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October 2021, Volume 27, Number 4

Food, Wine

The UN held a food summit in September 2021 to highlight food system issues that include two billion people without sufficient food and two billion who are overweight. A third of the food produced is wasted between farm and fork, and the UN attributes a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions to food production and distribution.

US food prices rose faster than the cost of all items in 2020 as food manufacturers and restaurants raised prices and shrank packages and servings to cope with higher materials costs and higher wages.

The alt-protein industry, which includes plant-based meats, has attracted venture capital to Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Paris-based Gourmey raised venture capital to develop foie gras using animal cells from duck eggs to cope with more states and countries that ban the force-feeding of ducks and geese to fatten their livers. The cost of lab-grown fois gras is ten times the more typical E100 per kilogram cost of farm-raised fois gras.

The Good Food Institute promotes alt-protein foods, and is promoting alt-seafood, or plant-based alternatives to seafood, such as fake fish sticks and crab cakes. Many alt-seafood firms are in Asia, which consumes two-thirds of the world’s fish.

Supermarkets developed in the 20th century to save consumers time by allowing them to purchase a variety of food and other items in one rather than many stores. What were once regional chains became national chains, and today the largest four supermarket chains account for over half of supermarket sales, led by Walmart.

US employers in summer 2022 found it hard to fill food-related jobs that are physically taxing, short term and/or poorly paid. Many chain restaurants and stores raised starting wages to $15 an hour and increased their investments in automation and robotics.

Some 220 class-action suits were filed against food and beverage firms in 2020 alleging that they made misleading claims in their ads or food labels, four times more than were filed in 2010. For example, Tyson was sued for claiming that its chicken was “all natural” and produced in a “safe work environment.” Cargill was sued for saying that its poultry was produced by “independent family farmers,” which those suing say is not true because the farmers are contract growers for Cargill.

Groups filing food suits allege that firms deceive consumers into believing that Big Food has changed its production practices when they continue to produce beef, chicken, and pork as before. Most of the suits are dismissed. A bill pending in Congress would require the government to develop definitions of sustainable, humane and natural.

Coffee prices doubled in summer 2021 to over $2 a pound due to cool temperatures and drought in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee exporter. Brazil’s harvest ends in September, and Brazil’s production will largely determine coffee prices in 2022. About half of the price of bagged coffee reflects the price of coffee beans, but less than 10 percent of the price of a cup of coffee in coffee shops and restaurants reflects bean costs. Starbucks said it would not raise prices due to fewer Brazilian beans in 2021.

Bananas are one of the world’s major food crops; 114 million tons were produced in 2017 from 5.6 million hectares. India produced 29 million tons and China 11 million tons, most for domestic consumption. The Philippines, Ecuador and Brazil each produce about seven million tons of bananas each year.

Cavendish bananas are half of global banana production, and the dominant variety that is exported. Yields of cavendish bananas on commercial plantations average 40 to 50 tons per hectare.

Ecuador is the world’s largest exporter of cavendish bananas, accounting for almost half of global banana exports, and commercial growers there report that labor costs are 35 to 40 percent of production costs. The Philippines and Costa Rica each account for 20 percent of global banana exports.

The EU imports a third of the world’s bananas that are traded, and the US a quarter. Multinationals Chiquita, Fresh Del Monte, Dole, Fyffes and Noboa handle the global banana trade, which has seen prices of about $1 per kg in recent years.

Restaurants. Restaurant is derived from the French restauer (to restore) one’s strength after eating and drinking. There were small restaurants in Greece and Rome for those who did not have kitchens, but the most well-known restaurants were inns, caravansaries and taverns established along trade routes that offered lodging, food and drink; the food was often stews and soups that were kept warm all day.

Modern-day restaurants that served meals in elegant settings and allow diners to select food from menus got their start in Paris. Antoine Beauvilliers, the former chef of the Count of Provence, opened the La Grande Taverne des Londres in 1786 with waiters, wine lists and well-prepared dishes. The French Revolution of 1789 led to an explosion of restaurants, as chefs who had served the nobility opened restaurants to serve the merchant class.

By one count, the number of restaurants in Paris rose from 100 before 1789 to 600 in the early 1790s. These restaurants set the pattern that persists today for fine dining, including elegant settings, multiple courses, and trained chefs and waiters. French-born Chef Auguste Escoffier, who worked at London’s Savoy Hotel in the 1890s, is known the king of chefs and the chef of kings for serving classical or haute French cuisine based on stocks and sauces.

