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Visiting Professor of Cultural Sociology

Research Projects

From attribute to quality marker – and back again? How the availability of viable alternative bottle closures is reconfiguring market structures in a globalizing wine industry

Project Description

More than 500 million bottles of wine are spoiled each year by faulty cork closures. Winemakers have long been aware of this problem, and a solution has been available for over 40 years. But it is only during the past 12 years that alternative closures, notably synthetic corks and screwcaps, have been catching on. During the past decade, the global market share of natural cork has dropped from an estimated 95% to under 70% (Aeppel 2010; Lechmere 2011). But while cork’s global monopoly appears to have been broken, there remain significant regional differences in screwcap adoption rates, both within and across wine-producing countries. A wealth of research has established the importance of negative consumer perceptions for inhibiting the adoption of what is arguably a superior and cheaper technology. However, there may also be a second instructive - but as yet unexplored - lesson to be learned from the observed variation in screwcap adoption across the wine-producing regions of the world. Could it be that not only consumers, but producers, too, may in some winemaking regions have reason to be reluctant to embrace a superior and cheaper technology? With my research, I pursue the intuition that the innocuous choice of bottle closure has become intimately tied to the historically established quality order of the local production markets in many winemaking regions of the world. For centuries, the established quality order of winemakers has – so my thesis – been reinforced and in parts reproduced in the seemingly insignificant wine bottle closure. To substantiate my claim, a historically informed account is to be rendered of the role of natural cork closures in establishing and sustaining the highly stratified quality order of the markets for fine wines. The challenge that the increasing availability and consumer acceptance of alternative closures poses to the established market order provides a unique empirical setting for examining the dynamics that unfold when technological innovation interferes with existing market structures. What would happen if all winemakers on a market switched from natural cork to screwcap? How would (will) this interact with local industry structure? Which market participants will benefit and which will suffer losses? By approaching these questions both theoretically and empirically, I aim to make a contribution to the new economic sociology. To guide my analyses, I draw upon the work of sociologist Harrison White, whose Markets from Networks theory provides tangible parameters that are suitable for capturing and interpreting the structural constraints that production markets impose on their members. The case of the wine bottle closure provides a perfect illustration for how seemingly insignificant and uncoordinated everyday choices made by individual winemakers can contribute towards the reproduction of a stratified market order. As such, a detailed analysis of the decision situation faced by winemakers in the greater context of the markets they are a part of promises to shed light on one of the most important coordination mechanisms of modern society: the industrial production market.

Contact: Malte Döhne

Project Duration

from 01.08.2012 through 01.08.2014

Project Head

Prof. Dr. Dirk Baecker

Project Execution

Malte Döhne

Financing





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