Tag Archives: Meiomi

The Farmers Market Conundrum

This College Humor skit (2:37) about farmers markets perfectly sums up some of the struggles that small family wineries have in competing against supermarket brands.

Yes, everybody loves the idea of shopping local and buying wines from small family wineries. But, gosh darn it, why does it have to be so hard?

Why do I have to actually go to a winery or a small wine shop to find their product instead of picking it up with my toilet paper at Costco?

Why do they charge $25-35 for their few hundred case lot Pinot noir when you can get one of the 6 million-plus bottles of Meiomi made every year for $15-20?

How come these wineries don’t just sell to Olive Garden where they can pour me a sample at my table?

It’s a hard truth that the best of intentions often hit a wall when they run up against convenience and price.

Photo by Sarbjit Bahga. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0

Rain or shine, farmers tend to their produce and sell their wares.
Similarly, wine growers are in their vines come rain or shine doing their best to craft a product worth putting their name on.

Wine consumers may love the idea of shopping small but, just like the folks in the farmers market parody, they often end up eating fat, greasy McDonald’s instead.

The Supermarket (brands) advantage

As with supermarket produce, the big mass-produced brands take advantage of their near-monopoly of distribution channels. You don’t have to search the big brands out. They’re readily available not only at the grocery stores but at Costco, big-box retailers, chain-restaurant wine lists and even gas stations.

Like McDonald’s, you see them everywhere with that omnipresence giving a halo effect of reliability and consistency. I mean, these wines wouldn’t be everywhere if they weren’t good, right?

Small wineries will never have this type of visibility or convenience at their disposal. With the massive consolidation of distributors, many wineries are finding retail channels choked off. Even those that do squeeze themselves into a distributor’s book, often find their wines gathering dust in a warehouse as sales reps focus on their most prominent portfolios.

To find these small brands, consumers usually have to visit the winery (or their website) directly or shop at wine shops with curated wine selections. This requires “work” on the consumer’s part which is, unfortunately, an inherent disadvantage.

The $5 Onion versus the $5 Bottle.

Photo by Jim Heaphy. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

The original Charles Shaw actually set out to make high quality, hand-crafted wine but ended up going bankrupt.
That allowed Fred Franzia of Bronco Wine Co. to scoop up his label on the cheap.

Another advantage of the big brands is that their mass-production gives them an economy of scale. When you’re sourcing from thousands of acres and cranking out millions of cases at industrial warehouse-sized wineries, you can make a $5 bottle of wine–or even a $2.49 one.

The mom and pop wineries who are hand harvesting their grapes from a few acres, fermenting them in small lots with family members handling the bottling and packing line could never come close to that scale.

The price of their wines is going to reflect the smaller-scale production value of their labor. So, yeah, they’re going to be more expensive than a whole bag of onions at the supermarket.

Can you taste the difference?

Perhaps. Sometimes the difference is dramatic like comparing farm-fresh eggs to the factory produced supermarket eggs. But other times noticing the differences only comes after you’ve been exposed to them repeatedly.

If all you regularly consume are conventionally-grown leafy greens, then you might not notice at first the big difference between those and the organic greens from the farmers market.

But spend some time eating those locally sourced, fresh greens. Then go back to the cheaper supermarket stuff. The drop in quality becomes quite apparent.

Photo by Autumn Mott autumnmott. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Seriously, fresh eggs are AMAZING. They will rock your world like a Syrah from the Rocks Districts of Walla Walla.
Try comparing that to a YellowTail Shiraz and the difference is night and day.

Likewise, if you regularly consume mass-produced supermarket wine, your palate becomes used to the sneaky sweetness of residual sugar and mega-purple or the artificially lowered acid and added oak chips. Comparing that to a small production wine made without those tricks and manipulation may provide a stark contrast at first. But it may not.

However, if these small production wines were your go-to wines, the difference would be way more noticeable when compared to the supermarket stuff.

It’s “kinda” not that bad, though.

Shopping small is hard. There is always going to be access issues and a cost difference compared to the mass-produced brands.

The joke of the College Humor skit is that people only “kinda” support farmers market when it’s easy and convenient. But you know what? “Kinda” is better than nothing.

Even an “only when it’s easy” commitment to shop small makes a difference–in many different ways.

The competition of farmers market and people being more concerned about where their food is coming from has increased the overall quality of choices at supermarkets. Successful retailers know that they can’t wholly skate by on just convenience and pricing.

And while I use the term “supermarket wine” as a catch-all for big, mass-produced brands, there are a lot of supermarkets that have upped their game–carving out a little bit of shelf-space for wines from smaller family producers.

The Moral of the Story

My best advice to consumers who want to keep their heart in the right place is to keep doing what you can. When you are at a restaurant and notice unfamiliar names on the wine list, give them a try–even if they may be a couple of dollars more than your regular choice.

I can guarantee you that the sweat, tears and passion that went into that small production wine was more than a couple of dollars worth to the family that put their heart into making it.

19 crimes

Though sometimes you should be skeptical of the “real people” behind the wine too. Especially if they’re long dead and are talking to you as part of a marketing gimmick.

