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Drinking Out Loud

If You Owned a Winery …

… What would you do differently?

Matt Kramer
Posted: April 19, 2011

It's a common fantasy among wine lovers: What would you do if you owned a winery? We've all watched one or another winery succeed, stumble and succeed again as it marched toward ultimate acclaim. Too often, however, the progression turns out to be more of a limp toward mediocrity. Inevitably, we think, "I could do better than that."

Maybe we could. Then again, maybe we couldn't. It's always tempting to look at someone else's business and conclude that you know more and better than they do. With that humbly acknowledged, I would like to submit the following: Here's what I would do if I owned a winery.

I Would Tell the Truth. This may seem overly simplistic. But I'm here to testify that it's nothing less than astonishing to see the number of times a winery sidesteps, obfuscates, or flat-out lies about its practices in the winery or its reasons for pursuing a particular course of action.

A good example is alcohol level. Too many wineries are reluctant to provide a precise alcohol level for each of their wines. Now, many wineries do offer such a thing on their websites. Bravo to them.

But an awful lot of wineries conveniently round-off the stated alcohol level of their wines, on both label and website. They submit that most consumers don't really care (which may or may not be true).

They say that they are interested in "balance" and that their wine would be judged unfairly if viewed solely through the lens of a precise alcohol level. All of this may be true, but let's not kid ourselves: it's self-serving.

Not least, an unknown number of producers, especially in California, conveniently fail to mention that they achieved their "lower" alcohol level by adding water to the fermenting must. "You see, we make lower alcohol wines," they trumpet, conveniently sidestepping the fact that the wine came from overripe grapes that would have created a higher alcohol wine if left "unadjusted."

Alcohol is but one area, however glaring. Winemaking is food processing and many producers have resisted the kind of processing- or ingredient-labeling that consumers have come to expect with other food products, fearing that we won't "understand.” You might call it an "omission of convenience" that you’re not told of chaptalization, adding water, eliminating water or adjusting acidity. "Where does it all end?" cry the producers. My reply? When does it even begin?

If I owned a winery I would adhere to the simple motto "Tell the truth." If I were using a vacuum concentrator or spinning cone or micro-oxygenation, I would say so. And if I had to make a case for why this made my wine better, I would do so. After all, if I was ashamed of any of these practices, well then, I shouldn't be using them, right?

Telling the truth may not seem all that radical, or even game-changing. But the truth is that telling the truth is rarer in the wine world than you might think.

I Would Speak Up. This is a corollary to telling the truth. Too many of the world’s most admirable and highest-integrity wine producers today don't recognize that they're in a bit of a war. They're up against not-so-fellow producers who are using (and hiding) every trick in the book to make their industrial wines seem artisanal. Meanwhile, the true artisanal producers are laboring under a real disadvantage.

It's time to speak up. I would declare on my back label and website that this wine is not made with oak chips or sawdust, spinning cones or vacuum concentrators or any other technique that I, as a producer, deem inadvisable or inappropriate. You don't chaptalize? Say so. You don't irrigate? Say so.

And if you do choose to employ one or another of these techniques that you normally wouldn't, say that as well. This is the "truth telling" referred to previously. Winegrowing is farming, after all. Sometimes you've got to do things that you’d really prefer not to.

I know a lot of winegrowers who don't irrigate, but have drip lines in their vineyards just in case. (They were originally installed to get the young vines going.) If you had to irrigate in a drought year, and normally you proclaim that you don't irrigate, say so.

I recently met a biodynamic grower who had to use a spray against persistent mildew, a spray not "approved" by the biodynamic orthodoxy. It was that or lose the crop. What would you do? I'd do just what he did—and I'd say so.

The key point is not to hamstring yourself, but rather differentiate yourself from those who want your artisanal image but are not willing to pay your price.

I Would Recognize That My Label Is Really a Portal. Recently, I had a conversation with a winery owner who asked me what I thought of his wine label. I told him that there was nothing about either its design or the information it conveyed that made it stand out. I added, by the way, that this was a pity because I thought his wine was outstanding.

I was asked what I would do differently. I said that the most important thing wasn't so much a re-design as re-thinking the very concept of a "label." I submitted that modern wines labels should be seen as a portal, and that the vast majority of wine labels today—pieces of paper glued to a glass bottle—could as easily have come from 100 years ago as from the 21st century.

"Wine label as portal" revises the very purpose of the label. I would redesign it in recognition that the label is—or should be—an invitation to the prospective customer to acquire yet more information about what's inside the bottle.

This, in turn, would require you to re-think your entire electronic presence, from your website to social media, in recognition that your label is a portal: If they go through that portal, what will they find?

A 21st-century label would embrace what's known as QR, or quick recognition codes, which are little black boxes with squiggles. You point your smartphone at the QR and, voilà, you are instantly linked to a website specific to the wine you are considering.

I would also always employ a back label which, incomprehensibly to me, some wineries disdain. Excuse me, but why would you pass up the chance to make your pitch to a prospective consumer? That said, if all you're going to put on your back label is drivel about how you're a family winery or how you’ve got "hot days and cool nights," or some other such banality, then probably you are indeed better off not offering a back label.

