What’s in a Name? Wine, Economics, and Terroir

Today, I’m pleased to offer a temporary respite from analysis of climate change policy (and other environmental policies, for that matter), while remaining well within the general province of environmental and natural resource economics.  I do this through a merger of profession and avocation, in my case, economics and oenonomy (the study – as well as the enjoyment – of fine wine).

A Blend of Economy and Oenonomy

As some readers may know, in addition to having served as the founding Editor (and current Co-Editor) of the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, I have had the distinct pleasure of being one of the founding Editors (along with Kym Anderson, Orley Ashenfelter, Victor Ginsburgh, and Karl Storchmann) of the Journal of Wine Economics.  If you’re laughing, let me quickly note that the Journal consists of serious, refereed articles, many by leading economists, and has been referenced by the New York Times, The Economist, and The Financial Times.  And – in what may be our high point or low point, depending upon your perspective – a discussion paper from the affiliated American Association of Wine Economists was referenced – and mocked – by Stephen Colbert on his “Colbert Report.”

A New Article

In an article that is forthcoming in the Journal of Wine Economics, Robin Cross, Andrew Plantinga (both of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Oregon State University), and I examine a concept that is central to the thinking of wine geeks around the world – terroir.  The Journal article – “The Value of Terroir:  Hedonic Estimation of Vineyard Sale Prices” – has not yet been published, but a brief version of our analysis – “What is the Value of Terroir?” – has just been published in the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings 2011, and so I’m pleased to provide an even briefer summary here (quoting and paraphrasing from our AER P&P article) – both for wine geeks and for others.  First, however, let me acknowledge Chuck Mason and other participants in a session at the 2011 American Economic Association meetings for having offered helpful comments on a previous version of the paper.   Now, to the subject at hand.

Some Background

Wine producers and enthusiasts use the term “terroir,” from the French terre (meaning land), to refer to the special characteristics of a place that impart unique qualities to the wine produced.  The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system in France, and similar systems adopted in other wine-producing countries, are based upon the geographic location of grape production, predicated on this notion of terroir.  Under the U.S. system, production regions are designated as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), with finer geographical designations known as sub-AVAs.  Such designations allow wineries to identify the geographical origin of the grapes used in producing their wines, and – equally important – seek to prevent producers outside an AVA from making false claims about the nature and origin of their wines.

Some Empirical Questions

“What is the value of terroir in the American context?”  Does the “reality of terroir” – the location-specific geology and geography – predominate in determining the quality of wine?  Does the “concept of terroir” – the location within an officially named appellation – impart additional value to grapes and wine?  Does location within such an appellation impart additional value to vineyards?

The central question we sought to address in this work was whether measurable site attributes – such as slope, aspect, elevation, and soil type – or appellation designations are more important determinants of vineyard prices.  We did this by conducting a hedonic price analysis to investigate sales of vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, one of the most important wine-producing regions in the United States.

Thinking About These Questions

How should site attributes and sub-AVA designations influence vineyard prices?  If site attributes significantly affect wine quality and if consumers are able to discriminate such quality, then vineyard prices would depend on site attributes, and AVA designations might be redundant.

Alternatively, consumers might not be able to discriminate among wines perfectly and might use AVA designations as signals of average quality of wines from respective areas, and/or might derive utility directly from drinking wines which they know to be of particular pedigree.  In this case, site attributes and AVA designations would influence vineyard prices, with parameters for site attributes indicating how producers value intra-AVA differences in vineyard characteristics.  Presumably, producers attach premiums to site attributes that enhance wine quality, provided that consumers can perceive and are willing to pay for such quality differences.

What if, at the extreme, variation in vineyard prices were explained completely by AVA designations (that is, site attributes are irrelevant)?  This would indicate that terroir matters economically – as a concept, though not as a fundamental reality.  In other words, producers recognize the value of the AVA designation because they know that consumers will pay more for the experience of drinking wine from designated areas.  (Likewise, producers might bid up the value of vineyards located in designated appellations because there is prestige associated with owning vineyards in these areas.)  But if site attributes known to affect wine quality have no impact on vineyard prices, this would suggest that consumers cannot discern quality differences.  Any appreciation they might express for an area’s terroir would essentially be founded on reputation, not reality.

Our Analysis

We estimated a hedonic model of vineyard prices in Oregon to examine whether such prices vary systematically with designated appellation, after controlling for site attributes.  In other words, we carried out an econometric (statistical) analysis to examine the factors that appear to affect vineyard prices.

We employed a new data set we developed on vineyard sales with extensive information about respective properties, combined with GIS-based information on specific parcels.  In our sample (actually, the universe of sales of vineyard – and potential vineyard – properties in the Willamette Valley between 1995 and 2007), the average price of vineyards was about $10,000 per acre, with prices ranging from $2,500 to $42,000 per acre.

We also carried out a check on our vineyard pricing analysis by examining price premiums paid by consumers for wines from related origins.  If you’d like to read about either methodology, or see our quantitative results, please take a look at the article.  But, for now, I will just summarize our results.

Some Answers

We found that vineyard prices are strongly determined by location within specific sub-AVAs, but not by site attributes.  These appellations are supposed to reflect the area’s terroir, but our finding that the physical characteristics of vineyards are not priced implicitly in land markets raises questions about whether sub-AVA designations have a fundamental connection with terroir.

On the other hand, our results make clear that the concept of terroir matters economically, both to consumers and to wine producers.  Buyers and sellers of vineyard parcels in the Willamette Valley of Oregon attach a significant premium to sub-AVA designations.  One possibility is that buyers are less informed than sellers about how the attributes of a vineyard will affect wine quality and, therefore, rely on sub-AVA designations as quality signals.

