What If Winemakers Listed Ingredients on Every Bottle?
I snapped this photo of Randall Grahm last year when I invited him to speak to a group of young wine professionals in California. I call him the "Willy Wonka" of wine: he's one of the most dynamic, erudite, and brilliant minds in the world of wine.
Photo by Jeremy Parzen.
"Ingredients," reports the back label on a bottle of Randall Grahm's Bonny Doon wines from California, "Syrah grapes, tartaric acid, and sulfur dioxide. In the winemaking process, the following were utilized: indigenous yeast, yeast nutrients, and French oak barrels. At time of bottling, this product contained 65 ppm total SO2 and 25 ppm SO2."
If you can't find a bottle of Grahm's wine in Houston, you can see a photo of the label in New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov's column from last week, "Vintner With Nothing to Hide Finds That Few Are Looking."
Grahm -- one of the most dynamic figures in wine today and one of its most erudite (and funny) voices -- is one of a handful of U.S. winemakers who have begun listing the ingredients of their wines on the label.
Asimov encourages winemakers to follow suit. "It would make clear," he writes, "the difference between wines that hew as closely as they can to the fermented grapes ideal and those that are more wine product than wine."
It would also help consumers to understand one of the wine industry's most vexing conundrums: Wines to which less has been added actually cost more because they require greater costs in the vineyard and more (costly) time in the cellar for stabilization.
"I do think consumers would understand the price differences in wine," said winemaker David Page of Shinn Estate Vineyards in New York (quoted by Asimov), "if they saw the ingredients that went into an $8 bottle with a kangaroo on the label."
The number of ingredients that Grahm uses in his wine is relatively small when you consider the large number of additives authorized by the U.S. government for the production of domestic wine.
But he explains his transparency as a means to clear his conscience. "I feel terrible, I feel dreadful," he said to Asimov, "and the only way I get around that is by being transparent."
In this case, the fact that he has added tartaric acid (see above) reveals that he wasn't able naturally to achieve the acidity levels he desired.
Grahm belongs to a group of "practical winemakers," writes Asimov, "who will take minimally invasive steps to ensure their wines are as good as they can possibly be, even if they fall short of their ideals."
And he adds, "adjusting the acid or using yeast that has been purchased, rather than indigenous yeast, are among the more gentle of winery modifications. Industrial wineries, and even some so-called artisans, manipulate their wines far more extensively, and most would prefer that nobody ever knows."
Does such transparency make the wine taste better? I'm a fan of Grahm's wines, and I would argue that it does. After all, as conscientious consumers, we need to ask ourselves not only is a wine good or bad but also whether it is good or evil.
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