If you’re at a wine shop or even a grocery store that has a wine steward, ask them about what new wines have come in and if they know the backstory of who produced it. While the big, mega-corps come up with new labels and brands virtually every week, they rarely have a backstory or real people behind them. They’re usually just fancy, colorful labels with gimmicky promotions.

A good steward will know if a wine has real people behind it.

And if they don’t, you asking questions will encourage them to learn more and improve their selection.

When you get a chance to visit the “farmers market” of wine country, skip the tourist trap locations and seek out the small family wineries along your way. You’ll be amazed at the hospitality and behind the scenes insights that you can get when its the owner, winemaker or another family member on the other side of the tasting bar.

Anything you can do, when you can do it, helps in the grand scheme of things. Even if it’s only “kinda,” small family wineries will take all the support they can get.

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Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?

A few days ago I wrote about the “Boredom Factor” that is sapping Millennials’ enthusiasm for wine. But engaging Millennials with things that are new, interesting and authentic is only part of the battle. The industry also needs to reframe the discussion about value and pricing.

Photo by Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Let’s face it, wine delivers horrible “bang for the buck”–especially compared to other alcoholic beverages. This is true at all price points, but particularly at the low-end (and ironically titled) “value wine” segment.

For smaller boutique wineries, worrying about “value wine” might not seem like a big deal. But the issues impacting the top shelf take root on the bottom.

If you want to know why $100+ bottles of Napa Cab are in danger, head to your local grocery store and look around.

Millennial Math in the Grocery Store

I’ll get to our boutique and more premium wine brands below. But let’s start with a cash-strapped Millennial who want to spend less than $10 for something to drink. You could go to the wine aisle and find stuff like this.

Yellow Tail and other under $10 wines

Then there are other options as well–like Barefoot, Arbor Mist, Cooks, Andre’s and more. At this one grocery store, I estimated that around 40% of their wine selection was sub $10. So, diversity, yeah?

But they all fall into the same “sameness” of sweet, simple or boring Cabs, Chards and Red Blends. Sure, you have the occasional gimmick of things like the “living labels” of Treasury Wine Estates’ 19 Crimes. However, after the novelty of a cute label wears off, it’s still the same boring juice in the bottle.

Now right next to the wine department in many stores is a beer department which has likely been greatly expanded thanks to the craft beer boom.

Let’s see what under $10 options our Millennial shopper has there.

22 oz Beer bomber singles

These are 22 oz “bomber” sizes of beer which is only a tad smaller than the standard 750ml (25.4 oz) bottle of wine. In this one Albertsons grocery store, I counted over 80 different SKUs of at least 20 different styles of beer among under $10 bombers. And this was a rather small grocery selection for the Seattle-area market.

If you think of beer styles (Belgian Tripel, New England IPA, Oatmeal Stout, etc.) like grape varieties, the beer department has the wine industry smoked when it comes to answering the “Boredom Factor.”

Even among the same style (like IPA), you are far more likely to find distinct personalities and differences (hoppiness) among various brews than you ever would dream of finding among under $10 Cabs, Chards and Red Blends.

I have a fair amount of industry folks who read this blog so I’m going to ask you to step back and take off your “wine hat” for a moment. If you were a young post-college Millennial shopper with no personal connection (like having visited a winery) or long-term relationship with drinking wine, what would you spend your $10 on?

Are we just waiting for better times?

Yeah, things suck right now for the broke 20-something Millennial. But can we really predict their future buying potential based on the habits of their 20s?

It’s true that most Millennials have not entered their peak earning ages. Likewise, most have not reached the ages when previous generations started embracing wine.

Jason Haas, of Tablas Creek, makes that later point particularly well as he points out some of the silver linings amidst the gloom and doom assessments about Millennials.

The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. — Jason Haas, Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us. 2/4/2019

I concede Haas’ point and appreciate his optimism. I’ve certainly not hidden my affection or admiration for Tablas Creek’s business acumen. Though Haas is a “proud Gen Xer,” he pretty much runs Tablas Creek like a Millennial with a brand that embraces transparency, authenticity and sustainability along with pushing the envelope for new and exciting wines.

Without a doubt, if more wineries followed Tablas Creek’s example, the Boredom Factor would almost be a non-issue.

But what I fret that Haas’ optimism overlooks is the habits and perceptions that are being ingrained into Millennial consumers right now. Haas’ generation (and the Boomers) had the benefit of a promising economic outlook before them–where there was the potential for growth in earnings and career development.

That is a luxury that many Millennials don’t have and this is something that we are all too aware of. Even if things get a little bit better into our late 30s and 40s, it’s going to be very difficult to shake the mindset and spending habits of our formative 20s and early 30s.

Valuing “Value”

While things are not as bad as they were during the Great Depression, social scientists and economists are already drawing parallels to the spending habits and mindset of Millennials with those of the Silent Generation born between 1925-1945.

Even though the Silent Generation benefited from the post-war boom, many kept the spending habits imprinted on them during the hardship of the Great Depression. Prominent among those retained habits was the idea of stretching your dollar–even when you had more dollars to stretch.

