A defence of industrial wines

Are wines made in volume a bad thing, or are wine geeks simply showing class prejudice? Roger Morris thinks it's the latter. He explains why.

Photo by Scott Warman on Unsplash
Photo by Scott Warman on Unsplash

As much as wine geeks love “authenticity” (whatever that is), they hate “industrial wines” even more.

By their definition, industrial wines are made in huge volumes by people who never drove a tractor or pruned vines in the dead of winter and who also put bad stuff in their wines. Although these purists have a couple of good arguments, could most of the ridicule of industrial wines simply be a matter of class prejudice? And by class prejudice, I’m not talking about university attended or home address. I’m talking about people who self-identify by the trendy places they eat and the trendy wines they drink and look down their flutes at people who eat fast foods and drink wine out of 1.5 litre jugs they don’t refer to as “magnums”. 

Growing up drinking beer and Bourbon, the first wine I fell in love with was Mateus Rosé. I didn’t die from the experience or stop drinking wine. Eventually my tastes and income evolved to where I could afford and enjoy 1970 Bordeaux first growths. 

And guess what about those first growths? According to Parker, Lafite annually produces more than 200,000 of its first wine, Latour 175,000 of its first, Mouton 300,000, Margaux 200,000 and Haut Brion 120,000. That isn’t exactly small potatoes. The point is that making wine in large, industrial volumes isn’t a sin by itself. 

But perhaps the geeks are only talking about the “cheap stuff” made in volume and not first growths made in volume. I have friends with good palates who bought cases of Two-Buck Chuck and Yellow Tail for their weeknight family dinners. They enjoyed the cheaper, simpler wines that were pleasant to consume and believed they were smart in buying them.

But most people don’t have that option. When they spend $5 or €5 on a bottle, they aren’t being clever. They like wine and are drinking what they can afford – inexpensive wine made in large volumes and sold at thin margins. Small, artisanal producers can’t supply that segment.

Then there are the arguments that industrial winemaking hurts the environment. Some of the largest producers in Bordeaux and the South of France are biodynamic. In America, large producers have been leaders in sustainable agriculture because it makes good business sense. I’ve been visiting vineyards worldwide for more than 40 years and have seen both large and small producers flagrantly use chemicals. Champagne is far from pure, and neither are areas of Germany when it comes to chemical usage. The same with irrigation and water consumption. In areas from Napa Valley to the Negev, irrigation is necessary to grow grapes. That’s true whether the winegrower is huge or a boutique. 

When it comes to wine additives, we should separate the argument between additives that aren’t traditional and those that may be harmful. Adding tannins isn’t traditional, but how is that different than adding sugar – chaptalizing – and adding acidity? Before global warming, Burgundy frequently added sugar for higher alcohols and texture. Yet writers and merchants love it when we visit cellars in Beaune and taste wines from the ‘40s and ‘50s. And we don’t make snide remarks to our companions or write a tasting note like “still tastes fresh with lots of fruit – but sugar was probably added.”

Nor have we objected when Bordeaux wants to “correct for acidity,” especially these days when their wines may be getting too fat. Or what about the use of commercial yeasts, egg whites (a blast from the past), silica-based diatomaceous earth for fining or sulphur as a preservative? For centuries, it’s been acceptable to add things to wines to make them taste better or last longer. If newer additives are proven to be unhealthy, then let’s work to have them banned.

I hear the refrain: “But they are fooling people!” Perhaps, but who, besides winemakers and wine purists, care? During the 1970’s, consumer advocates in the United States campaigned for ingredient labeling for foods – and it happened. I believe this was a good thing in and of itself – more info is good. Yet, ingredient labeling didn’t change people’s buying or eating habits. Nor likely will it change drinking habits.

Nevertheless, I will be first in line to support mandatory regulations to list all ingredients within a wine on its back label. Actually, I would be second in line, as Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards started doing it years ago. Yet, how many winemakers followed Draper’s lead by ingredient labelling?

In short, if there is a winemaking practice that is environmentally harmful, unhealthy for drinkers or just plain deceitful, condemn the practice. But just broadly criticizing “industrial winemaking” is both intellectually lazy – and somewhat priggish.

Roger Morris

 

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