What is wine?
Properly speaking, wine is just grape juice preserved with methods that predate modern technologies like refrigeration and sodium benzoate. These antique methods – fermentation, racking, barrel aging – produce flavors that are valued in their own right.
But legally speaking, by contrast, wine is only a solution of water and alcohol of a specific concentration.
Somewhere in the middle, there is the consumer market, a conventional sense of what makes wine. And there is a tension. Consumers want to hear about rare grapes and antique methods, but the industry has a cost incentive to deliver something cheaper: optimal, standardized, low-cost product.
Wine making technology has made great strides predictably conjuring wine colors and flavorings for base solutions of alcohol and water. And with every advance, there seems to be a corollary advance in misdirecting the consumer and obscuring the truth.
There is nothing wrong with gains in efficiency when they benefit the economy of the wine drinker and farmer. But if high prices for cheap juice are invested in a campaign to obscure and glamorize a wine’s origin, well, I think it’s fun to point that out. Bulk juice with a manufactured character should be cheap. Let’s not be bilked.
Here are some common ways the wine trade obscures the essentials of wine:
Bulk wine with limited production. Anyone can purchase a limited amount of wine from a co-op or crush facility and issue it under an invented label. There are strict rules about the use of regional terms, and somewhat more relaxed rules about varietal composition, but pretty much anything else goes. Only 200 cases made!
Pastoralism. Most of the wine we drink comes from huge temperature controlled facilities with lots of sensitive electronic instruments. I love it. While it’s a sad thing if a small batch of wine succumbs to infection and spoilage, for a large batch of wine it is catastrophic. We want all the control we can get! So what if the label has a picture of a girl on a penny-farthing on a dirt road pursued by presumably well-meaning furry and feathered farmland creatures?
Patriarchy. Wine growing estates are like plantations, the reputation of which must be historically secured by a politically significant and visionary leader. And while these have tended to be dudes, that is changing. Once the Leader passes away, if his name carries weight in the export market, his next of kin can use it to sell out-sourced wines – assuming he hadn’t already started doing that. Who remains to maintain the visionary standards? Answer: the usual market forces. (See Charles Shaw, Louis Jadot, Louis Latour, Paul Masson, Robert Mondavi, etc. etc.)
Irony. I find this tactic to be most insidious, because it is works so well! This is a wink and a nod to the critics of overblown manufactured wine (me?), and with labels that sport some sort of internet savvy retro art fashionable iconography. Usually this is combined with the tactic of managed scarcity (see the first item above) and are led by celebrity sommeliers (or other sorts of celebrities.) See Charles Smith, The Dirty Pure Project, Horseshoes and Handgrenades, etc. etc.
I want to be clear. Some of the wines sold using these tactics are perfectly fine. (I’m looking at you Kung Fu Girl Riesling circa 2012.) I only want to argue for awareness. Be in control of your own illusions and you might drink more wine, better wine, and save some money.