Millennials certainly like to be entertained. We want experiences and to feel connected. And we avoid boredom like the plague.

But we deeply value “value.”

The $15-25 Sweet Spot

Let’s go back to the grocery store and look at the more premium $15-25 “sweet spot” range of wine pricing–with emphasis on the sweet.

Meiomi & 7 deadly with cheaper spirits

Usually, Meiomi is not over $25 so, for the sake of argument, I’m including it here.

When you get up to the higher price points, wine’s competition is not just beer (with many interesting six and twelve packs available in this price range) but also spirits as well. But spirits adds another dimension because they’re far less perishable and the servings are much smaller.

With wine and beer, you ideally want to enjoy it the same day that it was opened. But a comparably priced spirit can last weeks or even months.

Now I can hear wine folks scoffing at the idea of Captain Morgan or Deep Eddy taking away throat share from anyone older than 23. Yeah, I get it. The “Fireball crowd” eventually grows up. But for those folks who lose the sweet tooth and want something with more complexity, the spirits department still offers numerous options–especially among whiskeys.

Plus, because of how long a bottle of whiskey last, a Millennial could even stretch their $25 drinking budget to $40 and still get some very compelling value.

Old Forester and Woodford reserve

Personally not a fan of the Redneck Riviera but I’d take it over Meiomi any day of the week.

Granted, you have to sometimes deal with the inconvenience of getting the product out of lockup. Also, in some states (like Washington) there are crazy high liquor taxes to account for too.

However, this is all part of the sum-value Millennial Math that we deal with on every trip to the store. What the wine industry needs to concern itself with is how all these figures are adding up.

Banking on Premium Spenders

I want to embrace the optimism that as Millennials feel financially secure, they will turn to wine and start spending in the premium category. That means not only a strong wine industry but also a strong economy overall.

But I can’t shake the feeling that even if Millennials have more money to spend, that they’re not going to be impressed with the value they see in high-end wines. This is something that I’ve personally experienced myself. I’m very fortunate in my financial situation to where I can occasionally splurge on bottles like Opus One, Silver Oak, Cristal and Petrus.

You know what? I’d rather drink Pappy.

I feel this way even though I’m a highly-engaged wine drinker with a personal connection to wine. I’ve been bitten hard by the bug and have a healthy cellar to show for it.

But if you ask me for my brutally honest choice of whether to spend another $2600-4000 on a bottle of Petrus or something like the 1981 Glenmorangie Pride, I would choose the Glenmorangie every time.

And this is coming from someone that keeps a picture of Petrus as their background banner on Facebook!

However, when I step back and let my Millennial nature take over–when I think about the sum-value of what I’m getting compared to what I’m paying–whiskey beats out wine.

If that’s the case with someone like me, then how do you think the math is playing out with my co-horts?

The Petruses of the World are not the ones that need to worry.

Petrus is not going to have problems selling their wine. Even if Millennials aren’t spending at levels of past generations, wineries like Petrus make so little at such high prices that they only need a few folks to bite the bullet each vintage. There is always going to be enough people like me who shell out thousands to attend our Super Bowl–even if it ends up being a 13-3 snorefest.

The real hurt is going to be felt by all the wineries making NFL regular-season and playoff-type wines. They’re the ones that are going to have to convince Millennials that their wines are worth the price of the ticket.

Let’s go back and look at our supermarket shelf at some of the $50-100 options.
$50 to 100 wine vs spirits

That is an excellent price on the Grgich. The only thing that kept me from pulling the trigger was wondering how long it had been standing upright under the supermarket’s harsh lights.

Again, why spend $50-100 for something that needs to be enjoyed mostly in one night (unless you spend another $200+ for a preservation system like the Coravin) over something you could stretch for months?

Wine’s saving grace has been that only a small segment of drinkers have developed a taste for brown spirits like whiskey, tequila and rum. But those categories are growing–especially among Millennials and women.

If the boredom factor doesn’t kill off the $100+ Napa Cab, brown spirits certainly will.

But it all starts back in the beginning, with the spending habits and perception of value that Millennials are developing now with their under $10 and $15-25 options. Here is where wineries are losing the battle before the war even begins.

Yeah, Millennials wanderlust is great and can definitely help wineries that are offering different and exciting wines. But that same wanderlust also fuels our openness in trying other beverages like craft beer and brown liquors. The more we try them, the more those other options become players in the “sum-value” game of Millennial Math.

And, right now, that math is seriously working against the wine industry.

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Stop Scaring the Newbies — A Look at the Wine Hierarchy of Needs

While I greatly enjoy his philosophical pondering on his Edible Arts blog , I couldn’t disagree more with Dwight Furrow’s recent post decrying “Bad Advice for Novice Wine Drinkers”. The offending guidance is to drink what you like because “If you like it, it is good”.

Furrow dislikes that approach because he feels it curbs a desire to learn more about wine and expand horizons.

The slogan assumes that there is nothing beyond your merely liking something that accounts for its quality, nothing more to be discovered and nothing more to be enjoyed. Thus, if you endorse this claim you have no reason to recognize the limitations of what you like or search for something better. It is a shame to encourage such an attitude in novice wine drinkers. — Dwight Furrow, Bad Advice for Novice Wine Drinkers, 12/13/2018

Furrow errs in two regards here.

