Thursday, 28 April 2011

Syria Is The Main Event

In many ways the uprisings this year throughout the Arab world can be considered mere warm-ups to what is now happening in Syria. The rebellions in places like Tunisia and Libya are powerful and exciting, but they have relatively limited regional geopolitical consequences compared with Syria. Even the sweeping changes in Egypt so far have not spilled over into major regional re-alignments.

Rami Khouri, a columnist with The Daily Star in Beirut, is one of the most astute observers and commentators on the Middle East. In a recent column he highlighted the major impact of a regime change in Syria.

“. . . any changes in regime incumbency or policies in Syria will have enormous impact across the entire region and beyond, given Syria’s structural links and ongoing political ties with every major conflict and actor in the region, especially Lebanon and Hizbullah, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Palestine and Hamas, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia. Regime overthrow in Syria will trigger significant, cumulative and long-lasting repercussions in the realms of Arab-Israeli, Arab-Iranian, inter-Arab and Arab-Western relations, with winners and losers all around.

“For some, this makes the Assad regime the Middle Eastern equivalent of the banks that were too big to allow to collapse during the American economic crisis three years ago, because the spill-over effect would be too horrible to contemplate. The specter of sectarian-based chaos within a post-Assad Syria that could spread to other parts of the Middle East is frightening to many people. Yet many, perhaps most, Syrians indicate with their growing public protests that they see their current reality as more more frightening . . .”

The demographic mix of Syria gives some idea of the problem. Syria is country of about 22 million with 74% of the population Sunni Moslems, 12% Alawite (distantly related to the Shiite faith in Iran), 10% Christian (mostly Orthodox), and the rest a mixture of Turks, Kurds and Armenians. The minority Alawite group has dominated the Syrian regime, and all the associated military and security apparatus, for more than 40 years. From time to time it has resorted to brutal measures to maintain that control. In 1982, for example, the regime massacred about 20,000 people in the city of Hama as it crushed an uprising by the Sunni majority. It is highly unlikely that there will be any defections or wavering of the Syrian security forces similar to what we saw Egypt or Tunisia. The Syrian security forces know all too well what defeat would mean for them. There are too many scores to settle to let them go gently into the night.

For years Syria was a client state of the Soviet Union, and most recently it has been closely associated with Iranian efforts to support radical groups like Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. While Jordan and Egypt have signed peace treaties with Israel, Syria remains a steadfast opponent of reconciliation with Israel. If the dominos start tumbling Syria no one is really sure just how they would be re-set or how long this process would take. This is one of the reasons outsiders are treading with great caution. This is not Libya where outsiders can intervene with impunity and even be considered the Good Guys. Gaddafi has very few friends and is generally viewed with distaste throughout the region. Different situation in Syria.

One of the immediate victims of the Syrian turmoil is the Turkish effort to play an increasing role in the Middle East. The Turkish government has worked hard to inject itself into Middle Eastern affairs, and has loudly trumpeted its renewed interest in its Moslem neighbors. It has encouraged increased trade and has removed visa restrictions from a number of countries including Syria. As Turkish columnist Semih Idiz points out these initiatives are now falling to pieces and Turkey’s credibility is disappearing fast. Suddenly its new-best friends Syria and Libya are imploding. Turkey sends feeble notes encouraging Gaddafi in Libya and Assad Syria to stop killing its own people and institute reforms. Events on the ground have rapidly overtaken Turkey’s ‘Zero Problem’ policy with its neighbors, and now it is desperately trying to catch up to the changing realities.

All this confusion and bloody suppression in many Arab countries (which has very little to do with Israel at this point) has not stopped the self-styled Turkish group IHH from staging another attempt to embarrass Israel by sending ships allegedly carrying humanitarian supplies to people in Gaza. The attempt to send one ship a year ago ended in disaster as Israeli commandos boarded the ship and got into a firefight with some people on the Mavi Marmara. This time, the IHH – which has close ties to Turkey’s ruling party – says it will send several ships. This is at best a naïve attempt to help the people of Gaza (many of whom suffer as much from the Hamas leaders as from the Israelis) and at worst a cynical vote-getting ploy by Prime Minister Erdogan’s ruling AKP party just before Turkish national elections early in June. Scenes of heavily armed Israeli commandos turning away this ‘aid’ flotilla would play very well on Turkish television stirring up a religious and nationalistic fervor that would, in theory, aid Erdogan’s campaign.

