If you believe the old marketing cliche that wine is “made in the vineyard,” you might imagine that the grapes practically bypass the winery on their way to the bottle. Why, then, do so many wineries offer tours to show off their fermentation tanks and barrel rooms? And why are high-profile winemaking consultants in so much demand?
The truth is that wine quality starts in the vineyard, but there’s plenty that happens in the winery. A good winemaker earns his or her paycheck. Winemaking requires constant attention to detail. No matter how good the grapes, it’s very easy for the wine to go south if winemakers slip up or don’t know what they’re doing. And in a challenging vintage, the really talented winemakers stand out.
I started thinking about this after reading a column in the October issue of Wines & Vines, an industry publication, which argued that wineries may be ill-advised when they put so much emphasis on “natural” winemaking in their marketing. Consumers (and some wine writers) are often blissfully ignorant about some of the finer points of winemaking, but when they find out the truth, it fuels further suspicion. What dark secrets are the wineries hiding? For example, a couple of years ago, the Economist, a British magazine, discovered that (gasp!) California vintners often add water to super-ripe grapes before fermentation. The magazine hyped it as the industry’s “dirty little secret.”
I have to laugh sometimes when I page through consumer publications about wine. Ads depict vineyards in gauzy soft focus, perhaps with an eagle soaring overhead or a beautiful villa on a hilltop. Words like “simplicity,” “distinction” or “inspiration” are emphasized. Of course, the wine companies that can afford to buy those ads are almost always the big companies, which can also afford - and often make regular use of - all the latest technology.
You get a truer picture when you look at the ads in a magazine like Wines & Vines. The October issue included ads for alternatives to oak barrels, such as oak staves and chips; products that are added to wine to clarify or stabilize it; and all manner of sophisticated refrigeration and filtration equipment.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not making a blanket condemnation of the use of technology in winemaking. The development of things like temperature-controlled fermentation tanks and gentler equipment for tasks such as de-stemming grapes and moving wine from one container to another has contributed to the huge improvement we’ve seen in wine at all price levels in recent decades.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about some of the winemaking techniques that are common these days but that many consumers don’t know much about, like adding tannins or acid and reducing alcohol. I didn’t necessarily mean it as an exposé or an indictment. None of the techniques is harmful to consumers. But I did pose the question of whether winemaker intervention can become excessive. Lots of winemakers add acid to achieve balance; it’s a fact of life in sunny California. But what about alcohol reduction or the addition of powdered tannins? Is there a point at which wine becomes too much of a “manufactured” beverage?
I think this is something for consumers to decide. The vast majority of wine drinkers don’t care whether the bottle they buy is from Australia or California or France or Inner Mongolia, so long as the wine tastes good. Most of them also probably wouldn’t care if a winemaker uses reverse osmosis to keep alcohol in check. They buy on brand or price and simply want a sound bottle. But they should have the information. If they don’t want to pay attention, that’s their business.
It’s not just mass-produced wines that are subjected to these winemaking tools. Some limited-production, extremely expensive wines are tweaked and sculpted, too. Sometimes this tweaking is used to remedy a problem or flaw that develops in the wine. But techniques such as alcohol reduction are often built into the regular “recipe” for a high-end wine. These are the same wines that are promoted as reflecting the unique qualities of the vineyards where they originated.
I would argue that the resulting wine often reflects the winemaker’s hand more than the vineyard. That may be OK with some consumers - hey, they like how it tastes - but it’s dishonest to say the wine reflects the French concept of terroir and is a reflection of a specific place. It’s a gussied-up wine that lacks soul.
The issue of what’s being added to your wine is likely to become a topic of broader discussion as the federal government moves toward more specific labeling requirements. Some consumer groups are pressing for a fairly comprehensive listing of ingredients. In addition to grapes, yeast (which transforms the sugar in the grapes into alcohol) and the already-listed sulfites, the lineup might have to include items like wood tannins and grape extract used for color.
In the coming months, the US government is expected to require the listing of potential allergens that are used in production of the wine, even if none of the allergen remains. Examples include eggs (egg whites are used for fining, a process to clarify and remove excessive tannins) or fish (another fining agent, isinglass, is derived from sturgeon). The industry has opposed such requirements, saying that they’ll mislead consumers.
Many winemakers are very forthright about their practices when you ask them. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, for example, has always been upfront about whether he’s used certain tools, even when it’s a technique he’s since rejected. In my experience, it’s mostly the marketing and public relations people who want to sidestep the issue and shield the winemakers from nosy journalists. They’re like the Jack Nicholson character in “A Few Good Men,” adopting the line of “you can’t handle the truth!”
But I’ll give consumers some credit: They can handle the truth, if it’s available. It’s time to stop treating winemaking like some dirty little secret.