Did I get ya? Are you on the hook?
I hope you are, and I plan to deliver.
Apothic. YellowTail. Barefoot. Menage a Trois. Cupcake. Fetzer. Diabolica. Trinity Oaks.
Caymus. Williams Selyem.
I am taking no prisoners, except for all the wines I didn't mention. Don't worry, I see you.
You see, there's a lot behind the veil in the wine business. I will not say that wineries are necessarily lying to you, but when you close your eyes after your first sip of Apothic Red on Friday night and imagine rolling hills and barrel rooms and tasting rooms and sommeliers, you're simply in the wrong dream.
I honestly get so fired up about this that it's hard to begin speaking eloquently and effectively.
Let's start with one element of this giant tapestrial problem.
As most of us understand, or can very easily find out by googling how wine is made, well, wine is made by the crushing of grapes into juice, the addition of yeast, the conversion of sugar derived from the grapes into alcohol and CO2 through it's consumption by the yeast, and voila: wine.
Only, it's not so simple. BUT HOW THE HELL WOULD YOU KNOW THAT?
No, seriously, how the hell would anyone know that if you weren't a wine professional, you didn't read about wine everyday, and you didn't know a slough of winemakers, winery owners, and sommeliers and restaurant owners and the like?
It's easy for me to get upset. But I genuinely feel bad for the consumer. And I do feel slightly helpless in terms of doing something valuable for all you lovely winos.
Until now. But let's stay on topic. Sugar.
Winemaking isn't so simple. Most of the time. It's not like I describe above, at least not in the grocery stores across the United States. Not in the government stores and chain stores and mom & pop beer and wine stores across Canada. And not even in Europe, to tell you the truth, although there are some differences. Let's focus on the USA.
If you're not a proclaimed producer of 'natural' wine or 'low-intervention' wine, then your process is probably a little to a lot different from what I described about. Let's start with our third attempt at discussing sugar.
Notably in many classic wine regions in Europe, but also in cooler climate regions around the world, a process called "chaptalization" is permitted in the winemaking process. Chaptalization is the process of adding sugar to the juice in the fermentation process. The intention is that the sugar will be completely consumed by the yeast, and will result in a wine with a higher alcohol content, which generally gives the wine a greater constitution, a more viscose feel. It makes it taste a little bigger. This result is desirable more so when it comes to red wines. The process of chaptalization is generally permitted in order to help compensate for grapes that haven't produced a great deal of sugar on their own, be it due to climatic factors or seasonal weather or marginal vineyard sites or what have you. The last thing intended with chaptalization is to make a wine sweeter.
Chaptalization really should not be required in warm-climate growing regions. California, though vast and diverse, and certainly 'cooler climate' in many pockets, is considered a warm-climate area. The ATF in the US has deemed California ineligible to chaptalize their wines. Sounds good, right? Very progressive! Right?!
Wrong. Commercial and boutique producers alike have found a way around this restriction, and may I say, for all the wrong reasons.
Here's where I almost want to rip my hair out. Because this is the part where we have to accept that the palates of the masses have determined the way in which a great deal of the world makes and sells wine. And I'd say that the United States are at the forefront of this sad reality. And I understand that this is business, and I am not even saying that I don't enjoy wines that have been made this way. But I am saying that if they were no longer allowed to be made this way, that I would happily accept that.
The most obvious and understandable additive that the US (and others around the world, in various applications) has adopted and used rampantly for everything from adding colour, body, and also sweetness to their wines. I want to focus on examples from the cheap, commercial wines on the shelf at Walmart, but also the 'premium' examples on restaurant wine lists.
Mega-purple. A grape juice concentrate. Produced by a division of Constellation Brands, or approximately, one of 3 producers that makes up roughly 50% of the American wine industry. Some have said that it is used in literally every wine on the shelves of American supermarkets under $20. I would venture to guess, and can confirm, that it's used by a lot more producers above that price point than certain people would care to admit. And it's not just the US.
Mega-purple is used generally to boost colour, mouthfeel or texture, and, even though they don't talk about this as much, sweetness. I'm not breaking this news, but a bottle of Apothic Red contains more than 16g/litre of residual sugar. At 13.5% alcohol, that's a hell of a lot. First of all, they produce 3.4 million cases. That's a lot of grapes. And if you're sourcing from the hot, commercial agriculture areas of California, why would you need to add anything to make the wine riper or possess more sugar? It's all about simulating that "full-bodied" and "deep" and "rich" and "fruit forward" profile that California and Australia and other warm climate wine-growing regions made so popular. What do you think is cheaper: sourcing ripe, concentrated grapes that naturally deliver big flavour, dense colour, and come from prized vineyards; or trying to imitate that flavour profile in a lab through using additives for colour, alcohol, and sugar, catering to the sweet-tooth of American wine consumers?
