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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Wine Spectator is wrong: adding sugar to California wine should remain illegal

Last week Wine Spectator published a blog post  titled "Why California Winemakers Should Be Allowed to Add Sugar."

The reason: because California wine is not ripe enough. Geez, if we could only get rid of these weak-sister wines under 16% alcohol and get us some real he-man drinkin' bottles!

Writer Ben O'Donnell, an assistant editor, doesn't exactly say that. His point is more nuanced, and I think he expressed it better Friday under the 140-character restriction of Twitter:
"The notion that 'California terroir' is one all-encompassing thing is a fallacy and that's what I pointed out in the article."
O'Donnell also said on Twitter:
"I'm for anything that could help people explore/experiment/develop in these 'frontier' regions."
I have to write this as a tiny voice in opposition to Wine Spectator just in case there becomes a serious move in California to legalize chaptalization (adding sugar to fermenting grapes to raise the alcohol level of wine).

Chaptalization in California is Spectatorization. It's winemaking on PEDs (performance enhancing duplicities). And it's wrong.

Consider how unusual it is that anything at all is outlawed in California winemaking. Here's a sentence from O'Donnell's piece (italics are mine):
Today, winemakers can coax out their vision of a site and grape using a near-infinite permutation of fermentation styles, yeast regimens, rack-and-return cycles, chemical preservatives, acid enhancements, bleeding off, spinning out, reverse osmosis, Flash-Détente concentration, artificial coloring and the addition of sugar via grape concentrate anyway. 
Three important points about this sentence:

1) If you do all that stuff, you have no vision of a site and a grape. None. You have a vision of a beverage. You're trying to turn Oakville Cabernet into root beer. You may be rewarded, but you shouldn't be celebrated, as when that wine of artifice gets a 94 from Spectator and a 98+ from the Advocate.

2) If people who loved and understood wine were in charge of California law, some of that stuff would be illegal.

3) Most consumer publications would list those techniques with a slight whiff of exposé. O'Donnell writes it like a man cataloguing muscle supplements for minor-league baseball players.

One point on which O'Donnell and I agree is that California does not have one terroir. A corollary: we also don't have just one wine industry. Wine laws here and throughout the US usually have been written for mass-market wines, not artisanal wines, and often that's a shame.

If major wine-as-commodity producers need to use chemical preservatives, reverse osmosis, Flash-Détente concentration and artificial coloring to compete on supermarket shelves in the under-$10 range with imports from countries with cheaper labor, it's hard to oppose. People spending $8 for wine don't care about authenticity; they care about flavor and color. You also have the needs of the state's farm industry to consider. One can argue that allowing that kind of technology for mass-production wines preserves California farmland and California jobs.

But that's not why much of that technology was developed. It's part of an arms race, kicked off by Robert Parker and cheered on by Wine Spectator, to deliver the biggest, richest, ripest flavors from grapes from anywhere. This denies the impact of terroir not in coastal regions, but in Napa Valley. Pritchard Hill can naturally produce big wines that maintain acidity; so can Howell Mountain and a few other places. These wines would be special if other regions couldn't use steroidal enhancements to equal them.

Now wines on steroids get the big scores, and who can blame wineries whose grapes aren't naturally pumped up to want to enhance their chances? It's exactly like baseball: if one guy does it and gets paid more, everybody wants to do it.

Unlike in baseball, California will never outlaw newly developed wine equivalents of steroids. Who's going to go to the legislature and say wineries shouldn't be able to use Flash-Détente concentration so that their ratings will be lower and the wines will be cheaper?

But just because one steroid is legal doesn't mean we have to legalize them all.

Chaptalization -- sugar addition -- became illegal years before anyone envisioned Flash-Détente because it's one treatment that mass market wines, grown in the warm regions of California, never really need.

O'Donnell and scofflaw Adam Lee, who admits to O'Donnell that he chaptalized some California wines, are arguing for sugar additions to an entirely different class of wine: artisanal wines from cool climates.

I just tasted a lot of 2011 white wines, particularly Chardonnays, at two different wine competitions. I get it. These wines are surprisingly lean and acidic. That's vintage variation. They're not as pleasurable to drink now as you'd expect. You can see why somebody like Lee might want to add a little sugar, to alter what Mother Nature and his vineyards gave him, to substitute chemistry for patience.

These wines are clearly representative of a time and place, and it will be interesting to see how they age -- better, perhaps, than their richer predecessors. Or maybe not. Artisanal wine is supposed to be about complexity and diversity.

But the Spectator wants these cool-climate wines to be rich and fruit-forward right now, or it will punish them with poor scores. The Spectator does not celebrate diversity in wine styles. It rewards sameness and whatever means are necessary to achieve it.

