Tuesday, October 19, 2010

More unnatural wine and other notes

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Wine Business Insider had an excellent story yesterday describing a new whiz-bang winemaking gizmo that, if I understand it correctly, uses heat and a vacuum chamber to remove the character of grapes.

The idea is that underripe grapes can have bell pepper characters removed. The resulting beverage will have a little higher alcohol because its sugars are concentrated.

It's not a reach to say it will be jammier. Ripe fruit + vacuum + heat + sugar = jam, right?

I guess I'm supposed to wring my hands about the future of wine. But it's telling that this machine is in Lodi, source of fine $7.99 reds, but a little challenged at the high end of quality. If somebody's drinking a $7.99 California appellation Cabernet, I don't think they care about native-yeast fermentation, and neither do I. Enjoy your beverage.

The question is, will high-end California winemakers soon see this as another way of getting more intense, concentrated, higher-octane, smoother $150 Cabernets?

Dan Berger recently reported in his newsletter that some high-end wineries are harvesting grapes overly ripe, fermenting them to dryness (can't do that with natural yeast), removing some of the alcohol through reverse osmosis for barrel aging, then adding the alcohol back in. It sounds like light-beer processing, but Americans love light beer.

My colleague Remy Charest did a great piece for Palate Press on natural wine in which he seems to intimate that the wine media cares a lot more about what goes on behind the winery doors than the public does. I think he's right, but that's no reason for us to stop talking about it. But I do have to keep this in perspective: I predict nobody will comment on this post who doesn't either write about wine or work in the wine industry. If you're a "civilian" and you care about this stuff, let me know.


Congratulations to Crushpad, which claims to make more than 1% of all commercial wine in the U.S. (Not by volume, by unique SKUs.)

For those who don't know Crushpad, it's a Napa-based business that allows anyone -- yes, you too -- to make small amounts of wine from quality grapes, with advice and support from their in-house pros. It has allowed folks to transition from making a few cases of Viognier for their friends to making a few dozen cases of commercial Viognier that they now have to figure out how to sell.

Crushpad has been responsible for 3,247 different labels filed with the US TTB. In 2010 alone, Crushpad received approval for 787 different wines. These are not just different labels on the same juice, but unique small-production wines.

It's part of the reason I could walk into a restaurant three blocks from me recently and not recognize a single label on the wine list -- that hadn't happened to me, I think, ever. Bully for Crushpad for not only letting a lot of people realize their expensive dreams, but for keeping even wine geeks on our toes.

But memo to Crushpad dreamers: I don't care if it cost you $30 to make that Monterey Viognier, I'm not paying $60 for it on the wine list. There's a reason they call it "economy of scale." Count on losing money until somebody -- like the folks below -- notices you.


I'll admit that, cravenly, when I got "The New Connoisseurs' Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries" by Charles E. Olken and Joseph Furstenthal and noticed there were four pages recommending wine blogs, I wondered why this one wasn't listed.

But then I started looking for some of my favorite wineries and discovered that I'm in excellent company.

Here are a few wineries not listed in the 456-page book:

A Donkey and Goat
Anthill Farms
Black Kite
Keller Estate
Linne Calodo
Natural Process Alliance
Scholium Project
Vision Cellars
Wind Gap

Those are just a few that I thought to look for; I'm sure there are others. It's a pity because the book has nice, concise summaries of wineries' backgrounds, and I'd like to know more about some of the wineries above. You might note a common theme: many, but not all, are part of the "natural wine" movement, which to my mind makes them more, not less, attractive to "connoisseurs."

Hey, Charles and Joseph, try reading a few more blogs, you might learn something.


Jon Bjork said...

As you pointed out, Blake, there really is, in my opinion, a whole different mindset when it comes to making a mass-market wine vs. a high-quality wine expressing terroir. As Barry Gnekow mentioned, those making high volumes think like cooks reaching for the best gadgets to deal with often less-than-stellar fruit. It's all about creating flavors that will be appealing.