For one, there are a lot of drinkers who will never expand beyond simply drinking what they like. They will never develop a desire to want to learn more. Nor will they ever care to think about the quality of what they’re drinking. While that can be a shame, it’s only a shame to us–the Winos who want more from our wines.

We are the ones shedding the tears of shame at all the things we feel our fellow wine drinkers are missing–not the newbie that is happily content sipping on Apothic Brew.

The second area that Furrow overlooks is that of internal inertia or motivation. The novice drinkers who are destined to explore and expand their horizons will feel that inertia on their own. They don’t need “gentle coaxing”–especially not in the form of telling them that what they’re currently drinking is crap.

My outlook on this is shaped by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which we can adapt to the motivation and growth of wine drinkers.

Image source https://medium.com/@crypto_maven/bitcoin-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-7bf1be0a366c

Original image from Bitcoin & Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Drawing by Kenneth buddha Jeans with text added.

A Wine Hierarchy of Needs

Our motivations as wine drinkers are not that dissimilar from our motivations for everything else in life. There are basic needs that enjoying wine can fulfill as well as the potential for more emotional and intellectual satisfaction.

There are other benefits to viewing wine drinkers through Maslow’s pyramid. You get a sense for the breadth of each level. The Winos among us would love for everyone to get the same enjoyment with wine that we do. Yet, while we want to share our geeky connoisseurship, most people are going to plateau before that. Most wine drinkers find their needs met at other levels.

The problem comes when we try to put expectations and judgement on the motivations of people who are at these different levels. When we expect newbies who are driven by safety or physiological motivations to “know better” or at least want to know better, we’re not educating them. We’re not helping them to “master” their current level and potentially move on to the next.

If anything, we’re scaring them back to the comforts of what’s familiar and giving them little desire to want to associate with wine or “wine people”.

To really educate and appeal to wine drinkers at all levels, we need to understand where they are in their journey and what is motivating them.

Physiological – I want to drink wine with food or for my own pleasure.

This is where everyone starts–even Fred Dame, Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker. Everyone first approached wine as something to drink. We may have been introduced to it on the dinner table with family or in a red solo cup at party.

Photo by Arnaud 25. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Or as god knows what mixed into a sangria.

It was an accompaniment to something–whether it be a meal or a moment–and likely we did not give much thought to what was in the glass.

For a lot of people who drink wine, they will never go beyond this level. Wine will still be “foodstuff” to have at the table like it’s been in Europe for centuries. Or it will be “booze”, something to give a warm buzz that is more flavorful than beer and doesn’t hit as hard as a cocktail.

But there will be people who begin paying attention to what is in their glass. The first serious question that they’ll ask will be “Do I like this?”

Safety – I don’t want to buy something I’m not going to like.

When a wine drinkers starts to think about what they like and don’t like in wine, they become motivated by “safety”. They don’t want to waste their time, money or pleasure drinking things that they don’t enjoy.

Photo by mari. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The best education that sommeliers and wine stewards can give newbies at this level is help with language to explain what they like or don’t like in a wine.
This is NOT the level to be “educating” them on good tastes vs bad.

These drinkers might not have the language to explain what they like but they eventually notice patterns. They might not like the “bitterness” or “sour” flavors of tannins and acid. Instead, it could be the siren songs of residual sugar and “smoothness” that beckons them.

This is the stage where newbies often get the scorned advice to “drink what they like”. But the idea is not to stunt their growth or education. The idea is to keep them enjoying wine and to not get turned off or intimidated.

If we start trashing their tastes and enjoyment, we slam the door shut on the next level of motivation before the newbie even get’s a chance to peek inside.

Belonging – I want to go wine tasting and travel to wineries with friends.
Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The tasting room not only gives wine drinkers a sense of social belonging, but also exposure to different wines that they may end up liking.

Wine is a social beverage. It brings people together. But it can also push people away.

If we scare newbie drinkers into doubting themselves–into thinking their tastes are bad–we send the message that they don’t belong. We give them no motivation to continue exploring.

Yet for the people that reach this stage, there is internal inertia that exposes them to other horizons. Wine drinkers that enjoy wine enough to want to share it end up meeting fellow wine lovers. They begin seeing a world beyond their own experiences. They’re introduced to other wines that people enjoy and, perhaps, find their own tastes broaden.

Most importantly, here is where the seeds of education that us Winos so desperately want to sow can finally be planted.

Esteem – I really want to learn more about wine.
Photo by GoodWineUnder20. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The motivation of esteem for wine lovers can lead them to want to attend wine classes and seek out various certifications.

This is where we get the audience of wine drinkers who can understand Furrow’s (very valid) point that “Discovery, learning, and insight ultimately depend on evaluation.

They begin to realize that there are quality distinctions between wine. There are reasons why a great Burgundy cru is more sought after than something like Meiomi or Mark West.

They might not at first recognize all the reasons behind those distinctions–terroir, viticulture and winemaking–but they at least have a sense of its existence.

