As consumers have shown more interest in whats in their food, some are extending that to wine. Whats in that bottle, anyway?
At its most basic, wine contains grapes and yeast. At least some sulfur dioxide usually is added as a preservative. But there are lots of permitted additives, such as water; tartaric acid to brighten up the wine; coloring agents made from grape concentrate; chemicals to kill objectionable microbes. Some are benign; some less so.
Ingredient labeling is one solution, but it hasnt been widely embraced by wine producers. Theres the ubiquitous contains sulfites statement on any wine with added sulfur, but not much else. Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino recently unveiled ingredient labeling on its 2011 wines. On the Ridge website, CEO Paul Draper notes that the winery is listing ingredients to demonstrate that additives and invasive processes are not necessary to make fine wine.
Ridge joins Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, which began including ingredients on its back labels for the 2006 reds and 2007 whites. Both wineries are to be commended for their forthrightness.
This brings me to the proponents of natural wines, which they loosely define as wines produced with as little human intervention as possible. Nothing added except, possibly, a little sulfur, although some producers avoid even that. But heres the rub: How much intervention is too much? There are no real standards.
The natural wine crowd turns up its nose at organic or sustainable, saying that such practices have been co-opted by industrial wineries. And to be fair, government standards allow a lot of additives in organic products. (To clarify the nomenclature, U.S. rules state that wines with added sulfur cant be labeled as organic. If they are made from certified organic grapes, they may be labeled as made with organic grapes.)
Certainly the term sustainable doesnt wash with the natural folks. Its true that some sustainability programs rely on self-assessment, which opens them to charges of greenwashing. But the number of third-party certifications is increasing, with programs such as Sustainability in Practice (SIP) for the Central Coast and Lodi Rules.
Predictably, theres been backlash against the naturals many of whom are pretty strident themselves. Critics say theres a not-so-subtle implication that other wines are somehow unnatural. Critics also point out that some natural wines can taste funky or downright spoiled, a point even some supporters concede.
The back-and-forth can get pretty vitriolic. So heres an idea: Lets turn down the volume. The idea of intervening as little as possible in the winemaking process, while still making a sound wine, is an appealing one. But natural wine needs a set of standards if it is to have credibility. And natural cant be an excuse for defective wine.
Lets start with transparency. Ingredient labels, anyone?
Pick of the week
This zin from Benito Dusi Ranch features Ridges new ingredient labeling. The wine is lively, spicy and well-balanced, with sweet berry fruit and a hint of tobacco.