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Thoughts on Tweaking Wine

Like a musical recording, it may not be what it seems
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 18, 2013 4:27pm ET

After offering my take on ingredient labeling for wine, I got to thinking about why this is such a vexing issue. We do, after all, want to know what goes into what we consume, including wine. The tricky aspect for wine, of course, is that what goes in does not necessarily wind up in the bottle.

All of the adjustments winemakers can apply to wine remind me of what can happen in making music recordings. It's an apt analogy on several levels. One can even argue that, as humans, we need music as much as we need food and wine. At least some of us do.

Here's the thing. Just as manipulations in the winery can make a wine seem like more than what the vineyard actually produced, what we hear on most recordings is not exactly what the musicians actually played and sang. Sophisticated electronic and digital processes add reverberation, replace flubbed notes, and these days can even modify pitch to get a sour note in tune.

You would think there would be none of this in classical music, but you would be wrong. The San Francisco Symphony won several Grammy Awards for its outstanding "live" recordings of the complete Mahler symphonies. And indeed, live performances were recorded, but the process did not end there. The orchestra went back into the empty hall and rerecorded sections that could have been done better. With digital editing, the results were seamless. And, I might add, exciting.

In the 1950s the great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad recorded a landmark performance in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. It contains a beautiful climactic high C. What we actually hear on the recording is not Flagstad, however, but another great soprano, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, better known for somewhat lighter Mozart and Strauss. The recording interpolated her brilliant voice for that one note, a fact that came to light only years later.

Some purists say such "tweaks" diminish the quality or value of these recordings. The popular music world must hurt its sides laughing at music snobs who might be so persnickety.

Here's the parallel with wine. With a musical recording, most of us are happy to have something that strives for perfection and doesn't make us wince at hearing the sort of mistakes again and again that we might tolerate in live performance. With wine, only purists really care whether the winemaker used egg white or isinglass to fine the impurities out of the wine, or even amped up the color with a grape concentrate such as MegaPurple.

For music most of us cannot tell just by listening, and for wine by tasting alone, whether an outstanding result comes from great material and careful non-interventionist production or from deft application of what we might call post-production techniques. Was that complex, mind-spinning sound made by the musicians or the engineer? Was that complex, expressive range of flavors from the grapes alone or application of modern science?

What matters is what our senses tell us. After all, the object is a good experience, isn't it?

Fred Brown
Atlanta —  June 18, 2013 7:59pm ET
Thank you Harvey, well said.
David Rossi
Napa, CA —  June 19, 2013 9:25am ET
Your take is refreshing and on the mark. In fact I think this kind of discussion will make winemakers want to share more about what they are doing. The current dialogue has been so negative about any craftsmanship being applied to winemaking that it shuts down any real information being shared between the wineries and consumers and press.

Charlie Humphreys
Boulder, CO —  June 19, 2013 11:15am ET
As a professional musician and a professional wine wholesaler/importer, this article really speaks to me. I think the notion of what you want to achieve with the end result is really the controlling factor. Why is that virtuoso musicians often fail to really impact their listeners emotionally while lesser musicians can sometimes strike right at the heart? Same thing with wine, so called "perfect wines" can sometimes seem sterile while wines with slight flaws (light brett from the cellar, not wildly ripe, maybe some bottle variation) can, when they are on, be magical?
To me it is what you want in the end. Personally, I don't like the strive for perfection. I want reality. Eric Clapton is not the fastest, most virtuosic guitarist ever (not even close), but man when he is on there is nothing more powerful in the world of stringed instruments! When things are too focused on achieving perfection (like rerecording certain parts of a symphony in the studio that weren't perfect, ala the vocals from the Grateful Dead's Europe '72 or your San Francisco symphony story) then they sometimes leave the realm of reality for us and don't seem accessible. This is fine for people that want this, and want perfect wines, and in no way is this meant to dismiss that, different things for different people, that is why there is many different styles of music and wine! But for me, I love the Grateful Dead, I love old-world wines that may not be perfect but have a totally innate sense of time/place in their juice (because the flaws weren't manipulated out), just like great live music. When a concert wasn't great because the band was off or the wine wasn't great because the individual bottle wasn't showing well it is not a good thing for those who just saw that show or just drank that one bottle, but when that same band or wine is pure magic the next night it is that much more powerful. To me it brings in it into the realm of reality and relatability. To me, when things re perfect all the time they can sometimes crossover to being boring and predictable. And I know we are spending money on these things (and some will argue that should translate to predictability) but to me that takes the fun out of it!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  June 19, 2013 11:32am ET
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Charlie. I agree that getting everything technically perfect can rob the final product of soul, whether it's a musical recording or bottle of wine. Often the reason for re-recording sessions is to achieve a more exciting performance, as in "we can get more juice of that crescendo," or "let's make that pianissimo float a little more beautifully." I think the same mind-set can pay dividends in the winery, removing impediments or elements of clumsiness from the finished wine, actually making for a more stimulating experience. The trick is to make it seamless.