I Would Always Hire Wine People. There's a trend, especially among very big wineries or small producers seeking to break into the luxury category, to hire people from fields other than wine.

I know one high-end winery that brought in as general manager someone who knew literally nothing about wine. He had achieved success selling a different luxury food product, and the winery owner believed that this experience was transferable to luxury-priced wine. It was not. The guy was gone in just a few years, having made no discernible positive impact and, probably, if anything, setting back the winery because of the time-consuming learning curve required.

Gallo has gone from strength to strength. You know why? They are wine people in their very bones. Look at what happened to Robert Mondavi Winery when it lost its "wine marrow" and turned to corporate types to woo Wall Street.

I Would Ask Myself, "Am I A Me-Too Winery?" This may be the hardest task of all, as it requires an unflinching honesty. If I owned a winery I would ask, when tasting my wines, "Is this just another me-too wine?"

Most wines, from most places in the world, are me-too wines, interchangeable with other wines of their type. It's inevitable. Only in Lake Woebegone is the entire population above-average.

The only way to become above-average is to impose a demand that what you offer is indeed superior. Too many winery owners do no such thing. Either they can't taste the difference (which is more common than you might suppose) or they're content with merely equaling their neighbors (ditto).

If I owned a winery I would strive to summon the necessary strength to do what it takes to stand out. For example, I would make the move to screw cap, as I am convinced that screw caps are a superior closure compared to cork. I would lower my yields. I would buy a vineyard with old vines and nurse them as necessary in hopes of creating a superior wine.

The former pro golfer Ken Venturi defined this effort perfectly: "I believe that any player who is a champion would be a champion in any era he lived in, because he would get himself to the level he has to attain to win."

It's no different with "champion wineries." Think of the greatest wines you know and you'll see that all the producers share an unrelenting drive toward self-improvement. Above all, you'll see one commonality: It always starts with the owner.

The Odom Corporation
oregon —  April 19, 2011 1:15pm ET
Bravo
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  April 19, 2011 1:22pm ET
BRAVO Matt,
I as read along, my mind kept returning to a business-type book called DEEP CHANGE. Its author, Robert Quinn, kept hammering home the principle that in today's market, a leader/owner has only two choices: deep change or slow death. Deep change is the brutal task of sticking to that core of integrity (artisanal) which supposedly makes your product "real" in ways the industrial wannabee model achieves only through artificial means. Slow change, is the oh-so-tempting "adjustments" needed to not fall behind; decay comes not because of falling behind, but because there is neither health nor power left in the organization to fight for its authenticity/integrity. Spinning off the Lake Woebegone example, Quinn reminds us that "excellence is deviant behavior." Unless an owner has the passion for excellence (the commitment to deviate from the pack), he or she won't have the capacity to resist those tempting little slow death compromises. They may continue to sell their me-too wines, but soon no one will care.
Anabelle Sielecki
Mendoza, Argentina —  April 19, 2011 1:48pm ET
Dear Matt:

What an interesting and challenging article for the wine-producing industry. I only wish more people on our end of the counter agreed with your vision and adopted your recomendations.

But it is, after all, still harvest time down here. Maybe this will be adopted as the "New Wine Year Manifesto".

Cheers,
Anabelle
Rachel Malagon
Valle de Guadalupe/San Clemente CA —  April 19, 2011 5:01pm ET
Great Article Matt,

It has to be a labor of love with all that goes into it. The desire to also improve and do better all of the time has to be there as well. There is always something to learn about the process which is one of my favorite things about it.

John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  April 19, 2011 5:21pm ET
Matt, what you say may be true, but in the end all that counts is the final product, with all the nuances, taste, flavor, aroma, finish and the lasting impression that it gives off. If it all works to your satifaction, how important is it that we be told how its done?
David Rossi
Napa, CA, USA —  April 19, 2011 5:36pm ET
Matt,
I am a winemaker/small winery owner and I agree with your premise, but find that not many wine consumers are interested in such disclosures. Having said that I will lay our winemaking cards on the table to usher in the new world you seek:

We will add water to must IF it is necessary to secure a sucessful fermentation without excess alcohol. Acid, you bet IF it is needed. Enzymes we are using less and less, but we have used them. We always use commercial yeast to finish a ferment. Commercial ML bacteria as well. Fining rarely, but we never say never. Filtration if necessary for stability, but not always.

Bottom line is we do what we feel we must to produce a wine that is worthy of our customers. They are shelling out good money for our products and we owe it to them to make the best we can. Like all winemakers we try to manipulate as little as possible, but IF necessary we will do what it takes to deliver on our promise of quality in the bottle.

We make no decisions in the winery arbitrarily and carefully consider the best approach. Most times we do nothing and it works out, but we are not ludites and we will apply some craftsmanship when needed. And we do consider it craftmanship when applied appropriately and judiciously.

We won't be putting every winemaking decision on the back of the label, but we will always disclose exactly what was done if asked.

Now that I have been honest let's see if my sales plummet.

