Two Wines, and how they came to be
In northern California, in this particular moment in history, food is king. It occupies a place akin to high art in certain circles, blending celebrity, politics, economy, culture, and a particular kind of super-informed, high-octane consumerism that has also become a staple of Bay Area thinking — for better or worse. But these same folks, who will track their radish back to source or take on local food hubs for carrying produce sourced out of state, will likely show up at your house for dinner with the wine equivalent of fast food tucked under their arm.
As a former Californian (now proud Montanan) and person who thinks of wine as, first and foremost, as an agricultural product, I wanted to understand why that might be. Why, in this moment of deep and extended discourse about where our food comes from — not only in California, but all over the world — has wine been left out of the mainstream discussion? While surely wine critics, producers, company reps, and super fans are duking it out daily online over this very issue (see the extended rebuttal war that ensued after Bianca Bosker’s 2017 Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine piece came out in the New York Times), the everyday person is still content to buy what most grocers stock: heavily processed, mass-produced wines. Even among people excited about food, or concerned with how food production affects things like public and environmental health, wine is a often a blindspot in the debate.
While doing this project I tried to talk to food people about just that. What I often heard was, “I don’t know, I don’t drink wine.” To me that sounds a lot like saying “I don’t know, I don’t eat carrots” when asked about industrial food production. When an estimated 26 million pounds of pesticides are applied annually to wine grapes in California alone, it doesn’t seem like drinking wine has much to do with it.
COMING TO TERMS
Part of the trouble is that wine, like food, is hard to understand in general terms. Labels like “natural,” “sustainable,” and “boutique,” mean little but work wonders for marketing, while stricter designations like “biodynamic” or “organic” offer tighter parameters but can marginalize small producers who are adhering to these practices, but cannot afford certification. Adding to the confusion is the fact that many of these kinds of descriptive terms for grape growing and winemaking are not strictly defined or regulated, and so can be used (even manipulated), in a range of ways. There is also international variation between these definitions, for example,“organic” wine in Europe is not the same as “organic” wine here in the US. Lastly, wine, unlike carrots, has two stages of production to consider: the growing of the grapes (viniculture) and the making of the wine (vinification).
Each of these stages can be carried out according to different certification requirements. Even terms like organic and conventional are hard to define when one considers things like wine additives, many of which only exist in a synthetic form, or can be “organic” but still problematic for the environment, human health, and the tradition of wine and winemaking. French Scout offers more detail on the subject.
All of this is confusing. And for someone like me, who is trying to get to understand the differences between wines, it is ultimately not all that helpful. So when I started this project, I resolved to avoid generalizations and to try to do exactly what we do for food: go to the source. Meet the farmer. Ask specific questions about specific places and specific wines, not wines overall. To try to avoid the tendency to lean on labels and myriad certifications and instead understand wine by understanding the course wines takes from soil to table.
Often, we picture this journey beginning in a sunlit vineyard where token Italian men reflect on each grape individually, waiting for the season’s perfect expression of sugar, acidity, and depth. Harvest is done by hand and by friends — wine stomped, fermented, and bottled on site, maybe in a dusty barn. We are not wrong, at least, not totally. That model of wine production does still exist in a few places in the world. For example, in Missoula, Montana. But for the majority of the wines consumed in the United States and western Europe, winemaking looks a lot more like this:
So right out of the gate, we have some generalizations to contend with. Boutique Wine Club out of Solvang, CA describes the difference as follows: “There are two paths to making wine. The most common method…derives from a winery’s need to fulfill a volume order — typical of all the wine for sale in retail stores and restaurant chains…The winemaker’s goal here is to create an ‘even taste’ consistent throughout the entire order. Fulfilling a large case order from a grocery store chain requires a lot of blending with additives and flavor enhancers causing winemakers to utilize the tricks-of-the-trade to create a uniform taste…The alternative path is to make wine in small, controlled batches. This technique best accentuates the unique flavors the winemaker brings out of the vineyard. This requires an entirely different process than mass-producers use, and results in a powerful array of tastes, aromas and textures.”
As overly simplistic as it sounds, this binary distinction — factory-made, “frankenwines” vs. traditionally-produced, terroir-driven “natural” wines — is what defines the wine wars being waged all over today’s wine world. Even as the distinction is acknowledged to be falsely simplistic, when in fact there is more of a spectrum than anyone would like to admit, people appear to be staunchly encamped on one side of the debate or the other, the stakes of which have grown quite high. Consider Bianca Bosker’s argument that cheap, factory-produced wines have led directly to democracy: “This technological revolution has democratized decent wine,” she says. “Thanks to pumps and powders, drinkers who can’t splurge no longer have to settle for plonk.” Or journalist Rachel Singer’s recent comment on the power of natural wine: “Natural wine might be one of the last true hold-outs of free-thinking, libertarian, even slightly anarchistic political culture in the world, and for that it is beautiful.” She goes on to say, “The natural wine movement is not about audits, or strict rules that determine whether you can be ‘inside’ the club…The world of natural wine is, effectively, governed by relationships.”
As false as the purely binary distinction is, it is still true that there is a distinction, a distinction I think matters a great deal — not only for the wine wonks of the world but for all of us, especially those of us who claim to care about things like land use, environmental health, habitat preservation, labor power, community, and public health — whether we drink wine or not. It is, however, a distinction made in the details, so I set out to define the specific ways in which the journey from ground to glass differs for two very different wines, and the philosophies behind them.
