In 2018, a bottle of 1945 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru wine was sold for over five hundred and fifty thousand dollars – an amount that the vast majority of us would be reluctant to spend on a house, let alone one consumer good. Similarly, the most expensive chocolates in the world are not only masterfully crafted but also unique collectors’ items – the To’ak Chocolate 2014-harvest bar, of which only 571 were made; DeLafée of Switzerland’s Gold Chocolate Box, with edible 24-carat gold flakes built-in; and Debauve & Gallais’s Le Livre, arranged in a gold-embossed leather box crafted to resemble a book. However, by stark contrast, the most expensive among these is sold for 440 pounds – nowhere near the incredible value of one bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. By taking a comparative look at the supply chains of both the chocolate and fine wine industries, and the systems of race which govern them, this paper explores how quality and monetary value are created in chocolate and wine, and seeks to understand how this enormous disparity of perceived value may arise.
Creating Craftsmanship in Winemaking
Craftsmanship and quality in wine are determined by a myriad of factors along the supply chain. From characteristics such as the minutiae of the production of grapes in vineyards, to the history of a given winemaker, and even to something as simple as the price of a bottle, wine is eagerly judged by Western audiences for its quality and thus its cultural importance. Wine has the potential to represent sophistication and class, and to hold astounding monetary value; the best-known winemakers capitalize on each of these characteristics to maintain their reputations for the highest quality wines.
The production of wine grapes depends heavily on a tightly controlled agricultural regimen: their quality can be influenced by temperatures throughout the growing season, the amount of precipitation received by the vines, and even the time of ripening and thus of harvest; such information has been painstakingly recorded by vintners across years to catalogue the quality of grapes in each vintage (Chevet et al.). For example, vines are susceptible to water stress – a result of an insufficient water supply – which is intimately connected to the concentration of anthocyanins and phenolics in red wine, the acidity of the fruit, and the incidence of the disease (Goodwin). Each of these features impact not only the flavor and quality of the wine, but also the yield of a given harvest. Then, after the actual production of the grapes the wine must be processed for production and distribution by crushing the grapes and fermenting the must, a process that is labor-intensive and often done by hand (or foot). Additionally, as seen in the case study of the Chilean wine industry, wine distribution requires bottles, barrels, and corks, as well as less tangible input as marketing, advertisement, and label design (Ceroni and Alfaro).
Wines vary vastly in terms of price and quality; bloggers have expounded upon their preferences between boxed wines, which are low-quality, highly standardized in terms of flavor, and apparently excellent for entertaining, with the added enticement of costing as little as fifty-nine cents per glass (Kaminski). From there, wines become more expensive, with price affected by factors such as vintage, age, and rarity. Famous vintners produce classic and traditional wines made from hand-crushed grapes; craft wine makers have established estates in specific locations to lend their wines a complex flavor borne from the ground they were grown in, a concept known as terroir. Interestingly, in a study on Oregon vineyards, it was found that terroir and place of origin of a given wine did not impact its taste as experienced by consumers, nor could it be used as a metric of the agricultural characteristics of a region. However, consumers did valueterroir, associating the area in which a wine was grown with the quality of that wine, not due to inherent agricultural disparities between vineyards, but rather due to the association of a higher price and more valuable experience with certain regions (Cross et al.).
Terroir and the intensely controlled agriculture it requires are two distinctly important qualities affecting the wine supply chain, both of which are capitalized upon by well-known winemakers. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti cites “respect for the soil” and a Pinot Noir with “incomparable genetic heritage” among their tenets for maintaining quality; additionally, the supply of their already-famous wines are restricted by the small size of their estate, located in an area carefully selected for optimum climactic conditions (“Profession of Faith”). Their wines are thus perceived as high-quality due to both their rarity and the inherent advantages of their location. In “A Taste That’s Eternal,” Sotheby’s Serena Sutcliffe speaks with the Drouhin family, one of the sole distributors of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, about the vintages they own (“A Taste That’s Eternal — The Legendary Wines of Robert Drouhin”).
Sutcliffe’s reverence as she speaks about the various vintages and the history of these wines lends significant weight to monetary assertions of their quality, as she states that one bottle generally sells for between twenty and thirty thousand dollars. Additionally, the branding on these bottles – from the elaborately calligraphied logo to the homogeneity of design between the wine labels, bottles, barrels, and cases – are indicative of a strict standard that can be perceived visually as well as through taste. This estate thus represents a microcosm of the method by which winemakers strive from quality, and reinforces the idea that this quality comes from the ground up.
Creating Craftsmanship in Artisan Chocolate
The creation of quality chocolate is, similarly, a question of a quality supply line; yet, the chocolate industry is dominated by two vastly different approaches to fine chocolate: craft bean-to-bar chocolate companies and fine chocolatiers. The similarities and disparities between these two, with regard to sourcing beans, refining them, and ultimately presenting a finished product, reveal significant parallels between the ways in which wine and chocolate are judged for quality.
Cacao has three primary varieties: criollo, trinitario, and forastero. Criollo cacao is the variety grown by the Maya and Aztec, while forastero cacao was sourced originally from South America; trinitario is used to refer to a hybrid of these two (Leissle). While these categorizations are genetically meaningless, they are steeped in historical and modern judgments of quality: criollo as the most prized, and forastero as the more plebeian variety. Modern cacao is sourced primarily from the equatorial regions of South America and Africa, particularly from Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Brazil, and Ecuador. Both the genetic origins of modern cacao and the agricultural conditions in which it is grown has a significant impact on taste and flavor of the cacao; for example, heirloom South American cacao has lower tannin levels than most West African cacao, while beans grown at high altitudes show greater fat content; both characteristics significantly impact the flavor of the bean (Stout). Thus, like that of wine grapes, cacao’s environment is strictly controlled in an effort to produce a quality product. Once the bean is grown, it undergoes a long processing chain to become a bar of chocolate. Processes of fermenting, roasting, winnowing, and grinding are dictated by specially designed equipment such as roll mills and longitudinal conches to produce quality chocolate liquor; this liquor is then shaped into bars for distribution (Stout).
