Archive for the ‘Wine Marketing’ Category

Wine is not a natural product

Monday, August 25th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

With all the hoopla about the natural wine movement, a nasty little fact is that wine simply is not all that natural a product.

We have a vegetable stand in Suisun Valley, Larry’s Produce. If you go there, you can buy all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Corn, avocado, lettuce. The list goes on and on. These products are pretty much pulled from the earth or the trees that they grow on, brought to Larry’s, and sold. I think it would be fair to characterize them as natural.

Wine is a not like that. It is a processed product. The “natural wine” movement would more accurately characterize itself as the “less unnatural wine” movement. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but certainly more truthful. Of course, “less unnatural” doesn’t generate sales in quite the same way as “natural” does, so don’t expect it to show up on a supermarket shelf near you anytime soon.

But if we are going to be honest about it, then wine violates any realistic concept of being “natural” from the beginning of the process forward.

First of all, there’s this nasty little fungus called powdery mildew that attacks the vines and the grapes. If you want to control it (and believe me you do), you pretty much need to use sulfur in some form, or else some chemical brewed up in a laboratory. Now you can say sulfur is “natural” and, in a certain sense, I guess it is. I’m not sure how you define “natural” because if you define it as everything that is a product of nature, then you eliminate nothing. At any rate, for anyone that has had the pleasure of spraying sulfur on some vines, it’s not a particularly pleasant experience. And I doubt very much of the process by which the sulfur is mined, processed, manufactured, packaged, and applied, would meet most consumers concepts of “natural”.

But be that as it may, even the most “organic” of farmers use a group of chemicals in their farming that, like sulfur, may occur in “nature”, but are chemicals nonetheless.

Once grapes are harvested, normally the first thing you do with them is hit them with a dose of sulfur dioxide. Whatever your thoughts are about chemicals, if you are going to make wine, you have very little choice but to use sulfur dioxide from start to finish throughout the winemaking process.

And the reason for that is simple: they are just all kinds of microbes out there that could care less about the stability of the wine that is being made. If you want to control those microbes, you’d better be using sulfur dioxide pretty much from the point of the grapes come in from the fields to the point that they go, in liquid form, into the bottle.

Probably the second thing that you add to your grapes once they come in from the field, at least after you’ve crushed them, is some tartaric acid. Again, tartaric acid is in a certain sense, like sulfur, a natural product. But it didn’t come from the grapes that came in from the field. True, it is the same acid that is in those grapes, but, in California, most of the time our grapes simply don’t have enough of it. So we add some more. It comes out of a bag. It looks like a pile of crystals until you dissolve it.

We also often add diammonium phosphate, which is, for all intents and purposes, nitrogen. If you want a nice, smooth, and uneventful fermentation, your yeast had better have enough nitrogen. The grapes, as they come in from the field, do have nitrogen, but often not enough. So you add some diammonium phosphate, generally referred to as DAP. Often you will add a nitrogen soup of sorts as well containing amino acids to facilitate a smooth fermentation as well. There are various brands out there with names like Superfood and Fermaid-K.

Without making things too complicated, once your primary and secondary fermentations are done, there is a third process that the wine wants to go through, the one that converts it from wine to vinegar. Unless you’re in the vinegar business, it’s pretty important that this third process not occur. So a genocide of the microbes that cause that conversion is in order. So we introduce another massive dose of sulfur dioxide.

Hopefully, this whole process occurs without incident. But sometimes “shit happens”. When it does, usually the solution is more chemicals.

I think pretty much every winemaker would subscribe to the “less unnatural” philosophy of winemaking. But no winemaker worth his salt would subscribe to a philosophy that, at least in my view, would be a really “natural” winemaking method. Because if he did, he would end up with some pretty crappy wine.

As processed foods go, wine is certainly less processed than many others. And trying to keep interventions to a minimum is, in my view as well is that of probably the vast majority of winemakers, the way to go. But it is only fair to acknowledge that “keeping interventions to a minimum” is a far cry from keeping interventions to zero. You can do that with table grapes pretty much. You can’t do that with wine.

Is a little responsibility in the media too much to ask?

Monday, August 18th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

I think TomWark is a little off the mark in his diatribe which can be found at: “A Little Responsibility in Wine Journalism Please”,

To give a little context, the article that Wark finds so offensive seeks to give five tips to baby boomers from millennials when it comes to wine. Wark finds this pretty insulting. Being a baby boomer myself, I could not agree more.

But let’s face it. Is the purpose of the media to inform a public hungry for information and insight?

Or is it to make money mostly by selling stuff?

Of course, if the idea that millennials should be preaching to us baby boomers is offensive in broad brush, the details of the tips themselves could be expected to piss us off even more. They do not disappoint.

