Monday, September 29, 2008

So much for the cult of wine!

Malcolm Gluck has done us all a great service by revealing much of the chicanery, obfuscation and downright lying that goes on in the wine industry. He's writing for the English market, but just about everything he says can be applied to what we encounter here in the USA.

Just whisper the word 'wine' and most of us will start dreaming about a glass of full-bodied red or a chilled, crisp white.

In goes the corkscrew, and out, slowly, comes the cork with a deeply satisfying 'pop'.

Well, stop dreaming right now.

We'll come to the details of why you've already made your first mistake by choosing a bottle sealed with a cork in a moment.

First, I have to tell you some broader home truths about the world of wine.

Because it's not the world of refined elegance and gentle self-indulgence that you probably imagine.

Instead, it's populated by liars, scroungers and cheats, administered by charlatans and snake-oil salesman and run on a system of misrepresentation and ritualised fraud.

It's a world that still deliberately surrounds itself in impenetrable, pretentious and often plain misleading wine-speak, churned out by snobby writers and duplicitous merchants who delight in the obscure and the shadowy, the indistinct and the imprecise.

Often the relationship between producer and supposedly impartial writer turns out to be so close they could accurately be described as twin cheeks of the same backside.

And yet it is from these often self-serving writers that we are supposed to take our wine-buying advice.

In pursuit of metaphors ever more elaborate, one particularly pretentious critic once described a bottle of Palo Cortado as a 'strange hermaphrodite sherry', a description so bizarre that any reader would be left utterly baffled instead of enlightened - and certainly not encouraged to try this genuinely delicious sherry.

At least when I once described a wine as 'reminiscent of a sumo-wrestler's jockstrap', you got a pretty good idea that it probably wasn't worth buying.

Wine drinkers have been cowed into believing that wine is a subject so complex that you must pass an advanced course just to dip your toe into it.

They are being duped by an unholy alliance of producers, merchants, restaurateurs and wine writers who have thrown a veil of quasi-religious mystique over wine, that enables them to transform a pleasant drink into an almost holy rite - and to charge a small fortune for the pleasure.

How do I know all this? Because I've been drinking the stuff for the best part of 40 years and spent the past 20 as one of those wine writers.

I wrote a weekly wine column for The Guardian newspaper and authored Superplonk, the bestselling guide to supermarket wine.

Both jobs, I hasten to add, were back in the good old days, when supermarkets actually sold decent, good value wine - something of an rarity these days.

Throughout my wine column-writing career, I was really only interested in two things - taste and value for money.

Now, however, I have written what could easily be my last wine book.

The reason: because with the title of The Great Wine Swindle, I tell it like it really is - and the wine industry isn't going to like it one bit.

First, how many of you realise the true contents of that bottle you're so looking forward to this evening? Because it certainly isn't pure fermented grape juice.

Sugar may have been added to beef up the alcohol levels, while the juice from all sorts of grapes that aren't on the label could easily have found their way into the bottle.

Some will be from different varieties, a practice which depending on the degree of substitution may or may not be illegal; others may even be from entirely different regions; even countries.

The latter are called vins de medicin - typically, big beefy reds from hot regions mixed in to provide colour, weight and alcohol to otherwise sub-standard wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Other fraudsters take a different approach. They re-label inferior wine from, say, the Languedoc and then pass it off as a highly-prized Bordeaux, such as a Margaux or Petrus, before exporting it, often to the Far East. It is estimated that 5 per cent of exported 'fine' wine may be fake.

The wine trade will tell you that this sort of thing doesn't happen now. But it does - and at every level.

Last year, I heard about a Moldovan pinot grigio - a wine made from one of the few grape varieties to be ordered by name and particularly fashionable among women drinkers - that was actually made from the distinctly less trendy sauvignon and traminer grapes.

A one-off? Not a chance. Only last summer, Off Licence News, a UK drinks trade publication, quoted Trading Standards Institute estimates that 'fake pinot grigio could account for as much as 30 per cent of wines in the retail sector'.

Misrepresentation and fraud are rife in the largely unpoliced international wine trade.

These days, you probably won't find anti-freeze in your bottle, as they famously did with certain Austrian wines in 1985, or in 1987, when methanol was added to some Italian wines and killed 23 people.

But the list of what you will find grows ever longer: oak powder, fruit flavourings, acids, cleaning agents, antioxidants, stabilisers.

The Australian Wine Research Institute's Analytical Service lists around 40 chemicals that are considered acceptable, including bentonite - an absorbent material, also used in cat litter, which helps remove excess protein from white wine.

