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:

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,

 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:

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 (  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.




  1. Gray dislikes alcohol he has railed against it for years. He's obviously more sensitive to alcohol than most and he's entitled to his opinion. My problem is the way he express' it. Wine is subjective and there are plenty of people making the flavorless, low alc wines he enjoys and plenty of people enjoying 15% plus wines even some with 10+ years on them.

  2. Good coverage of the topic Adam. One problem with table sugar (refined sucrose derived from sugar cane or beets) is that while we know it will result in ethanol and CO2, there is no way to know how its addition otherwise alters the finished wine. We do know that fermentation is a complex process with a wide range of byproducts. I am curious as to if there is a "raw grape sugar" product out there and if it would meet the definition of concentrate under the law. Such a product would offer fermentable sugar having similar proportions to ripe grape sugars (fructose & glucose plus trace levels of other saccharides, minerals, etc. all natural to grapes) without introducing other grape elements that significantly alter the character of the must and thus the finished wine. Such a product would seem ideal for all wine sugar additions and could set apart quality vintners, much as the best cooks use raw evaporated cane juice like Rapadura instead of refined sugar. This might encourage even more transparency as to additions (going to your earlier blog post) among those wineries that seek to leverage honest dialogue with consumers and overall wine integrity as differentiators.