Are You Drinking An Authentic Wine?
What is an authentic wine versus an overly manipulated one? I currently have three discussions on three separate LinkedIn wine groups asking that exact question. In just a week, we had over 105 comments. For the uninitiated, that is an extremely high rate of commentary. To me, this indicates plenty of passion as well as a few raw nerve endings.
Before we dive into this question, we need to get on the same page and accept that all wines require human intervention, and, therefore, a level of acceptable manipulation. The grape will not ferment itself and then pour itself into a bottle. But how far is too far? Should there be some level of transparency for consumers?
The reality is that there are fewer rules in the United States regulating the making or selling of wine than in many other wine-producing countries. A Bordeaux-labeled wine, for instance, contains only juices derived from fruit grown in the Bordeaux region and specifies certain grape varietals. In contrast, a Virginia wine is only required to have 75 percent of the juice come from Virginia-grown grapes. In the Napa Valley, the requirement is 85 percent. So in theory, 15 percent of your favorite big pricey Napa Cab could be from anywhere across the globe – India or Indiana – without informing the consumer. This may be bizarre to some, yet it is the state of producer-to-consumer transparency required in the wine industry for consumers in the USA.
When a vineyard fruit is full, healthy and ripens to perfection, a skilled winemaker’s job is to prevent accidents and ensure optimization of the high-quality potential of the wine. Our best-in-class American producers consistently perform this difficult task. For them, winemaking starts with bud break in the vineyard. But the vast majorities of vineyards are more average than exceptional, and vary year to year. In order to manage that reality, a toolbox of manipulation is available to meet producers’ needs and interests. After all, it’s the winemakers’ responsibility to make acceptable and “sellable” wines for which the American wine consumer has an insatiable and growing appetite.
So what kind of practices cross a line and take a wine from authentic to overly manipulated? Most winemakers do not have access to America’s best-in-class vineyards. The result is that the majority of wines require practices that are, in my view, overly processed. Using some additives can result in obviously imparted flavors that did not come from the fruit naturally. Many processes are necessary, while others are coming from big money and chemists rather than the vineyard. These processes serve to stabilize wines during the winemaking process; add or remove acid or tannins; and increase or lessen alcohol levels and residual sugars to achieve a balanced wine. Those who wish to impart an oaky influence without paying for the cost of a barrel can simply use oak chips. In fairness, using an oak barrel has a lasting effect on ageable wines and imparts flavor and texture characteristics, so it is also a form of manipulation. Not many seem to have any concern with this long-time tradition.
Perhaps the place to identify where the line crosses from authentic to overly manipulated is where the methods are used simply to address a business need. If the wine-altering practice is used to impart a favored characteristic not naturally present, or to help a wine achieve higher point scores from Wine Spectator or Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, that line then starts to come into focus. Let’s explore a bit deeper in the areas needing more consumer transparency.
Mega Purple (MP) is an additive rarely known to the wine consumer. Among other things, it’s a concentrated grape juice product added to wine primarily to help in wine uniformity. Produced by Canandaigua West of Merced, California, a division of the global wine conglomerate Constellation Brands, the product is sold to winemakers globally and is a generally accepted practice for all too many, in my view. It’s purported to be used more for mass-produced or less-expensive wines to add color and consistency of wine characteristics, although I hear it’s routinely used in some well-known and pricey Napa Valley wines, too. MP is thought to round out the wine feel on the palate, impart texture, and add significant sweetness on the finish. Those are considered desirable and point-scoring attributes, by the way. If you are consuming wines that sound like this, it’s a safe bet that you are already consuming wines using Mega Purple.
Is there something wrong with that? Is this wine something less than authentic? To many knowledgeable people in the trade, it both adulterates wine and is a marker for wines made with low-quality fruit. According to an unnamed Monterey County winery president quoted in a 2006 Wine and Vines article by Dan Berger, “Virtually everyone is using it. In just about every wine up to $20 a bottle anyway, but maybe not as much over that."
Other processes like reverse osmosis (RO) can strip unwanted authentic characteristics from inferior vineyards. They can also eliminate some positive vineyard-specific characteristics as well taking away special nuances and a sense of specific place orterroir. If you have ever heard about the careful handling of the grapes in the winemaking process, RO does not seem aligned with the message of taking care of the fruit during harvest.
Mega Purple and reverse osmosis are just some of the products and tools available to make poor wine fruit into acceptable sellable wines. For another great read about the topic, read the Robert Parker article, “Dark Side of Wine” and hear what he had to say about overly manipulated wines back in 1999. What he brought up 14 years ago still rings true today.
Some fast food burger chains are financially successful because their business model and business practices use fillers and additives to precisely replicate each product for consistency and to save money. While there’s nothing wrong with making money, for me, it’s a matter of enabling the consumer to make an educated choice. Heavily manipulating wines lowers cost and enables mass production of lower quality and less expensive fruit with a uniform outcome. Does this make the result a bad wine? That question can only be answered by each individual consumer’s spending habits. I believe a dependence on processes like reverse osmosis or adding Mega Purple take away the allure of being made by serious wine craftsmen and women. Thankfully wine consumers who become enthusiasts also become knowledgeable about the wonderful nuances available in truly authentic wines. To truly appreciate wine, becoming an educated wine consumer is critical.
Since the result in overly manipulating wine is often a lower cost with the same benefits (from the alcohol), for far too many consumers it simply doesn’t matter. Some think it’s not a big deal, and others find the situation, at best, disingenuous. Where do you stand personally? Do let us know.