Barry has been a big proponent of this device as just another tool to ensure that his clients, including Hahn Estate, can produce reliably consistent, pleasing wines. He's never been afraid to experiment with the latest technology, whether spinning cones or concentrators. (He's got a reputation in Lodi for being a heroic doctor, saving many batches of wine that had gone south, by the way.)

I'd like people to see the fact that Tyson Rippey made the big investment as a sign of Lodi's forward and flexible thinking, that could help us understand extraction during fermentation a little better.

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Jon, thanks for your comment.

I once spent a day driving around with Barry; it was like going with a country doctor on his rounds. This wine needs a little acidity, that one's got an infection ... that was one of the most memorable days I've ever spent as a wine journalist.

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


Just a couple of things.

1) Don't really find that native yeasts necessarily have any less ability to ferment to high alcohol levels than commercial yeasts. Commercial yeasts are, in many cases, simply isolates from a ferment that worked.

2) I thought Dan Berger's example of wineries going thru all of that process was hysterical. As is usual, he named no names, just innuendo.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

John M. Kelly said...

Corollary to Adam's first point: in some cases, "native" yeast that complete high-sugar ferments might be "contamination" by commercial strains.

A month ago Gizmodo did a bit on Ken Wright using his evaporator to "correct" washed out vintages:

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Adam, thanks for the clarification on point 1.

On point 2, I talked with Dan in person about it and I believed him, but you're right, he didn't name names. I think there's a legitimate reason in wanting to protect his sources. Dan has a lot of credibility for me as a reporter, but it's also true that there's no way, technologically, for people to dispute a newsletter in the same way that you are free to disagree with me here.

I don't think Dan reads this blog -- neither him nor Charles Olken, sigh -- but if somebody runs into him, you might ask him if he wants to respond to this.

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


Honestly, I wouldn't be at all surprised if a winery had tried the techniques that Dan mentions. My problem is that Dan seems to try and take something that has happened at one place and "spin it" into something that is happening everywhere (at least he does that if it is a technique he disagrees with).

By not mentioning names, it is easier to make it sound like some sort of deep, secret cabal of winemakers doing this -- rather than one example that may or may not be repeated, even by the winery that tried it in the first place.

Mark Sinnott, Issaquah WA said...

Blake - I am a recent 'subscriber' to your blogs. I am not in the wine business whatsoever. I am what I would descrive as an 'enthusiast'. I have a small-0medium size collection at home (450-500 bottles) and I love to explore the wider world of wine through the mainstream publications and, more regularly, blogs like yours.

To answer your question - yes, people like me do care about the laboratory-esque manipulation of wine. And you're right, it's one thing for a mass procucer of 7.99 juice to use this type of intervention, it's another thing to see it at the high end, where one would reasonable expect that machines dont substitute for a more 'artisanal' product. My posts on other blogs to this effect (Dr Vino for one) have met with fierce blowback from winemakers who disagree. They were all in California, for whatever its worth.

I'd like to see an effort to somehow identify the wineries who use these manipulations. They ought to be (as Matt Kramer and others have suggested) putting it on the bottle. I doubt we'll ever see that day.

Thanks for your continued posts - they are educating and entertaining.

Anonymous said...

You're just scratching the surface. Wineries will only tell you what can be said, not what cannot be said.
In my old days as a winemaker I've discovered ( some of, but not all) the countless ways wineries use for cheating. Or should I say, we would consider cheating if we knew.
Including the "organic" ones.
Suffice to say that I eventually gave up.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Mark, and Anon as well.

I really believe most wine drinkers don't care how the sausage is made. There's a very vocal group of natural wine aficionados who do care, but I don't think they're a very big part of the market.

One reason to support legal deregulation of alcohol is to allow wineries and customers who belong together, to get together. A natural-wine fan in, say, Maryland should be able to order wine to her taste from any wine shop in the country if her neighborhood shop only cares about prices and scores.

Charlie Olken said...