These are the people that seek out blogs like Edible Arts and SpitBucket to read. However, while I’m sure Dwight would love to see his readership grow as much as I do, we can’t kid ourselves into thinking that this level of the pyramid is ever going to be as large as the preceding levels.

There will always be people whose motivation with wine “caps out” at other levels. There will always be people that find wine’s fulfillment of their physiological, safety and social belonging needs is enough.

And, honestly, that is perfectly fine.

Self-Actualization – Wino

I think that there is a fear that if “good quality” wine is not being appreciated by the masses, then these wines are going to be harder to find. There is some validity to that fear because wine is, after all, a business. Wineries need to sell wine to survive. For small family producers, especially, the quest to eek out a living is fraught with challenges.

Bob Betz

The realm of “Winos” is not limited to just sommeliers, stewards and bloggers.
There will always be high quality wine to enjoy made by Winos, like Bob Betz, who are motivated by a need to share their passion for wine.

I get that. This is why I pick up the same banner of education as so many sommeliers, wine stewards and bloggers like Dwight Furrow do. It’s part of being a “Wino”.

However, even though this tip of the pyramid reflects only a tiny segment of the masses, it is still populated by a lot of crazy folks. Folks who are willing to devote their lives to crafting high quality wine that they not only want to drink but also share.

These are the people who don’t get into winemaking to make a fortune selling to the masses.

Instead, these winemakers do it because once you reach the motivation of “Self-Actualization”, of realizing who you are and what you’re passionate about, the next step of “Transcendence” is about sharing that part of you and positively impacting others.

Let the newbies drink what they like and let them grow if they want to.

But it’s okay if they don’t grow. It’s okay if they’re happy and content with where they are and what they are drinking.

Rather than fretting, give a toast, instead, to the joy of every wine drinker getting their needs met.

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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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60 Second Wine Review — Tuli Pinot noir

Update: The 2016 version of this wine was included in my blind tasting of Joe Wagner vs Oregon Pinot noirs. The Tuli was picked by the majority of tasters as a clear Wagner wine.

A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Tuli Pinot noir from Sonoma County.

The Geekery

Tuli is made by Joe Wagner, son of Chuck Wagner (of Caymus fame), and is part of a portfolio of wines that he produces for his Copper Cane Wines & Provisions company.

Along with Tuli, Copper Cane also makes Belle Glos, Elouan, The Willametter, BÖEN, Torial, Quilt, Beran, Carne Humana and the sparkling wine Steorra. Many of these new brands were developed by Wagner after he sold his Meiomi label to Constellation Brands in 2015 for $315 million dollars.

The name Tuli comes from the language of the native Wappo tribe that originally inhabited Sonoma County and means “sharing”. The fruit is sourced from throughout the county, including the Russian River Valley, with a primary focus on the cooler coastal regions of the Sonoma Coast, Fort-Ross Seaview and parts of the new Petaluma Gap AVA.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Very ripe black cherry with noticeable vanilla oak and baking spice–particularly clove and nutmeg. Around the edges some cola spice comes out with air.

Photo by Benny Mazur. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

With the very ripe cherry fruit, vanilla and baking spice, this Tuli Pinot has a lot of cherry pie notes.

On the palate those very ripe cherry notes come through and, coupled with the vanilla richness, gives this wine a lot of weight. Medium acidity helps balance the medium-plus tannins and body but could probably be a tad higher. The spices still make their presence known as they extend through the moderate-length finish.

The Verdict

The Tuli is a “Joe Wagner Wine” through and through with its big body and soft, plush fruit. It’s not as sweet tasting as Meiomi was (probably because it doesn’t have Riesling and Gewürztraminer blended in) nor is it quite as full-bodied and oaky as the Belle Glos Pinots are–though there is definitely oak and weight in the Tuli.

At around $25-30, it hits a “Goldilocks niche” between the two styles. Above all, this is a Wagner wine with the family pedigree very evident.

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Who makes your Supermarket Wine? (A Running List)

Sept 2018 update: If I come across new connections that haven’t been widely publish I will update this page. But I’d like to direct folks interested in this info to Elizabeth Schneider’s way more user-friendly and searchable list on her Wine For Normal People blog. It’s also regularly updated and is a fantastic resource that is worth bookmarking.

Beverage Dynamics released their report this month of The Fastest Growing Wine Brands and Top Trends of 2017.

One of the most glaring features of the report is how often you see the names Constellation Brands, E & J Gallo, The Wine Group and more appear in the rankings with their multitude of different brands. As I described in my post The Facade of Choice, when you walk the wine department of your typical grocery store the vast majority of the wines you see are going to be made by the same handful of companies.

It’s important for consumers to be aware of just how artificially limited their choices really are–especially because consumers should have choices when there are over 4000 wineries in California, over 700 each in Washington and Oregon and tens of thousands more across the globe.

Yet the average wine drinker is only ever going to see a fraction of a percent of these wines–especially those of us in the US. This is not just because our archaic three-tier distribution system severely limits consumers’ access to wine but also because of the wave of consolidations among large wine distributors.