Kadri Gursel, a columnist in the Turkish daily Milliyet, says that if this aid flotilla was serious it would make stops in Syria to help the oppressed people there before heading on to Gazza. But the organizers are so obsessed with Israeli actions that they do not want to see the even more brutal reality closer to home. If the Turkish government were genuinely serious about helping control chaos in the Middle East it would act to delay this group of ships rather than pour additional fuel on the regional fires. Some people in the Turkish government may agree that sending a group of ships to Gaza right now is unhelpful in the extreme, but the prospects of winning a few more votes keeps those doubts suppressed.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Turkey's Not So Democratic Developments

No wonder Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is working hard to improve ties with the Arab world. No nosey reporters there ask him embarrassing questions about Turkey’s diminishing freedom of the press or rights of religious minorities – or any other minority for that matter – or the increasingly autocratic nature of his government. Basically, reporters in the Middle East don’t ask too many questions in the first place, let alone any that might challenge the particular leader’s view of the world.

Contrast this with his experience in Europe where he is constantly badgered about all the contradictions between words and reality in Turkey, and where he responds with all the defensive bluster and insults of a school yard bully. .

When a French member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe asked Erdogan during a meeting in Strasbourg how he would guarantee religious freedom in Turkey he criticized the questioner instead of answering the question. He said she was obviously French and knew nothing of Turkey. Wrong target Mr. Erdogan. The French questioner, Muriel Marland-Militello is of Turkish-Armenian descent and her mother is from Turkey. She travels to Istanbul frequently.

Questioned about jailing two journalists and banning a book that had not even been published yet he responded with a straight face that this action was similar to arresting someone with bomb-making components in his possession. The fact that this action might be inconsistent with his repeated claims about greater democracy and openness in Turkey was never mentioned.

This type of aggressive, defensive behaviour plays very well at home and could be considered the opening salvo of the election campaign before the vote on June 12. Erdogan knows full well that honestly engaging the European Union about Turkey’s membership is not a vote-winning tactic. Constant EU demands for additional reforms annoy the proud and prickly Turks, and they feel insulted by things like visa restrictions and the general condescension from Europeans about all things Turkish. The way things are going right now, neither side – especially French President Nicholas Sarkozy – seems particularly interested in realistically pursuing Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. Therefore Erdogan is free to bluster at will and rail against perceived European injustice and hypocrisy with nothing to lose and the chance to score valuable points at home for standing up for Turkey’s ‘image’.

This behaviour merely reflects the increasing tension in Turkey where many journalists are either cowed into submission, fired, or thrown in jail. The lame official response that the jailings have nothing to do with press freedom but are related to unspecified ‘anti-democratic’ actions ring very hollow. Reporters who ask embarrassing questions at meetings with the prime minister tend not to be asked back. One of the prime minister’s minions often calls the editor of the offending reporter who is then fired or sent on a special mission to cover school openings on the Iranian border. But then, journalists are not alone. Hardly anyone in Erdogan’s very small inner circle dares to oppose the prime minister or ask difficult questions.

The latest victim of the journalist firings was Andrew Finkel who used to write a column for Today’s Zaman a paper that is supported by a organization of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Moslem leader now living in the United States who spreads the soft side of Islam by building schools and hospitals around the world. While not always close to Prime Minister Erdogan, the Gulen organization generally supports the aims of Turkey’s ruling AKP party.

Finkel’s sin was to write a column that criticized jailing the two journalists involved in writing a book called The Imam’s Army that was allegedly critical of the Gulen movement. I say ‘allegedly’ because no one has seen the book since the authorities confiscated the electronic version before publication. Finkel is not just any foreign correspondent. He and his historian wife Caroline have been living in Turkey for years, he speaks Turkish fluently, and has encyclopaedic knowledge of the country.

His final column was never published in Today’s Zaman, and included this paragraph. “I have already expressed my concern that the fight against anti-democratic forces in Turkey has resorted to self-defeating anti-democratic methods . . . I am referring to the aggressive prosecution of people who write books. They may be bad books, they may be books which are written with ulterior motives, they may be books which contain assertions which are not true. But at the end of the day, they are books – and there are libel courts – not criminal courts – designed to protect individuals from malicious falsehood. In short, writing a book offensive to the Gulen community is not a crime.” Finkel was gone the next day, and this column was published by a rival paper.

