Tag Archives: Mega Purple

Joe Wagner vs the Oregon Volcano

Joe Wagner, with his Copper Cane Wines & Provision, has been one of the most successful wine producers of the 21st century. But that fame and success doesn’t shield him from the ire of lawmakers and Oregon wineries who feel he has been playing fast and loose with state and federal wine labeling laws.

Joe Wagner's Elouan

These producers, led by Jim Bernau of Willamette Valley Vineyards, believe that Wagner’s wine labels confuse consumers and devalue the branding of Oregon. Wagner contends that he is being truthful about where the grapes are coming from and that his wines bring Oregon to the attention of more drinkers.

While the legal aspects of labeling will be debated and hashed out by government agencies (with so far Wagner and his labels losing the battle), I wanted to investigate the idea of whether Wagner’s wines help or hurt the image of the Oregon wine industry among consumers. To test that, I held a blind tasting featuring the offending Wagner wines against more traditional Oregon Pinot noirs.

I wanted to see if Wagner’s wines stood out and if there’s smoke behind this controversy erupting in Oregon.

The Background

Joe Wagner started his winemaking career with the establishment of Belle Glos in 2001. Focusing on vineyard designated Pinot noirs, Wagner was inspired by the wines of Kosta Browne and soon built Belle Glos into a 100,000 case production. In 2006, he introduced Meiomi–a unique Pinot noir with Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and sometimes Grenache blended in.

By 2015, Meiomi was selling more than half a million cases a year. Wagner cashed in that success by selling the brand to Constellation Brands for $315 million. That sale allowed him to focus on his other brands–including Elouan which was founded in 2014 to highlight Oregon Pinot noir.

The Controversy and Current Rules for Oregon Wines

Elouan Reserve labeled as from the Rogue Valley.

Wagner makes all his Oregon wines (Elouan and the Willametter Journal) in California–primarily at Copper Cane’s Rutherford winery.  In interviews, Wagner has stated his reasoning for trucking the grapes down to California was to maintain quality control.

Compared to federal standards, the rules for labeling wines in Oregon are more restrictive. For instance, to have a wine varietally labeled from Oregon, it must be at least 90% of the stated variety. Federal laws only mandate 75%.

To list an AVA on an Oregon wine, it must contain at least 95% of fruit sourced from that AVA. Crucially, the wine must also be produced solely within the state of Oregon. While the federal standard for AVA designation is only 85%, like Oregon, Federal laws also dictate that a wine using an AVA needs to be “fully finished” in the state containing the AVA. However, it does allow wines to be finished in adjacent states if it labeled under a more generic state designation such as “Oregon”.

While the basic Elouan has Oregon listed as it designation, the reserve wine uses the Rogue Valley AVA. With the wine being “fully finished” in California, this does seem to be a clear violation of labeling usage. Likewise, the case packaging of Elouan makes reference to the Willamette Valley, Rogue and Umpqua Valley. For the Willametter Journal, the grape source is listed as the “Territory of Oregon” which is a fanciful term not currently recognized as an approved AVA. Additionally, Willamette is prominently highlighted in red ink on the label as if it was an AVA designation.

Mega Purple — Mega Illegal In Oregon

The Willametter Journal has the word “Willamette” highlighted on the label in bright red.

Another unique aspect of Oregon wine law noted by Jim Bernau, is the use of additives like Mega Purple, Ultra Red, Purple 8000 and Red 8000. These are illegal in Oregon since they are based on teinturier grapes like Rubired that are not currently grown at all in the state. Essentially, the law views the use of these color and mouthfeel enhancing additives as illegally blending in grapes grown elsewhere.

Wagner and Copper Cane’s representatives have denied using these additives. However, there is wide spread belief in the industry that they are used frequently in California–particularly for inexpensive Pinot noirs.

The Big Questions

In setting up the blind tasting, I wanted to look at three focus points that I’d hope would answer the overarching question of whether Wagner’s wines help or hurt the branding of the Oregon wine industry.

1.) Does Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines stand out when compared to other, more “traditional” Oregon producers?

2.) If his wines do stand out, is this because of a signature winemaking style that overwhelms terroir? While we can’t prove if he is blending in other grape varieties (like he did with Meiomi) or using additives such as Mega Purple, a strong winemaking signature could give credence to the idea that his wines may “confuse” consumers about what Oregon Pinot noirs usually taste like.

3.) And finally, when compared side by side, what wines do people enjoy drinking?

The Tasting Format and Participants

Several of the folks who graciously offered their palates for the blind tasting.

To help with answering questions #2 and #3, I included 3 of Joe Wagner’s California wines in the lineup to go along with the 3 offending Oregon wines. While not part of the controversy, I thought the inclusion of Wagner’s popular California Pinot noirs could shed light on if he has a signature winemaking style that his Oregon wines would also demonstrate.

The Wagner Wines

2017 The Willametter Journal Oregon
2016 Elouan Oregon
2015 Elouan Reserve Rogue Valley
2014 Belle Glos Diaryman Russian River Valley
2016 BÖEN Santa Maria Valley
2016 Tuli Sonoma County

Included in the tasting were 15 Oregon wines from other producers. Additionally, there was 1 wine from British Columbia–the 2016 Quill from Blue Grouse Estate–that a guest brought. While originally I wanted to limit this to just Wagner and Oregon wines, I thought the Quill could serve as an interesting control. Would it be pegged as an “outsider” or “Wagner wine”? Or would it slipped in seamlessly with the Oregon wines. If so, that could indicate that perhaps the distinctiveness of Oregon wines are not as clear cut.

