Category:Wine terms

The craft wine dilemma

craft wine dilemma

Which is craft wine and which isn’t?

How do you describe a wine that isn’t made by a multi-national and that doesn’t sell millions of cases? Is craft wine the proper description? And, if it is, how do you prevent the multi-national from describing its product the same way?

That’s the craft wine dilemma, as producers try to find terms to separate their wine from mass-produced grocery store plonk — even if their wine isn’t all that different.

There is no legal definition of craft wine, and borrowing the term from beer doesn’t help. Craft beer, which is assumed to be made by small, independent producers, is driving what little growth there is in the beer business, but craft beer includes Shiner and its 6 million cases and Boston Beer’s Sam Adams and its $2.9 billion in sales. Both belong to the Brewers Association craft beer trade group, demonstrating how empty the term is. Consider (and allowing for a 24-can case of beer vs. a 12-bottle case of wine) that Shiner would be tied for 12th on Wine Business Monthly’s top 30 U.S. producers list, just ahead of Bogle, and Boston Beer would be among the top three or four biggest wine companies in the country by sales.

The Brewers Association trade group guidelines don’t help much either, offering lots of PR speak (“Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy”) and little else. Also complicating matters: The rash of lawsuits over the past year from disgruntled consumers suing craft brewers and distillers because their craft products don’t seem to be that much different from the products made by multi-nationals, save for higher prices. No wonder there was such a spirited discussion on Tom Wark’s Fermentation blog this summer about the subject, looking for the best way to describe what Wark calls wine made by a “small, hands-on, privately owned, high-quality oriented winery.”

The craft wine dilemma reminds me of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” If an 8 million case producer like Delicato Family Winery uses the term hand-crafted for some of its wine, does hand-crafted have any meaning? On the other hand, can a producer that mostly fits Wark’s definition be called a craft winery if its idea of quality is to make an overoaked fruit bomb designed to get 98 points and cost $100?

Establishing legal (or even trade group-agreed) definitions for craft and similar terms is the obvious solution, but most of the wine business will burn down the blog and carry me off with pitchforks for suggesting it. Still, given that some plaintiffs have won their craft definition lawsuits, maybe that idea is worth considering. Otherwise, it will be a long time before anyone solves the craft wine dilemma.

Adding new wine terms to the dictionary

new wine termsWine is famous for using terms that no one can understand, so why not invent even more? Because the last thing we want to do is to help ordinary wine drinkers understand what’s going on, right? Hence, these new wine terms. (And I swear I made all of them up. Honest.)

? The ukelele: Someone who proclaims each new wine as the greatest ever — until the next trend comes along. Always forwarding articles from the Internet about Greek and Georgian wine, as well as gruner veltliner.

? “Let’s reboot this brand:” Favorite phrase of wise guy wine marketers who think changing the label and charging $4 more for ordinary grocery store wine will fool consumers and convince industry that premiumization is the next big thing.

? The wanker: Wine drinker, usually a man, who can find a flaw in every wine he has ever tasted. Also prone to proclaiming that the previous vintage of a wine was much better than the current vintage, even though he said the same thing when the previous vintage was the current vintage.

? The whiffet: Someone who always apologizes for the wine they drink, regardless of quality, and is constantly saying things like, “I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about wine.”

? “Running up the score:” Used to describe ratings-obsessed wine drinker who always adds points to whatever he bought (also usually a man), as in “Yeah, that Parker 97 was awesome, and I got such a deal on it” when it was actually a 92, the points were given by a clerk at his local retailer, and it cost $13.

? Scrooge McWine: Wine drinker (and again usually a man) who says loudly and often that all wine is overpriced, regardless of whether it costs $100 or $5. Sometimes, but not always, a wanker.

Image courtesy of Wine Ponder, using a Creative Commons license

Residual sugar in wine, with charts and graphs

residual sugarOne of the blog’s most popular posts over its 8-plus year history is about residual sugar. That’s because it uses English instead of winespeak to describe what residual sugar is and what makes a sweet wine sweet. And that residual sugar is the sugar from the grapes that’s left over after fermentation; more residual sugar makes a sweet wine, and the absence of residual sugar makes a dry wine.

Two things are missing from that post: Nifty charts and graphs, mostly because the Wine Curmudgeon is not a charts and graphs guy, and an update that better describes how dry wines can seem sweet thanks to post-modern winemaking techniques, which include adding sugar or something similar (corn syrup, grape juice concentrate) to the almost-finished product. That’s one reason why a dry wine with 14.5 percent alcohol, where there is an absence of residual sugar, can seem sweet.

Plus, I never really explained how residual sugar is measured and the various levels of sweetness, since it confuses me. I have problems with g/L, which is grams per liter, as well as converting it into percentages, which I do understand.

But, thanks to two terrific websites, we not only have charts and graphs, but more insight into adding sugar to already-fermented wine, as well as how to measure residual sugar and what the measurements mean. My thanks to Liquid Party Works, which has one of the former and some of the second (which you can find at the link), and to Frank Schieber at MoundTop MicroVinification, whose chart detailing sweetness levels is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen (even if it’s not all that pretty). That’s the one at the top of this post.

White zinfandel, for example, would be in the 3 percent category, while a dry riesling and some sweet reds, like Apothic, would be in the 1-3 percent category. Doesn’t get much more straightforward than that.

Wine term: Post-modern

Wine term Post-modernNo, the wine term post-modern is not something that usually shows up in the Winestream Media or on most of the websites with winespeak dictionaries. But post-modern is a crucial term in understanding the evolution of the wine business over the past couple of decades.

I adapted it from literature, where post-modern defines a style of writing that rejects the idea that narrative is the most important thing in the novel. In post-modernism, it’s not necessary for the plot to go from beginning to end, or to even make sense. Things just happen, and that’s what writers like Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and Martin Amis explored.