Consolidation of Choices
Photo by Tatsuo Yamashita. Uploaded on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

To the best of my knowledge, General Mills and Unilever are not in the wine business….yet.

For the sake of efficiency (and profits) these large distributors tend to focus on the big clients in their portfolios–the Constellations and the Gallos. They can back up a trailer to a warehouse and load in pallets of “different wines” with different labels from all across the globe and then take that trailer right to the major grocery chains. With about 42% of the “off premise” wine (as opposed to on-premise restaurant purchases) in the US being bought at supermarkets, every consumer should take a hard look at how limited their options really are.

In some cases, you have more true options in the yogurt section than you do in the wine department.

For a couple years now I’ve been keeping an Excel spreadsheet of the various brands I’ve came across and which mega-corporation they’re made by. This is FAR from an exhaustive list and has room for a lot of expansion. Plus with the way that winery brands get bought and sold almost like trading cards it will probably be outdated by the time I hit publish. If you know of any additions or errors, please post in the comments.

Note some of the names are linked to the companies by exclusive distribution agreements.

Constellation Brands

7 Moons
Alice White
Arbor Mist
Black Box
Blackstone
Charles Smith Wines
Clos du Bois
Cooks
Cooper & Thief
Diseno
Dreaming Tree
Drylands
Estancia
Franciscian Estate
Hogue
Inniskillian
J. Roget
Jackson Triggs
Kim Crawford
Manischewitz
Mark West
Meiomi
Robert Mondavi
Monkey Bay
Mount Veeder
Naked Grape
Night Harvest
Nk’Mip
Nobilo
Paso Creek
Paul Masson
Prisoner
Primal Roots
Ravenswood
Red Guitar
Rex Goliath
Rioja Vega
Ruffino
Schrader
Simi
Simply Naked
Taylor Dessert
Thorny Rose
Toasted Head
The Prisoner
Vendange
Wild Horse
Woodbridge

E & J Gallo

Alamos
Allegrini
Andre
Apothic
Ballatore
Barefoot
Bella Sera
Bodega Elena de Mendoza
Boone’s Farm
Bran Caia
Bridlewood
Carlo Rossi
Carnivor
Chocolate Rouge
Clarendon Hills
Columbia Winery
Covey Run
Dancing Bull
DaVinci
Dark Horse
Don Miguel Gascon
Ecco Domani
Edna Valley Vineyard
Fairbanks
Frei Brothers
Gallo of Sonoma
Ghost Pines
J Vineyards
La Marca
Laguna
Las Rocas
Liberty Creek
Livingston Cellars
Locations
Louis Martini
MacMurray Ranch
Madria Sangria
Martin Codax
Maso Canali
McWilliams
Mia Dolcea
Mirassou
Orin Swift
Peter Vella
Pieropan
Polka Dot
Prophecy
Rancho Zabaco
Red Bicyclette
Red Rock
Redwood Creek
Sheffield Cellars
Starborough
Souverain
Talbott
The Naked Grape
Tisdale
Winking Owl
Turning Leaf
Vin Vault
Whitehaven
Wild Vines
William Hill Estate

Brown-Foreman

Sonoma Cutrer
Korbel Sparkling wine

Delicato Family Vineyards

Black Stallion
Bota Box
Brazin
Diora
Domino
Gnarly Head
Irony
Night Owl
Noble Vines
Twisted Wines
Z. Alexander Brown

Terlato Wines

Boutari
Bodega Tamari
Chimney Rock
Domaine Tournon
Ernie Els Wines
Federalist
Hanna
Josmeyer
Il Poggione
Luke Donald
Markham
Mischief & Mayhem
Rochioli
Rutherford Hill
Santa Margherita
Seven Daughters
Sokol Blosser
Tangley Oaks

Precept Brands

Alder Ridge
Browne Family
Canoe Ridge Vineyard
Cavatappi
Chocolate Shop
Gruet
House Wine
Pendulum
Primarius
Red Knot
Ross Andrews
Sagelands
Sawtooth
Shingleback
Ste. Chappelle
Waitsburg Cellars
Washington Hills
Waterbrook
Wild Meadows
Willow Crest

Vintage Wine Estates

B.R. Cohn
Buried Cane
Cameron Hughes
Cartlidge & Browne
Cherry Pie
Clayhouse Wines
Clos Pegase
Cosentino Winery
Cowgirl Sisterhood
Delectus Winery
Firesteed
Game of Thrones
Girard
Girl & Dragon
Gouguenheim
Horseplay
If You See Kay
Layer Cake
Middle Sister
Monogamy
Promisqous
Purple Cowboy
Qupé
Sonoma Coast Vineyards
Swanson
Tamarack Cellars
Viansa Sonoma
Windsor
Wine Sisterhood

Ste Michelle Wine Estates

14 Hands
Chateau Ste Michelle
Col Solare
Columbia Crest
Conn Creek
Erath
Merf
Northstar
O Wines
Patz & Hall
Red Diamond
Seven Falls
Snoqualmie
Spring Valley Vineyard
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Stimson
Tenet/Pundit wines
Vila Mt. Eden
Villa Maria