Oregon wines featured:

2016 Erath Oregon
2016 Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster
2015 Domaine Loubejac Selection de Barriques
2015 Citation, Willamette Valley
2014 Domaine Drouhin, Dundee Hills
2016 Stoller Estate Reserve
2013 Patton Valley Vineyards West Block
2014 Welsh Family Wines Bjornson Vineyards, Eola-Amity Hills
2011 Siltstone Guadalupe Vineyard, Dundee Hills
2016 Marshall Davis, Yamhill Carlton
2014 Noel Vineyard, Willamette Valley
2012 Colene Clemens Margo
2016 Ayoub Pinot Noir Memoirs Dundee Hills
2012 Cristom Pinot Noir Mt. Jefferson Cuvée Willamette Valley
2009 Coelho Winery Pinot Noir Paciência Willamette Valley

The wines were all served blind with only myself knowing the identities. Since some of the Wagner wines like the Belle Glos and Elouan Reserve had visible wax capsules, I placed those wines along with random Oregon bottles in one of 8 different decanters.

While there was a handful of industry folks from the retail side, the vast majority of the participants were regular wine consumers.

The Results

More traditional Oregon wines like the Stoller Reserve, Patton Valley West Block and Marshall Davis were the runaway favorites of the tasting.

During the tasting, many participants began noticing a trend of some wines being noticeably darker and fruitier–especially compared to other wines. A couple wines even stained glasses in ways that usually aren’t expected of Pinot noir.

The conversation emerged that in order to “Pin the tail on the Wagner”, one needed to look for the least “Pinot-like” wines of the bunch. This would turn out to be a worthwhile strategy that several tasters adopted.

After the tasting I asked the participants to first pick out their favorite bottles. The results were overwhelming for Oregon with the 2016 Stoller Estate Reserve, 2016 Marshall Davis and 2013 Patton Valley West Block getting multiple votes. The BC wine, the Quill, also got some votes as a favorite with many tasters thinking it was an Oregon wine from areas like McMinnville.

But the surprise of the favorite reveal was the inclusion of one of the controversial Oregon Wagner wines–the 2017 Willametter Journal. While the wine was more lush than the others, tasters compared it favorably to warm vintage Oregon Pinot noirs from AVAs like Ribbon Ridge and Eola-Amity Hills.

Pin the Tail on the Wagners

With the Willametter Journal already revealed, the quest then moved to see if the tasters could identify the 5 remaining Wagner wines. It should be noted that several participants had the Willametter Journal pegged as a Wagner.

Voting on what was a Wagner wine.

In the end, the tasters identified all but one Wagner wine blind. The 2015 Elouan Reserve Rogue Valley was the most obvious Wagner. It was near unanimously picked as being the least “Pinot noir-like” wine in the entire tasting. Several tasting notes alluded to a “root beer soda-like” quality and compared it to other grapes like Syrah and Zinfandel.

The only Wagner wine to escape detection was the 2016 BÖEN Santa Maria Valley. This one reminded a few tasters of Oregon wines from areas like Dundee and the Eola-Amity Hills.

Most surprising of all were two Oregon wines that were pegged by multiple tasters as Wagner wines–the 2016 Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster made by Jim Bernau and the 2015 Citation made by Howard Rossbach who founded Firesteed Cellars. The 2016 Erath Oregon also got some votes for being a “Wagner wine” as well.

Takeaways

Both the Citation and Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster were popular picks as Wagner wines.

For the most part, Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines stood out and tasted noticeably different compared to other Oregon Pinot noirs.

However, it is extremely interesting that the best selling Oregon wines (at least from a volume perspective)–the Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster and Erath–struck so many tasters as potentially being Wagners. While we didn’t have a bottle of Firesteed Cellars (recently sold to Vintage Wine Estates in 2017) in the tasting, the identification of Rossbach’s Citation as a potential Wagner goes along with that trend.

Together, those three wines (WVV, Erath and Firesteed) dominate restaurant wine lists and supermarket retail for Oregon wines. They’re popular wines that appeal to many consumers’ palates.

Likewise, Joe Wagner has built his success on producing wines that strike a cord with consumers–especially at restaurants and supermarket retail. While his style is distinctive, it is a style that sells. It’s also very telling that the Willametter Journal, one of the wines at the heart of the controversy, was selected as a favorite even as it was noted for being very different from the other Oregon wines.

However, overall, the Willametter Journal was an outlier. While wines like Stoller, Patton Valley and Marshall Davis might not sell at the volume of Wagner’s wines (or WVV, Erath and Firesteed for that matter), when tasted side by side–the vast majority of tasters went towards these more traditional-style Oregon Pinots.

Help or Hurt?

The Erath Oregon Pinot noir, now own by Ste Michelle Wine Estates, is made in a style that reminded quite a few tasters of Joe Wagner’s wines.