His editor published a justification of the firing that would make George Orwell’s fictional descriptions of official double-speak seem quite mild. “It is obvious that we are making publications to expose bloody gangs despite several risks. So what is it that has changed? What has changed is that some of our writers have come under the influence of the strong and dark propaganda that is at play and have started to stagger. Unfortunately, I feel the same way about Finkel, who I know does not have ill intentions in any way.” Unfortunately it is no longer very clear who in Turkey is wielding the ‘strong and dark propaganda.’

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Rely On The Wine In The Bottle, Not The Price On The Label

You have carefully tended to the soil, inserted new stakes, planted new vines, spent days pruning the old vines, strung thousands of meters of wire, and tied down each sprout. The buds are starting to sprout their first leaves, and soon it will be time to prune the first grapes. You will carefully attach the growing vines to the wires as they grow to more than a meter above the stalk of the vine. Then, as all farmers do, you will pray for good weather. If all goes well you will harvest rich, sweet grapes in the fall.
Domaine de Valmengaux

Then you will carefully make the best wine you can. After it has finally gone into the new oak barrels you will face perhaps your biggest challenge. What exactly will you do with the thousands of bottles you have produced?

With about 13,000 grape growers/wine makers producing 800 million bottles annually Bordeaux is easily the largest wine region in France, but it is by no means alone. Other regions like Burgundy, the Loire valley, the Rhone all have their distinctive grapes and superb wines.  Then there are the major wine producers like Germany, Italy and Spain, not to mention the so-called New World wines of North and South America, Australia, and  New Zealand. On top of all this global competition the domestic French market for wine is shrinking. Optimists will tell you that although the French are drinking less wine overall, they are drinking better, i.e. more expensive, wine.

Your task is made even more complex with a classification system in the Bordeaux region that cynics say merely supports higher prices in regions that may or may not produce superior wine. The classification system for Bordeaux wines began in 1855 when Napoleon III wanted to impress visitors to the Exposition Universelle de Paris and requested a classification system for Bordeaux’s best wines – based on price and reputation. The classification of these five vineyards – Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite (now Chateau Lafite Rothschild), Haut-Brion, and Mouton (now Chateau Mouton Rothschild) – has not been changed in 156 years, and there is no sign of it changing anytime soon.

A more detailed classification system for different regions, appellations, was introduced in the 1930s and includes well known regions like St- Emilion, Pomerol, Graves, subdivisions of Medoc like St Julien and Paulliac, and many others. Similar to the 1855 classifications these regions were established according to price, reputation, and the all-important political clout of the local vignernon. The prized – and pricey – St Emilion appellation is one of the larger ones and produces about 9 million bottles a year. This presented a problem for the very top of the heap like Cheval Blanc and Ausone who did not want to be lumped in with the lesser known brands in St Emilion. So this appellation is further subdivided into 1er Grand Cru Classe A (Cheval Blanc and Ausone), 1er Grand Cru Classe B (11 vineyards including Angelus and Figeac) and mere Grand Cru Classes – the remaining 55 vineyards. Any vineyard not fortunate enough to be included in an appellation is dumped into the general Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur classification. And this is precisely where great values can be found.

Faced with very stiff competition, rigid classification system, and declining prices for ordinary wine many of the Bordeaux vignernons don’t even bother competing. They either sell their wine wholesale to dealers who stick a label on it or they sell grapes to the cooperatives who make the wine and market the wine under different labels. Wines sold this way are not allowed to have labels that include the all important mis en bouteille au chateau – bottled at the chateau – or use words like Chateau, Domaine, or Clos in the name of the wine. This type of production accounts for about half the entire Bordeaux production, and these vignernons are lucky to get a wholesale price of €1.50 per liter for their efforts.

At the very top of the pyramid are the great names like Haut-Brion, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Margaux and others who can sell their wine for hundreds if not thousands of Euros per bottle. Much, if not all of their production is sold even before the wine is bottled. How much of this is attributable to great wine and how much to very, very skillful marketing is a question that continues to generate a great deal of debate in the wine industry. At least one scornful (envious?) competitor says these prices are merely taking advantage of naïve consumers looking to impress their friends rather than actually enjoy the wine.

In the middle between the wholesale producers and the lucky ones included in a particular appellation are thousands of growers making their own wine and struggling to find a niche in a crowded market. Some come from families that have been in the wine business for generations and others have come from varied backgrounds drawn by the lifestyle and challenge of making a good wine.

