Thursday, June 27, 2013

It was in the 1963 movie, “Papa’s Delicate Condition,” that Jackie Gleason first uttered the phrase, “How sweet it is.”  Now, 40 years later, that phrase seems particularly apropos to a rather particular discussion being held in various corners of the wine blogosphere.  A discussion that I currently find myself involved in.

The topic of the discussion is chaptalization.  Chaptalization is the addition of sugar to grape juice/fermenting wine to increase the alcohol content of the final wine as well as to increase the time the juice spends on the skins (different things are extracted from grape skins during fermentation than are extracted post-fermentation, thus the desire by some winemakers to increase that maceration time).  This process is as old as the hills.  It is French chemist and Minister of Internal Affairs, Jean-Antonio Chaptal that is credited with “creating it” and has been given that credit with the name (chaptalization), but in truth Romans and Greeks were adding honey and other sweeteners to wine long prior.  Chaptalization is now practiced with some regularity in cooler grape-growing regions such as Burgundy and Oregon, though perhaps less so than in times where cooler vintages prevailed.  And chaptalization has been praised by a number of experts, with Matt Kramer in his seminal work, Making Sense of Burgundy, writing, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the practice of chaptalization is highly desirable when held to a maximum of 1 to 1.5 degrees of alcohol." 

So what then is the controversy?  The controversy begins with the fact that chaptalization, in the form of a sugar addition, is illegal in California.  Last week, Ben O’Donnell of the Wine Spectator, wrote in his blog that chaptalization should be legal in California.  He interviewed me for his blog and I commented rather frankly about the process.  You can read what he wrote here:  http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/48592

This was followed by a “conversation” on Twitter between Mr. O’Donnell and wine blogger W. Blake Gray.  Mr. Gray then wrote the following dissenting blog, http://blog.wblakegray.com/2013/06/wine-spectator-is-wrong-adding-sugar-to.html#more

 taking pot shots at both the Wine Spectator and at me  (“Wine Spectator likes beverages.  I like wine.”…“You can see why somebody like Lee might want to add a little sugar, to alter what Mother Nature and his vineyards gave him, to substitute chemistry for patience.”).  This was followed up by a blog from Fred Swan also arguing against the legalization of chaptalization and mentions that I “guided at least in part” Mr. O’Donnell’s argument in favor of this legalization.  Mr. Swan’s blog is found here:  http://norcalwine.com/blog/most-read-articles/51-general-interest/797-asimov-celebrates-ca-wines-diversity-o-donnell-proposes-to-end-it

So, then, what is the good of having your own blog if you can’t jump in on a controversial subject that you find yourself somewhat immersed within?  But rather than extend this blog in a hyper-fit of verbosity, let me make a few salient points and then ask for your comments:

1)     Chaptalization in California is already legal.  But it is legal in the form of the addition of grape juice concentrate, not in the form of sugar.  Grape concentrate is grape juice, concentrated down, at very high sugar levels (68ish brix levels).  It is often made from Central Valley grapes, cropped at fairly high crop levels. It can come in the form of a grape type (Syrah concentrate, for example)  or in the form of basic red or white wine concentrate. In the 2012 vintage, 528,742 tons of California grapes (12% of the total harvest) were harvested for the production of grape concentrate.  How much of this goes into wine is up for debate as grape concentrate is used in other products as well.  However, there is no denying that the production of grape concentrate is a big business.  And, in fact, Constellation Brands, the largest wine business in the world has its own Concentrate Division. 
 

2)    Grape concentrate additions became legal in California largely, at first, in an attempt to help growers who were unable to sell their grapes (a far too common occurrence in the earlier days of California wine).  Making chaptalization illegal protected those growers as well.  Now, growers have an easier time selling their grapes (record prices were achieved in 2012), but the law remains, at least in part because the production of grape concentrates has been taken over by larger wineries and keeping the law as is protects their interests.
 