By comparison, European regulations list over 60 (including three types of bentonite), while the official South African list runs to 76.

This is startling information for anyone who fondly imagined that you made wine merely by pressing grapes and letting nature do the rest.

I honestly wouldn't mind any of this if the wine tasted good, represented good value and there was an accurate list of ingredients on the label - incidentally, the Co-op is one of the few retailers committed to open and honest labelling.

But the Co-op stands alone. Wine, the establishment maintains, is too grand and romantic to carry anything as mundane as a list of ingredients.

Well, that's arrogant nonsense. Many wines are now no more natural than a sugary soft drink - and wineries should not be allowed to pretend that they are.

There are reasons why winemakers use this astonishing cocktail of chemicals. Wine, unlike many other products, is not uniform. It varies.

It changes from vineyard to vineyard, vintage to vintage, and over time. And the chemicals help them keep things predictable.

But what else do the vast majority of winemakers do with this unstable, unpredictable liquid?

They seal it with cork - a biological compound which is not only an ineffective seal against oxidisation, but has a whole range of unpredictable qualities of its own.

As a result, wine even varies from bottle to bottle.

The biggest problem, and a serial killer of good wine, is cork taint. This ruins one in ten bottles, literally decimating them.

Cork taint is caused by a chemical, 2-4-6 trichloranisole, which is inadvertently created by the chlorine cleaning that the tree bark undergoes before it becomes a wine seal.

It's responsible for the musty aroma that tells you instantly that a wine is corked - although any number of theatrically incredulous wine waiters will swear blind it isn't there.

Of course, there is an alternative to corks - although it's certainly not those infernal plastic corks that are so difficult to extract and well nigh impossible to put back.

No, the answer is the screwcap, an idea that still causes a sharp intake of disapproving breath among wine snobs. Why? Because we are told by the powers-that-be that wine is all about mystique and tradition, and that cork is a vital part of that romance.

But does a screwcap kill the romance of wine? Not if the fruit in the bottle is sexy; not, indeed, if it simply tastes as it's supposed to.

And, while we are slaying sacred cows, why does wine always have to come in the traditional 750ml bottle, a size that only exists because centuries ago that was what a glass-blower could blow with a single puff?

It would be better packaged in pints (in a Tetra Pak carton, say) or in a plastic pouch of two litres (for picnics and parties) or even an aluminium can. Only tradition and ritual maintain the idiocy of wine in glass bottles.

But one of the biggest nonsenses promulgated by the wine trade is the alleged importance of something called 'terroir', a French word used to describe the environment - an elusive combination of geology, geography and climate - in which the vines grow.

If the end-product was an edible fruit, a peach, say, the importance of terroir would be irrefutable - the combination of soil, slope and sun would obviously have a bearing on its quality and taste.

But we are not eating peaches, we are drinking wine, something produced, certainly from wine grapes, but only after they have been totally transformed by a complex biochemical process controlled not by nature, but by humankind.

But the 'terroirists' - the wine merchants, the producers, the toffee-nosed wine writers - want you to believe that despite all this human intervention and science, the wine will still reflect the vineyard where the grapes were grown. They say you can taste the landscape the grapes grew in.

Unfortunatley, this is rubbish. It is simply more jargon that wine writers and the high-end wine merchants they support can use to hoodwink their customers - you.

I'm not saying these so-called experts can't tell the difference between one wine and another (although an interesting scientific aside is that if you blindfold a group of seasoned wine-tasters, a significant proportion won't even be able to tell white from red).

But the difference they can taste is not down to terroir but to the difference between the individuals, the winemakers, who made the wines. Some do it one way, others another; some are outstanding, others are not.

Truly smart wine drinkers know there are only three things that really count - the grape variety, the year and, most importantly of all, the winemaker.

But terroir is part of a colossal con worked on the poor, misinformed, wine-drinking public.

Because the notion that one vineyard is better at producing wine than another leads to the idea - enshrined in official designations such as Appellation Controllee (AC) in France and Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in Italy - that certain regions produce better wines than others.

That's why we have been told that we are better off buying bottles that bear the initials AC or DOC. But this is nonsense, as anyone who has bought any one of umpteen highly disappointing Appellation Bordeaux Controlee wines will tell you.

It's good wine-makers that make good wines, not the fact that the world-famous Chateau Lafite winery is just down the road.