Vincent Rapin of Domaine Valmengaux was a jazz bass guitarist before coming to the Bordeaux area about 10 years ago when he bought about 5 hectares of vines and began making organic wine. He says it was partly a life-style decision for himself, his wife and their three children and partly the opportunity to pursue his interest in organic wine production. “We have the life we want to have.”
Vincent Rapin

Joep Bakx, owner of Clos Monicord, had a very successful career managing major hotels in several European cities and bought Clos Monicord 10 years ago. Last year he bought an additional 15 hectares, gave up the hotel management business and became a full time vignernon. It is a true family enterprise with his wife Mireille and daughter Audrey playing key roles in the company. Again, it was the lifestyle as well as the opportunity to make good wine that encouraged the move. After an exhausting day in the fields we would sit on the porch with a glass of wine watching the sun slowly set while a thick steak was grilling on the barbeque. “You know, this really is a good life style,” he would exclaim.
Audrey and Joep At His Birthday Party

But how do growers like Joep and Vincent actually compete and succeed in this market? “The first, and most important requirement, is to make a very good wine that you can sell at a reasonable price,” says Joep. A “reasonable” price for many of the smaller growers is €15 - €20 per bottle compared with the sharply higher prices commanded by wines from any of the well known appellations. One of the reasons the smaller growers can do quite well with the lower prices is that their major investment – the land – is so much less expensive. Many vineyards in St Emilion, for example, would sell for more than €1 million per hectare – if you could find any for sale. Very good land about 10 miles west of St Emilion with virtually the same soil composition sells for a very small fraction of that amount. In addition to a much more reasonable price for the land your profit margins are increased by doing most of the work yourself and valuing your time at about 15 centimes per hour.

Like many of the smaller growers they prefer to market their wine themselves rather than rely on the negociants, dealers, or sell in bulk to supermarkets where wine can be found for €2.50 per bottle. For their part the dealers prefer to sell appellation wines because of the higher prices. One London dealer somewhat ruefully explained to me that while he knows there is real ‘value for money’ in wines labeled Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur he doesn’t make the effort because it is so much easier, and more profitable, to sell high priced wines from a well known appellation.

Joep and Vincent each export the vast majority of their production. And this means a constant round of wine fairs, meeting with importers, sommeliers from major hotels and restaurants, and other major buyers in an effort to demonstrate the quality of your wine, to differentiate your wine, to educate the customers that good wine does not have to cost hundreds of Euros per bottle.

“The customers need to learn to focus on the wine in the bottle and not the price on the label,” Vincent says.

These education efforts require time and a great deal of travel. Joep and Audrey loaded up their car with a few cases and drove more than 11 hours to a wine fair in Amsterdam. There he arranged sales to an importer in Holland, met with importers from Belgium, and renewed other contacts in the food and beverage business. Trips to other countries in Europe and Asia are on the agenda. Other than the fairs he arranges tastings for importers and journalists in the wine trade to introduce Clos Monicord and convince them of its quality. When not in the fields or travelling Joep, Mireille and Audrey are on the phone following up leads from their extensive contact list. In short, they are trying to build demand for his wine from the ground up.

For his part, Vincent spent the better part of a week at a fair in Dusseldorf where he too met with existing and potential customers. He is planning a trip to China, a country that has become one of the biggest buyers of  Bordeaux wines.

“They are in the early stages of wine buying and still rely largely on the major names. But they have 5,000 years of history, are very smart, and will soon learn the value of more moderately priced wines.”

Both these growers admit that the selection of a good wine can be confusing for a customer looking for a decent bottle to go with his dinner. Where does he start? Reading the label closely is useful to understand what you’re drinking. Then experiment with moderately priced wines until you find one you really like. Watch out for the cork. A bad cork will allow too much oxygen into the bottle and essentially ruin the taste of the wine. Don’t be afraid to return the bottle. When this happened to me in London the dealer readily accepted it and explained that at least 8% of the corks are bad and leave the wine tasting very strange.

Don’t be intimidated by all the self-proclaimed wine gurus. Find something you like, and you will enjoy having a second bottle with your meal. Drinking wine is supposed to be enjoyable, not a test of your sophistication. And as you drink it spare a thought for the grower who worked so hard to produce the wine and make sure it got into your hands. It really was a labor of love and respect for the product.