I edit my writing many times, aiming for clearer and more expressive communication. As in a live musical performance, I can't do that if I am speaking extemporaneously. But if it's going to be available permanently, I want to improve the result as much as I can. (My editors save me from some of my worst errors.)
Charlie Humphreys
Boulder, CO —  June 19, 2013 12:06pm ET
Love it Harvey, I guess what it comes down to is a bottle of wine or a piece of music permanent? I can see where the revisions for a great concerto to make it a permanent piece of writing will make it as powerful as possible, and that the score for that music is permanent. In that case, revision is part of the game. In a live performance of it the notion of permanence leaves the building, but in this day of live recordings that changes everything! In the case of the Grateful Dead, I think of a quote of Jerry Garcia, where he was addressing the fact that every note he has played live has essentially been recorded many times and listened to over and over through the bootleg tape traders, and he said that once he played the note it was no longer his and belonged to the tapers and the folks who revisit it many times over after the fact through recordings.
In terms of wine, is a bottle a permanent expression? Or is it a single live performance (think vintage=one concert) of the vineyard and the estate, where as the vineyard and the constants of the vineyard (soil, varietal) are the score? And our understanding of that score changes with every year (with differing vintages ie hot or cold or big yields or small, etc.)?
To me what is so fascinating about both the notion of wine and music in this context is that they actually transcend it, where they are equally at play both in the immediate and the permanent. Thought provoking article Harvey, great work!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  June 19, 2013 12:21pm ET
More great comments, Charlie, and thanks.

Another thing to consider. Every bottle of the same wine, especially if it's stoppered with a cork, is different. With a musical performance, live or recorded, we all hear the same thing. (In a live performance, we can also be in various places within the venue, so our acoustic experience is different from someone across the space. Maybe that's the equivalent of bottle variation?)

I agree (and have written it myself) that the vineyard is the score and the bottle is the performance, influences by vintage and winemaking. And unfortunately, bottle variation.
Joshua Sun
Mountain View, CA —  June 20, 2013 2:26pm ET
It's fine as long as people disclose what they are doing. Some people may care how a wine is made and others may only care what's in the bottle. People should know what they are getting.

Is a print of a Picasso the same as an original? Is a lip synced performance the same as a real performance? There is a certain value in knowing that something is a reflection of skill. Some people may feel cheated if something is manipulated. Others may not care. So disclose what you are doing and let the market decide what it's worth. But don't pass off a print as an original since it isn't.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  June 20, 2013 2:40pm ET
Lip-syncing pretends to be a live performance, but it's a fraud. So would an art print if it is a copy of an existing work and pretends to be the original. Not sure I see the parallels to wine. Can you elaborate?
Joshua Sun
Mountain View, CA —  June 21, 2013 12:06pm ET
If art is the experience of looking at a piece and the feelings, thoughts and emotions that it evokes, does it matter if the work is the piece that the artist actually created or a replica? If we were to replace an original piece with a near perfect replica that was indistinguishable from the original, would the actual experience of the work be different? Would your feelings, thoughts and emotions be different if you didn't know it wasn't the original? The same analogy could be made to a musical performance. If it was a great performance, even if it was mechanically enhanced, are the sights and sounds that you experience the only thing that matter?

