Cork Distort : New Worlder

Wine is an expression of a terroir from which grapes comes from. Terroir is a sum of a number of elements: the soil, the plant, the climatic conditions in a particular locality and, finally, the winemaker. These are the main elements shaping a bottle of wine.

So, it came as no less than quite a surprise to many in the industry the opinion piece of Bianca Bosker, published on the March 17 in The New York Times, in anticipation of her book Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste. The story, titled “Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine,” is an open call to drinking chemically infused alcoholic juice she likes to call wine. Her inspiration was a guest visit to Treasury Wine Estates, one of the world’s largest wine companies, listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. There she observed the Treasury’s practice in which amateur focus groups taste wine samples the company has pre-prepared. These differ according to aroma, color, and alcohol – covering basically the entire spectrum of consumer preferences. The Treasury would then collect data, compare results to get an insight into what their buyers enjoy – be it more or less alcoholic , light or dark-colored, or more or less sweet – and then create wines based on the preferred aromatic profiles.

The Treasury’s practice is unusual, to say the least. Commercial wineries otherwise depend on the winemaker to make wine, relying on his expertise and previous vintage experience. Here, however, it is the amateur focus groups that drive the style and the taste they’d like to enjoy. Though unusual, it is far from surprising that a corporation is looking to maximize profits by giving its target audiences exactly what they want.

What is unusual is Bosker’s carte blanche approval of the Treasury’s practice. Mind you, hers is an opinion piece, not an article. She approves altering grape juice with chemicals most of us didn’t even know existed. “Wine too full of astringent, mouth-puckering tannins? Add Ovo-Pure (powdered egg whites), isinglass (fish bladder granulate), or gelatin. Not tannic enough? Replace $1,000 oak barrels with stainless steel and a bag of oak chips, tank planks, oak dust or a few drops of liquid oak tannin.” Bosker would like to convince us that this practice is OK. It is not.

What do you buy when you buy wine? You buy a product made from grapes grown, pressed, fermented, and aged, right? Well-obviously not. Do you like drinking powdered egg whites, fish bladder granulate or gelatin? Do you like ingesting some oak dust and tank planks? I don’t.

Wines still missing that something special can get a dose of Mega Purple, a grape juice concentrate that has been called ‘a magic potion’ for its ability to deepen color and fruit flavors,” she writes. The wine label never said anything about Mega Purple and the author does not seem to have a problem with that.

More than 60 additives can legally be added to wine…winemakers aren’t required to disclose any of them.” In a sentence that seems to be taken straight out of a publicist’s mouth (replace ‘winemakers’ with ‘we’), Bosker, a trained professional, does not see a single issue.

Do you like drinking powdered egg whites, fish bladder granulate, or gelatin? Do you like ingesting some oak dust and tank planks? I don’t.

The author calls this process of inducing grape juice with chemicals – “a democratization of wine,” she says. “Thanks to pumps and powders, drinkers who can’t splurge no longer have to settle for plonk.” Bosker seems to completely ignore – or is ill-informed – that a wide range of organic, biodynamic, or natural wine is available at what she herself describes as the sweet spot for American drinkers of $9.89. One would need not look further than to Esencia Rural of La Mancha in Spain or Meinklang of Burgenland in Austria to find affordable examples of fine wines made from grapes and with little any additions (Esencia Rural actually does not treat most of its vineyards or wines with any additions). Bosker (and the Treasury, obviously) would prefer us drinking chemically infused alcohol juice than wines made by artisan growers.

On many levels throughout the piece, Bosker fails to understand that wine comes from grapes i.e. is a product of nature. She mistakes it with engineered concepts of music, fashion, and art, using terms like “…features that winemakers would engineer, hit wines that the company hopes to emulate,” and “…using chemical shortcutsto mimic high-end bottles.” Bosker might be a great writer, finely suited to describe a newly developed software, but she seems hardly placed to write about wine, a point unconsciously reached by the author herself when she writes “What is wine but a drink of pleasure?” Well, many things at once but, above all, it is a living product of nature.

As a journalist, professional, and a sommelier, Bosker is morally and ethically responsible to provide greater public with impartial and unbiased information. We rely on her and her peers to inform us about good wine, to recommend a pairing with our (organically-grown) steak. Having access to a wide listening audience, she is there to educate and inform. She provided none of that in her opinion piece, openly rooting for commercial interests of a privately-owned company whose practices, although legally OK, can too be questioned on ethical grounds. Bosker rides the wave of unapologetic populism saying: “But the more I learned, the more I accepted these unnatural wines as one more way to satisfy drinkers and even create new connoisseurs.” One might ask – does a sommelier really satisfy customers with chemically-induced juice? What is the sommelier educating the novice drinker? What kind of connoisseur is the author thinking of creating? In Bosker’s opinion, is a new connoisseur one that should gulp on chemicals? Does she think a novice gastronome’s first eating experience should be at McDonald’s?

And what’s so bad about that?” Bosker might ask to all these questions, as she did summing up her piece. Well, all would have been fine if Ms. Bosker were not to call the liquid she experienced wine. Sure, it’s a liquid of some sorts – but surely not wine.