WINE COUNTRY, MT
In an effort to find the quintessential expression of what drives the natural wine movement, I started where Singer recommends all good wine starts — with relationships. So I drove the few miles north of my home town to Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery. Started in 1998, Ten Spoon is a family-owned farm and production facility at the base of the Rattlesnake Wilderness area, just north of of the small college town of Missoula, Montana. While there are several wineries in Montana, Ten Spoon is exceptionally rare in its ability to claim a “produced and bottled by” distinction on its bottles, meaning every step of the winemaking process takes place on their 21.5-acres, 8 acres of which are vineyards. Other than 3 acres or so of grapes grown at Bob Thaden’s Tongue River Winery in Miles City, MT, Ten Spoon is the only licensed winery in the state using estate-grown grapes. As does every step of the living process — owners Andy Sponseller and Connie Poten live on the vineyard and the vast, open property has all the markers of a working farm and household.
When we arrived, we were greeted by a friendly, multi-tasking tasting room assistant who told us Connie was out walking the dogs and would be back in a bit. She encouraged us to enjoy the vineyard, just out the door, where we had just enough time to take in the beauty, and profound dubiousness of the setting: wine grapes growing in the harsh, unlikely climate of a Montana fall. Andy and Connie pull off this seemingly impossible feat by planting French-American hybrid grapes developed specifically for cold climates at the University of Minnesota. The current vines can withstand temperatures down to 30 degrees below zero and have been selected for the specific conditions of the Missoula valley, a complex combination of a short growing season but long days of summer sun. In addition to the grapes grown here, Ten Spoon also makes wine with grapes purchased from Montana-based Clark Fork Vineyard, as well as from several vineyards in Oregon and Washington, selected for their varietals and exclusive organic certification.
Inside the tasting room, which doubles as case storage and entryway to both the office and cellar, Andy and Connie joined us with a handful of dogs, both owned and visiting. Immediately I wanted to know, why on earth would someone grown grapes in Montana?
“We love Montana,” Andy said. “We love Missoula. It’s important to us to live where grizzly bears can get to, along with other species of wildlife. Montana is their last refuge in many cases. It’s also important to us to take part in the vibrant, curious and stimulating community of Missoula, center of the universe.” I was shocked to hear Grizzlies get top billing, usually listed as a big reason to stop faming in Montana, not start. But conservation is a large part of why Andy and Connie do what they do. They’ve put in a wildlife corridor between vineyards and, along with the two other families that share the 70-acre valley field, secured a covenant designed to keep the land suitable for animals to hunt and forage. Eventually, Andy said, the whole area will also be under conservation easement. These kinds of things are a common feature of so-called natural vineyards, who often employ permaculture strategies in the pursuit of healthy soil and environmental health.
He adds that they also keep the size of their vineyard small for conservations reasons. “Small vineyards don’t make a monoculture of vast tracts of land,” he says, “and so are better for diverse plants, birds, bugs and wildlife. It is easier to control bugs and disease without chemicals in a smaller vineyard.” These on-site conservation projects are matched by external efforts as well. Ten Spoon donates one dollar of every bottle of its Prairie Thunder wine to Missoula-based conservation group Vital Ground, who specialize in the preservation of grizzly habitat. They also provide the wine and labels for three national parks — Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. One dollar from every Grand Canyon wine sold goes to the Peregrine Fund for condor recovery.
In addition to growing grapes and making wine, the Ten Spoon land serves as marketing, tasting, and bottling headquarters for the company and as home to some of Big Sky Beekeepers’ hives. An on-site garden feeds the family part of the year and hosting events, parties, and live music helps make ends meet. In addition to being open weekly for tastings and tours, Ten Spoon hosts an annual, 2-day community harvest with the goal of putting people in touch with agriculture in an easy and fun way. For Andy, it’s an opportunity to “get dirty, meet new people, see old friends, have interesting conversations while picking grapes, and get a great meal with great wine.” The cost of facilitating this event is about the same as hiring people to pick the grapes, he says, “but that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun, would not stitch together the community and connect us all with the land, the weather, and the hands-on harvest of what the land produces. People learn a lot about what goes into growing grapes during harvest. We work toward the harvest all year long — it’s the pay-off of all that planning, vineyard tending, pruning, decision-making, experience and work.” The community harvest is only for the red grapes on site, while the white varietals — due to their finicky needs and mercurial timing — are harvested by a combination of Connie, Andy, friends, and paid help.
The other 363 days a year, Ten Spoon has two full-time employees and a dozen or more part-time and seasonal helpers, all of whom start at $12 an hour, $4 above Missoula’s minimum wage and $1 above the estimated living wage for the region. According to Andy, most of their employees come to them for work, drawn to the variety of the work and being able to spend days outside. He describes the team as “naturally sharing conservation and community values.”
We spent four hours with the Ten Spoon team, Connie eventually drifting off to the main house to make dinner and leaving us with Andy and a bottle of 2013 Range Rider Dry Montana Red, made from grapes grown exclusively in Montana vineyards. Andy described it as the wine that, above all others, encapsulates what they’re trying to do at Ten Spoon, the joy and the struggle.
Ten Spoon described Range Rider like this: “High summer’s berry and fruit flavors infuse this gold medal wine with distinctive character. A pure Montana product, Range Rider gets its deeper flavors and zing from a combination of two fermenting techniques — classic 10-day Burgundian carbonic maceration and immediate crush… In the heart of Montana’s Rocky Mountains our robust grapes bring forth award-winning pure Montana wine for you to enjoy.” Range Rider is 12.5% alcohol and certified organic selling for $17.99. In an average year, Ten Spoon produces about 4500 cases of wine total. Approximately 600 cases of these 4500 are red and made with grapes grown in Missoula, 300 of which are Range Rider, a favorite every year. Ten Spoon distributes throughout Montana with four distribution companies serving one hundred or so restaurants and stores. In Missoula and in the Grand Canyon, Ten Spoon delivers wine to their customers personally. They also ship directly to customers through their online store (in states that allow it).
