MFW’s April 29th post “Winemaking Recipe for Ridge Vineyards,” which discusses Paul Draper’s pioneering effort at transparency in winemaking came a full month before the attached New York Times article by Eric Asimov discussing the same topic. The lag-time shows that this issue is making a slow but positive move out of the realm of the wine professional and into the public domain, which is a good sign for the end user of what can be a highly manipulated product. Setting aside the implications of Paul Draper’s open letter (http://www.ridgewine.com/Images/Acrobat/PD_ingredient_letter.pdf), theoretically aimed at his direct competitors in relation to “fine wine,” the article by Asimov shows that there is an audience among the wider wine-drinking community that is ready to listen to and engage in discussion about labeling issues and the listing of ingredients on bottles of wine.
Why is it that no one really seems to care what is in the wine they drink? For all of its natural, pastoral connotations, wine can very much be a manufactured product, processed to achieve a preconceived notion of how it should feel, smell and taste, and then rolled off the assembly line, year after year, as consistent and denatured as a potato chip or fast-food burger. Yet we pay little attention to wine’s added ingredients, even as we have become hyper-conscious about what we eat. Twenty years ago, many Americans may have enjoyed food indiscriminately, but now they weigh the nutritional, environmental, humanitarian, aesthetic and even political consequences of what they cook and consume. Isn’t it time to devote the same careful attention to the wine we drink?
There are clearly reasons for certain wineries to resist the type of ingredient transparency that Ridge Vineyards has implemented and while they are legally in the right to do so I find it is surprising that more people are not pushing back to demand a higher level accountability. There seems to be a disconnect for the average wine-drinker when it comes to the composition of their wine vs their dinner. Why is that? Is it lack of knowledge? Do people even realize the amount of allowable additives and processing techniques that are completely legal? Do people realize that even amongst the allowable ingredients in wine few tests have been conducted to analyze potential public health risks?
I have a suspicion that there are at least two major factors at work here and both support the traditionally opaque style under which certain wineries have grown accustomed to operating. The first, as mentioned above, concerns the consumers lack of knowledge. While any lack of knowledge is inherently bad, it is made worse in this case by winemakers who assume this “lack” signifies public approval to continue operating without transparency. These producers know that some consumers make conscious decisions not to buy products when they see what goes into making them and that fact is enough to scare producers of any commercial product. Without legally sanctioned requirements to list ingredients in wine, the less scrupulous and those motivated purely by financial concerns will have no desire and definitely no reason to become transparent. So as Asimov points out, sadly, the responsibility is left largely to consumers to monitor what they buy and drink. For the most part, however, they seem unconcerned.
The second factor, which is related to a general lack of knowledge and may in part be the cause of it, is the passionately romanticized nature of wine itself. Born of human experience, romanticism as related to wine has developed through history as we have evolved. Since wine has, in a sense, been there since the beginning, the way that we relate it has become deeply entrenched in world culture. It has been a part of myth and storytelling lore since the first grapes “magically” fermented and its constant link to divinity reinforces the weight of its impact on humanity. While the literal truth of these myths cannot be supported, the essence of man’s relation to wine continues to be partially informed by the bewitching nature of these stories and the ethereal character of certain special bottles. The mystique of wine has become such an integral part of its appreciation that perhaps for some consumers, to delve too deeply into the details of its production negatively affects its appreciation.
Based on recent news reporting, the time seems right for change. The new steroid scandal being uncovered in Major League Baseball and the “Label It” movement pushing back against the secret inclusion of GMO’s in our food are two examples that seem to indicate Americans are more interested than ever in transparency and what we put in our bodies. Wine should be next, but will it be? Or will most of us continue to remain willfully ignorant?