Tip one: rely upon your own taste buds instead of what some self-appointed expert tells you you should like. Or, in other words, stop being the idiot that you are and always have been. Pretty offensive, right? I should stop reading that this point.  But, of course, I don’t.

Tip two. Be willing to try something new, instead of recycling the same old wines that you’ve been drinking for the last 30 years. Of course, since I’m a big advocate of Montepulciano and Aglianico, I take particular offense at this one. But wasn’t that the point (at least in general terms if not precisely concerning Montepulciano and Aglianico)?

Tip three. “Love a good tale.” This is just a rehash of the age old “tell a story”. Whether you like marketing or not, this is marketing, plain and simple.

Tip four. “Look for boutique wineries and shops.” I’m not sure what to make of this. Everybody wants boutique this, or artisal that. Yet the consolidation of market share in the largest producers continues. I think the buying habits in this respect can’t be much different between millennials and baby boomers. But, of course, it’s all the baby boomers fault.

Tip five. Make it fun. In a way, this pisses me off the most. It conjures up images of scantily clad babes hopping around with broad smiles on their face and Buds in their hands. Who cares that the product sucks? Because when you say, “make it fun”, what you’re really saying is that marketing trumps quality.

Which, I guess it does. Certainly if you look at the beer market, I would be quite sure that Bud outsells by a wide margin all of the quality microbreweries put together.

Which, brings me back to my point. Namely, that the purpose of most articles is not to elevate the general understanding of things. It is to sell things. Wine is no exception. Better to shock and tease then to explore subtleties and nuances. They are such a bore.

Cork, or how to close a wine bottle

Monday, August 4th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

I have to admit that I am something of a nerd so when it comes to something as mundane as figuring out how to close the wine bottle, the first thing I want to look at is what works best.

Of course, others see things in a totally different light.  Take Jo Diaz for one.  You can find her views at: “Cork … It’s what’s for dinner”

The argument against cork is simply stated: Cork is something of a crapshoot. Most of the time it’s just fine. But on occasion you get a really bad cork and the wine is spoiled. Even when the cork is not “bad”, there is a degree of variability. A cork lets in a certain amount of oxygen over time. More oxygen, and the wine will age more quickly, eventually reaching senility and then worse.  So you can have two bottles of the same wine that come off the same bottling line right next to each other that, because of variation in the corks, will taste very different a few years later.

By contrast, other types of closures are far more predictable. A screwcap, for example, will do whatever it is designed to do.

The downside to a screwcap, at least when I last checked into the matter, was that it essentially let in no oxygen, which for many wines was not a good thing. I understand that it was technically possible to design a screwcap to allow some oxygen in and for all I know such a screwcap is now available.

But, for the reasons expressed by Jo Diaz, it really doesn’t matter. Because when people buy wine they really aren’t looking for something that only a nerd could love. They want to have an emotional connection with it.

Enter the cork. And so, for all its flaws, the cork continues to be the closure of choice for the vast majority of wines. And the fact that it is not technically the best closure? Nobody cares.

If there is one thing that is driving this home to me it is manning our tasting room a day or so a week. I have no doubt that our patrons want to taste, in fact insist on tasting, good wines. But if that is all you have to offer, then it is not enough. People want to feel some sort of connection between themselves and the winery. If they don’t feel that, they may as well walk into Safeway and pull a bottle of wine off the shelf that was produced half a world away by some conglomerate.

So if they are going to buy a bottle of wine from us, they need to feel some connection to a local enterprise, whose grapes are grown in a field that they drive by on occasion, and are processed on equipment that they actually see.

Portugal may be a far ways away from Suisun Valley, but at least there is a sense that somebody is growing a product, harvesting it, and converting it into something that somebody actually made, as opposed to something that came out of a laboratory and a factory. Maybe some people are happy with the product that performs best irrespective of its pedigree, but it is quite obvious to me that most people don’t feel that way.

Estate bottling

Monday, June 30th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

One of the things that you as a winery are always happy to put on a label is that the wine is “Estate Bottled”. Unfortunately, the vast majority of wine does not meet the requirements, since the grapes and wine pretty much need to be, at least in theory (more on this later), under the control of the winery from beginning to end of the process.

While there is a general perception (which may even be backed up by some evidence) that having “estate bottled” on the label helps when it comes to sales and/or pricing, there is less evidence that “Estate Bottled” wines are really any better. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that they are really any better because they are Estate Botttled.

Or, put another way, I do think it is probably fair to say that, broadly speaking, estate bottled wines are better. But correlation does not equal causation. And I certainly would much rather have grapes that are well grown by an outside farmer than grapes that aren’t as well grown under the direct control of the winery. Which is all kind of obvious. And there is no particular reason to think that the winery will, necessarily, do a better job of it than a dedicated farmer.

