Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Truth in Labeling? Part 2

Wine labels do not always tell the truth. Do you know how?
Full disclosure labeling, as covered in my last post, would be great. I want to know what is being added to my alcoholic beverages. Fireball has served as an unlucky lightning rod for a conversation that was long overdue. However, listing all ingredients for wine, beer and spirits on the label will take time, if it ever happens at all.
Here are some loopholes you may not be aware of for wine labeling. (I use domestic rules because they are relevant to more readers and because the rules are in English)

The Grape:
That pinot noir you drank last night from California might have had 25% of another grape (or grapes) in it and the winery does not have to tell you this. As long as the grape listed on the label is 75% of the wine, the rest is up to the winery. Syrah is a classic addition to inexpensive pinot, it adds color and body for a low price. The same percentages hold true for any variety of wine, white or red.
Oregon is stricter. In Oregon a pinot noir would have to be at least 90% pinot to be labeled as such. The other 10%? Legally, any other grape is okay. Some other grape varieties (18 of them) are allowed to be 75%. This was mostly allowed due to Bordeaux varieties, red and white, and the tradition of blending them. Rhone varieties are the remaining majority in the list.
To be labeled as coming from Oregon, 100% of the fruit must come from the state. However, if a specific appellation is listed, 5% of the wine can come from outside that appellation as long as it's still from Oregon. For a single vineyard bottling, 100% of the wine must be from that vineyard if Estate bottling is claimed. If not, 5% can come from other sources - within the state. Good luck keeping all this straight.

The Vintage:
The wine can be from different year(s) and still carry a single vintage date. 5% other vintage(s) are allowed if the wine lists a specific American Viticultural Area (AVA). If the winery lists only by county or state then the required percentage for wine of the vintage on the label drops to 85%.

You can read more from the Alcohol and Tobacco Bureau here.

There is more. The division that approves labels often displays inconsistencies. There are plenty of tales of labels being submitted and rejected only to have a re-submission of the same label get approved. The original denier might have been on vacation or at lunch or just having a better day.
Bonny Doon once got a label approved for their zinfandel and they described it as "Beastly Old Vines." Some of these got into the supply chain when the TTB said they could not use the term beastly. Labels had already been printed so Randall Grahm and his merry band took a hole punch and "erased" the word beastly from the label.
The term old vines has no regulations whatsoever. A winery can call their wine old vines whenever they want. Believe the ones that actually tell you how old the vines are on the back label. A winery with a nod to scrupulousness could designate their ten year-old vines as old if they planted some new ones.
Another labeling quirk the TTB allowed was the designation, by Sea Smoke, of a "Grand Cru" vineyard (see Dr. Vino's post). France has a dedicated Cru system but the U.S. does not. Still, it is not forbidden by the French nor regulated by the TTB. Approved...but confusing.

Alcohol is another place wineries can deceive you. Below an alcohol level of 14%, a producer has 1.5% leeway to change the declared level on the label. That's a lot. Taxes increase once the level is over 14% so wineries have an incentive to tell you the percentage is lower than it really is. Once the 14% threshold is surpassed, the adjustment allowance drops to 1%. If the wine is 15% alcohol, an unacceptable level for some drinkers (rightly or wrongly), a winery can label it 14% and skate by. For more on this and to learn about a yeast strain that might reduce alcohol, see an earlier post here.

In the end, truth in labeling is a great concept but if/when it gets fully argued, negotiated and regulated the new labels may still not tell you what you need to know.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Truth in Labeling?

