Back label wine descriptions can be as confusing as anything written by wine critics
The recent post about wine critics and their almost indecipherable wine descriptions reminded me that they aren’t the only ones whose goal is confusion and obfuscation. We also have back label wine descriptions for that.
In fact, back label wine descriptions may be more annoying, since their job is to help sell the wine. Who wants to buy a wine where the back label promises something that isn’t there? I’m not the only one flustered by this; a marketing official for one of the largest wine companies in the world told me it bothers good marketers, too. But many of the biggest producers contract the back label writing to third parties, so they’re stuck with what they get.
The other annoying thing? Yes, many of the worst examples come from cheap wine, but many also come from wine costing as much as $25. And what does that say about the $25 wine?
The following are taken from actual back label wine descriptions, with my explanation of what they really mean:
• Silky mouth feel: “We’ve removed the acidity and tannins and added sugar to cover up anything remotely resembling either, just in case any is still in the wine.”
• Unusual fruits like lychee nut and guava: Most wine drinkers probably haven’t tasted those, so the description does two things – first, shows that even a $6 bottle of wine can be exotic. Second, that the wine is deep and complex, even when it only costs $6. So shut up and buy it already. But then there is the other side of the descriptor.
• An alluring hint. … : “The flavor isn’t actually there, but if we suggest it, you’ll probably taste it and think the wine is better than it is.”
• Robust, with intense, dark fruits: “We’ve added as much Mega Purple as humanly possible.”
• A mocha finish with lingering oak: Regular readers here know what that is without any help from me – scorching amounts of fake oak, and then even more. And maybe even a little bit more just to be on the safe side.
• Freshly picked peaches (or apricots or even red fruit like cherries): “You’re damn right it’s sweet. But we’re not going to say that, are we?”
• A long, stony finish: “We couldn’t get rid of that odd, bitter taste in the wine, and we didn’t want to add any more sugar. So we want you to think that the bitterness is a good thing.”
Craft wine shouldn’t be about the size of the winery, but about the quality of its products. Otherwise, what’s the point?
The news that a group in Oregon has started a craft wine association raises a question that has been discussed in wine for years: Does craft wine exist? Is it even possible?
The Craft Wine Association thinks so, and has established strict requirements for craft wine based on the size of the winery. But is that enough? Or is craft wine more complicated than that? Or is it a good idea but one with little relationship to reality?
There’s no doubt that the word craft makes consumers turn somersaults, as the craft beer business has demonstrated. But that doesn’t necessarily mean craft is a legitimate term; witness how many members of the craft brewers association are billion dollar companies that make millions of bottles of beer. Or the many lawsuits filed against craft distillers whose business model – buying their product from a corporate distiller – isn’t very crafty.
In fact, as noted here before, the word craft and its derivatives, like hand-crafted and artisan, have little meaning in terms of wine production. For one thing, no one one has yet invented a machine that can make wine. For another, despite the welter of laws regulating wine, beer, and spirits in the U.S., there aren’t any that define the term craft and its derivatives.
That’s why Delicato, the sixth-biggest producer in the U.S., can make a brand called HandCraft Wines without the slightest tinge of guilt. Or that Target can sell California Roots, “carefully crafted with premium, California-grown grapes,” even though the wine is made by Trinchero, the fourth biggest producer in the U.S.
In other words, a form of greenwashing, where a company makes claims for its products that make it sound wonderful and natural – and which is perfectly legal – but where the claims are disingenuous at best. And why not? Do we expect Big Wine, Big Beer, Big Spirits, and their retailers to tell us just how corporate their production practices really are? How much inventory would that move?
Hence attempts by groups like the Craft Wine Association to remedy the problem. The catch, though, is that size isn’t the issue. Quality is. Bigger does not necessarily mean worse or more evil, and smaller does not always translate into manna from heaven. According to the Craft Wine Association’s size rules, Ridge – perhaps the best quality producer in the country – isn’t eligible to join. And neither is Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon, which is about as crafty as a U.S. winery gets. Both are much too big, even though they aren’t big at all compared to Big Wine.
On the other hand, almost every tiny regional producer that has ever made me gag – and there have been hundreds – can join. How will that solve anything?
The point here is not to flambé the craft wine group for trying to do the right thing. Rather, it’s to point out that the doing the right thing is more difficult than it seems. Tom Wark wrote a couple of years ago that there may not be a way to “describe a small, hands-on, privately owned, high-quality oriented winery.” And I don’t know that anything has changed since then, despite everyone’s best intentions.
