I'm older, but I no longer see the need to rush through the day. Take a little time and enjoy something besides work.

Just one of the selections in the Libourne market

Roof tops in historic St. Emilion

When you drive on secondary roads anywhere in la France profonde you see hundreds, if not thousands, of well tended farms producing everything from lavender to lamb. You are never far from a good local restaurant. Even if you have to travel the motorways you can find decent food in the stops along the way, and maps are available showing exactly what is available at each stop.

The qualitative aspects of life – food, drink, preservation of the countryside, national and local heritage, culture beyond Twitter -- remain central to one’s everyday life. Despite the real pleasure of this everyday life, you have to wonder if this way of life is sustainable in today’s economic environment. It’s not clear. Hundreds of thousands of young French people have moved across the channel to London where they believe the conditions are better for getting a job or creating something from scratch. Just walk around South Kensington and you quickly get the impression you’re in the 5th Arrondissement of Paris. French leaders may moan and groan about the perceived evils of the free-wheeling, often chaotic and cruel ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economic model, but many of their best and brightest young people clearly find it more appealing than what is available in France where bureaucracy can stifle even the most energetic entrepreneur.

In their drive to shift the French economy out of first gear, I only hope the leaders of that simultaneously wonderful and puzzling country do not sacrifice the very quality of life that makes France so unique.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Joy Of The Harvest

Everyone holds his breath while the expert gently and painstakingly chews the grape. Does it have just the right amount of sugar? Are the tannins tasted in the pips and skins developed to just the right level? As the expert chews slowly, looking to see how long the astringency of the pips stays on the tongue, heads bob up and down almost in time with each chew.

Finally the verdict is in. “Let the vendange begin, NOW.” At that moment every friend the grower can find is called into duty to go carefully down each row snipping off bunches of the plump, deep purple grapes and dropping them into a bucket. As the buckets are filled, cries of “Porteur!” ring out and burly young men go down the rows emptying the buckets into large containers that are in turn emptied into machines that pump the grapes into the fermentation vats.

This goes on for most of the morning and then the assembled workers repair to the garden for a good sized lunch accompanied by copious amounts of wine and followed by several varieties of sweets. Needless to say production in the afternoon falls off just a bit.

We joined our friends Joep and Mireille Bakx and their daughter Audrey on their vineyard Clos Monicord in the small town of Verac, just east of Bordeaux for the last part of the vendange late in September. Last spring we spent almost two months there doing the basic agriculture to prepare the vines for the growing season. It was rewarding to see that all the pruned vines fastened carefully to new wires, supported by new stakes driven deep into the rich Gironde soil, had grown steadily and now were filled rich bunches of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and malbec grapes. Having spent so long last spring pulling the thick, pruned vines out of the wires I must admit to a slightly jaundiced view of the lush new growth. All I could think of was the mammoth task of pruning, stripping and fastening the pruned shoots waiting for us in about five months time.

Joep with a healthy bunch of merlot grapes
The weather had been unsettled for much of September, but the last week of September and the first week of October saw nothing but sunshine and summer-like warmth. Perfect for the harvest. While friends and family can be relied upon to pick the grapes in the small one-hectare plot, the remaining 25 – 30 hectares (about 65 acres) require a machine to gather the grapes. Once picked the grapes are pushed onto a conveyor belt where we would pick out extraneous leaves or twigs. We were assisted on this task by our friends Frank and Sunny Velie who joined us from New York. From the conveyor belt the grapes are fed into the 10,000-liter vats for the all-important fermentation.

Audrey and Mariella sorting the grapes
This is one of the key areas where the skill of the wine maker comes into play. How much yeast do you add to convert the sugar into alcohol? How rapidly is the juice extracted from the must, how much oxygen is allowed into the process, what is the temperature of the juice in the vat, what is the density of the must? How many times and at what speed do you circulate (pump out and then pump back in) the juice in the vats?

The answers to these questions depend largely on the taste that the wine maker is trying to achieve. It’s difficult to say there is only one way to make wine. Neighboring vineyards with almost identical terroir and grapes can produce very different wines depending on the preferences of the wine maker. What particular flavor is he looking for? How much tannin (a natural compound giving the wine a more astringent taste), how fruity, how ‘round’, and how much of the all-important ‘structure’ or ‘body’ is the wine maker trying to achieve?

Once the fermentation is completed, in about three weeks, most of the red wines in Bordeaux are placed in 225-liter barrels made from French oak where they will mature for a couple of years. The second fermentation, the malolactic fermentation takes place naturally in the barrels as the temperature rises and the acidic malic acid is converted into the softer, rounder lactic acid. The oak flavor found in so many wines can be somewhat regulated by the amount that the barrels are scorched – heavy, medium or light.

