Friday, May 11, 2012

Wine without preservatives: a moral dilemma

I had a conversation last week by email with a former coworker that raised a moral dilemma.

How much effort should I make every day in helping spread knowledge about wine?

My friend rents out a room in her San Francisco home periodically and has managed to get clients from Japan. A woman visiting her this week wants to go to wine country, but doesn't want to rent a car. My friend knows I wrote a book in Japanese about California wine and asked for my advice on which wine country bus tour is best. I told my friend, who can use the income, that she should agree on a price with her guest and take her herself.

She asked where I recommended. I suggested Dry Creek Valley. My friend likes Zinfandel and so does her guest. Dry Creek is rural and pretty, the wineries aren't pretentious, the wines are good. I know she'd like Healdsburg, which is a great place to eat lunch. And it's an easy day trip.

Then my friend said, "Which wineries do you recommend? She wants to buy wine without preservatives."

Apologies to Bella and Preston; I was going to send her your way. But instead I shut down and refused to recommend any.

I probably should have gone ahead and sent her to Preston, which is as passionate about sustainable farming as anyone, and where she could have gotten into an intelligent discussion about the strengths and limitations of organics and biodynamics.

But I just didn't feel like explaining in detail to my friend about sulfites, which are a crucial component in wine -- especially if you plan to lug that wine from Sonoma County back to Japan.

I confess, I was ticked off at unthinking leftists last week, after black-clad vandals on an Occupy march trashed my neighborhood, breaking windows at an art gallery and independent restaurants while leaving McDonald's untouched. "Wine without preservatives" is a slogan that fits right in with the unthinking left.

I suppose I could have sent her a link to this story I did on "organic wine" for the LA Times. I could have asked for the Japanese woman's email and spoken directly with her in Japanese.

I could also have sent her to Coturri, which is about as good as a no-sulfite winery gets.

Instead, feeling a little weary, I excused myself from the discussion.

But now I feel guilty. What should I have done? What would you have said?

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Daniel Schoenfeld Wild Hog Vineyard said...

As a winery that grows organic grapes, when asked about sulphites, we tell them that you have to use them. If you want the wine to last more than a few months that is the only way to do it.I have never had a wine made without sulphites that i liked enough to finish a glass. I would like there to be an alternative, but there isn't yet.
i also renind them that most people really are not sensitive to sulphites.

John M. Kelly said...

Translation difficulty? Maybe your Japanese lady doesn't want wine with sorbates - which are commonly used in what passes for wine in Japan. Gomen nasai

W. Blake Gray said...

Oooh, John, that's a good point. Now I feel even more guilty, I could have educated her. Moshiwake arimasen.

Ross said...

I often explain that histamines and aldehydes are the real culprit for the wine headache and infamous hangover, respectively. I then explain that wine without sulfites has a similar shelf life as fruit juice. This get their attention.

Ross said...

I am often asked about sorbates from Japanese importers.

Pam Barksdale said...

Is it possible that sulfite usage is relative? I understand they are chemically necessary to stabilize. Yet I drink wine, red and white with nary an after effect while living in Europe and drinking local production, as compared with drinking either domestic or imported labels stateside. Can usage be limited and still effective? If so are there any means to discern quantitative differences from the label? Or am I deluding myself that there's a difference?
We are newbies with vineyards in the process of organic grape certification in Italy and I'm trying to learn as much as I can about all of this quickly.
As to your moral dilemma......we each have finite energy to share. Cut yourself some slack if yours ran short that day. You can't change the whole world, just a small piece from time to time, as energy and patience allow.

Ross said...

Non-Geeks should stop here:

Most wines only require 8-12 ppm free sulfite level to age gracefully, while UCDavis often recommends 30-40 mg/L free SO2, depending on the wine pH. A lower pH wine (2.9-3.5pH) will require exponentially less sulfite than a fruit bomb at 3.8-4.00pH.

An interesting discussion could be the level of sulfite in the wine; free and total. This can be discussed along with lower alcohol wines, and lower pH (more acidic) wines. The lower the pH, the lower the required sulfites. The higher the pH, the more sulfites that are required.

Hang time, and the resulting higher alcohol %, typically coincides with a higher pH. Higher alcohol wines typically have a difficulty completing fermentation, which often results in elevations in aldehydes; which causes the monster hangover and results in liver damage. Vodka typically produces predictable alcohol hangover, but rum, scotch, sherry (aldehydes) can produce a haunting hangover.

Grow the variety suitable to the climate.
Pick the fruit at lower sugar levels:

Lower alcohol levels
Lower pH
Lower Sulfites Required
Lower aldehydes
Less liver damage
Less hangover
Fewer DUIs

More Balance:
Lower alcohol wines taste less bitter, acidity is not as pronounced, and pairing with food is easier.

W. Blake Gray said...

Pam: The biggest difference between a random selection of European wines and California wines is the alcohol level, and when I did a newspaper story about red-wine headaches, the medical doctors I asked said, "Always think about alcohol first."

Ross makes great points about the level of sulfites required, which is usually much lower than what textbooks will tell you. If you have clean fruit, and you're not using sulfites to solve a problem, then you only need to add them for exactly the reason the Japanese woman didn't want them: as a preservative, so your wine won't deteriorate in a month.

You should ask some other low-sulfite winemakers what their experience is. In California, see if you can get in touch with the Natural Process Alliance, Donkey and Goat, or Sashi Moorman. There are many others trying to reduce sulfites without eliminating them, but those are three I've spoken to about this recently.

Anonymous said...

As with alcohol consumption - "everything in moderation" applies to SO2 as well.

tom farella said...

I always like to go back in time. Good old brimstone (burned sulfer = sulfur dioxide) has been used for a good long time to add sulfites to wine by creating the gas in-barrel, then adding the wine or juice and the SO-2 gets adsorbed. I learned years ago that a barrel treated with sulfur wicks adds sulfites to the juice/wine. Don't quote me, but I think this technique has been used a long, long time. It's ironic that now we can add it precisely thanks to big chemical companies but it seems somehow impure.

Dapz said...

I had a guest in the restaurant the other day that told me she was highly allergic to sulfites. She went on to tell me hpw much she hated restaurants for not carrying "natural wines". I would love to be in a different situation so I could have a heart to heart with her and tel her what's up. But I really did not have a chance to tell her she's most likely not allergic to sulphur. The guest is always right, right??

W. Blake Gray said...

Dapz: That's a greater moral dilemma than mine. What's best for the customer: maintaining her illusion, or setting her straight at the risk of pissing her off?

When I was in college I had a part-time job at a liquor store and I nearly got fired asking a pregnant woman if a 1.75 liter of vodka she was buying was for her.

What did you end up pouring for her?

Dapz said...

She ended up having beers, I'm not sure if beers have sulphur or not, but since she was upset, I was just happy to oblige...

Anonymous said...

As a plug for one of my favorite zinfandel growers in that part of the state you should have recommended Tres Sabores in Rutherford! Great zinfandel, great people and a very interesting, informative tour. They would have a lot to say about California wine, zinfandel, and biodynamic/organic farming.

W. Blake Gray said...

I wouldn't send anyone on a budget to Rutherford for wine tasting.

SUAMW said...

Dapz & Blake:

Give her some dried fruit.....