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Monday, March 13, 2017

Wine Industry Myths & Secrets

Every industry has some little things they would prefer the consumer didn't know. Or maybe folks outside of the industry make assumptions and those get passed along and eventually become "facts."

Ask someone who works for an airline if they would ever drink the coffee or eat the food served on a plane. Have you seen the movie Waiting about the restaurant biz?

Some wine industry myths and secrets follow. Some people in the industry might not agree with all of these.

Cost

Once you get past a certain point in the price of a bottle, maybe $50 or $75, it becomes ego, not quality you're buying. That is, your ego and the wine brand owner's. Certainly the difference between a $20 and a $50 wine is much greater than any difference between a $50 and $100 bottle. It's the law of diminishing returns.

Lets say it costs $5 to make a $15 wine. Does that mean it costs $20 to make a $60 wine? Probably not.

There are some variables like the cost of the grapes, but otherwise it's pretty standard. If you go visit a big, fancy winery with a fancy tasting room pouring from fancy bottles with fancy labels remember who is paying for all that.

Labeling

For some of those high-end Cabernet producers, especially out of Napa Valley, pay attention to where the grapes actually come from. Often they are using grapes purchased from less expensive growing regions. Napa grapes have gotten a little too high-priced.

Wine labels are confusing. For instance, "cellared and bottled" by a Napa winery means someone else made it--maybe a "wine factory" in the Central Valley. This is actually fairly common, especially on less expensive wine, but it doesn't automatically mean the wine isn't any good.

Wine labels might say 14.5% alcohol, but there is a huge variance allowed in what is actually in the bottle. Most wine makers are honest and do their best to get it accurate, others will try to present their wine as something it is not. For instance, a 14.5% alcohol wine is a whole different animal from a 15.5% one even though they both might be labeled as 14.5%.

Big vs Small

In bigger operations the wine maker is more of a project manager than a hands-on maker of the wine. It's probably made by assistants along with temporary harvest help, migrant labor, and cellar employees.

There are people who are actual wine makers and maybe own the winery, too. These are hard working, knowledgeable people. Then there are wine brand owners. They are rich people or hobbyists (probably both) who actually have someone else do most of the work.

You're probably not supporting family wineries. Just about all of the big wineries are corporate-owned or owned by "families" like Gallo or Kendall-Jackson. There are a lot of small, family-owned wineries, but their volume is tiny in the total wine market. The three largest wine companies are responsible for half of the wine sold in the country. When you're buying from a big box store or a supermarket you're probably buying from one of the wine conglomerates.

Reviews

The top wine critics and sommeliers are pretty well disconnected from what the average joe consumer buys. Some wineries go out of their way to make wines that appeal to certain critics so  wine geeks will read the reviews and buy the wine. If wineries actually listened to their consumers we'd have more aromatic, slightly sweet whites and softer, but not too high alcohol reds. And they'd sell for under $30.

Wine tasting is not scientific, it's not objective. Once you get past any obvious flaws it is strictly subjective. Who's to say someone getting paid to taste wine (what a job!) is any better at it than you.

You dislike Chardonnay or Merlot because you were told to. Don't listen to the "experts" or trusted friends who told you this.

Ingredients

Wine isn't just fermented grapes. There are lots of additives -- some to keep the quality high, but others to make you think you have a better wine. See Mega Purple.

Wine is full of healthful antioxidants and other things good for you. Well, in a very small quantity. Wine is mostly full of alcohol and if consumed in a large enough quantity will kill you. The moral here is don't let anyone lead you to believe you should have more than a glass or two a day on average.

"Facts" that aren't

In its early move into premium wines about 50 years ago the California wine industry sold the notion that single varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, were better than blends. At the time California wine was mostly about cheap jug blends so they wanted to differentiate themselves from the $2 stuff. This has largely left us without the joys of Bordeaux- and Rhone-style blends. That's unfortunate.

The French wine industry told us that the best reds were the ones that had to age for years and were full of tannins making them nearly undrinkable in their youth. Wine that tasted great when young was somehow inferior to wines that wouldn't peak for decades. This has been largely fixed in New World wines as there are many more Cabernets enjoyable in their youth now than there were 30 years ago. However, some still cling to the notion that if someone says Cabernet A will age for five years, but Cabernet B will age for 30 then Cab B must be a better wine.

A single vineyard wine isn't naturally better than an appellation wine or a geographic region wine. (Such as Martha's Vineyard vs. Russian River Valley vs. Mendocino County). However, a single vineyard wine will cost more than an appellation-labeled wine which will usually cost more than a geographic-labeled wine. Why? Because consumers believe the more specific the growing area the better the wine is. And sometimes it is, but this isn't any sort of guarantee.