Production here is small because they want it that way. Andy cites “getting too big” as one of the main reasons winemakers start employing too many chemical inputs. But the truth is that even if they wanted to be bigger, it would be difficult. Bozeman-based wineshop owner Tiffany Olsen describes the problem: “The modern retail environment, with its demand for uniformity, continuity of stock, and large volumes means that only the big wineries get invited to the party. You won’t find small artisanal wines at WalMart, Target or even at the major supermarkets. Smaller growers who make honest, affordable wine can’t deal with the quantities needed by major retailers. They also can’t afford the ‘big stick’ discounts that are demanded by the Costco’s and Sam’s Clubs of the world. Sadly, they can’t produce those big volumes of wine without resorting to chemical sleight of hand.”
SLEIGHTS OF HAND
While at Ten Spoon, I waited until we were all a glass or so in before bringing up such sleights of hand, specifically the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and additives. These are key differentiators in wine growing technique and an issue as difficult to pin down as the labeling systems that try to regulate them. That being said, a rough introduction is crucial to beginning to appreciate the differences between the two types of wines we will be looking at. The Organic Vineyard Alliance Fact Sheet is an excellent place to start and what follows are a few takeaways from that list.
- In 2010, 25 million pounds of pesticides were applied to conventionally-grown wine grapes in California. That was a 19% pesticide increase from the year before.
- Conventionally-grown wine grapes received more pesticides than almonds, table grapes, tomatoes or strawberries. Insecticide use increased by 34% and acreage treated with sulfur, a fungicide, increased by 21%.
- The Pesticide Action Network (PAN) classifies about a million pounds of those chemicals dispersed on wine grapes as “bad actors,” meaning that they are known or probable causes of cancer, are neurotoxins, or groundwater contaminants.
- Roundup, a herbicide, is widely used on wine grapes in conventional farming. A recent study has linked Roundup with health dangers, including Parkinson’s, infertility, and cancers.
- According to pesticide studies most often cited by scientists, pesticides such as myclobutanil and tetraconazole, unlike fungicides and other pesticides like chlorpyrifos, persist during the winemaking process.
- Some pesticides such as azoxystrobin, dimethoate, pyrimethanil were extremely persistent, with residual concentrations in bottled wine similar to initial concentrations on the grapes.
Organic Vineyard Alliance is also quick to remind us that, alarming as this information is, consumers are at less of a risk than the vineyard workers who are handling and applying these treatments. On conventional vineyards, the adverse affects of prolonged exposure to toxic chemical inputs like organophosphates, organochlorines, fungicides, and herbicides can range from dermatitis, headaches, and confusion to pulmonary fibrosis and cancer. In a recent French study designed to lobby in favor of testing wines for residual pesticides, Pascal Chatonnet, Ph.D., owner of the Excell laboratory who carried out the study said “There is no health problem in drinking wine in terms of pesticides. We have no reason to believe there are high levels of pesticides in wines.” But Suzanne Mustacich, who reported on the study for Wine Spectator, says the issues don’t end there. “Those at risk from heavy pesticide use in vineyards are the people working at the winery, potentially their neighbors, and the fragile ecosystem that helps the grape vine protect itself naturally from disease and predators…The long-term impact on winegrowers is also disturbing,” she said. “Générations Futures, an anti-pesticides non-governmental organization based in France, recently published the toxicology results from hair samples of vineyard workers and local residents in Bordeaux’s Listrac-Médoc. Vineyard workers’ samples contained 11 times the level of pesticide residues of people living a distance from the vineyards, and close neighbors had five times the levels. Four of the 15 vineyard workers’ samples tested positive for more than 10 different pesticides.”
Conventionally grown grapes are not the only threat, however. On organic farms, where chemical fertilizers are prohibited, copper is permitted and widely used as a fungicide. And while results are not conclusive, its prevalence has been criticized by some scientists who have found copper (at toxic accumulation levels) to pose a significant environmental and health risk. “Being widely used, copper is a common metal pollutant released into the environment as a result of man’s activities,” says Romić et al., authors of Copper Accumulation in Vineyard Soils: Distribution, Fractionation and Bioavailability Assessment. “Copper is an essential nutrient, but in excess in soils it becomes toxic to plants and some micro-organisms, disrupting nutrient-cycling and inhibiting the mineralization of essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Some species accumulate copper. Toxic effects on fish and other aquatic organisms have also been observed. For humans, excess amount of this trace metal can have serious health effects… Increased concentration of copper in soils under long-term production of grapevine, citrus and other fruit crops have been recorded in numerous studies.”
This confusion, combined with the complexities of certification, has led some grape growers to take a more nuanced approach, focusing on a balance of methodologies and forgoing strict interpretation. Winemaker Matt Spaccarelli of Benmarl, a well respected boutique winery in New York, explains what he sees as sustainable wine-growing and production practice to Vinepair journalist Kathleen Willcox: “We stick to a strict IPM [integrated pest management] system,” Mr. Spaccarelli explains. “We try to do as much as we can with our hands and avoid conventional sprays. We stopped using herbicide completely for a few years and the vines didn’t like that too much. We got a herd of sheep and bring them into the vineyard to intensively graze for a short time and spray only when necessary. We work with Cornell on managing our pests as much as we can without spraying, we monitor the weather, we know how long the leaves have been wet and what the humidity levels are, so we can make the best spraying decisions possible. We don’t use organic copper sprays because we’d have to use way more than I feel comfortable using to make an impact. It’s a heavy metal and sheep are sensitive to it.”