Now to the question of whether Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines help or hurt the image of Oregon wines among consumers.

The results are a mix-bag.

Does his wines represent Oregon? Definitely not at the top tier.

But at the entry-level? That’s a hazier question.

It’s hard to make the argument that Wagner’s “hurting” Oregon when many of the most popular Oregon wines seem to appeal to the same palate his wines do. These wineries (like Willamette Valley Vineyards, Erath and Citation/Firesteed) may not be using the same techniques as Wagner but, whatever they are doing, they’re making easy-drinking and crowd pleasing wines that hit the same notes as Joe Wagner’s wines.

While I’m sure there are a few Oregon wine producers who would like to throw Joe Wagner into a volcano, I don’t think we can dismiss the likelihood that his wines (or similarly styled Pinots) will be the tipple of choice at the luau.

Regardless of how they’re labelled.

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Wine Geek Notes 4/9 — Organic Wine, 2017 Bordeaux and Component Wines

Photo by Hudson C. S. de Souza. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Isabelle Legeron MW: why it matters what wine we drink and food we eat by Alistair Morrell for The Buyer (@TheBuyer11)

I recently finished reading Clark Smith’s Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft where he advocates for a balance between winemakers using all the tools at their disposal (like reverse osmosis, cross-flow filtration, etc) but not lose sight of “soulful winemaking” and letting the wine tell the story of where it came from. It’s almost a contradictory position that is the vino-equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru.

Throughout the entire book, Smith advocates for, above all, more transparency in winemaking. A winemaker shouldn’t use any tool or additive that he or she would not feel comfortable openly talking about. In that regard, he and Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron would be kindred spirits.

In her interview with Alistair Morrell, Legeron draws the connection between consumers’ concerns over sourcing and knowing what’s exactly in their food and how that is changing the wine they are drinking. However, as I discovered in researching for my article about Vegan wines, the wine industry has a bit of a halo effect that has long been given a free pass in most consumers’ minds because—it’s just grapes, right? Well….not exactly.

Like Smith, I don’t think winemakers should be demonized for using technology but I also find sympathy with Legeron’s view that consumers should know what kind of chemicals are being used in the vineyards, what additives like Mega-Purple or oak chips do and what in the world was done to make a wine like Apothic Brew exist.

The article also touches on some of the issues that “natural producers” dealt with in the troublesome vintage 2017 which brings me to my next article of interest.

Photo by Benjamin Zingg, Switzerland. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.5

Ch. Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux

The 2017 Bordeaux Barrels Diary: A View from the Top at Château Canon by James Molesworth (@JMolesworth1) for Wine Spectator (@WineSpectator)

As the 2018 en primeur tastings wrap up, we’re getting ready for the start of the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign. I’m buckling down into my research as I plot my own personal strategy and purchases. I bought very heavily in the 2015 and 2016 campaigns so I naturally expect to buy much less in 2017.

But I’ll still buy something. My initial instinct is that 2017 could serve as a fair “cellar defender” vintage meant to be open for more short term consumption. I use the term “cellar defender” because my cellar will now have a nice stash of 2015/2016 that I will need to fight off the temptation to open too soon–a fate that has unfortunately befallen many of my 2009/2010 gems. If I want to get the full value of my pleasure investment in these potentially great 2015/2016 wine, I will need to have a few good “sacrificial lambs” to help keep my grubby paws off the good stuff.

The key will be in sorting through the hype and fluff to find the real value. I don’t want to pay filet mignon prices for my mutton.

The Chanel Group’s holding of Ch. Canon, Ch. Rauzan-Ségla and now Ch. Berliquet intrigue me because the first two have undoubtedly been on the upswing and reaping the benefit of investments in the vineyards and winery. Rauzan-Ségla has particularly impressed me with delivering quality results in the troublesome 2012 and 2013 vintages. While I would not want to go into the $100+ range, if the 2017 is priced in the $75-80 range like those 2012/2013s then I might be intrigued.

However, having the Chanel team now at Ch. Berliquet (which is priced in the $35-40 range) could be some very enticing mutton

Making Varietal Wines in Bordeaux by Vicki Denig (@vicki_denig‏) for Seven Fifty Daily (@SevenFiftyDaily). Brought to my dash via John Corcoran (@jncorcoran1).

Going along with my Bordeaux mood, I got very excited reading about this new project with Michael H. Kennedy II of Component Wine Company in Napa (a protege of Aldo Sohm) and Château Lynch-Bages to come up with a special series of varietal wines from some of the Cazes family’s holdings in the Left Bank.

While blending is always going to be intimately connected with Bordeaux, the chance to try the individual components in isolation (from such a high quality producer) is worth geeking out over. Of course it will depend on if the price is crazy or not. While I expect to pay $100+ for Ch. Lynch-Bages, I’m not sure a varietal Cabernet Franc from them at that price is going to entice me. My optimistic hope is that these Component wines will be priced more in the $35-45 range.

I signed up for Component Wine Company’s mailing list to keep an eye on this project and will post any updates.

