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The 45th Parallel: A World of Change in Winemaking

The 45th Parallel: A World of Change in Winemaking

Vineyards from Bordeaux to Croatia to China to Michigan adjust to a market revolution

Bill Daley | Chicago Tribune

Wine drinkers are thirsty. Whether it’s an $8 glass of 2006 Brooks Riesling from Oregon raised in a toast at a wine bar in Chicago, a $15 bottle of French rosé named the “Pink Criquet” and tossed back on a Californian porch, or a $2,125 bottle of Gaja’s 1978 Italian Barbaresco, sipped respectfully at one of New York City’s prime tables, folks are reaching for wine.

More than a common love for fermented grape juice ties these wine drinkers together, yet few recognize it.

It’s the 45th parallel, an imaginary line encircling the world halfway between the North Pole and the Equator.

The 45th parallel is more than an exercise in geography. It symbolizes and connects the increasing globalization of flavors, changing climate concerns and the eternal search for good wines at bargain prices.

In the world of wine, the 45th parallel is the global equivalent of the Magnificent Mile in terms of quality and cachet. It threads its way through the Bordeaux and Cotes du Rhone regions of France, Italy’s Piedmont, the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

For Steven Alexander, sommelier at Chicago’s Spiaggia restaurant, the 45th parallel is a global pathway the savvy wine buyer can exploit. For consumers, he said, they will be able to “look east” along the parallel and find regions producing wines of comparable quality but charging a lot less. Think of such regions as Russia’s Black Sea coast, the Balkan country of Croatia, China’s isolated Xinjiang province and even the Leelanau peninsula in Michigan.

“[Wine drinkers] can look along that line as quality wines become more expensive from France and Italy,” he added. “If you’re looking for a bottle in the $12 range, there’s plenty of choices along that line.”

Wine matters here

What happens to wine made on the line and elsewhere matters increasingly to Chicago, the nation’s third-largest wine market, and elsewhere across the United States, because Americans are drinking more wine than ever before. The American wine market has been growing for 14 consecutive years, according to the Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based California wine trade group. And though the economy has been tanking of late, the institute reports wine sales in the U.S. were up 4 percent from 2006 to 2007 to $30 billion. Wine even nudged beer out as the country’s favorite beverage in 2005. (Don’t worry, Old Style lovers, suds bounced back the next year.)

Why all the fuss about wine? Wine isn’t just a drink. It has served as a sacrament, a muse and, especially in the days when water was often undrinkable, a reliable thirst-quencher that could be stored for a while.

Even today, wine holds an exalted position. Jeffrey M. Davies, a Bordeaux-based wine dealer, said people invest in wine as a measure of how they see themselves, either now or in a more successful future. “Tell me what you drink, and I’ll tell you who you are,” he said, paraphrasing Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the famed French gastronome.

Wine also holds the promise of a certain kind of lifestyle. Take a quick dash through the dueling South Loop stores run by Sam’s Wines & Spirits and Binny’s Beverage Depot and it’s immediately obvious they’re selling more than wine, beer and spirits. You can stock up on gourmet cheeses, fine cigars and fancy wine gadgetry—all the comforts of an upscale life.