Sediment

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

jeff-smI have been a bitter critic of wineries, usually the biggest of the big, that routinely churn out mediocre wines stripped of all that makes wine interesting.  Start with perfectly good grapes, and filter and fine and stabilize and centrifuge them and they lose most of what makes them potentially wonderful drinking experiences.  True, not a few of these wines still manage to be pretty good, but it’s in spite of, not because of, these processes.  It’s not good enough to say you made a good wine, when you really started out with something capable of being a whole lot better.

So I guess I got something of comeuppance last week.  One of our distributors reported that one of our wines (our Petite Sirah to be precise) had been stacked at our warehouse upside down.  Since this wine is unfiltered, and naturally subject to throwing off sediment anyway (it’s a fairly tannic wine), it has been accumulating sediment on the cork surface.

My immediate reaction:  So what?  When I get a wine with sediment, that’s a big plus for me.  It shows it’s a real wine.  It’s a tradeoff I’d gladly make:  a little sediment for a real wine.

Our consumers reaction?  Not nearly so positive.  In fact, downright negative.

It’s a bummer, plain and simple.  If you don’t go the “strip everything out of the wine that any person could possibly find offensive” route, you run the risk that those someones will find the wine wanting, or even flawed.  That this is the furthest thing from the truth, is a big “so what?” if what counts is getting your wines sold.

I can remember tasting some years ago the same wine, one that had been cold stabilized, and one that hadn’t been.  The unstabilized wine was subject to forming crystals when put in a fridge for a period of time.  But my God it was so much better.  Yet pretty much everyone cold-stabilizes their white wines, because, God forbid, a consumer might think there’s slivers of glass in his wine.

Want your wine to be clear as bell, without the slightly hint of haziness?  Bentonite filter the hell out of the wine, and you’ll get that super clear look that everyone likes.  But taste that super clear wine against the pre-filtered version, and you’ll find it has lost a lot of what the wine originally had.

So what do winemakers do?  They routinely bentonite filter their whites.

So what starts out as a vibrant, even profound, wine, gets dumbed down into something innocuous but commercially acceptable.

I can rail about this til the cows come home.  But I am but one lonely voice in the wilderness.

So what to do with our Petite Sirah?  Well, you can have the warehouse spend its time (and our money) to turn all the cases upside down.  Of course, this isn’t the best way to store wine, since you want the cork contacting the wine, not the air (hopefully neutral air) inside the bottle.  Keeping the cork in contact with the wine keeps it from drying out.  Dried out corks let air into the bottle, which will result in oxidation of the wine.  It’s probably not that big a deal for our Petite Sirah, since we don’t have that much of the wine left, and it’s probably not going to go off on us before it gets sold.

Of course, whenever you do anything, it has unintended ramifications. When you turn the case upside down, all of sudden your label is upside down too.  Solution:  plaster new labels over the old ones.

So it really comes down to simple choice: do we stick to our guns, damn the ignorance of the wine consuming public, or do we do what we have to do keep our sales going?  Well, that’s no brainer if there ever was one.  I’m ordering the new labels tomorrow.

I still think those big megawineries are scoundrels guilty of compromising and adulterating their products.  But maybe with a little less of the vehemence I felt a week ago.

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5 Responses to “Sediment”

  1. Sal Captain says:

    I am rather surprised that you are so upset by this simple issue, I know many people that prefer wines that have sediments, and the few that object usually a simple education about the effects of filtering, fining, bentoniting etc. is sufficient. If I had few customers complain, I would write on the label that this wine is unfiltered and may contain sediments! It is cheaper than relabeling.

  2. Hello jeff Miller,

    I just finished reading your articlea bout sediment in wine and although I hardly ever comment on opinions I would like to comment on yours.
    I to am an artisan producer producing a single vineyard, single vintage 100% cabernet sauvignon. We have a six acre vineyard in the high elevation country of Lake county CA. It appears that your feeling and winemaking practices are pretty much the same as mine. My wines are unfined and unfiltered. Corks are wet and wine is full of juberance with deep rich flavors and aroma. Almost all f my customers and wine tasters who visit us are very impressed with the richness of the wine. No thin, sterile filtered, stipped, manipulated cool aid wines here. I could go on forever but will spare you the time. Keep up the hearty winemaking. Michael Noggle, owner, winemaker, tractor driver, et al.

  3. gdfo says:

    Put a statement on the label. Short.

  4. David Rossi says:

    If you are worried about such things, just crossflow filter the wines and give the wine 6 months of bottle age before release. This will allow the wine to come back to it’s pre-filtered quality or better.

    Good winemaking craftsmanship does not immediately mean harsh manipulation and souless wines. That is an outdated way of thinking. Just as outdated as thinking filtration will “strip” a wine of any compounds that make it special. Just doesn’t happen. Poorly filtered or over fining wine will have an impact, but that is the fault of the winemaker not the process.

    Whatever happened to your un-cold stabilized wine years ago is not evidence of a process problem, just a single incidence.

  5. Matt says:

    I hear you. Anything out of the ordinary is found as a possible fault. Since most or all cheapo grocery store Pinot gris / grigio are crystal clear, and no color, making one with a hint of color sends the tasters into a tizzy. It must be oxidized, or something. Then they taste it, and it actually has a little flavor, which they are not used to, so then it must be sweet. Explaining to them that Pinot grigio / gris has some color as a grape blows thier mind. Then telling them how to get the color out can also strip flavors pushes them over the edge. 90% come back for more, but a few think I am lying or something.

    Thanks for the article, the over fining and filtering subject is near and dear to me. (however I am not so far to one end that I think all fining and filtering is bad. )

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