More of your friends probably drink wine more regularly than craft beer or cocktails. Yet somehow, no one seems to want to talk about Grenache as much as session IPAs or their new obsession with Boulevardiers. And therein lies wine’s greatest failing: Pretty much everyone loves it, but the beverage has become so encumbered with stigma—deserved or otherwise—that its sex appeal is suffering.
Something is rotten in the State of Vino, and it’s not just old grapes. Lurking beneath the problems consumers encounter with the wine industry (price gamesmanship, perceptions of snobbery, et al.), there are even more sinister forces at play. From in-fighting among critics and bloggers, to production shortcuts that undermine the art of winemaking, these are the things that insiders try to hide from the public so that they don’t grow even more disillusioned with the wine world.
No more of that in 2015: It’s time to let the darker side of wine bubble over—as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush will be reminding us soon, transparency is the only way we’re going to get the change we deserve. In the spirit of a new year, let’s get into the things wine folks really talk about when the magnums are drained and the real talk doth flow.
And before we get started, you know how this goes: While these opinions and issues are too complicated to tackle comprehensively in the space of one list, they are things we find ourselves circling with friends who work in the industry or follow it closely, and we think they’re worthy of broader discussion.
Written by Jonathan Cristaldi (@NobleRotNYC)
1. Enthusiasts who pay to have their own wine made in a custom-crush facility are giving winemaking a bad rap.
Only the wealthiest individuals have the kind of cash on hand to actually open a Bonded Winery, complete with facilities and permits to sell their own wine. Others work around the red tape by getting less-expensive permits that allow them to share winery space to make wine for commercial consumption. For wannabe winemakers, these so-called custom-crush facilitates—essentially, mega-wineries that host multiple brands at a time—are the legal gateway to vintner status. But the “clients” of these facilities are the ones denigrating the good name of tried-and-true winemakers. Because here’s the scoop: They’re not actually making wine; they’re merely owners of a wine brand.
Nine times out of ten, custom-crush clients are former (or current) investment bankers, tech entrepreneurs, or celebrities who want to impress their smarmy cronies or self-loathing girlfriends. Sure, these posers can dole out the necessary money for vinified juice, but to slap “winemaker” on a business card is as misleading as donning a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey and telling people you can play ball just like Lebron. Is the “art” of stopping by the custom-crush HQ to ogle barrels or select label designs indicative of a real-deal winemaker? Of course not.
Leave your bullshit, slapped-together, “heritage”-inspired stories about why you’re making a wine behind (looking at you, Drew Barrymore). Throw all the money you want at events, cozy up to buyers at retail shops or restaurants, and do whatever else you need to do to recoup that investment. But for god’s sake, stop calling yourself a winemaker.
2. That $50 bottle of wine is as good as this $150 bottle.
No matter how delicious it is, no wine is worth more than $100 if your sole desire is a quality bottle. Once a wine surpasses a c-note, the only factors in play are quantity and accessibility. A $100+ price-tag means a few things: The grapes grown or purchased to make the wine cost upwards of $10K+ per ton; very little of the stuff is made; and the final bill is merely a reflection of that demand or the owner’s ego.
Is the $1,100 bottle really any better than the $550 bottle, or the $150 bottle, or the $50 bottle? To anyone with an opinion and a discerning palate (or deep pockets), there will of course be critical differences; but to the average consumer with little concern for the rarity of wine, the only difference is in the buzz—literally. Generally speaking, expensive wines are higher in alcohol because they’ve been produced from extremely ripe grapes, which possess more sugar for yeasts to convert into alcohol.
3. The Napa Valley wine market is over-saturated.
Like the shelves of used book stores struggling to support all those failed attempts to write the next great American novel, wine-store shelves are caving in under the weight of Napa Valley Cabernets. With roughly 40% of the grape harvest in Napa devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon, the world does not wake each day hopeful that someone will announce the arrival of another new Napa Cab. It is a dead horse, far beyond beating, licked clean by aging buzzards and fresh-faced maggots. The consensus is in: Please, make a fucking Zinfandel or something.
4. Most “winemakers” leave the actual making part to migrant workers.
Next time you’re taking in the oenological paradise depicted on a winery website—most likely featuring rolling hills of vineyards and elaborate estates, possibly with a winemaker hanging out with his favorite Labrador named Jake, who loves to munch on Chardonnay grapes—take stock of what’s missing: the actual people who harvest the product and tend to the wine.
Winemakers are generally buried in Excel documents, sifting through figures and calculating how and when the actual tasks of winemaking should be executed—tasks that are then delegated to cellar workers.