3)    While I have no personal experience with the additions of grape concentrate on California wines, I can say without hesitation that the addition of grape concentrate from the Central Coast to a Syrah from the Sonoma Coast makes the wine less reflective of the site than the addition of sugar to that same wine.  Concentrate adds wine from a different place, flavors from a different place, and perhaps flavors from a different grape to that Sonoma Coast Syrah, along with sugar.  A sugar addition adds just that, sugar.
 

4)    Both Mr. Gray and Mr. Swan chose to ignore grape concentrate additions in their blogs, for reasons unclear to me.
 

5)    Chaptalization, by sugar or concentrate, is something that is rarely considered amongst fine wines in California.  It is an expensive, pain in the ass process, and is simply not necessary in 99% of the instances.  However, I can tell you with certainty that a good amount of chaptalization with sugar was done illegally in California in 2011.  I know this by seeing the shelves at the local grocery stores.  I know this by seeing it taking place when visiting other wineries.  I know it because other winemakers have told me so.  But, despite Mr. Gray’s uniformed assertions to the contrary, the people that made the decisions to add sugar weren’t trying to produce 16% alcohol wine, or curry up to the Wine Spectator.  In fact, all of the wines that I know of that had sugar added have come in at under 13% alcohol.  Some of the winemakers are members of In Pursuit of Balance, an organization Mr. Gray has praised for its adherence to standards different from those of the Wine Spectator (http://blog.wblakegray.com/2013/01/new-critical-alternative-in-pursuit-of.html).  These people did what they did because they believed it was their best chance to make the best wine possible in this difficult vintage. And they did it because they believed that it preserved the sense of place better than the addition of concentrate (by the way, if Mr. Gray believes that winemakers who occasionally chaptalize are substituting chemistry for patience, then there’s a whole list of Burgundy producers he needs to summarily denigrate). 

So, basically, a person can take one of several positions. 

You can argue that chaptalization by sugar and by concentrate should be legal in California.  That may well be the position of Mr. O’Donnell, though it is not apparent from his blog.

You can argue that chaptalization both by sugar and concentrate should be illegal.  From what I can discern that seems like the position Mr. Gray holds.  Obviously, this puts California winemakers who are searching for cooler and cooler places to grow grape (with Mr. Gray’s encouragement) at a competitive disadvantage with their European and Oregonian compatriots. 

You can argue that chaptalization by sugar should remain illegal in California but chaptalization by concentrate should remain legal.  For the reasons mentioned above, I have difficulty with that position.  I don’t believe that is the position Mr. Gray holds (judging from the comments in his blog), I don’t know about Mr. Swan. 

You can argue that chaptalization by sugar should be legal, but not by concentrate. This is the position that is held in some of the greatest wine regions in the world, including Burgundy and Oregon.  And, quite frankly, that is closer to the position I hold. I would probably go with something along these lines: I would make concentrate additions illegal for vineyard-designated wines, and Appellation designated wines (such as RRV, SLH), but legal for broader based wines at a particular price/production levels (say below $10 and over 10,000 cases).  And I would suggest limits on how much sugar can be added along the lines of what is currently legal in Burgundy.

Had Mr. Gray or Mr. Swan spoken with me personally or even emailed me, they could have discovered something closer to the truth of what I believe.  And I thank Mr. O’Donnell for doing the work to speak with me.

How sweet it is, indeed, Mr. Gleason.

 


 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Ingredient Labeling in Wine


An ingredient is not necessarily an additive. An additive is not necessarily an ingredient.

The first of these statements is pretty well self-evident. The second statement is far less apparent. But, when it comes to wine, both are true.

The topic of Ingredient Labeling on wine has figured rather prominently recently in the wine blogosphere. A large part of this is due to Ridge announcing that they are listing ingredients on their labels (you can see that announcement here: http://www.ridgewine.com/About/ingredient%20labeling). Of course, prior to Ridge, Bonny Doon Winery also stated listing Ingredients on their labels (see the story here: http://www.drvino.com/2009/03/12/bonny-doons-labels-bare-all-randall-grahm-part-i/) and other wineries have followed suit, although to much less fanfare. Now, before proceeding, I should say that, in the spirit of complete disclosure, that I converse with Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Winery via Twitter on a semi-occasional basis. I also had the great pleasure of spending some time talking and drinking with Paul Draper of Ridge Winery in Idaho a couple of years ago. I respect both gentlemen tremendously and have no doubts that they are doing what they sincerely believe is in the best interest of consumers and their wineries by adding such a listing to their labels. Having now gotten that caveat out of the way, let me state unequivocally that, I AM NOT A FAN OF INGREDIENT LABELING ON WINE BOTTLES.