Even the Philippe de Rothschild company, famous for Bordeaux's grand cru Chateau Mouton Rothschild wine, now acknowledges this - as I discovered when I read the neck label of one of its subsidiary Chilean ventures...

'As in France, so it is in the New World, it is the winemaker who proves the inimitable finesse that distinguishes a Baron de Philippe Rothschild wine. This man, with a tongue like a tuning fork, tastes the cuvees (or parcels of wine) selects and, with infinite care, assembles them to produce beautifully balanced wines.'

Laugh? I cried. Apart from making the whole of the 1855 Bordeaux classification league, which is based on chateau site, irrelevant piffle, it is hugely entertaining to think of a winemaker with a forked tongue and his employer openly admitting it.

No, the only people who benefit from regional classifications, such as AC, are the vineyard owners whose properties become more valuable because they lie within its boundaries. And to maintain that value, they peddle the myth that their land is intrinsically special.

Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the Champagne region. This year, to cope with booming demand for their over-rated, over-priced but magnificently well-branded product, it was decided that they should expand their AC area to include 40 villages previously outside the designated area.

Suddenly, former wheat fields jumped from being worth £4,000 [about US $7,200] a hectare to a staggering - and please hold your breath - £800,000 [about US $1.45 million] a hectare.

Small wonder then that I describe the notions of Appellation Controlee and terroir as real estate scams.

But the truth is the whole wine business is a con - and the only victim is you, the great, wine-drinking, myth-swallowing, duty-paying public.

Well, it's time to start fighting back. It's time to start demanding labels that tell us exactly what's gone into our evening tipple and screwcaps that ensure it reaches your glass in tip-top condition.

Then, it's time to forget all the flowery metaphors, the ridiculous snobbery and the terroir talk, and have faith in your own judgment.

So, the next time you're faced with some self-serving wine expert who bamboozles you with their jargon and doubtful knowledge, just repeat this little mantra: 'I know what you do not; I know what I like.'

Because, take it from me, the rest is just claptrap.

Very useful stuff! Mr. Gluck has a new book coming out in October, "The Great Wine Swindle", which will go into these matters in a lot more detail.

Having read that article, it's already on my "To Buy" list.



HokiePundit said...

If you're an American, you have little reason to drink European wines anyway. Our "terroir" is better: the ground is more fertile and the climate is more steady. The grapes are largely the same: after European grapes were largely annihilated by disease, varieties were brought back from those originally brought (and cross-bred with native varieties) to America.

An awful lot of places in America have wine industries. California is the most famous, but even New York and Ohio have some wineries. I'm from Virginia, and our wines can be absolutely excellent. Even better, I'm able to actually visit the wineries, sample a dozen of the place's products, and find the one(s) I like without breaking the bank. Besides, I like it that I'm drinking my home state's wine and supporting its enterprises. If you go visiting friends in another part of the country, you can bring something from your home that they'll enjoy and couldn't otherwise get.

There are only two non-Virginia wines I even regularly drink any more: Mandu Shiraz for a sentimental reason and Franzia because...well, it's cheap and surprisingly good as a light red wine.

phlegmfatale said...

Wow. Great article. I, too, will look forward to reading the book.

UCDWino said...

Thats a great little tirade. I really enjoyed it.

I'm a california winemaker, and as much as I have to admit that much of what he says is true - definatley not all of it is.

I have seen a lot of dodgey practices in the wine business, but that doesent mean that everyone does things that way - in fact I would suggest that the scammers and the cheats are the minority.

But they DO exist, that is to be true.

Other things are just alarmist. Bentonite for example is a very common fining agent - it is a form of clay that you add to the wine and it clarifies the wine as the clay settles out at the bottom of the tank. In just a day or two it is totally removed from the wine and takes the bad junk with it. We have been fining wines with substances like this, egg yolks etc for centuries. Nobody tries to hide it, but putting it as an "ingredient" on the wine label would mislead the customer because it doesnt stay in the wine.

LIke all things, there is a dose of truth to what is said here, but the real story isnt so simple.

fuzzys dad said...

I learned some thing today. Thank-You

KK said...

Very entertaining.

I also enjoy wine frequently and find the screw top to be on some very fine wines and since it renders my $150 bottle opener useless I try to buy them as much as possible.

LabRat said...

I had intuited some of this when we took up homebrewing. Aside from the minutiae of beer, we also picked up some fun facts about wine- namely that it's actually easier to make than beer, it's hardly confined to grapes, and no, it doesn't much matter where you are.

Craftsmanship will always show in either product, no matter who makes it or where.