Thanks for the mention of my new book. You are certainly right. Between chapters on history, winemaking, long essays on each significant grape in production in California, what else to read and wine language, not to mention 25 maps and almost 500 wineries included at about 2/3 page per entry, many very deserving wineries got left out. There 3,000 bonded wineries and 2,000 second and negotiant labels in California these days. No book can do justice to that. As it is, the book contains much closer to 500 pages than the 400 pages it was supposed to run.

It might be useful to talk a bit about how the book came about and why it is structured the way it is. When Norm Roby and I wrote the precursor to this book, first published in 1977 and in print until 2000, everything was done in straight alphabetical order. With this new book, things are done by geography because CA wine has matured to the point where most wineries do not try to grow every grape everywhere, and those new understandings of what to plant and where now inform the manner in which the industry is shaped and how it will develop from here.

After the intro chapters and the significant Grapes chapter, the heart of the book turns to places and the wineries and the wines of those places. Each of those chapters looks at a specific section of California's wine scene--and with every AVA in the state coming in for its own treatment—including what grows there and why. Only after laying all that groundwork do the wineries and the wines they make appear. The back chapters of the book, The Reading List and The Language of Wine, are done as explanations--why you should read a certain book or blog--what this piece of wine jargon means in actual application. No one is going to curl up to read a couple of hundred words about malolactic fermentation or alternative closures to corks, but when a wine lover wants to know more about those topics, they will find user friendly essays, not just quick bites.

A quick note about why the Gray Market Report, which I have been reading for some time by the way, was not included. Books are photographs of a point in time--and then the author submits that photograph to a publisher who takes a year or more to get it into print. And that chapter, now more than a year old, simply was not aware of your blog at that time. It’s as simple as that.

Eric Asimov (NY Times) recently wrote that the book was opinionated--and that is true. It gives my opinions on wines, wineries and regions. What good is a wine book that does not have a point of view? After three decades and more writing about CA wine and reviewing thousands of wines each year, I do have opinions. This book is a compilation of a lifetime of passion, learning and opinion. Thanks for mentioning it.

The artist formerly known as The WineGuy said...

I can't believe that no one has invoked the name, nor have we heard from, Clark Smith!

W. Blake Gray said...

Charles: On the day that I say an author should not be opinionated, you have the right to toss a glass of wine in my face, Glee style.

Glad to have you reading. I like the winery summaries in the book -- that's why I want to see more of them. If they were colorless recitations of the personnel and wine lineup, I wouldn't care.

I do have a bone to pick with the way you summarize winery's quality by referring to ratings that you don't include in the book: i.e., "this winery sometimes reaches into the 90s, but often stays in the 80s." But you're selling website subscriptions too; I get it. I just don't like it.

W. Blake Gray said...

Ron: Clark Smith rocks. And rolls. There, I said it.

Charlie Olken said...


A couple of added comments will help here, I think.

The ratings referenced in the book come from the tastings for Connoisseurs' Guide to California, a monthly print newsletter that has been in business for 35 years and keeps on ticking. We do have an Online Edition, which readers of your blog can view at www.cgcw.com.

But the reason there are not specific vintage reviews in the book is the lead time problem I referenced in my comments above. Any specific review of a vintage-dated bottling would be more than a year out of date by the time the book hit the streets. By next Spring, those reviews would be hopelessly out of date. That is the reason why few wine books even try that trick. Books are snapshots of a point in time. Magazines like WS, WE, WA, Connoisseurs' Guide exist because we can get reviews into the hands of our readers in more or less real time.

That is why this book is a reference book whose shelf life will be years instead of months.

Jacob, Western MA said...

I'm a civilian and do care about this stuff. I see how industrialization has ruined our food supply and don't want the same to happen with wine. Also a big fan of your blog.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thank you Jacob, you made my morning.

On the bright side, our food supply is better than it was 20 years ago; there are so many more natural choices available, mainly because civilians care and vote with their wallets. I always hope for the same with wine.