Inquisitive wine scribe: So tell me, Dr Frankenwine, how are you able to create these lavishly oaked, yet very inexpensive wines in a consistent, uniform style, year in, year out, no matter what hand nature deals?
Dr Frankenwine: Simple, really. First, we employ the most high-tech mechanical harvesters to efficiently collect our irrigated, genetically modified, clonally selected grapes that have made it to harvest unscathed thanks to the latest pesticides and fungicides. Once in the winery, the fruit is immediately treated with sulphur to avoid discoloration and crushed in a state-of-the art pneumatic bladder press. The juice is put through our reverse osmosis machine to concentrate it, then transferred to temperature-controlled, stainless steel tanks and inoculated with a specially created strain of yeast that imparts a desirable toasty nuance. The juice is then siphoned off into roto-fermenters to enhance the phenolic elements. Once fermentation is complete, the wine is put through the reverse osmosis machine again to adjust the alcohol level and remove any volatile acidity. We then add grape concentrate to intensify the colour and powdered tannins to better balance the wine. We also add tartaric acid to compensate for what was naturally lost when we let our grapes achieve maximum brix levels. Furthermore, allowing some charred oak chips to soak with the wine for a while introduces some delightful coffee and vanilla nuances. Our “reserve” wines are put into custom-made barrels designed to impart a unique, spicy quality. A bit of micro-oxygenation polishes any rough edges. The wine is then, cold-stabilized, flash-pasteurized, filtered and sulfited prior to being pumped into our automated bottling line. You see, we try to manipulate the wine as little as possible because wine, as we all know, is truly made in the vineyard.
Wine is made in the vineyard. Uh-huh. And fish sticks are made in the ocean.
Of Wine and Fish Sticks
Now it goes without saying that you can’t make marketable wine from rotten, diseased or otherwise inconsumable raw material (the fish stick analogy kinda breaks down here), and the techniques employed by Dr Frankenwine are extreme (though accurate … okay, mostly accurate). However, the romantic notion that modern winemaking is a “natural” process is certainly suspect in our increasingly artificial world.
But so what? At the end of the day, if John and Jane Doe can pick up a case of nine buck Rabid Wombat Red, confident not only that each bottle will taste the same, but that each will also taste the same as the first bottle of RWR they ever had thanks to the wonders of technology, then here’s to technology, right?
This is where the issue gets a bit slippery.
Big = Bad (and other non-truths)
Without embarking on a windy dissertation of the movie Mondovino, let’s just set out the basic premise, this being that industrial “wine factories” are churning out lakes of cookie-cutter “product” while the artisan winecrafter of yore is left with only enough terroir in which to bury his coffin. Or something like that (it was a long film and I did start to drift-off here and there).
The problem with this “David vs. Goliath” scenario is that it formulates the equations, Large + Technological = Bad and Small + Natural = Good. (The interchanging of the outcomes aptly sums up the view of many a cosmetic surgeon. But that’s another story.) It also assumes that what one person looks for in a wine, the rest of the wine-drinking world also looks for. An assumption that is wrong and wrong again.
My Ambrosia Might Be Your Ammonia
Australia’s Yellow Tail Shiraz has achieved phenomenal sales growth in Canada. Why? Because people like it. A whole lot of people like it. I, for the record, do not. It sells for around $11 and I’ll stick my neck out and say that without modern technology, this wine wouldn’t exist.
I happen to like good vintages of Château Musar, considering this wine is made in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, any harvest that actually gets turned into wine can be seen as a good vintage. Musar isn’t a big operation, or a real high-tech one. There’s not a lot of its wine to go around and the wine’s aromas and flavours certainly don’t appeal to everyone. And it costs around $50 a bottle (hey, I said I like it, I didn’t say I can afford to buy it).
The truth is that big, technology-enhanced wineries have the same potential to make good wine as do the small mom-and-pop wine shops, while having the advantage of being able to produce significantly higher volumes of the stuff, thus reducing the cost. They can also afford high-flying wine consultants that say things like, “micro-oxygenate,” and an ad agency to produce flashy, colour print ads and television spots, not to mention cute salespeople to help take their wine to the masses.
Big = Boring (and other sort-of truths)
The problem here is that wines made in huge quantities require tons and tons of fruit, more than any single vineyard can supply. There can be no dismissing the fact that the soil in which grapes are planted, effects the flavour of a wine. The French have known this for centuries, and as such, based their wine laws largely upon this realization.
Trucking-in and blending fruit sourced from all over the country (and even from other countries) inevitably leads to a certain loss of character. And when technology is employed to achieve stability and consistency from one year to the next, nuances that may have been imparted by the influence of weather become lost. Do these facts keep Yellow Tail Shiraz drinkers up at night? Doubt it.
On the flip side, the skilled “hands-on” winemaker possesses the talent to harness the best of whatever the natural conditions have to offer and thus craft wines of great distinction with minimal technological assistance. Strict pruning regimes can enhance the concentration and flavours of grapes naturally. Different sections of the vineyard can be harvested at optimum physiological balance to ensure that all the fruit is picked at its ideal ripeness, not simply at its highest sugar level. Hand-selection yields the healthiest grapes and depending on the wine, barrel fermentation can increase complexity as can fermentation using wild yeast and leaving the wine unfiltered. And finally, old- fashioned racking is used to soften a wine rather than micro-oxygenation.
In reality, there are two broad classes of wines, “commercial” and “boutique” if you like. The first is designed to please most of the people most of the time. The second appeals to an entirely different palate (and pocketbook). Why this reality stirs-up seeds of contention among the Mondovinoists is, well, troubling.
Of Pizza and Prime Rib
In the realm of practically everything, the same dynamic is at play. Millions eat at Mickey D’s and appear to actually enjoy doing so. Is this simply because they can’t afford “better”? Maybe, but probably not. The point is, pizza and prime rib coexist without one making the other extinct. This scenario is repeated with cars, clothes, retail stores and a zillion other things, including wine. Suggesting that technology and mass production is somehow lessening the demand for the singular and unique is just plain faulty economics. If anything, it’s increasing the demand (putting them, alas, even further out of the reach of the average consumer and journalist).
At the end of the day we should be happy that technology has vastly improved the quality and quantity of “everyday” wines. It certainly takes the pressure off smaller producers to compete in this market and allows them to focus on crafting more interesting products for which there will always be a market. The money we save by letting the big guys take care of our weekday needs may actually make room for a weekend splurge or two.