A Guide to Wine, Food & the Good Life

WHAT IS WINE?

John Tilson • 7/4/11        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

Simple question? Well, maybe it is not so simple as you think. Fermented grape juice? Hmmm…………….??? I guess I don’t know. I used to think that I did know. But, things have changed and now I am not so sure. What about you? How would you answer this question?

But, before you do, please let me share some observations with you. My friends and I began our journey down the wine trail some 40 years ago. A lot of these people were associated with the old Underground and now are contributing editors to the new Underground. (You can read our biographies by clicking on the “About Us” button at the top of the home page). We sought out, purchased, drank, and cellared a lot of old wines. And, please remember this was in the days before all the fake wines started to magically appear. (But, that is a major story too long to tell here. Stay tuned, we will later present a historical account of the rise of fake wines into the gullible wine world).

Here I am talking about over a hundred years of AUTHENTIC Bordeaux from the mid-1800s to the 1960s. We were privileged to drink many bottles of the great 1870 vintage which probably is truly the greatest vintage of the last 150 years. My long time great friend and contributing editor, Ed Lazarus, was the leader of this pack. And, another long time friend, Dennis Foley, was searching out and buying a lot of really old wines (mostly from Christies in London), including a collection of magnums of 1870 Lafite Rothschild which had been stored deep in the cold, dark, damp cellar of Glamis Castle in Scotland since first sold from the Chateau! We drank several of these and they were simply perfect. And, there were many others such as 1865 Lafite Rothschild from magnum and bottle, and 1900 Margaux, 1926, 1928, and 1929 Latour in various bottle sizes and Petrus, Palmer, La Mission Haut Brion, Mouton Rothschild, Cheval Blanc, and D’Yquem, as well as many other great Bordeauxs from great vintages such as 1945 (a genuine candidate for the greatest vintage of the 20th Century), 1947, 1949, 1953, 1955, 1959, and 1961. You name the Bordeaux and we probably drank it and still have some resting quietly in the cellar. There were many fantastic bottles and many disappointments as old wines are variable in terms of quality. There are great bottles, really good bottles, some good bottles, some not so good, and some not good at all. Such is the nature of old wine. The adage that “There is no great wine, only great bottles” is one of the greatest truths in the world of wine. But, there was much more to our discoveries than just Bordeaux.

Also,there were many great old Red Burgundies. These included wines such as 1945 DRC Richebourg, 1929,1945, and 1966 Romanee Conti, 1947, 1949, 1953, and 1962 La Tache, 1945 and 1947 Musigny Compte de Vogue, 1923 Faiveley Richebourg, and 1955 Leroy Chambertin to name just a few of the best.

And, there were the great old California Cabernets. These included the great old Inglenook Cabernets which represent the greatest wines ever made in California. Wines such as the 1934, 1941, 1944, and 1949 represent the pinnacle of excellence and there are many other great vintages in the 1950s into the very early 1960s. Also other wines such as the 1951 BV Private Reserve, the 1947 Hallcrest, and the 1941 Gopher Gulch from Woodside. In the 1960s and early 1970s, we had great Cabernets from Heitz Martha’s Vineyard (1968,1969, and 1970 were the golden years and after that the 1974) and Ridge Monte Bello in years such as 1968 and 1970. Ridge has continued to make consistently great Monte Bello Cabernet in nearly every year since the 1960s. This is a record that few wineries any where in the world can match. In the 1970s Diamond Creek and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars came along and made great wines. And, there were a few others as well such as Joseph Phelps.

But, sadly, beginning in the 1980s, a lot of wines from California and Bordeaux started to evolve into something very different than what we had previously known and loved. This trend continued into the 1990s and pushed forward with a rush into the new millennium. The wines got thicker, bigger, denser, and more alcoholic. Big numbers fanned the fire and soon syrupy, thick wines with alcohol levels into the mid to high teens began to pop up like wildflowers after a spring rain. Red wines with alcohol levels near that of fortified wines (wines that have brandy added such as vintage port) and residual sugar were anointed with huge accolades including “wine of the year” designations. Strangely, as these monster wines where gobbled up by the big numbers collectors, the demand for vintage port stagnated. That, in itself, says a lot about what is driving the mania.

