In Vino Veritas, Most of the Time
By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
Three recent news stories first covered by Wine Spectator Online have thrown light on some of the darker recesses of the wine world. They illuminate the fact that winemakers can and sometimes do engage in sloppy, underhanded or downright deceitful practices -- and show why you as a wine consumer should always be on guard.
These stories also show how complicated wine is, which is both a blessing and a curse for those who make it. At stake in each case is the purity of the winemaking process.
All three stories share another common denominator: None of them represents a threat to public health. Yet each serves as a warning that if winemaking is not undertaken with great care, diligence and honesty, then wine lovers will lose faith that they are drinking something unique every time they pull a cork from a bottle of wine. Without that faith, wine quickly loses its special place in civilized life, and it becomes just another mass-produced beverage. From there, it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to envision some giant corporation concocting a grape-based chemical brew that it could call wine -- and selling it to an unsuspecting public.
The first story is a complicated tale from France linking wood preservatives used within wine cellars to a worrisome increase in musty-tasting, "corky" wines. The culprit: a group of chemicals called polychlorophenols, which are applied to wood to protect it from mold and insects.
Of course, proving a direct cause-and-effect relationship in such a complicated chemical process is inherently difficult, and at least one leading researcher in the United States believes that 90 percent of corky wines still result from the corks themselves. Yet enough Bordeaux wine producers have become convinced of the problem that they have renovated hundreds of their cellars to get rid of tainted wood.
They have apparently known about the problem for quite some time, perhaps since the mid-1980s. In addition, the French government has urged winemakers, at least since 1996, to clean up their cellars. But there has been nary a public pronouncement from the winemakers themselves about the problem. It took some digging by French journalists to break the story. It may be a case of the vintners not wanting to divulge bad news. Yet it comes out at this point looking like they were being less than honest with the wine-drinking public.
Honesty is also the crux of two other stories: allegations that some Italian vintners in Piedmont illegally added synthetic glycerin to their wines to give them more body, and the discovery by German wine officials that winegrowers in the Piesporter-Michelsberg region had pumped up their production by adding cheaper wine made from vineyards outside their designated area.
Though less serious than the situation in Bordeaux, they both bring into question the veracity of wines that have been bottled and sold to the public. To be fair, the Italians are contesting the glycerin allegations, which were made by the respected Swiss television program "Kassensturz."
In Germany, the case is more clear-cut. The reported and actual production figures from some of the growers in Piesporter-Michelsberg just did not add up, according to the government. As a result, 49 growers out of some 1,000 in the appellation have been stripped of their right to use the Piesporter-Michelsberg name, and they have also been fined.
Fortunately, the German case also shows that the system worked. Though sometimes complicated and seemingly arcane, regulations regarding production of wine in Europe are enacted to defend and enhance wine quality. In contrast, wine law in the United States is a much more laissez-faire system. While it affords grape growers and winemakers much more freedom, it also means that drinkers of American wine are on their own when trying to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Whether in Europe, America or elsewhere, the public should always be on guard, demanding that wineries and winemakers hold to the highest ethical standards. Vintners are indulged mightily by the public, given the idiosyncrasies and romance of their profession. But wine drinkers also need to demand of their government officials, as well as the journalists who write about wine, eternal vigilance. Without such scrutiny, it would be a much harder task to truly know what is inside any given bottle. There is always plenty of good news when it comes to wine, such as high-scoring new releases or new winery ventures, but unfortunately, it pays to be aware of the bad news as well.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
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