Journalist Rachel Singer expands on the complications in her own rebuttal to the aforementioned (and much-loathed) article, Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine.“I know people like to point out copper’s harmfulness,” she says. “And I also know that organic is not everything–with or without certification. Some winemakers I respect very much are not 100 percent organically farmed–but it’s not something they celebrate, as if they are proud to use chemicals. It’s the reality of the challenges of farming in certain climates. But I’ve stood in organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards, and it’s quite obvious that life is thriving within them: cover crops, butterflies, birds, rich and healthy soils are present, whereas I’ve also stood in a massive plantation of conventionally farmed Chardonnay in Sicily, at an unnamed winery’s estate, and gazed in horror at the cracked, dry, ugly ground. The difference is really just so obvious to see, and you can’t ignore it if you care about nature or the planet. Meanwhile, it’s also important to mention,” she goes on, “that ‘organic’ or even ‘biodynamic’ doesn’t mean a wine is made naturally; it’s still possible for additives to come into the picture. It also doesn’t mean that a wine is necessarily good.”
This is an interesting turn of events when one considers a bit of wine journalism done just a few decades ago.“The nation’s wine makers are quietly going organic,” wrote Lawrence M. Fisher of the New York Times. “Small and large, premium and budget-priced, wineries are giving up pesticides for predatory wasps and abandoning chemical fertilizers and weed-killers for compost and cover crops…The move to organic wines is a pre-emptive strike from an industry that has been staggered by higher excise taxes, lower consumption and a rising anti-alcohol movement.” He quoted Tom Prentice, president of California-based, viticulture-consultant firm Crop Care Associates, as saying, “They’re all scared to death that somebody, somewhere is going to pick up a bottle of wine, run a chemical analysis and find a residual level of some pesticide. They really don’t need any more surprises.” That was 1991. And while many winemakers have gone organic or at least added organic offerings to their brand portfolios, the trend appears to not have caught on the same way it did with food, and certainly not in the way the industry seemed to think it would.
Talking to Andy, this really starts to hit home for me. Ten Spoon is already certified organic by both the USDA and the state of Montana. They don’t use synthetic inputs of any kind on the farm, nor do they use synthetic additives in the winemaking process. And while they did use copper treatment once, years ago, at a rate far below the maximum allowed for certified organic grapes, they choose to forgo its use now. “Anthracnose fungus exists in the vineyard at a dull roar,” says Andy, “but we manage it with proper canopy ventilation and by getting pruned wood out of the vineyard and burned. This keeps the fungus population down. Ever since we planted our first grapevines in 1998,” he goes on, “we’ve strived for healthy soil and robust vines. We don’t even tractor our vineyard until after ground birds have fledged and left their nests.”
So I was taken aback when, in almost the next sentence, he told me that soon they would be letting their official organic certification go — still growing grapes organically but no longer paying to maintain their status as USDA organic wine. When I asked why, Andy said something I never expected: “People don’t like it. They come into the tasting room,” he said, “and ask specifically for something that isn’t organic. The public assumption is that organic wine tastes bad, that unlike food, it is better in theory than in practice.”
Having spent the last three years living around the corner from celebrated natural wine shop Ordinaire, this seems only partially, or perhaps regionally, true (see Bon Appétit’s article celebrating natural wines) — a preconception likely based not on accuracy so much as poor selection and people coming into contact with either subpar or esoterically-made natural wines and deciding it all must be bad. But for winemakers like Andy, it doesn’t really matter why, it just matters that it is happening. After all, there’s little point in going through the trouble and expense of organic certification if in the end, consumers shun your efforts.. For my own project however, the why matters quite a bit. And I would venture to guess that one of the reasons people might be rejecting organic, or “natural” wines, is because they are used to the remarkable consistency and flavor profile of the other kind of so-called factory wines and their attendant price tags. To try to understand that difference we have to understand the second stage of wine’s production: the winemaking itself.
For small producers like Andy, winemaking starts and ends on the same stretch of land; the grapes are bottled in the same place where they are grown. But even for organic growers, the path from vine to bottle is often not as simple as many of us might like to imagine. Between the two, the grapes undergo a profound string of chemical changes, helped along by a range of additives designed to help control the process. According to the The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, issued by the National Organic Program, “even certified organic wine is is allowed to have about 70 chemicals added to it, including organic and naturally occurring acids, salts, and enzymes.” That said, “unlike in conventionally produced wine, any chemical used in a certified-organic wine cannot have an adverse effect on the environment or on human health as defined by the Food and Drug Administration.”
Journalist Christopher Null of Wired Magazine explains the phenomenon even further: “Like most foodstuffs,” he says, “wine has been thoroughly industrialized. Million-gallon batches are cooked up in behemoth factories in Australia or California’s less-dreamy-sounding Central Valley and made of grapes that come from just about anywhere. And vintners are under constant pressure to find new ways to save money — California grape prices have shot up 46 percent over the past decade. That leaves little room for error. If something goes even slightly wrong in a 350,000-gallon tank, winemakers can’t afford just to dump it. So they’re turning to science — high tech machines and chemical additives — to doctor their product into something more drinkable.”
He also offers a thoughtful introduction to the most common additives found in your average supermarket wine, including, but not limited to, ammonium salts to prevent drying yeasts, oak chips and sawdust to add the vanilla taste that oak barrels used to supply, tartaric acid for tartness, powdered tannin for texture and astringency, sugar for sweetness (called “chaptalization,” illegal in California, Italy, and Australia), and gum arabic to soften bitterness. Beth Brindle of How Stuff Works helps to illuminate a few others including potassium sorbate to slow yeast growth, velcorin for its antimicrobial properties, naturally and synthetically made yeasts, and a whole host of enzymes, acids, yeast nutrients, and clarifiers.