In any event, consumers are evidently willing to pay more for the experience of drinking wines from these areas.  While they may not discriminate among wines in terms of their intrinsic qualities, consumers are apparently responding to extrinsic qualities of wines, such as price and area of origin.  So, terroir survives – as a concept, but somewhat less as a fundamental reality.


Reflecting on a Century of Progress and Problems

As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, the problem of the commons is more important to our lives – and more central to economics – than a century ago when the first issue of the American Economic Review appeared, with an examination by Professor Katharine Coman of Wellesley College of “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation” (1911).  Since that time, 100 years of remarkable economic progress have accompanied 100 years of increasingly challenging problems.

As the U.S. and other economies have grown, the carrying-capacity of the planet – in regard to natural resources and environmental quality – has become a greater concern, particularly for common-property and open-access resources.  In an article that appears in the 100th anniversary issue of the American Economic Review (AER) “The Problem of the Commons:  Still Unsettled After 100 Years” – I focus on some important, unsettled problems of the commons.

100 Years of Economic Progress and More Challenging Environmental Problems

Within the realm of natural resources, there are special challenges associated with renewable resources, which are frequently characterized by open-access.  An important example is the degradation of open-access fisheries.  Critical commons problems are also associated with environmental quality, including the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century – global climate change.

Small communities frequently provide modes of oversight and methods for policing their citizens, a topic about which Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University has written extensively.  But as the scale of society has grown, commons problems have spread across communities and even  across nations.  In some of these cases, no over-arching authority can offer complete control, rendering commons problems more severe.

Although the type of water allocation problems of concern to Coman have frequently been addressed by common-property regimes of collective management, less easily governed problems of open-access are associated with growing concerns about air and water quality, hazardous waste, species extinction, maintenance of stratospheric ozone, and – most recently – the stability of the global climate in the face of the steady accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Whereas common property resources are held as private property by some group, open-access resources are non-excludable.  My article in the AER focuses exclusively on the latter, and thereby reflects on some important, unsettled problems of the commons.  It identifies both the contributions made by economic analysis and the challenges facing public policy.

The article begins with natural resources, highlighting the difference between most non-renewable natural resources, pure private goods that are both excludable and rival in consumption, and renewable natural resources, many of which are non-excludable.

Some of these are rival in consumption but characterized by open-access.  An example is the degradation of ocean fisheries. An economic perspective on these resources helps identify the problems they present for management, and provides guidance for sensible solutions.

The article then turns to a major set of commons problems that were not addressed until the last three decades of the twentieth century – environmental quality.  Although frequently characterized as textbook examples of externalities, these problems can also be viewed as a particular category of commons problems:  pure public goods, that are both non-excludable and non-rival in consumption.

A key contribution of economics has been the development of market-based approaches to environmental protection, including emission taxes and tradable rights.  These have potential to address the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century, global climate change.

Themes That Emerge

First, economic theory – by focusing on market failures linked with incomplete systems of property rights – has made major contributions to our understanding of commons problems and the development of prudent public policies.

Second, as our understanding of the commons has become more complex, the design of economic policy instruments has become more sophisticated, enabling policy makers to address problems that are characterized by uncertainty, spatial and temporal heterogeneity, and long duration.

Third, government policies that have not accounted for economic responses have been excessively costly, often ineffective, and sometimes counter-productive.

Fourth, commons problems have not diminished.  While some have been addressed successfully, others have emerged that are more important and more difficult.

Fifth, environmental economics is well positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges.


Although I hope you will read the full article – which is very accessible — I will summarize its conclusions here.

Problems of the commons are both more widespread and more important today than when Coman wrote about unsettled problems in the first issue of the American Economic Review 100 years ago.  A century of economic growth and globalization have brought unparalleled improvements in societal well-being, but also unprecedented challenges to the carrying-capacity of the planet.  What would have been in 1911 inconceivable increases in income and population have come about and have greatly heightened pressures on the commons, particularly where there has been open access to it.

The stocks of a variety of renewable natural resources – including water, forests, fisheries, and numerous other species of plant and animal – have been depleted below socially efficient levels, principally because of poorly-defined property-right regimes.  Likewise, the same market failures of open-access – whether characterized as externalities, following A. C. Pigou (1920), or public goods, following Ronald Coase (1960) – have led to the degradation of air and water quality, inappropriate disposal of hazardous waste, depletion of stratospheric ozone, and the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases linked with global climate change.

Over this same century, economics – as a discipline – has gradually come to focus more and more attention on these commons problems, first with regard to natural resources, and more recently with regard to environmental quality.  Economic research within academia and think tanks has improved our understanding of the causes and consequences of excessive resource depletion and inefficient environmental degradation, and thereby has helped identify sensible policy solutions.

Conventional regulatory policies, which have not accounted for economic responses, have been excessively costly, ineffective, or even counter-productive.  The problems behind what Garrett Hardin (1968) characterized as the “tragedy of the commons” might better be described as the “failure of commons regulation.”  As our understanding of the commons has become more complex, the design of economic policy instruments has become more sophisticated.

Problems of the commons have not diminished, and the lag between understanding and action can be long.  While some commons problems have been addressed successfully, others continue to emerge.  Some – such as the threat of global climate change – are both more important and more difficult than problems of the past.

Fortunately, economics is well positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges.  As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, natural resource and environmental economics has emerged as a productive field of our discipline and one that shows even greater promise for the future.