David Rossi
Fulcrum Wines
Kc Tucker
Escondido, CA USA —  April 19, 2011 8:24pm ET
Many good points. There are many "vanity project" wineries whose owners look at their labels as extensions of themselves without understand what consumers actually buy. Many of these owners come from other industries and think their previous success will translate into their new venture. These days our shop is often presented with wines whose producers have cash flow problems and good juice is sold for pennies on the dollar. Good for the consumer, not so good for building a brand.

Jim Kern
Holiday Wine Cellar
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  April 20, 2011 6:35am ET
Truth in advertising: although I’ve never met Matt, I consider him a kindred-spirit. I read his books and articles because our mental “palates” seem compatible. Since he started this column, I’ve been intrigued (OK, irked) by the defensive/hostile responses from some winery owners/winemakers whenever topics range around authenticity, artisanal, originality, wines of places, etc. In this column, Mr. Rossi (not someone I’d put in the defensive/hostile group at all) responded thoughtfully about practices that I tend to put in the quasi-industrial mode: “And we do consider it craftsmanship when applied appropriately and judiciously.” It was his notion of craftsmanship that caught my attention. I know several artisans who make furniture and baskets under primitive conditions with the simplest and most basic tools; as a hobby, I make some furniture as well. In addition, I’ve been to some industrial sites which make the “same” things. When I re-read Matt’s opening question (“What would you do if you owned a winery?”), it hit me: I confused making wine and owning a winery. My image of the ideal making-wine situation is akin to my experience with the often single master-craftsman who guards/performs every step of the process. But “owning a winery” immediately and appropriately shifts the process to include a business mindset. The semi-hostile wine folk and the not-hostile Mr. Rossi all responded with from the understandable “business” side of the winery. To their credit, they work very hard to produce “good wine.” But in today’s anti-Ludite world, many believe that the product is the only thing that can be tasted; that is, it isn’t possible to taste the “process” as well. Some of us object to that; some of us believe that our knowledge of place and process alters our tasting of the product. So, my answer to Matt’s question: “I’d sell the winery and go back to making wine.”
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  April 20, 2011 10:18am ET
James,

I think you make an excellent point. There can be a world of difference in the considerations of a winemaker and winery owner. Holding both posts requires conscious effort to separate the two -- a type of schizophrenia. Undoubtedly, my efforts have only been partially successful.

I would assume that Matt's winery is one with fairly unlimited funds (oh, to dream) as many of his desires (the use of QRs) come with a price tag....and a winery owner has to decide on the cost-benefit ratio of that price tag. Same goes for changing the alcohol levels on the label each vintage. I once calculated out that the cost of changing a label is $1300 in state licensing fees, etc. Which, as a winery owner, makes me reluctant to do so when the label is still within legal range (btw, the food industry that Matt mentions has ranges as well). The winemaker in me says that it is better to invest those dollars in better grapes....something that goes into the bottle rather than on the bottle.

I would say that certainly both sides of the brain -- winery owner and winemaker -- are necessary to make a wonderful product that will last as an entity over the years.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  April 20, 2011 1:14pm ET
I think that many people mistakenly associate any thing short of what's been characterized as "natural" wine as somehow being industrial in nature. That couldn't be farther from the truth.

Of course most of the wine produced in the world is industrial in nature. Never touched by the hand of man, and made in huge quantities with lots of fancy equipment, those wines can still deliver great value. In fact, modern wine making techniques have increased the quality of wine many fold over the past decade or so. But it's unfair to characterize adding a few gallons of water to a fermenter as being the same as that.

If you saw how many of us process fruit, you'd think that we were basically home winemakers, but just making more wine than your average guy in the garage. Yes, we do have a forklift, and crusher-destemmer, and a press... but that's about it. We ferment everything in 3/4 ton plastic fermenters. No refigeration equipment or jacketed tanks. We do punchdowns by hand. And we add water by filling a 5 gallon bucket from a hose. We're just a few steps away from being Amish ;)

We feel the craft of making wine is in the process. Is it condsidered craftsmanship to gather a bunch of tree branches, pile them in a corner and call it a couch? Of course not. The process used by any craftsman is considered and often very precise in nature. And developed over time. That describes us. Adding water or acid needs to be done with skill and experience. It's exactly the opposite of an industrial formula.

To me, the craft also necessitates making the best wine possible. In my worldview, not making additions if necessary, and accepting "less than" wine is neglecting the craft. And that's a view the winemaker and winery owner in me completely agree on: our primary responsibility to our consumer and the vineyards we buy fruit from is to make the best wine possible every year.

And yet there are people who would still label us industrial even if all we did was add some SO2 to our barrels. And Matt wonders why most winemakers don't devulge everything they do...

And issues like alcohol levels on labels are way more complicated than Matt presents. As Adam points out, there are significant costs associated with changing labels each year that already meet existing federal guidelines. But aside from that, the label approval process itself leads to inaccuracies and limitations, due to the fact it takes so much lead time. That's a reality that winemakers and winery owners have to deal with, and a fact that armchair winemakers don't seem to acknowledge or accept.

I've always tried to be open, honest, and transparent about what we do. I'd like to think it's helped wine lovers better understand what goes into making their favorite beverage. The frustrating thing is no matter how truthful we are, people still call us liars. Add some water? Then you must be adding MegaPurple as well. Add acid? Then you probably add Syrah to your Pinot. Or use RO. Or spinning cones.