I understand O'Donnell's argument that chaptalization might allow wineries in a cool vintage like 2011 to protect their business. But he works for the company they are protecting their business from. The Spectator could choose to explain that 2011 will be a year of different expectations. Instead it will pan the California wines, give high ratings to big, bold wines from Australia or Spain or Argentina, and move on to something else.

What about consumers? High-end wine consumers do not need protection from vintage variation; they just need honest descriptions of it. I'm not talking about flaws like TCA or oxidation or contamination. I'd much rather see laws that force wineries to reveal more of what goes into wine than a slackening of practically the only California law that limits such additions.

Put another way: O'Donnell likes that people are growing grapes in the Santa Lucia Highlands, but not if those grapes turn into wine that actually tastes like it's from the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Here's his conclusion (italics mine):
Chaptalization will never be broadly useful in California, but a statewide ban is a statement that California's terroir is California, not Napa and Santa Lucia, much less Mount Veeder and Garys' Vineyard. If you've ever had a Syrah from, say, the western Sonoma Coast, you know what a wholly unique expression of grape and place it can be. But a small winery trying to turn a profit already has a million reasons never to try growing or making the stuff. The fear of getting slapped for making a slight sugar adjustment to balance out an otherwise integrated wine shouldn't be one.
You know who's getting slapped for making wines, like Syrah from the western Sonoma Coast, without a slight sugar adjustment? Wineries that submit their "otherwise integrated," lower alcohol wines to Wine Spectator.

Chaptalization is Spectatorization. Marvin Shanken already has large swaths of the California wine world flocking to his vision of what wine should taste like. This is a big enough state that there should be space enough to make wine for the rest of us.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

21 comments:

  1. Maybe it should be legalized, but the label should be required to mention it. "Beet sugar, corn syrup and artificial color added." People want to be told if their food is made from GMO or made from beef with hormones and saline solution added. So why not tell us what's been added to the wine?

    Perhaps wine reviews should be required to disclose components too, such as "Contains $1000 added to magazine's bank account."

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  2. I'm in favor of an ingredients list. The wine industry vehemently opposes it, but one positive impact would be that people would stop demonizing sulfites, which stand out now because they're the only ingredient on the label.

    Review components: Haha.

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  3. Many, many, perhaps most of the $15 wines in BevMo have grape concentrate added just before sterile filtration and bottling to add color and softness. Now that is the real unspoken sugar practice I would like to see eliminated...

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  4. Pietro: Agreed. Had an argument about this by email with a winemaker today, about whether or not this is worst. My overall point is, we don't need fewer production regulations -- we have few enough already.

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  5. I added grape concentrate to a Chardonnay I could not get ripe in 2010, it ruined what is usually one of my most distinctive wines. Why should I not be permitted to add a few kilos of sugar? How is concentrated central valley white grape wine better?

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  6. A couple of things. You can't add artificial colors to wine and I do not know of any that do. If it does it cannot be called wine. You cannot add corn syrup to wine an call it wine either. Mega red/purple or Red 1000 works just fine for both purposes. It is derived from grapes but usually done at blending before fining.
    Flash Detante is a great piece of technology but it is very cost prohibitive and not many wineries use it (yet), even the big guys. I have heard from some winemakers who did use concentrate for the 2011 vintage, but these were Pinot Noir producers and I can see why they wanted higher alcohol because that is what sells.
    Central valley white wine is not sugared up Nathan. Doesn't need to be and usually is too high in sugar when it is picked. As a Fresno State man you should know this.

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  7. Robert, my friend - White Grape Concentrate is concentrated (68 brix) white grape wine, likely from the central valley. I don't think that many coastal grapes get sold as concentrate these days.

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  8. Correction - should be white grape juice, not wine.

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  9. Nathan, bro-han, it better be from the central valley! I guess I am a little on the fence here. If you have a site that does not get your grapes ripe is using sugar such a crime? Because who wants to taste a weak artisianal wine at 11.5% alc? But then again, should you be growing grapes there in the first place? But wait a tick! What about fortifying your wine to get to your desired target? I know some central valley wineries are rumored to do this to great success and you had better beleive it when smaller producers do it too. Is this "technique" heresy to the unique site and terrior of the grape? How about adding water when you miss your desired Brix number? Legal and widely used. How about acid additions? Oak additions? Yeast additions? All bad too? These are not the things site gives to you but is common practice.
    I know the argument is that adding sugar is not legal and should not be made so. But sometimes you gotta do what you need to do to save a vintage and your business so you can do better next time.

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  10. Robert: I hear you, but changing the law is like saying everybody speeds, so let's legalize it.