In Napa Valley, many of the people working the crush-pads (the production area, usually off-limits to consumers, where tanks and barrels hold fermenting and aging wines) are migrant workers from Mexico who live off the main thoroughfares of the valley near Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail). Huddled together in trailer parks and shanty-like settlements, these men and women are tasked with grunt work: picking grapes, driving forklifts, cleaning barrels, racking wine, administering chemicals (like liquid sulfur), and managing all the heavy lifting and hard labor.
When recognition does come, it’s fast and cheap. Sometimes the winery owner will host a harvest party for vineyard and cellar workers and their families, who are rewarded with mounds of coleslaw, burgers, and, heck, even some wine! They might receive a sincere thank you for working 18-hour days, three months straight. And how about everyone take off Monday? Sound good? Just be back here, 7am on Tuesday, and get that crush-pad going. We need to caress that freshly pressed juice; it’s got to smell of money, or the marketing team will have to work overtime to bedazzle the press with high-toned passion-speak. Oh, and by the way, with harvest officially over, half of you are let go, and I’m going to Cabo in my private jet with hands as soft as kittens.
5. Hating on Chardonnay is the mark of a newb.
Wine drinkers who still insist that Chardonnay is some grotesque and awful wine—rich, buttery juice unfit for even philistines—missed an important memo years ago.
Styles have changed with the times, and today’s winemakers strive to produce Chards that strike a balance between toasty oak, lush creaminess, expressive fruit, and bracing acidity—gorgeous wines like those from Burgundy and California’s Central Coast. Unfortunately, the pendulum swung so hard in the wrong direction that, even to this day, many producers go so far as to write UNOAKED on bottles. But that fear of the dreaded “oak bomb” is rooted in ignorance.
Admittedly, there was a dark period in American viticulture, when the domestic palate demanded a Chardonnay that was as round as the earth, as buttery as I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, and as toasty as a smoldering oak log upon a gentleman’s fire.
One of the impediments to producing great Chardonnay is that it is an expensive wine to make. If a winemaker can’t afford the $10K per ton for top-notch Chardonnay grapes, he will often trim the budget by starting with cheap grapes. The winemaker can use his special powers (oak aging, acidification, chaptalization, etc.) to try and coax a good wine out of mediocre grapes, but at the end of the day, these techniques merely mask unpleasant qualities in the wine.
Are some winemakers still making Chardonnay in this derivative style? Sure. But for the most part, a little toasty oak, or batonage and malolactic fermentation (which creates a “softer” mouthfeel) can lend profound layers of complexity to Chardonnay. Drink up, already.
6. Your favorite Napa Valley Cabernet is actually from Paso Robles.
Next time you’re taking in some fine Napa Cab, don’t panic if suddenly you feel transported to the Central Coast rather than the golden hills of Northern California, where Robert Louis Stevenson once traipsed around town anointing all wine there as “bottled poetry.” The poem may be titled “Wine From Napa,” but don’t be deceived—part of it was written in the Central Coast.
Here’s the deal: Wineries that do not own vineyards buy grapes for their “cuvées”—a fancier word than blend, which appears on many labels—and the price of grapes can break the bank. Depending on location and quality, winemakers can spend $2,000–$15,000 per ton of grapes (a ton yielding only about 60 cases of wine!). Roughly 39% of vineyards in the Paso Robles region are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, and an estimated 50% of those grapes are sold to regions outside of Paso—namely: Napa and Sonoma.
Now look, don’t feel slighted. It’s not as bad as fake ass-eating. The European Union labeling laws permit vintners to blend a wine from juice that comes from several EU countries, as long as the wine is varietally labeled, like “Cabernet Sauvignon.” Think of it like finding out your correctional officer was just a Rick Ross look-alike—nothing to be outraged over.
While sources don’t want to mention any brand names—big producers like The Thornhill Companies and Gallo, which have large vineyard holdings in the region, are possible culprits—there’s no indication of exactly where their fruit goes (though I’ve heard rumors that Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire buys most of it because he believes bathing in it is good for circulation).
To be clear, this ain’t no dig at Paso Robles, which is certainly known for producing some great wines, especially from the West Side. Still, when you’re enjoying that wine buzz, it might give piece of mind just knowing if it’s coming from legit, pricey booze from Napa, or cheap-ass plonk from somewhere else.
7. Your favorite red wine with “hints of toasty oak” was not aged in oak barrels at all.
There’s no harm in substituting vanilla extract for the scrapings of a vanilla bean when making cookies or ice cream. But would you expect a winemaker to add in an oak extract in order to give the impression that his Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir was aged in bonafide, expensive oak barrels?
This trickery happens all the time. “Oak essence” is an extract made by soaking oak chips in high-proof alcohol, and they allow winemakers to add oak flavoring without going through the actual aging process. The obvious benefit is that it’s cheaper (oak barrels can cost $800-$1,200 a piece), so it’s no wonder some winemakers try to cut corners.