What’s On Deck for SpitBucket

In addition to getting knee deep in readings about the 2017 Bordeaux vintage and Futures campaign, I’m also prepping for my upcoming trip to Paso Robles for Hospice du Rhone at the end of this month and a trip to Burgundy at the end of May. So expect to see a few more posts geeking out about Rhone varietals and a couple more installments in my “Keeping up with the Joneses in Burgundy” series.

My top wine at the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tasting was this Adobe Road Cabernet Sauvignon from the Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III in Rutherford.

In the middle, I’ll also be attending the Wine Spectator Grand Tour Tasting in Las Vegas. You can check out the first part of my three part series from last year’s Grand Tour Tasting here.

While my blog postings won’t be as frequent during my travels, I will still be posting regularly to Instagram and Twitter so feel free to follow me on those platforms as well.

Cheers!

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Apothic Brew Wine Review

Last night I did a very mean thing.

I had several friends (wine industry folks, connoisseurs and newbie/casual wine drinkers) over for a blind tasting of Cabs and Cab-dominant blinds. While I forewarned them that I was going to toss a few “ringers” into each group like another grape varietal and a cheap under $10 Cabernet Sauvignon, I didn’t warn them about this.

I didn’t tell them that I was going to subject them to Gallo’s latest limited release–Apothic Brew.

But as with my exploration of the trend of aging wine in whiskey barrels, I wanted to get as much objective feedback as I could. Let’s face it, it’s hard to approach something like cold-brew infused wine without any preconceptions. You are either going to have a visceral nauseating reaction to the idea or squeal in delight at the possibilities.

While certainly not perfect (or academic), I figured my 27 friends from various backgrounds, age groups and wine experiences were good guinea pigs to give Apothic Brew a somewhat fair shake. The results of the tasting are down below but first some geeking.

The Background

According to Gallo’s marketing, the idea of Apothic Brew came to winemaker Deb Juergenson last year while working the long hours of harvest where she frequently enjoyed staying caffeinated with cold brew coffee. Noticing the similarities between the flavors of red wine and cold brew, Juergenson decided to experiment with infusing the two. Lo and behold, only 5 to 6 short months later Apothic Brew was released on the market in time for April Fool’s Day.

Cute story but I sincerely doubt it played out like that.

Photo by Sage Ross. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

From 2015 to 2017, sales of cold brew have grown by 430%

Gallo is one of America’s most successful companies selling more than 80 million cases of wine a year with nearly $5 billion dollars in revenue. They also have one of the largest and most savvy marketing departments in the industry.

There is no way that this (non-vintage BTW) Apothic Brew wasn’t being laboratory crafted, tested and developed for years.

It’s very likely that the market analysts at Gallo spotted early on the emerging cold brew trend that really took off in 2015 but has certainly been around longer as well as millennial wine drinkers openness to try new things and saw an opportunity.

E.J. Schultz noted in Ad Age in a 2013 interview with Stephanie Gallo, V.P. of Marketing E. & J. Gallo Winery, that “Unlike previous generations, young adults will try anything, including wine served over ice, from a screw-top bottle or even out of a box.”

With the successful launching of limited release editions of Apothic Crush and Apothic Dark (which later became year-round offerings) as well as Apothic Inferno, Gallo is following a popular recipe of crafting a finely tuned marketing campaign based around the latest wine trends and the “limited availability” of their new wine. As Christine Jagher, director of marketing at E. & J. Gallo, describes in a recent interview:

“We will often tease their release to get our loyal followers excited for what’s to come,” Jagher says. “If we can catch their attention at the right time, they will already be searching for a new item by the time it hits the shelves. They will also be likely to help spread the word among their friends and family.” — as quoted to Andrew Kaplan for Seven Fifty Daily, September 27, 2017

That said, it’s hard to find any concrete details about the wine itself. The label lacks a vintage year and only notes an alcohol percentage of 13.5%. But the bottle says zilch about what’s inside. The original Apothic Blend is based on Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Apothic Crush is a blend of primarily Pinot noir and Petite Sirah so really this wine could be made of just about anything.

It’s a mystery how exactly the wine was “infused” with the flavors of cold brew.  Is it even real coffee? Was a new oak chip/Mega Purple  additive created?

While typical cold brew coffee has around about 26 milligrams of caffeine per fluid ounce compared to 27 milligrams for a standard hot brew coffee, Danielle Tullo of Cosmopolitan notes that Apothic Brew has less caffeine than a standard cup of decaf.

The Blind Tasting

I deliberately placed the wine at the very end of each tasting group. My primary purpose was to make sure that the coffee notes in the wine didn’t wreck my friends’ palates. I wasn’t exactly having the Apothic Brew “compete” with the other wines. My friends knew that there were ringers (a cheap under $10 Cab and a completely different grape). So they were at least expecting something in the $7-15 Apothic price range in the group.

By the time each group got to the last wine, there were vocal and immediate reactions of “Whoa” and “What the hell is this?”.

Some examples of the blind tasting notes on the Apothic Brew from people of various backgrounds–including wine industry folks, casual drinkers and wine newbies.

The most common descriptor was “not horrible but not good”.  Quite a few wondered if I slipped in a non-wine ringer like watered down Kahlua or a “weird stout beer” with another popular guess being a cheap under $10 Cab with Zinfandel blended in.

While “coffee” was obviously the most common tasting note descriptor, the next common descriptors were tannic and tart.