We all know what goes into wine, right? Grapes, yeast, oak (well, the wine goes into the last one). All the videos of winemaking show grapes being crushed and wine being magically created in a vat or barrel. What they don't show you is the "adjustments" that take place.
France sometimes allows chaptalization - adding sugar to bring the alcohol level up to a more normal level. You can add powdered tannin, you can acidify and you can use oak barrels, staves, chips, sawdust or even liquid smoke without having to tell anyone. Ever see anyone dump a bag of something into a vat in one of those romantic montages? Me either.
Today, word is out that Fireball has been recalled in some of Europe because it contains too much propylene glycol - an ingredient in anti-freeze. Apparently there was a shipping error. Sazerac, who produces Fireball, knows the Euro Zone countries have a lower threshold for levels of that substance. The U.S. allows more and the domestic version mistakenly was exported to Europe. You can read more about that here (Daily Meal) and here (Daily Beast). Pretty sure Fireball's label doesn't divulge the presence of propylene glycol, much less the specific amount. This is a known toxin that can kill you - although you would die of alcohol poisoning way before the anti-freeze ingredient would be an issue.
Lots of attention (too much?) has been paid to sulfites which occur naturally in grapes (and oranges, for example) and help stabilize the wine from oxidation. Some people get worked up about these, claiming allergic reactions. If sulfites have been added (almost every wine on a retail shelf) there will be a small statement to that effect on the label.
For a more in depth presentation of additions, check out this Washington State University link.
Many wineries tell you what they remove from the wines - fining and filtering - but very few disclose what goes in. We demand truth in labeling for food and medicines, why not wine? Ridge Vineyards has come to the rescue and voluntarily decided to show what they are putting in the bottle. This short video from Ridge explains the process and shows an example label. They have been doing this for a while so this is not breaking news but I thought it worth acknowledging.

While I don't view the additions to wine as health risks I would like be able to see if a wine has been adjusted. Generally, more expensive wines are coddled from grape to bottle. Because they are well-tended they do not need to be "fixed" as often. You should assume most cheap bottles of wine are more of a chemistry experiment. It is the bottles in between that need the disclosures. If there are two similarly priced wines on a shelf and one reads like Ridge's label and the other looks more like the back of a Cheetos bag, I am going to choose the more natural one, every time. And my palate will thank me. I can sometimes taste acidified wines. I can sometimes tastes wines that have powdered tannin added. If I can't taste the manipulation then I don't care. But the only way to know, for now, is to buy the bottle and open it. Sure would be nice to take a quick glance at a label and know one more thing about the wine you're considering.

Next post: A continuation of this them addressing grape percentages, alcohol level and organic declaration.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Offer Samples Instead of Saying No

A post with links to multiple wine articles appeared in my RSS feed and two of them piqued my interest. Clicking each brought up web pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal respectively. Each one offered the headline, a sentence or two and then told me to log-in or sign-up.
It is entirely possible that signing up would be quick, easy and require only that I agree to receive emails. Perhaps there would be a need to conjure up yet another password to something I may never use again. Even less appealing would be needing to pay to access the article.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Despite wanting to read both articles the obstacle placed in front of me outweighed my desire for access. The Wall Street Journal has good articles but my lack of familiarity with the author caused me to close the window and skip the read. I know little about the San Francisco Chronicle and, although I did know the author, I do not always love what she writes.
How easy is it to let me visit as a guest and then bar me from access on a subsequent visit unless I then decide to share my contact information? I’m happy to invite you in once you demonstrate value to me but there is too much good information and great writing available for free to make demands before I make a commitment, even one as small as sharing an email address while creating an account. 

If you meet someone are you expected to provide them your contact information in order to talk to them? Of course not. (If you said yes to that, please tell me where and when you interact with new people so I can come observe this process and the hilarious reactions that will inevitably follow). You talk, you learn, you decide if you’re interested.
Wineries would be smart to remember this. Wines sell because people taste them and like them. In many cases, the first experience is free, whether by the generosity of someone who bought a bottle or through marketing efforts.
Free samples are everywhere. Taste, experience, buy-in...or don’t. The offer of food or wine to taste costs someone money every time and some moochers will never support your business. Sharing an article that has already been written and is currently available on the internet costs no one anything to share it with more people. When walls discourage potential new customers it can cost you everything.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

