Our Era of Wine

Tony Coturri

3 min read

We’re living in an era of wine production that has moved far from the origin of grape wine. In the last several weeks three new products have come to light: a large blender designed to masticate grapes to a pulp in order to increase color; a yeast developed to produce less alcohol during fermentation; and, most sensationally, piggybacking the discovery that bacteria in the vineyards may have more to do with the development of terroir in a wine than the soil type, suggestions of designer vineyard bacteria.

This from the research manager in biosciences at the Australian Wine Research Institute, Dr. Paul Chambers: “If a viticulturist can shape the style of wine in a controlled manner by managing the microbiome of her or his vineyard in a targeted way, it opens the way for winemakers to more effectively shape their wines to meet market demands.”

We are standing at a crossroads in the history of wine production. Or at least a proverbial fork in the road. Down one path, in which designer bacteria and GMO yeast are let loose in vineyards, the true expression and terroir will be diminished and eventually be made extinct. The micro flora of the vineyards will be tinkered with in attempt to keep up with the latest style trends. In California, for instance, the trending style is low alcohol, less color and fruit. If bacteria can be introduced into the vineyard to “make” this style, it can be changed when “big” wines come back. Down the other (admittedly narrow, winding, potholed) path, are wines not so much made as they are fostered.

Natural winemakers have been aware of the bacterial influence on their wines as long as they have used native vineyard yeasts to ferment their wines. A sense of place is fostered and revealed in the musts and wines of a vineyard when SO2 is not introduced. SO2 is the destroyer of terroir. In a pure wine, the vineyard terroir is usually stronger on first smell and taste than the actual varietal that was used. Soil flavors are present in all organic grown fruits, vegetables and animals, and it is these flavors that give the distinctions so valued by chefs, bread makers, cheese makers and people that ferment foods. A correctly grown carrot can taste remarkably different than a carrot grown equally mindfully but miles away. Small differences can make large changes in flavor.

Proponents of bacterial manipulation in the vineyard seem to want all grapes of the same variety to taste the same. Will all chardonnays, which already taste the same, come from grapes that reinforce sameness? Why are we so afraid of differences? When did sameness become a goal? These so-called advances on the immediate horizon, though progressive scientifically, are in truth deeply conservative.

Wine, especially in California, is locked into a double standard. It is part of a cuisine, it is a food, but it is separate. If the raw materials of a fine restaurant were manipulated to the extent that grapes and wines are, the business would fail. In a part of the world where the zeitgeist of food is local, organic, sustainable, fair trade, etc., consumers largely give wine a free pass. It’s a curious phenomenon, explained maybe by the fact that our wine and cuisine haven’t grown up together as in the regions of Europe. There’s a disjunct here, and it’s reflected in winemaking practice.

It is standard operating procedure now for many of the small, exclusive wineries of Napa and Sonoma to perform the following. The grapes are picked at overripe levels from the vineyards. Rule of thumb is any grapes brought in above 30 degrees brix will not ferment dry, so 10% of the grape juice is removed at the crush and replaced with water. This, of course, throws off all the acid and chemical balances, and acids and other nutrients must be added to complete the fermentation. The result is a wine with a “ripe” flavor but without residual sugar and high alcohol. So in that $200 bottle of Napa Cabernet, $20 is good old Napa water from a good old Napa hose. I fear that soon the new yeast and bacterial manipulations will become just as widespread, and that terroir is a step closer to mainstream obsolescence.

All of us that are producers of food have a centuries-long cultural responsibility to provide the purest products. The consumer must have confidence in the maker without having to become a detective. This is a sacred trust. Whatever is being introduced into the food we ingest should be clearly labelled. Education can enable change.

Tony Coturri

Glen Ellen, California

30 March 2015