Two additives of particular interest are Mega Purple and sulfites. “Made from the concentrated syrup of Rubired grapes,” Null explains, “Mega Purple is a thick goo that winemakers rely on to correct color issues — a few drops can turn a bottle of wine from a weak salmon blush to an appealingly intense crimson — and to make a wine look consistent from batch to batch. “Besides the look,” Keith Wallace of The Daily Beast adds, “Mega Purple [also] smoothes out the flavors, and give it a fruity wallop. It will also hide unwanted vegetal flavors and even mask certain types of spoilage.” As for sulfites, Brindle explains, they are used to “kill bacteria and undesirable yeast …and help to preserve wine by protecting it from oxidation. All wines contain at least some level of sulfites, which are a naturally occurring compound found in grapes and other foods.” With the exception of inorganic yeast and sulfites, none of the above additives are controlled by organic certification.
Andy spoke at length about additives saying that, other than yeast, Ten Spoon does not use any additives derived from animal sources (things like fish bladders and egg yolks are common additions) and they do not use gluten. As for sulfites, which certified organic wineries are not allowed to add (some occur naturally), he had this to say: “Sulfites, or sulfur dioxide, are preservatives winemakers use for antioxidant and antibacterial property. Sulfites help maintain freshness in wine and more than 99% of commercial wines contain sulfites. Some winemakers tend to have a heavy hand using sulfites for extra preservation. The limit allowed in the U.S. is 350 parts per million (ppm). In the European Union, the maximum amount of sulfites are 210 ppm for white wine, 400 ppm for sweet wines and 160 ppm for red wine. We have not added sulfites at all until recently, but in order to stabilize some of our more delicate wines, I decided to use a minimum amount of sulfites. We use less than the ‘Made with Organic’ standard (a certification distinct from organic wine), which allows up to 100 ppm.” But despite the uses of sulfites, Andy warned that, “if used with a heavy hand, sulfites can mask and dull the true taste of wine. The Old World concept of terroir is about wine reflecting the soil and the nature of a place where the grapes are grown and the wine is made…Our aim is to bring out the true taste of these wines to reflect their terroir.”
Wanting to “bring out the true taste of these wines” is not, however, what most wine makers want to do. It might not even be what most organic winemakers want to do, because, as Eleanor Shannon of wine blog Uncorked in Italy says, “Making defect free wine without manipulation in the cellar requires super healthy, high quality fruit.” And this means something far beyond simply not spraying or avoiding sulfites. Often it means going “beyond organic standards in the vineyard to using some form of traditional or biodynamic farming that re-vitalizes the soil and creates holistic health in the vineyard.” And that is not something at the top of the list in terms of turning a profit.
Far easier is the factory wine model where cheap, low-quality grapes are purchased from all over the world, mixed, and then chemically altered to create the kind of consistent, unimaginative wines that Americans are used to drinking and which deviations from are likely to be the cause of Andy’s customers thinking organic wine tastes “bad” when, in fact, they just taste different. “If you do the math, and I have,” says Lex Alexander of Ashville wine shop, Table Wine, “in order to achieve the really low retail price on the shelf for ‘$2-Buck-Chucks’ and most other wines under $9–10, the actual juice or wine has to cost almost nothing. Remember, the company must buy bottles, caps, labels, cardboard, pay shipping costs, distribution costs, and then the retailer must make their mark-up. These wines are made using the popular corporate mantra of ‘better living through modern chemistry.’ Wine does not require an ingredient panel or any disclosure about how the grapes became wine. These wines fulfill a function, but the aesthetic and healthfulness of the wine leaves a bit to be desired.” Wine writer Craig Camp has this to add: “The beverage alcohol side of the wine business appears to dwarf those of us committed to terroir, sustainable agriculture and natural, or what I would call real wine. Real wine is an expression of time and place, while industrial beverage alcohol produced from grapes is, very simply, just another alcohol delivery system. Consumer flavor trials do not produce poetry in a glass, but they do provide a solid buzz.”
They also provide a solid profit. When the additives process of winemaking becomes so involved that the organic matter of wine becomes almost negligible, who cares what happens in the vineyard? At that point, it is just about volume. “Is that Cabernet not tannic enough?” asks Wallace. “Add some powdered tannin. Is it too tannic? Fine it with isinglass. Is the Chardonnay not tart enough? Pump it up with some tartaric acid. Is it too tart? Initiate malolactic fermentation. Want to unlock flavors of rose petals? There are at least 20 strains of cultured yeast that will do that for you. You just have to choose which one you want. Want a deeper color for your Pinot Noir? There are a dozen enzymes for that, too.” Winemakers can use these additives to make about any outcome they might want but the consequence is a profound homogeneity. “Never before,” says Wallace, “have there been so many good-tasting wines, and never have so many of them tasted so much alike.”
Indeed one of “wine’s glories is its diversity,” or at least it should be, argues New York Times writer Eric Asimov. “The Old World, which had the advantage of centuries of localized efforts, can offer hundreds of different wines, produced by heritage and tradition, that are far more honest expressions of culture than any imitation Napa cabernet sauvignon — a product of oak chips, enzymes, ‘pumps and powders’ — rising from California’s sun-baked Central Valley…Good wine is, by nature, fleeting, mysterious, ever-changing, subject to the imperfect, unpredictable nuances of weather, place and human judgment. It changes continually, reacting to temperature and touch, food and mood, its years in the bottle and its minutes in the glass. It is beyond reproduction.” But that same nuanced, unpredictable, wabi-sabi imperfection, is exactly what a lot of drinkers now identify as a flaw. And not surprisingly, if all you drink is soda, fresh-squeezed juice can taste like something is off.
For many drinkers, the distinctions between the diverse, living wines of the Old World, and the kinds of homogenous wines Wallace and Asimov malign, are easy to dismiss as precious, overly conventional — even orthodox.
But for people like Andy, it matters a great deal. For him, drawing these distinctions is not only about protecting wildlife, promoting community, and making wine of substance, they’re about protecting the artisanal spirit of winemaking itself.