More counterfeiting news

The attention being paid to counterfeiting continues. Bill Koch and Rudy Kurniawan are the primary cause of the press covering fake wine and methods being used to defeat would-be shysters. See my earlier posts, herehere and here.
All of this time and effort spent discussing wine fraud probably makes people nervous. It shouldn't. This will almost assuredly never matter to almost every wine drinker. No one is bothering to counterfeit a $20 bottle of wine. This goes well beyond #FirstWorldProblems to #RichPeopleProblems. The money some people spend to acquire old, rare wine is insane. Even if you can guarantee the wine inside the bottle is actually what the label claims, you can not guarantee it will be any good. This is partly why counterfeiters get away with it. Most people have no idea how these wines taste.
I don't support the fraud in any way shape or form but it certainly has reminded big spenders that an old Latin phrase still has relevance in the digital age. Many would have done well to recall caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) earlier. Some of the fake wine sold for huge sums were from vintages before the producer ever made wine. A minimal amount of investigation would have revealed the scam.
Mark Ellwood, on Bloomberg, writes an in-depth post about even more ways to prevent criminals from ripping off rich people. Read his entire article here. Bill Koch now spends upwards of $500, in some cases, to authenticate a single bottle of wine. I've never spent that king of money on a bottle, much less to verify its provenance. Particle accelerators, laser and microchips are some of the techniques Mr. Ellwood explains in his piece.
The whole concept fascinates me and the amazing, and expensive, efforts to thwart counterfeiters are impressive but you can't stop it entirely. I will continue to read and share articles but none of this causes me to lose any sleep, my wine purchases are safe.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Let's Raise the Price Again, They're Still Buying!

Financial reading is dull and usually has little to do with wine, the only regular link is that they both involve my wallet. Last night, however, two articles by the same author reminded me of pricing insanity that has long been part of the wine world. 
A fund I have a small investment with apparently bought some of the stock mentioned but their decision better not have been based on either article. The analysis began by admitting the company was having trouble attracting customers but then said everything is fine because they are making more money off of fewer people. In fact, his delirium over this so infected the author he continued to say the sky was the limit. Sure, as long as people are willing to pay $1,000 a ticket and $50 for a hamburger, the sky might be the limit. 
Steve Martin did a routine about this decades ago where he calculated how much money he was making and how much he could make. Eventually he reached a high enough ticket price, assumed a five digit audience count, figured he could retire and announced, "One show and goodbye!"  
Bordeaux, Burgundy and California, among many others, are all guilty of the same backward logic. We can make more money if we just charge more! That's great until one day you realize you've pushed it too far and revenue begins a slow (if you're lucky), steady decline. At first customers might keep coming/buying but less frequently. Then lots of them will find something else to do/drink. Suddenly your loyal cash cows are grazing in someone else's field and they're not coming back.
During the wild price escalations of the late 1990s I asked a winemaker from California how some people priced their wines. He told me the in vogue method was to gather a handful of similar wines from the area and taste them blind with a wine made in house. While the tasting was technically blind, winery people tend to recognize their own product and rate it more highly then the others, almost without fail. Then they would price the "winner" higher than the other bottles on the table. This led to prices spiraling out of control with, seemingly, no end in sight. It was a nightmarish Escher print of high end grape juice.
It happens on the spirits side too. Allow me to quote Stoli Group USA's president from this article in Shanken News Daily
“We’ve successfully moved our price up to premium, which was one of our goals this year,” says Esposito, adding that Stoli’s retail price now sits at around $25-$29 a 1.75-liter and $19 a 750-ml. “Previously, we were $3-$5 a bottle below Absolut. So right now we’re moving toward that, and we’ll continue to move it up. It’s where the brand belongs, and now that the advertising is there, we have a great opportunity to justify our pricing.”
Wow, wow, wow. No mention of changing quality, just a higher price - followed by advertising to justify that increase. If I drank Stoli and read this, I would be looking for another vodka, quickly. They are far from the only ones employing this style of pricing but this is just so blatant it was impossible to ignore.
But I never thought this upside down logic would reach the financial sector. In addition to the specious argument that declining attendees and higher costs result in a sound investment the author admits there is a lot of debt and that operating expenses are rising every year. Sounds great, how do I invest? Oh wait, I am invested...bye, I've got a call to make.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Huber Heritage - an Indiana Gem