 
Why do I feel this way? (Probably because I have something to hide, right? I am sneaky that way.) Let me give you a few examples of labels, some real and some hypothetical, but all of them using the standards in place today by the wineries currently listing ingredients on their labels, as to why I am not a fan.

  • Let’s say a wine lists "naturally occurring malolactic bacteria" as one of the ingredients. That seems good, right? No malolactic bacteria was added – the wine was made "more naturally" without an addition. But malolactic bacteria is only one of quite a few different bacteria that exist in wine (hmmm….why weren’t they listed? Was the wine tested for those bacteria? Without standards we really don’t know). Other possible bacteria in wine include Acetobacter, Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, and many others. Pediococcus in sufficient quantities alone can generate biogenic amines (histamines are one such amine) and polysaccharides, both of which can cause wine quality issues as well as issues for customers (but they don’t always cause these issues). In fact, some studies indicate that naturally occurring malolactic bacteria may lead to increased production of histamines. So maybe it would be better to add a particular malolactic strain that produces less histamines? (full disclosure, I don’t do this….but one of my growers, Peter Cargasacchi, does to his own wines so as to lessen the production of histamines) -- The long and short of it is, without standards as to what should and shouldn’t be tested or what was or wasn’t tested, we don’t really know what bacteria are in the wine. And a phrase like "naturally occurring malolactic bacteria" is simply incomplete and more marketing than informative.

  • Let’s say a wine lists "tartaric acid" as an ingredient. In current practice, "tartaric acid" is only being listed on labels if it is added to a wine. So a wine that started out with 4 grams per liter tartaric acid and had 1 gram per liter added would have 5 grams per liter tartaric acid and would list "tartaric acid" as an ingredient. But a wine that had 10 grams per liter tartaric occurring naturally would have twice as much tartaric acid, but wouldn’t have "tartaric acid" listed on the label. That wine would actually have twice as much tartaric acid as an ingredient as the one that has it listed. So in this case, listing "tartaric acid" isn’t listing an ingredient, but rather an addition, and does nothing to help the consumer know if they are getting a higher or lower acid wine.

  • Sugar can, in certain states and in much of Europe, be legally added to a wine. This process is called Chaptalization, and is named after the developer of this process, Jean-Antonie Chaptal. Under current practices, if you added sugar to a wine, you would list "sugar" as an ingredient. Under current practices, if you added sugar to the wine you would even list "sugar" as an ingredient if the wine were fermented completely dry and no residual sugar remained in the wine. However, if a different wine stopped fermenting at 3 grams per liter residual sugar (and thus was just very slightly sweet) you wouldn’t list "sugar" as an ingredient because the sugar was not added. In this case, I assume consumers would be completely confused as the completely dry wine would have sugar listed on the label while the sweet wine would not.
  •  
As you can plainly see, there are a number of issues with the current state of Ingredient Labeling. There are just a few of them (many others exist,for example, if a wine is sterile filtered it no longer contains yeast cells. So listing yeast at all as an ingredient…be it indigenous or a commercially available yeast, would be listing something that isn’t present in the wine). So what would I suggest to those wineries that are so inclined to improve the process?

    1. Distinguish between Additives and Ingredients. As I mentioned at the start of this blog, the two are not the same. Wineries currently ingredient labeling are mixing the two together (Bonny Doon has, in all fairness, been moving towards this by separating "Ingredients" and "In the Winemaking Process, the Following Were Utilized") with few people in the industry pointing out the difference between the two.