“These distinctions are important for people who want to experience the terroir of a wine and support locally made wines as opposed to pre-packaged, bulk wines,” he says. “When you see ‘produced and bottled by’ on a wine label, that means the winery actually made the wine. It is a federal requirement to have proof of fermentation on the premises to use this phrase on labels. ‘Vinted and bottled by’ means the winery did not make the wine, and ‘vinted’ simply means ‘cellared.’ There is no requirement to provide proof that wine is actually cellared and bottled at the winery to have this on a label, so wine with this label can be made, cellared and bottled anywhere.” For Andy it is also about place. When I asked what separates his work from the huge wine operations in places like California, Andy is kind, withholding judgement but still making his point. “The feel of the place is different,” he says simply. “Large, industrial vineyards take over a landscape while smaller producers are part of it.”
When we left Ten Spoon, I spent the short drive home thinking about factory wines and how many of them I had had in my lifetime, without really knowing what that meant. Then I set out to do a little research and find, what was in my estimation, Range Rider’s factory opposite. The obvious answer was pretty much any wine made by E & J Gallo, the largest winery in the world today and a place so fundamentally different from Ten Spoon that I couldn’t even check on the difference in feel of the place Andy mentioned as Gallo does not have a “visiting” option.
Started in in Fresno, CA in 1909 or 1932 (depending on who you ask), E & J Gallo employ more than 6500 people world wide and do an average of $4.7 billon in sales annually, which, based on numbers from 1993, would put their annual production close to 190 million cases. Their business is divided into over 90 sub-brands, so pervasively sold that one in every four bottles of wine sold in the US is a Gallo wine. Currently, Gallo owns over 20,000 acres of vineyard land across CA and is so vertically integrated that they even make their own bottles.
While many Gallo wines are top-sellers, a few of their wines stand out as exceptionally successful, universally-loved crowd pleasers that carry the brand. One of these is their 2015 Apothic California Red, one of the top-selling red blend table wines in the United States, sub-branded under the Apothic series. Widely lauded for its sugary sweetness and thick viscosity, Apothic Red has become a standard at most grocers in the United States, and western Europe. It is sold for anywhere between $7 and $12, depending on the retailer and is described by Gallo as, “Inspired by Apotheca, a mysterious place where wine was blended and stored in 13th century Europe, Apothic Red offers a truly unique wine experience. A bold blend of primarily Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Apothic Red leaves a lasting impression of flavor and texture on the palate. Zinfandel offers bold dark fruit flavors and spicy notes, complemented by the soft mouthfeel of Merlot. The Syrah adds layers of smooth blueberry, while the Cabernet Sauvignon delivers ripe fruit flavors and a firm structure. This decadent blend is framed by hints of black cherry, vanilla, and mocha.”
A common consumer review of Apothic Red reads as follows (this one taken from the wine blog Wineitudes): “This is an inexpensive blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, and Merlot from California. It’s often a favorite at wine tastings. Think of it as a berry fruit bomb with a cornucopia of flavor. Plum and blackberry aromas are quickly followed by notes of vanilla, spice and a bit of maple. The flavors are a melding of juicy mixed berries, cherry cola, brown sugar and spice that give way to a finish of lingering chocolate and maple syrup. An intriguing wine that will take you on a full flavor rollercoaster ride. It pairs nicely with barbecue and pizza, but many love it on its own.”
With professional wine critics, Apothic Red fairs less well, its pronounced sweetness preoccupying most reviews I read, including the following, the first by David Williams of The Guardian: “As someone who’s been known to enjoy the odd can of coke and munch Haribo sweets by the handful in times of stress, I can see how industrially produced synthetic food and drink products have a certain appeal in the right place and time. When it comes to booze, too, a shot of Bailey’s or Malibu can induce a certain sugary shudder of nostalgia for my teenage years. All of which suggests I should at least tolerate Apothic Red, the latest sweet red outpouring from the vast Californian E&J Gallo vinous-industrial complex. Trouble is, Apothic Red is such a grotesque and clumsy caricature of the stereotype of sweet, candy-like, oak-flavoured Californian wine, it actually made me laugh when I tasted it... That it’s both dramatically overpriced and has been enthusiastically listed by three major supermarkets rather than something with a less lavish marketing budget that tastes like, well, wine, is, however, not funny at all.”
English wine journalist Tim Atkin had this to add: “The other thing that struck me…is an increase in residual sugar levels in red wines. This is especially true of the lower end of the market, where it is sometimes used to add “smoothness” to some pretty ropey wines…The 2011 Apothic Red, a £9.99 Zinfandel-based blend from California has 16.4 grams, rendering it undrinkable in my view. Is that what some UK consumers want? Apparently it is... Backed by advertising support, the wine is very popular in bars, too.”
By almost every metric, Apothic Red seems the poster child for factory wine. The trouble being that factory wine, like most factory-made products, is not the open-door community affair I found at Ten Spoon. What is clear is that Apothic Red is a locked down, proprietary, corporately managed commodity good whose goal is to remain, like all good commodities, blissfully anonymous. Where natural and organic wine are tethered to and informed by place with makers like Andy and Connie listing the vineyards they use by name and location on their website (as of December 1, 2016), Apothic wine is listed as simply a product “California.” And as Andy mentioned, even that means very little.
When I called Gallo’s headquarters for the first time to ask where their vineyards are, I was told by a “brand ambassador” that that information was proprietary. When I pressed a second representative the next day, she told me all information about the company was private, period, including her name. Gallo’s extreme scale and control over their own processing makes productions details even harder to come by, as does the Apothic series website, a slick, over-engineered, sensory-overloading exercise in misdirection, designed to take wine squarely out of the realm of food, likening it more to music, fashion, sex, and, weirdly, pirates. Nothing on the site spoke to place or process, nothing informed, unless you count the rare opportunity of having a digitally-rendered fortune teller read your palm by way of your computer’s camera.