At this point in the supply chain, the fine chocolate industry diverges somewhat from that of fine wines. Bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers assert the quality of their chocolate with evidence used by many wine makers – impeccable genetic sourcing, single-origin cacao, and the importance of bringing the flavor of the earth to the product. However, another, more public perception of fine chocolate, with roots in both history and fancy, lies not in such craft chocolate makers but with fine, often European chocolatiers, who have worked to create a culture of artisanal chocolate-based sweets – what we call chocolates or bonbons.
This video by L’Ecole Valrhona, a pastry and chocolate school located in Brooklyn, tagged #finechocolate on Instagram, demonstrates how technique and culinary skill can govern the quality of chocolate: the chef’s mastery of the chablon, a difficult-to-make thin chocolate shell, lends value to the chocolate he produces. Importantly, these characteristics of chocolate’s production, which are based on the maker and not the bean, in some cases also determine its price. Bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers, such as Valrhona, Scharffen Berger, and Godiva, are ranked among the best on the international market (Lande and Lande). However, fine chocolate makers such as Teuscher, Vosges Haut-Chocolat, and Richart produce not only chocolates but chocolate-based products, whose price is justified by their use of chocolate rather than by the chocolate itself (Lande and Lande). For example, Richart sells a wooden chocolate vault with seven drawers and climate gauges for 850 pounds, and Valentine gourmet chocolates (containing only a thin shell of dark chocolate) which sell for 61 pounds per box (Browne). Thus in contrast to the fine wine industry, what can be done with chocolate is just as important as the production of the chocolate itself.
Race in the Wine and Chocolate Industries
There are a number of interesting implications of the differences between wine and chocolate which can and should be tied to the inherent racial dynamics within both industries. First and foremost; vineyards are a white industry while cacao growing is not. The top wine producing nations are Italy, Spain, and France; these nations also produce few grapes overall, an indication that nearly all of the grapes grown in these nations are used for wine (Karlsson). This in turn implies that the majority of wine grapes are grown in these regions, where vineyards are economically able to produce a limited number of grapes for the express purpose of winemaking. By contrast, the top cacao producers are Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Indonesia, nations all made up of people of color. To add some additional perspective: while fine wine-producing and grape growing regions consist of the same set of nations, the finest chocolate makers are housed in Switzerland, France, Belgium, and the United States.
The types of labor abuses in both industries reveal that they exist within a system of production which ultimately uses the labor of black and brown people at the stages of production which do not create either monetary value or quality, and white labor at the stages which do. A good case study are the agrimafias of Italian vineyards, which employ and then exploit undocumented immigrant labor; an estimated third of all agricultural employment in Italy is thus illegal (Seifert and Valente). The majority of these immigrants are refugees of color from the fallout of the Arab Spring, while these agrimafias are owned and employed by white, natively Italian winemakers; the industry shows a clear systemic employment of underpaid workers of color at the agricultural stage of production –the stage at which the profit margins are lowest (Marcus). Similarly, cocoa has a long history of slave labor and forced labor supplied by displaced African slaves; even today, illegal systems of sharecropping and tax evasion in cacao-growing regions such as Brazil mean that worker exploitation and child labor are prevalent in cocoa production (Leissle; Picolotto et al.).
While both industries show a racial disparity between the workers in agricultural production and those further down the supply chain where quality is created, the branch of the chocolate industry focused on culinary excellence with chocolate exacerbates that disparity in particular. The very image of fine chocolate in the public eye involves extensive tempering and specialization; chocolate is not a fine food alone but must be incorporated into pralines, ganaches, and truffles – all recipes created by white cooks (Terrio). Holding a food which is historically Central and South American to standards of quality invented by white Europeans is a racist and colonial ideal; it invalidates the value of chocolate itself and instead instills value through its modification by whiteness. By contrast, wine, already a white product, is valued only for its terroir and vintage – both factors associated intrinsically with the Western European regions in which it is produced.
This principle can be noted in the ways in which chocolate and wine are advertised. Compare the following two advertisements:
Both of these advertisements play on the idea of the displacement of taste – that a taste can belong to a region, and be exported from that region to the consumer. Yet, the original taste of a French wine is implied to be diluted, to lose its gravity, when exported to an American consumer; however, the “exotic” flavors behind chocolate are implied to be packaged and enhanced for the express purpose of pleasing a similar consumer. This is not an isolated case; from the Conguitos of Spain to the Italian Nougatine, chocolate in advertising is linked closely with blackness and caricatures of blackness; chocolate thus becomes a colonial commodity despite the post-colonial world in which we live (Hackenesch).
By comparing the salient features of the fine wine and fine chocolate industries, the systems of race which govern both become clear. Chocolate, as a fundamentally black and brown good, is disproportionately affected within these systems; its exoticism is packaged for white audiences, and subject to white improvement to create quality and to appeal to the white palate. While these systemic factors of race may not be the only ones to explain why one bottle of wine can be sold at a standard of twenty thousand dollars, while equally fine and more difficult-to-grow chocolate can be sold for just 1% of the same value after added white refinement, they present a strong case by which we may examine how Western customers perceive value in the goods they consume.
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