(This article was originally published in my Food Politics column at the TheFasterTimes.com.)
Thanks to the slew of recent books and movies about our food supply (led by The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc.), more Americans than ever are aware of where their food comes from and what’s in it. Readers of this column also know that mass-made juice can be loaded with “flavor packs” and concentrates from up to 12 different countries.
But what about wine?
This may come as a surprise, but most of the wine sold in the U.S. today has been processed and adulterated beyond recognition by corporate growers who are intent on maximizing profits. Is nothing sacred?
Over the last 24 hours, I’ve been devouring Alice Feiring’s excellent book The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization and am quickly discovering that the wine industry in many ways mirrors the food industry. At many big wineries (both here and around the world), the life is processed out of the grapes even before they appear on the vines (with over-irrigation, which increases yield but also leads to shallow roots and extraripe fruit). Then, during the fermentation process, meddlesome winemakers add everything from industrial yeast, bacteria, and enzymes to tannins and microbial agents—all to “improve” the taste and mouthfeel of a wine, often so it will appeal to a mass-market palate. (OK: they also throw in these additives to speed up the fermentation and control the process. You know, to make the whole thing more scientific.)
Some winemakers are also brandishing hi-tech processes such as micro-oxygenation and reverse osmosis (also called “ultrafiltration”), techniques that allow them to further manipulate wines.
In today’s globalized wine scene, winemakers would like to make wine as standardized as possible. Adding industrial yeast to the wine helps. It ensures that fermentation will start and finish when the winemaker wants it to, not according to the whims of nature. This is extremely important when Costco is expecting its new shipment of wine from Gallo in April—plus, the retailer doesn’t want the customer to bring the wine back complaining that it doesn’t taste like last year’s model.
Today, there are hundreds of industrial yeast replicas, including one genetically modified strain that was recently approved for use in the U.S.
At issue here is not food safety or even nutrition (though I wouldn’t be surprised if organic, biodynamic and naturally-made wines turn out to cause less of a hangover and are proven to contain more antioxidants than their processed cousins) but diversity and complexity of flavor.
Feiring believes (and I agree) that these wines are uniformly bland and characterless—they are artificial, their unique terroir masked by the introduction of such “designer yeasts,” chestnut tannins, oak extracts, and other indignities. Often, as Feiring shows, scheming winemakers mess with their vintages solely to achieve a higher score from influential wine critic Robert Parker (which, of course, leads to a surge in sales). After Parker awarded Helen Turley’s rich, syrupy 1993 Zinfandel a whopping 95 points, for example, he started a trend that hasn’t stopped to this day. “The paradigm of a great wine shifted to one big, jammy, oaky fruit bomb,” writes Fiering. “And the whole industry adjusted accordingly.”
To me, the central dilemma with Big Wine is actually one of transparency. Though I can choose to drink wines that are made in the natural Old World-style, there is no wine labeling law that requires that GMO yeast, tannins, or bacteria (or new-fangled filtering technologies) be disclosed. Even artisanal producers have begun using these “scientific” techniques—but it is unlikely, as Feiring points out, that they’ll divulge them on labels anytime soon.
Part of the pleasure (and risk) of drinking wine comes from savoring its subtle flavors and the ineffable qualities bestowed on the grapes by the terroir, the weather, and the irrigation (and cultivation) methods. Wine made in the Old World style is alive—it changes from year to year and even, once uncorked, from day to day. It has a sense of place.
Feiring’s book is an Omnivore’s Dilemma for the world of wine and winemaking. I just hope it raises the same level of awareness and appreciation for Old World winemaking techniques as Pollan’s book has for polyculture and sustainably-farmed, honest-to-goodness food.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to seek out small producers who create authentic natural wines—people like Oregon vintners Russ Raney of Evesham Wood, Brian O’Donnell of Belle Pente, Jason Letts at Eyrie, and John Paul at Cameron. (These wines are at the forefront of my mind since I’ve just returned from Oregon. Know any amazing natural wines from other regions? Please share them below.)