If your point is that what is in the glass is what matters most, regardless of the techniques or methods used, then I would submit that we shouldn't care about the methods used to create a painting or a musical performance as long as the artwork or performance is good. If we use a machine, insstead of a hand, to create a piece of art is the resulting work less beautiful? If we mechanically enhance a musical performance, is the performance less moving? In the case of artwork, prints are identified as such and sold as prints. They are not frauds. They are just different.
Charlie Humphreys
Boulder, CO —  June 21, 2013 1:07pm ET
I have to disagree with some of this Joshua, the beauty of music, art, and wine is that it is a portal into the human spirit and soul. To me, the most important part of art, music, and wine is that it is crafted by the hands of man in tandem with natural forces of the earth, thereby connecting us to the earth and our terrestrial surroundings in the most tangible way I have ever experienced. If that musical performance is enhanced by pitch correction or backing tracks than for me I lose the direct, tangible sense of time/place that is so inherent to great music and art, even if it is timeless! Think of the National Anthem performance by Beyonce at the last inauguration, people went bonkers for it, then found out it was prerecorded and she was lipsyncing because she was sick that day. The performance people experienced was the exact same whether they knew it was lipsynced or not (I for one didn't catch that it wasn't live until I found out later), but for me and a lot of people the performance lost power and meaning because it wasn't live and in the moment, allowing for perhaps not perfection but reality. (with all due respect to Beyonce and singers, singing at odd times of the day and outside with bad sound is beyond difficult). Sometimes my favorite times in life are when you are surprised, by family, friends, wine, art, music, a hot dog, whatever. If everything is enhanced by mechanical or digital or chemical means to weed out anything less than perfect than that notion of surprise goes right out the window. I personally love seeing a band or a musician make a mistake on stage, then rally from that mistake to a peak they never would have reached if that initial mishap never happened. For me, the pleasure is not in the perfected product but in the adventure of the process and its varied outcomes.
Joshua Sun
Mountain View, CA —  June 21, 2013 1:46pm ET
Charlie, I don't think that we are in disagreement at all. If you read my second post, you might think that I am advocating that the only thing that matters is what is in the glass. It is the second of two posts. This article seems to suggest that it shouldn't matter what manipulations are used as long as the winemaker is delivering a good product.

This article concludes with: "What matters is what our senses tell us. After all, the object is a good experience, isn't it?"

In my second post, I'm just pointing out that if you apply the author's logic to other situations, that it may seem objectionable to people. And you seem to have objections to Harvey's point that what is in the glass is what really matters. I agree with you that it does matter how something is made and that if you choose to manipulate a wine that you should disclose that and let people make an informed decision about whether they like it or not.
Annemarie Marti
Valparaiso, IN —  June 21, 2013 1:49pm ET
Harvey. This is Annemarie's spouse, Tom. Annemarie is a vegan, mostly raw. Has been for many years. Some of the wines we drink will give her a headache, sometimes after just one sip. The only correlation we can find is that the ones that give her a headache are both lower end and big production wines. A Pavie never gives her a headache! So our suspicion is that the lower end big production wines have some serious manipulation going on, but we have no way of knowing. So to Annemarie manipulation is related to health.
Jason Carey
Oakland, CA, USA —  June 24, 2013 6:29pm ET
I really don't know.. you don't ingest music into your body. I want to know what people are putting into something going into my body. I also, and this is for me only find the older I get prefer wines that are less commerical. That is me. There are commercial wines I like but frankly for me, the more so called non interventionist wine I drink, the more I can detect those techniques.. but hey to each their own. And I drink wine all the time that I like that I am sure is made to a formula.

I love a raw guy and electronica music.. so that runs the gamut.. I don't think its the best analogy I have heard but appreciate you feel that way.
Paul Jacroux
Kirkland, Washington, USA —  June 25, 2013 1:15am ET
Harvey, why bother with grapes? Hire Leo McClosky and make your wine in the lab.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  June 25, 2013 1:43am ET
Wow, bypassing grapes. Great idea, Paul. It could make the Depeche Mode of wine. (1980s electronic band, for those too young to remember.)

Seriously, I have always wanted to have one of those replicators like were on Star Trek Next Generation. I wouldn't be requesting "tea, Earl Grey, hot," like Jean-Luc Picard. I would ask for "Jayer Richebourg, 1990, decanted."
Keith Kenison
Prosser, WA —  June 26, 2013 7:00pm ET
I look at it this way. Grapes are to a winemaker what canvas is to a painter. The tools in a winemaker's arsenal are similar to the various shades of paint on a palette. The tools and the paints are used to express a style, to evoke sensation and strike harmony. You wouldn't expect Van Gogh to apply only strokes of blue; so, why limit the winemaker? The TTB and the FDA already determine what is generally regarded as safe for additives and processes in winemaking. Within those boundaries, I feel the sky should be the limit. After all, wine will make itself but, without intervention, it quickly turns to vinegar. The ultimate job of the winemaker is guiding fruit, using his/her experience and vision, to a wine of the highest potential quality. If it were just a matter of grapes, time, and place anyone and everyone would be making the nectar of Bacchus.

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