And, reflecting back, many of the old wines mentioned earlier from the 1870s until the 1970s can still be great today. Unfortunately, many of the old vineyards in California from which these wines were made have not survived. And, the few old bottles of these California wines that remain are a rare glimpse into the past. It was a past, where not everything was great, but when the conditions were right, truly magnificent wines were made. I doubt that any of the modern instant gratification wines will ever match these great classic wines of the yesteryear. Perhaps some of the more traditional Red Burgundies, such as DRC, will meet the test of time. For the more manipulative, big extract wines in California and Bordeaux, the bet of longevity, complexity, and balance over the long term is a long shot. Many bottles of these old wines were indeed perfect wines (sadly, that is a term that has been denigrated today by the hype of young wines with perfect big number scores by the 100 point brigade. But, I digress. That is another story to be dealt with in more detail at a later time when we examine the greatest wines ever tasted by our all star panel of contributing editors).

So as I first began to reflect on the changes in wine in the 1980s and 1990s, I first asked myself the question I posed at the beginning of this article: What is wine? For sure it had changed. Previously, we had the disastrous plunge into the California Late Harvest Zinfandel mania. These over-ripe, sweet, high alcohol monster wines caught a few of us in the trap in late 1960s and early 1970s, but it was short lived. Within a few years the bloom was off the rose, and Late Harvest Zinfandel became a drug on the market. And, it was only the accidental discovery of White Zinfandel at Sutter Home Winery and the great resolve of Paul Draper and the founders and owners of Ridge Vineyards (and a handful of others) to preserve the integrity of the great old vine Zinfandel vineyards that Red Zinfandel survived. For the last 40 or so years, the ubiquitous White Zinfandel lives as an inexpensive, slightly sweet, round, fruity style wine. And, Paul Draper, and in more recent years joined by Eric Baugher and John Olney, at Ridge Vineyards continues to make some of the greatest and most consistent field blend (Zinfandel grapes blended with other varieties that were planted with Zinfandel in the same vineyards years ago) Zinfandels on the planet! We all should give thanks for the survival of such great wines as Ridge Geyserville.

But, while Ridge continued to stick to their knitting and have continued to make harmonious, balanced wines for their entire history (beginning in 1962) they were overwhelmed by an onslaught of monster wines from other new entrants onto the wine scene. The era of high extract wines and wines on steroids had arrived. Suddenly, it was possible to pick super ripe grapes, and “make” dense high alcohol wines with goofy names in remote locations, put the wine in heavy thick bottles and submit them to the wine gods in hopes of being lofted into sainthood. Sadly, the prayers were answered and when the three digit scores started rolling in from the big numbers brigade, the “collectors” followed. What price perfection? Indeed, what perfection? But, the eye of the beholder (if not the taste) prevailed. Hmmmmmmmmm…

At this point I really began to question what was going on. I was joined by many of my long time wine drinking friends (many of whom are contributing editors to this publication). To us, it was like “wines gone wild” or “wines on steroids”. Take your pick. It seemed like wine was following other trends in society and sports. But, why did wine have to follow? And, how did the wines get that way? Picking late? Newly planted vines with better pedigree? Better wine making? Those were the usual explanations. But, they seemed dubious. No matter, the trend spread like wildfire through California, into the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux areas of France, and to a lesser extent other areas of the world. The trend even touched the venerable area of Burgundy (probably the most historic and greatest wine making area of the world), but, thankfully mostly disappeared there as fast as the Late Harvest Zinfandel trend in California.

Today, the beat goes on, but many of us who never drank the Kool Aid are now finding a growing trend of wine drinkers who have tired of heavy, over extracted wines. And, the pendulum is slowly swinging back in our direction. For sure, it has a long way to go before we get back to the starting point. And that, in fact, may not happen for a very long time.  But, a couple of things are for sure. First, more and more people are looking for balanced wines that complement rather than over power food. They are finding that just because one wine gets a jillion points in a drive by sip and spit of 200 or so wines does not mean that the wine is all that great to drink with food or even that it is that wonderful period. In sophomoric tastings such as this, the biggest, sweetest, most alcoholic wines attack your palate and over power others that are more drinkable. Second, because of the intensity and sometimes bizarre character of these big extract wines, more and more people are looking at what actually goes into a bottle of wine. This is the question of the day that may unlock the ultimate question of what is wine? So let’s do a little exploring.



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On a recent visit to Ridge Vineyards (stay tuned for an upcoming article on Ridge wines including notes on many new wines that are yet to be released), I had a very interesting discussion with Paul Draper and Eric Baugher about what they put into Ridge wines and what they think others are doing. It turns out that Paul has recently posted an article on this subject on the Ridge website (To read the article click here).

