XABIER ITÇAINA, ANTOINE ROGER & ANDY SMITH
Varietals of Capitalism-A Political Economy of the Changing Wine Industry
Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2016, 280 pp., ISBN 9781501700439 (hardback), $45
Reviewer: Kevin Goldberg
Varietals of Capitalism defies simple description. Its theoretical framework, depth of research, and interdisciplinarity would seem to have required Herculean tasks from no fewer than three scholars. Of course, this is not a coincidence. In fewer than 250 pages, Xabier Itçaina, Antoine Roger, and Andy Smith, all affiliated with Sciences Po Bordeaux, have put together a richly complex account of the European Union’s (EU’s) 2008 regulatory change that, in theory, allowed participants in the European wine trade to compete more successfully in the global wine market. Rooted in the exist- ing literature of economic change, Varietals of Capitalism utilizes a diverse range of primary source material, including interviews and documentary evidence, from four key EU wine-producing countries: France, Italy, Romania, and Spain.
The authors take as their starting point the generally agreeable position that indus- try change can only be understood with an ear and an eye toward politics. Employing the concept of structured contingency, an amalgamation of institutional thought, field theory, and multiscalar politics, the authors argue that the simple explanations offered by most commentators for the necessity of the 2008 change (i.e., growers were forced to meet the demands of a new globalized consumer) do not hold up against a deep reading of the relevant source material. More generally, the authors reject an economically or intergovernmentally reductionist view of EU pol- icies and focus instead on the “complex set of contingent political work conducted in the economic, scientific, and bureaucratic fields” (p. 7). Although this final goal may prove too ambitious, Varietals of Capitalism also seeks to shed light on the relation- ship between individual actors, social structures, and institutions that constitute contemporary capitalism outside the wine industry.
Varietals of Capitalism is broken into three parts. Part I explores the existing liter- ature and approaches to change in the wine industry and economies more generally. This first section also spells out the authors’ notion of structured contingency, and with it the idea of how actors build, maintain, dismantle, and destroy the very insti- tutions that serve to confine, confound, and restrict them (in other words, socially structured actors).
Part II dials back on theory (although not entirely) and pushes forward into the actual debates that led to the 2008 policy change. Avoiding the simplistic and soph- istic arguments that many in the trade use to explain change, the authors present a dense account of how science and academia (including this very journal) helped conceptualize the production and implementation of a new approach to the EU’s governing of the wine industry. What becomes clear is that the regulatory change of 2008 has a deeper and more complex history than what most readers (myself included) would have assumed. European anxiety of falling behind the New World, in wine and in other sectors, was just one factor in the evolvement from supply-driven to demand-driven EU wine laws.
Part III may feel the most relatable to practitioners involved in the wine trade. Here, the authors break down the successes and failures of the first few years of implemen- tation of the 2008 law. It sought to drastically reduce the EU’s interventionist policies of vine grubbing and distillation subsidies and instead focus on supporting producers and merchants in their attempts to present wine to consumers. These changes, however, do not represent a clear victory for neoliberalism and its supporters. Rather, the authors suggest that “microeconomic support” offered to growers and regions formed the “heart of the reform agenda” (p. 192). This fascinating and con- vincing point runs counter to what may seem like surface-level neoliberal reforms.
As with most books that attempt to challenge conventions, nitpicky criticisms manifest themselves quite readily. At times, the reader is left feeling as though the authors’ primary goal is not explication of the 2008 law but rather the challenge of putting the notion of structured contingency into action. Whereas this reader expected the theory to support the empirical study, I finished wondering whether the empirical study was there to support the theory. Second, although the authors go to great lengths to historicize the 2008 change (and are explicit in doing so), they are prone to simplify other, equally complex historically phenomena, including the creation of the system of appellations d’origine (pp. 64–69).
These minor quibbles should not detract from what is otherwise a thoughtful, academically driven piece of research. The book speaks to a broad range of acade- micians, including economists and political scientists, although it may appeal less to wine-trade participants who do not have an interest in the scholastic side of their live- lihoods. Whether the concept of structured contingency will have any enduring impact outside the wine trade, or within it, remains to be seen.