So what is there to learn about Apothic Red? The answer is, beyond the general outline of factory wines provided above, very, very little. This is of course the reason why it turns out, avoiding generalizations when talking about wine is next to impossible, unless the wines you’re discussing are the Range Riders of the world. When it comes to factory-made wine, the vast majority of the wine we drink, specifics are not an option. Generalization is all we have. I quote Rachel Singer again, who spoke at length about her own visit to a factory-scale winery in Germany in 2015: “It was in the bottling room, where we watched rows of empty bottles get filled, labeled, corked, and packed into boxes, that it really hit home: cheap wine is truly a miracle of the assembly line. For the millions of bottles being produced each month, there were no more than two employees working in the bottling room. We hardly saw other workers throughout the winery, either. The lack of human labor really struck me…This kind of wine is as anonymous as it gets. There is no essence of terroir in these bottles or boxes, nor is there any hallmark of a winemaker, his style, or a regional style.” In short, there is nothing specific to say about Apothic Red for one very good reason: there is nothing specific about it. If it reflects any sense of place, it is the postmodern nonspace of industrial production — a widget, in every way generic and unremarkable.
Gallo on the other hand, like all mega-corporations capable of securing industry domination, is quite remarkable. Even if I couldn’t learn about the wines themselves, I tried to learn as much as I could about the company at large, paying particular attention like I did with Ten Spoon, to issues such as environmental stewardship, community, additives and pesticides usage, distribution, and labor. Though after weeks of wading through a litany of gossip, journalism, unofficial biographies, wine blogs and history, I cannot pretend to have a clear sense of any one thing about how the company truly works or how it makes Apothic Red or any other wine in it’s portfolio. Even on the larger company website, its story is one of artful omission, made up of generalizations and obscurities that promise nothing too specific or explicit, relying on stereotypical imagery and an exceptionally rendered branding project. The overall effect is one of experience, sophistication, and clout, with impressive looking family crests and company timelines dating back almost a century. That is, until you open their portfolio tab and realize how closely it resembles the bottom shelf of your local drugstore wine rack.
Famously terrible wines make up the vast majority of their collection. From the controversial Thunderbird to the classically tacky Barefoot wine series, none of the wines listed could be described as anything but mass-produced. And unlike Range Rider, where buying took me to the source, acquiring a bottle of Apothic Red is something you can do while buying toilet paper — any Target, Walmart, or Safeway will do.
The Gallo site also makes quite a show of its environmental stewardship, which Andy was quick to suggest I keep an open mind about. “You never know with big operations,” he said. “Sometimes they have so much money that they can afford to really do things right.” Good advice, I thought. So I did some open-minded sleuthing and found some hopeful details, including that Gallo “proudly supports the American Farmland Trust in their efforts to help protect our nation’s farm and ranch land, promote environmentally sound farming practices, and improve the economic viability of agriculture,” though they are not clear on what that support looks like. Their website also mentions participating in the so-called 50/50 Give Back plan. Established by Gallo co-founders Ernest and Julio Gallo, the plan is “an innovative approach to land conservation in the North Coast [that says], for every acre of land planted in vineyard, one acre of property [is] set aside for wildlife habitat — a practice that continues today.” This seems a good plan, especially in a part of the state under siege with vineyard development though it is worth mentioning that only 400 of Gallo’s 20,000 owned acres are in the North Coast, and only 230 are vineyards. Where the other 19,600 acres are is a matter of some mystery; nowhere do they provide a compressive list of their vineyards or locations. Indeed, nowhere do they explicitly say that all their winemaking grapes are even from California, though that is clearly supposed to be the takeaway. The only list I could find was the product of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance who lists the 34 Gallo-owned vineyards they certify, a sustainability certification itself marked by vague language, further problematized by the fact that Gallos had a hand in creating the organization and currently sit on the board.
Gallo has also been awarded in the past for their integrated pest management and was the first winery in the United States to earn ISO 14000 environmental management certification which exists to “assist companies throughout the world to reduce their impacts on the environment.” While the ISO 14000 family of standards has been lauded by many industry professionals, critics like Vera Ferrón Vílchez criticize the certification as being largely symbolic, rarely “accompanied by significant improvements in environmental performance.” And while Gallo goes to great lengths to describe their growing practices as “sustainable,” part of that description often includes noncommittal and highly green-washed phrasing like “minimal spraying,” and “pesticide application based economic thresholds,” which are hard to parse for details, though certainly better than a complete lack of interest.
Gallo also gives considerable real estate on their site to issues of inclusion, citing their work with women, Latinos, African Americans, veterans, and the local business community. But when I looked into their community work, what came up was not a list of their good works, but a complex and troubled history with the local community and the United Farm Workers union, including several class actions lawsuits over energy and water use. It seems that in Modesto, where Gallo bases its operations, the company was found to be using 11 percent of the electricity sold by Modesto Irrigation District (MID), but paying only 6 percent of the district’s revenue. Garth Stapley of the Modesto Bee calculates the discrepancy to be around $18 million, money that the MID supposedly passed on to local taxpayers in an effort to subsidize the corporate giant’s presence in the city. The result has been two separate — currently pending in the California Supreme Court — class action suits against MID with Gallo arguing for the providers innocence, arguing that they are charged appropriately based on nation-wide industry averages.