If the whole process from the basic agriculture to the harvesting to the fermentation to the maturing, to the bottling and, ultimately, the marketing sounds like a great deal of work, it is. This is one of the reasons why so many growers in Bordeaux are getting out of the business or relying simply on selling their grapes or bulk wine. Marketing now requires a global approach, and Joep travels frequently all over Europe and Asia introducing his wine to new customers. Each country has different regulations on importing wine, and the paperwork can mount rapidly. Owning and running a vineyard is definitely not a hobby or something to 'mess around' with in one’s retirement. It’s a full time job, and then some.

However, we the consumers can benefit from the number of smaller vineyards run by people like Joep dedicated to the art of making very good wine. We also benefit because many of these vineyards are not in the well defined regions called appellations where the prices can sky-rocket according to the reputation of the appellation in general rather than the quality of the individual wine. All it requires is a bit of pleasant experimentation to find the wine that fits your own taste. And you can do this without breaking the budget.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

What Is The Real Cost Of That Chinese T-Shirt?

I’ve had it! I’m going on strike! I refuse to wear another garment or footwear made in China. No more! Clothing shops in Europe and the United States are filled with nothing except products made in China. Only with great difficulty and perseverance can I find anything that is made within 500 miles of where I bought it. The iconic American outdoor gear shop L.L. Bean may as well be in downtown Beijing. I couldn’t find a single American made product the last time I was there. Time to take a stand.

Now, of course, I realize that this means I will probably go around barefoot wearing a barrel – assuming I can find locally made straps to hold the barrel up. It also means that I will have to give up most forms of modern communications: no cell phone, no television, no computer, and none of the other seemingly essential do-dads that take up so much of our time and isolate us so effectively from each other.

I should eat OK, but I’ll probably have to cook the food over a fire in some cave and resort to some primitive refrigeration system to keep things cool. On the plus side, I could still have a very good car.

I have nothing against the Chinese. They are industrious, hard working people trying desperately to correct the horrible economic mistakes of Mao’s regime in just a few short years. And they’ve got more than a billion people who have decades, if not centuries, of pent up demand.

The Chinese Are Not The Problem

My problem is the Western companies who labor under the illusion that we will all be better off  if they close factories in Europe and America, open them in China and export the theoretically cheaper products back home. However, there is a problem. Wages in China are rising rapidly. They still would not satisfy any worker in Europe or the US, but the direction is clearly up. Also working against the current wage differential is any potential re-valuation of the Chinese currency, the renminbi, against the US dollar. Such a revaluation would make Chinese products that much more expensive for American companies and consumers.

Unfortunately, the response to this change in China is not to move the factories home. The parent companies simply look for cheaper places like Bangladesh, Vietnam or Cambodia to set up shop – places that do not place too much importance on environmental damage, safety or child labor.

The biggest problem, however, is the dislocation in Western economies. Economists can talk all they like about globalization, productivity, and the constant need to improve technology. All of this is true, but it does not eliminate the real, and the very pressing problem created every time a local company In Ohio or France pulls up stakes and moves to China or another Asian country.

The lobbyists talk until they are blue in the face about how total jobs really aren’t lost because those manufacturing jobs are replaced by accountants, freight forwarders, retail clerks, etc. Tell that to a local mayor who has to close schools because his town’s tax base has just been eroded as the major employer closed down. A drive through once thriving places in the American Midwest or parts of Italy or France will demonstrate this devastation.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this issue. One thing for sure is that the solution does  not lie in self-defeating protectionism. It is impossible simply to pull up the drawbridge  and shut out the world. That is bad politics and worse economics. Exporters in the US and Europe need to keep markets open.

Private Gains, Public Losses

But there should be some realization that the companies leaving one place for cheaper labor elsewhere are simply privatizing their gains and socializing their costs. Their own profit margins may indeed increase. But the costs for the rest of the taxpayers and ordinary citizens shoot up sharply. Who pays for whatever re-education is provided for the work force? Who makes up the loss of tax revenues? Who compensates the teachers, police and firefighters that have to be laid off? And, worst of all, who pays for the social upheaval, the desolation that follows such a move? These are real costs with real, unfavorable, consequences.

If a company wants to take advantage of lower wages, however fleeting those may be, let it go. The only way to prevent such a move is to introduce Chinese wages and working conditions into Michigan or Ohio. And I don’t think that is going to happen any time soon.

But there should be some recognition, some payment toward meeting the social costs that such a move entails. Corporations love to talk about having ‘multiple stakeholders,’ but unfortunately these so-called stakeholders never seem to include the communities they leave in the middle of the night.

Maybe the companies should include in their cost/benefit analyses the real costs of their move. Maybe they should help pay for the local consequences of their moves. Perhaps that move to a lower-wage country would look less attractive if the companies actually acted on their own ‘corporate responsibility’ public relations.

But most of all we the consumers need to re-think the real cost of the cheap Chinese garment. Are we really saving anything if our communities are destroyed and our friends and family unemployed? Are those lower prices at WalMart really worth the high long term costs involved?