“Why don’t we do as they do in the wine business?” MORTEN SCHOLER explains how he sought to answer the question raised by some coffee-growers and exporters at a number of the many coffee workshops and conferences in which he’s taken part over the years.
The reference was obviously to the wine industry’s long history, mysterious terroir, high prices, comprehensive sensory descriptions, and all the prestige and glamorous stories. The coffee sector looks up to the wine sector with its sophisticated branding and sometimes extremely high prices.
In order to respond to the question, I began to compare the two sectors in detail. There was no literature offering any kind of juxtaposition and I traced only a few articles on the topic – most of them with titles like, “What Coffee Could Learn from Wine.” A couple of them were interesting, but neglected to provide much in the way of hard data or useful guidance.
The idea of writing a book on the dual topic came early. My first notes – on the back of an envelope – are from 2004, but the more focused search for information began when I retired in 2013.
My search for hard data took me to many conferences, exhibitions, organizations, institutions, libraries, companies, producers, shops, and individuals across more than a dozen countries. People opened their doors out of curiosity (“Did you say coffee and wine?”) and gladly shared their knowledge as I was neither a competitor nor a journalist with a hidden agenda.
“People opened their doors out of curiosity (“Did you say coffee and wine?”) and gladly shared their knowledge as I was neither a competitor nor a journalist with a hidden agenda.”
While writing the book, I was invited to present my findings at conferences around the world. Obviously, I could not present all the myriad differences I gradually found between coffee and wine (although you can find all of them listed in the book), so I chose to talk about four fundamental differences between the two sectors:
Value chain length: The collaborative trail for coffee in long, with many parties involved in different locations: growers, traders, processors, exporters, importers, roasters, retailers, and cafés. Conversely, the chain in wine is short: growing, harvesting, processing, quality control, ageing, blending, bottling, and sale often happens at the same place (the winery) or nearby.
Quality enhancement opportunities: These are few in coffee, apart from the obvious careful handling, processing, and sorting of green coffee. One of the few methods is the steam-cleaning of green Robusta, whereby some of the undesirable aromas and flavors can be removed. Wine, on the other hand, has many opportunities to enhance quality, particularly with chemical and physical interventions. Among these are: flash détente (flavor enhancement of grapes in heated vacuum chambers), chaptalization (adding sugar), acidification, deacidification, micro-oxygenations, reverse osmosis, color adjustment, filtering, reduction of alcohol content, and aroma/flavor adjustment in oak barrels.
Relative size of companies: Some coffee trading houses and coffee roasting groups are huge, covering 10-15 percent of the world market. The largest wine groups are also big, but even the world’s largest group (Gallo Winery in the US) accounts for only three percent of world production.
Sustainability standards: In coffee, these are global – as examples, think of Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and 4C Code. This, in combination with coffee’s long value chain and the number of smallholder producers (most with modest education and limited access to information), adds to the difficulty in training and certifying sustainability standards. In wine, however, standards are national or regional and the national participants have decided their own rules, asking themselves: “How high shall we set the bar?”
One last note: while collecting information on sensory descriptions and on wine evaluations, some of my findings reminded me of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. I couldn’t resist including a small section on some of the hot air and hype associated with wine and gradually also with coffee. Maybe a bit provocative but as a neutral outsider, it has been possible for me to write exactly what I wanted.
MORTEN SCHOLER was a senior adviser on coffee trade at the International Trade Centre, a UN agency in Geneva, Switzerland, for fourteen years (1999-2013). He has coordinated a range of coffee projects in coffee-producing countries and is co-author of several publications, including the International Trade Centre’s extensive The Coffee Exporter’s Guide. Wine is just an interest he has had since his younger years when he spent holidays working in vineyards and wineries in France.
Available for purchase at the SCA Store (ground floor, just past registration and badge print), Coffee and Wine is published by Matador, the self-publishing wing of Troubador Publishing Ltd. in the UK, an arrangement that has both upsides (total control over the final product as well as freedom to enter agreements for translations) and downsides (upfront costs). Should any aspiring author wish to seek advice, they would be very welcome to contact Morten directly (firstname.lastname@example.org).