Don’t be shy, show us what you’re made of

You can always count on Randall Grahm, the maverick behind Bonny Doon and Ca’ del Solo, militant winemaker and marketing whiz, to make interesting statements. A news item on the Wine Spectator website states that Grahm will start to include all of a wine’s ingredients on his labels. Yeasts, fining agents, you name it, anything included in the wines will be stated:

“Randall feels that it’s important to openly share with consumers any additions made to the wine, and by extension to make other winemakers responsible for [acknowledging] their own additions and interventions,” explained Alison Davies, marketing associate at Bonny Doon. “We hope for a number of results: by stating all the ingredients, this could lead the industry in the direction of full disclosure and encourage winemakers to be more hands-off and less interventionist.”

The first two wines with the new back labels—the 2007 Ca’ del Solo Vineyard Albariño and Muscat, both from the Monterey County AVA—will be released this March. The Albariño, for example, will list biodynamic grapes and sulfur dioxide as the ingredients, and will also indicate that indigenous yeasts, organic yeast hulls and bentonite were used in the winemaking process (yeast hulls, the cell walls and membranes of yeasts, facilitate problem-free fermentations, while bentonite is a fining agent often used to clarify white wines).

I’m all for it. I think it could cut a lot of pretense out of the wine world. If winemakers are going on and on about their fantastic terroir, and how the unique character of the vineyard is reflected in the wine, and how the grapes are fantastic and concentrated, we should know if that is what actually goes into the bottle. If said winemakers are throwing in cultured yeasts to produce specific flavors and aromas and textures, or adding the Mega Purple coloring agent to give concentration and texture, yet still pretending to make terroir-driven wines, listing the ingredients should cut short to that marketing buls**t.

If somebody is going to sell me a 100$ bottle of cabernet sauvignon as something rare, specific, unique even, I should be able to know if it actually is, or if it’s been tarted up to look that way. In the specific case of Mega Purple, an article in the November 2007 issue of Decanter stated that some wineries that make only high-end wines have purchased commercial amounts of that additive made by Constellation Brands from concentrating highly-coloured grape varietals. Which begs the question: when a winery boasts the dark, deep colour and incredible, powerful concentration of its wine, how much of it comes from the actual grapes? Being more transparent about such processes could alleviate doubts about the integrity of winemakers and their products – or at least, make things clearer.

You can’t make natural wine and modern, engineered wines at once. It’s silly to pretend that a vineyards is exceptional for a certain varietal, yet add yeasts and flavorings that contradict whatever is specific about the vineyard. Mind you, Alice Feiring, on her very interesting wine blog, pointed out that some winemakers don’t even seem to see a contradiction in saying both things at once. Hopefully, consumers would.

For me, what makes wine interesting is the infinite variety of aromas and flavors that come from the combination of varietals and terroir – and, yes, the winemaking. People who make the distinctive character of a particular wine come through naturally, without any crutches or engineering feats, are particularly deserving of praise and admiration. More so than those who calculate a precise formula to make sure that seven million bottles of Yellow Tail taste the same, thanks to a specific list of cultured yeasts and additives. That’s an industrial accomplishment, first and foremost.

A very interesting LA Times article published last March addressed the whole issue of additives of all kinds, from micro-oxygenation to oak chips, yeasts, tartric acid, beet juice and powdered tannin. It concludes with an interesting statement:

The problem with listing additives, says [Wendell] Lee, the [California] Wine Institute general counsel, is it could change consumer perception of all wines. “Wine would look engineered instead of natural,” he says.

The fact is, there are some natural wines, and there are some engineered wines. It would be nice to have a clearer sense of which is which.

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Published in: on December 1, 2007 at 11:07 am  Leave a Comment  

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