It is an utterly fascinating, thoughtful, and well written article that you really must read. In it Paul talks about some of the old California wines such as Inglenook (that I mentioned earlier in this article) and how they were made. He uses the term “Pre-Industrial Winemaking” and how that has always been used at Ridge and continues to this day. He also talks about some of the “winemaking” techniques and additives that are used today to make bigger, more extracted wines. These include Mega Purple, a 2000 to 1 concentrate. And, yes you read that right, 2000 to 1! With the use of stuff like this, maybe the term “steroid” as related to high extract wines is an under statement. He also quotes the noted U.K. wine critic Jancis Robinson who has stated that she thinks probably 90% of the wine made in the world today utilizes industrial wine production techniques. So there goes the romance! But, thankfully, even if that number is true, there are still at least 10% left who have not put the petal to the metal to try to get to the biggest wines. But, the “collectors” who own the petal to the metal wines may find out that the wines turn out to be like the proverbial can of sardines – something not to be consumed, but something to be sold to a greater fool. And only then, until the music stops! And, in fact, like I mentioned earlier, the trend to massive wines is slowing down. In his article, Paul talks about how some are trying to lower the alcohol by adding water and making other adjustments to lower the alcohol and squeak in under the less than 15% alcohol threshold that has historically been considered the limit for “Table Wines”.


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From this perspective, we went on to talk about how the consumer has no way to know what is in a bottle of wine. And, if you don’t know what is in the bottle, how do you know what wine is? Well, like I said at the beginning, today I am not sure. But, let’s continue. The plot (and the wine) continues to thicken. California varietal wines can be labeled with the name of the grape so long as at least 75% of that grape is used in the wine. The other 25% can be anything and it does not have to be disclosed any where on the label. Now, as I have repeatedly stated, I think most wines would be better if several different grape varieties were use. This has been the historical formula for the classified growths of Bordeaux. And, while they do not have to put the grape varieties on the label, only a few varieties are allowed by law, and for these grapes to go into the wine under the Chateaux label, they have to be grown there. So by knowing the plantings (which is information that is readily available), you can get an idea of the percentage of grape varieties used, although it may vary slightly year to year. And, it is most always predominately Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot (with a few isolated exceptions) depending on the area within Bordeaux where the grapes are grown, and the possible addition of three or so other designated varieties.

Compare that with California Cabernet Sauvignon. There is no requirement for the grape varieties used to be stated on the label unless they exceed 75%. So how does the consumer even know what grapes are being used, or where they come from? In most cases, there is no way to know unless the producer chooses to tell you. This leaves a space wide enough for a Mack truck to drive through. Consider that I was told that very little Napa Valley Petite Sirah is being bottled as a varietal, but that the price of the grapes is at an all time high. If this is true, then one has to ask why someone is paying so much for the grapes and where are they going? If you answered grape jam, I would say that you are way off the mark. But, if you said, to add to another grape variety to get more color and extract you just might be on the right track. So, I do believe there is value in blending most grape varieties with the exception of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. However, I also believe that the consumer has a right to know the grape varieties used in making a wine and that this is information that should be on the label. I suspect that if this were the case there would be a lot less Syrah and Petite Sirah added to Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.

And, if other ingredients used in wine were required to be printed on the label such as the Ultra Purple mentioned in Paul’s article as well as possibly other things, then what? Companies like International Flavors and Fragrances can duplicate in a laboratory any taste or smell known to man and even some that are not known. The fragrances are widely used in perfumes, soaps, shampoos, etc. The flavors are used in edible food products. In the case of food products, all such products sold in the U.S. are regulated by an agency of the Federal Government known as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And to be approved for sale in the U.S., all food products must disclose all ingredients, and in some cases the percentages, as well and other nutritional information. Now while most people would consider table wine a food (after all it is most consumed with food), it is not regulated by the FDA. It is regulated by the TTB. And, what is the TTB? Well, it is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. And what do these have in common with table wine? Good question! I do not really know. The only thing I know is that it is the Federal Government and it has to do with labeling and taxes. But, be that as it may, the TTB does not operate like the FDA. If table wine were under the regulatory control of the FDA, as I assume it would be if it were to be classified as a food, then all ingredients would have to be listed on the label of every bottle of wine produced anywhere in the world for consumption in the U.S. My belief is that so long as people continue to more and more believe that wines are being manipulated that the cry will become louder and louder for ingredient labeling and eventually will reach Washington D.C. So far we have had an uproar about sulpur and sulphites and increasingly high alcohol is also in the cross hairs of consumers. Further disclosure of other ingredients being added will only intensify the cry for disclosure. After all, people are more and more concerned about what they are eating and what they are ingesting into their bodies.