Of course, it can be argued, with some legitimacy, that the winery’s goal is to produce grapes that will produce superior wines. The farmer may have other goals, such as higher yield. However, it is really hard to sort all of this out, as one winery may in fact be more interested in yield and one independent grower may more interested in quality. It’s hard to come up with any across the board generalization.

But I do think it is fair to say that a winery that can control the entire process from vineyard to bottling is going to have deeper pockets than one that cannot. So to the extent that “estate bottled” implies higher quality, I think it’s more because of more money behind that winery than anything pertinent to the estate bottling process itself.

“Estate bottled” in fact implies a little bit more than it necessarily delivers. What it requires is somewhat limited. And, to some extent, irrelevant. While the winery is supposed to have a certain degree of control over the grape growing process, that degree of control is really not very great. With many estate bottled wines, the winery in fact does have a very high degree of control and in many cases actual ownership and stewardship. However, neither is in fact required. A fairly loosey-goosey supervision passes muster.

Some of the requirements to qualify as Estate Bottled really are more in the category of crossing T’s and dotting I’s. If you remove the wine from the “estate” even for a short period of time for some fairly minor processing, you lose the right to call the wine Estate Bottled.

There is also the designation which I see from time to time “Estate Grown”. As far as I can tell, this is not an official designation of any sort. At least in theory, I would assume that it means that it meets the requirements for estate bottled up to the point of harvest. But as a legal matter, I don’t think it means anything at all.

So like so much in the wine world, what on the surface seems fairly clear is anything but once you get down into the nitty-gritty.

More on “natural” winemaking

Monday, June 16th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

After last week’s post on “natural “versus “unnatural” winemaking, this post appeared in Palate Press:

“A touch of sulfur”: Sulfites (or not) in Natural Winemaking

Erika Szymanski

I think this post goes to show that when you want to reach a given result, you can do it. Albeit, you may need to twist logic out of all proportion, but it can be done.

I think this post epitomizes the worst of the worst when it comes to the natural winemaking movement.

By some logician’s magic, the addition of sulfur dioxide, something that for all intents and purposes does not exist naturally in wine (in fact, it does, but only in microscopic quantities) is deemed to be natural, while the additional of Tartaric acid, the main acid in grapes, and a critical ingredient for wine to taste anything like wine, is unnatural.

It would be far more reasonable to just face up to the obvious fact. No matter how natural a winemaker you want to consider yourself, you had better damn well throw some sulfur dioxide into your wine if you want it to be any good. Because if you want to rely on the idea that you are totally natural, then you can forswear sulfur dioxide, and make a go of trying to peddle oxidized vinegary wine. Since “natural” winemakers are as interested in anybody as anybody else in selling their products, they aren’t about to take this suicidal route, so they throw in the so2, and rationalize it as best they can.

I would have far more respect for them if they would call themselves something more like “minimalist” winemakers, which in fact more accurately describes what they profess. But since consumers like the word “natural” and could easily confuse “minimalist” with some avant-garde art and music trend, “natural” it is.

Of course, all of this involves a certain amount of hypocrisy. But if the real goal is to sell wine, then that is something that can be readily tolerated.

It is worth focusing in on another point of this post: “Feiring’s definition is useful precisely because it discriminates: it includes some wines and excludes others. It is, moreover, relatively clear about what falls on either side of the line. Nothing added: no acid adjustments if the grapes come in too ripe, no sugar if they’re not ripe enough, no commercial yeast or “yeast food,” certainly no MegaPurple to punch up color and sweetness. Nothing taken away: no reverse osmosis to strip volatile acidity or other faults or to reduce alcohol, and not filtered.”

Without putting too fine a point on it, most of these interventions are undertaken precisely because there is something wrong with the wine. If, in fact, the grapes come in too ripe, then is it really better to leave them that way in the interest of being “natural”, or throw in some tartaric acid to make them more palatable.

Well, correct me if I am wrong, but I thought being palatable is what wine was all about.

I could go on and address the other interventions, but you get the point. I am certainly not an advocate of making interventions right and left for no particularly good reason, or as a matter of course. My experience has been that most interventions don’t work out quite as well as you expect. But I certainly would not refrain from adjusting the acidity if the wine needed it, and I certainly would not refrain from adding “yeast food” to avoid the yeast becoming stressed and doing all sorts of nasty things.

But once you have made the choice to do something different than what nature would do to the grapes without human intervention (which of course all winemakers must do if you want to end up with something called wine) then it’s just a matter of which interventions you choose to make. In that sense, all wines, including “natural” wines, are unnatural, as they should be.