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.