North of Modesto, and the Russian River Valley has also been the site of some community trouble for Gallo. On April 20, 2009 “the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) issued a Cease and Desist Order against E. & J. Gallo subsidiary Gallo Glass, complaining that the winery had illegally diverted Russian River water into an unauthorized 8-acre reservoir on its 395-acre vineyard near Healdsburg. The order proposed that Gallo pay a $73,000 ‘civil liability.’ According to SWRCB director William L. Rukeyser, “The issue [was] place of use and type of use. The allegations…are that the company took a previously existing, quite small stock pond, and expanded it to be a fairly substantial reservoir, then diverted river water — for which it didn’t have a right.”
Equally troublesome is the company’s labor history, which features a 40-year struggle with the United Farm Workers, who have been intermittently boycotting the company since the 1960’s. According to the LA Times, “the first boycott began in Delano, California, in 1963, as the fledgling union attempted to pressure growers to sign union contracts…Chavez called off that first boycott in 1970, with the union in triumph and contracts in place with the state’s largest grape growers. But three years later, the boycott began again, this time with the UFW on the defensive after losing most of its labor agreements to the Teamsters Union, which signed sweetheart deals with growers. The second grape boycott overlapped with the union’s call for consumers to shun two other nonunion products — lettuce and Gallo wines… In 1977, Chavez removed the sanctions against grapes, lettuce and Gallo wines, again in apparent triumph, after the passage of a California farm labor law that was considered the strongest in the nation. It was in 1984 that the UFW leadership launched the third and longest grape boycott…The union shifted the target of the strike… urging…enforcement of the farm labor law, then demanding more contracts with grape growers and, finally, concentrating on the pesticide issue.”
UFW’s third grape boycott, which began in 1984, ended in 2000 but picked up again in 2005, “claiming the nation’s largest wine producer exploits and mistreats its vineyard workers in Sonoma County,” according to reporting by SF Gate. “While some Gallo workers now earn $8.18 an hour, have 8 days of vacation and receive health benefits for themselves and for their families, the majority do not,” said IndyBay spokesperson Vanessa Rhodes of the 2005 struggle. “Those workers who have been denied these benefits are hired through farm labor contractors (FLCs), which are third party agencies. This contract loophole denies 75 percent of Gallo workers these hard fought benefits. This inequality is at the heart of the current battle being fought by the United Farm Workers Union of America (UFW).” That boycott was settled a few months later, and relations between the United Farm Workers and Gallo have since leveled out, with new contracts being signed in both 2005 and 2011. That said, it was not without incident. “In October 2009,” the Gallo Wikipedia page reports, “the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (CALRB) revoked a 2007 election to eject the United Farm Workers from Gallo Winery, citing interference from Gallo.This was the second time in a decade a vote to remove the union was overturned due to allegations of Gallo illegally trying to influence proceedings; the other was a 2003 ruling in which the CALRB threw out an election citing a foreman improperly requesting signatures for the petition for the vote. Gallo appealed that decision.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg, a glimpse into a much longer story of a company near-fabled in its success, secrecy, and scandal, on par with histories as mythic as the Koch brothers. You’d be hard-pressed to pick up any conventional wine book without coming across the Gallo name and indeed, there are several volumes dedicated solely to them, combining dubious family legend with whatever scraps of truth have escaped the family’s highly protected brand. Theirs is history of troubled family relationships, explosive growth, and industrial scale production.
WINE IS FOOD
What the Gallo story is not, at the end of the day, is a story of wine. And for most wine consumers, that might be OK. On the journey of this project I read a lot of reviews and a lot of articles, but the one that stood out to me most was written by Eric Asimov, who in much more elegant terms than I can muster, articulated exactly why I started this project to begin with: “Repeat after me,” he says. “Wine is food.” To me, that means all the regular food rules apply. And while he’s right when he says, “Most people don’t care about the intricacies of what they consume, as long as it tastes good to them. They have other priorities.” He is also right to point out that, “a significant minority do care about what they eat, enough so that farmers’ markets, butchers and bakers, restaurants and whole supermarket chains are now dedicated to providing great ingredients that meet heightened aesthetic, medical, moral and ethical considerations.”
The trouble is that those people too often leave wine off that list. They’re eating locally, organically grown vegetable and meat, but paring them with “assembly-line wines, farmed industrially with chemical sprays, churned out in factories with technology and machinery and additives, and tailored, just as processed foods are, to specifications derived from substantial audience research and the use of focus groups.”
What we all need to realize is that these wines, like Apothic Red, have no business at the table. What does belong there are wines of substance, of story and source, grown and made by farmers who care about land and place and the expression of both — wines whose path from ground to glass is knowable, even if not known. And part of making sure they are honored, part of completing the conversation about what we eat and grow and how it is produced, is making sure that what we drink is always also considered. Just like with food, that isn’t going to be convenient and it isn’t necessarily going to be cheap. Like food, wine requires time and thought to do well and no easy categories exist to help us effortlessly make the right choice, but maybe that’s the point.
For if it is true, like Singer says, that the “the world of natural wine is, effectively, governed by relationships,” then it is our job, just like with food, to build those relationships, not to expect them to come without effort. And part of building them is taking the time to draw distinctions for ourselves, to treat the food and wine we eat and drink as particulars, not generalized commodities labeled one way or another. Ideally, this means reading about the farmers who grow your food and wine — taking the time to learn and to know. But it can also be as easy as finding a great wine shop that can help you learn to feel the same away about wine as you do about carrots.
Either way, doing the work is just part of it. Resisting the urge to buy wine at the same place you buy toilet paper, and making the time to learn and to know is an unavoidable part of fighting, not only for environmental and pubic health, but for the spirit of what makes wine what it is: a beautiful expression of the land and the people who tend it. The work is part of the deal, and indeed, it is part of the joy. And while generalizations are never totally avoidable, there are also plenty of specific, knowable wines out there, waiting to be known, and known well. Let’s just buy those.
— B.E. Artziniega, 2017