Crimson Wine Group

Archery Summit
Chamisal
Double Canyon
Forefront
Pine Ridge
Seghesio
Seven Hills Winery

Jackson Family Estates

Arrowood
Arcanum
Byron
Cambria
Cardinale
Carmel Road
Copain
Edmeades
Freemark Abbey
Gran Moraine
Hickinbotham
Kendall Jackson
La Crema
La Jota
Lokoya
Matanzas Creek
Mt. Brave
Murphy-Goode
Penner-Ash
Siduri
Silver Palm
Stonestreet
Tenuta di Arceno
Yangarra Estate
Zena Crown
Wild Ridge

Vina Concha y Toro

Almaviva
Bonterra
Casillero del Diablo
Concha y Toro
Cono Sur
Don Melchior
Fetzer
Five Rivers
Jekel
Little Black Dress
Trivento

The Wine Group

13 Celsius
Almaden
AVA Grace
Benzinger
Big House
Chloe
Concannon
Corbett Canyon
Cupcake
Fish Eye
FlipFlop
Foxhorn
Franzia
Glen Ellen
Herding Cats
Insurrection
Love Noir
Mogen David
Seven Deadly Zins
Slow Press
Pinot Evil
Stave & Steel

Treasury Wine Estates

19 Crimes
Acacia
Beaulieu Vineyards
Beringer
Butterfly Kiss
BV Coastal
Cellar 8
Ch. St Jean
Chalone
Colores del Sol
Crème de Lys
Dynamite Vineyards
Etude
Gabbiano
Greg Norman
Hewitt Vineyard
Lindeman
Matua
Meridian
New Harbor
Once Upon a Vine
Penfolds
Provenance
Rosemount
Rosenblum Cellars
Seaview
Sledgehammer
Snap Dragon
Souverain
St. Clement
Stags’ Leap Winery
Stark Raving
Sterling
The Walking Dead
Uppercut
Wolf Blass
Wynns Coonawarra

Bronco Wine Company

Black Opal
Carmenet
Cellar Four 79
Century Cellars
Charles Shaw
Crane Lake
Colores del Sol
Estrella
Forest Glen
Forestville
Gravel Bar
Great American Wine Co.
Hacienda
Little Penguin
Montpellier
Quail Ridge
Rare Earth
Robert Hall
Sea Ridge
Stone Cellars

(LVMH) Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey

Bodega Numanthia
Cheval Blanc
Cheval de Andes
Cloudy Bay
Dom Perignon
Domaine Chandon
D’yquem
Krug
Mercier
Moet & Chandon
Newton Vineyard
Ruinart
Terrazas de Los Andes
Veuve Clicquot

Trinchero Estates

Bandit
Charles & Charles
Dona Paula
Duck Commander
Fancy Pants
Folie a Deux
Fre
Joel Gott
Los Cardos
Menage a Trois
Montevina
Napa Cellars
Newman’s Own
Pomelo
SeaGlass
Sutter Home
Sycamore Lane
The SHOW

Deutsch Family Brands

Cave de Lugny
Clos de los Siete
Enza
Eppa
Fleurs de Praire
Hob Nob
Joseph Carr
Josh Cellars
Kunde Family
Peter Lehmann
Ramon Bilbao
Ruta 22
Skyfall
The Calling
The Crossing
Villa Pozzi

Guarachi Wine Partners

Black Ink
Castillo de Monseran
Guarachi
Kaiken
Nobilissima
Santa Ema
Surf-Swim
Tensley
Tenshen

Foley Family Wines

Acrobat
Awatere Pass
Butterfield Station
Chalk Hill Winery
Chalone Vineyard
Clifford Bay
Dashwood
EOS
Firestone
Foley Johnson
Four Sisters
Goldwater
Guenoc
Lancaster Estate
Lincourt
Lucien Albrecht
Merus
Nieto Senetiner
Pebble Row
Pepperwood Grove
Piccini
Poizin
Roth
Sebastini
Smoking Loon
Tahbilk
The Four Graces
Three Rivers Winery
Wayne Gretzky

Pernod Ricard

Brancott
Campo Viejo
Graffigna
Jacob’s Creek
Kenwood
Stoneliegh
George Wyndham

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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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Tripping into Wine’s Loopholes

By W.carter - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The red pill pairs with Albarino while the blue one pairs with Pinot grigio

What if I told you that the Cabernet Sauvignon you were drinking was really a red blend with at least 6 other grapes in it?

What if I told you that the bottle labeled as Pinot noir on your table was also a blend? Not even a “red” one since it had Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay in it?

Or how about that bottle of Napa Valley wine which was actually made in Texas?

Now to some degree, none of this really matters because blissful ignorance is truly blissful if you are enjoying the wine that you’re drinking. That is the blue pill of wine. But if you want to know the truth, lets take the red pill and look at some of the loopholes in US wine laws.

Fighting Varietals (or not)

The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) provides a breakdown of the minimum standards for a wine label in the US. Let’s note some key details.