Wine. Wine sales for off-premise consumption rose sharply in 2020 during Covid lockdowns, as consumers stuck at home bought higher priced wines. In summer 2021, rosé wine sales boomed as especially French and American women consumed more pink wine. The Whispering Angel rosé wine made by Provence’s Chateau d'Esclans, and which sells for $15 to $25 a bottle, became popular in the Hamptons and Nantucket and spread throughout the US.

Particular varietals go in and out of fashion, as with the popularity of merlot wine in the 1990s and its replacement by pinot noir after 2000. Wine coolers and spritzers were popular in the 1980s, fell out of favor in the 1990s, and made a comeback as seltzers in recent years. Sales of low alcohol beer and spirits are booming, but sales of low-alcohol wine are stable or declining.

Perennial issues in the wine business include alternatives to bottles with corks, such as screw tops, cans for small quantities of wine and bags in a box for larger quantities of wine. Wine on tap is likely to expand in bars and restaurants, since this technology keeps wine fresh longer. Ordering wine online for delivery may continue to expand, especially if wineries can navigate the three-tiered alcohol distribution system.

France expects a 30 percent smaller wine harvest in 2021 compared to 2020 due to late frosts and heavy rain; there were also late frosts in 1991 and 2017. France may produce 33 million hectoliters of wine in 2021; one hectoliter is 100 liters or 133 bottles. Italy is expected to produce 45 million hectoliters of wine in 2021, down 10 percent.

France has been trying to ban US vineyard rootstocks since 1934, but some growers prefer US rootstocks because they better withstand freezes and hot weather. The major French varieties require pesticides: vineyards cover four percent of French farm land but use 15 percent of the pesticides applied in French agriculture. Rootstocks from the US brought the phylloxera louse that blocked roots from accessing water and fertilizer in the second half of the 19th century, forcing many French vineyards to replant with phylloxera-free US rootstock.

Warming temperatures are leading to more exceptional Bordeaux wines. In the past, Bordeaux wine was considered exceptional about once a decade, as with the 1945, 1947, 1961, 1982, 1996 and 2000 vintages. However, five of the years since 2010 yielded exceptional Bordeaux wines: 2012, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019.

Champagne, prosecco and cava are sparkling wines produced in particular regions of France, Italy and Spain. Italian prosecco producers oppose a bid by Croatian makers of Prosek, a sweet desert wine, to have the EU grant protected label status (PDO) to Prosek. UNESCO named the areas of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano Italy that traditionally produced prosecco as World Heritage Sites in 2019, but most Italian prosecco is produced elsewhere in Italy.

Grapes used to make champagne must be picked by hand, but more of Europe’s wine grapes are being picked by machine as Covid-related border closures made it more difficult for migrant workers to harvest grapes. Some growers in Italy and Spain with as few as 50 acres of wine grapes bought $100,000 harvesting machines that use vibrating fingers to knock ripe grapes onto a conveyor belt that transfers them to a gondola for delivery to wineries for crushing.

Grape harvesting machines have been available for decades, and over 90 percent of California’s wine grapes are harvested by machine. Smaller vineyards and hilly terrain have slowed mechanization in Europe, but Covid-related border closures spurred many grape growers to purchase machines or turn to custom harvesters for the 2021 harvest. Once growers adopt mechanization, they rarely revert to hand harvesting.

Australia had a record two-million-ton wine crush in 2021, well above the average 1.75 million tons a year over the previous decade. South Australia accounted for over half of the total crush, followed by 30 percent in New South Wales and 17 percent in Victoria. About 60 percent of the crush was red grapes, and half of the red grapes that were crushed for wine were Shiraz. Growers received an average A$700 a ton for their grapes.

Many drinks companies are selling their fruit juice divisions, including PepsiCo, which sold its Tropicana juice division to PAI Partners in August 2021. Consumption of coffee and energy drinks is rising, while fruit juice sales declined by a sixth in the past decade. Coca Cola bought the British coffee chain Costa in 2018.

The Wonderful Company bought Napa’s Lewis Cellars in September 2021. Lewis Cellars does not own any vineyards, makes 10,000 cases a year, and sells much of its wine directly to consumers. Wonderful also owns Justin Winery in Paso Robles and Landmark Winery in Sonoma.

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