The catch – and I find myself writing this more and more these days – is that the wine business, big and small, has sold itself for years as wonderful and natural, and that most consumers buy into that. Factory farms are for pigs and chickens, not wine. There is still a sense, even among sophisticated wine drinkers, that winemaking remains a solitary effort – the winemaker in the barrel room, swishing wine in the glass, a studied look on his or her face. That most of the wine we drink is made in industrial plants to specific formulas isn’t how we understand wine. And until that changes, nothing else will.
What is fake oak? Why do winemakers use it instead of oak barrels? How can I spot it?
Fake oak is not an official wine term, but it best describes what has become a common way to add oak aging to wines that cost less than $20 to $25. Instead of using oak barrels, winemakers substitute oak chips, oak staves, oak inserts, oak spirals, oak cubes, oak dominoes, oak chains, and oak bags.
The reason for these barrel substitutes? They cost a tiny fraction of an oak barrel, as little as 10 percent of a $1,000 – or more – new barrel. Plus, they’re much more efficient at imparting oak flavors and tannins than barrels, which reduces aging time and cuts costs even more.
The most important thing to remember about fake oak is that it’s neither good nor bad. It’s how it’s used by the winemaker that matters. Some try to mimic barrel aging to reproduce the subtlety and character it brings, while others use it to add specific flavors that can be touted on the back label – the chocolate and cinnamon and cherry cobbler that aren’t common with traditional barrel aging.
In this, fake oak comes in an almost countless number of flavors and barrel varieties, replicating oak combinations from around the world and every flavor associated with wine – and then some. One charred toast option adds “super dark color, smoke, vanilla, and caramel flavors.”
How can wine drinkers tell if wine has real oak or fake oak? I asked Steve Menke, the Colorado state enologist and an associate professor at Colorado State University, to help us spot fake oak. Menke, who has made wine throughout the U.S. and Canada, prefers the term alternative oak, and emphasizes that fake oak is not necessarily a bad thing.
“If oak alternatives are used properly – not too much and not too easily extractable, most consumers do not notice the difference between them and barrel aging,” he told me. “That said, many winemakers are using these alternatives without much skill or caution, as the practice is still young.”
Hence vanilla pudding flavors in chardonnay.
These tips should help you spot wines with fake oak:
• Price. Given the economics of winemaking, there’s no way producers can afford barrel aging for most of the wine made in the U.S. That means, says Menke, a $15 or $20 cabernet sauvignon will almost certainly use fake oak, and a similar cabernet with barrel aging will have to cost $25 or more. In this, Big Wine is no different than many smaller producers; they just may be less subtle about it.
• Region. My experience has been, save for some parts of Spain, France, and Italy that mandate barrel aging, fake oak is used everywhere in the world. And most of the wine where barrel aging is required, save for Rioja in Spain, costs $25 or more.
• Over the top flavors. Fake oak adds its flavors more quickly, since the wine surrounds the oak product. That’s much different than with a barrel, where the wine touches only the inside of the barrel. That difference in the surface area that is exposed to the wine means faster extraction of flavors, so that winemakers who leave the fake oak in too long get cherry cobbler instead of bing cherry.
• Ask. Retailers should have a good idea about how the wine they carry is made. Also, Menke recommends asking the winemaker when you’re in the tasting room what kind of oak he or she uses.
How to identify a wine’s structure, as opposed to its flavors or tannins
Students are always puzzled when I talk about the structure of a wine. As Courtney Schiessel has written on VinePair, most of us don’t talk about structure. We talk about what the wine tastes like, and especially its flavors.
This is not surprising, since most Winestream Media tasting notes focus on flavors; we’ve been taught that it’s toasty and oaky that matter and not how the wine is put together – the way the fruitiness and sweetness, tannins, acidity, alcohol, and body mesh. Or, in a word, the wine’s structure.
I always compare a wine’s structure to a house. If a house isn’t built correctly, it will fall down. If a wine isn’t made correctly, it will be too flabby or too hot or too tart or too thin – the winemaking equivalent of a house that has fallen down.
Keep these points in mind when thinking about structure:
• Think well-made wine and poorly-made wine instead of good and bad. Good and bad are relative; what one person thinks is good – dry, rough, and with very little fruit – could be someone else’s idea of bad.
• A well-made wine, regardless of anything else, is balanced. The alcohol, fruitiness, sweetness, tannins, and acidity play off each other, and one doesn’t dominate the others. A cheap wine can be balanced; an expensive wine can be woefully out of whack.
• A well-made wine should have three components – a sensation in the front of the mouth, in the middle, and in the back. You might get fruit in the front, some sweetness in the middle, and tannins in the back. The point is that a poorly made wine doesn’t have more than one or two components, and you usually only taste it in the front. Think of New Zealand sauvignon blanc with too much grapefruit and little else and you get the idea.
Image courtesy of Wine Folly, using a Creative Commons license
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.