Sometimes I wish I'd never started or participated in the discussion. People want the the myth. People want the traditional, even if what they envisoned never really existed.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  April 20, 2011 1:38pm ET
Mr. Vlahos: You write: "What you say may be true, but in the end all that counts is the final product, with all the nuances, taste, flavor, aroma, finish and the lasting impression that it gives off. If it all works to your satisfaction, how important is it that we be told how its done?"

This is of course a very significant question, one that's been asked by many wine lovers everywhere in the world. This is the "if it works, that's all that matters" approach. Clearly, there's something to be said for that approach. Magicians everywhere agree with it.

That acknowledged, whenever any of us is involved in any aesthetic subject that admits some level of complication – whether it's painting, music or even sports – we always want to know more. This is precisely why these matters involve us so much. They admit both greater complication and in turn, greater inquiry.

In the case of wine, there is no obligation to go beyond mere pleasure. Millions of wine drinkers over the generations have been very content with opening a bottle of wine, enjoying it with a meal, and letting it go at that.

But those of us who have a deeper interest in wine wish to know more. And many wine producers, for their part, have encouraged us to ask more questions. Not only do they enjoy the interaction between their efforts and the interests of their clients, but also because explaining the complications of their craft helps justify a higher price.

I don't say this cynically, but rather, because the more we know about, say, weaving a rug, hand-forging sterling silver or creating a superb Cabernet or Pinot Noir, the practitioner--having explained just what exacting effort went into the creation of what they are offering for sale-- can legitimately ask a higher price.

The issue today is not just the depth of the information we are being offered, but the selectivity of it. Understandably, producers would like us to know what they think puts them in the best light – typically the most romantic, traditional glow – and would prefer not to pull back the curtain on winemaking practices that may seem (or be) less than "traditional" or put them in a less flattering light. Who can blame them?

Bottom line: I would rather have the information and ignore it, than not have it at all.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  April 20, 2011 1:47pm ET
Mr. Rossi: You write: "We won't be putting every winemaking decision on the back of the label, but we will always disclose exactly what was done if asked. Now that I have been honest let's see if my sales plummet."

Thank you so very much for your thoughtful and considered comment. I agree entirely with your approach, which is very much that of a craftsman and a rational practitioner of winegrowing.

Of course, the issue is not putting every last bit of information on the back label, but rather, making such information available without fear or self-serving favor on your website or any other means of consumer information.

As for whether your sales will plummet in consequence of your honesty, please allow me to say that I very seriously doubt any such thing will happen. If anything, I believe that your kind of honesty will, at minimum, increase the loyalty of your existing clients and could very well attract new customers who find it appealing to be involved with a winegrower whom they feel--with demonstrable reason--they can trust.

Again, my sincere thanks for your having taken the time to post your comment.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  April 20, 2011 2:10pm ET
Mr. Loring: You write: "People want the myth. People want the traditional, even if what they envisioned never really existed."

I could not agree more with the statement above. Please allow me to add, however, that "people" in this instance also include winegrowers themselves. They, too, want the myth. For one thing, it's lucrative. For another, many winegrowers are themselves – dare I say it? – romantics. I've never met a winemaker who didn't love his or her small oak barrels more than their stainless steel tanks. I've seen them literally caress the former, but never the latter.

You note: "The frustrating thing is no matter how truthful we are, people still call us liars. Add some water? Then you must be adding Mega Purple as well. Add acid? Then you probably add Syrah to your Pinot. Or use RO. Or spinning cones."

I understand completely your frustration in this matter. And, if I may say so, I believe that this is precisely the point of what I have written: Tell us the truth. It is because some wine producers – by no means all, to be sure – are selective in what they choose to reveal about their winemaking that others are suspicious.

We live in an age of suspicious doubt, thanks to having had the curtain pulled back on so many practices in politics, finance, law, business and, yes, winemaking, that turned out to be at odds with was publicly proclaimed. So it is inevitable that many passionate wine lovers cannot help but wonder if some piece of information is being selectively and conveniently omitted.

I'm sorry for this, both for the sincerely open, honest winegrowers everywhere, as well as for wine lovers who for their part sincerely want to know how their favorite beverage is created. Winemakers are afraid of a "gotcha!". Ironically, some wine drinkers share the same fear.

For my part, I believe that the truth shall set us all free. But maybe I am naïve.

Please accept my thanks for having taken the time to reveal the professional's side of this issue.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  April 20, 2011 3:33pm ET
Matt - you don't mind if I call you Matt, do you? Please feel free to call me Brian. "Mr. Loring" sounds really weird ;)

One thing that I think prevents winemakers from describing everything they do is how those truths are discussed once exposed.

Let's take the example of picking decisions that sometimes require adding water to fermenters. I've discussed the issue many times, even on this website:

http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/When-to-Pick_14347
http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/Turning-Water-into-Wine_14351

I would hope that people would understand that our goal is to acheive perfect ripeness. But determining perfect ripeness is a subjective thing. One person's underripe is another's perfectly ripe.

