Winemaking: October 2005 Archives

The phrase “wine is made in the vineyard” is not only the emptiest cliché in the wine business, it’s also the most annoying. Why? Because it’s either dumb as rocks or a deliberate deception.

“Any winemaker who says wine is made in the vineyard is not doing their job.” I got this blast of fresh air last week, during a coffee-and-pastry-fueled conversation with Zelma Long, an icon of California winemaking since the 1970s. “If you’ve ever tasted three wines made by different winemakers from the same variety in the same vineyard in the same vintage,” she said, “you know how different the results can be.”

I have made wine from the same varieties in the same blocks of the same vineyards as commercial wineries in Napa and Sonoma, so I know what Long’s talking about from direct experience. But almost every winery website and press kit I read mouths the “made in the vineyard” pablum. It’s lost any meaning it ever had. Grown in the vineyard, yes. Made there? No way.

This is important because at long last, an unspoken agreement between winemakers and media is breaking down. That agreement hid the fact that winemakers add all kinds of things to wine in its earliest days, from water and tartaric acid to sugar, coloring agents, and powdered tannin. Winemakers still call this “night work,” because they prefer to do it when no one else is around. They want you to think that wine is – you guessed it – “made in the vineyard.”

They also use all kinds of swanky machines to inject oxygen, remove alcohol, change texture, and more. Laurie Daniel’s article “Little Wine Secrets” (8/17/05, San Jose Mercury News) and John Andrews’ “Water into Wine” (Summer 2005, Intelligent Life) are clear signs that these practices will be exposed more and more openly.

So what does this mean? It means that we should talk just as openly about what really is being made in the vineyard. Besides winegrapes, what’s being made in the vineyard is either healthier soil and richer habitat, or money at the expense of ecology. The tiny minority that grows winegrapes without synthetic or toxic substances of any kind is replenishing what the vast majority of the industry is willing to use up.

This is why I have made a point for the last five years to write about organically and biodynamically grown wines, and recommended them to anyone who will listen. It’s not because those wines are “better” than conventionally farmed wines when they’re in your glass. They’re better when they’re in the vineyards of your planet. They are good for the earth you live on. (Five years of tasting tells me that they’re also pretty darn good in the glass, but that’s my day job.)

So I urge winemakers who use clean, green fruit to junk “made in the vineyard” and put “grown in an organic vineyard” on the website, so we consumers can vote with our wine-buying dollars for two things: a little more honesty and a lot more care for the earth.

This month's naked plug: If you see a Fat Bastard, buy one. This month, every purchase of a bottle of Fat Bastard (nicely priced French wine produced by Click Wine Group) generates a donation to breast cancer research.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

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