My (non-blind) Notes

Tasting before the blind tasting, I found it had a high intensity nose of coffee. Rather than cold brew it smelled more like a can of Folgers coffee grounds. The coffee really overwhelmed the bouquet, making it very one-dimensional.

On the palate, the coffee certainly carried through but at least some fruit emerged with red cherry notes. Medium acidity offered decent balance to keep it from tasting flabby but it didn’t taste very fresh either. Medium tannins had a chalkiness to them. Coupled with the very thin fruit, the wine felt a little skeletal. Noticeable back-end heat suggested the alcohol is probably higher than the 13.5% listed. However,  the body was definitely medium rather than full. The finish dies pretty quickly.

The Aftermath

A “Red Russian” invented by my friend with a 1:1 ratio of Apothic Brew to milk served over ice.

After the tasting, one of my friends had the idea to add milk and ice to Apothic Brew to make a “Red Russian” cocktail. It was actually kind of tasty! Certainly weaker and tarter than a true White Russian with Kahlua, but drinkable and an interesting riff on the cocktail.

We also experimented with treating the Apothic Brew like a mulled wine by heating it up. We didn’t have mulling spices or dried fruit to add sweetness though. Overall, I would say this experiment was far less successful than the Red Russian. The coffee notes became more pronounced but so did the tartness and thinness with a bitter aftertaste.

Surprisingly, the Apothic Brew tasted better the next day. It actually smelled and tasted more like cold brew with some chocolate notes emerging to add flavor.

Should You Buy It?

While the Red Russian was the best, I was surprised at how much better the Apothic Brew tasted the next day–even out of a plastic cup.

I think the descriptions “watered down Kahlua” and “not horrible but not good” are probably the most apt. The Apothic Brew is certainly different but it’s not disgusting.

The wine’s definitely targeting cold brew fans more than wine drinkers. However, it does have potential for experimentation with wine-based cocktails (a la the Red Russian).

Ideally for its quality level, the Apothic Brew should be priced more inline with the $7-9 regular Apothic Red Blend or the $8-10 “hard cold brews” in the market but expect to pay a premium for its marketing budget with the wine priced in the $14-18 range.

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What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines

Photo by www.Pixel.la Free Stock Photos. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Veganism is described as one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements in the world. Some estimates claim that in the United states alone, there was a 500% increase between 2014 and 2017 in the number of Americans (around 19 million) identifying as vegan.

For the wine industry, that is a sizable demographic that retailers and wineries have value in marketing to.

So what makes a wine “vegan-friendly”?

For the most part, veganism is a code of conduct that avoids using any animal products or by products as well as anything that has been tested on animals. There are various reasons why people adopt veganism but often ethical concerns about the treatment of animals and impact on the environment are cited.

While wine is often assumed to be vegan, the use of animal-based fining agents such as casein (milk protein), albumin (egg whites), isinglass (fish bladders) and gelatin (animal collagen) in winemaking is problematic for many vegans.

Let’s Talk About Fining Agents

As Alison Crowe notes in The Wine Maker’s Answer Book, fining agents are used to help clarify and stabilize wine by binding to molecules such as proteins and excess tannins. These are items that can cause unsightly haze in the bottle, aggressive bitterness on the palate, off odors and flavors. The agent binds to the target molecule to form larger structures that eventually precipitates and settles to the bottom of tank or barrel as sediment.

Bruce W. Zoecklein et. al in Wine Analysis and Production classified the various fining agents into 8 categories based on their nature.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Isinglass and bentonite fining trials.

1.) Earths like bentonite and kaolin
2.) Proteins like the animal based ones above
3.) Polysaccharides like gum arabic and Sparkolloid
4.) Carbons like activated carbon
5.) Synthetic polymers like polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (or PVPP)
6.) Silica gels like silicon dioxide or Kieselsol
7.) Tannins often derived from insect galls on oak leaves though oak chip fining can also fall into this category.
8.) Others which includes both enzymatic fining (more fining aids rather than fining agents) and chelators that assist in the removal of metals such as “blue fining” with potassium ferrocyanide (illegal to use in the United States).

The different fining agents work on principles of electrical charge (like positively charged gelatin reacting with negatively charged tannins), bond formation (like the carbonyl group of PVPP bonding with the hydroxyl group of tannins) and by absorption/adsorption (like activated carbon absorbing off odors or bentonite adsorbing proteins).

There are positive and negative attributes to each fining agent with no one fining agent being perfect for every situation.

Animal-based Fining Agents

Egg whites (Albumin)

Used primarily to remove excess tannins. Works by forming hydrogen bonds with the hydroxyl groups of tannins. Compared to other fining agents like gelatin, albumin tends to remove less positive flavor and aroma traits. Egg whites have a long history of use in winemaking in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy. The usual addition is 1 to 3 egg whites per 225L (59 gallon) barrel.

Casein (Milk protein)

Used primarily to remove browning or pink color in white wine. Can also be used to remove some off odors. Works by adsorption and attracting negatively charged particles. Like with egg whites, it has a long history of use in wine production, particularly with the great white wines of Burgundy. It also has the benefit of reducing the concentration of iron and copper in wine. In red wines, it can negatively impact the wine by removing the polyphenol resveratrol that has been associated with various health benefits.