But what happens is that the admission that you sometimes add water gets translated to picking overripe fruit. Or my "favorite" pejorative: picking raisins. Of course, fruit can be picked overripe. I'm sure almost every winemaker has had that happen to them. But to immediately jump to the conclusion that any water addition means the fruit is overripe is unfair, and inaccurate. The fact is sugar levels and ripeness often don't march hand in hand.

As a consumer myself, the fact that a winery waits to pick until their definition of physiologically ripe fruit and may add water is useful information since it speaks to the style of wine that winery makes. But what winery wants to discuss that when the response from wine writers and bloggers is that they pick overripe fruit?

Not to pick on you Matt (OK, just a little), but how the truth is presented in the press often limits how much people want to reveal. If you want the whole truth, at least some truths needs to be respected a bit more. Or at least acknowleged that some things aren't as black and white as some would make them out to be.

Just sayin' ;)
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  April 20, 2011 7:54pm ET
Brian (aka Mr Loring)...AMEN! Part of the problem with this blog (and many others from Mr Kramer), is that there is an unconsious (or overt?) bias against California wines. For example, the first part of this diatribe is:
"A good example is alcohol level. Too many wineries are reluctant to provide a precise alcohol level ... They say that they are interested in "balance" and that their wine would be judged unfairly if ... but let's not kid ourselves: it's self-serving... an unknown number of producers, especially in California, conveniently fail to mention that they achieved their "lower" alcohol level by adding water to the fermenting must...."
Water and acid additions, as well as irrigation, are, for nearly all new world wines, frequently a necessity due to the climate. Clearly the riper style of wines are not to Mr Kramer's liking and in his winery, i am sure he would plant in cooler areas, or move to France. But to imply that these are bad things that are hidden or require disclosure is simply ridiculous (its like disclosing the trellis type or the kind of tractor you use)

To Mr kramer's credit, he also discusses sugar additions (common in the old world...its cold and rains alot there so the grapes do not always get ripe...a little sugar to the must adds a lot of body to the wine...), but its in the fine print and spoken with a whisper compared to his discussion of water / acid additions and EOTH reduction

Other than the California bias, I liked the thought process that this blog stimulated, as every once in a while I think about getting out of this medicine gig and going pro. Fortunately, the morning after hangover always reminds me not to do it (yet at least)
Lisa Hallgren
Finger Lakes —  April 20, 2011 8:40pm ET
There is nothing biased about bringing up water additions, but it obviously hits a raw nerve! to take a cool-climate grape variety such as Pinot Noir, plant it in a warm/hot climate and state that in order to achieve "perfect ripeness" ( sounds like something out of a lab!) it must reach such a high sugar level that you need to dilute it with water is a stretch!
Sadly, this is so commonly done nowadays that there is a real need to distinguish two types of Pinot Noir wines: those built on balance, fresh fruit aromas, noticeable acidity, moderate alcohol and layers of delicate, intricate aromas and those on steroids, that have clearly left the Pinot Noir house.
Joseph Kane
Austin —  April 21, 2011 11:12am ET
Great topic of discussion. A consumer, and insider, perspective that has winemakers jumping to comment and debate. That makes a successful opinion piece. Well done.

To the gentleman that essentially said "if it tastes good, who cares!" shame on you. You are a member of wine spectator. Why? So you can buy wine with additional information at hand. Avoid busts, avoid wasting money, know the "score" (lets say "quality") of a wine before you buy? How is an informative label different? If a consumer likes acidic wines, why not disclose the PH on the back label? Why disclose your blend of new to used oak, or where the barrels were from? That may provide a purchaser with some insight to tannic structure. People look at alcohol percentages, even if they are inaccurate. Why not provide additional information that may evidence tastes or characteristics of the wine?

Disclosing additional information is probably unnecessary for the reasons Adam and Brian disclosed. Most consumers are as unfamiliar with winemaking as they are with surgery. Most people going to get surgery don't want a play by play on exactly what the doctor is going to do. They want to know they are going to be able to run again, have a heart beat, use their hand, not have back pain, etc. When a consumer buys wine, they probably don't want the play by play. They want to know what the wine is like, techinically, or not. Some may want a step by step explantion of exactly what has been done in the vineyard and winery, but most probably don't.

Moreover, due to a lack of knowledge, I think that most consumers would misunderstand or overreact to certain disclosures, as Brian Loring suggested. You add gallons of hose water to your fermentation? You don't think people hearing that will be disinclined to drop $45 for a Gary's Vineyard Pinot? It may have no affect on taste, and may actually benefit the wine, but it sounds cheap. It sounds like a short cut. Without a complete understanding of winemaking, the wrong conclusion can easily be drawn.