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  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  12. Blake,
    Like I said I am on the fence about this because your point is valid because it can be difficult for a producer to have a lean wine if they very much depend on scores and other ratings as you said. Considering the following statement

    "Today, winemakers can coax out their vision of a site and grape using a near-infinite permutation of fermentation styles, yeast regimens, rack-and-return cycles, chemical preservatives, acid enhancements, bleeding off, spinning out, reverse osmosis, Flash-Détente concentration, artificial coloring and the addition of sugar via grape concentrate anyway".

    You replied

    1) If you do all that stuff, you have no vision of a site and a grape.

    But whether you like it or not that stuff (more or less) is done anyway, even if the producer is silent about it. Maybe they are not doing ALL of them, but for the majority of wineries, they do some of that stuff and not just in the lean years either. It does require vision for the winemaker to use some techniques to get the best out of the vintage, any vintage. Some producers don't get the quality of grapes that Scarecrow or Harlan gets. But they put out some exteremely good wines and they use many of those techniques. Reverse osmosis and flash detante can be pretty extreme technologies I agree. But as I stated they are cost-prohibitive, even for the big guys and are not used as much as you would think.

    I am not for changing the law about chaptalization. But don't lump it in with a whole list of common practices that the wine trade uses to coax the best out of their grapes.

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  13. So it's more important that a wine shows it's terroir and vintage character than actually taste good?
    It's just wine and there are plenty of both styles to go around.

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  14. Define "tastes good."

    Does the Wine Spectator get to issue that definition for everyone?

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  15. The purpose of law is to protect public health, safety, and uphold what a society considers moral. Since chaptalization is not a health or safety issue, it is not and should not be made illegal. But I do think the public interest is served by disclosure and I would not oppose regulations that would require this. Of course that is both a slippery and steep slope: where does one draw the line at what wine-making techniques need to be disclosed?

    Are there really wines that have been awarded high scores that have been chaptalized? Chaptalization is a remedy for a flawed wine, one that in the wine-makers opinion is alcoholically anemic. Personally, I can only see such intervention taking a wine from bad to mediocre, but never to superlative.

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  16. Chris: How is alcohol percentage not a health and safety issue? It's the basis for how wine in the US is taxed.

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  17. Blake: alcohol percentage is a health and a safety issue and it is already subject to the law. To the extent that chaptalization increases alcohol beyond already prescribed limits, it is already regulated. But what we were talking about was not altering table wine to fortified wine, nor about how it was taxed. The issue is flavor enhancement (or detraction, depending on your opinion). It is a benign wine-making technique that does not need to be outlawed; what is the point of having a law on the books unless you enforce it? I can certainly think of higher priorities for law enforcement.

    Lest I not be misunderstood, I would never purchase a wine that I knew was chaptalized. I don't want a "fixed" wine. But if that suits someone else's palate, the process won't harm them, so I say let them the right to choose.

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  18. Chris: OK, you're pro-chaptalization. Noted. I, however, am not.

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  19. Blake: "Pro Chaptalization"? Hmmmm...I am not too sure that moniker fits. We actually sit much more on the same side of this issue than you may realize. I count myself among the minimal intervention school of wine-lovers. The list of interventions you and your various commenters provided are practices that I do not want to see used by artisanal wine-makers. Where you and I begin to part company is in how we want to get them to stop. You are advocating they be stopped by the law. I do not think that is the appropriate purpose of law (as per my earlier comment) and it is for that reason only that saying I am pro chaptalization has any cred. What I really am, if I must be pro-anything, is pro-freedom (sorry to sound righteous and high-falutin'...simply lacking a better vocabulary); I support having the minimum of laws that promote the health and safety of the people and uphold what society considers moral. I, like you, want to see a diversity of wines made available to consumers. That diversity should include wines that I don't like, which I have to then say should include chaptalized wines.

    I think the appropriate way to tackle the issue is to do what you have done: write a blog about it. As you have done in this post (and rather well, I think) you have brought up what you don't like about the process, how it is unfair (I am paraphrasing you) and how it creates an artifice in wine-making that you eschew. Bravo. I am with you right up until you conclude that this is a matter for the courts to enforce. I would ask you to keep blogging on the subject and use your influence with your readership (consumers and wine-makers) to seek more honest ways of producing better wine than resorting to so much intervention. Hopefully then the free market will accomplish the objective we both seek as opposed to accomplishing it through force of law.

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  20. Why not simply strip the vintage designation when additives are required to produce what nature cannot?

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  21. interesting discussion. I truly believe disclosure is the root of the problem here and agree less laws are better. More freedom...cheaper(lableled) wines for those on a tight budget...different folks different strokes.

    Be well all.

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