An astute visitor has noted that winemaker Clark Smith wrote a book, published last year, called Postmodern Winemaking, and wanted to make sure that I gave credit where credit was due. I wasn’t aware of the book, or certainly would have. We apparently cover much the same ground with the term post-modern, though Smith focuses on the winemaking aspects, while I’m concerned less with the technical aspects and more about what it means for consumers (and Smith drops the hyphen, like a true post-modernist).

My view? In wine, post-modernism rejects traditional methods and benchmarks, just as post-modern literature rejects traditional narrative. That means terroir doesn’t matter, that varietal character isn’t important, and that alcohol levels are for old ladies. In this world, the only thing wrong with a 15.5% chardonnay without green apple fruit is that no one had thought of doing it before. The idea is to make wine the way the winemaker wants, free of the constraints that hampered the process for the past 500 years. Or, as one leading post-modernist wrote so memorably: “California promotes wines that don’t suck.”

The International style of winemaking, where winemakers in Italy or Argentina consciously try to make wine taste like it came from Paso Robles, is part of post-modernism, but it’s not the only part. What’s more important, and what’s often overlooked, is how Big Wine has adapted post-modernism to its purposes — to sell more wine without having to educate consumers.

Hence, dry red wines with sweet fruit that don’t taste dry; wines without tannins, because the casual wine drinker doesn’t like them — even though tannins are an integral part of red wine; and wave after wave of sweetish white wines, like moscato and Prosecco, where the wine is made to a taste profile and not necessarily to what the grapes give it.

The other thing that matters is that post-modernism is neither good nor bad. It just is. Martin Amis is a fine writer, but he makes me crazy. You don’t have to like those wines; rather, you need to know they exist and that they are in stark contrast to wines made in the traditional manner. I’m not going to tell you what to drink. Instead, I’m going to describe what the wine is like and let you make up your mind. And using the wine term post-modern is one more way I can do that.

Wine terms: Flawed

Wine terms: flawedIn which the wine is spoiled, usually oxidized or corked, but that also takes in a host of more geeky flaws like volatile acidity and brett. Technically, there’s a difference between a wine fault and a wine flaw; a fault is a major defect, like oxidation, and the latter is less important, like brett. But both mean the wine is off, and the terms are used interchangeably, even by experts.

The good news is that very little wine, especially compared to 10 and 20 years ago, is flawed. Growing techniques and production methods for almost all of the wine we buy are infinitely better than they were, which means better quality grapes are combined with cleaner, more quality conscious winemaking. Hence it’s very difficult to find a flawed wine on a retail shelf.

The easiest way to detect a flawed wine? If it doesn’t taste or smell the way it’s supposed to. An oxidized wine will taste like bad brandy and a corked wine will smell of wet newspapers or a damp basement. Volatile acidity often smells like a band aid, while brett is like a barnyard.

In this, note the difference between a wine that is flawed and wine that is made poorly or in a style that you don’t like. An example of the latter is high alcohol, which I don’t like but is not a flaw — even though I wish it was. An example of the former are overly-bitter tannins. When we did our tastings at the Cordon Bleu, several of my students insisted that the wine was flawed because the tannins were very harsh. That tannins, by their nature, can be harsh and bitter never seemed to satisfy them, and neither did my explanation that tannin management isn’t a high priority in many cheap red wines.

Wine terms: Problematic pricing

Problematic pricingYou may see the wine term problematic pricing or pricing is problematic in a review, and especially in one of the mini-reviews that runs on the final Friday of each month. It’s mostly what it seems: If it’s problematic, the wine’s price is a problem, and the problem is that it that doesn’t offer enough value for its price.

Still, this hasn’t been clear to enough people, and so the need for this post. One PR woman in particular wasn’t quite sure what it meant. Either I liked her wine or I didn’t, and what did price have to do with it?

Price, of course, has everything to do with it. It’s not enough that a wine is cheap (or expensive, for that matter). Does it offer more value than it costs? Or is it just cheap, like most of the $5 wine the big retail chains sell? Or is it marketing driven, where you’re paying for what’s on the label as much as for what’s in the bottle?

I asked the great Lynne Kleinpeter about this, because I trust her palate, in many ways, even more than I trust my own. If nothing else, she can be objective when she tastes the kind of wine that makes me want to write horrible, misanthropic reviews. Her answer: “When I would buy this wine at this price? If it was the only wine in the store, and I didn’t have a choice.”

Wine pricing doesn’t get more problematic than that.

How to make wine

No one believes how easy it is to make wine. My Cordon Bleu classes didn’t, and neither do most people when I speak to groups and do cheap wine book promotions. That’s because the wine business has done such a brilliant job of confusing the issue that everyone assumes you need a zillion dollars, a hillside vineyard, and a tortured genius pacing up and down the barrel room. Far from it: Get some juice, add yeast or sugar, shake well, and let it sit.

The only time a Cordon Bleu class believed me came when an ex-con, who was one of the students, vouched for the method. In the joint, he said, the inmates would sneak sugar packets and cartons of orange juice out of the cafeteria to their cells and follow just that recipe.

Now, will this be quality wine? Probably not. I’ve done it, and it reminded me why I like writing about wine more than making it. At best, you get a Kosher-style wine, sweet and grapey; at worst, and I know this first-hand, the fermentation fails and you have a slimy mess to throw out.

Having said that, this is something every wine drinker should know. Knowledge is power, and we don’t have nearly enough knowledge. The video below, courtesy of MiWilderness on YouTube, does the job in all its amateurish glory. The comments, with suggestions for improving wine quality, are also worth reading. My favorite part comes when he shakes the bottle, giving the concept of stirring the lees a completely different perspective.