Gelatin (derived from the boiling of animal tissues like bones and tendons)

Used primarily to remove excess tannins. It has a positive charge that reacts to the negative charge of harsh tannins. It can be prone to over-fining that can strip a wine of positive flavors and aromas.

A heat stability trial for rose wines that have been fined with isinglass.

Isinglass (derived from the air bladder of fish like sturgeons)

Used primarily to help clarifying wines, remove excess tannins and to “unmask” or bring out varietal character.

Chitosan (derived from chitin in the exoskeleton of crustaceans)

Used primarily to remove haze causing proteins from white wines. A positively charged agent, it often needs to be paired with a negatively charged fining agent like Kieselsol to be most effective.

Blood Albumen (derived from the blood of ox and cattle)

Historically used but illegal in the United states, France and several other countries.

Vegan-friendly Alternatives

The website Barnivore is a database of wines and other liquors that have been vetted by users to be either “vegan-friendly” or not. In answering queries about their use of animal based fining agents, many wineries share their alternative methods.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Letting the wine settle and clarify on its own before racking into another container is one method to avoid using fining agents.

One common method is the use of time and gravity to let the wine settle and clear out on its own. This is the technique used by Baldacci in the Stags Leap District and many other wineries. Depending on several factors like the health of the grapes, method of pressing, pH and temperature, this method could take several months and even then the wine might not be completely stable. Some wineries facilitate this method with the use of mechanical centrifuges and ultra-filtration but these carry the risk of being overly aggressive and potentially stripping the wine of positive flavor and aroma attributes.

Along those lines, many wineries adopt a hands-off method of not fining or filtering their wines at all. This is the method used by many high-end wine producers like Black Cordon and Kapcsandy in Napa Valley. This does carry the risk of haze and sediment developing in the bottle. However, the risk is often presented to consumers as a trade-off for having potentially more complex and flavorful wines.

Bentonite and Yeast Fining
Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The lees sediment and volume loss from bentonite can be significant (between 5-10%). Using counter-fining agents like isinglass can help with lees compaction but would obviously make the wine not vegan-friendly.

The most used “vegan-friendly” fining agent is bentonite. This is a type of clay that can dramatically swell in size to adsorb protein molecules. This is the method used by wineries like Chinook in Washington State, Ideology in Napa Valley, Spier in South Africa and many others. One big drawback is that it causes significant loss of wine volume due to the heavy sediment it creates. As much as 5-10% of volume could be lost. Roger B. Boulton et al notes in Principles and Practices of Winemaking that these voluminous bentonite lees also create a large amount of solid waste that can have an environmental impact (such as sealing percolation ponds) if not properly disposed. In red wine, there is also a risk of color loss.

Some wineries like Amici use the technique of “yeast fining” for wines like their 2013 Russian River Pinot noir. This involves adding fresh yeast to a wine.  The cell walls of the yeast contain about 30% positively charged proteins. These can then adsorb many polyphenols and compounds which cause off odors. It brings the risk of the yeast breaking down as lees, releasing sulfur compounds and enhancing reductive notes. Also, if not removed by filtration, the yeast in the bottle can start re-fermenting any residual sugars. This would cause spritziness in what is, otherwise, supposed to be a non-sparkling wine.

PVPP and Other Methods

PVPP is a synthetic polymer that can remove bitter tannins and brown discoloration from white wines. Like casein, it can remove the polyphenol resveratrol from red wines. There is also a risk of overfining. This is because the PVPP also binds to desirable tannins and anthocyanins needed for structure and color.

Sparkalloid is a blend of polysaccharides and diatomaceous earth (fossilized algae) that can be used to clarify white wines. It does take significant time to eventually settle. This also creates a fair amount of waste with the DE that requires proper disposal.

Activated Carbon can be used to remove off-odors such as mercaptans (rotten eggs, burnt match). It does have the risk of overly oxidizing wine as well as stripping color and resveratrol from red wines.

New Developments on the Horizon

Ronald S. Jackson notes in Wine Science that fears about the prions potentially in gelatin and “Mad Cow” disease, encouraged studies into the use of plant proteins like wheat gluten as a substitute for gelatin. (Note: most gelatin used in US winemaking is derived from pigs rather than cows) Likewise, a New Jersey company has been experimenting with using pea proteins in conjunction with bentonite and silica as an alternative to gelatin.

Interest in food allergies have also spurned innovations with Scott Labs developing a technique to isolated chitosan from the fungus Aspergillus niger (instead of shellfish and crustaceans) that can be used as a fining agent.

The California based ATP Group has developed a way to extract tannin powder for fining from white wine grapes instead of insect galls to help soften tannins.

In 2016, a Swiss company announced that they were experimenting with the use of UV light to soften tannins in lieu of using animal-based protein fining agents.

The Biodynamic Quandary

Are wines produced from fruit sourced from biodynamic vineyards truly “vegan-friendly”? Several of the “preparations” used in biodynamic viticulture require the use of animal products such as cow horns (BD 500 and 501), stomachs, intestines and bladders.