To be labeled as a single grape variety, you only need to have 75% of that grape

This is the fallacy of the grape varietal snobs who drink “only” Cabernet Sauvignon. They think red blends are inferior wines made from the “left overs” and would never buy anything unless it says Merlot on the label. HA! Just kidding about that last one.

The truth is that most red wines in the world are blends. Even if you want to discount many of the amazing European wines from Bordeaux, the Rhone, Tuscany, Valpolicella, Rioja, Douro, etc that have historically been blends, you still have this huge 25% loophole in American “varietal” wines that US winemakers are all to happy to exploit.

Why?

My personal favorite of Ginny's wines is the One-Armed Man which totally carries her "Peanut butter & Chocolate" pairing of Zin and Petite Sirah to rich, delicious perfection.

My personal favorite of Ginny’s wines is the One-Armed Man which totally carries her “Peanut butter & Chocolate” pairing of Zin and Petite Sirah to rich, delicious perfection.

Because blending helps winemakers make better wines. I remember listening to Ginny Lambrix of Zinfandel specialist Truett-Hurst talk about how she loves blending a little Petite Sirah with Zin. She found that the rich plums, blackberry and pepper spice of Petite Sirah married well with the similar flavors of Zinfandel. Of course, Zinfandel can make outstanding wines on its own and, yes, Petite Sirah can also make some great bottles. But putting the two together was like adding a little chocolate to peanut butter. Great by themselves but absolutely scrumptious together.

Joseph Wagner developed a recipe for Pinot noir that, literally, hit the sweet spot of American palates. By blending in white wine grapes like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, he added sweetness and made the wine softer. Yet with that 25% “other grape buffer”, he (and now Constellation Brands) could still market Meiomi as a Pinot noir. While there are many incredible 100% Pinot noirs out there, its clear that the blended grapes have been vital to Meiomi’s smashing success and growth. Yet I don’t know if anyone could credibly argue that Meiomi would have been anywhere near as successful if it was marketed as a Red(ish) blend.

By Steph Laing CC BY 2.0

Only a true confectionery snob would say that the flour alone taste better than this blended creation.

Likewise, the Lohr family has built a very successful brand for Cabernet Sauvignon with their Seven Oaks label. Yet nearly every single year they are just hitting that 75-76% minimum of Cab and rounding it out with other grapes. You have to give major props to the Lohrs for being transparent with their blends and tech data which is something that not many wineries do. You can tell that they’re proud of the wines they are making. But you better believe that they are certain that they will sell more wine labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon than they would if it was labeled as a red blend.

That is my personal gripe about this loophole.

I’m very pro-blend but it’s disheartening that wineries are basically rewarded for hiding that what they’re truly making are blends dominated by a particular variety.

Now we should note that individual states can add their own conditions to tighten some of these laws. For instance, in Oregon a wine labeled as Pinot noir needs to be at least 90% of that grape. Though, curiously, 18 other grape varieties (such as Cabernet Sauvignon) are “exempt” from these stricter wine laws.

So we’ve got a loophole for a loophole!

Napa with a Twang

Another of the TTB’s bare minimums relate to the use of wine regions or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) on the bottle:

To have an AVA listed, only 85% of the grapes needed to be sourced from that region

Napa grapes are expensive.

The average price of a ton was over $4300 in 2015. To put that in perspective, 1 ton equals about 2 barrels or 50 cases of wine. This is just the base grape costs and speaks nothing to the cost of labor, winemaking equipment, barrels (new French oak barrels can cost over $3000 each), packaging and marketing. This is one of the reasons why it is hard to find Cabernet from Napa under $20.

Unless……

You turn some corners.

With your grape truck. On the roads between Napa and neighboring counties.

When you go next door to Sonoma County, the cost for grapes is closer to $2400 a ton. Lake County clocks in at around $1600 a ton. You go to the southern Central Valley around Fresno and you can get a ton of grapes for around $300.

Clearly there is financial incentive to offsetting the cost of production for your bottle of “Napa Valley wine” by using that 15% loophole of grapes grown elsewhere.

But is it really still a “Napa wine”?

That’s an interesting question but this loophole goes far deeper when you realize that that 15% could include grapes from places like Texas and Georgia. I’m not kidding y’all.

Big Tex portion of pic from By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)This image was made by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)Email the author: David R. TribbleAlso see my personal gallery at Google Picasa - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

To be fair, I think Napa stole the idea of erecting big signs from Texas first.

The TTB is currently holding a comment period over a particular loophole. This one allows a winery to buy fruit from outside their state, truck it into their state and maybe even blend it with local fruit, but still label it under the AVA where the 85%+ of the fruit came from. The only restriction is that they only sell the wine within the winery’s home state.

So, yes, a winery in Texas can buy Napa Valley fruit, blend in 15% of Texas fruit, and still sell it as a Napa Valley wine to the wine shops and restaurants of Texas.

The comment period for discussion will run till December 7th, 2016. If you want to indulge in some not-so-light reading, you can take a look at the comments already submitted.

I’m going to bet on the law being changed and this loophole getting closed. But there are still plenty of other loopholes to trip over.

Maybe we should sit back and chase down our blue pills with a little $20 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.

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