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