In an anecdotal account of a visit with the vineyard manager of the biodynamic Pinot noir producer Sea Smoke, Kirsten Georgi (The Armchair Sommelier), describes how the “Biodynamic approach” to removing gophers without the use of poisons or chemicals involves trapping several gophers, killing them, burning their ashes and spreading those ashes over the vineyard during winter solstice as a means to “scare off” the rest of the gophers. This method of “peppering” vineyards with the ashes of pests is not unique to Sea Smoke with recipes on biodynamic websites recommending its use for everything from weeds, snails and insects to mice, rats, rabbits and opossum.

PETA Approved?
Photo by Mark Smith. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Manure composting at a biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania.

Despite these practices, organizations like PETA recommend biodynamic wineries as “vegan friendly”. The UK website Vegan Wines Online notes that while “…natural animal products can however be used in the growing process all the biodynamic wines they sell are somehow suitable for vegans.

Even organic viticulture could be problematic with the use of animal-derived bone and blood meal being used in lieu of chemical fertilizers. There is even debate if manure, as an animal by-product, is acceptable. Like honey and milk, manure doesn’t require killing the animal but still often requires farming to acquire.

What about the presence of insects in healthy and vibrant organic vineyards? Does that makes a wine less “Vegan-friendly”? Eschewing the use of chemicals often means more insects as MOG (material other than grapes). Absent expensive sorting these bugs can get caught up in the harvest. On the Barnivore website, Calcareous Vineyard in Paso Robles expressed this reservation though their wines were still classified as “vegan friendly”.

More Manipulated=More Vegan-friendly?

Are the most “vegan-friendly” vineyards the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides and chemical fertilizers? It seems like it when you compare it to organic and biodynamic vineyards with high insect MOG and animal-derived fertilizers.

Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

While avoiding using animal-based fining agents to remove excess tannins and haze forming proteins, big mega-corps can use other tricks to manipulate the wine with things like lab designed enzymes, oak adjuncts and Mega Purple which will “smooth out” bitter tannins and cover up off-flavors.

Just a single drop of Mega Purple had this white Riesling looking and smelling like a Grenache rose. Crazy stuff.

Sure, Charles Shaw reds (Two Buck Chuck), Sutter Home Cabernet Sauvignon, Meiomi Pinot noir and Yellow Tail reds are made without animal fining agents but should vegans (and really all wine drinkers) be concerned with what other products are being used to make these wines?

And while it can be exciting to see advances in the use of pea proteins and fining agents derived from fungi like Aspergillus niger, its worth asking if these are only adding to the laundry list of the 60+ (and counting) additives that can be used in winemaking–taking it even further away from being just “fermented grapes”?

Now What?

While I’m not vegan myself, I wholeheartedly support anyone that chooses to live their life by convictions. I respect their ethical concerns for the treatment of animals.  I also share their concerns about the environment animal products have. It’s not my wish to stress-out vegans who just want to relax and enjoy a nice bottle of wine.

I do believe it is fair to think about the big picture involved in many seemingly “vegan-friendly” wineries.  Often the viticulture and winemaking practices they use may not align with the ideals of many vegans.

However, it is clear from sites like Barnivore that there are tons of environmentally conscious wineries (many of which are even owned by vegans) that are producing vegan-friendly wines. They may not be the easiest to find at grocery stores or restaurant wine lists that can be dominated by the portfolios of the large mega-corps but these often small family-owned wineries are well worth seeking out and supporting.

And that’s something that I think both vegans and non-vegans can drink to.

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Trading Out instead of Trading Up


Seven Fifty Daily reposted an old Jon Bonné article from October about Do Wine Drinkers Really Trade Up?

This is a question that regularly percolates in the wine industry, occasionally bubbling over. Bonné gives lip service to (but doesn’t link) the New York Times op-ed by Bianca Bosker Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine that created a firestorm last year. The op-ed was an excerpt from her book, Cork Dork, which, likewise produced some interesting reactions.

The gist of Bosker’s take is that wine industry folks shouldn’t turn their noses up at so-called “cheap wine” because there is actually quality in these bottles, even if there isn’t terroir. To add seasoning to her opinion, she includes a quote from no less of an esteem source than that of Master of Wine Jancis Robinson.

“It is one of the ironies of the wine market today, that just as the price differential between cheapest and most expensive bottles is greater than ever before, the difference in quality between these two extremes is probably narrower than it has ever been.” — Jancis Robinson as quoted in the NYT March 17th, 2017.

This narrowing in the quality gap has come via technological advances and winemaker “tricks”, several of which Bosker list in her op-ed, like the use of the “cure-all” Mega-Purple, toasted oak chips, liquid oak tannins and fining agents like Ova-Pure and gelatin.

Still despite these mass manipulations, Bosker contended that these technological advances had help “democratize decent wine.”

Needless to say, many folks disagreed with Bosker, few more passionately than natural wine evangelist Alice Feiring in her post to Embrace the “Snobs.” Don’t Drink Cheap(ened) Wine. But my favorite rebuttal had to be from Alder Yarrow of Vinography.

By M.Minderhoud - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

I think Ronald would want to have a few words with Alder.