8. Wine critics aren’t necessarily more qualified than bloggers.
If we drew a line in the sand and asked established Wine Critics (capital C) to stand on one side, and amateur wine bloggers (lowercase b) to stand on the other, we’d immediately expose an ongoing war of credentials—one which leaves its bloodied tracks on bitter comment threads around the Internet.
Wine bloggers are correct in assuming that many notable critics have bypassed formal beverage industry education in lieu of “life experiences.” They take great pleasure in declaring that major critics are class-act bullshit artists—the likes of Robert M. Parker Jr. (a lawyer and self-taught wine guru), James Suckling (an undergraduate tennis pro with a graduate degree in journalism), and Eric Asimov (the nephew of author Isaac Asimov, with an undergrad degree in “American Civilization”).
Still, the relationship between the two camps is complicated. When the Critic unleashes a bad score or expounds on the subject of natural wines, wine bloggers will heap waves of tyrannical expletives upon them—but only behind closed doors. Put those same bloggers in front of the venerable Critic, and you’ll see them whimper in admiration and jealousy.
The Critic is well aware of this duality, and several of these esteemed scribes take great pleasure in lashing out against people they consider to be amateur fluff writers. In truth, many amateur wine bloggers are anything but amateur, having earned legit credentials from industry-lauded institutions like the Wine, Spirits & Education Trust (WSET), the Society of Wine Educators, or The Guild of Sommeliers, and many of them contribute articles to the very publications that major Critics write for—folks like Joe Roberts of 1 Wine Dude; David White, who founded and edits a daily wine blog called Terroirist; Elaine Chukan Brown of Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews; and many others.
Does formal education trump life experience? Do professionals owe it to their readers to earn a formal degree? Who, then, is rightfully deserving of the title “Critic”?
9. Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine need to loosen up.
Whatever you do, don’t call a Master Sommelier a Master of Wine, or she just might punch you in the palate. On the other hand, don’t confuse a Master of Wine with a Master Sommelier, or he’ll drop some self-important discourse about making orange wines from Slovenia.
Both are highly respected accolades very few people achieve (since 1953, only 366 people have become MWs, and in four decades, only 220 have passed the Master Sommelier exam). And yes, we can see the foil scars on your forefingers, and we appreciate the 19 years you put into working for the world’s largest and most oppressive distributor, but here’s the deal: It’s 2014, so loosen the tie, get rid of the pant-suit, and throw on a t-shirt.
If the wine industry cares about its future, the only people that should matter are the millennial and pre-millenial generations of up-and-coming wine drinkers. While the industry’s Masters have had their noses stuck in a glass for the last decade, the U.S. has become obsessed with alcohol. Yet educators of the industry have made no progress in marketing wine education as “cool” or “sexy.”
We need more Masters like Laura Maniecs, more Brian McClintics, more Ian Caubles, and more cool-as-fuck old-schoolers like Tim Hanni and Fred Dame to shake up their peers and tap into that type of Gatsby-like coolness that comes along just once in a lifetime.
10. Bartenders and mixologists don’t give a shit about wine.
Mixologists couldn’t care less about a wine list, largely because they never bothered to learn anything about wine. These shaker-tin junkies lose sleep over carrying the right artisan mezcal, small-batch bourbon, or barrel-aged gin. But with wine, it’s easy: “Give me a Pinot Grigio, an expensive champagne that I’ll never pour, and five cheap-ass reds that will be served at room temperature in glassware that looks like Ikea and Walmart slept together and birthed a new line of ugly, utilitarian glassware babies.” These same bartenders would rather recommend a glass of Fernet Branca (let’s be honest, it’s disgusting) over a glass of wine.
A few factors are at play: The partners of the bar are squarely focused on craft cocktails, relegating wine and beer to necessities in case someone doesn’t get that they’re a cocktail bar. Training is another factor—how many bartenders and mixologists have also really taken the time to enroll in any kind of wine-certification courses? Finally, there’s the reality of catering to the big distributor, the ugly elephant in the room, who basically tells the beverage buyer, “Look buster: You want that gin and this Scotch? Fine, I’ll give it to you as long as you pick up 10 cases of my acrid Sauvignon Blanc and this virulent Merlot.”
Of course, there will be 16 different variations on every classic cocktail, each served in those antique crystal coupes they found under Marie Antoinette’s corset. But if anyone asks for a glass of wine, the bar will suddenly shift from “world-class” to “whatever” in a heartbeat. As more cocktail bars shake the speakeasy cliche and shift towards a more democratic, balanced approach to crafting a watering hole, hopefully wine drinkers will benefit from a smarter approach to vino.