Wine, in its truest form, comes from the winegrowers that avoid the use of heavy chemicals in the vineyard and in the cellar: the organic and biodynamic winegrowers. Using chemicals alters the aromas of wine and interferes with what it truly is. We all want to drink fermented and aged grape juice that expresses the soil, not a product tainted with artificial products. However, as vines and wines still need protection, otherwise the latter would turn to vinegar, these growers spray a minimum amount of (organic) sulphur to protect vineyards and add bits to wine before bottling. (Copper is sometimes used in limited amounts to protect vineyards). Organic and biodynamic growers prefer to use natural products – herbal teas, for example – instead of widespread corporate chemicals to keep vineyards alive and dynamic. Those organic and biodynamic growers that go even a step further, and do not apply even copper or sulphur, are called natural winegrowers. With minimum intervention applied, one that involves no chemicals, their wines are the purest expression of terroir.

In short-this is what makes wine.

The harsh reality is that wines described here are in minority. What consumers mostly buy under wine – is actually not wine at all. Most of it is manipulated alcoholic juice. In a bid to win customers, the biggest wineries have been using heavy chemicals in vineyards and cellars ever since the rise of the chemical industry in the 1960s. The goal is to get as much grapes as possible, manipulate it in winery so to fit customer “needs,” bottle and sell it. Money needs to be earned and chemicals are making corporations’ lives easier.

In probably the most extreme example, wineries spray vineyards with chemicals that provide for high yields and, how they see it, protect grapes from diseases like Mildew or Oidium. Their grapes are many, but they lack in taste, as most food treated with chemicals does. Grapes are then brought into a winery and, by applying some more chemicals, stripped of all aromas left. Using then just a tasteless juice, a winemaker applies another set of chemicals to manipulate it – giving it color, artificial aromas, etc.

Although it is sold as wine, this product can hardly be considered one. It is rather a mere manipulated alcoholic juice. It is in stores all around us, widely available. This practice is nothing new and a lot has previously been written about it.

So, how does a customer know what he or she should drink? Where does one find wine?

Should we really be putting a cheap artificial product shoulder to shoulder with an artisanal one? If we approve these practices, what is next for the wine corporations?

As in most things in life, people should trust professionals. Numerous authors have written about wine. The logic is that if there is a lot of manipulated alcoholic juice around, there should be an equal amount of manipulated wine writing. There is. So one should carefully select who she or he reads.

Alice Feiring is one such author, having championed organic, biodynamic, and natural wines in her books, articles, and newsletters for almost two decades now. Isabelle Legeron, a certified Master of Wine (MW) sommelier, is another reference, having organized the biggest organic, biodynamic, and natural wine festival in the world: RAW. Eric Asimov is a well-respected professional, having written informative wine pieces for The New York Times, as well as having published a book that serves as a perfect intro for anyone coming into the world of wine.

Another set of professionals one should certainly put its faith into are sommeliers. Mads Kleppe of restaurant Noma, Alessandro Perricone of Relæ, and Bo Bratlann of Amass in Copenhagen, as well as Giuseppe Palmieri of Osteria Francescana in Modena, are, for example, among the well-respected ones. We rely on these guys to pair our food with wines and discover new producers and make us taste them.

Finally, there are wine importers, people who select, import, and promote wines. Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene in the UK or Pontus Elofsson and Sune Rosforth of Rosforth & Rosforth in Copenhagen are pioneers in organic, biodynamic, and natural wine importation and promotion.

Bosker is a trained sommelier and, according to her website, an “award-winning journalist who has written on wine and food” for the world’s leading papers. She claims to have spent “long days studying the farming practices that distinguish the Grand Crus of Burgundy and learning to savor the delicate aromas of aged Barolos.”

All those references should put Bosker on the forefront of the food and wine profession. At 30-something, with obvious fine writing skills, Bosker is well-placed to be one of the new wine evangelists and an authority to novice wine drinkers out there. Unfortunately, she is neither.

Bosker’s attitude towards big corporation practice also opens a number of other questions. How do her sommelier peers feel about her backing this project? Are we able to trust the guild members next time we are in a restaurant and shall we be served Mega Purple wine if we do? What about the sustainability of such practices? Should we really be putting a cheap artificial product shoulder to shoulder with an artisanal one? If we approve these practices, what is next for the wine corporations? A wine made without the use of grapes? Will it be required they disclose it on a label if they do make one? These issues are those of sustainability, responsibility, and ethics.

During a short conversation I had with a friend, he wondered if the public would accept this same piece were it written about a rib eye steak served in a restaurant. Would it be OK to artificially add color to the meat if the consumer wished so? Would it be all right to change the taste of the steak by injecting it with artificial aromas? Maybe a consumer would like his steak more fatty. Would we engineer a process in which fat is added to this steak?

Judging by her piece, Bosker’s forthcoming book is one to avoid for anyone with an even borderline interest in wine. Experienced and well-established authors, such as Feiring, Legeron, and Asimov, among others, provide a proper insight into what wine truly is.