While I agree with Mr. Kramer's principal, I believe his suggestions go beyond the precipice of what is good for the consumer, to what is bad for the producer. The consumer that is extremely into the wine-making process can probably obtain the information he seeks with a phone call, a little research, or with a visit to the winery. (Maybe the scan-block Kramer referenced can be used to benefit the most inquiring customers.) Most consumers, even members of this website, probably don't have an interest in the minutia of wine making. They want to know the basics about the wine, and how it is likely to taste. Even with information, too much can be a bad thing.
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  April 21, 2011 1:08pm ET
To the gentleman from Austin, although I would love to debate the topic that too much information can be a bad thing, at this point I'll simply suggest a "truth telling" criteria implies that some PR language (from a relatively small % of wineries) could include "misinformation" and/or "disinformation." Neither of these may be lies, but both are surely the kinds of PR language that wraps the wine in wonderful rhetoric that is quite short on facts; moreover, both rest on the premise/hope that the consumer doesn't know enough details to question the flowery sales prose. So, cutting the descriptive information might be semi-OK as long as the PR/sales hype is also toned down.
Burgess Cellars
Saint Helena CA —  April 22, 2011 1:47am ET
Hi Matt,
I roughly agree with you on your points, as I too am an idealist. However, I present a parallel to demonstrate the problem in a metaphorical, pop-culture way... Barry Bonds. This exalted and successful sportsman has a lot in common with some of the most successful wineries these days who have gotten the "ultimate acclaim."

"Tell the Truth:" Without steroids, Bonds never would have been so successful (high alcohol, oak, residual sugar.) Without lying or being silent, he would have been dismissed from the sport years ago as a fake/fraud/cheater. Baseball, like wine, is supposed to honor natural talent and ability but if you hit a bunch of home runs, people look the other way. It's a flaw in human character I suppose.

"I Would Speak Up:" Speaking up would only bring criticism to oneself and offend all your fellow players who do it too. (spinning cone, micro-ox, ABV fibs, oak products, etc.) There is so much misunderstanding out there, that less information is better. I can only speak to one of these subjects, stated ABV on the label. I have had countless people tell me that my 14.1% is "high alcohol." If I were to rat out other wines that are in the 16s but tell people they are in the 14s, do you think that would "win them over???" What if another ball player told on Bonds? With the millions of unwavering Bonds fans, that player would be demonized- it's classic politics really.

Without going any farther, I think my point is clear, wineries that have gotten the "ultimate acclaim" may not have done it playing a clean game. Many wine reviewers have palates that require high alcohol, oak, RS, and perhaps even elevated VA- these "steroids" are fairly obvious to real wine lovers who get to know a wine in depth, not so obvious when someone tries to evaluate 100+ wines in a day. To get those RBIs, MVPs, and HRs of the wine world, many wineries venture into that territory, and there's no coming back. Those wineries then get there $100+ a bottle, like a $22M salary for Bonds, sure incentive...
Thank goodness, lots of wine drinkers still seek "The Natural."
Steve
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  April 22, 2011 10:38am ET
Hi Steve,

Thanks for sharing your perspective from the winery side.

Just to clarify, no one here is tasting 100+ wines a day. Anyone who wants more information about our tasting procedures can find it under Wine Ratings, in our About Our Tastings section:

http://www.winespectator.com/display/show/id/tasting-format

Dana Nigro, managing editor, WineSpectator.com
Latham Oates
Germantown, TN —  April 22, 2011 12:04pm ET
Matt, I would add one more "I would" to your list. If I owned a winery, I would spend, at the very least, one month out of the year out among the consuming public. That doesn't mean walking the streets of Yountville or San Francisco or New York. It means Omaha, Evansville, Birmingham and Odessa. Adam Lee does this, so does Ron Bunnell. The country, and the world, is full of people who drink wine for simple enjoyment. The vast majority of the wine drinking public does not think that the ability to appreciate a good bottle of wine makes them more sophisticated or intelligent. It's just a good bottle of wine. The wine industry would do itself a favor by actually meeting it's customers.

Latham Oates, Forest Hill Wine Merchants
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  April 22, 2011 2:55pm ET
Latham - you make a very good point. I too spend a lot of time on the road, tasting and talking with people. Not as much as Adam Lee... he's a true road warrior. But our paths do cross now again out there, most recently for 3 days in Mississippi :)

And that's how you get a true picture of what the "average" wine drinker is thinking. Staying locked in your cellar or only reading the internet leads to a distorted view of the real world. Wine boards and blogs participants represent a very small portion of the wine buying public. Any new winery owner needs to be cautious when reacting to things written on the internet.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  April 22, 2011 3:29pm ET
Steve - if we're going to use sports analogies, then I have have to call "foul" on your characterization of stylistic choices in winemaking being equivalent to steroid use in professional sports.

There's NOTHING ethically, morally, or legally wrong with using more new oak, having higher alcohols, or having a touch of residual sugar in wine. Nothing. I just want people to be clear on that. Exceeding the limits when it comes to the TTB labeling law variances is an issue, but claims that other wineries do that all the time without some proof is unfair at best. And if wineries are doing that, they should be held accountable.

I think the process of making wine is interesting and fun to discuss and debate. I've been one of the biggest participants. But once the debate crosses over to include accusations and unfair characterizations, it stops being fun... and I think it starts to hurt our industry.

