Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
In my last two columns, I focused on the similarities of the life cycle of wine to select agricultural products, from raw ingredients to finished product. I compared each step in the growing, harvesting and production of wine to similar steps in the making of coffee and chocolate. The similarities run deep and broad.
This week I am focusing once again on chocolate, taking my comparison to another level: branding and commercialization.
The similarities between wine and chocolate go beyond production techniques. Just as fine wine achieves its ultimate expression in the hands of artisanal winemakers, so too does chocolate in the hands of artisanal chocolate manufacturers and chocolatiers.
This week I offer a comparison of wine and chocolate to guide consumers through the maze of the wonderful world of chocolate.
Reading between the lines: As wine evolved over centuries, small producers made inroads in their local markets, garnering increasing market share. In the late 20th century, the balance shifted as mass producers saturated the market with low-cost wines.
In the last 15 years, small artisanal producers have captured the attention of discerning consumers. Throughout this sea change, many small-scale winemakers thrived. Others were acquired and merged into global corporations; several of these retained their brand name and control over their product.
A similar phenomenon occurred in the 20th century for chocolates. Brands such as Ghirardelli and Scharffen Berger in the United States and Valrhona and Amedei in Europe brought fine chocolate making to new levels of refinement, purity and consumer popularity. Today, several coexist with the mass producers, while others have been acquired and absorbed into global behemoths.
The producers: Ghirardelli began as an artisanal chocolate producer in 1852, gaining fame for the quality of its products; in 1998 it sold out to the European giant Lindt. Today, Lindt has kept the name and independence of the 170-year-old Ghirardelli brand.
Scharffen Berger has long been considered one of the finest producers in the world. Begun in 1996, it was purchased by the Hershey Company in 2005 and retained its reputation while under the corporate rule of one of the largest chocolate companies in the world. In 2021, ownership came full-circle when it returned to private ownership, continuing as an independent artisanal chocolate maker.
Amedei, based in the Tuscan region of Italy, is the passion of Cecilia Tessieri, the first female maître chocolatier in the industry. She has established a solid reputation for her ability to incorporate the finest ingredients and technology in producing a superior finished product. Amedei’s extensive line of chocolates has repeatedly been voted the best in the world. Although ownership transferred in 2017 to an Italian mineral water company, Cecilia has controlled the company since its inception in 1990.
Artisanal producer Valrhona has also retained its independent control in the shadow of Big Chocolate. French shorthand for Rhone Valley, Valrhona originated 100 years ago this year. Its ownership is somewhat of a hybrid, having been sold to one of the largest independent family-owned groups in France while still retaining its artisanal independence. Valrhona concentrates on the finest ingredients and processes; today it is the overwhelming choice of top pastry chefs around the world.
A number of mass producers have fared well in both the low and high end of their market. Just as wine behemoth Gallo thrives with its marketing and branding strategies for gaining market share across the quality and pricing spectrum, so too do Hershey and Lindt.
Prices: Just as wine prices vary significantly, from jug to cult wines, so too for chocolates. You can still buy a bottle of Gallo for under $8 and a Hershey bar for under $2. By contrast, a bottle of high-end Bordeaux costs over $1,000 and an Amedei Limited Edition Porcelana bar costs $27.
When wine becomes big business, artisanal producers may succumb to the temptation to sell out. Or they may dig in and follow their passions. There is a parallel phenomenon in the chocolate marketplace. Consumers are the ultimate winners. They have myriad choices to tailor their tastes and budgets to their individual palates.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.