Getting the best quality wine in an unclear market
After 25 years of working in the wine industry, you’d think that I would pretty much know and have heard everything. You would be wrong. One of the things that I love about wine is that there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t learn something new. Which brings me to the point of my article. There are those of us that refer to certain wines as “grocery store wines”, meaning that you can go into almost any larger grocery chain and find this wine. These are acceptable wines when you’re in a pinch. However, in order to produce the quantity of wine that is found in these stores, something must give, and that is usually quality. The question is, “why does this matter, if one likes these mass-produced wines that are found everywhere?”, and “how can one tell the difference?”
Here are some simple guidelines for wine labels and ingredients. First, wine label laws give quite a bit of leeway. Did you know that if a wine is labeled as a single varietal, like Cabernet sauvignon or Chardonnay, it is only required to have 75% of that varietal in the wine? Did you also know that when a wine is labeled with wine from a specific AVA (American Viticulture Area), like “Russian River Valley”, the producer is only required to include 85% of the grapes being grown in that area? When they only mention the state or county (California or Sonoma), that drops to 75%? Another interesting label law is that only 95% of the grapes musty be from the stated vintage. While the last one the doesn’t make a huge difference, the first 2 do.
In my previous life as a national sales manager for a German winery, I worked with distributor reps all over the country. One of my favorite reps and I were working together one day, and we were talking about a Pinot Noir that I thought had some Petite Syrah in it, despite a member of that family that makes it emphatically telling me that it was 100% Pinot Noir. The sales rep sold that wine and confirmed my suspicions. There WAS Petite Syrah in it. He then went one step further to tell me that one of the most popular Pinot Noirs in the country had 10% Chardonnay in it and 2% Gewurztraminer! I was flabbergasted! How could this happen? The leeway of the wine laws is how.
When it comes to wine additives, it can be confusing if you aren’t familiar with the wine making process. Some additives help the winemaking process, some are shortcuts. For instance, sulfites not only stabilize a wine, but can help prevent oxidation and stop the fermentation at a specific point by killing the yeast, keeping the alcohol at a certain level or keeping a certain amount of residual sugar in the wine. Certain strains of yeast are preferred because they act in a predictable way and help produce a more consistent wine, so sulfites are used to kill the ambient, or naturally occurring, wild yeasts. Acid is sometimes added to a wine to keep the pH at a certain level, and on the same note, a base may sometimes be added to cut the acidity.
Then there are other man-manipulated additives. The two that are probably used the most, are Mega Purple and Oak flavoring (not from a barrel). First, let’s get the easy one out of the way, Oak. Oak is traditionally imparted on a wine by the barrel that it aged in after fermentation and before bottling. The amount of oak and type of flavor that it imparts can be influenced by where the oak is from, what percentage of the barrels used are new, used, or neutral, and the level of toasting or charring of the inside of the barrel. The manmade way is to soak oak chips in stainless steel vats to impart oak flavor, this is more common and in mass produced wines, is less expensive than using a barrel, and is thought to be “greener”. Then there’s the black sheep of the oak family, “oak extract”. Yes, there is a process of extracting the juices and “essence” from oak, to later be added to wines to give it that flavor. This is the least expensive way to achieve an oak flavor in a wine. Second, is Mega purple, which is a dark purple, high residual sugar level (68%), color corrective additive. It makes wine look darker than it normally would. It rounds out the feeling on the pallet. It boosts the level of fruit in its profile. It is VERY common in inexpensive wines to make it look like it’s a higher quality than it really is. It is used less frequently in higher end wines, but it is still occasionally used. It is made from a specific type of grape, so it’s not as bad as other things that have been found in wines. It’s just something that people don’t like to talk about because it is often viewed as cheating by those in the industry.
How can one avoid these things? It’s impossible to avoid them all, but there are things you can do. I defer to a conversation that I had with Craig Kritzer, owner and winemaker at Frogtown Cellars in Dahlonega, GA, and named #87 on intowine.com’s 2018 list of the “100 most influential people in the U.S. wine industry. He sat me down one day on a visit and we were talking about the quality of wine in the U.S., and while we agreed that, due to modern winemaking techniques, we are in the golden age of wine, there is a lot of deceptive practices in the business. He told me of a simple code on the back of every bottle of wine, above the UPC code. There you’ll find a series of words that will tell you a lot about the wine. “Grown, Produced and Bottled by” are the words that tell you the grapes were grown by the winery, the wine was produced at the winery, and the wine was bottled there. Then comes the phrase, “Produced and Bottled by”, which means that they didn’t grow the grapes, but they made and bottled the wine. “Cellared and Bottled by” is another phrase. It usually means that they didn’t grow the grapes or make the wine, but after fermentation they took control of the wine and cellared it there before bottling. The ones to look out for is “Vinted and Bottled by”, “Vinted by”, or “Bottled by”. Vinted is a term that literally means nothing. It isn’t recognized as an actual word when typed! When you see that, the winery isn’t even making the wine, they may only be bottling it. If it says “Vinted” only, they bought the bottles from somewhere and slapped their label on it. I started looking at all the wines in my cellar after learning this and was amazed at what I was finding. It is more common than you would think. There are similar labeling laws in champagne, so don’t let the practices alarm you, but you should be aware of what you’re drinking.
Everyone likes to find a good, reliable, inexpensive bottle of wine, but be aware that it might not be the highest of quality naturally and gets manipulated to get to where it is. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t drink it, or that it’s wrong, but if you eat fast-food and nothing else…well, you know.
When I look at wine lists in wine bars and restaurants, I know which wines are mass-produced, and most likely manipulated the most, and which ones are not. The most important thing, if you’re not a wine geek like me, is to have a place to go to that you can trust. A small-town wine bar is great because they aren’t pressured by corporate offices to put certain mass-produced wines on their wine lists. You can also taste the wines right there and ask the staff about the wines. One of my favorite nights out with friends is sitting down and trying wines that we haven’t had, discussing them, pairing them with different foods, and really making the experience. 45 Central Wine Bar is my preferred location for this. A variety of plates that are wine friendly and a tremendously diverse wine list focused on small, family producers whenever possible. Everything that I have had there has met my quality requirements and the food pairs amazingly with the wines on their list. You can tell when someone pays as much attention to quality as they should, and when they are just going through the motions; when they pay attention to the quality of their wine and food, and when they are just doing as they are told or what they “think” they should do. 45 Central Wine bar takes the time do things right. They don’t put a wine on their wine list because it’s commercial, they put it on because it’s a great wine. When I see bottles on a wine list that I have in my cellar, I know I’m in a quality place.