BTW - I've been a fan of Burgess Cellar wines for a long time. They were some of the first Cali Cabs I tasted and enjoyed back when I started working in wine shops in the late 70s. And I think your policy of holding a large stash of library wines that you make available to customers later is an awesome program :)
Jonathan Lawrence
somewhere in the world —  April 23, 2011 10:49am ET
To Mr. Kane, for shaming Mr. Vlahos: I think most WS readers have a general interest in wine and winemaking, but we subscribe to WS primarily to gain access to the ratings, that is, in order to get valuable input related to our purchases. I follow professional cycling, and used to race, so I'm interested in equipment, training, tactics, etc., but I'm focused on enjoyment, not the composition of the metals used in the latest aerodynamic rims. Same with wine. We just don't want that much information.

If I owned a winery, and if I were the winemaker and vineyard manager (I we're indulging in hypotheticals, why not embrace the pure fantasy?), I probably wouldn't have time to read this blog.
S Cossia Castiglioni
Greve in Chianti, Italy —  April 23, 2011 5:49pm ET
What would you think if you went to the farmer's market, and they told you that their fruit and vegetables are fresh, but every once in a while, if the weather is bad or there are too many pests, they will sell you frozen produce that comes from a factory on the other side of the planet? Or that their products are 'all natural', but if and when needed they add chemicals and preservatives here and there, in order to give you a 'better' product?
Why is it that we are willing to accept the statement that, in order to make a 'better' wine, it is sometimes necessary to use poisonous chemical products, which are known to be toxic and carcinogenic? Excuse me, does the word 'better' mean anything?
The truth is that many of the greatest wines in the world are made without such products, without added yeasts, without correcting acidity, without using concentrators, and without using poisonous chemical products at all. Because not only is it is possible, it also makes better wines.
But it is more difficult. You must start with intrinsically good fruit, which is rare. You need to have excellent vines, producing fruit that is balanced and true to its territory. This requires a lot of hard work. Alas, most grapes are of mediocre quality to begin with, not least because they come from dead soil, killed by chemical poison. Therefore all the trickery that follows.
The issue is very clear: if you had excellent grapes without making use of any chemical product, and you made excellent wine from them without interfering with their natural fermentation, why would you need to correct this or that, or change this or that, or add this or that to your wine? You wouldn't.
Mr Kramer is right when he suggests being truthful. The problem is that if consumers knew half of what is done to the grapes and the wines that they consume, they just would not buy them. Show me the producer who will write on the label everything, from carcinogenic chemical products to additives, from corrections to concentrations, and I'll show you someone who'll end up selling zero bottles. Just like food producers who lobby to hide that they use genetically modified ingredients, conventional wine producers live by the 'big silence' rule. If none of them tell consumers what they actually do, maybe the consumers will never find out and they will never ask...
We ban athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs, but we are willing to listen to winemakers who say that it is ok to 'correct' wines with chemical products, who say it is ok to use endogenous yeasts to ferment their grapes, who use machines to concentrate their wine (because otherwise it would be tasteless)? Producers who say that they use poison to make 'better' wine? Have we completely lost our mind?
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  April 25, 2011 1:50pm ET
Poison? Carcinogenic chemicals? Totally ridiculous and completely false.

This is why it's almost impossible to have a rational, intelligent discussion about winemaking practices. When water and tartaric acid are viewed as posion, you start to see how fanatical some people are in their beliefs. Facts are tossed aside in favor of psudeo-religious dogma. I just hope most people see through this.
Stephen W Simpson
Acton, MA —  April 25, 2011 3:19pm ET
I am a relatively new consumer of fine wines. From the moment my wife and I spent 3 days in the Russian River Valley 5 years ago, I have come to recognize the importance of the craft of winemaking (starting with winegrowing). While many of the techniques discussed earlier still remain as fuzzy terminology to me, I have an interest in knowing of their use, and a desire to be educated about why they were used. Wine from a winery that makes this information readily accessible interests me much more than one that does not.

My view is that if wineries wish to charge me a premium for their wines, then tell me why. There are an increasing number of outstanding wines being made from outstanding fruit around the world. Tell me truthfully why your approach and methods make your wine unique.

At the risk of painfully mixing metaphors, I acknowledge that there is a place for "the end justifies the means" in winemaking and who needs to "see the sausages being made." I find myself increasingly less likely to pay any premium to purchase that wine.

I have enjoyed and will enjoy this debate for years to come. Perhaps one day my minor contribution can be supplemented by my experience in the trade.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  April 25, 2011 5:59pm ET
Stephen - you ask a lot of good questions. Please forgive me if I don't address the issue of pricing - that's another whole blog's worth of posts :)

At the premium wine level, I think all growers and winemakers are striving to make the best wine they can. Some people impose a set of rules upon themselves (mostly based upon tradtion) that are limiting in nature. For example - no additions whatsoever. That's their world view, and as long as they don't cheat on that, I totally respect their view.

My worldview is a bit different. Since there are no laws prohibiting adding water or acid, or even de-alc'ing wine if necessary (which we very, very rarely do), I have no problem making additions when I deem it necessary. I see no ethical or moral difference between that and, for example, adding salt to a steak. It's a food product, and I want it to taste its best. I know that's subjective, but let's say so that it tastes its best to me.