“[Bosker’s argument] is the wine equivalent of saying that McDonalds deserves the affection and respect of food critics and gourmets the world over for having engineered such tasty eats that can be sold at prices everyone can afford.” Alder Yarrow, Vinography March 23rd, 2017

Some certainly defended Bosker’s view with most of those defenses centered around the idea that these cheap democratized wines introduce people to a less intimidating world of wine. A world that they may eventually trade up from for “better wine”–whatever that may be.

“She seems to share the view that mass-marketed, everyday wines eventually will lead a person introduced to wine through them to step up to more challenging wines. This perception isn’t without precedent.

I have a hunch that industrial wines will prompt neophytes who find that they enjoy wine to search for wines that have more to say.” — Mike Dunne, Sacramento Bee April 11th, 2017

And this is where we get back to the concept of “Trading Up”

Many people in the wine industry are unconvinced that this phenomenon exist. While the Bonné article above tries to paint some nuances around the concept, you will find many writers who doubt that people ever really trade up and instead think that the reason why we are seeing an increase in “premiumization” is simply because older 4 liter box wine drinkers are dying off while newer Millennial drinkers are starting right off the bat with a little more pricier $7-10 wines. In the article linked above, The Wine Curmudgeon expresses skepticism that a Bogle or Rodney Strong drinker would ever “trade up” to a Silver Oak.

Bonné also notes that there is a significant segment of wine drinkers that are risk and change adverse, pointing to Constellation Brands’ Project Genome study that found around 40% of consumers prefer to stick with drinking the same ole thing they drink everyday.

British wine writer Guy Woodward, in another Seven Fifty Daily article, quoted a buying manager at the UK grocery chain Morrisons flat out saying that his customers aren’t interested in trading up, being quite content with their £5 (around $7) bottles.

Maybe the industry should count its blessings that Millennials are even buying $7-10 wines and just cross our fingers that the next batch of wine drinkers in Generation Z start out their wine journey in the $10-15 range?

Or we can stop talking about “Trading Up” and start talking about “Trading Out”.

A major hang up in the “Should we love ‘cheap wine’ debate?” is the focus on the word “cheap”– which means different things to different people. For some, it means the type of mass manipulated wines that Bosker describes from her visit to Treasury Wine Estates. For others, cheap just means…cheap. This is especially true when you are talking about a Millennial generation of wine drinkers saddled with student loans and a lower wage economy. It is a victory for the wine industry when a Millennial reaches for that $7-10 wine instead of a six-pack of craft beer.

By Jami430 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, on Wikimedia  Commons

I mean, seriously, we could get about 7 meals of avocado toast for the price of one bottle of Silver Oak.

But for “natural wine advocates” like Alice Feiring who want wine drinkers to take their wine seriously and folks, like me, who despair at supermarkets monopolized by brands made by the same handful of mega-corps like Constellation, Treasury and Gallo, perhaps the potential of the Millennial market offers the perfect solution to our woes.

Going back to Alder Yarrow’s Vinography post, he references a Bosker rebuttal from Troon Vineyard’s general manager Craig Camp, that aptly notes the abundance of inexpensive but non-industrialize wine on the market. These include under $20 wines made in Beaujolais, the Cote du Rhone, Languedoc, Spain, Portugal, etc. Heck, you can even find tasty wines from these regions under $10. Now you might not find these in a grocery store, but they exist and often just down the road from the grocery at your local wine shop.

But how do we get drinkers to seek out these wines?

I think it is best to start small and encourage wine drinkers to get in the habit of “trading out” which simply means trying something new. Even if you are still shopping at your convenient grocery store looking at the litany of industrialize wines–try a new one. Sure, grab a bottle of your regular “go-to” but also grab something else. Just one bottle of something you never had before. Try it. If you hate it, you still have your ole trusty.

Why? Because drinking the same wine over and over again is like eating the same food. To echo back to Yarrow’s quote, you wouldn’t eat at Mcdonald’s everyday, why would you want to drink the same thing everyday?

So let’s say you try something different but in the same grape or from the same wine region. That’s a good start but it is still like limiting yourself to just one type of cuisine (Italian, Chinese, Indian, pizza, etc). Now granted, you can have a fair amount of pleasure exploring all the delicious possibilities of pizzas or Indian cuisine, just like you could have exploring all the delicious possibilities of the Riesling grape or the wines of Washington State. But you have even more potential for more pleasure when you trade out your standby cuisine for a chance to try something different–like Moroccan food or stuffed portobello mushrooms.

So many Cru Beaujolais….which incidentally goes great with both pizza and Indian food.

Encouraging the wanderlust and sense of adventure that Millennials have demonstrated, is the best path for wine industry folks promoting alternatives to industrialized wines. Yeah, mass produced and mass manipulated wines are probably going to be the starting point for a lot of wine drinkers. Bosker is quite right in that their accessibility and approachabilty has helped democratize wine.

But stop stressing if people reach for bottles of 19 Crimes or Apothic. Instead, keep encouraging them to “trade out” at least one of those bottles for something, anything different.

Perhaps if they keep trading out and exploring new wines, they may eventually find themselves on the wine industry’s holy path of “trading up” into more esteemed quality wine. But even if they don’t end up trading up to a higher price tier of wine, at least their journey is going to be a heck of a lot more interesting than just eating at McDonalds.

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