Ingredient labeling on wines is just a matter of time. Most people I have talked with agree with this. Others think that industry trade groups and commercial interests will negate this happening. I disagree. The people will decide. And when the people get really concerned about exactly what it is that they are drinking the pressure on politicians will be too great to ignore. Paul believes, as I do, that now is the time for producers to disclose on the label or back label of every wine produced, exactly what is in the bottle. In fact, Ridge will start doing this on the back label of every bottle they produce in the near future. I think others will soon follow, but they will probably be a minority. I think most will initially resist. After all, with industrial wine makers at such an inflated percentage of the wine industry, it is unlikely that they will welcome this type of disclosure. But, if consumers continue to be more and more concerned about what is in their wine, soon we will know. Just the beginning of people like Ridge starting to disclose what is in their wine, will prompt more and more people to ask why they are doing it. And, since in the case of “Pre-Industrial Winemaking” such as used at Ridge, presents a clear picture of exactly what is in the wine, people will start asking why other wineries are not disclosing all the ingredients used in their wine. And, if the answer is that other things like Ultra Purple are being used by a lot of people then that is likely only to trigger more questions. Producers, like Ridge, who will list fermented grape juice and little else, will have a competitive advantage. Ridge has always listed the grape varieties and ingredient labeling is very much in sync with full disclosure in labeling.

So, back to answer the question I originally posed of What is Wine? At this point, I cannot answer the question. In the case of the old “Pre-Industrial Winemaking” I think it was fermented grape juice and little else. That is exactly where Ridge is positioned and once they close the loop on labeling, they will put a stamp on it. And, then it will be, not a question of if we can tell what is in a wine, it is only a question of when we can tell what is in a wine. And, I believe that day may not be too far off. For once ingredient labeling is mandated, it will be very interesting for those who may have been using a lot of ingredients besides grape juice to have to list them on the bottle. For, as the great investor and sage of Omaha, Warren Buffet has famously said, “When the tide goes out, then we get to see who is swimming naked!” And, I might add, in this instance, that it is not likely to be pretty!

In Vino Veritas,Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard

John Tilson

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5 comments for “WHAT IS WINE?”

  1. John,

    Enjoyed the subject matter you set out to target and make many aware of winemaking in the 21st century. I think your article would be much more compelling for those of us in the industry if you listed a copious compilation of “industrial winemaking” additives, ingredients, processes, and tricks. For some, any adulteration will be unforgivable; for others, it will depend on what is used and to what extent (ie a little tannin powder never hurt anyone).

    Thanks

    Posted by Michael Bryan | July 5, 2011, 3:55 pm
  2. Thanks Bryan,
    I really do not know what has been happening to wine. I am not a winemaker or a chemist. I am a consumer. All I know is that a lot of wines have changed and, I think, not for the better. And the big numbers mean nothing. But, I would love to hear from anyone who has information on what might be going into wine these days besides grape juice. We may find out now or not. But, if it is not now, it will soon be on the way. The consumer will not be content to be kept in the dark forever.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John Tilson

    Posted by John Tilson | July 6, 2011, 10:00 pm
  3. Hi Rhoda,
    This is just one person’s opinion. But, I think it is something that people who care about what they eat and drink should pay attention to. Something has changed with wine and I think it is not such a wonderful thing.
    I would be happy to speak with anyone who has an interest. There is no reason for wine to be a chemical formula.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John Tilson

    Posted by John Tilson | July 6, 2011, 10:04 pm
  4. Hi John,
    These are fantastic articles. I too have been a big “Ridge” fan for years. Many years ago, when I worked in a small wine store, I loved the old “Lytton Springs Winery” too. Your story about super purple, that other frightening additive, and the ridiculous alcohol levels on California wines over the past 20 years is right on. I recall that most California wines, red or white, once were between 12.5 and 14.0% alcohol. Now it seems that I can’t find many Reds under 14%. I am certainly more anxious about which wines are safe to drink. Do you think that some of the old wineries in Napa/Sonoma that are considered to be moderately high end and traditional, would be participating in this winemaking foolery? Thanks, Keith

    Posted by Keith | February 11, 2014, 11:04 am
  5. Thanks Keith. Please pass the article along to your friends. I will continue to write about overly manipulated wines and stress the importance of clarity in wine and wine writing as well as ingredient labeling for wine. The old California wines you mention have aged beautifully. I think that very few Napa Valley wines are made the same today as they were then and I will have a lot more to say about this is later articles. Stay tuned!
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | February 11, 2014, 11:37 am

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