In either case, the fruit needs to be the best it can be, and the grower needs to pay careful attention to getting things right in the vineyard. In the no additions case, the grower may need to do some radically different things to make sure the fruit gets ripe at lower sugars. In the latter case, the grower has some more latitude to focus on (possibly) flavor development. Some people want to make that out to be right vs wrong. I simply don't understand that position.

If we can continue the sports analogy theme ;) ... consider basketball (I'm consumed with the NBA playoffs right now). Basketball rules have changed over the years - including adding the 3 point shot. Some purists probably hate that. But if you were a coach, would you feel guilty if your team socred a 3 point basket? What if you were down by 3 points at the end of the game with time for only one shot - would you tell your team to only take a 2 point shot? If you felt like the purist, and you held to that convinction, I guess I'd respect you for it - but I wouldn't understand it. That's how I feel about additions like water and/or acid.

And BTW, nothing that's done in California is unique, or was "inivented" here. Including making additions, or any of the equipment used to remove VA, alcohol, etc. It's just that many of us here do tell the truth :)

Sorry for the rambling rant, Stephen. Hope it helped - but I fear it maybe just fuzzed up the issue more.
S Cossia Castiglioni
Greve in Chianti, Italy —  April 27, 2011 3:00am ET
"Poison? Carcinogenic chemicals? Totally ridiculous and completely false."

Time for a reality check, Brian. Let me suggest a test. Please, truthfully list all substances you sprayed in your vineyards over the past two years. Then, let's take a look and see which are considered toxic ("poisonous") for humans. Then, let's see how many of those substances appear in the EPA's list of substances deemed to be potentially carcinogenic, or how many are classified as carcinogenic or potentially carcinogenic in the EU Directive on Dangerous Substances. And let us assess what residue is left in the wine you make, and how much seeped into our drinking water resources. These are facts, as uncomfortable as they may be for you, not religious dogma.

I would not have expected anything different, though. Instead of explaining why you think it's ok to have toxic and carcinogenic substances in wine, or why you believe it's ok to alter wine by adding acidity, sugar, water, or whatever else you think will make it 'better', all you did was wrongly state that pesticides are neither toxic nor carcinogenic, and accuse me of being fanatic.

I understand that it's more convenient for you to keep yelling that organic vignerons are mean, fanatic and scary. If you really want to have an intelligent conversation about wine-making, I'd rather hear you explain why you keep using substances you absolutely don't need, that are clearly dangerous to people, animals, the environment and our water resources.

Also, we should start having a truthful conversation about why so many producers need to 'enhance' their wines. If an area produces grapes that do not naturally make good wine, wouldn't it be better to assess the situation and - unless one can really produce better fruit - just abandon the idea of making wine there altogether? I understand it's much easier to just add or take out what is needed, but can you really talk about the expression of terroir at that point? And how 'real' is that wine?

The day you - and all other producers who think it's ok to alter wine with water, tartaric acid, concentrators, enzymes, flavouring substances, endogenous tannins, cultured yeasts and all the other innumerable tricks - fully disclose what you do to your customers, and give them a chance to make a real choice, I will consider it fair play. Until then, I think you're simply and plainly - albeit legally - adulterating a food product and hiding it from consumers.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  April 27, 2011 12:45pm ET
I thought the discussion was about winemaking practices, not what's done in the vineyard. And no where did I say "organic vignerons are mean, fanatic and scary". Nor do I think that. But as long as we're talking about that - why would you assume that someone like me buys fruit from people who aren't organic, or at least sustainable? All our growers live on their vineyard property. I can guarantee you they care deeply about what they use in their vineyards.

Second, I have discussed not just the "whats" but the "whys" on numerous occassions. Maybe you missed these links above:

http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/When-to-Pick_14347
http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/Turning-Water-into-Wine_14351

You may not agree with my reasoning, but it's wrong to say that anything we do is dangerous, much less adding poison to wine. And adding "flavouring substances" is illegal in the US, aside from the biggest flavor adding component used in wine - oak barrels.

It's a nice fantasy to say that vineyards produce perfect fruit every year. Even the most venerated vineyards have off years. That's why adding sugar or doing some saignée is often done in Burgundy. And while some people might try to claim a difference between adding sugar or adding acid, or between using a concentrator or doing saignée - the truth is thay are all equally interventionist. And I can't see any ethical difference between those practices.

We do as little as possible when it comes to additions. But we don't feel guilty when we have to. Nor do we feel the vineyards are lesser because of that. It's simply a recognition that the weather and growing season are rarely perfect. And we owe it to the vineyard, and to the terroirs they represent, to make the best version of wine from there as possible each and every year. Anything short of that would, to me, be disrespectful.

No poison. No carcinogens. And a process whos goal is to make great wines while respecting idividual terroirs. You can yell as much as you want that isn't true, or claim all kinds of dangerous or illegal things are added to the wine - but you're wrong.
Dave Jones
Ventura County —  July 2, 2011 1:47pm ET
What an interesting string of observations !

The comment that Brian made on influencing flavor -- the use of oak barrels -- struck me as simple yet very meaningful point.

If one subscribes to ultimate purity and no additions, then please explain the rationale and variety of judgements that go into considerations of oak barrel selection. How is the use of them justified if not for influence on final product ?

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