    2. Develop a comprehensive list of standards being used for your Ingredient Labeling, including what is and isn’t being tested, and put it on your website. I realize that listing all of the particular bacteria that could be in wine and whether or not one tested for them isn’t particularly realistic, but certain more prominent bacteria and whether or not they were tested for would be more useful (and less obviously marketing-oriented) than listing "naturally occurring malolactic bacteria." Perhaps those wineries that are so inclined could even work together to develop such a list.

    3. One of the limits of Ingredient Labeling is the size of the label itself. Much like Twitter, with 140 characters, is not really a sufficient place to discuss the Theory of Relativity, neither is a wine label really a sufficient vehicle to truly discuss how a wine is made. Consider putting a statement on the label saying, ‘We truly want you to know how we made our wine and have gone into great detail to do so on our website." Then include a scannable QR code or other link that would take consumers to a page which tells in great detail the entire winemaking process, what was and wasn’t added, from grapes to bottling. I realize that many people would view this as a step backwards in transparency. And while I get that sentiment, I think in a complex world we already have too much oversimplification. Acknowledge that and go so in-depth into how you make the wine that nobody can accuse you of trying to hide anything.




 

 

 

 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Getting Started


Hey there…and welcome to my Blog. I’ve been meaning to do this for some time now, but finally found myself inspired to do so after seeing Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter and founder of Jelly....amongst other companies) speak at a Silicon Valley Bank event. The blog will undoubtedly be mostly about wine, but I often find my thoughts taking oddly tangential directions, so who knows where the trail will lead?  I plan on posting weekly...maybe more often but less substantively during harvest.  I hope you enjoy it!

 

Recently, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how I first developed an interest in wine. No, not particularly how Dianna and I started Siduri Winery (that story….starting a winery with $24,000 while working in winery tasting rooms can be found here: http://www.siduri.com/adam_dianna_lee.html) but more how I started out with wine at all. It began in the Spring of 1986 and I was a junior at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. I was dating a young lady who was a senior and, quite frankly, I had fallen for her. So when she graduated and moved to Northern California to work for Chevron, I was devastated. Following what seemed like the only logical path at the time, I left my parent’s house and my cushy summer job and literally ran away to the San Francisco Bay area. It was during that summer that I discovered the first red wine that I ever fell in love with, the 1984 Rochioli Pinot Noir (and it is no small coincidence that Siduri Wines produces only Pinot Noir). But it is only in retrospect that Pinot Noir seems remotely important compared to everything else I experienced that summer. At the time I had no idea what wine would mean for my later life. Fortunately, when I returned to Trinity for my senior year (much to my parents’ delight….they were worried), I wrote a column for the university newspaper about my experiences and what I found important at that time:
 



That summer was a true awakening for me and led me down a path that I never anticipated. Two year later I started working in a wine shop and the rest is history.


Now, 25 years later, one of the most common comments I get at winemaker dinners is that it wouldn’t be possible to follow a similar path today. But that’s not what I see. From Dan and Michael, collecting tips to start Kosta-Browne, to Mike and Kendall leaving their day jobs and taking a home winemaking hobby commercial with Carlisle Winery, it is a well-worn path. There’s a new generation of winemakers forging a similar future for themselves today, people like Ray Walker moving to Burgundy and starting Maison Ilan and Jamie Kutch leaving a financial career to start Kutch Wines. Sure, there are differences in all of our stories, but those are outweighed by the similarities. And undoubtedly there will be those that follow, people that we haven’t even met or considered.


But those that follow will have to overcome the prevailing wisdom that starting a winery from scratch, even starting any small business, is simply too difficult now. Some of this stems from what we are being told, with Texas Governor Rick Perry coming to California and saying, "Building a business is tough, but I hear building a business in California is next to impossible." California Governor Jerry Brown responded, "A lot of these Texans that come here, they don’t go back. I mean, who would want to spend summers there in 110-degree heat inside some kind of fossil fuel air conditioner? Not a smart way to go."


The truth is, starting a business begins with following your dream. Sometimes, when you don’t even know what your dream is, it begins by following your heart. It doesn’t start because of lower tax rates nor is it suffocated by triple-digit temperatures. If your heart takes you to the edge of the country or the heart of the Hill Country, you owe it to yourself to follow it at least once.