Williams Selyem. High-end Pinot Noir. Sonoma County. Numerous boutique, small-production, single-vineyard releases. Prized and pricey.
I had a friend do some work there. He told me about some of the gorgeous Pinot Noir fruit that they brought in one harvest. Then he told me about the work order to dump a certain amount of mega-purple into one of the tanks with a prized lot of Pinot Noir in it. He thought it was a joke.
What the fuck is wrong with us? Like, seriously? If you are reading this and you are starting to default to the argument that, "Well, Steven, everyone's palate is different," then just stop reading this and go find some Teletubby wine blog to read that will make you feel good, because you're missing the point.
Listen. Most of the things that are added to wine in the winemaking process are not going to hurt us. But the one thing that is proven to have the ability to hurt us is sugar. Specifically, fake sugar. I don't care what the nutritional information says, I'm going to eat that peach over a few sour keys any day. It's not the same.
Yes, Rieslings from Germany often contain a lot of sweetness. Sauternes. Sweet. But this is sweetness derived generally from the fruit itself, and it carries with it a character that can only be grown in the ground. You can taste it.
While I was checking a few of my facts, I stumbled upon the fact that YellowTail Chardonnay at one point, and maybe still, contained different levels of residual sugar per litre in the USA than it did in Canada. What does that tell you? It tells you that you're not sharing an experience with a wine producer. You're just in a mock-up of the wine Truman Show.
Until you get serious and start to care. And that's the person I am writing for.
I have wine on my table right now that probably contains certain amounts of this mega-purple, for whatever reason. I am aware of it. Just as I am aware that the people who harvested the hops and barley for the beer I am drinking may not have been working in fabulous conditions. Just as I am aware that there may have been some questionable chemicals sprayed on some of the produce in my fridge. Just as I am aware that the oil business is tied intimately to the fact that I have an iPhone and that I'm writing this on a Macbook.
Nothing is ever going to be perfect or utopic as long as we're humans. But I want you to start thinking about your wine a little more. Don't fall for cutesy labels alone. Find out something about the producer before you buy it. Even if you do buy a sketchy bottle, yes, drink it, but research it, too. Be honest with yourself. You're not a bad person or a loser for not nailing it every time. Honest wine is hard to find, and we have to cut our losses sometimes.
Europe isn't perfect either. But there are some differences. I ended up on the Boisset Wine Collection website a while back. They produce the French Rabbit. You know, that grocery store wine from France in the Tetra Pak™? I found a tech sheet on their website for the French Rabbit. Amazingly, they actually mentioned specific regional sources for this wine! I mean, seriously? This is some commercial plonk, and they actually bothered to mention, I'm sure with at least a marginal degree of honesty, where the wine came from. I mean, what a difference!
Do me a favour. Next time you buy a wine, just try and find out where the grapes came from. Get the maps out. Get on the producer's website. Read some critic's reviews, not because you need their opinion, but because they might be the only ones who are willing to share the honest information about the wine.
With many European wines, this information is right on the label. It's essential to the wine itself. It's how they run it. Not with every wine, but with many. It doesn't mean the wine is good. It just means it's met some level of regulation that treats it like a consumable food, not like a gun habit or a smoking vice.
If you're reading this in Canada, you be careful, too. A lot of the cheap "Canadian" wines on the shelves are really just imported grape juice with a neutral grain spirit added to them for alcohol.
Not. Even. Wine.
No joke. Do some homework on your producer.
If they'll tell you where the grapes came from, specifically, you're a step ahead of where you'd be if you couldn't find that information out at all. It seems like a tiny distinction. But when you take a swig of that wine you bought tonight, and you close your eyes, and you picture that vineyard in Portugal or the Willamette Valley or Sonoma County or the Loire Valley or Champagne, don't you want to know that your in the right dream?
It's our responsibility to try and navigate the honesty and subsequent character of the wines we drink. Unfortunately, nobody can do that for us. But we can try to help each other.
Otherwise, feel free to bring that wine to your lips, close your eyes, and picture a gigantic warehouse with lab technicians wandering around and skids of powdered acid and tannins and other chemical compounds and forklifts. Then picture a boardroom and a massive office building and number crunching and consumer testing reports and the pallets of little toys from China to attach to the necks of the wine bottles to try and sell them faster in store and on and on and on...
If that's the wine you want to drink, that's the dream you should be having.