I "discovered" this winery at Vintage Indiana in 2013. Miss Wright and I tried a lot of wine that day. She had visited this farm in the past but hadn't fully explored the wines. We had a stellar tasting experience with that day, including tasting with the winemaker - always a nice treat.
Huber's is a family run operation, since 1843, with wine production coming in the late 1970s. All of the wines are estate based. The winemaker admitted that sometimes they run short on fruit due to you-pick-'em sales but those issues are limited to non-grape-based wines like their blueberry port. If extra fruit is needed for these wines it is purchased from other Indiana farms.
The Heritage wine I purchased that day clearly wanted some time to develop in the bottle and I tried to offer that. Eventually, the temptation overtook my desire to let it age and I opened my bottle for some friends.
The bottle claims the blend in 65% cabernet sauvignon and 35% cabernet franc.
The website says 45% cabernet sauvignon, 40% cabernet franc and 15% petite verdot. I am going with the website since that specifically references the 2008 vintage. The back label does not. Plus, I'm pretty sure I tasted petite verdot...see below.

Heritage 2008 - A round dollop of oak greets the nose along with deep red and black fruits and even a little hint of mint. No green, herbal flavors, but mint, like I sometimes find in Aussie shiraz. This wasn't so pronounced that it reminded of a Thin Mint Girl Scout cookie but it was much closer to that than a mint julep or mojito. The wine fills the mouth nicely, from the roof to the tongue and is clearly rich without feeling heavy. The color is impeccable - no browning despite the age and the bright violet rim leads to an opaque purple core. Petite verdot provides great color and contributes to the fleshy texture of wines and I would be hard pressed to believe there is none in this blend. The flavors come in layers and the wine evolved while we drank it.
I continue to be amazed that they can achieve the ripeness with a grape I do not associate with the middle of the country. Cabernet franc loves the sun but thrives in cooler climates. Cabernet sauvignon, to my palate, demands sun and warmth or else it can taste of bell pepper and feel sharp, almost punishing.
While $40 (the current price, I think I paid $30) is more than I usually pay for a bottle of wine from anywhere, much less Indiana, this wine should be the calling card of Indiana wines. If you're a wine fan from Indiana, or visiting Indiana or want a distinct gift for a wine lover in your life, this would be an excellent choice.
If I was helping to develop the Indiana Wine Trail, I would be sure to include this in any tasting for high profile wine writers. This is the kind of bottle that can reshape perceptions and all of Indiana's wineries would benefit.
I look forward to visiting Huber in person and can't wait to try more of their wines.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Winery Spin Unspun

This is the first in what I envision being a series of articles taking winery PR or writing and debunking it. Being able to put a nice shine on a pile of something you might not want to step in always amazes me. This practice is particularly egregious in the wine world where far too many people are confused and the spin patrol only serves to keep them that way. 
Don't worry, this won't take long...
Diageo, a massive liquor/beer/wine company, is preparing to release a new line of wines called Woodwork. I nearly did a spit take when I read their information. 
"Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines has launched Woodwork Wines, a brand with three varietals. The wines are created using wood staves instead of barrels, which is a lower impact on the environment and allows more robust flavors, according to the company."
You can read the other few sentences here if you want.
Vintners have used wooden staves for a long time but I have never seen anyone brag about it. It saves money not the environment. Oak for barrels is mostly farmed now so no one is out cutting down old growth forests. 
Wooden staves, less expensive than actual barrels, are placed into stainless steel tanks to flavor the wines with oak (I assume they're using oak, they only say "wood"). However, when you're saving money you rarely go the extra mile of allowing the wood to age and mellow (seasoning). This means that what you have is a very raw product that will indeed result in "more robust flavors." I would view this as a potential flaw, not something to brag about, although staves are superior to wood chips and sawdust, two other inexpensive ways of getting wood flavor into wine. Still, you have to hand it to them, spinning this money-saving technique into being environmentally friendly is brilliant. Especially if you can keep a straight face.
A true barrel allows the wine to breathe and soften and develop while stainless steel tanks do not. For crisp, fruity whites that lack of oxygen contact is a bonus, preserving their freshness. Woodwork is producing chardonnay, cabernet and pinot noir, all varieties that benefit from some air. 
Bizarrely, the Diageo website has no reference to the brand and, at a different time of year, I might write this off as a prank. However, Shanken News (the industry daily from the Wine Spectator) also featured the same press information so I have to believe it's real. Perhaps they're already backpedaling and rebranding? 
Good luck to them, I won't be buying.